Summary: A short vignette, continuing the last scene of the episode "Stars and Stripes." Sticklers should note: I've changed some of the dialogue of the scene slightly to fit my own purposes and memory.
Disclaimer: Not mine, don't sue.

A Four-Letter Word
By simgirl

Margaret slammed her beer back on a wonky bar table in the Officer's Club, still fuming with rage from her confrontation with Sergeant Scully. The table, constructed from a bare-treaded jeep tyre, scrap metal salvaged off a disused howitzer and anything old, new, traded or stolen that the 4077th M*A*S*H had managed to scrape together, wobbled with the force of her indignation.

Having drained the last drop from her first bottle, Margaret opened the second with a flick of her wrist before pitching the cap onto the floor without concern. She took a long swig and set the beer down on the rickety table declaring, "That's it," with the hardened voice of Major Houlihan at her most unforgiving and rigid best. "From now on any man has to meet the minimum standard requirements."

Hawkeye managed a smile at his friend's newly found resolve. On the outside Margaret was a tough woman; independent and by the book, she demanded respect from everyone in her life. Having chosen a career in which women were tolerated rather than accepted, she'd made her own way up through the ranks of the military, earning well-deserved commendations and approbation from her peers. And along the way her fiery attitude and determination to make it in a man's domain had successfully emasculated more than one old-world solider and his 19th century opinions.

It took Hawkeye himself a long while to see past the gorgeous beauty with her starched and pressed uniform, officer's rulebook and no nonsense attitude. What was not obvious at first had become so in the time they had grown from sworn nemeses to firm friends. Beyond her tough, hard-nosed exterior was a kind and loving woman. Caring and selfless to a fault, these supposedly feminine characteristics had over the years been suppressed for fear they would betray her as too womanly and cause her to loose the respect of her male counterparts.

Despite her hard-boiled attitude and aspirations of a celebrated and successful career, Hawkeye suspected that in her heart Margaret wanted a solider to love, a home in standard military base housing and an entire platoon of minors and majorettes even more than she wanted a Colonel's bird to pin on her uniform. She wanted her Prince Charming, except instead of a broadsword and shinning armour, Margaret's imaginary beau wore combat boots, medals of honour and an insignia that read Lt. Colonel. (Or higher.)

Hawkeye looked across the table to his friend as she worked at pulling the damp label free from her beer bottle. Her usually ramrod straight posture was slumped, as if the weight of her dejection was a physical stress upon her back. Margaret sure hadn't found her solider prince yet. In fact, her run of luck lately had been terrible. Frank, Donald and now Scully had all failed her in one way or another. He had too, he supposed. Save for a few wonderful moments, that night on the dirt floor of the abandoned hut had been one of the most harrowing of his life. Their friendship had really begun to blossom since then and although she had by all accounts completely forgiven him, a sharp sting of guilt accompanied the pleasant memories whenever Hawkeye thought of that night.

"I'm drinking away my sorrows here and you're supposed to be listening, Pierce." A familiar impatience had snuck into Margaret's voice.

"Oh sorry," he replied, snapping free from his thoughts. "Go on."

"The minimum standard requirements: twenty percent my father, ten percent Scully," she thought for a moment, drinking more of her beer. "Ten percent you."

Pierce smiled, genuinely touched. "Oh thank you."

"Three percent Frank Burns and three... okay, two percent by ex-husband."

Hawkeye nodded silently and raised his scotch to his lips. Margaret including him with all of her failed relationships made him more than a little uncomfortable. He had never really thought of their night together as anything more than an unforeseen occurrence bred at a time of immense stress and insanity. Before their night behind enemy lines Hawkeye had, despite admiring Margaret's beauty and figure, never seriously considered that anything might ever happen between them. Their personalities were virtually polar opposites and the thought of them finding a common ground, when they were barely even friends, seemed completely improbable.

Not for the first time Hawkeye wondered if he had hurt her more deeply than she had let on by turning away from her. Something special had happened that night, but it wasn't anything that he wished to examine too closely. He didn't know if it was the fear, the despair, the pain from his wound or her, but something had stirred within him, deep down inside. That night he had seen and felt everything a little too clearly. The smallest sound had clutched at his heart, leaving him holding his breath and unable to move until the thudding of the blood and adrenaline coursing through his veins slowed to a samba beat and quietened to a dull roar. The urgency and the need had been too raw, too demanding. The comfort he had found in touching and savouring her body had been a temporary deliverance from evil in a life filled everyday with hell.

That night had been unique. He had felt something in a country, in a world away from home, where it was his intent to feel nothing. If he drank, laughed and sang enough all the blood and death would wash clean from his fingers. The stirring of emotion had taken him by surprise and the potentialities he had felt that night from their brief union, scared him more than any of the bombs that had fallen around them.

Uncomfortable with the straying of his thoughts, Hawkeye stood up from their table and collected the scrabble board he had been playing with earlier from the bar.

"What you need Margaret is a game of double solitaire scrabble," he said with flourish and a smile. "We don't score off each other and if you need a letter, like a Y for sympathy, you can have one of mine."

She took her rack of tiles from him and read the letters. "Husrakt."

He chuckled and then sat down to examine his own unpromising range of tiles.

"What if I find L-O-V-E?" She asked with a dejected smile and a raised brow.

Hawkeye smiled back. "Then you win the game."

She reviewed her tiles again and sighed, "Well it's not love, but it's far more appropriate," she said, laying out H-U-R-T across the centre of the board.

Hawkeye tutted, looking at her contribution and then down at his own letters. He used the T from hurt and laid down T-I-R-E-D.

"Margaret, if we're planning on drowning the sorrows of our miserable existence, this glass is too small to swim in."

Quickly fetching the entire bottle of scotch from behind the bar, he poured her a glass and then refilled his own. She belted back the liquor as soon as he handed her the scotch and then reached for the bottle. She filled the glass half full again and then downed the burning amber liquid in one gulp.

"Hey, slow down," he insisted, taking the bottle back. "I can't go swimming in there if you're gonna drain the pool."

"Oh what's it to you, booze hound!? You drink that liquid rat poison like water."

"The Still is the lifeblood of Korea! It's so much better than water, I would prescribe six to eight glasses of the horrid stuff daily to anyone so unfortunate to be in our little corner of Hades."

As she reached for the bottle again he opened his mouth to protest but closed it once he saw the hardened gleam in her eye. She poured, took a slow swallow and then laid down her next word on the scrabble board.

S-O-B-E-R. She smiled, very self-satisfied and raised her chin in a challenge, daring him to disagree.

Quickly, Hawkeye laid four tiles out on the board: R, U, blank, K. The blank was a J flipped upside down but the letters when lined up with the D from tired, spelled out his reply.

D-R-U-N-K. He grinned when the smile fell from her face and began to crow with laughter when her frown turned into a scowl.

"You really can't help yourself can you?" Her voice had turned hard, the friendliness of their previous banter gone.

His smile faded. "What? What did I do?"

"You," she said, eyeing him with contempt. "Everything is a big joke to you. The army... the war. Everything. I suppose though, that I'm the biggest laughing stock of all."

Hawkeye shook his head, thoroughly confused. "Margaret, what are you talking about? I wasn't making fun of you," he said, reaching out and putting a hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged him off. "Why aren't you then? My life is just one big joke after another!" she cried out. "I'm surprised you don't get a real kick out of it. First there was that snivelling weasel Frank, what a pair the two of us made huh?"

She lifted her glass in a toast. "To Mr and Mrs Regular Army," she huffed sarcastically.

Forgetting the board, Hawkeye moved around to her side of the table and pulled up a chair next to her.

"Okay, I admit I don't know what you were thinking with old ferret face," he nudged her shoulder with his and she managed a small smile at the derogatory nickname. "But you've changed a lot since then. I mean, look at us sitting here sharing a drink. Two years ago we couldn't stand to be in the same room and now here we are. You've moved on, you're not the same person you were back then."

"Yeah and look where I moved to. I married 'Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott,'" she said, derisively mimicking the reverence with which she used to pronounce her ex-husband's name.

"But you loved Donald for a while there. That's nothing to be ashamed about."

"Oh it's not? My whole life whenever I did something I made sure I did it as well as I possibly could. And I succeeded! Do you think I got this far in the army if I didn't stick things out when they got tough?! I'm divorced! My marriage failed before it had even really begun!"

"So what are you saying? You want to fix your marriage? You wanna get un-divorced?"

"To that jackass! Not on your life!" she exclaimed. "It's the principle. Houlihan's are go-getters, fighters. We don't wash out of anything!"

"I'm a Pierce. We frequently quit things we don't like, give up if something is too hard and never, not once, going back 200 years to when my great-great-great-great-GREAT grandfather, who incidentally, wasn't half the man he's purported to be, have we suffered through anything we felt wasn't worth doing. Then there's me and the war of course, but the army didn't take kindly to the very carefully worded letter I wrote declining their invitation to join this summer camp."

She gave a little snort at the comparison.

Well pleased, he continued to embellish the less than flattering attributes of his family. "Ahh... the Pierces: the great call-off, cancel anytime, returnable, refundable, return to sender, 'exchange within thirty days and your money back guaranteed!' family of Crabapple Cove, Maine. And you know what else?" he asked, his tone suddenly dropping all traces of irreverence.

"What?"

"We don't torture ourselves for being human. Margaret, this may come as a surprise but you're not perfect. So you made a mistake with Donald, that's okay, it happens."

"Oh yeah? Name the biggest mistake you ever made."

Hawkeye sighed, however sincere his compassion she wasn't exactly swallowing it smooth. But then he hadn't really expected her too.

"I assume you mean besides opening the engraved invitation I got from the draft board? I'll need five days to compile a list of every bonehead thing I've done that I wish I hadn't and four to six weeks for all the stupid things that have come out of my mouth. It's no good torturing yourself about the past. Everybody makes mistakes, even you. "

She shrugged in reply, seemingly unwilling to entertain the possibility that underneath all those rules, regulations, procedures and protocols was an imperfect human being. Despite everything, Hawkeye smiled. Margaret expected an almost impossibly high level of excellence from her nurses and then demanded twice that standard again from every part of her own life.

Reaching for the bottle, he poured liquor into their near empty glasses. Clinking his drink to hers, he raised the glass to his lips and let the smooth alcohol slide down his throat with a slow burn.

"But it's just so frustrating. And now tonight, this thing with that idiot Scully!" She exclaimed, her ire rising. "How dare that ass assume that my authority as a Major wasn't valid just because I'm a woman! How dare he negate all my years of service, as if all of my effort and sacrifice meant nothing! He just dismissed almost half my life away without a single thought in his stupid head beyond his Neanderthal chauvinism." Margaret threw back her glass, downing the remainder of her scotch. She glowered and finished darkly, "I hate all you men."

With effort he ignored her last comment and replied kindly, "Scully is a jerk. I don't need to tell you that. And I hope I don't need to tell you this but there isn't a man here who doesn't know how hard you work everyday, Major. How much you deserve that commission. And if the opinion of the worst officer in the entire eighth army matters any you're the best damn solider as well as nurse in this whole outfit."

She smiled at that. "Thank you. It just grates on me so hard. You think you have the respect of the men and then it only takes one narrow minded idiot to feel the walls of your self-confidence come crashing down around you."

Sensing the fight had finally gone out of her he risked putting an arm around her shoulders, hopeful she wouldn't shrug him off again. Happily, she didn't and even leaned towards him a little. They sat quietly together for sometime, just enjoying the peace, the liquor and each other's company.

Margaret yawned once and he found himself doing the same. A deep-seated weariness suddenly overcame him; too many hours of surgery and too little of rest had finally caught up. His senses were dulled and sleepy, the pleasant buzz of alcohol had dampened the pain from his aching feet, sore from hours of constant standing in the O.R. He yawned wide and silently, ready to turn in.

Picking up the bottle of scotch he asked, "One for the road?"

"No thanks," she replied, putting her glass down on the table and rising to her feet, "Just the road please."

His muscles protested as he rose and stretched, stiff from the day's long hours of relative inactivity and two years of sleeping on an ergonomically incorrect army cot.

"Come on," he said, ushering her to the door. "You can walk me home."

They closed up the Officer's Club for the night and left in silence. The camp was quiet and dark, everyone appeared asleep and Hawkeye wondered how late it had gotten; he hadn't noticed the time slip by.

In the middle of the compound Margaret reached out and grabbed his hand, bringing them to a stop. He turned to face her.

"Thanks for listening tonight. I needed the company," she said, giving their handclasp a light squeeze before releasing him.

"Anytime you need a drink with a friend, stop by," he smiled and pointed to the Swamp. "A gin IV and a friendly ear are standing by."

"Thank you, Hawkeye." She managed a soft smile in reply but he could tell her heart wasn't in it.

Just as she began to turn away, he touched her shoulder. "Listen, Margaret."

"Yeah?"

He dallied for a moment under the close scrutiny of her gaze, but forged ahead. "Whatever it is that you truly want, I mean in the grand scheme of things, beyond the war, beyond Korea... Whatever you want from the poker game that is life, you more than deserve it. And I hope you get handed a royal flush Margaret."

Her smile was wide and brilliant and he couldn't recall ever seeing her look more beautiful.

"So you're saying I shouldn't worry about my best hand being only a pair of deuces?"

"Throw 'em in, Margaret. You don't need no pair of stinking deuces. You'll get your perfect hand. I know you will."

She flew at him, almost knocking him to the ground with the force of her hug. His arms came around her belatedly, holding her to him and they stood in the embrace for sometime without saying a word until Margaret stepped back. She smiled up at him that same stunning grin which reached from ear to ear. He smiled back, pleased that he had been able to lift her spirits.

As he stared at her soft blue eyes and polished skin the sudden desire to bend down and press the lips of that beautiful smile to his own came from regions unknown. The impulse surprised him and he wondered if it was the liquor, the lack of sleep or just his over sexed mind intruding on their intimate moment. There was another possibility of course, an idea that BJ planted in this head months ago. At the time he'd written it off and hadn't considered it since but now as he fought back the overwhelming urge to kiss Margaret, Hawkeye wondered if he hadn't sold his observant friend, and his wild hunch, dearly short.

Despite his intense internal scrutiny, the impulse to kiss her had not abated. So, as he stared down at her smiling face he realised there was really only one thing he could do: give in to the desire.

Almost.

Bending his tall frame, he moved in slowly and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek.

"Good night, Margaret," he said, and touched his thumb to where just moments ago his kiss had grazed her cheek.

"Good night, Hawkeye."

Giving him one last smile she turned and wandered off towards her tent.

His eyes followed her as she walked away and then disappeared from view. After a moment he made his way toward the Swamp and found his two bunkies, Charles and BJ, fast asleep inside.

He took off his jacket and sat down on his cot to untie his boots. His mind played over the last few minutes repetitively, stuck in a groove like Charles' Brahms record that Hawkeye had unintentionally scratched on purpose. He had never considered that he might have feelings for Margaret, but now knowing that he, Hawkeye Pierce, had wanted to kiss his old enemy Major Hot-lips Houlihan, who probably saluted her parents before she could walk, wrote the book on Officer's conduct as well as memorised it and saw something beyond total incompetence Frank Burns, challenged all the certainties of life.

Too tired to think and a little afraid of what might be found he delegated the internal soul search to another day. Toeing out of his boots, he picked one up and weighed in his hand. A moment later he heaved it through the darkness towards the outline of BJ's rump.

"OW!"

"That's for being right."

As BJ stirred, Hawkeye picked up his other boot sending it in the same direction of the last.

"And that's for being too smart for your own good."

"Hawk, I'm trying to sleep here! Quit it!"

"Okay," he replied, slipping into his own cot. "But only cause I'm outta boots."

"Gentlemen please! Cease and desist this otiose prattle at once!" Charles thundered from the other side of the Swamp.

"Good night, BJ."

"Sleep well," he grunted in reply. "But expect a wake up call. One extra large boot calling direct to your butt as soon as I wake up."

"Tell the operator to re-direct it to my foot locker. It takes the trunk calls."

"Ugh. Bad, Hawk. Bad."

"Whaddya expect on 30 hours without sleep?"

A rustle of sheets and a protesting squeak of a cot came through the darkness. "I expect some peace and quiet in this tent at two o'clock in the morning!"

"Gee, do you hear something, Hawk?"

"Not a thing. Good night Beej."

END

The full title of this piece is "Love is a Four Letter Word." But I didn't want to misrepresent this as a romance story. (Or roll countless pairs of eyes at another H/M fic) I've tried to stay true to canon and explore when Hawkeye might have begun to realise that he felt something a little deeper than friendship for our favourite Major. Let me know how I did. I'm fairly new to this fandom so if this bares any resemblance to a fanfic already in existence it is purely coincidental.