Flexible Truths by Djinn

Margaret Houlihan learned to falsify things in Korea--medical records, her own personal history, how she felt about certain people in her life. Her mother doesn't understand her. Her father doesn't either, but he's benefiting from it. His record will remain flawless. Well, the divorce may have been a flaw, but there will be no notation that the thing that's killing him is cirrhosis of the liver caused by too much drinking that he started after that not-so-fun divorce. The divorce he never would open up to her about.

She wishes she could give up on her father. Wishes that she wasn't still trying to please him. But she can't give up.

"Margaret?" He is in and out, now. One moment lucid, the next somewhere else. She saw it enough times in Korea to know that he's not going to be with her much longer.

"What, Daddy?"

"Where's your mother?" Sometimes, he forgets about the divorce.

She doesn't remind him. "She's coming, Daddy. Just a little while longer."

Her mother is on her way. Or so she said. But it would be like her to be late for this. To come in once Howitzer Al is dead and gone. Passive-aggressive. Margaret learned terms like that in the psych class she took for the hell of it. Her mother is passive-aggressive. Margaret has the opposite problem--she's aggressive-aggressive. Never knows when to stop.

"Baby girl?" Her father must think she's back in grade school. Not that she minds--those were the days when she didn't have to work so hard to please him. The days before she didn't make lieutenant colonel right on schedule. Before she got out of the Army altogether, breaking his heart, or so he said.

Seems to her, his heart broke a long time before that. And that it shattered altogether right about the time the booze started breaking down his liver. Back when she was still in Korea, and he came to see her and then wouldn't spend any time with her.

"Baby girl?" he says again.

"What, Daddy."

"I'm sorry I didn't make your recital."

"It's okay." She doesn't know which recital he means. He didn't make most of them.

"No, I wanted to hear you sing. You have such a sweet voice, Margaret." He never shortens her name. Never calls her Margie, or Meg, or Peggy. Always Margaret. Named after his grandmother on his dad's side.

"Thanks, Daddy."

He smiles, and she knows he isn't seeing her. Not the woman, but maybe the girl. Maybe he's back in California, laughing and throwing her up over his head and catching her--always catching her.

She was never afraid he'd drop her. Not until she got older and he stopped reaching out for her at all.

His breathing sounds funny, and she sits down, waiting, the way she waited with the GIs when they died. Sometimes the doctors would sit with her. She liked it best when it was Hawkeye, but B.J. was probably the most tender. Hawkeye always had that angry look--like it was his fault the kid died. But B.J. would just pat her arm and say, "It's over, Margaret." And then he'd get up and go check on the other patients before turning in.

Hawkeye would check on them, too. But then he'd usually come back to her when she was finished with the final paperwork, and they'd go together to her tent. And they'd forget for a while. Or try to.

"Margaret?" Her father is staring at her, and his eyes are here, in the now, not in the past. He knows which Margaret he's talking to. "You should be happy. I want you to be happy." He frowns. "Why aren't you in love? Don't make the same mistakes that I did, baby. Don't push the ones you love away." He reaches for her hand, and she meets him more than halfway, not wanting him to waste energy. "I want you to be happy, Margaret." He seems agitated, vehement that she find the happiness that's eluded both of them.

"I will be, Daddy."

"Promise me. Promise me you'll try."

"I'll try."

He squeezes her hand. His eyes close, and he breathes out, and then he's gone.

She can't see him anymore, because her eyes have filled with tears. And she doesn't want to let go, even though his grip is loosening on hers and soon the warmth will leech from his skin. She wants to hold onto him forever.

She knows she can't. She forces herself to set his hand down on his chest, to let go of him. Busying herself in the ritual she knows too well, she logs the time of death.

Cause of death: congestive heart failure. She doesn't feel any guilt, hasn't since that Christmas when she lied for the first time on a medical record so that a family would never know they'd lost someone on the holiday. Hawkeye turned the clock ahead so they could say the GI died on the 26th. It hurt a little to lie, but she's discovered lying is like sex: if you do it right, it only hurts the first time.

The doctors will back her up, because most of the doctors here are worse than Frank. They don't even read what she takes the time to write down. It's one reason she hates it here. She's only stayed because here is where her father was admitted. Because he needed her. Now...now she's free.

She makes sure the doctor signs the forms. It's Doctor Thanery, the ward supervisor. He sweeps his signature across the line, doesn't look anywhere else on the forms.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Margaret."

"Thank you, sir." She hands him an envelope.

"What's this?"

"My notice. I'll be gone in two weeks." She doesn't care if she gets a reference from him. She knows where she is going. And if that doesn't work, she has other options. Places where people know her--people who love her even though they've seen her at her very worst. That's what her life will be now, close to people who understand her.

She is on her way out the door when her mother bustles up, managing to look as if she tried to get there, but circumstances just conspired against her--as if she cares deeply. "Oh, honey, is it too late?"

"Yes, it is. Your timing's impeccable as always, Mother." Margaret pushes past her.

"I want to do something." She hurries after Margaret.

"Then go say goodbye to your husband."

"My ex-husband, Margaret. I know you don't like to think of us apart but..." Her mother gets the sour look she wore through most of Margaret's teenage years. "I mean, would you want to go see Donald?"

"It's not the same thing, Mom."

"It never is when it's me, is it? You never give me the benefit of the doubt." Her mother shakes her head and walks into the hospital, leaving Margaret alone.

Margaret doesn't mind. Her mother has been doing that to her for most of her life. It's almost comforting that nothing has changed.

--------------

It was a long drive to Crabapple Cove. She could have called Hawkeye from Portland. Or from Boston. Or from Baltimore even, if she'd wanted to save herself a trip. But she was afraid she'd lose her nerve.

So she just drove. And here she is. In the diner in the middle of the picturesque little town. She goes to the pay phone, drops in a coin, and dials a number she has known by heart for years.

"Hello." It's him.

"Hi." She's not sure what she'll do if he doesn't know it's her, because her mouth has gone dry and all the liquid has fled to her hands, which are sweating so badly she has to wipe them on her skirt.

"Where are you?"

"I'm having strawberry-rhubarb pie." She's so nervous she can only talk in riddles.

Fortunately, he is good at them. "Don't go. I'll be right there."

"Hawk."

"Yeah?" He can put so much into one word, but she imagines she put a lot into just his name.

"I'm not sure I should have come."

"Oh, no, you should have. Just...just wait there. I'll be right there." It sounds like he has put the phone down, but then he says, "Wait. All right?"

"Yes. All right." She hangs up because she has this image of him afraid to hang up for fear she might flee. Why would she flee? She's never been here before. It's not as if she's tried this, that they came together and didn't work.

The waitress looks up as Margaret walks back to the counter.

"I'm going to move to a booth, okay?"

"Sure, sweetheart. I'll help you." The older woman gives lie to the story that New Englanders are cold. "You want another place setting?"

"Yes, that would be nice." Margaret smiles at her, and she can feel her mouth trembling.

"You okay, honey?"

"I don't know yet." She sits in the booth, sips at her coffee.

The woman bustles around, setting down a placemat, putting down silverware and a cup and saucer. She tucks a napkin under the fork. Then she looks toward the door and frowns a little. "You waiting for a certain Pierce boy?"

"I am." Margaret can tell her voice is nervous, that it's shaking a little.

"Well, he's arrived. Broke a few traffic laws too, I think, to get here that fast." She looks back toward the door. "Hawkeye, she's over here."

"Elsie, my love, coffee and keep it coming." He sits down, seems to be drinking Margaret in with his eyes.

"You want pie, too?" Elsie asks him.

He ignores the question. "Elsie, this is a very dear friend. Margaret, Elsie used to baby-sit for me." His smile is the same. Luminous, mischievous, still full of that sense of "Can you believe it?" he always managed to load into the expression.

Margaret smiles because she can't not smile when he's looking at her that way.

Then she sees his hand. His left hand, his ring finger. With a ring on it. A plain, gold band.

He sees what she is looking at, and his smile dies a little.

Elsie seems to sense the mood, says, "I'll get that coffee."

"You have kids?" Margaret asks.

"No." He leans back, his eyes never leaving hers. "It's not how you think."

"I think that's a wedding ring."

"Well, okay, that part is how you think. But..."

She pushes the pie away, suddenly not hungry. "It's all right. It was silly of me to think you'd be alone." She looks down.

"But you came up here for me?"

She doesn't want to admit that. Knows it will make her feel stupid. So she turns the truth a bit. "I...I just wanted to catch up with an old friend."

"Last I heard you were in Baltimore. That's quite a drive just to catch up with an old friend."

"Well, it's you. I do stupid things for you. I always have."

His smile is very gentle. "I didn't think they were stupid." He leans forward. "My marriage is ending."

She laughs and it's bitter sounding. "Oh, Pierce. I heard that enough times from Frank."

"Well, the difference is I'm not Frank. I don't have a long history of lying to you. Aggravating you, yes. Lying...?" He sighs.

Elsie comes over with the coffee, pouring him some.

"Elsie, I need you to tell my friend something for me."

"What's that, Hawkeye?"

"Tell her what state my marriage is in."

She looks startled, as if she can't imagine he wants her to talk about such a thing.

"It's all right," Margaret says. "I don't need to know."

"She does need to know." Hawkeye isn't smiling anymore. He's in one of his rare very serious moods.

It must be as rare to Elsie as it always has been to Margaret, because she nods slowly. "Way I heard it, you and Barbara are splitting up." She looks at Margaret. "I can't say I mind. Barbara never really fit in here."

"Barbara's a stuck-up prig who would make Charles look laid back." He sounds bitter. "She hates Crabapple Cove, she doesn't like my dad, and she's really sick of me."

"And she doesn't like my pie," Elsie says, as if that should explain everything.

"It's delicious pie," Margaret says. It's the right thing to say. Elsie pats her on the hand and leaves them alone.

"Can you stay awhile?"

"I can stay." Margaret laughs--it sounds a little too close to hysterical for her taste. "I have everything I care about in my car." She sold most of the stuff in her dad's house. Held a big old garage sale and traded memories for cash.

"You're not going back?"

"I quit my job. I figured I'd stop here first. And then maybe I'd head to Missouri to see if Colonel Potter knew of anyone needing a surgical nurse."

"Don't go to Missouri. We need nurses here."

"I don't want to see your wife at the hospital."

"You won't--or not for long. She's leaving at the end of the month." His mouth twists a little, the expression bitter. "She's accepted a job in Chicago."

"I'm sorry."

"It's home for her. If I'd wanted to keep her, I'd have moved with her."

"But this is your home."

"Yeah." He stares down, into his coffee, as if the future--or maybe the past--lies in the black brew.

Margaret looks away. "This isn't the best time to be here. Maybe I should just leave you alone to figure this out?"

"No." He takes her hand; his fingers stroke hers gently. "No, it's exactly the right time for you to be here. I need you."

She pulls her hand away. "Hawkeye, I told myself after Frank that I wouldn't do this anymore. I wouldn't be a mistress."

"You don't have to be. Just...be my friend. Until she's gone and the divorce is final, and then you can be whatever you want. Okay?"

She doesn't answer.

"Margaret? Okay?"

She meets his eyes. "My father told me to be happy."

He waits.

"It was the last thing he told me." She is crying, but she is not sure if it's because she misses her Dad or because this is not how she wanted her reunion with Hawkeye to go.

"I'm sorry, Margaret." He is holding her hand, then he lets go and gets out of his seat, walking to her side. "Move over."

She does it because, as much as she likes to argue with him, she's also used to doing what he says. He puts his arms around her and pulls her close, and she lets herself cry.

"When did he die?"

"About three weeks ago." In two more days, it will be exactly three weeks ago. She pulls free, smiling at him through her tears as she brushes them off her cheeks. "I must look a mess." There will be makeup running down her face. She is never a pretty crier.

"You look great to me." He leans in, kisses her gently--in a way he rarely kissed her in Korea. They were all about desperate passion back then, not this tender touching. "I can't wait for you to meet my dad." There is no uncertainty in his voice.

"I'd rather not meet him as your new girlfriend while the old one's still married to you."

"He won't mind." From the way he says it, she realizes he isn't lying. His father may welcome her with open arms.

"How long have you and she been unhappy?"

He laughs, and she remembers the sound from Korea. It's his disparaging laugh--but not disparaging to her, it's himself he's going to run roughshod over. "Too long." He leans back, one arm still around her. "I kept trying to make her happy. I kept giving up more and more."

"You?"

"I know. Me. Hawkeye-the lothario of Korea." He waggles his eyebrows at her, but there is something very sad in his expression. "I kept thinking if I just tried harder..."

"I know. I thought that with Donald, too." She relaxes against him; his once lean frame has grown sturdier since he left Korea. "But sometimes it's not us. Sometimes it's them."

It took her forever to figure that out with her father. That she had to stop trying to please him. That it wasn't about her, anymore. It was about some dark unhappiness deep inside him. It colored everything. Made him push everyone away.

He hadn't wanted that for her.

A pair of older folks walk into the diner; Hawkeye waves at them. They look a little curious as to who his new friend is, but they wave back and give her a big smile.

She smiles back, says under her breath, "They really must not like your wife here."

"They really don't." He sighs. "She never tried very hard. Kept saying it was quaint here. Quaint translates in all sorts of ways, especially over time."

He reaches over for his coffee, and they sit in a companionable silence as he finishes her pie for her. Elsie comes over, filling up both their cups. She's also brought Margaret some ice cream in a small dish. Soft serve, with a little cone on top.

"Thanks." Margaret digs in; the ice cream tastes wonderful. Pierce steals the cone.

"Well, since he ate all your pie for you..." Elsie gives Margaret a sympathetic smile--probably couldn't have missed the crying jag even if she wanted to.

Between bites of cone, Hawkeye says, "Elsie, you know everything. Margaret's going to stay here. Does Paul still have an apartment for rent?"

"I believe he does, Hawkeye. You want me to call him?"

"I do, indeed." His arm has tightened around Margaret, as if he's afraid she'll run in fear because he's planning her life away. "Don't look so panicky, Margaret. It's just an apartment. You need somewhere to live."

"It's real reasonable. I'll call Paul." Elsie disappears into the kitchen.

"Paul's her son. One of my best friends. You'll like him; he's a good landlord." He lets go of her. "Unless you want to go to Missouri?" He sounds as if that is the worst idea in the world.

"We never worked for very long, Hawkeye. You and I. Together."

"Different circumstances. And we're different people, now, I think. I know a lot of my illusions are gone about what life would be like when I got home."

"Yeah, mine too."

"Well, see. We're perfect for each other."

Elsie comes bustling out of the kitchen. "He'll meet you there in ten minutes. How's that for service?"

He stands, pulls Margaret up after him. Bussing Elsie on the cheek, he says, "You're the greatest, you know that." He slips her a bill, doesn't wait for the change.

"Oh, you sweet talker, you." She grins at Margaret. "Go on, honey. But watch out for this one. He could charm the rattles off a snake."

Margaret laughs. It's probably true. It probably should worry her. It probably should worry her that it doesn't worry her even though it's true.

"I know that look. Quit thinking, Margaret. Just walk." And he pulls her out of the diner and out to the parking lot. "We'll take my car?"

"Mine's closer."

"I know, but you can't drive off after you think better of this whole plan if you're in mine."

"When did you get to be such a planner?" But he's not wrong. She could drive off and leave him. A part of her wants to.

He's smart enough to know it, to know her and how she thinks. And that's why she's not going to drive off and leave him. That's why she'll stay for a while.

----------------------

"I've got to say, Margaret. I like the change in Hawkeye since you came to work here." Doctor Robinson winks at her. He's been nice to her since she started, but there is something not so nice in the wink.

"Thanks, I think."

"No, I mean it. Obviously, you are just what the doctor ordered." His wink turns into a leer. One she wants to slug off his face.

"Excuse me, Doctor, but I need to make rounds."

"Would Pierce's office be part of those rounds?" He moves closer. "And call me John. I'd like us to be better friends. Much better friends."

Her smile is frozen on her face as she pushes past him. She is too strong for him to stop, and she thanks God for army training.

"Margaret?" Pierce finds her in the break room, staring out at the window. "I thought you'd come by and see me."

"They all know."

"They all know what?"

"What I am to you."

He smiles. "You're my friend." He moves a little closer, but not so close that it screams "lover" to anyone watching.

Even though he is her lover. She can't resist him now any better than she could in Korea. She tried, and he tried, and they made it a whole five days before they fell into bed together.

The next day, Hawkeye brought soap to her place. The kind he used at home. She hadn't felt cheap until then.

As chief resident, he's been careful to keep their work schedules together, to keep his wife's very separate. She's leaving in a week, this woman Margaret has only seen from afar. This woman Margaret hates if only because she has what Margaret wants.

Margaret can't wait for the woman to leave. But part of her keeps thinking that something will happen, and she won't leave, and Margaret will be stuck in this role forever.

"Margaret?" Hawkeye asks, a tender smile on his face. "Where'd you go?"

She shrugs. It is safer than telling him the truth.

He moves closer. "Something happened, didn't it?"

"Your buddy John wants us to be better friends."

He frowns. "The three of us?"

"No." She glares at him. "He wants to be better friends with me."

"He said that?"

She nods.

"How dare he!" He is outraged, the way he used to get in Korea, and she smiles. It is spontaneous, this outrage. He is not having to think about defending her, he is just doing it.

"It's okay. I didn't say yes."

"Well, you better not have." He studies her, anger still in his eyes. "I'm sorry. I'll talk to him if you want."

"Don't. It doesn't matter." She sighs. "You know, I think we got spoiled in Korea. Life was so...free there."

"I know."

"I hope I'm not interrupting?" A shrill voice. Angry, too.

Margaret turns and finds herself facing a tall, very thin, elegant looking woman. Her dark brown hair is perfectly coiffed, her makeup looks like it would be right at home on the pages of Vogue, and her uniform is so white it glistens.

"So. You're the new girl." She moves closer. "I'm Barbara. The wife." She looks bored. "I usually don't bother introducing myself, but you've lasted longer than the rest. I feel I should congratulate you on your staying power."

Margaret glances at Hawkeye, trying to read his expression. He looks over at her, his eyes calm, and then he shakes his head ever so slightly. It's his old sign from Korea. The one that tells her a patient is terminal but doesn't know it. It's a sign he never gave falsely.

She knows he could have played around. She knows she could be the latest in a long string of women. She also knows that this woman wants to strike out, and if Hawkeye's happy now because Margaret is in his life, then getting Margaret to leave would be Barbara's best revenge.

It's probably what Margaret would have done, if their roles were reversed.

"Pierce and I go way back. Not a lot you can say that will shock me." Margaret keeps her voice calm and casual. As if they are talking about what kind of clam they like best, not things that cut deep if you let them.

"Did he tell you I'm leaving?" She says it as if it's just another one of Hawkeye's stories. Designed to get the girl.

"Yes. Aren't you?"

The woman hesitates. As if she wants to hurt them both, but can't bring herself to lie. Finally, she just turns on her heel and walks out.

Margaret starts to follow her, feels Hawkeye's hand on her arm, and turns to him. "No. I need to."

He lets go of her, but the expression on her face clearly says he doesn't think she needs to.

She hurries out, sees the woman entering the stairwell. "Wait," she says as she opens the door and stops on the landing.

Barbara turns. She is crying.

"You still love him?"

She shrugs. "He doesn't love me. I don't love our marriage. I don't know." She gives Margaret a hateful glance, as if she is to blame for all of this, and turns away.

"I know how infuriating he can be. But he's been through a lot."

"You know that why? Because you shared his past? In Korea?" Barbara doesn't look at her as she talks. "You think because you lived through hell that you're in some special club, don't you? Well, there's a lot more of us who aren't in that damned club than who are. And it's not our fault we didn't see men bleed and die. It's not our faults we didn't suffer the way you did."

"No. It's not your fault." Margaret walks the few steps that will put them on even ground, that will let her see this woman who is holding up her life with Pierce. "But we were there. And we did see and hear and smell things that you can't ever imagine."

Barbara turns to her, and Margaret takes a step back at the venom in the woman's expression. "Do you want my forgiveness for being my husband's whore?"

She wants to walk away, she wants to slug Barbara and knock her down the stairs. She wants to run out of the hospital, or back up the stairs and into Pierce's arms. But she doesn't. She forces herself to stand still, staring Barbara down. Then, very slowly and clearly, she says, "That's not what I am. But I guess you might see it that way." She turns and walks back up the stairs, putting as much army as she can into her walk, into her stance.

"He dreamed about you. Even when we were first married." Barbara is staring up at her, angry tears in her eyes.

"Then I guess we're even. In Korea, he dreamed about having a woman like you." It's mostly true. In Korea, Hawkeye may well have dreamed about having any woman--or every woman. But it is a gift to her rival. The only one she can give.

It does not seem well received. "You're still his whore. And everyone in this place knows it." Barbara's lips tilt up, one side only, slowly and cruelly. As if she knows exactly where to strike to make Margaret hurt.

Margaret keeps her face still, giving Barbara the Major Houlihan look--the cold, stone-faced look that scared even grown men. She lets the emptiness she's felt for so long fill her eyes. She lets the woman see that she doesn't care what she goes through to get to happiness. She'll do it. She's been through hell; she can do it again.

Barbara blinks quickly, then turns and hurries away.

Margaret hears the door open behind her. "You caught all that?" she asks Hawkeye.

"I was guarding the door. And yes, I caught it."

She turns, looks up at him.

He shakes his head. "There were no other women."

"Okay."

"And you're not my whore."

"A little shaky on that one." She walks to him, takes his arm. "But hell, if they all know about us, then why are we acting like we don't like each other?"

He lays his hand over hers. "I more than like you. I love you."

He's never, ever told her that. She wishes that love doesn't have to follow so closely on the heels of whore. But maybe she should just be happy. Maybe she should take what she can get.

"I love you, Margaret," he says again.

She closes her eyes and wishes with all her heart that Korea hadn't turned them into the people they are now. But it has, and they are who they are.

"I love you too, Hawkeye." She squeezes his arm, and then leaves him to finish her rounds.

She passes Robinson and, as he starts to say something, she gives him a taste of the major. He quails, and turns away without anything sleazy crossing his lips.

It's a start.

-----------------

"More meatloaf, Daniel?" She smiles at him--he's already had seconds.

"Oh, goodness, Margaret. I shouldn't." But he's holding out his plate, letting her give him the thin slice she's already cut for him. "She's going to spoil me, son."

Hawkeye beams at her. He's sitting on her side of the table, his hand high up on her inner thigh--somehow managing to make his touch sweet and not sleazy.

They are eating at her place while Barbara has the movers take her stuff away from the house. Margaret is surprised they don't want to be there, to make sure the woman doesn't take anything that doesn't belong to her. But knowing this town, everyone on the crew is probably a friend of the Pierces. The movers may have a very long list of what they can and cannot pack for the soon-to-be ex Mrs. Pierce.

"So, about the Lobster Festival...I promised that we'd help out, son."

"Dad, really."

"It sounds like fun," Margaret says, watching Pierce's face.

"Last time they made me shuck oysters." He holds up his hand, points to several small scars near his thumb. "These are surgeon's hands. I am not endangering them again."

"Pierce, those are nicks," Margaret says.

"You tell him, hon'. He won't listen to me. Big baby." Daniel grins at her. It is the same smile Hawkeye wears, only on Daniel it is less knowing, more innocent.

"Well, is there some activity that won't injure our delicate surgeon?" she asks.

"Elsie can always use help in the pie booth."

"Pie, I can deal with." Hawkeye's hand is rubbing her leg now, up and down in a way that should make her uncomfortable, but it doesn't. It's almost possessive, which is so unusual for him that she wants to revel in it while it lasts.

She smiles at him, and he leans over and kisses her. It makes her a little uncomfortable, him doing that in front of his father, so she gives Daniel an embarrassed smile.

"Son, how about you deal with the dishes while our lovely cook and I take a walk?"

"Why do I have to clean up? I didn't notice you helping her cook, either."

"Because you're not the one whose bossy son told him it's better to walk off dinner than go to sleep in a chair."

"Oh. Right. Well, ignore him and help me do the dishes. That's good exercise, too."

"You'll be fine, Hawkeye. Just yell if you get in over your head." Daniel winks at him and then takes Margaret's arm. "Come on, dear heart."

They walk down to the water, and he doesn't say anything until they get to the benches lining the walkway along the beach.

"This must be an odd way for you to live, Margaret. Waiting for another woman to clear out."

She can't meet his eyes.

"Honey, I'm not saying that as a judgment. I mean it. It must be damned odd."

She looks at him--he has such kind eyes. He reminds her of Colonel Potter. "It is."

"You know, when Hawkeye came back from the war, I fully expected you to turn up with him."

"You did? Why?"

He laughs, probably at the shock in her voice. "Do you have any idea how often he mentioned you? Man was clearly smitten only he's too dumb to know it."

She smiles. She never wrote home about Pierce. At least not after her father's visit to the camp. Pierce was not one of his favorite people. In fact, Howitzer Al may well be spinning in his grave at the fact she's with him. "We--I--we didn't want to say goodbye."

"He led you a pretty dance, didn't he? Got you mighty confused about what you mean to him."

"He and I--we never..." Okay, so he's right. Hawkeye did confuse her back then. "I was in love with him. I didn't think he was in love with me, so I let him go."

"Well, now that has the ring of honesty, Margaret. Good for you." He's grinning at her, any censure in his words taken away by the twinkle in his eyes. "I think you scared the hell out of him. I think he didn't like caring that much about someone, so he ran for home."

She nods. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was just the war, screwing with their heads and their hearts even when it was ending.

"He took up with Barbara, and I knew it was trouble. She never wanted to live here, but he told her she'd love it. Even when it was clear she didn't love it, he was so stubborn."

"You think he sabotaged it?"

"I don't know. I know she didn't want to share a house with me. He can afford his own place, but he wouldn't do it, not even to make her happy."

"He thinks he gave up a lot to make her happy."

"He did. He compromised in the way he behaved, in what he liked to do. The hell of it was, he never should have married her, because she was never the kind of woman who could survive here."

"Maybe he thought she was." Margaret waves to a group of fisherman coming in from a day on the water. She usually buys fish from them on Saturday, when the market is set up. They always save her something special.

"She wasn't a small-town girl. You, I might casually note, are settling in just fine." He grins, nodding over at the departing fisherman. "I see how many folks you know already. She's been here nearly three years and doesn't know more than a handful."

"I met her. She couldn't have been more different than me." Margaret looks out to sea, knowing that she'll never have the aquiline features or the slim, elegant bearing of the woman who's leaving the Pierce men.

"And I consider that a blessing, dear. Girl could freeze me with a glance. Made me feel like an interloper in my own home. Hate to speak ill of anyone, but I am elated to see her go." He sighs, as if he feels bad for what he's said. "I wish her well, though. If that makes sense? When she was having a good day, she could be a charmer. I think if she finds the right fellow and settles down somewhere big and bustling, she'll be just fine."

Margaret smiles. "You're a nice man, Daniel Pierce."

"And you're a nice woman. And my boy is head-over-heels crazy for you. And don't you forget it, all right? Things may get a little nuts with him. He can be a fool at times. But you just keep loving him and he'll come around."

"Sounds like good advice."

"It is good advice. Maybe I'll sit him down and have the same talk."

She laughs, and they sit arm in arm as the sun goes down somewhere in the west, back toward Korea, where this all started. The moon is just coming out when she hears footsteps that she can identify by sound. She's heard them in all conceivable weather, at all hours, and she knows the cadence of his long legs.

"Dad, you're monopolizing my woman. If he proposes to you, Margaret, you better not accept." Hawkeye sits down on her other side, using his hips to push her over, his arm going around her.

"Dishes done?" Daniel winks at her, and she suppresses a laugh.

"Yes, Dad." He says to her in a stage whisper, "Slave driver."

Daniel ignores him.

"I imagine the moving van is all packed up," Hawkeye says, and there is something in his tone that tells Margaret he is hurting a little over this.

And that makes her feel much better about him. And about them. She settles her hand on his thigh, down low, where it's not scandalous out in the open as they are.

"I imagine it is," Daniel says softly, then he looks over at Hawkeye. "Barbara was a nice woman. She just wasn't meant to be your woman." Then he gets up and says, "I think I'm going to take the car and go on home. You can find your way, son? Tonight...tomorrow?"

Margaret can feel herself blushing. Daniel is telling his son to stay the night?

"Yeah, Dad. I can find my way home."

"Good thing Margaret can, too, isn't it, son? She found her way back to you." He touches her on the shoulder, then leaves them alone.

"I didn't want to do this until Barbara was gone." Hawkeye is holding something and it gleams a little under the moon and the soft lights along the pier. "It was my mother's."

"You made Barbara give it back?" She wants to shove the ring up his--

"I never gave it to her in the first place."

"Oh." She looks away so he can't see how angry she was getting.

"You think I'd give you a used ring?" He thinks about it. "Well, it is used because my mom wore it, but you think I'd give you 'her' ring? Margaret, you wound me." He is teasing her, now that they are back on safer ground.

"Why didn't you give it to Barbara?"

"Well, she made it pretty clear she wanted modern, big, and very sparkly. But even if she hadn't, I wouldn't have given her this."

"No?"

"No." He sighs. "I think she was my anti-Korea. The first woman I met who I could not imagine in olive drab no matter how much I tried. I think that's what made me want her. She was so far from the hell we'd been through, and that was very attractive."

She nods. She does understand, even if she didn't seek that out. But she was too busy with her father, first trying to get him not to drink, then watching him dying because of the drink.

"I don't always remember my mother as well as I'd like. But I know she wouldn't have wanted Barbara to have this ring. Just like I know she would want you to."

She doesn't move, doesn't give him her hand, doesn't pull it away, either.

"I know the last few weeks haven't been easy. But I love you." He looks up at the moon, and he shakes his head. "Remember that last month, when the moon was out and so full it looked swollen, and we would stand outside the mess tent together watching it, not talking, not touching, but together?"

She nods.

"Ever since, when I see the moon, I think of that. I think of you." He smiles, and it is the sweetest smile he has ever given her. "And the moon is out a lot, so that means I think about you an awful lot."

"When my dad was dying, during his last days, when it got hard to sit there with him, I'd go outside, and I'd stare up at the moon." Her voice breaks, and she tries to fight the tears back, only it doesn't work. "And I'd think of you. And everything would seem a little better."

He kisses her, soft fingertips wiping the tears from her face. "Marry me." He doesn't phrase it as a question.

And her answer isn't a reply so much as the inevitable. "Yes." Yes, she will marry him. Yes, she will love him. Because the truth, when she doesn't distort it or try to hide it, is that she has loved him for too long to walk away from him. Even if she wanted to.

He slides the ring onto her finger, and it is a perfect fit.

She wishes she could think that her father would be happy for her and Pierce, but she imagines he would not be. Although maybe that man at the end, the one who wanted her to be happy, was open enough to understand that a man he detested was the only possible man for his baby girl?

And even if he wouldn't be happy for her, at least she followed his orders. She's found happiness, as mixed up as it is. And she won't pull away from the people she loves. And the people she loves--both new, like Daniel, and old, like Colonel Potter or B.J--will be happy for her.

And that's all that matters.

"I love you," she says to Hawkeye.

"I love you, too."

And then he leans into her, kissing her. She puts her arms around him and kisses him back. It's not quite as long a kiss as their last one in Korea, but it's just as good.

FIN