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Second Chance (at happiness)

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It was more of a novelty than it should have been to wake up in bed with Steve instead of waking up with his face smushed into his desk or in a strange hotel room or with the Avengers alarm blaring. There was a blond head tucked into the back of his neck, and one of Steve's legs was between Tony's thighs. Both of Steve's arms were wrapped around Tony's waist. He could tell that Steve was still sleeping, which wasn't surprising since Steve hadn't been there when Tony crawled into bed at 4am.

Tony blinked sleepily at the ceiling, half-expecting the Avengers alarm to go off at any moment. Their team had been called out multiple times over the past two weeks, dealing with issues all over the globe, until finally even Steve had gotten pissed. He’d politely but firmly told SHIELD that the Avengers were not to be summoned for at least three days.

Since Pepper was in Dubai, that left the day wide open. And Tony knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wriggled out of Steve’s grip and grabbed a pair of pajamas bottoms, sliding them on. Then he padded out of the room, leaving his sleeping supersoldier to hold down the fort. Steve would probably be a little annoyed when he woke up to find Tony already gone, but at least he wouldn’t be surprised. He'd know from Tony's lingering scent that Tony hadn't been gone long, anyway.

An alien invasion five days ago – except on a much smaller scale than the usual invasion. For some reason, these aliens were obsessed with a small town in Russia – had left him with a strange piece of machinery. It looked like a flat disc, about the size of a small dinner plate and half an inch in width, but it was very heavy and made an odd clicking sound whenever it was held upright. It was also made from a material Tony didn’t recognize which appeared to be nigh-on indestructible. He had plans to find out everything he could about it.

“Wake up, Daddy’s home,” he sang as he sailed into the lab. He swaggered over to the table where he’d left the disc last night; he’d wanted to get started on his tests immediately after the last mission, but Steve had put his foot down. And, much as Tony hated to admit it, that had probably been for the best. At least it meant that Tony was approaching the disc with a clear(er) head this morning.

He sat down on his stool and stared at the disc, then curiously flicked it with a fingernail. Now that his eyes weren’t burning with fatigue, he could see that the black metal had some kind of pale grey pattern. But there was no rhyme or reason to the pattern that he could distinguish. It was just a bunch of random loops and swirls. The aliens had been extremely protective of the disc, so whatever it did had to be important.

“J, let’s start with a full work-up. I wanna know what’s inside this thing,” Tony said. He flicked it again, but he didn’t hear the kind of sound he would’ve expected from metal. It only increased his curiosity. He was like a cat with a closed door; he had to know what was inside.

“Yes sir. Scanning now.” There was a pause. Then JARVIS said, “My scans don’t appear to be capable of penetrating the exterior.”

“What?” Tony frowned.

“I am unable to gather any data about the interior at this time.” JARVIS didn’t sound happy.

"Show me what you've got," Tony said, leaning forward as the room around him lit up with holograms. Well shit. What JARVIS had was actually very little. Aside from the very basic information - height, weight, color, etc... - the data was inconclusive.

"Might I suggest some tests, Sir?" JARVIS suggested.

"You read my mind, buddy." He stood up, grabbing his blowtorch, and pointed a finger at Dummy. "You and your fire extinguisher stay over there."

Dummy wilted with a sad, soulful beep. Tony ignored him and switched on the blowtorch. Had Bruce been in the room with him, he probably would've been treated to a long lecture about safety and control. Fortunately, he was alone. Besides, in the end the blowtorch did no damage at all: he held the open flame to the disc for a full minute, but it didn't leave so much as a scorch mark.

Hmm. This was going to require some additional testing.

It turned out that the disc was impervious to sledgehammers. And water. And ice. And electricity. And repulsor blasts. And knives. And being thrown against the wall in a fit of frustration.

"Okay," Tony said finally, putting his hands on his hips. "This is not going the way I had planned." He walked over to the disc and leaned down to pick it up. It began to click when he lifted it upright, but Tony couldn't feel any cogs or vibrations under his fingertips. The surface had to be thick enough to mask whatever was happening inside.

"Sir -" JARVIS began.

Tony never got the chance to find out what else JARVIS was going to say. The disc warmed beneath his hands and then pulsed, the previously hard material moving as though it was suddenly organic and alive. He yelped and jerked his hands away without thinking. The disc hit the floor and lit up with a dull grey light; he threw an arm over his eyes to protect them, but the resulting explosion knocked him clear off his feet. He hit the wall of the workshop and blacked out.

"Tony. Tony! Wake up!"

Steve's voice, as well as the ugly headache blooming behind his eyes, made Tony groan as he woke. He processed the full range of aches in his body and groaned again. "Stop talking," he rasped.

He blinked one eye open just in time to see Steve's mouth snapping shut so quickly it was almost comical. At any other time, Tony might've laughed. As it was, he was grateful for the silence. He tried to sit up, hissing out a breath as Steve's hands moved to his back and gently supported him. It didn't feel like there was anything broken, but he was stiff from head to toe.

"What the hell happened, Tony?" Bruce said, pulling his head around so that he could look into Tony's eyes.

"Explosion. I dropped that disc. It went boom." Tony winced when Bruce's fingers touched the knot on the back of his head. That smarted. A lot.

"I thought we agreed you were going to be more careful with your experiments," Steve said. He had that slightly wild look about his eyes, the one that said the alpha in him was screaming to attack and wreak vengeance for the pain and suffering of a fellow pack member and his mate. Unfortunately, the only enemy here was Tony's stupidity. Tony doubted that even an alpha rage would be enough to break that stupid disc.

"You can ask JARVIS. I was being careful," he argued. "It only reacted when I picked it up off the floor."

"With your bare hands?" Bruce asked wryly.

Tony hesitated a second too long. "... No."

"Tony," Steve sighed, pulling him into a hug. Tony squawked and swatted at his boyfriend's head, but there was no escaping the hug and honestly he didn't really want to. He settled for grumbling, ignoring Bruce's amused look, and peered around Bruce to see the damage done to the rest of the lab.

He wasn't expecting to see Thor and Natasha - apparently the explosion had been loud enough to bring everyone who was home running - and he definitely wasn't expecting to see a body on the ground. Tony lurched upwards, ignoring the pain that shot through his head, in an effort to get a better look. Because he couldn't be seeing what he thought he was seeing.

"Bruce? Is that -"

"You?" Natasha said, lifting her head to look at him. "Apparently, though there are some noticeable differences. He doesn't have an arc reactor, for one thing."

"... What?" Tony said blankly.

Steve helped him to stand and kept a supportive arm around Tony's waist as they moved closer. Natasha was right: the man on the floor didn't look exactly like Tony. His hair had a lot more grey peppered through the brown, and there were more lines on his face. Even unconscious, his face looked pale, worn and stressed. Even at his worst, Tony didn't think he'd looked this bad.

Most telling of all, there was no familiar blue glow through the man's t-shirt. Tony knelt down and pulled the guy's shirt up to take a look, though he was smart enough not to touch. His stomach churned at the sight of the mess of thick, white scars covering the guy's chest. The guy might not have the arc reactor now, but he'd definitely had it at one point.

"Do you have any idea what happened?" Natasha asked him.

"No. I... is this one of Loki's tricks? Thor?" Tony turned to Thor, hoping for an answer.

Unfortunately Thor shook his head. "I can sense no magic."

"A clone?" Bruce suggested.

"Dropped into the workshop after an explosion?" Tony said, squinting at him skeptically.

Bruce shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time Hydra tried."

"It smells like you," Steve said suddenly. He reddened a bit when they all looked at him, but continued. "Underneath the soot, I mean. I think he's wearing that blocking cologne, but I can still... Just a little." His fingers flexed on Tony's hip. As an alpha, and as Tony's mate, his sense of smell was strongest.

Which was... huh. That was an interesting bit of information. Hydra had tried to create clones before, but until now they'd never been able to replicate a scent. Made it pretty easy for the team to ferret out who was real and who wasn't, not that Hydra's clones had ever been that convincing in the first class. Seeing any version of Steve Rogers dancing on the bar counter was a sign something was wrong.

"JARVIS, what readings do you have from when that thing exploded?" Tony asked.

"My readings show a spike in energy, Sir. I also have this video." A hologram screen opened on the far wall. It showed Tony bending down to pick up the disc - gloveless, of course, which made Bruce glare at him. Tony pretended not to notice, focusing his attention on watching himself drop the disc. Right as the disc hit the floor, a glowing grey light opened up and spat out the guy. Then the disc exploded.

"What the fuck," Tony said under his breath. He belatedly scanned the room, expecting to see no sign of the disc. He wasn’t sure whether he was surprised or alarmed to see the apparently unharmed disc in a corner of the workshop.

Was exploding not even enough to hurt that thing?!

"He needs medical attention," Natasha said, drawing Tony’s attention back. She'd knelt back down next to the guy and had two fingers pressed to the side of his neck. "His pulse is very weak."

"I'll call the doctor," said Bruce. "Steve, take Tony upstairs to bed."

"What? Hey, no!" Tony protested. "I want to see what happens when that guy wakes up."

Bruce sighed but gave up the fight. "Fine. Thor, can you take the other Tony upstairs to the living room? We can't leave him down here on the cold floor," he added defensively to the others. "It's Tony. Or some version of him."

"It's more likely to be a trap," Natasha said.

"Maybe not," Tony said slowly, brain already working. He let Steve steer him into the elevator, not really paying attention to where they were headed. Was there a possibility that the portal had lead to... what? An alternate dimension? It wouldn't be the first time that Tony had heard of such a thing. If Reed Richards got you alone for more than five minutes, he would launch into a detailed theory about parallel universes and string theories. That wasn't really Tony's area, so he'd never given Richards more than a few minutes of attention.

But what if?