“Oh good Captain,” Red Skull hisses, hatred and laughter mixing heavily in his voice, “of all the places to see you again, I would have never thought fate would bring you here. So close and yet still out of my reach. But I think, in the end, I will finally win against you. Will finally see your defeat.”
Steve stares at him, at this floating wraith like creature he's become, and says nothing. Red Skull is, somehow, even less of a human than he had been the last time Steve saw him.
But somehow his laughter grates against the edges of Steve’s already frayed nerves even more now than it ever had then.
So Steve does his best to ignore him, to keep his eyes and his attention focused on Tony
It’s not all that hard.
His eyes and attention have been on Tony since the moment he came limping out of that ship, Nebula at his side and devastation in his eyes, but somehow gloriously alive in a universe half turned to dust.
Tony’s been the tether holding Steve down to Earth, to life, ever since Bucky and half of the others crumbled to dust right before his eyes.
And Steve knows now, with the power of hindsight and aching regret, that Tony’s been his tether for a lot longer than that.
He’d just been too blind to see it.
Steve’s eyes are open and if he has his way he’ll never take them off of Tony again.
Because the last time he did, the last time Steve looked away, his entire world got split right down the middle because he lost sight of what was important.
He lost sight of what he should have been doing, who he should have been trusting.
And he and everyone around him had paid the price for it.
Now, by some cruel twist of fate, all of those mistakes have compounded and brought him here to this moment.
Bucky’s lost to him all over again, half the universe has turned to dust and now Steve’s standing on an alien planet with a Tony who can still barely look him in the eyes.
Steve hates it.
Hates the way he always seems to lose everything he loves.
Hates the way he has to watch it slip away from him in one way or another, over and over again.
Hates the way he either holds everything too tightly or not tight enough.
Everything and everyone Steve loves either slips through his too loose grasp or gets crushed to death beneath the force of his grip.
Out of all of it, out of everyone, Tony is all he has left.
Tony who he’s hurt, over and over again.
Tony who he fought with and beside and then, horrifyingly enough, against.
Tony who he had almost killed.
Tony who he’s been in love with for longer than he wants to admit. For longer than even Tony probably knows, no matter what they'd once had between the two of them.
Tony who, Steve knows, will never love him back again.
Because, as he always seems to do, Steve had fucked it all up.
“He’s right,” Tony finally sighs as he turns from the cliff, golden gauntlet in his hands.
Steve feels everything inside of him go still.
“Bullshit,” Steve bites out. “He’s a liar, Tony. He’s … it’s bullshit. There has to be another way.”
“There isn’t,” Tony denies and when he looks up and directly at Steve for the first time since all this began, Steve’s surprised to see the small smile on his face, the gentleness in his eyes.
His heart skips a beat and then takes off at a gallop.
That look, the softness in those eyes, it’s a look Steve hasn’t seen for years now. A look he’s been dreaming about since he lost the right to it.
It’s how Tony used to look at him, back when he loved Steve, back before Steve broke everything they had together clean down the middle.
Before they both made mistakes but Steve half killed Tony because of them.
“If there was another way,” Tony carries on, “Thanos would’ve figured it out. He would’ve … this is it, Steve. This is the real endgame, the one path to victory that Strange saw. I know it.”
Tony meets his eyes again and Steve can see the certainty, the almost peace in his expression, and he feels everything within him swoop in some horrible mix of agony and dread.
“You wear it,” Steve says desperately. “You wear it and let me … you wear it, Tony. You can do … so much better with it than I can.”
Steve already knows what Tony’s going to say before he opens his mouth.
Steve has never wanted to hear anything less in his life.
“No,” Tony shakes his head softly even as he steps forward towards Steve, gauntlet in his hand. “Steve, we both know it’s not going to work. I’m not … I’m too weak. To fragile. I wouldn’t be able to stand the force long enough to do what needs to be done. But you …”
“Don’t make me do this,” Steve begs him, tears welling up in his eyes, a sob sneaking up to wrap clawed hands around his throat. “Tony, please, don’t make me do this. I love you, so don’t make me do this.”
“Hey,” Tony whispers as he steps even closer, free hand coming up to cup Steve’s jaw, fingers scratching idly at his beard, “hey Steve, baby, it’s okay. It’s gonna be okay. I promise. I love you too, Steve. I never stopped. But this … this is the only way.”
“No,” Steve practically whines, something wounded and small curling tight in his chest. “Tony. no. I can’t … I can’t lose you too. Not again, not like this.”
Steve feels it when Tony slides the gauntlet onto his hand, feels the way the gold flexes and somehow shrinks down to his size, as if it’s adjusting itself to a new wielder.
“It has to be you,” Tony whispers as he leans forward fingers twining with Steve’s as he brings their hands up to rest against Tony’s chest.
Steve lets him, agony railing through him at what Tony’s asking him to do, at what the universe is forcing both of them to do.
It isn’t fair.
“I know,” Tony tells him softly, eyes wide and soft and lips quirked in a small smile, “it isn’t fair.”
Tony’s always been so good at knowing what Steve’s thinking, except for the few times Steve purposefully, actively, lied to him.
Times he knows now he’ll never get the chance to make up for.
“Focus,” Tony whispers as he leans forward into Steve’s space. “Breathe.”
Steve meets his kiss with all of the love and longing and bitter regret currently eating him alive.
It’s not enough.
It will never be enough.
“Walk with me,” Tony breathes the words against his lips as he takes small shuffling steps back, dragging Steve with him.
They’re at the edge now, Steve can see the drop stretching out below the cliff side.
“It’s going to be okay,” Tony tells him as he moves to grab Steve’s gauntlet covered hand and raise it up so that it rests directly over Tony’s heart. “I promise, Steve. I love you and it’s going to be okay. This isn’t your fault. It’s time but it isn’t your fault. You’re doing the right thing. We’re doing the right thing.”
Steve blinks his tears away, keeps his eyes trained on Tony’s face.
Because this … this is going to be the last time.
And Steve doesn’t want to forget a single second of it.
Doesn't want to forget anything about Tony in this moment, or in all the rest they’ve shared together.
"It's not even going to hurt," Tony tells him quietly. "It'll be quick, I won't feel a thing. Promise."
They both know it for the lie that it is. A last ditch attempt to comfort Steve.
Tony presses forward, kisses him soft and slow one last time, and then pulls back.
He's so beautiful it makes Steve's chest ache.
“All you’ve got to do,” Tony says, one hand pressing Steve’s against his chest as he takes another step backwards, and then another, closer and closer to the cliff’s edge, “is let me go.”
Tony steps back again.
There’s only open air to meet him.
The last thing Steve sees before Tony falls is that smile, soft and loving and all he’d ever wanted out of life.
There’s a breathless sort of hush that falls over Steve then, and not even Red Skull’s laughter can phase him.
And then …
The Soul Stone flares to life in its place on the gauntlet.
And Steve’s entire world crumbles around him again.
Because right up until that second, right up until the Stone flared, Steve had been hoping against hope that Tony would fly back up over that cliff side.
But now …
Vormir’s stone cuts into his knees when Steve hits the ground.
His scream, raw and filled with agony, drowns out Red Skull’s howling laughter with ease.
Steve feels as if his entire body is going to shake apart from grief.
His throat feels bloody and raw despite the serum by the time his screams taper off.
Panting, hunched down against the stone and dirt, Steve stares at the gauntlet, at the Infinity Stones that caused all of this.
At the Soul Stone that winks up at him hatefully, it’s color a dirty orange, tainted by the life it had forced him to sacrifice to access its power.
The person he loves most, for the power to restore half the universe.
Tony’s life, for trillions of others.
To Tony it had been simple math, a small price to pay, a good equation.
Steve still, somehow, feels beyond cheated.
“I’m going to see you soon,” Steve whispers to the Soul Stone, whispers to it like maybe it really is holding Tony’s soul like they’d theorized it does to all those Thanos had killed. “I love you, Tony. And I’m going to see you soon. One way or another.”
Steve sits back up.
He raises the gauntlet up to eye level.
Closes his eyes.
Takes a deep breath.