The first time Tony reveals his identity, Steve’s eyes widen with shock and betrayal, then he punches Tony in the face. His fist lands squarely on Tony’s jaw with the power of super-enhanced muscles and Tony goes down, unconscious before he hits the floor.
The second time happens moments later. Tony opens his eyes and it’s like time has reset by a few seconds. He thinks he must be imagining it. He reveals his identity to Steve once again, and once again Steve decks him.
The third time, Tony opens his eyes and decides something strange is happening. He keeps his mouth shut this go around. It doesn’t help though, because Molecule Man strips him out of his armor and the team gasp when they see his face. Molecule Man takes down the whole team and when he knocks a defenseless Tony unconscious, the loop begins again.
The fourth time, Tony tries to think this through. Clearly, there is something going on beyond the usual Avengers fight with the villain of the week. They’ve battled Molecule Man before and he’s a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t have the power to control time. The time loop is obviously a different issue. Tony tries to explain what’s going on to Steve, but Steve just looks at him strangely and doesn’t believe him. Pretty soon Molecule Man knocks them all out and the cycle begins again.
The fifth time, Tony tries to take control of the situation. He grabs Steve’s wrist, sits him down, and gently tells him that there’s something he needs to know. He explains that he’s had to keep his identity to himself, for the safety of the team, that it’s not a statement about his level of trust in them. Steve nods understandingly. And when Tony reveals his identity this time, Steve isn’t angry. Instead he starts to cry, and it’s even worse. Just as Tony thinks that he’s got it this time, that Steve crying is awful but at least he’s broken the loop, everything fades to black and begins again.
The sixth time is depressing. Tony really thought he’d cracked it last time. This time, he sits back and observes. He looks for clues about what is causing the loop, but everything seems normal. The team are as they always are, the Molecule Man is as he always is, and it’s just another Avengers mission. He wonders if he could use his knowledge of the future to protect the team, to divert events and help them succeed. But things work just differently enough that he can’t predict them, and the moment that he lets his guard down they are knocked unconscious, again.
The seventh time, Tony is starting to fray around the edges. He thinks back to this morning, trying to figure out what could have set the loop off. It had been a regular morning in the mansion, except for the guilt that had been playing around his mind about deceiving Steve. He’d decided that if no one else, Steve deserved to know who he really was. Now he tries to drop hints to Steve, wondering if he can let the truth out indirectly. Steve doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about, though, and then the loop starts again.
The eighth time, Tony recruits Tigra to help him. She doesn’t seem fazed by the reveal of his identity, nor does she seem upset by his deception. She agrees to approach Steve for him, and Tony could kiss her for that. Tony watches them from across the room as she slinks over and whispers in Steve’s ear. Steve looks over at him, staring open mouthed, and then the loop resets.
The ninth time is frustrating. Anger is starting to seep out of Tony’s pores, and he feels he’s being punished for the deep flaws in his character. He wonders vaguely which of Dante’s levels of hell this is. He sits on the floor and ignores the team clamoring around him, fussing over him and his detached mental state. Eventually they leave him, and Tony has a few moments of blissful peace before he opens his eyes back at the start of the loop.
By the tenth time, Tony is starting to wonder if he’s going to be stuck like this forever. He wanders away from the team and finds an open window. It’s a long way down. He strips off pieces of his armor, gazing at the ground far below. He stands on the ledge and breathes deeply. The moment that he steps forward, the loop begins again.
The eleventh time reality resets he realizes this is not a problem he can opt out of. He goes to Steve, eyes downcast, mostly wanting the company more than anything else. Steve calls him Shellhead and swings an arm around his shoulders, and for a moment he feels less alone. Then the team gets back to their mission and Tony gets stripped and knocked out one more.
The twelfth time he reveals his identity to the whole team together. That doesn’t work.
The thirteenth time he goes to Molecule Man, of all people, and pitifully asks for help. Molecule Man laughs in his face and everything resets.
The fourteenth time, Tony runs. He runs from the team, from his responsibilities, from this god awful loop. He makes it half a mile before the blackness descends.
The fifteenth time, Tony lies on the ground in a catatonic stupor. It’s cold and uncomfortable, and the blessed silence lasts only a minute.
By the twentieth time, Tony knows that he is losing his mind. He’s gone through anger and depression and guilt and worry, and now he feels nothing. It all seems kind of funny, actually. When he removes his helmet the team crowds around him, their faces pinched with worry while he laughs himself sick. The loop begins again.
Tony loses count of the loops. Nothing works. This is his hell, he thinks. This is his life now.
He realizes that his actions no longer matter. He tells Steve the truth, in a thousand different ways. Tells him that he had to keep Tony Stark and Iron Man separate for the safety of his friends, for the sake of the team, for the sake of his own mental wellbeing. Tells Steve that he never meant to hurt him, that it wasn’t a question of trust, that it was for Steve’s protection. He explains in every way he can think of that he respects Steve, that he cares about him, that he doesn’t want anything to change between them. Every time, the loop resets.
Eventually Tony’s mental defenses are worn down to nothing. He can’t remember the last time he slept, ate, saw a place that wasn’t these same four walls. All the fight has been squeezed out of him.
Steve notices that he’s not himself and squeezes his hand. “You okay there, Shellhead?” he asks. And Tony can’t help himself: he spills his guts. In one breathless monologue he tells Steve how exhausted he is, how afraid, how he’s been selfish and how he doesn’t deserve any consideration. How he’s tried so hard to be good, to do the right thing, to make Steve proud. How much Steve’s friendship means to him, how he’d be lost without Steve, how he’s been in love with Steve since the very start.
That last part is out of his mouth before he can reel it in. Steve looks shocked, but Tony doesn’t care anymore. It’s not like Steve will remember this next time.
Steve is looking at him strangely, studying the details of his armor with intense concentration, a thoughtful look on his face.
“... Tony?” he asks, eventually.
Tony laughs as he takes off his helmet. Steve always was smarter than people gave him credit for.
He braces himself for another punch as Steve steps purposefully towards him.
But then Steve’s arms are wrapping around him, hugging him tight, and Steve is mummering into his hair about what a good man he is, what a good hero, how he’s the most important person in the world to him.
Tony sags. It’s like water to a man dying in the desert, this outpouring of affection. The cold icy depression that had wrapped around his heart loosens and falls away. He breathes, for what feels like the first time in months.
He waits for the loop to reset. It doesn’t.
They fight Molecule Man, and this time when Tony is stripped out of his armor Steve leaps in front of him and protects him with his shield. They defeat the villain and save the day.
Tony keeps waiting for the reset.
They go back to the mansion and it’s an indescribable relief to be in a new environment. Tony decides he may as well make the best of the situation, puts on his best suit, arranges a candlelit dinner, and invites Steve to join him.
After dinner Tony takes Steve to bed, and it’s sweeter and more tender than anything he could have imagined. Tony thinks he could live with the loop forever now, knowing he has this memory of Steve. This was it: the most perfect day, the truth laid bare, every single one of his cards on the table and his heart in Steve’s hands. He can’t think of a single thing he would have done differently.
He wakes to sunlight streaming through his bedroom window, and Steve’s warm body pressed against his own. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever experienced.