He supposes that looking back, the trite thing to think would be that he doesn't know how it came to this. But Anthony Edward Stark is an intelligent man, and, when there's not obscene amounts of alcohol inhibiting his cognitive capabilities, in retrospect he knows exactly how it came to this.
He suspects that this knowledge is why everything hurts so bad now. Not enough attention from Daddy, vulnerability to a father figure, betrayal, depression, isolation, and bitterness... It all adds up to one seriously messed up human being, and Tony can see precisely when every little word, each moment of distance intersected, leading him to walk a road littered with near death experiences, heavy metal poisonings, and wrought with insecurities that he tries so hard to hide.
He hates that he knows. Despises his reliance on the arc reactor. When he figures out what exactly is happening to him, he nearly weeps at the irony. Killed by the thing that keeps him alive. But he doesn't weep. Instead he reaches into a desk drawer, ignores Pepper's angry phones calls demanding he haul himself back to Malibu, and indulges in a long week of drinking and women and all around good times.
He eventually finds himself sitting alone in a hotel room wondering who all the lacy underwear belongs to and very pointedly ignoring every part of his brain that tells him something worrying may have happened in those black spots in his memories of the last week, and that that isn't another man's cologne he smells on himself, just a different perfume.
He returns to his life, spends another week trying to find an alternative to keep his heart beating and his suit firing, and begins to disassemble the pieces of his empire when he does not. The last thing he wants is for everything his father left him, for the only proof he ever had that he was anything to his father, that he had any purpose at all, to fall to ruin when he's gone.
The first time he thinks that—gone—he makes sure he drinks enough to not notice the cologne the next morning.
Tony spends great deal of time especially deciding how to best take care of the few people he cares about for when he's not there to do it himself. Though he knows he made the decision about Rhodey and a suit a long time ago, he manages to still be outraged when his best friend does what circumstance directed him to do. Pepper was easier. What she deserved from her life and her career was easy to see, and in all honesty, she was the only other person in the world now that he would ever trust with his company—donotthinkaboutObiedonot.
Then Monaco happens, but this time he doesn't have the luxury of spending a week coming to terms with the ridiculous disasters that are his life. No, he just puts Whiplash at the end of his “To Do Before I Die” list.
By the time his birthday rolls around, he has surrendered himself to his inevitable demise, and when Ms. Rushman gives him her opinion of how she would spend her last birthday—what I want, with who I want—he actually does quite the opposite, and instead spends his evening drinking himself into a reckless haze of honesty and self denial. He doesn't want to hurt his loved ones, but he knows he will. He always does.
When Fury interferes, Tony is all at once relieved and angry. All his work, all the time he spent making sure his death would hurt the world as little as possible was for nothing, and now he has to fricking make amends with the people he was trying to protect and care for. Those days in his lab are nearly unbearable, with this realization sitting on his shoulders. He sulks, not that he would admit it to anyone, and mopes and balks when Fury and his cheerleaders have to gall to call him on it.
He spends the first few hours shifting through the boxes SHIELD has so generously granted him access to, evaluating the journals, examining the half-finished artifacts. He stops short at the comic book, recognizing the image from his school books. Captain America, propaganda extraordinaire, inspiration for funding the war efforts through the promotion of war bonds. A patriotic mascot, on par with Uncle Sam. In that moment, Tony thinks nothing of the fact that this is among his father's possessions, a part of his prized legacy to his “beloved” son.
Vanko is taken care of, and then Tony is introduced into the project that is the Avengers, and stricken by envy for all those being included on it. He relishes his title as Consultant, and devotes all his time towards trying to change that title to Team Member. For Tony Stark to be envious simply will not do.
In this focus he finds a small part of his old self, a familiar thing that brings back flashes of his life pre-Afghanistan. Tony doesn't really like this, but can't help but wish it felt better. He suppose that in retrospect, nostalgia is really not that pleasant.
He spends time in the company labs, developing things specifically for SHIELD, careful to avoid the more destructive items, he attends his stock prices, obeys Pepper when she tells him to go here or there or which charity to add to the list of benefactors of the Maria Stark Foundation. He doesn't try to hold her, he doesn't try to touch. He refuses her resignation when she offers (announces it, really) for the third time and pretends to sleep around. He dances attendance on all the pretty girls, flirts and is charming, and goes home to his empty penthouse in New York or his equally empty house in Malibu.
Both places leave him feeling cold, and alone.
He finds himself sleeping less and less, thinking more and more, and ingesting a level of caffeine that cannot be entirely healthy, or conducive to mental faculty.
He thinks sometimes that he should be dead. He thinks about bringing the next prettily curved body home with him, to wear himself out enough to sleep, but that thought only makes him think of those few mornings he's woken up sober enough to remember a smell, and those memories squash his desires dead.
When Fury summons him to meet in a crappy roadside diner somewhere in Arizona (he stopped paying any attention to the roadsigns about three hours ago, just followed the directions JARVIS supplied), Tony doesn't think too much of it. After all, he once had a debriefing in a donut shop. He should have thought more.
The diner is absolutely empty of customers, save for three figures sitting in a booth near the front door and the thirteen or so perimeter guards that JARVIS' alerts him of based off of heat readings. He parks the Lamborghini as far away from the diner as possible and makes a show of swaggering into the diner, giving himself time to snap photos and look up background on the person sitting with old Nick.
The smaller of the two turns out to be a woman, and an astrophysicist at that, named Jane Foster. He skims over her resume, impressed by her ambition and her past research, and smiles. Brains and beauty, a rare combination. He takes a moment to hack the most recent data on her from SHIELD servers, and is intrigued.
“Been waiting long?” he asks, working up a sultry curl of his lips especially for Ms. Foster, whom he slides in next to in the booth. She gives him a slightly wary look out of elfin pretty brown eyes, and takes a sip from her coffee. Tony takes note that she is the only one with a drink, and the serving staff seem to have found someplace better to be.
Fury smiles back at him, and manages to look both insincere and chilly polite. “Stark” he says in his customarily jovial tone that makes Tony wonder when the high-tech syringes filled with unspecified drugs are going to be stabbed into his neck. “Nice drive?”
Fury makes small talk terrifying.
“This is Dr. Jane Foster,” the Director continues, not waiting for a response, nodding to the woman next to Tony. “She's coming into the final stretch of some research involving energy that SHIELD is ill-equipped to manage.” Fury didn't waste any time making it more than obvious that Tony was here as per his position as consultant.
“And...” Tony drawls, twisting around to pose archly, propping/draping himself over the table, and looks to the good doctor, who is still regarding him warily, one hand toying with the handle of her coffee cup. “You want access to my well-equipped--” leer, leer “--facilities.”
Dr. Jane Foster blushes and Fury rolls his eye.
New York has the better facilities to suit Dr. Foster's research.
Tony flies out there and bitches at the SHIELD lackeys who are running about with the sole purpose of keeping Tony in the dark, re: Super Secret Space Stuff. However, he sets up a warehouse that formerly was a storage center for finished weapons from Tony's younger days.
The first day he visits to see how much more Foster is going to need, he has a moment of clarity. He remember abruptly that the warehouse is part of a string of “irrelevant elements” that Obie had once tried to get rid of. He had said that the two warehouses, three factories, and the in-between shipping apparatus were just drains on company coffers.
Tony had kept them up, though. He doesn't really know why. Perhaps even back then, he could see through the alcohol and arrogance and notice that Obie would run all over if he didn't act at least like he was the one in charge.
He stands in the warehouse, listening to Dr. Foster's requests and thinking about Obie.
He makes it back to the penthouse he's renting at some swanky, new hotel before he falls apart. He gets the shakes, like he hasn't got since his first few nights back from Afghanistan. It feels like he breaks into a cold sweat every other heartbeat, and he can't stand looking at shadows.
He picks a bottle out of the mini bar, and before he leaves the hotel, the mini bar is empty and Tony's hands aren't shaking anymore.
Pepper flies back into New York three days later and digs him out of the pit he's dug himself into. He hasn't slept much, he's drank more than he has since he was a teenager, and he smells them on his skin even after he takes four hot showers in a row. He smells them because he remembers them, and he curses God, or fate, or whatever that he didn't black out in time.
He hopes there isn't video.
Pepper, bless her, just takes in his appearance, purses her lips, and marches into the bathroom to hand him a disposable razor. He takes the hint and cleans himself up.
He comes back out of the bathroom to find her directing the cleaning service while talking on the phone. He wanders over to the mini bar, which has been restocked, and while Pepper glares at him silently he takes out a simple beer, some foreign label, and drinks it slowly, while he pulls out his phone and figures out what he needs to do and when he needs to do it.
Pepper, bless her twice, doesn't ask was caused his most recent melt down. She just spends the next few hours playing up her old job, taking care of him, trying her best to glue the pieces of him back together. She ferries him around, shows him what the company is up to, and asks for his advice about a few overseas corporations that are proving to still offer some competition. She takes him out to lunch, then shows him a list of charities she's been thinking about. She is one of the people who helped him put the Foundation together. One of them is a group looking to put together a grant to help with sustainability efforts.
It gets Tony thinking.
He goes to dinner with Pepper in a quiet, modest restaurant that serves delicious seafood. Tony drinks some wine.
When Tony kisses Pepper later that night she kisses him back and Tony thinks about the sky.
Then Loki happens. New York happens. Tony dies. Tony eats shawarma.
The world seems to begin to go its separate ways.
A few blissful weeks of almost honeymoon happiness follow what happens in New York. He has Pepper. He has his tower. He has work to do. Bruce even shows up and agrees to stay for a while.
The happiness fades. Tony begins to dream.
It seems to be his lot in life that the longer he lives the worse his dreams get.
He spends a lot of nights out flying. The night sky is brilliant. Especially out over countryside in the Midwest. It's all inky black and clear white light of star and moon. It makes Tony go cold looking at it, makes him wish he were back in New York, in his tower, curled up with Pepper, drinking a nice Zinfandel and pretending to watch some cheesy rom com, while really toying with the specs for one of his pet projects, maybe even tuning up the armor designs on his phone.
He won't go back for hours yet. He doesn't want to wake Pepper with his weeping.
Tony flies along, and tries to make himself stop thinking, because it hurts, because he wants to go back to Pepper who will make things be OK, and he doesn't want to remember how Captain America told him to stop pretending to be a hero, when that's the one thing that's been his guiding star.
He tries to stop thinking about how cold deep space was, and tries to stop thinking about how Steve never really took back what he said about the whole hero thing.
Tony finds that infinitely disappointing, really. Steve seemed the type.