When he tells the story later he changes events because 'it was a stupid accident' or 'totally shitty luck, let's call it karma', are far better beginnings to a story than 'I was tortured *again* and when they realized the cavalry was on it's way and they'd lost, their crazy leader pinned me down and made a big fucking production of pouring acid over my eyeballs'. When he gets back to SHIELD there are a lot of doctors, a lot of tests, a lot of other people mouthing things at each other over his head and trying to be brave little toasters. Eventually, Fury comes in to tell him in gruff tones that there's nothing more they can do, and he's officially off anything related to The Avengers.
He goes home the next day. The whole team's there, and he's pretty sure they're expecting a wheelchair and a fuzzy blanket and for Tony to emerge in mismatched sweatpants and t-shirt drinking apple juice from a sippy cup and asking to feel everybody's faces. Pepper has already been by to drop off a new suit )tailored to take into account the weight he's lost stuck in medical), an iPhone with Voiceover already enabled ("just until you've coded a screenreader for the Starkphone and for god's sake don't let the press see you using this"), and a collapsible white cane ("Yes, Tony, you can paint it red and gold"). He sneaks out while they're all distracted by the nurse’s things they can do to make Tony's "new life" easier lecture-- don't leave overhead cupboard doors open (common sense) and 'this is a liquid level indicator to help him pour drinks' (what the actual fuck? When Tony Stark thinks you've gone overboard with the technology you've got a legitimate problem). Happy is waiting outside with the car, and he's even stopped at Starbucks on the way over. Good man.
Tony gets home, retreats to his private floor of the tower, has Jarvis lock everybody out and drinks until he blacks out. In the morning there's a laptop running Solaris and its questionable screenreader, a scanner, and a stack of documents as high as his coffee cup which Pepper has oh so thoughtfully marked with the little sticky bits from the centres of reinforcements on every place that requires his signature.
Days pass. The media is horrible to him. He researches all the screenreaders out there to avoid recoding the wheel (and no, really, what is up with all the sea creatures?) and then codes screenreaders for his phone and computer, and when he gets too far down into the OS of any other coding projects he starts using a remote connection from another computer. The other Avengers treat him like he's fragile and helpless, like his life is over and it's heroic of him to get out of bed each morning and an act of brilliance to operate the espresso maker. Out of revenge he builds a whole new set of kitchen appliances without any visual output and with entirely unlabeled buttons. Clint, Steve and Natasha are all down in his lab awkwardly asking forgiveness by lunch time. It doesn’t' actually make a difference to Thor, he could barely use the appliances beforehand. Two days later Bruce wanders into Tony's lab drinking a latte and eating one of his really awesome homemade curries and points out three flaws in the design of the dishwasher and one way to massively simplify the wiring in the stove timer. Bruce is kind of Tony's favourite.
The world touts him as a super-crip and even more of a genius and people continue to buy his tech and his stocks and his face on magazine covers. SHIELD reneges on every single contract he's got with them. Fury explains it's because SHIELD needs tech that is 100% reliable and no equal employment and opportunity bullshit is going to change the fact that he will not let his people go out using tech that's been designed by a guy who can't see what he's doing. Tony takes him to court for breach of a fucking lot of contracts, and when he wins Fury moves all the Avengers out of Stark tower as payback. He says that it's for Tony's own protection, that it isn't fair to tony to make his home a target when he can't defend himself and unfair to the Avengers to constantly have to worry about a helpless civilian if they’re to be attacked in their home. Tony spends a week drunkenly designing some of the most horrific WMDs the world will never see. Then he deletes the files and burns the paper with the raised diagrams and attends a charity dinner for one of the guide dog schools which provides the internet with pictures of him cuddling adorable puppies or having his dick sucked by an Italian model in the men’s' washroom, depending on which sights you frequent.
SHIELD can't make Bruce leave Stark Tower because oh hey, this is his permanent residence as invited by the guy who owns the building, that being Tony, and he's the only person other than Tony who’s maintained his position with the Avengers on a contracting consultant basis. Fury tries to make that into a court battle too, because the government is apparently more than happy to throw some of its defence budget at lawyers (your tax dollars at work) but as soon as the military catches wind of that General Ross gets involved and it's really amazing what a megalomaniacal asshole with the military behind him will do to mend fences between Tony and Nick, ol' buddies ol' pals. Bruce stays in the goddamn tower.
At first, the team tries to stay in touch. They invite him to poker night so that Steve can proudly show off the Braille cards he bought online. Natasha offers to teach him more advanced self defence than 'punch your enemy in the face' but it turns in to one long series of her telling him to use his hearing and then knocking him flat on his ass. he's spent his life blasting hard rock at top volume, ok? Daredevil he is not. Thor tells him the story of Baldr the brave or Baldr the Blind or Baldr the Beautiful (Tony isn't really listening) and then Loki shows up out of nowhere to mention the part where Baldr dies at the end. And then he throws Tony out the window. Again. For fucking real, Tony will pay for the years and years of therapy Loki clearly needs if it means he never has to specify when he says 'hey, remember that time I got defenestrated?". Thor saves him, naturally, but after that his visits become less and less frequent. Tony's just glad he was around because he's 100% sure SHIELD and/or the military aren't ready to know that he's still got the bracelets for the Iron Man suit under his sleeves and he trusts Jarvis absolutely not to fly him into power lines. Or buildings.
He is 110% sure that nobody is ready to know that he's working on integrating the armour (and maybe the internet while he's at it) directly into his body and brain. It's a... lofty goal. It would've been a massive, near impossible challenge before. Now that Tony the visual thinker is decidedly lacking in functional eyeballs, it's that little bit tougher.
One really notable upside to this whole debacle is the fact that far fewer people are calling him on his not-alcoholism. Pepper, Bruce, and Jarvis don't count because they're in a special category all of their own in Tony's head, a category that he more often than not doesn't know what to do with for the amount of feelings it creates if prodded too much. But everybody else? Not a peep. He's pretty sure Steve just assumes that once Tony became disabled he mentally regressed to an eight-year-old who doesn't think about things like drinking (all the time) or sex (really a lot of the time) or drugs (not so much after he turned thirty-five, fair point). Clint and Natasha have never said it, but he's pretty sure they think of what a dark (pun totally intended_, lonely, desolate life he must lead and decide that heavy drinking is probably the only way to numb the pain.
So The Avengers, best friends until the end of time, 'your team is your family', we accept everybody etc. etc. ad nauseum fade out of touch until he's got to rely on news coverage and Bruce's spotty memories of events for any gossip. It hurts, but not in a way with which Tony is unfamiliar. Everybody leaves, forever alone, giant fucking tear drop. Whatever. War Machine replaces him on the team. Tony knows he's being petty and selfish and unfair to one of the people who spent decades in the special category in his brain, but he just can't bring himself to talk to Rhodey after that. It's a character flaw. He's working on it.
He will never say it out loud, will never even put it into words inside of his own head, but there's a part of him that's still waiting, even after two and a half years, for Steve and the others to come bumbling back into his life, say they're sorry, show up with a magical cure or reassure him that there's still a purpose he can serve with the Initiative, still a way he can give back, be useful. He makes tech for private security firms, university research laboratories, even the Canadian military, but Fury's name never pops up on his caller ID, no sneaky little requests for consults grovel their way to his email.
And then one day he's too hungover to work on Extremis and it's a rare day when he's got no looming deadlines so he goes to browse SHIELD's public website, hoping for more embarrassing naked-Bruce pictures to have popped up in the comments. on a whim he clicks over to the team description, and below that there's a section on 'Our Fallen Heroes'. Coulson's memoriam is... really incredible, actually. He reads it twice then has to go do something else for a few minutes. Under Coulson is the name of someone he doesn't know, and then below that--
He drops his coffee cup and it shatters all over the floor of the workshop. Helpfully, Dummy starts the fire extinguisher.
he calls Pepper, hands shaking on the touch screen as he dials.
"So," he says as soon as she picks up. "Just for clarification, and this is important, do not lie to me, I'm not actually a ghost, correct? I mean, you and Bruce haven't been re-enacting Casper over here, because I gotta say, that'd be a little sad. Also if I'm a zombie and no one told me I'm gonna be pissed, I mean, come on, there are so many people who aren't using their brains anyway, I could have a fucking eight course meal, there could be a buffet, we could start our own chain, it'd be great."
"How drunk are you? I'm in the middle of a meeting, tony. In Hong Kong. Which you were supposed to be attending, but apparently you decided to fuck off to Malibu instead of doing so."
"SHIELD's listed Iron Man as fallen in the line of duty," he says evenly. And then "Fuck, Hong Kong was this week?"
"Tony," pepper says, and there's a choked, horrified sound to her voice. "Hang on, ok." He hears her excusing herself, and then the background buzz of people cuts off. "Tony."
"Yep. Or Casper, take your pick."
"You don't have enough uncles to be Casper."
"Were they uncles? I totally thought they were older brothers, Jarvis, remind me to Wikipedia that shit."
"Are you going to call Fury?"
"I... What am I supposed to say, Pep?"
"Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated?"
"I could have that conversation. Or I could stab myself in the throat with a fork and sit through Twilight twenty times in a row. I wonder which would be more detrimental to my health?"
"Ok, ok. it's probably their PR department, anyway."
"Do they even have a PR department?"
"Everyone has a PR department. I'll call, or-- I'll do something."
"It's fine," he says hurriedly. "Look, just, don't. I'm obviously alive, everyone who owns a television knows I'm alive and well. I'm sure lots of people think it's really touching that I'm on the website. It was probably Steve--" He chokes on his words, imagines Steve's pep talks about the Avengers being a *real* way for tony to make a difference, to be useful. Steve, who is an artist-come-soldier and yeah, in his eyes Tony is probably as good as dead, turned from asset to liability, from equal to someone who needs to be taken care of, protected, someone who is by fact of his existence in a permanent place of needing help rather than giving it. "Yeah, no actually take that back, do whatever you want, Pepper. Take them fucking down, sue them for spreading false information, for being ableist fuckheads, for having a website that's a nightmare to navigate with a screenreader. I don't care. Fuck The Avengers, ok? I-- they're good people, whatever, but fuck them." He pauses. "Except Bruce. I mean, yes, fucking him--"
"Do you really want to have the polyfidelity discussion right now, Tony?"
"Um. Kind of?"
"I'll be home tomorrow. Don't kill anyone until I get there. That includes yourself."
"ha ha, you're hilarious, I can't even express my levels of--"
"Ok, ok, yes, I get it. I'm closing the tab right now, ok, this is me control-W-ing the fuck out of SHIELD and their iron Man is dead bullshit. Look at me making healthy life choices. Well done, me."
She hangs up, and Tony is left with hours and hours to think. He gets some of the balls rolling for filing as many suits as he can reasonably pull off, then goes over to his personal gym and runs on the treadmill until he can't feel his legs. all in all, it's a shitty week, but when it's over he realizes that there's no longer a part of him waiting for the Avengers to come back, to draw him in to the fold again. So that's a bonus.
He spends time in Africa with Bruce. Bruce is there working with the WHO on the years-long Aids crisis. Toni’s there working with a whole variety of organizations to work out the viability of arc reactor energy sources because clean energy, fuckers, have you forgotten? he goes thinking that this will be the big thing that he can wave in front of Steve's nose singing "Still useful!". He comes back ten months later and all he feels is helpless and disgustingly over-privileged and really really uncomfortable with all the reporters who interview him and Bruce with the expectations that they, as two well-off western white men have gone and named and witnessed the problem and will now be able to sweep in and fix it. He gets drunk at a party and winds up punching an earnest young lawyer in the face when he asks "Mr. Stark, having been there, what can we do about the problem in Africa?"
"I know," Bruce says later when he's bandaging Tony's knuckles and forcing him to drink what seems like endless bottles of water.
"I was kind of-- before, I mean-- a hypocrite," Tony mutters later, when he's curled around Bruce in bed.
"Don't," Bruce says quietly. "Emotionally, you don't need to do that to yourself. And let me tell you from experience that there's no way to make the sort of point you're trying to make without coming across as somehow appropriative."
"Don't trust me to check my privilege, Dr. Banner?"
"You're Tony Stark."
"One day," tony grumbles, "that's not going to work as a reason for things anymore."
Bruce snorts. "Pretty sure you have to stop using it before anyone else will."
Hey," he says after a few minutes of silence. "Tell the team I say "hi" next time you see them, ok?"
"Do I detect an olive branch?"
Tony shakes his head. "You really, really don't. But I figure I can let them know that if they felt like extending their own olive branch I wouldn't necessarily burn it on principle."
Bruce gets called in for a mission two days later, and he even texts Tony right after he passes on his greetings.
They don't call. Which... is a thing, that happens, and then Tony moves on. He’s surprisingly okay.