Best Friends by Djinn

Margaret sat by the bed in post-op, watching as Helen moaned and moved restlessly. The drugs they'd given her were keeping her from going crazy again the way she had in the mess tent, but the DTs were still raging inside her.

"How's she doing?" Colonel Potter asked.

"Better."

He sat down on the next bed. It was empty. Thank God they didn't have wounded when she needed to be watching over her friend.

"You two are pretty close," Potter said.

"She's my best friend."

"You lied for her, Margaret. You lied to me for her."

"I know. I'm very sorry for--"

He waved her apology away. "You said that already. It's not like you to lie, not even for a friend."

"Helen and I...we...it was what I had to do." She looked over at him, knew her expression was a little desperate. "She told me she was all right."

"And you wanted to believe that?"

"I did." She smiled, could feel the old helplessness filling her. The helplessness she'd felt as she'd watched Helen spiral out of control at a party, coming on to anything that moved. Hurting as she watched that.

Helen started to mutter, the words almost indistinguishable--unless you were her best friend. "I didn't mean to... He meant nothing to me... Don't want to hurt you..."

Margaret closed her eyes.

"I love you, Houlihan." That one was clear enough for Potter to hear.

Margaret turned to look at him; fortunately, he did not seem to be getting the deeper meaning.

He smiled, his expression sad. "It's damned hard to watch those we care about suffer. It's even harder to know we're going to make them suffer a little bit more." He patted Margaret on the shoulder. "But Whitfield loves you, she'll forgive you. You heard her just now."

"Yeah. I heard her." Margaret wondered if her smile was as bleak as she felt. "She's had this problem before. The last time it happened, we were living together--roommates."

"And she still managed to hide it from you?"

"She didn't even try. I was drinking a lot then. Having a good time, too." Except when she had to watch Helen hit on everyone but her.

"I'm sorry, Margaret," Helen would say. "I'll make it up to you. I never want to hurt you."

She didn't make it up to her. And she had hurt her. And now, just when Margaret was starting to drop her defenses a little and let Helen in again, Helen did this. "I hate her when she's like this."

Potter studied her. "You drink. I drink. The boys have that damned still. I don't think it's fair to judge her too harshly. Not everyone can stop."

"She said she'd quit. She lied to me so I'd let her come out here."

She'd lied and then she'd said she missed Margaret. That she'd needed to see her, even if it was only for two months. Had that been a lie, too?

"I need some air, sir."

"I'll sit with her for a spell."

"Thanks."

She hurried out, nearly colliding with Kelly as she left. "I'm sorry."

"Major, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I'm just clumsy." As if she was the drunk one. As if she was the stupid one.

She was the stupid one. Why did she let Helen do this to her?

She couldn't decide where she wanted to go, and the camp suddenly seemed too crowded. She turned to the mess tent, then the showers, finally deciding on her own tent.

She realized she wasn't walking alone; Hawkeye had sidled up to her.

"Are you talking to me?" After his spate of practical jokes on poor Charles, it was a valid question.

But she was too tired--physically and emotionally--to hold it against him any longer. "You mean just because you're an imbecilic child who gets his jollies by playing jokes on others?"

"Well, yeah, that about covers it." He frowned, seemed to be reading her expression, then going deeper.

She hated that he could do that, that he could tell immediately if she was all right or not. Helen--when she was sober--could do that, too.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine." She couldn't meet his eyes--he always knew when she was lying.

"You're not fine." He steered her gently away from her tent, pushed her into the swamp. "Let me offer you some liquid cheering up."

She stared at the drink he held out. "I shouldn't."

"Just because she has a problem doesn't mean you do."

She glared at him. "And if she wakes up and I'm sitting there with alcohol on my breath? What kind of example will that be?" She pushed the martini glass back. "Don't you have a soda or something?"

"All my Grape Nehi goes to Iowa now that Radar's gone."

"Mixer? Anything?"

He reached behind the still, brought out some tonic. "Here." He drank what was in her glass, then filled it with tonic. "No sense wasting the good stuff."

"Has it occurred to you that you have a problem?"

"Has it occurred to you that we all might? Your friend just took it to extremes."

She looked away, sipping at the tonic.

"Your friend." He took a deep breath. "I invited her to the supply tent a few times when she first arrived. Did she tell you that?"

"No."

"She turned me down."

"I always knew she had good taste."

He sat down across from her. "She does. She's interested in a woman I find fascinating."

She met his eyes. "I don't know what--"

"Yes, you do." He leaned forward. "Look, if I weren't so titillated at the thought of it, I'd be damned jealous. You seem to let her in places you won't let me."

"You've never wanted me to let you in."

"That's not true. It's also not the point, although I'll give you a hand for almost diverting me." He mock clapped. "So, Margaret. Just how close are you two?" His voice was very gentle, his eyes shining with the compassion she found nearly impossible to resist on a good day, let alone now.

"Not as close as we once were."

"So, you're not...?"

"No." She took a deep breath. "But we used to."

"I would never have pictured that." He smiled at her. "It's sort of like imagining me with a man, isn't it?"

"I don't know. You're pretty close to B.J."

"We're friends."

"And Helen and I were friends. And then, one day...it went a little further."

"A little?" He grinned.

"Okay, a lot." She closed her eyes, wishing that her memories of life with Helen weren't tinged with constant disappointment and hurt. "When she drinks, she becomes a real party girl. She used to not come home. I'd hear later who she left with. People didn't know we were 'together,' you understand? They just thought we were roommates. They'd tell me things they'd never have told someone they'd thought was her lover."

"That would be hard to take. And tough to have to hide it. Are you in love with her?"

"Not like I used to be." She looked over at him. "But I care for her. I love her as a friend. I wanted her to be well. I didn't want it to be like this."

He didn't say anything, just waited, but she wasn't sure that there was anything left to say.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread this around," she finally said.

He looked disappointed in her and in her lack of faith in him.

"I'm sorry, Hawkeye. I shouldn't have said that."

"No, you shouldn't have. I've never betrayed anything that really mattered."

"I know." She sniffed, then did it again. Damn it, why did this have to hurt this way?

"It's okay, Margaret."

"It's not." And she finally let the tears out that she'd been holding in for years. The tears that she should have cried that first night Helen got drunk and didn't come home.

But Margaret hadn't cried because she'd been the strong one. The hard one. The one who could take care of things. She'd lectured. She'd yelled. But she hadn't cried--would it have been better if she had?

"Shhhh." He'd moved over, was holding her. "Just let it out."

"I can't. If I do, I won't be able to control it." She pulled the pain back inside, forced the tears to stop. She couldn't still the sobs that shook her, though.

"And controlling this is important to you?"

"Someone has to."

He pushed her hair back, off her face. "And it has to be you?"

"Yes." She touched his cheek. "And for the record, if you wanted in, I'd let you."

His smile was wry. "I'll remember that."

She studied him. She could almost see Helen. The sharp noses, the thin faces. The lips that curled up more often in a smile than down in a scowl. They both joked, they both could push through anything so long as there was a drink at the end of the line. A drink and sex.

Only not always with Margaret.

"Thank you for listening," she said.

"Thank you for sharing."

She leaned in, kissing him gently on the lips. He pulled her closer, the kiss more than just a friendly thing, but not passionate. Not a come on.

"I care about you," he said. It was an admission that he usually didn't make.

"I care about you, too." Then she pulled out of his arms, and left.

Colonel Potter looked up as she walked back into post-op. "No change."

"Right." She sat down, patted his hand. "Sir, you don't have to stay."

"You're sure?"

"Positive."

He got up. "Margaret, I know she's very special to you."

"Yes, sir. My best friend."

"Right. Your best friend." He stared down at her, the most gentle look in his eyes. "If you need to talk, my door's always open."

"Thank you, sir." She waited until he was gone, then she dabbed at Helen's sweaty forehead with a washcloth. "It'll be all right."

"Margaret?" Helen smiled, and Margaret couldn't tell if she was still delirious or really knew she was there. "Always taking care of me, kiddo."

That was her, the great caretaker. "Always."

FIN