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Persistent Memory

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The light from their flashlights caught on open panels and ripped out wires that turned the ship’s corridors into a high tech cave. “Cannibalized half the ship to keep going,” Rocket murmured, his voice caught between horror and awe.

“We knew they were desperate,” Thor said putting a steadying hand on the smaller alien’s shoulder. “My battle during the Time of the Convergence may have torn the space-time here but to jump into a planet’s gravity well…”

A shower of sparks erupted from one of the open panels causing them all to duck. “The classic horror vibe is working for me,” Bruce remarked.

“If Quill jumps out at me and yells ‘Boo!’ I swear I’m going to fry his ass,” Rocket declared his voice choked.

“We don’t know that it was one of the Guardians who crashed your ship here,” Steve cautioned.

“Screw you,” Rocket said flatly. “You Terrans have your twenty-four hour stations playing nothing but pictures and ‘Call if you’ve seen this person’. But even if you don’t want to admit it, you all know, after so long-”

Steve remembered Bucky and the other dusted at the Battle of Wakanda. He remembered the kitchen table at the Barton farm, still set for dinner, mold growing in the children’s milk glasses.

“My people were halfway across the galaxy,” Rocket continued. “If it’s not one of them flying this bucket of bolts- I’ll rip pieces off of whoever stole it until I’ve got my answers.”

“The air’s stale,” Bruce cautioned. “Getting worse the further we get from impact point and hole ripped in the hull. We might not find anyone alive.”

Rocket didn’t say anything but he bared his teeth at the scientist and Thor gave Bruce a reproachful look.

Steve set his shoulder to a thick hatch and forced it open. The stately buildings of the University of Greenwich looked out of place seen through the huge circular starship port. A crumpled form lay slumped against the curved surface. Warily Steve gestured for the others to hold back while he grabbed the man by the shoulder and rolled him onto his back. “Tony!” Steve exclaimed in shock.

The long missing Avenger jerked sharply. His sunken eyes snapped open and fixed on Steve, looming over him. Tony scuttled backwards, slamming into the port. As Bruce and Thor crowded forward, Tony’s gaze remained fixed on Steve. His skin was stretched so tight Steve could see Tony’s arteries pulsing under his skin as his heart raced.  He gasped for air.

“It’s okay, you made it. You’re safe,” Steve soothed as he gently grasped Tony’s shoulders.

Tony jerked his arms up to shield his face. He screamed. Then, like a puppet with its strings cut, Tony collapsed.

As Bruce shouldered Steve aside. “Tachycardic, poor skin turgor- This level of dehydration, he needs a hospital now!”

“Once Tony wakes up we’ll have the old gang back together again,” Natasha said with a smile that wasn’t a credit to her acting skills.

Steve looked around the room and winced.

They’d found Clint three days after Tony but he was a silent shadow hidden within his new identity. He hadn’t confirmed that his whole family had turned to dust before his eyes but then… He didn’t really need to say it.

Thor, in spite of his dramatic return to Earth, seemed faded. He had told them of Asgard’s destruction and Thanos’ attack on the few surviving refugees. In keeping with his normal MO, Thanos had killed precisely half of the refugees leaving the rest to suffer a slower death as the battle had left their ship incapable of supporting life. Thor had told them of Loki’s doomed attempt on Thanos’ life and of how his brother had given up the Tesseract in exchange for Thor’s life. Thor told them, in a weary voice, that Asgard had been the source of his strength and now he was her sole survivor.

Outwardly Bruce seemed the least changed but Steve remembered the Battle of Manhattan and the self-effacing scientist’s confession that he was always angry. He remember the Hulk’s refusal to fight against Thanos on the plains of Wakanda. He remembered that Bruce’s composed exterior meant nothing because the man’s masks were more impenetrable than either Natasha’s or Tony’s and constructed to make him blend into the background. Where Tony and Natasha could make a person forget that the way they presented themselves was a disguise and a deflection, Bruce made you forget he was there at all. Steve reminded himself that, regardless of what Bruce showed, he had no clue what was going on behind the man’s eyes.

‘The original Avengers, reunited- Once Tony wakes up,’ Steve thought. ‘The doctors brought him out of the medicated coma days ago, there’s no reason he won’t wake up… Any moment now, Rhodes’ll tell us Tony’s awake… Any moment now.'

Steve felt a little ridiculous skulking through the Compound in the dead night like a thief. ‘I’m home,’ he reminded himself. Still he stopped before turning the corner into the medical wing and checked that neither of the nurses were around before hurrying down the hall to Tony’s room.

As he came in Steve wasn’t surprised to see that someone had forced Rhodes to return to his own bed for the night. Or to see the visitor’s chair banished to a corner to make room for Rhodes’ wheelchair, Pepper hadn’t survived the Snap and Rhodes had been acting a bit territorial since they’d found his best friend. He’d been actively hostile when any of Tony’s old teammates tried to visit.

After a moment’s hesitation Steve went to Tony’s bedside and took his hand. “Tony, you must have gotten my letter to have passed the phone on to Bruce. Still, I- I feel like I should say more, reassure you that I’m not mad. Tony, it took me some time for me to realize but I know- How you reacted to Bucky, to finding out about your parents? I know it’s a little on me, my not telling you myself- When I had the chance to do it right. So I’m not mad about you trying to kill Bucky anymore. I understand that you just needed time to realize that it was HYDRA not Bucky, time I didn’t give you. And the Accords, I should have tried harder to make you understand-”

The heart monitor attached to Tony started beeping more rapidly.

Steve’s breath caught. “Tony! You’re waking up! That’s good! That’s great! You can do it!”

An alarm went off and moments later a nurse and Dr. Cho rushed into the room. Dr. Cho’s hair was down in a messy braid instead of up in her normal professional bun, giving away that she’d been sleeping. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, glaring at Steve. She threw a worried glance over her shoulder at Tony. “Get out!”

“I just wanted to talk to Tony,” Steve protested.

Dr. Cho shoved at him ineffectually. “Get out!” she ordered.

“-Clear the air between us.”

“Are you trying to kill him?!” Cho exclaimed.

Her words hit Steve like a freight train and before he’d recovered Cho had shoved him out the door and slammed it in his face. As Steve stood staring there at the closed door Cho’s voice, ordering a new round of sedation, drifted out to him.

Twenty minutes later Dr. Cho slipped out of Tony’s room. When she saw Steve waiting in the hall she firmly shut the door behind her.

“You told us you didn’t know why Tony wasn’t waking up,” Steve said defensively.

“He and Ms. Nebula have been on starvation rations for two months, ever since the Snap... Less than that for approximately a week now. When you brought them in they were both in the last stages of dehydration. I don’t truly understand the stresses Jump Travel or Jumping into a gravity well or Jumping with jury-rigged drive puts on a body, I’d need a doctor not an engineer to explain it. To be honest, I’m not sure if anyone could explain it when Mr. Rocket only accepts that Tony’s device is possible because he can’t dispute the fact that the ship is here. And on top of everything Tony had a hole in his side that was being patched by what was essentially the remains of his armor. The nanites were designed to recharge themselves from the Arc Reactor, but he used THAT to power the Milano’s impossible last jump to Earth and the damn things immediately converted themselves to consume ATP. I’m pumping nutrients into his stomach and his veins and I’m barely keeping up with the metabolic demands they’re putting on his system.”

“Couldn’t you use your cradle thing to fix Tony’s injury?” Steve asked. “Then he wouldn’t need the nanites anymore.”

“I have,” Dr. Cho said flatly. “As soon as the nanites weren’t needed to keep his guts from falling out they moved on to reinforcing his sternum.”

Steve flinched guiltily. He wondered if he were imagining the accusation in her voice. After all, from what Rhodes had let slip, Tony had been actively lying about what had happened in Siberia so how would she know? “What are you trying to say?” Steve asked.

“Tony Stark’s condition is precarious,” Dr. Cho said. “I put him in a medical coma after the panic attack on the Milano, his system just couldn’t take any more strain.”

“But he got better, you took him off the drugs,” Steve said. “He was supposed to wake up but he didn’t. And there was no reason- I thought, maybe, with the bad blood left from- from everything surrounding the Accords, it might help if I cleared the air. I’ve heard people in comas can still hear you if you talk to them.”

“Oh I have no doubt that Tony heard and recognized your voice,” Dr. Cho said coldly. “After all, you are the common factor between the panic attack on the Milano and the one just now. Now there is no question that you could push past me Captain but I am telling you it’s in my patient's best interest that you leave him alone. Can I trust you to respect that limitation?”

Steve nodded mutely.

“Well, I’ll believe it when I see it,” Dr. Cho said. She stood there, blocking the door, until Steve turned and walked away.

Back in his quarters Steve dropped on to his bed. “Peggy,” he said as he buried his face in his hands. “Did you ever plant yourself like a tree only to find the river of truth change its course?”