Chapter 1: What Happens After We Die?
“And I am Iron Man.”
The snap flooded Stark’s vision with white. Then, there was pain. So much pain. His senses could barely register what happened around him. He heard Peter’s voice, managed to focus his vision on the kid.
“Mr. Stark? Mr. Stark, it’s me, it’s Peter.”
Tony almost smiled. As if he wouldn’t recognize his voice. He wanted to tell him so much, tell him that he was the reason this all happened, to tell him that he had done it all for him and Morgan and Harley, but he couldn’t seem to speak. The pain was fading, but that just meant his nerves were shutting down. Peter told him they won. He said he was sorry. Oh, how Tony wanted to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for.
Looking around, he saw Rhodey and Banner and Thor and… Pepper.
She rushed to his side and touched his cheek. He whispered out a weak, “Hey, Pep.”
If only he could say more, tell her that he loved her. He wanted to see Morgan, but all the same he was relieved she was far away from all this carnage.
I love you 3000. He could barely breathe, every inhale and exhale a herculean effort. Serious organ failure now. He kept his eyes on Pepper, the love of his life. She had a few cuts and scrapes, soot on her face; her hair was wild. She never looked more beautiful.
“It’s okay,” she said, “We’re going to be okay. You can rest now.”
He couldn’t breathe. Darkness started to creep in. No, no I can’t. How will I keep you safe? I have to stay; I’m not done yet.
And then there was nothing. No sound, no light, no feeling.
It was almost like waking up from a bad dream. Tony’s eyes opened in a blink, and he was standing in a garden of sorts. A bright sun was shining down on him, and he squinted to adjust to the light. There was a warm breeze, and he wobbled on his feet, leaning against a nearby well. Other than some mind-blowing disorientation, Tony noticed that there was no pain. He sank to the ground, leaning against the stone of the well. He wasn’t in his suit, just a simple linen shirt and some pants, spotlessly clean. He stared at his hand, ran his fingers along his face. Healthy skin, not even any scars.
His heart hammered in his chest, and he struggled to breathe, gripping at the grass to ground himself. Where am I? What happened?
Looking up, he could see a house, well-built and maintained. He staggered to his feet, shaking just from the confusion and uncertainty. His mind ran through probabilities – it was probably civilians, he could get some basic assistance, maybe communication equipment to contact his team, and figure out where he was. He hoped he spoke their language. He wasn’t quite sure where he was, but he was sure it wasn’t America.
If, however, he was in hostile territory, he had absolutely nothing with which to defend himself, not even the arc reactor on his chest. He had to have been dressed by somebody, and patched up, right? But if they took his reactor, they might also have done so to disarm him. Tony decided it was worth the risk. Ignorance was never bliss in his book.
Just as he resolved to investigate, a young man, maybe twenty, stepped into the garden, spotting Tony. He was carrying gardening supplies and waved amicably at Tony, apparently unsurprised to see him. There was something about his features that seemed familiar, though Tony really couldn’t place it. He turned back to the house, calling out in a foreign language. What was that, Farsi? Tony flashed back to his time in Afghanistan so many years ago.
The boy turned around and smiled, holding up a hand as if to say, “stay there,” and held a finger to indicate “one moment,” then exited back into the house.
Tony turned to lean over the well. He took deep breaths to calm himself. Bruce had given him a few tips for dealing with anxiety. He focused on the coolness of the stone beneath his hands, the smell of the flowers and the light that turned the inside of his eyelids red. His heart rate slowed, and then he heard a voice behind him, a voice he wasn’t sure he’d ever forget.
“I was hoping it would be longer before I saw you, Stark.”
Tony whirled around to stare at the man before him, confirming the impossible. How is he here? He’s dead. Does that mean that I’m…?
Ho Yinsen reached out gently, holding Stark by the shoulders to steady him. “I understand that this must be a lot to process.”
Chapter 2: Denial
Tony Stark meets the man that set him on a new path in life, and processes the news of his own demise.
Well, for anyone that was reading this, I apologize for the very late update. Life can be a real bitch sometimes. Anyway, let's get the ball rolling again! Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m dead.” Tony had suspected, but it hadn’t fully sunk in, not yet. In all honesty he had expected oblivion, so the fact that he was there was a shock.
Yinsen made a thoughtful hum and nodded. “Yes, it is a difficult thing to face. This wasn’t all what I had expected either, but I am with my family again, and that is what matters.”
Tony suddenly thought of the young man that greeted him. “That boy, he’s-“
“My son, yes.” Yinsen beamed with pride. “He was younger when he died, and I am glad to see he still gets a chance to mature in this world, even though he will never grow old.”
Tony, usually so full of words and questions found his voice caught in his throat. He just stared, trying to take it all in. Yinsen looked so different than he had when Tony knew him in the cave. He seemed stronger, well-fed, with an almost youthful glow to him. He still had the glasses. As if reading his thoughts, Yinsen adjusted his specs. “You know I don’t really need these, but it’s such a habit, and I find myself putting them on if for nothing else than the comfort of routine.” Yinsen stepped away and gestured for Stark to follow. “Walk with me, I find it helps when you aren’t stuck in one place.”
Tony followed Yinsen as he led him down a simple dirt path lined with flowers. “When I died, I met with five people from my past that died before me. They helped me transition from one life to another. That’s what I’m here for, Tony, I’m the first one for you, and there will be four more.”
“That doesn’t entirely make sense, with population growth does it? Five dead people for each new person that dies?”
Yinsen laughed lightly, “I should have known that your first real questions would be pointing out flaws in the system. If only I could answer them. All I can say is this is where I have been waiting, enjoying peace with my family. I do not know what comes next, now that I have seen you, but we never know that, do we? Not in life, and not in death.”
“I’d certainly like to know something certain for once.”
“Then don’t look to the future, Stark, look at the past. The past is what we are sure of, what we have known, what we have loved, and what we have become.”
“Does the afterlife turn everyone into a poet?” Tony snarked.
Yinsen laughed louder that time, needing a moment to take a breath. “I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just all the time to reflect I’ve been given. I’ve been rehearsing this speech for what feels like years, you know. Time is an odd thing here, you’ll find.”
“And how do I know I’m really talking to you? What if this is something going on in my head as the last neurons in my brain stop firing. How do I know my brain hasn’t been stuck in some machine by some alien to study, and all of this,” Tony gestured widely to the surrounding area, “isn’t some elaborate way to torture me?”
Yinsen frowned and turned a studious gaze on the distance. “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?”
“Yeah I’ve seen shit you wouldn’t believe. Answer the fucking question.”
Tony opened his mouth to make a retort in the brief silence that followed, but Yinsen continued. “Stark, I can’t prove anything to you. I barely understand these things myself. Is this your idea of suffering?”
“I’m thinking a more carrot and stick type situation, or false hope, take your pick.” Tony bristled with frustration. He was used to being out of his depth, but this. This was just another test of his limits and he had enough.
“I’m very sorry,” Yinsen said softly.
Tony’s chest constricted. “What for?”
Yinsen’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “When I died and my father spoke with me to explain, I wasn’t so shocked, so adamant in any disbelief. I told you that I was going to see my family, and I did. My expectations were met, and I had nothing left for me on Earth.”
Yinsen gripped Tony’s shoulders with a mixture of sadness and joy in his eyes. “But you left something behind, didn’t you? Something much more precious than Stark Industries. You’d rather believe you’re being held in a cave by the Ten Rings because then maybe you could find your way back to them. And for that I’m both happy and sorry for you.”
Tony’s throat grew tight and his eyes stung with hot tears. His voice failed him and all he could do was nod. I’d do anything to get back to them.
Yinsen gently patted Tony on the back in comfort. “Tell me about your family.”
So, Tony Stark told his old friend about his life. He told him of a beautiful, capable, fierce woman that could out-snark him any day. He talked about his best friend, his college roommate and brother in all but blood. He told him about a secretary that turned out to be a former Russian spy that turned out to be one of the greatest heroes that ever lived. He wove a story about a sassy kid in Tennessee that saved his life and had a knack for gadgets. He raved about a teenage boy that was bit by a spider and damn if he wouldn’t do anything for that kid.
He told his friend about Morgan Stark.
“When I held her in my arms for the first time, I cried,” Tony recalled. “I thought, ‘this is it, there will never be anything more perfect in this universe.’ She was the best thing that ever happened to me, even in the middle of the worst tragedy in history.” Tony swallowed to dislodge the lump growing in his throat. “I’d do anything for her. It’s like – She’s – It’s like my heart is outside of me, walking around on her own legs and asking me for juice pops.”
“It must hurt to feel you are separated, but you will see her again.”
Tony rolled his shoulders in vain to deal with the tightness growing in his throat and chest. When he spoke, his voice cracked. “I won’t get to see her grow up. I won’t get to help her with her math homework or chase off boys with bad intentions. I won’t be able to protect her.”
Yinsen nodded. “But Stark, think of it this way. If it weren’t for you, there wouldn’t be a world for you to protect her in. If not for your sacrifice, she would not have grown up at all. I know that if I could somehow go back, I would have reversed positions with my son in a heartbeat. Yes, he would have grown up without a father, but he would have grown up.
“You must allow yourself time to breathe,” Yinsen continued, “If I’m being honest, you took my dying advice to the extreme. You created something extraordinary with your life, look at what you made.”
“Was it ever enough, though? The suits, the battles, the shields. There have to be a million other bad guys in the galaxy out there, and now I’m not there to help stop them.”
Yinsen shook his head. “You misunderstand me. You made a family. I believe it is time to send you on your way, but know that is what you carry on with you: love. You do not have to cling to the past any longer. You may rest.”
“Yeah, chilling on a beach and sipping martinis in the afterlife isn’t exactly my style, but thanks anyway.” Tony folded his arms across his chest. “Anyway, what now? Have you dispensed enough of your celestial wisdom? It’s been great seeing you, but I’d like to get a move on with this heaven bullshit.”
Ho Yinsen took one last look at Tony Stark. Even outside his mortal body, he carried a heaviness behind that armor of attitude. “Yes, I think it is time for you to move on. I hope I get to see you again. Brace yourself.”
Tony opened his arms wide and turned his steely gaze to the sky. “Do your worst!”
And he was swept away.
Sorry to leave you hanging without knowing who the next person is! I'm still ironing out the order for the middle three, and this second person is the hardest to work with. (I'm curious if anyone can guess, I like to think I'm being a bit unpredictable with this next one.)