Disclaimer: See previous.
A/N: See previous.
BACKGROUND: See previous.
Beta: LogicIsBoring44, she did a fantastic job and all remaining errors are my own. :-)
Conversations with Tony
"What?" asked Phil, staring at Stark as if he had never seen him before.
"Once you can dismiss as a hallucination, as wanting to be in a better place than a terrorist's cave in Afghanistan. But twice? Not a coincidence," replied Stark, though it didn't seem as if he was talking to Phil.
Phil pondered what Stark said in silence as the other man seemed to be stuck in his thoughts.
Several minutes later, Stark explained further, "I've had JARVIS looking for him since the last time I saw him."
"Since New York?" Phil asked in clarification. Maybe he wouldn't have to see a specialist for possibly losing his mind – though one person, and Stark at that, wasn't a ringing endorsement.
Stark nodded once.
Phil thought about it, wondering if he could get Stark to tell him some of his visit to the peaceful place – not all of it, as he could never image sharing something so…sacred to himself with another person – but enough to compare notes and make sure it was actually the same person they saw.
Stark checked the watch on his wrist, perhaps sensing what Phil wanted to ask, and said, "There isn't enough time to tell you about either time I saw him before your hot nurse comes to give you a bath."
"Stark," said Phil with a sigh, a little disappointed that he was read so easily by Stark.
Stark raised his hands in slight surrender and said, as said nurse knocked on the doorway, "No judging here, Agent."
"Don't go anywhere," Phil ordered. "I still want to talk to you."
"Sure," said Stark flippantly, and Phil wondered if Stark would actually wait until he was done. "See you in a bit, Agent."
"Stark," said Phil with a nod, and Stark walked out of the room.
Outside in the hallway from Agent's room, Tony sat down in a chair. He looked around to make sure no one could see him before he ran a hand down his face and let out a sigh.
Tony's conversation with Agent – he resolutely forgot the fact that he actually knew Agent's name – brought up what he has been trying to put off for roughly…oh, the past two months.
Tony didn't think anyone else saw the supposed Master of Death, and Tony held the snort that wanted to come out with that thought, when they were dying. He thought, especially the first time, that it was an extremely vivid delusion – one brought on by the situation he was in. However, like he told Agent – one time you can dismiss as a hallucination, but twice? Definitely not a coincidence.
And now despite his best efforts, Tony mind started to drift to the first time he spoke to the Master of Death and he became immersed in the memory…
Tony opened his eyes with a gasp as he struggled to breath. He started to frantically pat down his body. He was fine – naked, but fine. He somehow thought he should be in pain…that his chest should hurt, but he didn't hurt at all, and glancing down at it, his chest was perfectly fine. Not a blemish on it.
This picture of a perfect chest seemed wrong to him somehow and his last memory, even though his last memory was somewhat scattered.
He sat up and looked around where he was. He was in his lab at his home in Malibu.
"JARVIS?" he called out as he stood up and glanced around his lab.
His AI was suspiciously quiet and his lab was too clean, a little too neat for him.
Tony knew, even though it looked remarkably similar to his lab, it wasn't. His lab hadn't been this spotless since he built it.
He really wished he was dressed for whatever was coming next – as he was sure there would be a next.
Suddenly, on the table where he did the majority of his work – if this had been his lab – his favorite outfit appeared, jeans and a '80s rock band shirt. He quickly put them on, not liking the exposed feeling naked left him feeling. It was inherently different somehow than usual…like someone was judging him. He didn't like it.
"You are definitely one of the smarter ones to come through here, Mister Stark," a voiced said directly behind him.
Tony jumped and turned around.
There was a hooded-cloaked figure standing behind him.
"Who are you? What is this place? It looks like my lab but it's not my lab…Too clean. I need a drink," said Tony, rapid fire. He looked around and, to his surprise, his favorite drink was sitting right where his clothes had been.
Even though the man's face – and Tony knew it was a man by his voice – was covered, Tony could tell he was amused as he said, "Are we in your lab? Hmm…I didn't notice. Someone told me once, that this was 'your party' so you can have whatever you want, within reason, while we are here."
Tony, who had picked up his drink, paused in taking a sip. "We aren't staying here?"
The man was amused again though Tony thought that perhaps there was a tinge of sadness to his amusement as well.
"You could…if you want to become a ghost," the man replied.
Tony looked more closely at the man. "Who are you? Wait? I'm dead?!" He would be leaving Pepper and Happy and JARVIS and Rhodey behind…
The man was definitely regretful as he answered this time. "No, you aren't dead. Right now, you are in a cave-"
"Cave?" asked Tony, sitting down, drink now forgotten as memories started to come back to him.
"A terrorist cave, actually," said the man sounding even more regretful, though understanding, "and a man, a prisoner like you, is working on saving your life."
"Who are you? Why are you talking to me?" asked Tony, staring at the man now standing across from him.
The man looked steadily at him. "You have a choice: You can stay here and become a ghost, as you know."
Tony said nothing, just looked at the man to continue.
"And the other choices are: You can move on or you can go back," finished the man.
Tony was silent, contemplating and, knowing this time he would get an answer, asked one final time, "Who are you? Why do you get to offer me the choice of life, death or pseudo-death?"
The man smiled mysteriously. "Why indeed. As for who I am, I go by many names but while I am on this plane – for a lack of a better word – I go by the title of Master of Death."
Tony couldn't help the snort that came out of him as he repeated, "Master of Death?"
The man nodded. "Yes."
"That implies you beat Death. How does one beat Death?" asked Tony, curiously.
"How indeed," said the man.
Tony felt annoyance rise at the non-answer.
"Why are you offering me these choices?" Tony asked, changing tactics.
The man looked at him and Tony felt the need to elaborate, "Why me? Answer me that. You must know of all the things that I've done, things I knew were not good…I'm not a good person, I know I'm not. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who are better than I am, do you offer them the same choice? But most importantly, why would I want to go back to a world where I'm in a terrorist's cave, and more than likely to get tortured and used for ransom? Where I'm more likely to die because America doesn't 'negotiate' with terrorists?"
The man looked at Tony with a look that he couldn't quite describe and he said one word, "Potential."
"Potential?" parroted Tony in disbelief.
The man nodded once. "You have the potential to be better…more. There is something great in your future if you go back."
"Are you allowed to tell me this?" Tony asked in curiosity. Can the man who beat Death get in trouble for flapping his gums?
"Who says you'll remember it?" asked the man back.
"Good point," Tony conceded before he said, "But what about the other people. Didn't they get a choice? Or am I just lucky? Do they not have something 'great' in their future that allows the option to cheat death?"
"Who says they did not? Each conversation is private," said the man, with a slight frown.
"Well that's a relief," replied Tony sarcastically. He really doesn't want to be sober right now. At least alcohol allows him to shift the blame to the drink for this weird ass dream because it has to be a dream.
"Isn't it?" responded the man back, no longer frowning.
Tony eyed his abandoned glass of alcohol. He wondered if he could at least have the illusion of non-sobriety as he thought about his decision.
"I'm sorry," said the man claiming to be the Master of Death after a few minutes of contemplation on Tony's part.
"Why?" Tony asked, suspiciously. "Are you influencing my decision?"
"I do not influence decisions. We just have conversations while I await your choice," explained the man.
"Why are you sorry then?" asked Tony, sounding slightly fearful because even if it's a dream, the possibility of never seeing Pepper, Rhodey or JARVIS again scares the living crap out of him.
"For the consequences of your decision," came the very unhelpful reply from the man.
"What?" asked Tony, but there was no response.
Instead, there was unbearable pain as he opened his eyes.
Tony snapped out of his first memory he had with the Master of Death to glance up at who called his name, saw Capsicle; and unable to stop his memories now that they started, he started to relieve his second memory that happened less than two months ago.
Tony felt a sense of déjà vu as his eyes snapped open and he choked on his next breath.
"Well, I sure didn't expect to be seeing you so soon, Mister Stark," said a voice to the right of him.
Tony turned his head from where he was lying and saw the self-proclaimed Master of Death – whom he was thought was a hallucination – standing beside his lab table. The last thing he remembered was flying the nuke into the portal and then nothing.
He turned his stare to the ceiling as he asked mildly, "So am I dead this time?"
"Not quite," said the man.
Tony turned quickly to the man, still lying down, and said, "I was in deep space in just my Iron Man suit. The Captain would have closed the portal right away. How can I 'not quite' be dead in deep space? Riddle me that, oh Master of Death."
"You underestimate the Captain. He would have given you a few minutes to come back down," said the man. "The rest of your team would have your back."
"Yeah, right," said Tony sitting up, not liking the prone feeling, especially since he was once again naked. Must be a kink of the so-called Master of Death.
He wished for clothes and the same clothes appeared as they did before. He quickly got dressed, not saying anything and when he finished, picked up the drink that was now on the table, taking a healthy sip.
The man hadn't said a word the entire time.
Tony finished his drink and wished for another. He picked up the drink and took another sip before he turned and faced the man.
"Master of Death," greeted Tony.
"Mister Stark," replied the man.
"Please, you've seen me naked twice. I think you can call me by my first name," responded Tony as he took another sip.
'Good bourbon,' Tony thought with approval. Must be a perk of being on the brink of death.
The man inclined his head.
"Do I have the same choices this time?" asked Tony, wanting to know.
The man was still, evaluating Tony carefully, and he asked, "What do you think of the choice you made last time? Do you regret it?"
Tony, knowing that his answer was important, uncharacteristically took the time to think his answer through before he said, "No I don't regret it...it was worth it." Unequivocally, it was worth it.
"Despite all the problems you've had? The need of the Arc Reactor in your chest? The poisoning from said Arc Reactor? The fear of the shrapnel piercing your heart? The betrayal of your dad's business partner?"
"Yes, despite all that, it was worth it," said Tony and he took a sip of his drink, hoping to erase the emotions that were burning through him with the burning of alcohol. "I was able to help people despite my troubles and personality."
"Potential, right?" asked the man.
"What?" asked Tony, confused.
Faster than Tony could blink, the man touched his forehead and memories of the last time he was here unlocked themselves – memories that talked about Tony's potential.
Tony considered the memories for a moment before he asked, "Will I remember that memory this time or are you going to take it back after I've woken up and leave me with the overwhelming feeling of missing something? I got to tell you, Master of Death, that that feeling gets old real quick. I might not even talk to you next time we meet up."
The man was silent though Tony had the uncomfortable feeling that the man's eye was twinkling at him.
"Do enjoy your shawarma," said the man.
Because that makes so much sense. Shawarma? What shawarma? There was no shawarma in this nice hallucination that provided good bourbon. The Master of Death is starting to show his age with senile comments like that.
However, before Tony could voice any of his thoughts to that comment, he woke up with a gasp and Captain America, Thor and Hulk hovering above him.
"Stark!" came the Captain's concerned voice again, successfully pulling Tony out of his second flashback.
Tony ignored the Capsicle while he tried to gather his wits before a thought slammed into him.
He needed to see Bruce.