The rest of the team knows, of course they do. After all, it’s thanks to them that Steve even knows that aromanticism is a thing. Before the serum, he used to just tell himself that he was too sick to worry about finding love. It was a lot harder after the serum, when there was Peggy and he still didn’t feel anything, and although he’ll never admit it to anyone he’s almost glad that nothing happened between them before he went down in the ice. It eases some of the guilt he feels when he wakes up in the future, knowing that people lost him but at least he didn’t leave behind a widow.
Having words to describe this part of him doesn’t necessarily make things easier, though. Less confusing, sure, but the 21st century comes with its own unique set of pitfalls that Steve is still struggling to navigate. The obsession with celebrity relationships, for one, continues to baffle and infuriate him.
Especially when the point of this interview was supposed to be discussing the upcoming fundraising event that the Avengers will be hosting in the Tower.
“And what about you, Captain?” the interviewer asks. She’s nice enough, good at her job, but Steve knows where this question is going and he has to resist the urge to grit his teeth. “Will you be taking anyone special to this event?”
Steve forces out a laugh and a polite smile and gives his standard answer to these questions. “No, ma’am, I’ll be there by myself. Well, myself and the rest of my team.”
“No one from this century’s caught your eye yet, then?” she teases, and Steve knows it’s supposed to be a joke but it takes physical effort to keep his annoyance from showing. Because plenty of people have caught his eye but he doesn’t know how to approach them, not when he doesn’t want a relationship and he needs to worry about being recognized to boot.
“It’s a little hard to meet people when you’re punching aliens in the face,” he jokes, and the audience laughs, and the interview draws to a successful conclusion.
Steve leaves the studio and almost wishes that there was an alert, just so he didn’t drive his fist through the punching bag in the gym again.
The doubt is still there, sometimes. Every once in awhile it rears up, makes Steve uncertain of everything he thinks he knows.
Maybe he’s not aromantic. Maybe he was just too sick before the serum, and he never learned what romantic love was supposed to feel like.
Or maybe he’s aromantic because of the serum, because it changed almost everything about him so why not this too? Or maybe the ice carved his ability to love out of him, and never gave it back when he was thawed.
Steve knows that this is all ridiculous, that he was aromantic before the serum and before the ice- and even if he was aro because of his trauma, that would be okay too. But knowing that isn’t always enough to keep the doubt away, and some days Steve would give anything to just be like everyone else.
Valentine’s Day is never a big affair in the Tower, which is surprising given that every other holiday seems to require what must be thousands of dollars worth of decorations covering the Avengers’ floors. (Steve still isn’t sure if the Fourth of July decorations were serious, or an attempt to fluster him on his birthday. He has no idea where Clint found that wreath, but he never wants to see any sort of patriotic floral arrangement decorated with cutouts of his own face ever again.)
Then again, maybe it’s not surprising given that Tony is really the only one of them with a steady, semi-stable relationship.
Or maybe they just don’t decorate because of Steve, because they know he’s aromantic and they think it would bother him.
It wouldn’t, not really, but Steve kind of doesn’t want to ask if that’s what they’re doing. Mostly because he just doesn’t care, one way or the other, what the motivation behind the lack of decorations is.
Steve still thinks about it, though, when February rolls around and the Tower remains free of anything red and heart-shaped. He’s done his fair share of research into aromantic identities, knows labels like romance-repulsed and aplatonic exist, but he’s not sure if they apply to him or not. He thinks that, maybe, he’d be okay dating someone and doing romantic things with them- but that doesn’t seem fair to the other person, if he can’t reciprocate their feelings like that.
He still wonders, though, what it would be like to go on dates, to take a partner out to a nice dinner somewhere in the city. But he always gets hung up trying to figure out what would make a date different from any of the meals he’s gone to with Natasha, or Bruce, or Tony. Kissing, probably, is a big part of it, and what they get up to when they get back home… but for the life of him, he can’t figure out what that emotional difference between a date and a team dinner would be.
No matter how many times he tries, he can’t figure out what romantic love is supposed to feel like- and yeah, that’s the crux of the whole aromantic thing. But sometimes, especially around Valentine’s Day, he still can’t help but feel like he’s on the outside of some great, cosmic joke.
It’s usually only Steve and Tony getting put in front of news cameras and interviewers. Everyone unilaterally agreed that Bruce needed to be kept out of the spotlight- and out of stressful situations- as much as possible, and Thor’s diplomacy skills rarely translated well to the human news junket. Clint and Natasha were usually at least present for the press conferences, even if they didn’t say anything, but it’s a rare occasion that they actually willingly get in front of a mic.
So Steve starts to pick up, after a while, on the little ways that Tony steers questions away from Steve. The way he’ll jump in and start talking about Pepper if Steve gets asked if he’s available or not, or how he’ll loudly scoff and complain about the quality of the questions if the interviewer doesn’t let up. He does it with other topics too- if there are too many questions about Bucky and Peggy and the Commandos, or if a battle was particularly rough and Steve’s out of energy and doesn’t know how to even begin to address the damage to the city.
Tony does it for everyone, at PR events and when paparazzi stops them on the street and when they’re dealing with social media nightmares, but Steve is particularly grateful that Tony does this for him, without hesitation and without demanding recognition for it.
Because when he tries to thank Tony for it, the other man just shrugs and says, “I’m used to dealing with these sharks. They’re invasive and relentless and if you give them any sort of opening they’ll never leave you alone.”
“Then how do I deal with the questions?” Steve asks.
“You let me handle it,” Tony says, clapping him on the back. “I mean, it’s been working for us so far, hasn’t it?”
He’s still not used to being recognized on the street- less frequently than Tony, of course, but far more often than Clint. It makes it hard to go out and do anything, let alone trying to hook up with people.
Natasha helps, gives him names of SHIELD agents who are interested, but as much as Steve doesn’t want a romantic relationship he also doesn’t want to sleep with someone who’s just in it for the bragging rights.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Steve,” Natasha tells him after he turns down her fourth suggestion in one day.
Steve just smiles at her. “Never said I was begging, Nat. You’re the one who started this campaign, not me.”
She smiles back, and rattles off two more names. And Steve appreciates the gesture, he really does, even if he turns these two down as well.
The weirdest part about figuring out that he’s aromantic- which, really, is saying something because everything about figuring this out has been weird, to some degree- is that Steve is continually surprised by how little he understands romance. It’s like now that he’s accepted that it’s okay for him to not understand, his brain has completely stopped trying to make romance make sense.
He recognizes the lead-up to romantic relationships in books and movies, but he forgets sometimes that romance isn’t just a plot device. That most of the people in the world want that, that he’s the outlier here and not them. It catches him off-guard when Clint casually mentions that he has a date with someone because oh, yeah, that’s a thing that people do. Tony is a completely different person around Pepper than he is with the team; Steve is always surprised when he sees them curled up on the couch together, because Tony almost always has this soft smile on his face that seems so out of place to Steve.
Steve understands marriage from a financial or legal standpoint, but he legitimately can’t fathom feeling so strongly about a person that you’d want to spend your whole life with them like that purely for emotional reasons. Natasha laughs and calls him cynical when he questions whether a new celebrity wedding was real or just a publicity stunt, and that may be fair (after all, the weddings he went to growing up were nothing like that) but genuinely doesn’t see the appeal in any of it.
There’s a disconnect between his memories of so desperately wanting to be with Peggy and his new revelation about how little he actually understands romance. He’s not just happy that he never tried to force himself into a relationship; he can’t actually believe that that was something he used to want.
“You ever think about coming out?” Tony asks, out of the blue one day. They’re alone in the gym; Tony had been sparring with Natasha, but she left a few minutes ago and Tony is still running through his cool-down stretches. Or maybe he’s just purposefully taking him time today with the intention of catching Steve alone to talk.
“I’m out to you guys, aren’t I?” Steve points out. He takes one more swing at the punching bag, and then reaches out to stop its momentum. Tony isn’t going to let this conversation go that easily, and Steve doesn’t want to ruin even more gym equipment if he gets a little too annoyed while talking.
“Yeah, that’s not what I meant and you know it,” Tony says.
Steve rolls his eyes. “Are you having this conversation with the rest of the team, or just with me?”
That gets Tony to pause for a moment. “Okay, fair point,” he says, which means that he’s not talking to anyone else about coming out. “Also, yes, I am aware that I have no room to talk about this since I haven’t, y’know, exactly been in a closet since I hit 18 and started getting caught in clubs with guys. But still, I think you should consider it. I think it’d be good if you did.”
“Good for who, exactly?” Steve asks. “It’s not going to get interviewers to lay off the invasive questions, it’ll just give them more of an excuse to pry into my life. It sure as hell won’t help the team, not when people use this as an excuse to question whether I’m fit to lead. The people who I want to know about my identity already know.”
He doesn’t need to elaborate on who he’s talking about. His teammates are the only ones who know that he’s aro, and Tony knows that too.
“You’d be bringing visibility to aromantic identities,” Tony tells him. “You’d be someone for aro kids to look up to.”
Steve’s chest goes tight and he doesn’t know if it’s from panic or sheer rage , but for a long moment he feels like he can’t even breathe. “Screw you, Tony,” he finally says, and his voice is shaking slightly. “You aren’t aro. You don’t get to speak for my community. You don’t get to put that weight on my shoulders.”
“And if it’s not on you, who else is going to take that step?” Tony challenges.
“Screw you,” Steve repeats as he walks away, because he can’t think of anything else to say.
Steve doesn’t stop doing research on aromantic identities. He should, because this stuff is hard to understand sometimes. Because sometimes he gets lost in it, spends hours reading about identities and labels and experiences until his mind is swimming and he can’t tell what applies to him and what doesn’t anymore. But Steve can’t stop reading because that feels too much like giving up, like admitting defeat- though defeated by what, he never quite knows.
It gets worse after Tony… Well the thing is, how can Steve yell about his community if he doesn’t even know half of what there is to know about aromantic identities and experiences and issues? What right does he have to stand up and be a voice if he-
He doesn’t want to stand up, though. He doesn’t want to deal with news anchors taking his identity out of context, making it seem like he’s incapable of any kind of love and by extension incapable of leading the team. He doesn’t want the work that the Avengers does being overshadowed by questions about his romantic orientation. He doesn’t want aromantic identities being mocked by the tabloids for weeks on end.
He doesn’t want aro kids having to see their identity being ridiculed and dragged through the mud at every turn.
“I know you get asked this question a lot, Captain,” the news reporter says, and Steve’s smile feels brittle and pained even as he forces himself to hold it. “But is there ever going to be a Mrs. Steve Rogers?”
“Why, are you offering?” Tony asks the reporter before Steve can say anything, because he’s still deflecting, still covering for Steve, even if Steve still kind of wants to punch him most days that he remembers their conversation.
The reporter laughs. “Who here wouldn’t be offering? Seriously now, Captain-”
“There’s no one,” Steve interjects. “And, seriously, I know a press conference about the scheduled testing on the new Stark Tower defenses isn’t exactly the most exciting topic to report on, but if you continue to insist on wasting our time with pointless questions designed to pander to your 21st-century obsession with celebrity gossip I’m afraid I’m going to have to bring this conference to an end.”
The words are said with all the authority that Steve usually uses when giving out orders, and no one strays far from relevant topics again. But when the press conference is over and they’re being driven back to the Tower, Tony says, “That’s gonna be all over the news tomorrow, your little blow-up in there.”
Steve exhales hard, and rubs a hand over his face. “Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.”
Tony doesn’t tell Steve I told you so , doesn’t remind him that there’s a reason he usually lets Tony answer those questions for him. He doesn’t say anything else, but Steve is already thinking it anyway.
He does make the news, in the morning at least. But by afternoon all news outlets have dropped the story, in favor of reporting on the latest Stark Industries merger that was announced at noon. Steve knows that the timing is Tony’s attempt at an apology. He leaves a bottle of champagne with a note that reads Congratulations. And thank you. down in the workshop, and neither of them speak of it again.
The team asks him questions, sometimes, about aromantic identities. It’s ironic, in a way, because they’re the ones who introduced him to the entire concept: a side-conversation during a movie, one off-hand comment and quick explanation later and Steve has an entirely new romantic orientation. Which is impressive, considering Steve didn’t even know that romantic orientations were a thing before that.
But still the team comes to him, not always and not usually before they do some research of their own, but eventually they do find him. Bruce asks for more information on queerplatonic partnerships. Natasha asks for clarification on the correlation between aromantic and asexual identities. He spends almost an entire day trying to get Thor to understand human concepts of gender and sexuality and romance. The rest of the team eventually gets roped into helping as well; by the time they call it quits, Steve still isn’t sure if the demigod really gets it or not.
It takes him awhile to realize that this is their way of not only trying to learn more, but making sure that they don’t overstep their bounds. That they don’t just read up on this on their own and try to speak over him down the road.
It makes Steve chest go tight with affection, and he knows that he’ll miss the Howling Commandos for the rest of his life but he’s pretty sure he’ll never love another group as much as he loves the Avengers in this very moment no matter how long he lives.
“I talked to Stark,” Natasha says, by way of a greeting, and Steve doesn’t even need to ask her what she talked to Tony about. He already knows where this is going.
“He was an ass,” Natasha says. “But I think he was right.”
Steve groans. “Not you too.”
“Look, he has a point,” she says. “We’re in a unique position where we can actually do some good, even outside of battles.”
“What’s this “we” you’re talking about?” Steve asks. “Last time I checked, I’m the only aro person on the team.”
“But you’re not the only non-straight person,” Natasha says. “I’m asexual. You know this.”
And suddenly Steve understands what she’s saying. “You want us to both come out,” he says slowly, mulling the idea over in his brain. “Let me guess, a joint activism campaign or something?”
“Or something,” she agrees. “The team has enough of a social media presence that we can do this on our own, no need to get outside news reporters in on this.”
“Never would have pegged you for the social justice person in the group.”
Natasha shrugs. “This is important,” she says simply. “And it’s not something many other people are tackling. If we can make one kid feel better about themselves…”
“And when the mainstream media picks up on it and starts ridiculing us?” Steve asks.
“Then we just keep talking louder about the things that are more important,” Natasha says. “Like I said, we can control this ourselves. Give “no comment” responses to everyone else until we’re blue in the face, and put out the messages we want. I think it would be worth it.”
Steve is less convinced, but it’s rare to see Natasha this passionate about something other than their work so he nods. “I’ll think about it,” he says. He can promise her that much, at least.
Life moves on.
Natasha gives him more names that he continues to turn down.
He researches asexual identities, since he knows he’s woefully lacking in his knowledge in that particular area.
News reporters continue to try to pry into his personal life. It gets harder and harder to fake a passable smile.
Steve reads up on the ongoing discourse and feels his blood boil with a seething anger. He finds Natasha and spars with her; when they’re done and he explains what set him off, she just nods as if this is old news to her. And it probably is.
Tony makes a casual comment about maybe starting a project to combat biphobia. “I know I’m the worst ambassador the bi community could ever ask for, but I have money and resources and that has to count for something,” he says, with the sort of self-deprecating smile that makes Steve heart twist.
Steve finds himself telling Tony about Natasha’s idea without thinking about it, only realizing later that at some point he’s accepted that this is a thing that need to be done. That he needs to do. And Tony is all too willing to offer up whatever resources he can, without hesitating, already rattling off plans and suggestions of his own.
Steve wonders if this is moving too quickly, or if he’s just been moving too slowly up until this point. He’s still terrified, still making mental lists of all the ways this could backfire, but he also now has lists of all the ways this could help. Of all the nameless people whose stories he’s read, the ones who over and over have said, I wish I had known people like me growing up . And Steve knows he’s in too deep to back out now.
“Are you sure this is the way to go?” Steve asks, not for the first time.
Natasha is making some adjustment on the computer and doesn’t even look up as she answers, “Yes. A video is the best way to make sure this won’t be dismissed as a fraud. We’ll link it everywhere, and it’ll hit major news feeds within an hour.”
“And then we let our PR team handle the fallout and interview requests, and make sure that everything is kept respectful,” Tony adds. “We’re ready whenever you are, Cap.”
Steve’s not ready. Steve’s not sure if he’s ever going to be ready. This still feels like something he needs to keep to himself, something that no one else will ever understand. But he can’t expect people to get it if no one talks about it- and if he has to be the one doing the talking, well, so be it.
“Alright,” he says, and takes a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
Natasha signals that they’re recording. Steve hopes that he looks less nervous than he feels.
“Hi. My name is Steve Rogers, but you probably know me as Captain America,” he says into the camera. “And I’m aromantic.”