I'd like to thank everyone who read through this entire story, and for all the reviews. I hope you enjoyed the semi-sequel to "It Ends Here Tonight"; please let me know.
The days rolled by, and eventually the camp settled back into its usual frenetic pace. Hawkeye refused to return to post-op as a patient under any circumstances, and after a brief battle of wills with Potter (that somehow managed to include two coughing fits along with the words "court martial" and "hog-tie"), the Colonel grudgingly allowed him to recuperate in his tent—under the direct supervision of his bunkmates. Charles decided to leave these "babysitting duties" as he called it to B.J., but both men were aware of the true reason beneath his conceit.
B.J. kept a close, though unobtrusive eye on his friend, looking for any subtle signs that the man's near-asphyxiation had negatively affected him—either in mind or body. Aside from only a partial recollection of the events leading up to the incident, Hawkeye's memories and motor skills seemed intact. Finally satisfied that the recovery had been complete, B.J. allowed his fear to dissipate...to a degree.
During that time Hawkeye was, in turn, observing B.J. Although neither of them had really discussed the issue, he knew the soldier's death weighed heavily on the man's mind—along with the guilt.
It was never firmly established whether B.J. had actually pulled the trigger or not, but Pierce knew ultimately the answer didn't matter: B.J. had confronted his darker side head-on, and was terrified of what had looked back. There were no words of comfort for a situation like that, only the standing offer of a willing ear and a supportive shoulder...and the assurance that they'd all been there before.
Before long, Christmas had arrived, bringing with it the long-awaited annual truce. Though only for a day—and tenuous at best—the paper-thin promise of peace did more to lift the spirits of the personnel than any tree or carol could have accomplished.
Father Mulcahy had arranged for the local war orphans to come and partake in Christmas dinner at the camp, and soon the excited chatter of children filled the air. All of the pint-sized guests seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves...except for one.
B.J. noticed her sitting apart from the others, gazing sullenly at the wall, a barely-touched tray of food in front of her. Her eyes were focused on something far away, well beyond the reaches of the camp. For a girl who couldn't possibly be more than seven years old, the shock and pain of tragedy etched on her face made her seem much older.
He turned to his right and tugged Hawkeye's sleeve, accidentally disturbing the cup of eggnog in the man's hand. "What's the story with her?"
Without missing a beat Pierce swiftly shifted his cup to the hand out of B.J.'s reach and wiped up the newly created spill. "Oh, her? She's one of the orphanage's newer residents," he explained with a note of sympathy. "I heard she was living with her sister and mother after her father was killed in combat, but their village was shelled before they could escape. She's actually pretty lucky—considering."
"If you can call that 'lucky'," B.J. remarked. "So...this is her first Christmas without her family?"
Hawkeye heard the unspoken thoughts behind his friend's question and silently took another sip of his eggnog. He could tell something was brewing in the man's mind, but wasn't sure exactly what.
"It's no wonder she looks like her world just fell apart," B.J. continued with a pensive expression, and Hawkeye glanced at him inquisitively. Something was definitely going on.
B.J. caught the look, but instead of answering he merely stood from the bench and made his way out of the mess tent, leaving Hawkeye to stare in bafflement at his retreating figure.
Several minutes passed with no sign of his roommate. Just as he was considering heading out to look for the man, B.J. reemerged—and headed straight for the child they'd discussed earlier.
Ignoring Hawkeye's perplexed gaze, he knelt down next to the girl. "Hi," he said simply, in the friendliest tone possible.
The girl's listless eyes shifted to his face, clearly aware he was addressing her. It was also clear she didn't care. After a moment, her gaze returned to the tent wall.
B.J. observed her with the sad, silent understanding of a father. "Yeah, I don't blame you. I was told never to talk to strangers, too." Glancing around at the revelers packed inside the mess tent—only a third of whom were still completely sober—he added, "And I guess we all look pretty strange right now."
He held up something in his hands, and Hawkeye suddenly understood what the man had done when he left. It was a doll, of sorts; the strangely touching result of hasty construction crafted with loving care. In the course of a few minutes B.J. had managed to run back to his tent, find a scrap of cloth and some string, fashion it into a tiny human-like figure and draw a face on it. For something thought up on the spur of the moment, it looked like a remarkably durable creation.
It took a second for Hawkeye to realize his jaw was on the floor. Closing his mouth, he watched the scene with fascination.
B.J. placed the makeshift toy in the child's unresponsive arms. "Anyway, I thought you might like this. Life can be hard at times—believe me, I know. Hopefully this'll help, at least a little."
The girl glanced down at the offering in her arms, the pain on her small face briefly turning to confusion. For a moment it looked like she was going to cry, but almost immediately her features hardened and she deliberately looked away from the man kneeling before her.
B.J. stood up and gently brushed her hair back. "I know, kiddo, it's not much. But Merry Christmas anyway, okay?"
He turned and made his way back to Hawkeye, only to find the man grinning from ear to ear at him like a proud older (younger?) brother. "That was really something."
"Yeah, maybe." B.J. sat down, absently poking at his own long-abandoned cup of Christmas cheer. "I doubt it'll help a kid in her situation much, though."
"You think so?" Hawkeye lightly touched his arm and gestured in the girl's direction.
B.J. glanced over and saw she had turned her attention back to the doll. Her perpetually guarded expression had lessened almost imperceptibly as she cradled the toy in her arms. There was a vague light of interest in her eyes as she played quietly—she even smiled, if only for a second, as she tried to feed it cranberry sauce.
"You're an amazing man, Beej," Pierce commented softly, shaking his head.
"I know," B.J. answered casually, but felt a grin of his own spread as he watched the girl playing. Even if he couldn't be with his own family today, at least he could provide some small comfort to somebody else's child.
"So what about your present?" Hawkeye's voice pulled him from his thoughts.
B.J. reached into his pocket. "Oh, right." He pulled out a slightly creased envelope, smoothing it out as he studied it. His finger traced the Mill Valley address in the upper-left corner written in his wife's handwriting. Although he'd received the letter three days ago, there were strict instructions on the envelope not to open it until Christmas. Ever since he'd woken up that morning he had been itching to tear it open.
"Are you gonna open it or iron it?" Pierce asked incredulously, watching the man press the letter between his fingers, rhythmically rubbing the crease line. "Normally you'd be reading the damn thing out loud for the fifteenth time by now—I should be telling you to shut up."
B.J. set the letter down on the table, unopened. Hawkeye sensed there was a reason behind the man's hesitation, and had a fairly good idea what it was. Setting down his cup, he leaned in towards his friend and touched his elbow. "Beej...the phone lines are up now. If it was bad news, she would—"
"I know." B.J. closed his eyes, and Hawkeye could see traces on his face of the pain and regret that had never fully left. "I'm just—I don't want to take the chance, y'know?"
Hawkeye regarded him silently. After a moment, he put a reassuring hand on the man's back, not saying anything—he didn't need to. Finally, he removed his hand and asked gently, "Want me to open it?"
B.J. shook his head. "You already got a little too close to McGregor's garden last time," he remarked, then sighed. "No, I have to do it. Someone recently told me that letting the pain take control now will only keep me from helping others in the future."
"Who told you that?"
"Oddly enough...Charles." B.J. smiled at Hawkeye's surprised stare, thinking back to the amazingly candid chat he'd had with the Major. Charles had been an unusual lifeline in the storm...but B.J. would never give the Bostonian the satisfaction by admitting it.
And somehow, he knew Winchester wouldn't have it any other way.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the envelope and freed the letter from its paper bonds. As he unfolded it, something small and flat slipped out and fluttered to the ground. Hawkeye automatically reached down for it as B.J. read through the paragraphs.
Skimming the letter, his fears vanished. Not only was everything fine, Erin was well on her way to a full recovery. "...she wanted to send a Christmas present, so I put it in this letter," he murmured out loud as he read.
"And so she did," Hawkeye commented, examining the "gift" that had fallen out. B.J. glanced up at him and saw what his friend was looking at.
It was a paper heart, a page taken from a coloring book. It was evident who the artist was—the heart had been colored with yellow crayon instead of red, and wasn't even remotely within the lines. But to B.J., it might as well have been gold.
Hawkeye thought for a moment, then took the paper heart and gently pressed it against B.J.'s chest, directly over where the man's real heart was. "I think you just found your missing piece, Beej," he said quietly.
B.J.'s hand reached up and gingerly grasped the page, as though the heart drawn on it would break if he looked at it too long. His eyes locked with Hawkeye's, and the two men shared a conversation that didn't need any words. For the first time in weeks Pierce could see the veil of depression lift from his friend's face, and smiled.
Without realizing it, B.J. had just given him the best Christmas present he could've asked for.
Just then a pair of hands descended from above, one landing on the shoulder of each surgeon. "Good evening, gentlemen," a familiar voice drawled behind them, and they turned to find Charles watching them with a pointed expression.
"Evenin', Charles," B.J. replied. "Grab a cup and sit down."
"Thank you, no," Charles said in a smooth, even voice. The two Captains shared a glance, caught between wariness and amusement. They'd heard that tone before.
"I merely came by to clear up a puzzling mystery," the Major continued, fixing them each in turn with a meaningful glance. "You see, I was willing to overlook what I believed to be merely a boyish prank, with the assumption you both would eventually come to your senses and return what is rightfully mine. However, it has been some time since I discovered the noticeable absence, and the emergency supply in my footlocker has started to dwindle."
He took his hands from his roommates' shoulders and folded his arms, his cool demeanor turning to steel. "So now I appeal to your sense of morality, your folkishly quaint 'Christmas spirit', not to mention your deferment to a superior officer—" he ignored Pierce's smirk at the last comment—"and ask you to answer a very simple question." He paused, waiting until he was absolutely certain he held the attention of both men. Then, in his most imperious tone:
"Where are my socks?"
"I dunno, Charles," Hawkeye replied as innocently as he could manage, while B.J. smothered a laugh. "Why don't you write your parents for more?"