Disclaimer: The characters, alas, are not mine. They belong to Fox. But once I got the idea, I just had to write it down. By the way, spelling is in English English (not American English), 'cos that's where I am and that's how I write. Constructive feedback and comments welcome! Thanks.
September 1953. Denver, Colorado
Charles Emerson Winchester III emerged from the Hotel's auditorium feeling triumphant. His presentation had gone well, he'd fielded the questions with aplomb, been rewarded with a warm ovation, and had already received an invitation from the Walter Reed medical facility to give a similar talk in Washington DC..
"Fine lecture, Doctor Winchester." A distinguished-looking gentleman in a Yale tie shook his hand. "Perhaps you'd do us the honour of giving a talk at our medical school some time?"
"Ye-e-e-s. Some time. Perhaps," said Charles, biting back his initial retort that nothing could possibly induce him to set foot on the Yale campus. He had the impression that Mr Yale was about to attempt to press him further, when rescue came from a completely unexpected quarter.
"Hey, Charles! Neat speech!"
"Yeah, loved the bit where you actually gave some credit to your ol' buddies in the 4077th. I nearly broke into spontaneous applause!"
"Pierce. Hunnicutt. I don't believe it. What in the name of Hippocrates are you doing here?"
"It's a medical conference, right? We're medics, where else would we be but catching up on the latest...ah..."
"...latrichium treatments," finished BJ, drawing a grin from Charles. That had been a pretty inspired moment even for him - inventing an entire organ, giving it an imaginary disease, and then treating it.
"Wonder where that wretched Mutual Funds salesman is now?" he mused.
"See?" said BJ to Hawkeye, "Told you he'd give us a smile! That'll be ten dollars, please." He extended a hand and a peeved-looking Hawkeye slapped a ten-dollar bill into it.
"Tell me you didn't come all this way just to settle a bet?" said Charles, "Surely even you two couldn't be that dumb?"
"Thanks, Charles, we missed you too."
"Yeah. Don't know about you, Beej, but I wish we hadn't bothered to book that table for lunch now."
"Actually, I'm supposed to be eating here," said Charles, as they led him across the foyer and away from the restaurant, "Though I confess the Quail en Croute was something of a disappointment yesterday. Where are we heading, exactly?"
"Only across the street," said BJ, pointing at the Metropolitan Hotel as they exited The Grand. "Hawk and I only registered last week, so we got put in the overspill accommodation."
"How come you got to be a guest speaker anyway, Charles? You've only been home for six weeks or so!"
"Oh, the Conference sent a delegation to meet me at the airport when I got off the plane in Boston," he said, airily, "Said they'd heard I was back in the States, and all but begged me to fill their last vacant speakers slot." He waited a moment while envy, disgust and incredulity registered on their faces, before admitting: "Actually, that's not strictly true. One of my colleagues was supposed to be giving a talk, but he came off his motorbike three weeks ago and broke his knee. Which is why I'm here instead."
"That explains why your name didn't show up on my Conference literature till last week," said Hawkeye. He grinned. "If it hadn't, my wife would never have insisted that we meet BJ here!"
"Your... what?" spluttered Charles, as Hawkeye led the way across the Metropolitan's lobby. He had no time to say more before the door to the Restaurant swung open in front of him and he saw a familiar figure waving from a table in the corner. "Margaret?" he said. He stopped, turned to Hawkeye. "You and she...?"
"Yeah." Hawkeye had the grace to look sheepish. "Sorry we didn't invite you, Charles, but we kind of took ourselves by surprise. Even BJ wasn't there."
"Which explains why we're all here," said BJ, "Belated wedding breakfast."
"But that's marvellous!" said Charles, shaking Hawkeye vigorously by the hand, "My congratulations. BJ - I believe you owe me $20?"
"What?" said Hawkeye, "Wait a minute..."
Charles gathered his winnings from BJ and made his way across to Margaret. He kissed her on the cheek, then smiled. "Oh, the hell with it," he said, and gave her a scorching kiss on the lips.
"Hey, do you mind?" Hawkeye's protesting tones were accompanied by a firm tap on the shoulder. Charles could feel Margaret's smile against his mouth, and kissed her harder as he felt her arms slide around his neck.
"Charles? Charles, will you put her down, please?"
It was no use, he was laughing too hard to continue the teasing, and he pulled away from the new Mrs Pierce, grinning.
"I don't believe you!" Hawkeye complained, "First you have the nerve to bet on our wedding, and then you start making love to my wife. And in public too!"
Charles blushed a little and straightened his tie as he realised the other restaurant clientele were staring.
"Bet on our wedding?" said Margaret, as the men sat down. "What do you mean?"
"Well, we all saw that kiss you gave each other before we went our separate ways," says Charles, reaching for the wine menu, "BJ's probably told you that he and I ended up on the same plane out of Tokyo, but I guess he failed to mention our little wager. I said you two would be married within six months."
"And I said it would take at least twelve," said BJ, holding up the menu as a shield as Margaret looked around for something to throw. "Charles, you're covered in lipstick."
"I'll bet!" smirked Charles, wiping his mouth with his hanky and examining the evidence. "Now I know how you got your nickname," he said to Margaret, "Wow!"
"Look, never mind with the 'wow'," said Hawkeye, "Just... pick us out a decent wine and shut up!"
"Ah, Pierce - from Romeo to Othello in so short a time," said Charles. He began to peruse the wine list, noting with a certain amount of surprise that there were some half-decent vintages on offer. He glanced over at the piano in the corner as someone began to play a light jazz piece, looked back at the menu - then registered who the pianist was, and jerked his gaze back to check he was right. "Ellie!" he gasped.
"Did someone around here mention Romeo?" murmured BJ, folding the menu and passing it across to Margaret.
"Hey, it is her," said Margaret, "You remember, Hawk - she was with that troupe of USO entertainers who had that terrible comedian."
"And an appendicitis case with a crush on her surgeon," remembered BJ. "Eleanor was the one who played the accordion, wasn't she? I didn't realise she played the piano too."
"Oh, didn't you hear about her playing in the Officers' Club then?" said Margaret, "She got Charles' attention with some classical piece..."
"It was from Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique, actually," muttered Charles.
"...And then got the whole place dancing with Roll out the Barrel." Margaret smiled. "I heard it from Kellye - she was dancing with Charles."
"You?" said BJ, staring at Charles as though seeing him for the first time, "You danced round the Officers' Club?"
"With nurse Kellye?" added Hawkeye, "Boy, I wish I'd seen that!"
"I'm so glad you didn't." Charles smiled with relief as the waiter came over to take their order. The conversation had been heading towards dangerous waters - even if the other three hadn't realised it - and he was glad of the interruption. Much more of that line, and someone might just have remembered that he'd run to OR the next morning from the direction of the Supply room - and escorted Ellie to breakfast the day after that from the same direction.
"I'll have the lamb cutlets," he said. "Nice to have a decent choice, isn't it? Remember those awful cold cuts we got for breakfast, in the middle of all that rain?"
"Or that congealed grease masquerading as mashed potato?" put in BJ.
"And if I never see another helping of powdered egg, it will be too soon," said Hawkeye.
Charles sat back, content that his change of subject had put Ellie out of their minds. But she hadn't disappeared from his. As they ate and chatted, he couldn't help glancing in her direction. Her hair was a little shorter, he thought, and she was wearing a touch more make-up, but she was just as attractive as he remembered.
Intent on her playing, she appeared not to have noticed him, and he was not sure whether he minded that or not. While he was deciding, she finally looked his way at the same time as he was looking at her - and he smothered a smile as he heard her hit a wrong note. She covered it well and he doubted anyone else had even noticed, but it had definitely been there. She remembered him then.
"Charles. Just go talk to the girl," Hawkeye said, gesturing in Ellie's direction.
"Oh yes you were," said BJ.
"Charles, you've been staring at her so hard you didn't even notice your tie was in your gravy," said Margaret.
He looked down. Four inches of expensive grey silk nestled cosily on his plate next to the remains of his cutlets, sucking up sauce. "Oh damn," he muttered, pulling the dripping end clear and mopping it with a napkin.
He stole another glance in Ellie's direction. She had put her head down and he thought at first that she was trying not to laugh; but then something about the way she was playing made him look again. She was rushing the piece, sliding the notes together, apparently trying to get it over with as quickly as possible. And when she finished and looked back at him, he realised she was not laughing but fighting tears.
She didn't wait to acknowledge the smatter of applause from the restaurant patrons, but rushed straight off the little platform and out of the door behind her.
"You going to just sit there?" said BJ.
One look at their three expectant faces told Charles there was no point lingering for an argument - not that he really wanted to. Throwing down the napkin, he strode across the room and out through the door that was still swinging slightly from Ellie's exit. He was just in time to catch sight of a door closing to at the end of the corridor.
"Ellie!" he called, breaking into a brief jog, "Ellie!" He knocked, called her name again. "Eleanor, open the door. Please?"
"Please go away, Charles - I can't see you, I can't!"
"But you must! I have to know what I've done to upset you so."
There was no reply, and he leaned against the doorjamb for a moment while he pondered what to say.
"Ellie - I'll call for reinforcements if I have to. We'll camp out here till you come out - or you let me in. I don't care which!"
The silence went on for so long that he wondered whether he might have to actually follow through on his threat and fetch the others. But after what seemed an eternity, he heard her say, quietly, "All right."
A moment later, the lock turned and she opened the door just enough to peek out at him. "Just remember that I didn't want to do this, Charles. Not like this." She stepped back and he pushed the door open, followed her inside...
And stopped dead, feeling as though some invisible force had just hit him in the chest.
In front of Ellie, sitting in an easy chair beside a neatly-made bed, was Brandy Doyle. On her lap was a baby.
A baby that - save for the pink dress - looked just like his little brother Timmy.
Charles groped for the edge of the bed, lowered himself onto it, all the time staring at the child.
"How... how old is she?" As though he really needed to ask.
"Six months, next Tuesday."
He switched his gaze to look up at Ellie. "Why didn't you tell me?" His voice was low, a little husky.
Before she answered him, she took the baby from the other woman, saying: "I need to talk to him, Brandy - please?"
With a last glare in Charles' direction, the older woman got up and left, muttering something about 'doctors' under her breath as she did so. Ellie waited till the door was shut before sitting herself down beside Charles and resting the baby on her lap.
"Charles, sweetheart, you're richer than a small third world country. What was I going to write you? 'Dear Charles, I'm having your child, please send money'?" She shook her head, kissed the baby, who looked up at her and smiled. "I couldn't do that."
Charles reached across to take one of the child's hands gently in his, a smile touching his lips as tiny fingers gripped his. "You didn't think I had a right to know?"
"I was going to get in touch - I've got a couple recitals pencilled in for Boston next month," she said, "I just couldn't tell you right away, not without proving that I could manage..." She choked to a halt, and Charles tentatively put an arm across her shoulders. She didn't pull away.
"I'm sorry," he said, at a loss to know what else to say, where to start making this right.
"I'm not. I wouldn't be without her for worlds."
"What's her name?"
"Elizabeth Charlotte. Like it?"
He nodded. "It's beautiful."
"She's the image of you, isn't she?"
"Actually, she looks just like Timmy. First thing I noticed when I walked in." It occurred to him that it was - in a way - Timmy's small shadow that had led to this. Ellie and her colleagues had arrived not long after a sniper had put a bullet through his cap, triggering memories of how he had felt when his brother died. When he and Ellie had left the Officers' Club they'd taken a walk and somehow, in the search for privacy, had ended up in the Supply Room. Ellie had asked why he kept laughing at Freddie's terrible jokes, and Charles had confessed that he thought it might be a reaction to what had happened the previous week. He'd tried to explain, while she'd listened and held him, and then gently kissed him. And he'd kissed her back, and for a little while he'd forgotten all about war and horror and death. Next day, there had been an endless procession of wounded to attend to in OR, but Ellie had been waiting for him when at last he'd put the final stitch in place, and they'd found their way to the seclusion of the Supply room again.
"So," said Ellie, bringing his thoughts back to the present, "What happens now?"
Through the glass panel set into the door, Charles could see that his friends were still waiting for him in the restaurant, a sea of coffee cups testifying to the time they had spent there.
Charles raised a hand, with the intention of buttoning his collar and straightening his tie, then let the hand drop, knowing that the others wouldn't care how dishevelled he looked. They cared about him. When his parents had told him to mix only with The Right People, Pierce, Hunnicutt and Margaret were not what they had had in mind. But - although he'd never admit it to them - they were some of the rightest people he knew. They'd tease him unmercifully when he told them about Ellie's little surprise package, but, unlike the cream of Boston Society, they wouldn't judge him, blame him or ostracise him. They were there. They would understand.
He opened the door and went across to them.
"Did you find her?"
"Is she okay?"
"Are you okay?"
BJ poured a glass of wine for him and he took a long draught from it before he responded to their questioning.
"Eleanor's doing fine," he said, "I'm not sure about me." He looked over toward the door, where he had asked Ellie to wait, nodded to her to come over. "She came back from Korea with something to remember me by."
There was a moment of stunned silence, followed - as he had anticipated - by several minutes of ribbing and smart remarks ("Wasn't it you who said people shouldn't practice licence without a medicine?" Hawkeye immediately quipped) while Ellie sat down beside him, cuddling Beth.
"Oh, she's so cute," said Margaret, "May I hold her, Eleanor?"
"Sure." Ellie passed the infant across the table, and Margaret immediately left off teasing Charles and started cooing over the baby. Hawkeye began to tease Margaret, leaving it to BJ to switch back to serious mode first.
"Charles - what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to do the right thing," he said, putting a hand over Ellie's where it rested on the table, "Ellie and Beth are going to come back to Boston with me. Ellie took a little persuading, but I've managed to talk her into marrying me - for Elizabeth's sake if not her own."
"Charles, I thought you swore off doing the honourable thing after you refused to lie about me for Colonel Baldwin, and lost your chance to get posted back to Tokyo," said Margaret. The look on her face bore the same mixture of respect and admiration she'd had that night in the Officers' Club. Just as it had then, it helped - just a little - to make him feel better.
By now, Hawkeye had switched to being serious too. "Charles, how are your parents going to react?"
Charles had been trying not to think about that. "I don't know, Hawkeye," he said, "I just don't know."To be continued...