In America's considered opinion -- and it was an opinion that he had formed after no small amount of consideration -- the welcome that he'd received upon arriving at the Western Front was hardly a welcome at all.
He hadn't been expecting cheers or flowery speeches or even much in the way of a formal military salute, but the responses of his fellow nations scarcely lived up to barest standards of hospitality. When he'd presented his papers upon arrival, England had barely glanced at them -- or, for that matter, at him -- before turning his attention back to the grimy, dog-eared stack of dispatches piled up on his makeshift planning table. France at least had the decency to greet him with a handshake and a smile, but the hand that gripped his was cold and clammy and the smile was stretched too thin over hollowed-out cheeks. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Netherlands were nowhere to be seen, and all of his questions about their whereabouts were met with shuttered faces and uncomfortable silence. Canada seemed to be a little more open to talking to him, but his speech was peppered with unfamiliar words, whizz-bang and daisy-cutter and toffee apple, all of which spoke of experiences that his brother had not shared and presumably would not understand. And after spending the night in a forward dugout with him, Australia, and New Zealand, listening to the three of them discuss in complete seriousness whether pure chlorine gas or a chlorine-phosgene mixture was the better -- in this case, faster -- way to die, America was secretly glad to receive his marching orders the next morning.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was prepared for anything the trenches could throw at him. Canada had written to him every other month or so, and even through the censor's black lines America had been able to pick up bits and pieces of information that gave him a good idea of what life at the front was really like: long marches on wet and blistered feet, treacherous seas of barbed wire, hours of digging in mud that slid back into the hole faster than a man could shovel it out. And no matter what England and the rest of them might think, he wasn't some wide-eyed innocent who didn't know which end of a rifle was the shooting end. After Shiloh and Antietam, Gettysburg and Atlanta, there wasn't much in the way of blood and guts that could faze him. He was here to fight, and to win, and he'd march right up to Germany and Austria and knock their pointy-helmeted heads together if that was what it took to stop this stupid war.
So in America's considered opinion, it was also more than a little unfair that when he and his men arrived at their new position near Artois, the first barrage of German shelling that came sailing over no-man's-land to greet them landed almost directly on top of him.
They'd had to dig him out.
Or rather, he guessed that they'd had to dig him out. He didn't -- couldn't -- remember exactly what had happened. The first time he came to, it was all flashing, dancing spots behind his eyelids and a terrible high-pitched howling in his ears, the thick taste of dirt coating his tongue and a slick bloody feeling at the back of his throat, someone moving his head and something cold and wet being pressed to his lips like a foul, sodden kiss, and it was almost a mercy when a sudden jolt sent a flare of pain exploding through his head --
-- and he crashed back down into darkness.
The second time he came to, it was much calmer. The awful noise that had filled his brain to bursting was gone, and his mouth no longer felt like it was full of blood and grit. He was lying down on some kind of bed or cot, and something soft and cool and damp was covering his eyes, resting on his forehead and the tops of his cheeks. Breathing hurt, but as long as he kept each breath careful and shallow the pain never went above a heavy, deep throb. Yet each new lungful of air brought with it the smell of a battlefield hospital -- the lingering stench of the wounded and dying that not even the powerful odour of carbolic acid could overcome -- which made his head and chest throb with an entirely different kind of ache.
All the same, he knew that it wouldn't do any good to dwell on the pain. It was by no means the first time that he had woken up in a field hospital or a surgeon's tent, and he had learned that in situations like these the first few moments of awareness were best devoted to helping himself ease back into his own skin. So he began to take stock of his body, one piece at a time, starting from the bottom and working up.
First were his toes, which he could wiggle -- and were attached to feet that were still in boots, too, which meant that he couldn't have been unconscious for that long. Feet were followed by ankles and leg muscles, all of which he was able to move and stretch without too much soreness. Nothing was missing, nothing was broken as far as he could tell. His knees and hips seemed mostly all right, though it felt as if they had been thwacked repeatedly with heavy sticks. But next came the stomach muscles, and that was where the struggle to breathe properly really made itself known. The left side of his chest felt worse than the right, with the worst pain of all concentrated in his upper ribs and his left shoulder. However, he would have to wait to explore that further; his right arm was next on the list.
As he moved his right hand, preparing to check every joint, he let out a soft, surprised hiss when his fingers closed around an oddly-shaped tangle of wire resting in his palm. Glasses, he realised, as his thumb brushed over the gap where one now-shattered lens had been. The other lens was still in place, though it was probably scratched to hell. But it was nice to know that they hadn't been lost for good. He found it strangely comforting to think that someone had taken the trouble to put them into his hand, even with the chaos of everything else that must have been going on around him at the time.
His right wrist and elbow felt cramped and stiff, as did his right shoulder, but none of them gave him any major problems. He was just about to move on to his left arm when he felt the vibrations of footsteps coming closer to him. He turned his head, trying to locate the source of the approaching footsteps -- only to choke on his own breath when his neck, back, and left shoulder spasmed with a crushing pain that felt as if someone had put his entire chest in a vise and turned the crank hard.
Abruptly, the cool damp cloth was whisked away, and the first thing he saw when his eyes flew open was a strange woman's face, framed by the white cap that completely covered her hair. She was talking to him, saying words that he couldn't quite understand, but when she bent over him he was able to follow her movement with his eyes --
-- and that was one dislocated left shoulder. Right out of the socket, by the look of it.
His breath was still coming short, so he gritted his teeth and did his best to grin up at the nurse hovering over him. Her eyes were wide with concern, and he wanted to tell her that it wasn't anything to worry about, that he could pop the old joint back into place himself in a jiffy, but the words didn't seem to want to come out of his mouth. Not in any way that made sense, at least. His first attempt was nothing more than a weak moan; his second attempt sounded like gibberish. And he was all prepared to make a third attempt, because he knew that he had the right words in him somewhere, but his head hurt, and his chest hurt, and his arm hurt, and it was so much easier to just lie still and close his eyes again and not say anything at all.
He didn't want to slip back into unconsciousness, so he tried to concentrate on the nurse's voice. It was soothing, intended to comfort him, but most of the words she was saying kept slipping past his ears, skimming over his mind like stones skipping across a pond. As he grew more accustomed to the sound of her voice, though, he managed to catch at least one group of words that seemed familiar.
' -- le Médecin-major -- '
Lay. Medicine. Major. It sounded like English, though the accent was all wrong...and then realisation clicked into place. You're still in France, you dolt, of course she'd be speaking French. He was so caught up in this revelation that his concentration started to slip, and he had to fight to keep the rapid-fire French from blurring back into meaningless noise again. This time, however, he was helped by a word that was intimately familiar to him in any language.
'-- americain, M. le Major -- '
'Americain?' That was a different voice, a man's voice, much harsher than the nurse's calming tones. 'Leave him to me. I will see to it.'
America inhaled sharply through his nose, not even caring about the prickly stinging that the sudden movement caused in his chest. The man's words had shifted from French to English -- no, not English. A human might mistake it for English (or French, or German, or Russian, or whatever language he or she was expecting to hear and understand) but there was no way that any nation could hear it and fail to recognise one of their own.
With effort, America opened his eyes, blinking and squinting by turns until he could bring the world into focus. The first thing he saw was a long white smock, the material fading into grey from too many washings. On one sleeve, there was an uneven reddish splotch that he initially took to be a large bloodstain, but when he had blinked a few more times the splotch revealed itself to be two stripes of red fabric sewn onto a white armband, forming a slightly uneven cross. As he looked up, he blinked once more at the sight of a fringe of fair hair and a pair of narrowed green eyes -- not England, his mind quickly supplied, though it took another moment of staring before he could identify the nation standing before him.
'Dislocated left shoulder,' Switzerland said. His face was impassive, and he was looking America up and down as if America were a complete stranger to him. 'Presumed fracture of one or more ribs, with possible associated lung trauma. Superficial abrasions to the head and upper torso, no shell fragments or penetrating wounds. No signs of gas, no notable blood loss.' He turned his head just enough for America to realise that he had been speaking to the white-capped nurse the whole time. 'Not a case for further evacuation; treatment will be attended to here, followed by discharge to the care of the American Expeditionary Force's medical authorities.'
Startled, America tried to push himself up on his good elbow, but a wave of dizziness made his arm wobble. Only Switzerland's quick move to catch him prevented him from toppling out of the bed.
'None of that, now.' Switzerland's voice was stern. He guided America up into a sitting position, one hand supporting America's head and neck and the other planted firmly in the middle of his back. 'That shoulder needs setting first. You will only make it worse if you try to move on your own. American or not, you are under my orders here, and you'll do as you're told and no arguing, do you hear me?'
America's breath was slowing as his head began to clear, and he managed a nod to show that he had heard and understood. Now that he was sitting up, he could see much more of his surroundings. Two rows of steel-framed beds faced each other on either side of a large room with high windows and white-washed walls. Nearly all of the beds were occupied with men, some still in uniform and others in varying states of undress. Some had their heads and faces swathed in layers of blood-spotted bandages; others were lying still and silent beneath worn woollen blankets. Several nurses were moving about the room between the beds, checking on each man, carrying covered trays or bundles of linen or...but he had to look away from them, because all of the movement around him was making him feel woozy again. It was easier to look at Switzerland, who at least was mostly standing still.
One of the nurses had brought over a tray with rolls of bandages and wads of cotton wool and a row of metal surgical instruments laid out on a clean cloth. As America watched, Switzerland picked up a pair of short-bladed scissors from the tray and started to cut up the sleeve of America's mud-caked uniform blouse, swiftly snipping the fabric along the inside of his left arm. America shivered a little as the edge of the scissors brushed his skin, but he tried not to move as Switzerland cut the sleeve open all the way up to the neckline and carefully freed the injured arm and shoulder. Switzerland then applied the scissors to the buttons on the front of the blouse, and with a few quick snips he had it open for easier removal.
America helped as much as he could by wiggling his right arm to free it from the remaining sleeve. Once the blouse was off, he shivered again, acutely aware of both the air against his bare skin and the critical once-over that Switzerland was giving his newly exposed body.
'No sign of lice, at least,' Switzerland said, with the same cool detachment he had shown earlier, as he replaced the scissors on the tray. 'You've had the speeches on typhus and venereal diseases, I presume -- though in my experience such talks do little to decrease a man's chances of contracting one or the other.'
America felt the tips of his ears burn with embarrassed anger. He might be stuck in a hospital with a busted shoulder, but that didn't mean he had to sit there meekly and be lectured as if he were still a colony who had just wet the bed. 'Now look here, Switzer -- '
Before he could say the other nation's full name, however, Switzerland's face twisted into a terrifying snarl, and in a flash he was almost nose to nose with America, furious green eyes boring into America's shocked blue ones.
'Don't call me that!' he hissed, so vehemently that America flinched at the force of his words. 'I cannot acknowledge you as a nation! As long as I am wearing this' -- his fingertips brushed the red cross on the armband pinned to his sleeve -- 'you are merely one of the wounded. Now shut your mouth and hold still.'
'What d'you mean by -- '
America didn't have a chance to finish the question, because at that very moment Switzerland's left hand stuffed a wadded-up bandage squarely into his open mouth. In almost the same motion, Switzerland's right hand took hold of his injured arm, and then both of his hands did something that made America suddenly and intensely grateful for the mouthful of linen that muffled his extremely unheroic shriek.
By the time he had blinked away the tears -- involuntary tears, of course, because Switzerland hadn't even given him time to catch his breath, let alone brace himself for any kind of shock -- the room had finally stopped spinning around him and his arm and shoulder no longer felt like they were going up in flames. He tried to wiggle his jaw and tongue to force the bandage out of his mouth, nearly gagging on the dry, linty material, but before he could manage to make any headway on his attempt Switzerland reached up and plucked it free.
'Jesus fuck that hurt!' America spat the moment his mouth was clear. He glared at Switzerland, who was unrolling the slightly damp bandage without so much as a glance at his infuriated patient. 'What the hell was that for?!'
'Had you kept your mouth shut, as I ordered,' Switzerland said, placing one end of the bandage against the side of America's chest, 'I would not have had to gag you.' Judging by his flat, unemotional tone, he had said the same words so often that by this point the response was automatic. 'Did you expect it not to hurt?'
'No.' The word came out more sulky than he wanted it to sound, so he tried again. 'But you could've given me something first, maybe.' He winced as he felt the bandage touch his torso; his skin, already hypersensitive from the pain, prickled with unpleasant goosebumps at this new sensation. 'To make it easier, I mean.'
'We are low enough on nitrous oxide as it stands here, not to mention the morphia.' Switzerland's hands kept moving without a pause, wrapping the bandage around and around America's upper arm and chest to hold the injured limb in place. 'And I have no intention of wasting it on a dislocated shoulder when that boy in the bed opposite will need it shortly when I take off what's left of his legs.'
America opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked over Switzerland's shoulder, trying to see the bed across from his, but his view was mostly blocked by the two nurses who were standing on either side of it. One of the nurses was holding up a glass bottle filled with reddish-brown liquid, while the other was bent over the bed's occupant, doing something that America couldn't quite make out. Whatever she was doing must have been painful, because all of a sudden the bedframe shook and the bent-over nurse leapt back just in time to avoid being hit by a flailing arm. In that moment, America caught the briefest glimpse of a white, strained face and heard a cracked voice rising in distress --
' -- tut weh -- Bein -- '
-- before another nurse came running, and then there were three people crowding around the bed and blocking his view entirely.
'Breathe out,' said a quiet voice in his ear.
America obeyed, and the tightness in his chest went away. He had no idea how long he had been holding his breath.
As he drew another steadying breath, he looked over at Switzerland. The older nation was intent on his work, his mouth pressed in a thin line of concentration as he tied off the first bandage at a point just to the right of America's left armpit. Once the knot was secure, he took another, wider bandage from the tray and began to fold it, fashioning into what looked like a sling. For a long moment, America watched him in silence, as his brain worked frantically to process what he had seen.
'Didn't know you treated Germans here,' he said at last. He tried to make the statement sound as nonchalant and casual as possible, an observation rather than a question.
'He was found and brought here shortly before you were.' Switzerland threaded the folded bandage behind America's arm, bringing the ends up and around America's neck to tie them in place. 'What he was doing before he came here is not my concern. What happens to him after he returns to his own people is also not my concern.' One of his hands applied a touch of pressure at the base of America's skull, tilting America's head upwards a fraction of an inch and forcing the younger nation to meet his warning gaze. 'And for that matter, none of it is your concern.'
'I wasn't going to -- ' America began hotly, then stopped, because it was never a good idea to start an argument with someone who had their hands around your neck. He lapsed into silence once more, holding as still as possible while Switzerland finished adjusting the sling and tucked the tied-off ends into place.
'There.' Switzerland stepped back and folded his arms across his chest, and gave America a final once-over. 'That should hold for now, but you would be wise to have someone examine it again in a day or so to check your range of motion.' He gathered up a few stray bits of cotton wool fluff that had landed on the blanket and brushed them onto the tray. 'You will have a fresh shirt and a light meal shortly, and I will send for an English-speaking orderly to process your discharge and arrange for you to return to your unit. Until then, you will rest here.'
Gingerly, America turned his head this way and that, testing his muscles. The bandage-and-sling combination seemed to be keeping his injured arm securely in place, braced by his own body and held snugly against his chest. The pain in his shoulder and ribcage had subsided to little more than a dull ache. He would have it looked at by one of his own surgeons, of course, but he suspected that not one of them would be able to find fault with Switzerland's work.
'Looks like it'll be good as new. Thanks, Swi -- er, thanks, doc,' he said, correcting himself just in time.
Switzerland let out a short hmph through his nose, though he sounded more tired than irritated. 'Thank me when the guns stop firing. You may be seeing me again sooner than you'd like.'
'Believe me, I'll do my best to keep out of your hair.' And to keep my boys out of your hair, too, he added silently, to himself, thinking of the unknown soldier who had put his broken glasses into his hand. But as leaned back on the pillow and watched Switzerland wrap up the surgical instruments on the tray and re-roll a bandage that had started to unwind, a curious thought struck him. Switzerland was neutral, just as America had been up until a few months ago. There was no reason for him to be anywhere near the trenches, let alone amputating limbs or shoving dislocated shoulders back into their sockets. And yet he was here, just as America was, and he had treated America's injuries as if he'd been doing it for years.
'Why are you here?' The question popped out of his mouth almost of its own accord.
Switzerland gave him a scornful sidelong glance. 'You were half-dead when you were first carted in,' he said curtly. 'Anyone else would have been suspicious of the extent of your wounds, or your relative lack thereof. Now, if you will excuse me -- '
He had picked up the tray and was starting to turn away from the bed, but before he could take more than a half-step he stopped short -- and looked down to see that America had reached over with his one good hand and caught the trailing edge of his smock.
'That's not what I meant.' America's voice was quiet, and he gazed up at Switzerland with a seriousness that was worlds away from his usual light-hearted good cheer. 'Why are you here?'
Switzerland's mouth tightened, and though his hands remained steady his knuckles showed white where they gripped the edge of the tray. Even so, he did not look away, and for the briefest of moments America saw a flicker of raw, bitter emotion cross his face, there and gone as if some inner light had been extinguished as suddenly as it had appeared. When he finally spoke, his voice was equally quiet, with a calmness that bordered on resignation:
'Because someone has to sew your fool heads back onto your fool necks, and it might as well be me.'