"I just think I should give you some advice," the other Steve Rogers said, scowling at him from where he was sitting on the other side of the Avengers conference table. Steve regarded the set lines of displeasure on his own face with growing discomfort. He had no idea he scowled that much. Did he? What if he always looked like that?
The uniform was slightly different -- star patches on the shoulders and more belt pouches than Steve could ever imagine needing -- but it wasn't enough to make the man not look like him, and it made something twist unpleasantly in Steve's stomach.
Rogers -- because he was actually the sort of fella who seemed to enjoy being called Rogers -- had steadfastly refused any of the Avengers' attempts at camaraderie, and even more steadfastly once he had learned they were called Avengers.
Bad experiences, he had said.
He was from Earth-1610 -- or so Tony had said -- and their version of the team was called the Ultimates, and it had sounded intriguingly different at first. The team, run by SHIELD? Bucky never becoming the Winter Soldier and instead marrying Rogers' wartime fiancée? Steve had been still trying to get over that when Rogers told him about his relationship with Jan.
And Tony, of course, had been next door working on the portal calculations to send Rogers back, and had leaned his head in and volunteered that he'd dated Jan, remember, Winghead? Which was when Rogers had told him about his universe's Tony and Natasha, and Steve had laughed, watching Tony's eyes go wide, and God, he couldn't even picture that. And for a minute it had been normal, the hilarious vagaries of the multiverse.
Rogers had looked at the way Tony had grinned at him, the way Tony always grinned at him, and his face twisted in something that looked an awful lot like disapproval.
And then Rogers had told him about the death. All the death. Senseless, brutal violence. Jan dead. Hank dead. So many people gone and never coming back, because apparently for them, no one did. And then, even worse, the people who weren't heroes after all. He'd told Tony very quietly what Natasha had done to Tony's counterpart, what she'd done to Jarvis, what her friends had done to Rogers himself, how they'd framed him for the murder of Clint's family--
Tony's face had gone white, and he'd backed out without saying a word.
Rogers had looked grimly satisfied, like some part of him had enjoyed doing that to Tony, like he'd thought it was necessary. Like it would make Tony tougher, stronger, a better person, a better fighter, if Tony knew those things.
Steve called it being a goddamn bully. He'd wondered how fast this guy could go home. Steve could hardly believe that in another universe he was so insensitive. God, he'd probably be up all night talking this out with Tony. He knew the both of them well enough to know that this was the sort of conversation that led to sleepless nights. And Tony wouldn't ever come right out and say what he felt, but Steve knew that Tony had had a lot of bad experiences with disappointing people he looked up to, and to hear someone with Steve's face tell Tony about all the people he'd failed to save -- yeah, that wasn't going to be any good.
"Oh," Rogers had said, wearily, as soon as Tony had left, like something else awful he needed to say had occurred to him. "And it turned out I'd knocked Gail up before I'd gotten myself frozen." He'd held Steve's gaze and Steve had wondered what the hell he was going to say to make it worse. "My son was the Red Skull."
Yeah. That had been worse, all right.
But there was a bright side: now they were almost ready to send the guy home, even if he did want to give him advice first. Steve really wasn't inclined toward listening to advice from his alternate self, but at least it was him here and not Tony. Tony shouldn't have to deal with this... jerk.
"Advice?" Steve asked.
Rogers nodded. "About Stark."
Oh, he already knew he wasn't going to like this. "What about Tony, exactly?"
It was surprising how much it hurt, to think that Rogers' universe was a place where he didn't like Tony. Sure, they'd had their disagreements, some worse than others, but he'd liked Tony -- hell, he'd loved Tony -- since the day they'd met, and he'd always defended Tony, even when no one else would. He'd always had Tony's back.
And in Rogers' universe, clearly... he didn't.
"You should be careful around him," Rogers said, darkly, and Steve's hands curled into fists. And then Rogers realized -- finally! -- that he might have made some kind of misstep but hadn't a clue how to fix it. "Some of it's not him," he allowed, like he was being generous. "Some of it's his fucking family. Like his brother. Rotten all the way through, and because you haven't mentioned him I'll assume everything there is fine, or at least that Stark wants to pretend it's fine--"
Steve frowned. "I've never met Arno, but I've never heard anything bad about him."
Rogers blinked. "Arno?"
"Arno Stark," Steve said, slowly. "Tony's brother. Tony just found out he was adopted, last year. Arno is his parents' biological son. Tony never knew about him."
"Tony's brother was named Greg," Rogers said, like Steve was stupid, "and they were twins."
Steve noticed the past tense in that sentence. He wasn't going to ask. Given the way every other fact about Rogers' universe had gone, he was pretty sure he knew all he needed to know.
Steve tried to shrug casually, the way Tony would have. "So it's different here. And Tony's my friend. He's been my friend for a decade. I understand you might not like the one in your universe much, but that doesn't mean you should-- warn him away from me. I like Tony, I'm not changing my mind, and I can handle myself."
"He's a mess," Rogers said. "He's a mess and a drunk and you're better off not getting close to him."
Okay, that was just unfair. "He's been sober for six years," Steve snapped back. "I'm proud of him. We're all proud of him. We've supported him every step of the way."
"Oh." Rogers blinked a few more times.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Try harder."
It wasn't actually an invitation to try again, but Rogers seemed to take it as such. He leaned in, across the table, beckoning Steve close, inviting him to share a confidence. Steve wasn't really in the mood to share anything, but he stood up and vaulted over the table.
"Look," Rogers said. His voice was low and hushed, his eyes wide, like he was afraid of being overheard. "I know how Stark is, okay? I saw how he looked at you. But that's just how he is. He likes to act... like he's a fairy, you know?"
Wait, what? Rogers had looked at Tony looking at him and seen... what?
"But it's a game to him," Rogers continued. He made a pained face and his voice was even quieter. "I'm not saying that sometimes I don't... notice... him, and I'm not saying it's right, what they get up to in this century. But even if I were one of... those people... well, it wouldn't be right, to do anything with him. It's all a joke with him." His eyes were wide and earnest. "So it's really better if you don't lead him on. Otherwise he'll be taking liberties where he oughtn't, and people will think you're. You know." He whispered the last two words. "A queer."
Jesus God. Steve didn't even know where to begin with that one. Apparently in other universes he still had a lot to come to terms with about himself.
He took a shaking breath and pushed away the impulse to punch his counterpart in the face.
"I have three things to say to that," Steve said, and his voice came out of him cold, precise, hardly trembling at all with the rage that infused him. "One, whatever feelings I might have for Tony, or Tony for me, are really, really not your business. Two, I'm bisexual." He smiled, and he watched Rogers open his mouth, close it, and open it again. "I think you'll find that I am entirely unashamed to be queer, and anyone who knows me will back me up on that. It's not actually a dirty secret, and I am profoundly sorry that you think it should be."
Rogers was still staring there, mouth open, face gone pale.
"And three," Steve said, "Tony doesn't actually like me like that. Much as I wish it were otherwise."
There was a throat-clearing noise.
Tony was in the doorway.
He smiled a very little smile. "Am I interrupting anything?"
Steve wondered how much of that Tony had heard.
"No," Steve said. "We're done." He glared at his counterpart. "Aren't we?"
"Yes," Rogers said, almost meekly, still a little pale.
Steve nodded. "Good."
Tony clapped his hands together. "Well, Captain Grumpy Cat, we've got a portal with your name on it."
Rogers scowled again.
The multiversal portal glowed bright, and light played over Rogers' skin.
"Tell the other me to give you a great big kiss," Tony said, cheerfully, and that answered the question of how much of the conversation he'd heard.
The crackling of the portal drowned out Rogers' reply, but Steve was pretty sure it was an obscenity.
Then Rogers stepped through and was gone, thank God.
The portal winked out.
Tony let out a breath. "Steve," he said, "will you take this the wrong way if I say I didn't know you were such an asshole?"
"I am such an asshole," Steve agreed. "And a homophobe, apparently." It was more than a little shocking. How had someone like that ever been friends with Arnie? Maybe he hadn't been. "It seemed like he had some... personal issues, to work through." Steve sighed. "He was trying to put me off you."
Tony swiveled around in his chair. "Yeah, I came in on that." The words were easy, but there was a familiar tension gathering up around his eyes, like he was worried that Rogers might have succeeded.
"It absolutely didn't work," Steve assured him, but Tony's face didn't actually relax.
"Can I ask you one thing?" Tony's voice was soft. "Can I ask why you told him I didn't like you like that? Serious question."
Well. Steve hadn't been expecting that. Tony was probably wondering how he behaved, what Steve wanted to comment on. Maybe Steve was making him uncomfortable; maybe he hadn't known Steve had liked him. That was probably it. He wanted reassurance that this wouldn't amount to anything.
"Of course you don't like me like that," Steve said. He cast his mind back, trying to find examples. "I mean, you're my best friend, Tony, but it's not like that with you. I'm not your type. You clearly don't have those sorts of feelings for me. And that's all right," he added. "I mean, I hope it won't be a problem. I don't intend to do anything that would make you feel--"
Tony was laughing.
"Oh my God," he managed, between paroxysms of laughter. "I can't even-- I don't know where to begin with--" He took a breath and attempted to compose himself. "Steve, I decorate with pictures of your face."
"Sure," Steve said, confused. "Maybe there's more pictures of me than anyone else, but you decorate with all of us." He didn't understand where this was going.
"Last Christmas I made the Tower call you Captain Handsome," Tony said, and there were tears on his face now.
"That was a joke," Steve said, a little uncertainly. "That was definitely a joke."
"How many of my friends do I call beloved?" Tony asked, his voice somehow desperate now.
Steve was beginning to get the idea that he had entirely missed several important facts about the last decade.
"You call me lots of things," Steve said, faintly. "They're all pretty sweet. That's-- that's just how you are, right?"
"Because I like you," Tony said, with even more desperation in his widened eyes. "That's just how I am because I've had a crush on you for literally my entire life, Captain Oblivious."
Steve went hot. "That one's not as sweet, Tony."
It couldn't be true, could it?
"Christ," Tony said. "I thought you didn't like me like that, and then there you are telling your asshole alternate universe self--" He stopped talking and threw his hands in the air, almost in frustration, but his face was bright, lit by passion. "I give up. I am out of words. Here."
And he pushed himself up out of the chair, took five quick steps across the lab, hauled Steve up by the front of his shirt, and kissed the hell out of him.
Tony was a really, really good kisser.
When Tony finally let him go, Steve collapsed back into the chair, dazed. Tony was grinning down at him, smugly self-satisfied. It was a good look on him.
"I'm trying to decide," Steve said, "whether I should ask if you want to go out to dinner with me or whether I should just ask if you want to go over to my quarters."
"Steve!" Tony said, in mock-reproach. "I thought you were an officer and a gentleman." But he grinned, his smile white and sharp, his gaze knowing.
"I am," Steve said. "But by my count we're on at least the thousandth date."
"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Tony said, with another grin.
Steve got up, and then he yelped in surprise as Tony slapped his ass. Not that it was uncomfortable. Far from it.
"The other you had more belt pouches," Tony said, contemplatively, and Steve was pretty sure Tony was staring at his ass. "I could give you some."
Steve turned around, and yep, Tony had been staring at his ass.
"You could give me something else," Steve said, with his most determined attempt at a flirtatious look. He liked to think he'd learned from the best.
Tony swallowed hard, and his eyes were suddenly very dark. "Yeah," he said, voice gone low in desire. "I'm thinking we should go to your quarters now."
Tony hooked two fingers into Steve's pouch-deprived belt and dragged him out the door, as Steve pondered sending a thank-you note across the multiverse.