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Star-Spangled Heart

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“Barnes!” General Edward Graves barks from the doorway. It’s really just a large rectangle cut into the side of an even larger tent. He’s a graying man, thick around the waist. And it’s only those who are awake on the beds that try to come to attention. All the nurses are too busy trying to save the lives of those in their charge. Ed isn’t one to care too much about the proper procedure or communicating with respect, especially from the woman of the W.A.C. who do more to save these boys lives than he’ll ever be able to. At least they’re no longer considered auxiliary. Some of his fellow Generals let the stars get to their heads with power, rank earned in a time of peace, but he earned his in a time of war just a gruesome as this one. He bypasses the beds, muttering a simple “at ease” when he finds someone trying to come to attention. He comes to a stop at a bed in the back, a brunette leaned over and suturing a leg wound closed.

“You’ll forgive me general for not standing at attention. This is quite delicate work, he’s lucky to still have a leg.” Bucky says without even looking up from her work, her victory rolls have long since deflated. The scrap of fabric she’s using to hold back her hair has bloody smudges on it, probably from adjusting it. It’s fared better than her shirt did though, the blood will never come out. It doesn’t seem to bother her though. She just keeps suturing. “What brings you to my corner of this hell hole.”

“I passed Sargent Walker, she was on her way off shift after twenty-five hours. Says you’ve been on shift longer.” He sits on the empty bed next to where she is working after a quick glance around to make sure no one is headed for this particular bed. The wound is mostly closed on the man’s leg, a Corporal Neal according to his name tag. “You trying to go for a headcase discharge? The burnout? How long have you been up?”

She knots off the string, it’s not medical grade. They ran out of that last week and a new shipment won’t be arriving for another week. He hands her the gauze from the tray on the bed beside him when she points to it. “Maria needs to learn to keep her mouth shut.” Bucky snaps, then sighs. “34 hours. I was just getting off shift when this wave of injured came in.” She wraps the gauze around the man’s leg with the practiced ease of someone who has been doing it for years, not just the months she’s been enlisted. It’s not the first time he has wanted to ask about the husband Bucky has only mentioned a handful of times. “One of the one who died on the way. He reminded me of my Steve. It wasn’t him, I didn’t even have to double check to make sure. Too big. But the image was there.” He hands her the scissors and tape from the same tray. “I figured if I wasn’t going to be sleeping, then I might at least help out where I’m needed.”

He knows about her sickly husband, she shared that with him a while back. He had asked after Steve, who he was stationed with. Ed’s big on rewarding the hard work of those in his command and Bucky had earned it real quick. Sometimes, when he lets his mind dwell on it, he wonders what made this hardworking young woman worry join something that was completely optional and leave behind someone she cares deeply about. “Get some sleep, Barnes. That’s an…”

He trails off, the order dying on his lips when her head swivels towards the open flap at the entrance of the tent, head cocked to the side like it does when she’s listening to something.

“What is it? More wounded Bucky?” Another nurse asks, having noticed the same thing.

It wasn’t unheard of for Bucky to know when air transports were incoming before the rest of the camp, their lookout tower left a lot to be desired when it came to confirming the identity of the incoming aircraft in a timely manner. Her hearing was just that good too, she could tell the difference between an English or an American med plane once it got close enough.

She shakes her head, a confused look on her face. It’s chilling to see that kind of look when she’s normally so confident. “It’s German maybe. I’m not sure, it doesn’t sound right.” She leans forward. “Whatever it is, it’s heavy though.”

The warning alarm goes off, it’s not the normal one they here for the wounded either. Within milliseconds Bucky is up off the bed and dousing the nearest lantern, just as fast as a handful of other nurses in the tent. “Carol, get the flap.” Bucky orders to the blonde nurse that asked her about the sound just moments before. Carol reacts to the command with the posture like it’s an order, despite the fact that she outranks Bucky. The whole tent is doused in darkness within moments of the alarm.

Then the first bomb falls.

++++

Ed’s disoriented when he comes to, the rock that his head is pillowed on is digging into his scalp. He’s sore and stiff, but nothing is screaming at him, so relatively unscathed. With a groan, he’s shoving himself up into a sitting position, bracing himself against the way his vision swims and his stomach rolls.

The camp is in ruins, most tents didn’t survive the attack. That’s what this was, an attack on relatively unarmed personnel. He hasn’t been out long enough for a majority of the fires to go out yet, it’s keeping things warm for now. But when they do go out, and they will, things are going to get cold. They’ll probably lose another ten percent of the survivors in the coming days. At least none of the people milling about are trying to put out the fires. The communications tower is useless now too, probably one of the first buildings to be targeted. A few people are digging through the rubble, probably trying to salvage anything. It’s all probably in vain anyway.

They’re moving with a sense of order, everyone he has observed is, so at least someone is put together enough to try and make headway of the situation that they are in. That’s good, an asset that just decreased their potential loss from ten to eight percent. He sees someone hand what looks like a collection of tags to a woman that’s kneeled over a prone body as he pushes himself up to his feet. He needs a moment to steady himself as the world spins again and tries to figure out if he recognizes the person that everyone is obviously deferring to. To no surprise, he doesn’t, not from behind at least.

“Sargent Barnes.” He greets when he gets close enough to recognize her. He’s never seen her with her hair down, even off duty when she doesn’t have to keep it above the collar. It’s a surprise that it reaches well past shoulder length.

“General Graves. Glad to see you awake.” She answers back, keeping the pressure on a wound in Carol's stomach. There is a pile of dog tags by one of her knees, a sobering sight.

“Give me a report.” He says kneeling into the mud, his uniform is already beyond salvaging. He might as well get his hands dirty, there is a particularly nasty gash on Buckys calf, it's bleeding faster than he would like to see. Especially since she’s been the one giving orders. He’s not professionally trained, only picking up some stuff since he was stationed with this camp. But he knows enough. “May I?” He gestures to the spool of thread and needle that she was using before the bombs. There is considerably less thread in it.

“By all means.” She says with a forced smile, it’s probably more for Carols’ sake than his. Somehow the blonde nurse is still awake, despite all the blood on the ground. “The communications tower is gone, as well as our surgery theater. And most of our doctors, who were performing surgery at the time of the attack. Those who did survive had no idea how to take command, the army is big on giving them rank just because the hold M.D.s” Carol cries out when Bucky shifts her grip after Ed pulls a little too hard. She spends a moment tending to her charge before continuing. “Those who are able bodied I’ve got scouring the camp, some I have salvaging what they can. Taking stock and whatever. Most of them are tending to the wounded, triaging. Little tags, or well scraps of cloth that are different colors pertaining to how severe their injuries are,” she quiets on the next bit. “Or if they are dead already, I’ve got them pulling dog tags if they are.” She nods to the pile by her knee, larger than he would like to see. “Some of them will have to wait until the fires go out before we can collect them. But that’s not my biggest worry.”

Ed ties off the thread and cuts it, she can fix it if she needs to later. He packs up the spool and needle neatly, so as not to lose either one. Bucky doesn’t finish her thought though. “What’s your worry, Barnes?” Ed asks. When she doesn’t answer again, he looks over to her. “Barnes?”

Carol has gone still, her color pale, eyes still open gazing up at the dark sky. Bucky is leaned over her, it takes him a moment to realize that she is praying. Her hair is curtaining her face while she delicately pulls Carol's dog tags off her body. When she looks back up after scooping up the pile of metal, her face is blank. Like her emotions are locked down. “We’re a week out until resupply, and I doubt the tower had a chance to get out a signal to anyone. We aren’t going to be saving anyone in these conditions.”

She’s right, even if they had enough tents to have shelter for everyone, all of their supplies were dangerously low. It’s been a hard month on the front. “Headcount?” He finally asks.

Her jaw tightens. “About one third, accounting for all the injured we had in camp after that last wave. Less are able to walk, we’ll have a real count soon hopefully.”

He hesitates on the next question, Carol was her commanding officer, but there were people ranked above her. As far as he knows though, most of them were in the surgery theater at the time of the bombing. “Your commanding officer in the W.A.C.?”

She shakes her head. “There’s a First Lieutenant and a Major, neither one of them likely. A couple of Sergeants across the ranks, just barely keeping it together. One of them is already gone into shock. None else tried to take charge while you were out, so I did.”

He nods, makes it a point to tell himself that whatever W.A.C. personnel that is in charge at whatever base they get evac’d to needs to know how well she kept her cool. If they get evac’d. “The cold’s going to be a problem, feels like snow.”

Bucky shakes her head at that though, even though he wasn’t looking for a response. “No, the fires should at least smolder through the night and keep the general area warm. The air isn’t right for snow, besides it’s still too early for it in this part of the world.” She shrugs. “I worked the docks in Brooklyn and went home to a drafty tenement with no hot water or heat. Those that survive long enough will make it through the nights just fine.”

“One of these days you’re going to tell me how a gal like you, with your kind of smarts, signed up for this.” Ed gestures to the ruins.

“It ain’t no secret.” Bucky shrugs, a frail smile on her face. “Steve wanted to enlist, wanted me to do it with him.” Her voice goes soft, and her hand subconsciously touches the rings she keeps on her dog tag chain. She holds it there for a moment, lost in thought before snapping out of it. “Anyways,” she tucks her hair behind her ear. Ed spots a trail of blood that he didn’t see before coming from her ear, but she’s reacting just fine to everything, so he’ll let it go for now. “You ever going to tell me why a general is slumming it out her at a hospital camp?”

Ed shakes his head, but he’s thinking about telling her sometime soon. “I cannot tell you that.”

She shrugs, probably expecting that answer out of him. She starts to move forward before stopping. When she turns to look at him her face is filled with horror. “General.” She starts. He’s so surprised by her open emotions all he can do is nod. “As far as I knew, Germany respected hospital camps. Just like we do to them. Field medics go down, that I know, I’ve patched a few up. But hospitals, usually barely armed and filled with wounded are left alone generally.”

Ed’s heart drops out of him. He hadn’t put that thought together. If Germany was crossing a line they have yet to, then something had to have changed. And it wasn’t because they were on the losing side, based on the influx of new wounded that had been coming through the camp, it is as if they are gaining power. All he can force out is, “their aircraft aren’t advanced enough to be able to reach us from their closest airstrip if they are loaded with bombs.”

Bucky is silent for a moment, she’s schooled her emotions back under control. She’d have made a great military commander if she was a man. She just nods once, breaking eye contact as she does. She squares her shoulders, turning back towards the camp. She’s made a decision, he’s not sure what yet, but it doesn’t look like even she likes it. “I’ll take care of the troops then.”

“Barnes?” Ed asks, unsure of what she means.

“You’re going, aren’t you? London needs that intel and we don’t have a working radio. Resupply is in a week, we may have contact sooner if there are wounded.” Her shoulders shake slightly, “but we both know the next people over that hill could very well be Germans.”

He should go, he knows that. The next camp is a few days hike away if he sticks to the road, far enough that they can’t all make the journey. But leaving his post, that doesn’t sit very well at all with him. “No.” He says firm, a command almost. “I won’t risk the chance that the information doesn’t make it there. If we’re out of contact for long enough they have to send someone out to us.”

She looks at him, a defiant look stamped on her face, but she holds her tongue at the command. “What’s the plan then sir?” She asks.

++++

The war headquarters in London is bustling and busy with people everywhere, a far cry from what the hospital camp was like. Three days they were stuck out in the cold, keeping the fires lit with whatever they could find. The dead outnumbering the living, and the number growing by the day. Bucky was wrong about the cold, there was snow. Ed lost his pinkie and part of his ring finger on his left hand to frostbite, vitals are easier to check without a glove and he’s right-handed.

The news that the Germans had better technology than they were supposed to was met with grim looks, at least they believe him. The again the ruins of the hospital camp that was far enough behind allied lines to be out of range to bomb runs is damning evidence. There were things brewing on the allied side as well though, some scientific movement. This war was going to be won from the labs though, that was for certain.

He rounds the corner to find just the women he was looking for. “Carter, Barnes.” He greets with a smile.

“General,” Peggy says with a nod; their working relationship is strenuous at best.

“Graves.” Bucky greets, a smile lifting one corner of her lips. Being in a city has done wonders for her.

Peggy stiffens slightly at the familiarity between them, many people do. The rules are followed much more closely here in London then they ever were in the camp, and three days in the cold at the ass end of the war zone completely cut off from the rest of civilization forged a friendship between them. One strictly designed to get as many people home alive as they could.

“Carter, our transport back to New York is scheduled to leave in the morning. Stark has something there that he would like us to see.” He nods to Peggy, before turning his attention to Bucky. “Barnes, congratulations on the promotion. When do you ship out?”

“I catch a flight out just after dark. I’m catching up with the 107th in Italy.” She doesn’t look excited, nor should she. It’s only been a week since they have returned to civilization, there hasn’t been any time for rest. How can there be? The world is at war.