The truth of the matter is, Tony Stark died in Afghanistan.
Not the metaphorical death and rebirth that was touted by the press and Stark Industries’ own P.R. department, but a literal death.
Of course, he wouldn't be Tony Stark if he wasn't promptly kicked out of the land of the dead back to the living by a terrifyingly beautiful woman - emphasis on terrifying - after having his whole perception of the world upturned. The ancient gods were real. A Big Bad was coming and Tony should live up to his reputation as the Merchant of Death by focusing his attention on said Big Bad, instead of tearing his own world apart with his weapons.
"If you're the Mistress of Death, shouldn't you be enjoying all the death and destruction?" Tony had asked.
"Would you rather gorge yourself on a 25-pound bucket of Hershey's Kisses or savour a chocolate truffle made by the finest chocolatier in Europe?" she had asked in return. "The Titan served his purpose, but he has gone too far. There must be a time and place for everything in order for there to be balance in the universe, and you, my Merchant, will bring equilibrium once more to the realms."
"You will know when it is time."
"Because, my Merchant," she cupped his face between her palms, her skin cool against his cheeks. She leaned in and touched their foreheads. "You know the value of life. Now, live."
Tony woke up gasping for breath, with a car battery hooked to his chest, and promptly forgot about the weird dream of purgatory and the pair of cool green eyes that looked into his very soul - until he came face to face with actual Norse gods, and it all came crashing back to him, along with a few other bits of knowledge that Tony was certain had been planted in his head by the Lady in Black.
Like everyone else, Tony had initially thought that Loki was the Big Bad. That should have been his first clue; Tony's thought process had never been like anyone else's. To be fair, he had been busy trying to make sense of all the new information in his head, come to grips with the fact that holy fuck he had actually died, and at the same time wondering whether the Goddess of Death really had a thing for chocolate truffles or was it just a convenient analogy to get her point across.
When Tony confronted Loki alone in the penthouse, he finally recognised the look in Loki's eyes: a familiar desperation that, in his own case, resulted in the Mark I and Gulmira. He still put on the bracelets and offered Loki a drink because even a genius mind like his needed time to figure out what to do. When the sceptre failed to work on him, Tony bit back the dick joke that was on the tip of his tongue and instead he looked straight into Loki's eyes, and somehow he just knew that Loki was not alone in his head. It was getting a little unnerving how he'd just know things.
Cognitive recalibration. That was what Romanov said when she knocked Barton back into his right mind.
"Better aim for the head, buddy."
"Are you giving me... advice?" Loki sounded incredulous.
Tony was actually talking to JARVIS, but Loki's bewilderment served just as well as a delay tactic.
"A little constructive criticism never hurt anyone," Tony winked, taking a sip of his scotch. He was tempted, so very tempted to speak to the being that was pulling Loki's strings, but it was not yet time to show his hand. Never let it be said that Tony Stark did not have self-control, he just never really saw the point of it most of the time.
"You—" Loki reached out as if to grab Tony, but he didn't have the chance to complete his action or finish his sentence because JARVIS had impeccable timing. The Mark VII launched itself at Loki, knocking him down and smashing his head against the floor so hard that it cracked the concrete, before assembling itself around Tony.
Loki appeared slightly disoriented as he tried to get up from the floor. Knowing how much beating an Aesir could take, Tony decided to fire off a couple more repulsor blasts at Loki's head, just to be on the safe side. Tony didn't have time to stick around to see whether his gamble paid off because in the short time that he wasn't paying attention, there was suddenly a nuke heading towards New York.
On his way down, after sending the missile towards the waiting fleet, the Lady once again whispered in Tony's ears. It has begun.
The only reply Tony could think of even as darkness descended upon him was No shit, Sherlock!
When it was all said and done, it didn't take much to dismiss the agents guarding Loki’s cell, JARVIS having long since circumvented the video surveillance. The difference between the man (god?) who had stood in Tony's penthouse and the one sitting casually in the cell was startling, if one knew what to look for. Despite the chains, Loki looked... lighter. Relived, even. The simple bars really shouldn't be enough to hold him, either, but the guy seemed pretty content where he was. Nothing at all like how a defeated, would-be conqueror should behave.
Fury, Romanov, Thor, and even Barton had all had a go at interrogating Loki; the fallen prince had merely smirked and mocked, much to Tony's amusement. Tony was expecting the same treatment - and normally he'd welcome the chance to banter with someone as sharp as Loki seemed to be - but due to the unofficial nature of his visit, Tony was rather short on time.
"How desperate is that Director of yours that he's sending in the likes of you?"
Tony ignored the taunt. "He's coming, isn't he?"
The question got Loki's attention. "You know nothing of which you speak."
Arrogance, covering for the bone-deep fear that Tony could see plain as day, because it was like looking at himself right after Afghanistan.
"The Titan has to be stopped." Tony's words were barely above a whisper, but it had the desired effect.
"Who told you of him?" Loki demanded. The devil-may-care attitude disappeared as Loki practically jumped from the cot, grabbing the bars to the cell and snarling at Tony even as his chains rattled. "What do you think you know of him?"
Having been in the presence of the Goddess of Death herself, Loki did not scare Tony. "You know his plans," Tony continued without answering. "He sent you after the Tesseract, what else does he want?"
It took precious moments for Loki to finally calm himself, and Tony could actually see when he finally engaged his brain instead of lashing out like a cornered animal. Now that Loki had worked out that Tony was nothing like his previous interrogators, there was curiosity in his gaze. "Death." Loki intoned. "He wishes to offer up the universe to his beloved Mistress of Death."
Tony rolled his eyes, which was obviously not the reaction Loki expected. "You doubt my words?" Loki asked.
"No, but I already know that. I'm more interested in the 'what else is he trying to get his hands on' part of the equation because knowing he seeks death isn't quite as helpful as knowing the 'how' of his plans."
There was silence as Loki continued to stare at him. "Who are you?" he finally asked. The right question, but one which Tony had no answer to since he was still trying to figure it out himself.
"We don't really have time to go into that. Even SHIELD would eventually notice the missing guards. Let's just say his Mistress isn't too happy with his tributes to her."
Loki's eyes widened at the implications of Tony's words. Despite himself, Tony was impressed at how quickly Loki had come to the right conclusion.
"He seeks the Infinity Gems," Loki finally answered after what felt like eternity.
It was the first time Tony had heard of the Infinity Gems, yet he knew exactly what they were. With the name also came the knowledge of the gems. Why this wasn't revealed to him he while was studying the Tesseract and the sceptre was something he should probably take up with the Lady. On second thought, that might not be a good idea.
"The Space Gem and the Mind Gem." Tony's knowledge once again seemed to surprise Loki. To be honest, Tony was surprising even himself.
The idea of leaving the gems in SHIELD's custody made Tony's skin crawl. No time to lose if he was going to relieve SHIELD of the gems. "Do everyone a favour and don't let them lock you up for good. I can't pick your brains if you're stuck in a cell in Asgard."
"Wait!" Loki called out to Tony as he turned to leave. "Who are you?" Loki repeated his question.
Steps away from the exit, Tony turned back to look at Loki and gave the only answer he could that might perhaps make sense to Loki.
"The Merchant of Death."