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Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask (Before Assisting Others)

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“Here, Cap, eat this.”

Steve didn’t even know who said it, or how the plastic-wrapped sandwich got into his hand. His grimy, shaking hand.

All around him New York choked on smoke, recoiling in the wake of the sudden drone strike. Dozens of spherical devices the size of helicopters had strafed the city alternately with green “fire” that ate through metal like acid, and concussive bursts that had left streets and buildings in shambles.

The air smelled of burnt rubber, and blood, and soot. The taste coated the back of your throat after a single breath of it.

Despite a sea of anonymous casualties, law enforcement, and volunteers, the carnage angered Steve like an assault made on a close friend. This city had already taught him so much. These nameless people were each an integral part of the new home that had taken him in when he’d been orphaned of belonging and purpose.

With a thousand screams, imagined and real, ringing in his ears, Steve knew he needed to keep going. And in order to keep going he needed to eat. Beneath the fury and compassion roiling in his stomach there was also hollow hunger gnawing at the reserves of his strength.

And then the little girl materialized out of the smog of stirred-up dust—coughing, limping, whimpering. Small and lost.

Steve caught her as she stumbled over a piece of rubble. She stared up at him with big brown eyes, bright against dirt-blackened skin, and full of tears. Not scared, he thought. Overwhelmed. Beyond scared. Numb.

His world dwindled down to not letting those tears fall. Sometimes the best relief for despair was to see someone else comforted.

“Here, now.” His voice cracked from overuse—from yelling, and coughing, and aching at horrors that would always be horrors no matter how often he saw them—but he smoothed away any trace of harshness from his tone. “I bet you’re hungry.” It was a meager offer, but food was a universal language, a basic need, and best of all, something he could offer.

Her chin dipped automatically, even as it trembled.

Steve cradled her—fragile and trusting—easily in one arm. She couldn’t have been more than four years old. He held up the sandwich. “Well then, it’s a good thing you came to the right person.”

She clung to him, and the sandwich, until a paramedic came and took her from him.

“Thanks, Captain,” she said, smile worn to a thread. “I’ll find her family.”

“Sure…sure. Take good care of her.”

The suffering around him remained engulfing, but he couldn’t help a small smile when the girl, peeking at him from over the paramedic’s shoulder, waved her sandwich at him in farewell.

 


 

Someone handed Steve a bottle of water. Water sounded heavenly. But, with the wounded man just a few feet away moaning for a drink, the gift was more like the passing off of the baton between two runners.

He knew he needed to take care of himself as well, but there was just so much need everywhere these days. So much hurt. His own was the easiest to put off for later.

So he kept racing, because the prize was infinitely more valuable than a gold medal, and the idea of loss—any loss that he could prevent by utilizing the advantages the serum gave him—was completely unacceptable.

He wasn’t so arrogant as to think he was the savior of the hour. But he was a savior of the hour, if only one rescue at a time. Against all probabilities, he’d survived for decades frozen into a block of ice, and days like this gave him ammunition for answering all the whys he’d thought since being reborn into a foreign century.

This was what he was made for, not using his fists to beat the air—or a punching bag—into feeling the bitterness of his own pain. This. The pain and the grim reward of saving lives.

They pulled a man from the wreckage eight hours after the attack. Steve didn’t try to imagine those hellish hours. His leg was shattered, his face covered in dark blood, and he was gagging, choking on dust. Steve was there, cradling his head and helping him take slow sips of water, promising him that help would be there soon. 

Help came, along with more cries for help. Cries that spurred him to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Several times, well-meaning people tried to press him to sit down for a minute, but a minute was more time than he could spare.

 


 

 Tony sprawled onto the nearest piece of furniture and watched the rest of his teammates likewise deposit themselves in assorted moods of…

…Scratch that. There was nothing assorted about their moods. They were universally, unanimously depleted. Wrung out. Scratched, and bruised, and not satisfied in the least with what they’d accomplished over the last four days. Satisfaction was not something you took out of…that.

But they were relieved. Relieved that the deaths they hadn’t prevented were in the dozens, not the hundreds. Relieved to be done. No amount of brain bleach could’ve burned away the images, but at least they were done adding to their nightmares’ photo album of material. 

“Sir?” JARVIS was, as always, reassuringly aloof, full of routine and procedure. A sound far removed from the chaos and emotion of the day. “Miss Potts has asked me to inform you that she has ordered pizza. Enough to ‘feed several hordes.’”

“Several hordes of what, though? I’m starving. Not figuratively, either.” Clint’s disgruntlement wasn’t so unusual, but he also sounded genuinely worried about the food situation.

“I believe that at this moment my appetite could put that of several hordes to shame.” Although Thor wasn’t drooping nearly as badly as the rest of them, his statement was made without a glimmer of his characteristic good humor.

“Don’t think for a minute that I won’t pull more than my weight. And there better be some Hawaiian. Lots of Hawaiian.” Natasha, curled up on the sofa like a cat, was in full possession of all of her characteristic skill for threatening.

“Not to boast, or anything,” Bruce interjected wryly, “but I think I may be able to outdo all of you this time.”

No one disagreed with that, because they all knew that after an average mission, where Bruce spent an average amount of time Hulked-out, his appetite could put even Thor up against a challenge. This time, Bruce had spent a grueling amount of time in Hulk mode in order to continue lifting rubble and bending rebar to aid in rescue after rescue. 

They’d all taken shifts, of course. Each endless day of rescue work could’ve gone on interminably, and the urge to zone out and continue on autopilot had been nearly irresistible, but there was only so far you could push yourself before you needed mental rest, if nothing else. 

But the meals they’d managed to snatch here and there had been burned up quickly by metabolisms kicked into hyper drive. 

Without needing to be asked, JARVIS dutifully began to run through a list of pizzas and toppings that, in quantity and variety, turned out to please even the present demanding horde.

Clint and Thor were bickering out the details, and Tony was turning to goad Steve about whether or not ten meat-lovers’ could possibly be enough when he noticed that Steve was, in fact, nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, JARVIS, where’s Steve gotten to?”

“Captain Rogers is making his way in this general direction. Rather…slowly.”

“Define slowly.”

“His spatial awareness and depth perception appear to be somewhat impeded by severe exhaustion.”

Tony groaned. That, he knew, was JARVIS’ code for “walking into walls like a slobbering drunk.” That Steve had reached such a level of exhaustion was not really cause for concern. Tony had noted in the past that upon those rare occasions where Steve achieved true exhaustion he tended turned into an overgrown, overtired toddler who forgot how to tie his own shoes.

It was, however, entirely inhumane to leave him wandering about the Tower in such a state. Also, even half-brain-dead though he was, Tony had the advantage of years of experience in coping with the mental collapse that only came from being profoundly exhausted (or profoundly drunk—or both).

He levered himself to his feet and lurched towards the hall. The marble was a shock to stocking feet but he couldn’t be bothered to put on shoes at the moment. JARVIS sent the elevator to level ten, where Tony found Steve poking a finger at the elevator controls and failing as spectacularly at that simple task as anyone Tony had ever witnessed. He could’ve been blindfolded.

“Hey, Steve, get in.”

Steve blinked at him and the open doors, and Tony, humane though he was, wasn’t quite humane enough to wait for Steve’s brain to catch up with events. He stepped out far enough to bodily haul him inside. It was surprisingly easy to get him going. It was harder to get him to stop. Steve nearly hit the back wall of the elevator before pulling up short and merely collapsing against it. 

“You look remarkably bad,” Tony commented, because he didn’t do awkwardly silent elevator rides. He preferred awkwardly-not-silent rides.

Steve’s sole retort was an indecipherable mutter. Like the rest of them, he’d taken the time to get into civilian clothes, and an attempt at washing up had been made, albeit to debatable success. There was a greasy smear across his forehead, and his hair was far from coifed perfection.

“I say ‘remarkably bad,’ and mean it, and this after four days of seeing a lot of remarkably bad-off-looking people. Seriously, Steve,” Tony peered at his face, “you don’t look good.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Yeah, fine, okay. We’re all going to smell like smoke for a month.” The doors dinged open. “Come on, Pepper ordered enough pizza to feed several hordes, but they’re a feral lot tonight and we don’t want to be taken for the omega wolves of the pack.”

“Not hungry.”

“Of course you are. Steve.” God, it was like tugging on a boulder. “Move. Come on, work with me, here.”

Forward momentum was once more achieved. But then Tony made the mistake of assuming that, having begun to roll the boulder along the correct trajectory, it would continue along the correct trajectory.

Instead, Steve staggered sideways into the wall with a dull thud. Fortunately his shoulder received the brunt of it.

The sight would’ve been hysterical (and, yeah, it kind of was) if it weren’t also entirely pathetic.

Tony grabbed his arm. “Steve—Steve. That is the wall. This is the doorway. And…we walk through the doorway. Like so.”

After several precarious moments, where Steve listed against him trustingly (despite all Tony’s warnings that he was hardly a dependable pillar of support at the moment), finally their pilgrimage to the rec room was complete. “Look,” he announced, to none of the disgruntled horde in particular, “the life of the party has arrived.”

And then Steve decided to pass out—eyes rolled back in their sockets, body gone limp, the whole shebang.

Tony did not actually freak out. He was much too far gone for anything as elaborate as freaking out. What he actually did was a blur of listening to himself yell in incoherent alarm while trying to catch several hundred pounds of plummeting super soldier.

Thor played interception, and immediate catastrophe was averted. Although “catastrophe” was a relative thing, considering they had Steve passed out cold on the sofa. Steve, who didn’t let a two-by-four to the head slow him down. Steve, who did not pass out.

For a second they stood around gaping. Bruce was the first to act, kneeling next to the couch to feel Steve’s pulse while Clint asked, “Did he get hit by something when no one was looking, or what?”

Bruce shook his head even while he finished scanning Steve for signs of obvious injury. “I’m guessing it’s something a little more mundane than that.”

Mundane?” Tony protested. “Steve doesn’t…do this.”

“He does if he’s severely dehydrated and exhausted.” Bruce released Steve’s wrist. “Someone get some cold water and a cloth.”

It only took a minute for Steve to come around after the cloth was laid on his forehead. But his status was far from ready-for-action alertness. He groaned and blinked sluggishly, only half cognizant of his surroundings. 

“Steve,” Bruce said kindly, despite the tiredness reflected in his own voice, “you blacked out on us.” This was the kindest terminology one man could use to tell another man that he had, in fact, fainted.

“No…” Steve murmured with fitful confusion, as if it were up for debate.

“Steve,” Bruce continued slowly, “how much have you had to eat and drink over the last two days?”

Steve considered. “Not…sure?”

“So, in other words, nothing,” Tony extrapolated, using his intelligence guided by experience. “Or close enough. You know, you’re a real piece of work. If one of us had tried playing Super Camel—”

“Tony,” Bruce warned. Not the time.

Tony shut up with a pointed sigh.

Clint produced a bottle of Gatorade, and Thor helped Steve sit up enough for Natasha to put a pillow behind his back. Bruce helped him take a few sips.

“I’m…I’m fine now, guys,” Steve stammered, increased awareness bringing with it increased embarrassment over being the subject of the undivided attention of the entire team.

Of course, the spots of color high on his cheeks could also have been fever, or heatstroke. The idiot.  Tony stood aloofly behind the couch, staring down in open criticism (which was going completely ignored by the whole flock of mother hens).

The truth of the matter was that Steve had looked after all of them in similar ways at various points in the course of their missions. They could do no less for him in return. But scolding would definitely be in order, because Steve would also have definitely done the same if their positions were reversed.

“Thanks, Bruce, but I can take that—” Steve’s visibly shaking hand reached for the Gatorade.

Bruce pulled it out of reach with a stern look. “If you want to stay out of the SHIELD infirmary, I suggest you start cooperating. You’re a super soldier who can endure a whole lot more than the average human being, and you passed out. Something tells me you’ve done quite enough ignoring sound advice for the time being.”

Steve’s expression crumpled with guilt. “I didn’t think—”

“—Aha,” Tony interrupted, “the essence of the mystery gradually emerges.”

“Didn’t you stop to drink, or rest, at all?”

Steve wilted further under Natasha’s look. “There was just so much happening. I…don’t think…I mean, I had some water, and energy bars, a few times. But there was never time to stop for a meal…” 

“Foolhardy,” Thor rumbled. “That was most foolhardy, Captain. You are strong, but not invulnerable. Time must be taken for the warrior to rest long enough to carry on the fight, or he will himself become in need of rescuing.”

Clint glared supportively.

Steve looked suddenly small. Or at least as if he wished he were small—possibly remembering a time when he was scrawny enough to pass for invisible. Tony had seen the pictures from Before.

“I’m…sorry. I never intended to go so long without taking time to recuperate, it’s just…” Steve closed his eyes. “There were so many people who needed help.”

Steve couldn’t see the way Thor’s sternness faded to sympathy, or the way Clint’s glare died, or Bruce’s shoulders sagged, or Natasha’s eyes softened. They were all bone weary, harrowed by the same experiences. They all had a bit of hell in their past, and although the hell they’d shared since they’d become as a team wasn’t easy, by any means, it was…well, shared. While Tony wasn’t generally the sharing type, he’d never really considered the idea that burdens could be shared, and the experience of being on a team had taught him that this Togetherness Stuff wasn’t nearly as horrible as expected.

None of them had lived Steve’s precise version of hell, but it wasn’t hard to care enough to try to understand. It should’ve been hard—caring at that level of commitment went against Tony’s basic creed of non-involvement in anything with the potential to be emotionally messy—but it really, really wasn’t that hard. 

Okay, maybe a little hard. But Tony stood his ground anyway, despite the decidedly warm emotional temperature of the room—and that, from him, definitely qualified as a caring thing. 

It was Natasha who said quietly, “A lot of people need you, Steve. But you’re not going to help any of them like this.”

Steve opened his eyes in surprise as if he’d forgotten they were there. “You’re right.” His gaze made a slow circuit of the hovering faces, a fond smile slowly spreading across his face.

The arrival of the pizza was a godsend, because Tony wasn’t sure how much more meaningful conversation he could’ve taken, and if Steve had been given a minute longer he undoubtedly would’ve said something unforgivably sappy, and apologized three more times, at least. Also, given that they were all teetering on the brink of collapse, tears would’ve been alarmingly possible from any direction at all, and hugs a terrifying certainty (from the direction of a certain god-without-a-concept-of-personal-space, who would remain nameless).

Soon, pizza boxes were spread out as far as the eye could see. Team Movie Night (someone’s idea, no one was sure who anymore, since they all complained, and all still came) had taught them the skill of maximizing the potential of furniture for seating six grown adults.

In a saner life, Tony Stark would never have allowed himself to get sandwiched in-between the God of Thunder and the Black Widow. But this was not a sane life. This was his life, and in his world such things were fast becoming the norm. As was scarfing down slice after slice of double-cheese-and-sausage while listening to Captain America get scolded about playing with his food instead of eating it.

Eventually, though, the carnage was over, and the horde was satiated. Someone had turned the TV to the Discovery Channel, and Clint was making snide remarks about Mike Rowe’s idea of what qualified as a “dirty job.” Natasha gave Steve another bottle of Gatorade.

When Steve’s phone rang and he withdrew it from his jacket pocket, Tony lunged fast enough to snatch it from him before he could get further than, “Sir? Do you need me to—”

“—Hello, Sir or Ma’am, as the case may be,” he spoke sweetly into the phone, “you have reached the answering machine of Captain ‘doesn’t-know-when-to-quit’ Rogers. At the beep, please take a hike. Beeep.”

Steve stared at him, and Tony shut the phone with a click and began to hand it back, before snatching it away again. “On second thought, I think I’d better hang on to this for you, Steve. As your answering machine, and all.”

Steve sighed a little, but if Tony didn’t know better he might’ve thought there was weary gratitude in his eyes.

“Now drink your Gatorade,” Natasha urged. 

“Finished.” Steve held up the empty bottle.

“More,” Clint ordered, and Thor helpfully reached over and tossed him a fresh bottle from the side table filled with drinks, which Clint in turn pressed into Steve's hand. 

“The infirmary's still an option,” Bruce reminded him pleasantly. “You passed out. I'm keeping an eye on you.”

Tony grinned at this record-breaking display of synchronization between the team. Steve should've been proud. Tony held out a box of meat-lovers’ pizza. “Eat up already, slowpoke. Thor's on his third—box.

Even JARVIS felt the need to add his two cents’ worth of encouragement: “If supplies run out, I will be more than happy to order more, Captain.”

“Thanks,” Steve said, rather sheepishly helping himself to a paper plate full of steaming cheese, bread, and meat. He cast his gaze around to include them all, repeating hoarsely. “Thanks guys.”

They massacred the food, each at their preferred pace, and as night crept in JARVIS dimming the lights without being asked.

On-screen, Mike Rowe fell on his face in the mud, and off-screen Clint snickered through a mouthful of cheese, Bruce ate enough to gain ground on Thor, Natasha leisurely ate the pineapple off a piece of Hawaiian, and Steve fell asleep with a half-finished slice still in his hand. Thor reached across Tony and Natasha to confiscate it from his slack fingers and summarily ate it in one bite. He grinned at Tony’s expression.

Natasha rose and stretched like a sleepy cat before she left for a moment, returning with a large blanket that she spread over Steve and tucked around him with neat efficiency.

They all found a spot, and no one mentioned “turning in.” They were half-asleep, already, and the halls to their rooms began to seem an insurmountable distance.

There were all kinds of things that Tony Stark did not do, and falling asleep on the couch snuggled against his teammates would’ve definitely been on the list. At least, it would have been, if he’d ever thought to put it on the list in the first place. And now that it had occurred to him... Well. He’d be the first to admit that some rules were made to be broken.