A/N: Oh. Oh, my. Someone pointed out to me that this story now has the most reviews of any story in the M*A*S*H section. I don't know what to say. Honestly, I never expected it to become this popular. I guess what makes it so surprising is that it's about Charles. All the most popular stories are about Hawkeye and Margaret. I didn't even know anyone liked Charles when I started writing this! (Besides myself, of course.) And now I find there are all these people out there who appreciate him as much as I do. It's fantastic. I can't thank you guys enough. I'm so glad to have shared this experience with you.
But it's not over yet! Why am I acting like it is? I'll shut up now. Here's the next chapter. But before I forget, thank you as always to my beta reader, blown-transistor. Your assistance is invaluable!
Disclaimer: M*A*S*H, mine? Surely you jest. ;)
The Wind and the Rain
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Closer than Kinfolk
It was not often that Hawkeye had good dreams. In fact, it was far more common for him to relive events which had occurred during his time in Korea — events that he would just as soon forget. Sometimes the dreams played out in his head exactly as they had occurred. For instance, the recurring dream in which he witnessed the death of his childhood friend Tommy Gillis was so disturbingly realistic in its accuracy that when he woke, gasping and soaked in cold sweat, his grief was as fresh as if it had happened that very day. There were other nights, however, when his unconscious mind didn't get all the details quite right. Like when he dreamed about the time he'd operated on Radar, after the kid had been injured as a direct result of heeding his bone-headed advice. In his dreams, instead of the incident-free operation he remembered, something invariably went wrong: a severe hemorrhage, a bad reaction to the anaesthesia, a blood clot in the brain. Those dreams always ended badly.
If he was lucky, he might be so exhausted that he would sleep through the night without dreaming at all; or if he did, he didn't remember his dreams. Those were good nights. But best of all were the nights he dreamed about home. About Crabapple Cove. About camping, and picnics, and fishing with his dad from the end of the little pier that jutted out into the cove. He remembered those dreams for weeks.
But dreaming about earthquakes? That had to be a first.
He blamed B.J. for it, of course. He had finally succeeded in convincing Hawkeye to read The Maltese Falcon, insisting it was the best detective novel ever written. Besides which, the story just happened to be set in San Francisco, the greatest city on earth, according to his best friend. Hawkeye had always associated that particular city with, among other things, its frequent seismic tremors. So when his lovely dream of digging for clams with the banker's beautiful daughter was suddenly interrupted by a violent shaking, his first, surprisingly lucid thought was, I'm going to kill B.J.
As it happened, however, B.J. was not to blame for the upheaval, after all. As Hawkeye's eyes flew open, and he clutched at his bedclothes in mindless panic, he found himself being jostled awake by his other tent mate. And none too gently.
"For God's sake, Charles, I'm a man, not a maraca," he growled irritably, pushing the other surgeon's hands away. "Stop shaking me already. I'm awake."
Charles fixed him with his usual disapproving glare. "And not a moment too soon," he replied archly. "I was on the verge of preparing a syringe full of adrenaline."
"No thanks, I've had all my shots." Hawkeye yawned, throwing his arm up to shield his eyes from the harsh light of his lamp. "What's going on? Is it casualties?"
The Bostonian shook his head. "Thankfully, no. However, your assistance is required." He took hold of Hawkeye's arm and attempted to pull him out of his cot. "Come on, Pierce. On your feet."
Hawkeye yanked his arm out of the man's grasp. "No way," he said stubbornly, burrowing his face into his pillow. "Not without some kind of an explanation."
He heard Charles let loose a gale-force sigh. "Pierce, I am no mood to argue with you," he said impatiently.
"That makes two of us." Charles growled under his breath, and Hawkeye peered up at him through slitted lids. "Come on, quit being so damned cryptic," he said. "Just tell me what's wrong, before I lose what little interest I have invested in this ridiculous conversation."
Charles heaved another sigh, passing a tired hand across his face. "It's Malone," he said at last. "She's regained partial sensation in her leg."
"Oh, yeah?" Hawkeye sat up, squinting at the clock on his bedside table: just a few minutes past two in the morning. That didn't surprise him; Malone's farewell party had wrapped up rather late. What was surprising was that he had been able to fall asleep as quickly as he had. On his own cot, B.J. was still asleep, snoring softly.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, Hawkeye got a better look at Charles. Then he broke into a grin. "Well, well, what have we here?" he crowed, wiggling his eyebrows. "Hair uncombed, shirt misbuttoned, bed not slept in. Why, Charles, you dog."
The major's cheeks flushed, and his death-glare returned in greater intensity. "Keep your salacious remarks to yourself, Pierce," he warned, though his fingers wasted no time in buttoning his shirt properly.
"You never let me have any fun." Abruptly, Hawkeye's grin faded as Charles's words finally sank in. "Wait a minute. Did you say 'partial'?"
Charles nodded wordlessly, his face grave.
It was Hawkeye's turn to sigh. "Hand me my robe."
"I hesitated to disturb you with this, Pierce," Charles was saying as they walked out of the Swamp and into the rainy compound. "However, in all honesty, I don't have much confidence in myself at the moment. Or at least, in my ability to remain objective." Hawkeye nodded, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "You assisted in her surgery. Can you recall the extent of her nerve damage?"
Hawkeye gave a shrug. "The worst of it was to the intermediate femoral nerves. I did my best to repair them, but there wasn't a whole lot to work with. I was too busy trying to stop the bleeding."
"I'm afraid that at least some of the damage was my doing," said Charles in a low voice. "It's very possible that I severed one or more of the nerves inadvertently when I performed that emergency fasciotomy."
"You did what you had to do. That's understandable."
"No. It's unforgivable."
Hawkeye halted Charles with a hand on his shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up," he told him. "You had no choice. You were desperate, distraught."
"Precisely. If I had been in a calmer frame of mind, I would have paid better attention, taken greater care." He swallowed. "You were right, Pierce. I shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near her. I see that now."
"Hey, cut that out," said Hawkeye, not unkindly. "That fasciotomy is probably what saved her life. And you did a flawless job in surgery. If anyone's to blame for her condition, it's me." He shook his head in frustration. "There was just too much blood. I could barely see what I was doing. It was all I could do to keep her from bleeding to death." He cringed, realizing what he'd just said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"No, I know," Charles murmured, his voice strained.
Outside the door to Pre-Op, Hawkeye paused again, feeling the rain trickle down the back of his neck and under the collar of his robe. "I'll tell you, Charles," he said quietly. "That was a night I'll never forget. It was Radar all over again." He knew he should just stop talking, but he couldn't seem to shut up. "I couldn't even think about who it was lying on that table. I was afraid that if I did, I would freeze up. And then you'd never forgive me."
"Pierce," said Charles, his tone verging on pleading.
"You're right, you're right. I'm sorry." He waved a finger at the other man. "Don't forget, it's two in the morning. I shouldn't be held responsible for anything I say."
Inside Pre-Op, Malone was sitting upright on a gurney, her legs stretched out in front of her. Her hair was even more disheveled than Charles's, and her skirt and blouse were in a similar state of disarray. But Hawkeye refrained from commenting on either when he saw her face. It was drawn and pinched, and her skin was abnormally pale.
"Hey, Freckles," he said as he entered.
She attempted a weak smile, and failed. "Sorry to wake you with all this, Hawkeye."
"It's okay," he answered with a shrug. "An hour of sleep is really all I need." Her tired smile was quickly replaced with an expression of guilt. He patted her on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. So what's all this I hear about your leg? Charles tells me you've got some of the feeling back."
Malone nodded tightly. "Some. Particularly in my thigh." She shifted slightly, and winced. "In point of fact, it hurts like hell. And that's putting it delicately."
Hawkeye turned to Charles. "Have you given her anything for the pain?"
The major nodded. "Just codeine. I thought anything stronger might dull her sensitivity."
"Good call." He returned his attention to Malone. "All right, let's get that cast off and have a look-see."
Under normal circumstances, the preferred tool for cast removal was an electrically powered oscillating saw. Unfortunately, the 4077th was not equipped with one. MASH units, after all, were typically the sort of places where casts were applied, not removed. Soaking the cast in a solution of water and vinegar would take far too long. That left only one alternative: the plaster shears.
With painstaking care, Hawkeye snipped his way slowly through the layers of hardened plaster and cotton. It was tedious work, and the mood in the room was tense. Malone sat silently, her brow contracted in pain, while Charles stood by her side, gripping her hand tightly in his. Now Hawkeye knew why Charles had asked him to do this. The man was too emotionally involved for his own good. Or, for that matter, hers.
It was with a sigh of relief that Hawkeye removed the cast and peeled away the layer of sterile gauze that protected the sutured wound. He couldn't quite conceal his dismay at the sight. Malone's leg was swollen and bruised, and the countless row of stitches ran up her thigh like a ladder, making the long incision scar even more noticeable. It was a real shame, he thought; her other leg was pretty damned perfect.
He looked up to find that her face had gone white. "You okay?"
With an effort, she tore her gaze away from her leg. "Yes. Sorry, it's just... This is my first time actually seeing my injury. I guess I wasn't quite prepared for it." She shuddered slightly. "It's so... grisly."
"The discoloration is only temporary, Malone," Charles said in a reassuring tone. "And as for the scar, it will fade over time."
"Marginally," she murmured under her breath.
He made a pained face. "Malone—"
She covered his hand with her own. "It's all right, Charles. It's a small price to pay."
He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the part in her hair, and Hawkeye had to turn away to hide his smile. It was somewhat jarring to see Charles in love with someone other than himself, but he had to admit, he was enjoying this side of the arrogant windbag. It was a pity that soon she would be leaving, and he would probably go back to being his old insufferable self. Then again, Hawkeye reminded himself, even at his worst, Charles still wasn't as bad as Frank.
Grabbing a stool, he pulled it up to the gurney and perched himself on it. "I'm going to give you a sensory exam now, Nellie," he told her. "I'm sure you know how this works. You're going to close your eyes, and I'm going to touch different parts of your leg. Then you're going to point to the area where you felt sensation."
She nodded, and with Charles's help, she managed to slide forward on the gurney, until her foot was resting in Hawkeye's lap. Closing her eyes, she waited as he contemplated where to begin. He decided to start at the top and work his way down.
Very gently, he probed the bruised skin at the top of her thigh. She hissed in pain, and Charles immediately lapsed into overprotective mode, tightening his fists until his knuckles turned white. "Take it easy, Papa Bear," Hawkeye murmured. "I'm barely touching her."
Ignoring the Bostonian's indignant glare at his new nickname, he continued his examination. As he did so, she correctly indicated where he was touching her, until he reached her knee. From there, it was decidedly hit-and-miss. She seemed to have no feeling in the inside of her lower leg, the top of her foot, or her first three toes.
With a sigh, Hawkeye sat back on his stool. "My diagnosis is partial paralysis of the lower extremity, resulting from damage to the intermediate femoral and saphenous nerves." It was not the worst news he had ever given, but not exactly the best, either. "I'm sorry, Nellie."
Charles looked as if he were ready to tear out his hair in his grief — what little hair he had left, anyway. Malone, on the other hand, seemed strangely resigned. "It could be worse," she replied with a weary shrug. "And I'll be able to walk on it eventually, right?"
"You'll probably need a cane," he told her, "but yeah, you'll be able to walk."
For the first time, she broke into a genuine smile. "A cane," she repeated in a wry tone. "Good Lord. I've become an old crone at twenty-eight. How did that happen?"
Hawkeye patted her on the knee. "Don't worry. We'll get you a really sexy cane." She snorted. "Fire engine red, to match your hair."
Charles shook his head in exasperation. "Must you make inane jokes at a time like this?"
The chief surgeon extended his hand to him. "Hi. I'm Hawkeye. Have we met?"
Together, he and Charles encased her leg in a fresh cast. While they waited for the plaster to dry, Hawkeye stayed and chatted with them about nothing in particular. He supposed he could have gone back to bed and left them alone, but neither of them seemed to mind his presence. If anything, they both seemed grateful for his conversation and his company.
"So does this mean I don't have to see the doctors in Tokyo?" Malone asked suddenly. They both looked over at her. "After all, they can't tell me any more than you just did, Hawkeye," she went on. "I know I can't stay here, but I'd really rather not spend weeks in a hospital, surrounded by total strangers. I'd just as soon go home."
Hawkeye shrugged. "I don't see why you couldn't. What do you think, Chuck?"
Charles was silent for a moment. "If you want a second opinion," he said slowly, "then I would have to agree. There's no reason why you should be forced to convalesce in Tokyo, when you could just as easily do so in the comfort of your own home. Or, in this case," he added, "your uncle's home."
The nurse rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me. I'm not looking forward to placing my life in the hands of my relatives. Essentially, I'll be on my own. My uncle has rheumatoid arthritis, and his wife is what I like to call 'domestically challenged'." She sighed. "I wonder if they still have all those cats."
Hawkeye winced in sympathy. "That's rough, kid."
Her cast was nearly dry, although there were still a few damp spots here and there, and it wouldn't be fully dry for seventy-two hours. A sudden thought occurred to Hawkeye, and he stood up and began hunting around for a pen. He found one in the adjoining lab and came back. Bending over Malone's cast, he scrawled a message on the white plaster: "Roses are red, and pretty like you. Get well soon, and don't feel so blue. — Your pal, Hawkeye." She smiled and gave his arm a squeeze.
"And with that," he said, tossing the pen over his shoulder, "I bid you Buona notte, mi amici."
"Thank you, Hawkeye," said Malone.
Beside her, Charles gave him a terse nod and said nothing, but his eyes spoke volumes.
"You turning in, too?" he asked him.
Charles shook his head. "No, I..." He cleared his throat. "I think I'll stay with Malone tonight."
A sly, knowing smile spread over Hawkeye's face. "Oh, I get it," he said teasingly. "One last stroll through the garden of earthly—"
"Hawkeye," Malone said simply.
He chuckled to himself. "Good night, little turtle doves," he called, giving them a wave as he made his exit.
Back in the Swamp, he gave a loud yawn before remembering that B.J. was still asleep. Caution didn't seem to make much difference, though; a herd of wildebeest could have stampeded through the tent at that moment, and the man still probably would not have stirred.
With a shrug, Hawkeye removed his damp robe and threw it across Charles's empty bunk. He won't be using it, anyway, he thought with a smile. But his amusement soon faded. Though the proud Bostonian and his prudish sweetheart were certainly fun to tease, he knew, from their disheveled states and from the way they had been all over each other during the movie, that they had more than likely been planning to spend the night together. But of course, that was certainly out of the question now that Malone was experiencing sensation — and pain — in her leg again. At this point, no doubt, they just wanted to spend as much time together as possible, while they still could.
He crawled into his bunk and closed his eyes, but sleep would not come as easily this time around. He couldn't stop thinking about what Malone had said earlier: that she would be on her own when she returned to the States, that her relatives weren't really in a position to care for her during her recovery period. Surely there was something that could be done about that.
As he lay there, listening to the rain pattering on the roof of the Swamp, an idea began to form in his mind. A brilliant idea, as a matter of fact. It was a long shot, but it just might work. If it did, Charles and Malone would have no choice but to name their firstborn after him.
Benjamin Franklin Winchester the First. Now that had a nice ring to it.
When all was said and done, being the 4077th's company clerk wasn't a bad gig. True, it had its trying moments, and it required a certain amount of self-discipline and responsibility; though it wasn't nearly as stressful as being a doctor or a nurse, the clerk at a MASH unit was, in a sense, responsible for human lives. It was his job to make sure there were always adequate supplies of medicines, bandages, and any other items necessary for running a hospital. But keeping the 4077th sufficiently stocked wasn't all that hard; after all, the nearest medical dispensary was only thirty miles away.
Of course, it helped that the current company clerk was a pretty easy-going guy. And in Maxwell Klinger's line of work, it was an essential quality to possess. It took a lot to ruffle his feathers, and even though he complained every now and then, he knew it could be a lot worse. On getting drafted, he could have just as easily found himself up at the front lines.
Or, even worse, he could have Straminsky's job.
But, like any other job, some days were worse than others. Some days were so grueling, so nightmarishly awful, that Klinger was tempted to hijack the nearest jeep, drive off into the horizon, and never look back. This was one of those days.
In addition to the morning report, the weekly report, and the mail delivery, his entire day so far had been consumed by attempting to put Hawkeye's latest noble, if hare-brained, idea into execution. It would take a great deal of finagling, and the chances of actually pulling it off were slim to nil, but the captain had insisted that Klinger should spare no efforts. If it worked, he mused grouchily, the chief surgeon would owe him free check-ups for life.
On top of all that, Hawkeye and Winchester, with the help of the colonel, had managed to convince the doctors in Tokyo that, since the full extent of Nellie's paralysis had been ascertained, an extended stay wouldn't be necessary. Klinger had been able to find her a seat on a hopper plane from Seoul to Tokyo, with a connecting flight to Honolulu, and then on to San Francisco. The hopper departed from Seoul at precisely 0900 hours the next morning. And so, this was officially Nellie Malone's last day at the 4077th.
Klinger was understandably upset. He had seen little of Nellie over the past few days, thanks to Major Winchester. He knew that his sadness at seeing her go would be nothing compared to the major's, but he couldn't help being annoyed. Winchester wasn't the only one who cared about Nellie, and Klinger felt it was inconsiderate of him to keep her all to himself, even if they were madly in love.
Still, he couldn't say he wouldn't have done the same, if he had been in Winchester's shoes.
Fortunately, he had little time to dwell on Nellie's imminent departure, because he was too busy fearing for his life.
"How could you possibly forget, you desert doofus?" Major Houlihan shrieked at him, her voice even more strident than usual — not to mention more congested. "I asked you at least four times to order more antihistimines!"
"I'm sorry, Major," Klinger told her, as contritely as he knew how. "I've had so much to do lately, I guess it just slipped my mind!"
"I'd find that a lot easier to believe, if you actually had a mind," she said sarcastically, her arms folded over her chest.
The clerk suppressed a sigh. "I know I screwed up, ma'am. You don't have to rub it in."
"Well, what do you expect?" she demanded angrily. "Half the camp is suffering from allergies, including myself and nearly the entire nursing staff, and you think I should let you off easy, because you forgot to do your job? Give me a break!"
The urge to bang his head against his desk was growing stronger by the minute. "I'm not trying to make any excuses, Major," he said in a measured tone. "But you've got to understand. I've had bigger things to worry about."
Houlihan rolled her eyes. "Like what? Trading our supplies for a few bottles of booze? Making sure the colonel's horse has enough oats?"
Klinger took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No," he answered, gritting his teeth. "Like making sure Lieutenant Malone gets home in one piece."
The head nurse's ire abruptly drained away. "Oh," she said, her arms dropping to her sides. "You found a flight for her, then?"
He nodded tiredly. "Tomorrow morning," he replied. Houlihan came over and leaned against his desk, her demeanor much more subdued. "It's all I can think about," he continued, not looking at her. "I've never trusted airplanes. And after what happened to Colonel Blake..." He trailed off, unable to finish his sentence. "Let's just say I won't rest easy until I know Nellie's landed safely in San Francisco."
"I know what you mean," she said quietly. "I don't like it, either. But," she added with a slight shrug, "they say that, for the most part, flying is perfectly safe. The way I see it, even in the air, she'll probably be a lot safer than any of us."
"Boy, that's a comforting thought," Klinger muttered.
Houlihan laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're really going to miss her, huh?"
"Like you wouldn't believe." Suddenly it had become very difficult to speak. "As much as I hate the Army, I can't deny that if it hadn't been for this stupid war, I never would have met her. Never would have..." He cleared his throat. "Well, never mind that."
He felt the major's gaze on him. When she spoke, her voice had lost its stern, officious edge. "You still love her, don't you?" she asked softly.
At last Klinger looked up at her. Her eyes were kind, sympathetic. "Yeah, I do," he said at length. "Just not in the same way that Major Winchester does. Not anymore." He smiled wryly. "I had big plans for us, though. I was going to bring her home to meet my folks. We'd get married, have a few kids, maybe get a puppy. I was going to teach her Arabic, so my ma could show her how to make baklava. It wouldn't be as good as Ma's, of course, but it's the thought that counts, you know?"
Houlihan smiled. Klinger didn't know why he was telling her all this. Probably because he could never tell Nellie. "I may not feel that way anymore," he said slowly, "but she'll always be special to me. She's more than just a friend. More than family, even."
The blonde nurse was silent. "You grew up on Army bases, right, Major?" he asked her. "You moved around a lot when you were a kid?" She nodded, still saying nothing. "Me, I was born and raised in Toledo," he went on. "Most of my friends there are people I've known since I was little. And I know that when I get home, we'll all just pick up where we left off." He gave a quiet chuckle. "Hell, someday I might even forgive my ex-wife. I never could stay mad at her, anyway."
Houlihan snorted in amusement. "But lately I've been thinking," he said in a low voice. "About how hard it'll be to say goodbye. Not just to Nellie, but to everybody here at the 4077th. This war's got to end eventually. And everyone will go back to their homes. It makes me sick to think that some of us — most of us — will probably never see each other again." He swallowed. "How do you do it, Major? How do you get used to saying goodbye?"
As he gazed up at the nurse, her expression grew solemn. Slowly, she shook her head. "You never do," she said quietly. "At least, I never did."
Klinger sighed. "Thanks, ma'am," he murmured. "You always know just what to say." She reached out and patted his hand.
The door of his office swung open, and Major Winchester stepped in out of the rain, pushing Nellie in her wheelchair. Houlihan quickly withdrew her hand and stood up straight. "Don't forget about the antihistimines," she told him firmly.
"I'll fill out the request form right now," he promised.
"Very good, Corporal. As you were."
She nodded briefly to Nellie and Winchester before hurrying out the door, and Klinger shook his head in wonderment. She was almost like two separate people, he decided: a tough, no-nonsense, somewhat scary Army officer and a warm, compassionate, vulnerable woman. He wondered how on earth they both coexisted in the same body.
As he stood up to retrieve the appropriate papers from his file cabinet, he managed to muster a smile for his visitors. "Afternoon, Nellie, Major," he said. "If you're looking for the colonel, he's down at the stable."
Nellie returned his smile. "Actually, I'm here to see you, Max," she replied. "Charles has Post-Op duty, and I wondered if I might hang around here until his shift is over. Is that all right with you?"
In his surprise, Klinger nearly dropped the forms he was holding. She wanted to spend time with him? He would have thought she would prefer to stay with Winchester in Post-Op. "Yeah, of course," he blurted. "I mean, if that's really what you want. But I should warn you, there's not a whole lot of excitement going on here."
Nellie laughed. "Good. I've had enough excitement to last me a lifetime."
Winchester put his hand on her shoulder, clearly reluctant to leave her. "Are you certain you'll be all right?" he asked her.
She squeezed his hand. "Yes, Charles, I'm certain," she said warmly. "Max is more than capable of looking after me for a few hours. And if I do need a doctor, I'll know just where to find one." She made a shooing gesture. "Now go already, before you're put on report for tardiness."
He gave a weary sigh and raised her hand to his lips. "Once more unto the breach," he said, moving toward the door connecting Klinger's office to the post-operative ward. He paused, then nodded at the clerk. "Corporal," he said brusquely, before striding out the door.
Klinger caught Nellie's attention and rolled his eyes. She merely laughed good-naturedly. "So what are you up to, Max?" she asked, wheeling herself over to his desk. "Anything I can do to help?"
She was looking a lot better, he thought. She had lost that unhealthy pallor that had been worrying him. Her wrist was no longer wrapped in an elastic bandage, and the bruising had nearly faded. She was definitely well enough to travel. Of all the rotten luck.
She moved to straighten the flurry of papers on his desk, but he stopped her. "Hey, come on, Nell," he told her. "Cut that out. There's no way I'm going to put you to work."
"No, I insist," she said adamantly. "I've been wallowing in indolence for far too long."
He frowned at her. "Say what?"
"If you don't give me something to do, I'm going to flip my lid," she clarified.
Klinger laughed. "All right, all right." He gave her a sheaf of documents. "Here. These are the duty rosters for all the enlisted personnel over the past month. Colonel Potter wants a complete overhaul. He says the men are getting into a rut, and when that happens, they get lazy." He gave her a keen look. "Think you can handle it?"
"Oh, I think I'll be able to keep them on their toes," she said smugly, earning another laugh from him.
As Nellie rearranged the duty roster, Klinger got to work on filling out the supply requisition forms. It was just like old times, he mused, back when Nellie was still new at the 4077th, and used to help him out with his paperwork during her off hours. Abruptly, he realized that this was the last time she would ever do so. The thought was enough to put a lump in his throat. Keep it together, Max, he told himself sternly.
Something on Nellie's cast suddenly caught his eye. It looked like handwriting. He leaned in closer, and grinned as he read Hawkeye's cheesy poem. "'Don't feel so blue'?" he repeated. "Wow. What a maroon."
Nellie chuckled. "I think it's sweet."
"Can I sign it?" he asked eagerly.
Rummaging around in his desk, Klinger found a red pen. Bending over her cast, he wrote in large block letters: "FRAGILE ARMY PERSONNEL — HANDLE WITH CARE, OR YOU'LL HAVE MAXWELL Q. KLINGER TO ANSWER TO!" Beside it, he drew an angry face, complete with heavy eyebrows and bared teeth. Upon seeing it, Nellie burst out laughing.
"There," he said, straightening in his chair. "Now you'll have something to remember me by."
She shook her head. "As if I could ever forget you," she told him fondly.
All of Klinger's efforts to maintain his composure swiftly flew right out the window. "I'm gonna miss you so much, kid," he said tightly, his vision beginning to blur.
"Oh, Max." She reached out and took his hand in hers. "Now, don't be silly. It's not like we'll never see each other again."
He gave a somewhat bitter chuckle. "Come on, Nell. Let's not fool ourselves. How often do you get out to Toledo?"
She shrugged lightly. "I'll have a reason to go now, won't I?"
He regarded her dubiously. It was all just a bit too hard to believe. "You mean it?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. "You'd really come out for a visit?"
"As long as you promise to take me to Packo's for one of those famous hot dogs you're always raving about," she replied with a grin.
Klinger smiled, a little wanly. "You've got yourself a deal."
He tried to pull his hand out of hers, intending to resume his work, but she only held on tighter. "I mean it, Max," she said sincerely. "You know you're one of my dearest friends. You've always been there for me, right from the very first day I came here. I'm not about to let our friendship just fade away. You're way too important to me."
Klinger had to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat. "Yeah?"
She nodded, a crooked smile forming on her face. "I hate to break it to you, Maximus," she said, "but you're never getting rid of me."
Klinger no longer trusted himself to speak, so he simply returned her nod. As she went back to work on the duty roster, she began to whistle some classical tune.
He cleared his throat. "More Mozart?"
She shook her head, her red curls bouncing. "Offenbach."
"Oh. That was going to be my second guess." Nellie laughed, and he poked her in the arm with the cap of his pen. "Sorry I never got into all that classical stuff."
"Sorry I never listened when you talked about baseball scores."
Klinger gaped at her. "You didn't? Then how come you acted like you were hanging on my every word?" She shrugged, smiling guiltily. "Just for that, I'm going to drag you to a Mud Hens game when you come to Toledo. Whether you like it or not."
"Fine," she retorted. "Then when you come visit me in Boston, I'll just drag you to the opera, whether you like it or not."
"Oh, God. I take it all back." She laughed again. He set his pen on the desk and turned to face her. "So," he prompted, his tone more serious. "Boston, huh? You and the major aren't messing around, then."
Nellie's cheeks took on a faint pink tint. "He says he wants me to go back with him. Either when the war ends, or when he's got enough rotation points to go home. Whichever comes first. And he says Danny is welcome to come, too."
She seemed either excited or scared by the prospect; Klinger couldn't tell which. "Do you want to go?" he asked quietly.
As she returned his gaze, she slowly smiled. "I do," she said. "I mean, I love Oregon, and I have a lot of fond memories of growing up there, but... I have no reason to stay. My parents are gone. I was too shy and awkward to make any close friends. And there's no way I'm living in Malibu. Hot weather turns me into a murderous Gorgon."
Klinger laughed. She was so wonderfully weird. "Besides," she added, "I've always wanted to see New England. And Charles will be the perfect tour guide. He'll know all of the historic sites, of course. All the best places to eat."
"The most expensive places, you mean," he corrected her.
"It is obscene how rich he is, isn't it?" He laughed again. "Do you think I should go?" she asked, catching him off guard.
"It doesn't matter what I think," he said.
"Of course it does," she replied, sounding surprised that he would say such a thing. "Your opinion is important to me, Max."
He sighed. "You really want to know what I think?" She nodded. "I think you'd be a grade-A dope not to go," he told her frankly, causing her eyes to widen behind her glasses. "Come on, Nell. You and Major Winchester... You're meant to be. You may have gotten yourself transferred to Korea to be near your brother, but... coming here, to the 4077th? That was no accident." He smiled slightly. "You came here to meet him."
Nellie's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Max," she said thickly.
"Aw, geez, Nell," he groaned. "Don't cry. Don't you dare cry." He shook his finger at her. "So help me, I will... give you the scores for the last twenty World Series."
She gave a sniff, quickly composing herself. "I'll behave."
Klinger grinned and chucked her lightly on the chin. But as they both returned to work, he was obliged to recite baseball scores in his head for nearly half an hour, just to keep from falling apart.
It was with some considerable embarrassment that Nellie realized that since her nervous breakdown in front of Father Mulcahy at the ruined orphanage, she no longer had quite the iron grip on her emotions that she used to possess. In fact, she seemed to be crying over damned near everything lately. She had cried when Private Straminsky had saved her the last of the pudding at dinner the night before. She'd cried when half the camp had lined up to sign her cast. She'd cried when Kellye had wheeled her over to the animal hutches to say goodbye to Radar's menagerie. And just that morning, as she had been having breakfast with Charles in the mess tent, she had burst into tears when it suddenly dawned on her that she would never eat powdered eggs again. She still didn't know if those had been tears of sadness, or relief.
And now, as her tent mates helped pack her belongings, she could feel her traitorous bottom lip begin to wobble again. Once they were finished, there was nothing left to do but pile her things into the waiting jeep and drive away. Away from the 4077th, away from the best people she had ever known, away from the man she loved. And trade it all for... what, exactly? Southern California. Blazing, oppressive heat. Uncle Will, his crazy wife, and their seven cats.
Why was she leaving again?
As she struggled not to lose it for the thousandth time, Lori Nagel paused in her task of folding Nellie's clothes and reached down into her own foot locker. To Nellie's surprise, she pulled out her midnight blue dress and proceeded to stuff it inside her suitcase.
"What are you doing?" Nellie asked in protest. "I can't take your dress!"
"Sure you can," Nagel said easily. "It never looked right on me, anyway. Besides," she added, wrinkling her nose, "I'll never be able to wear it again, knowing that Winchester's drooled all over it."
Nellie did her best to look indignant, but she was unable to keep from laughing. "I'm going to miss that bright, cheery demeanor of yours," she said sarcastically.
The other nurse reached out and ruffled her hair. "Same to you, copper-top."
And just like that, Nellie was on the verge of another breakdown. For God's sake, she thought angrily, wiping at her eyes. When did I become such a girl?
They continued to pack her bags, reminiscing about old times and making plans to visit each other in the future. Maddie Clark made Nellie promise, under penalty of death, to keep up her hair and makeup regimen. Nellie was only partially convinced that she was kidding.
She packed the last of her books away into her steamer trunk, watching in amusement as Kellye was obliged to sit on the lid just to get the hasps to close. As she sat in her ill-fitting Class A skirt and jacket, taking one last look around the tent to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, she heard a light rap on the door. "Come in," she called.
The door opened, and Sister Theresa stepped inside, accompanied by little Soo-Min. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, ladies," the nun said. "I'm taking the children to the orphanage in Incheon, and I wanted to say goodbye to you before we left." She clasped Nellie's hand gratefully. "Thank you for everything, Lieutenant. Rest assured, our Father's heart is warmed by your self-sacrificing spirit."
Nellie felt her cheeks grow warm. "Thank you, Sister," she replied, mustering a smile. "I wish you and the children all the best."
"Soo-Min also has something she wants to give you." She nudged the little girl. "Go on," she urged.
The child came forward and, reaching into the folds of her grubby dress, pulled out her tattered rag doll. With an air of firm resolve, she held it out to Nellie. "Oh, no, honey," she said, shaking her head. "I can't take this from you."
Soo-Min pushed the doll insistently toward Nellie, her eyes wide and beseeching. "Please," she said in her tiny voice, using one of the few English words in her vocabulary. "Please."
Nellie stroked her smooth black hair, blinking back tears. "I can't," she said gently.
"Please, Lieutenant," Theresa said quietly. "You must take it. She already tried giving it to Major Winchester. He told her to give it to you."
Defeated, Nellie took the doll with a weak smile. "Kam-sa-ham-ni-da," she murmured, her throat tight.
Then she held out her arms, and Soo-Min came forward, hugging her with surprising strength. As Nellie held onto her tightly, silent tears running down her face, she wondered absently if it was actually possible to die of dehydration from crying too much.
The nurses bade the sister and the little girl farewell, and Nellie watched them leave, clutching the doll to her chest. The moment had arrived. Her things were packed. The jeep was waiting in the compound. Charles was ready to drive her to the airport in Seoul. She couldn't put it off any longer. She had to go.
She had to go.
She nodded to Kellye, who handed her a pair of crutches that were leaning against the wall. With the Hawaiian nurse's help, Nellie was able to haul herself upright. Her right wrist was still a little tender, but she was determined to leave standing tall.
The nurses picked up her bags, and a corpsman was wrangled into carrying her steamer trunk full of books. Outside in the compound, the ever-present rain had finally lessened to a light mist. Despite the fairly early hour, a sizeable crowd had gathered around the jeep. For a brief, selfish moment, Nellie almost wished they hadn't come to see her off. Now it would only be that much harder to say goodbye.
After piling her things into the jeep, the nurses came forward, one by one, and hugged her in turn. Kellye's turn came, and she kissed her on the cheek. "Don't forget, you've got to come visit me in Honolulu," she reminded her, her eyes watery. "We'll have a big luau, and I'll make you my famous macaroni salad."
"I can't wait," Nellie told her. "I'll see you then, Kellye-bean."
Major Houlihan stepped forward. Her face was impassive, but her eyes were markedly red. "Malone," she said evenly.
Nellie managed to give a clumsy sort of half-salute, putting her weight on one crutch while she raised her hand. "It's been a privilege and an honor serving under you, ma'am," she said sincerely.
As the head nurse returned her salute, her strong, beautiful features softened into a smile. "You're a damned good nurse, Malone," she said quietly. "We'll miss you."
In contrast to Houlihan's stiff demeanor, Colonel Potter was his typical, informal self. "It's been a real pleasure having you with us, Malone," he told her kindly. "You take good care of yourself now."
"Thank you, Colonel," Nellie replied. "Say goodbye to Sophie for me."
Potter nodded. "You got it, little lady," he said, his voice just a tad rougher than usual.
He stepped back, and B.J. came forward, his cheesy smile decidedly forced under his mustache. "You have yourself a nice, long rest when you get home, Nellie. You've earned it."
Her own smile felt just as strained as his. "I'd rather have a nice, long rest right here, if it's all the same," she said, fighting back tears.
"I know," he murmured. Plucking her hat from her head and tossing it into the jeep, he ruffled her hair one last time. "One for the road," he explained.
As Hawkeye came and reluctantly took his place, he seemed strangely unwilling to meet Nellie's gaze. "See you around, Red," he said shortly.
Nellie blinked up at the chief surgeon. "That's it?" she blurted. "That's all you have to say? 'See you around, Red'?"
He gave a put-upon sigh, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "Listen, kid," he said awkwardly. "I'm not too great with goodbyes."
She shook her head, smiling despite herself. "How about 'Here's looking at you'?" she suggested.
"Now where have I heard that before?" he asked teasingly.
Rolling her eyes, she beckoned him closer. As he leaned in, she gave him a peck on the cheek. "Do me a favor, Hawk," she whispered. "Be nice to Charles."
Hawkeye nodded minutely. "Yeah, I will," he murmured, his voice tight. "Bye, Nellie."
As he quickly stepped back, Mulcahy took the opportunity to come forward, his battered white hat in his hands. The moment Nellie saw the kind-hearted chaplain, her composure abruptly crumbled. "Father," she said brokenly.
"Oh, Nellie," he said simply. To her surprise, he reached out and laid his hand gently on her head. Behind his glasses, his blue eyes were bright with unshed tears. "God bless you and keep you, my child," he whispered.
Tears spilled down Nellie's cheeks as she closed her eyes. When she opened them, she saw Klinger shaking his head at her in reproach. "Will you quit crying already?" he asked her, his own voice wavering noticeably.
"I will when you do," she retorted, only half-kidding.
"Come here." He pulled her into his arms, taking care not to get tangled in her crutches and topple her over. She buried her face in his shoulder, barely managing to hold back a sob. "You be sure and call us when you get to San Francisco, so we know you're safe," he said, his words muffled slightly by her hair.
She was fully aware that she would be exhausted by the time she arrived in San Francisco. "I will," she promised. He kissed her cheek, squishing his large nose against her ear in the process. "You're still the best, Max," she told him.
He pulled away with a weak smile. "Yeah, I know, get out of here," he said jokingly.
As she removed her glasses and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket, Klinger moved aside, making room for Danny to come up and squeeze the life out of her. "Uncle Will and Aunt Gloria are going to meet you at the airport in San Francisco," he said. "Sorry, but I couldn't talk them out of it."
Nellie shook her head, replacing her glasses. "It's okay. It'll be nice to see some familiar faces. Even if Gloria's will be hidden under fourteen pounds of makeup." He laughed. "Stay out of trouble, you," she ordered sternly.
The boy gave a nonchalant shrug. "I'll see what I can do," he replied with a crooked smile.
During these proceedings, Charles had stood silently by the jeep, his face pale and his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep — as well as other, more obvious reasons. Now he stepped forward and touched her lightly on the arm. "Are you ready?" he asked in a low voice.
Wordlessly, Nellie shook her head. She was not ready. Not at all. She felt like she was leaving a piece of herself here, in this conglomeration of canvas tents in the middle of the Gwangju mountains, and she would never get it back again.
As she stared at the faces of her friends, some trying valiantly to remain strong and others weeping openly, she thought her heart might break in half. An embarrassingly ragged sob escaped her, despite her efforts to keep it in. "Oh, don't make me go," she said miserably.
It was Hawkeye, unsurprisingly, who called her back to her senses. "Are you nuts, sister?" he blurted with his usual tact. "You're finally getting out of this dump. No more all-night O.R. sessions. No more ice-cold showers with complimentary hypothermia. No more mess tent mélange of World War Two-surplus slop. You should be happy."
Nellie laughed through her tears. "The only way I'd be happy is if I could take you all with me." Slowly, her smile faded as she shook her head. "God, I love you people," she said unsteadily. "I love you so much it hurts."
Klinger dug around in his pockets and pulled out a handkerchief, pressing it into her hand. To her amusement, it was a woman's handkerchief, all delicate embroidery and lace. "We love you too, kid," he said warmly. "Now go, or you'll miss your flight."
She cleared her throat. "I'm going, I'm going."
Taking her crutches from her, Charles carefully lifted her into the jeep. Her straight leg cast wouldn't fit in the passenger seat, so she was forced to sit in the back, wedged in among her belongings. After stowing her crutches in the front, Charles climbed in behind the wheel and started the engine. As they drove away, Nellie twisted around in her seat and waved to the others, until their figures, along with the rest of the camp, slowly disappeared from sight.
Turning around again, she faced forward, feeling the wind disarrange her hair and dry the tears on her cheeks. She looked at Charles, sitting very straight in front of her in the driver's seat, his hands gripping the wheel tightly. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder. Gradually, she felt him relax, ever so slightly.
Before long, they found themselves on the outskirts of Seoul. Just on the other side of the Han River lay their destination, the Kimpo air base. As they drew inexorably closer, Nellie could feel her stomach tying itself into knots. She couldn't remember the last time she had experienced such dread over the prospect of getting on a plane. But then again, she had never before left quite so much behind.
As they arrived at the air base, they were directed to pull over, and her bags were commandeered by a pair of servicemen, who escorted them to a small lobby where they were instructed to wait. Nellie collapsed onto the nearest bench, wincing as a jolt of pain went through her leg. Charles sat down beside her, and she leaned wearily against him. It was not yet eight-thirty in the morning, and she was already tired.
Charles drew his arm around her, pulling her closer. She buried her face in his jacket, breathing in the scent of his aftershave as he stroked her hair.
For a long time, neither of them spoke. Nothing seemed sufficient. And they both knew the hardest part was still to come.
"What will you do when you get to San Francisco?" he finally asked, his voice slightly hoarse.
Nellie shook her head against him. "I haven't given it much thought," she replied. "We'll probably stay in a hotel for the night, and head back to Malibu the next morning. It's about a seven hour drive."
"Poor girl," he murmured, rubbing her back. "You'll be so exhausted."
She shrugged, no longer caring about the future. Things would eventually sort themselves out. And, if she didn't worry herself to death over Charles, Danny, and the others, stuck in the middle of a war-zone while she lazed around in sunny California, she might even figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Nursing was certainly no longer an option.
They sat together for a while longer in the little lobby, talking quietly as the airport buzzed with activity around them. And then Nellie became aware of a droning noise outside: the roar of a twin-engine aircraft. Suddenly all the time in the world would not have been enough.
Before she knew it, there were people in uniforms taking her bags and loading them onto the plane. She clung to Charles tightly, unable to believe that this moment had arrived. She wondered if she had enough stamina to make a mad dash for the jeep and drive straight back to camp. Probably not. She could barely bring herself to move.
Charles cleared his throat. "I am aware that what I'm about to say will sound hopelessly clichéd, but I'll say it anyway. I shall count the hours until we are together again."
Nellie's throat closed up, and her eyes filled with tears. "So will I. I'll write to you, as often as I think of you." She tried to smile, knowing it was futile. "You'll have so many letters, you'll have to get a bigger desk just to hold them all."
"I sincerely hope so," he said, stroking her cheek with his thumb.
A voice somewhere was telling Nellie to hurry, and she ignored it. She picked up her small Army-issue purse from the bench beside her and opened the clasp. Charles's eyes widened as she pulled out her well-worn copy of Twelfth Night.
"Journeys end in lovers' meeting," she said in a meaningful tone, pushing it insistently into his hands. "So don't be surprised if I ask for this back the next time I see you."
Suddenly he was kissing her urgently, desperately. With a sob, she wrapped her arms around his neck as he wound his fingers through her hair. As he held her tightly against him, she felt tears begin to slide down her cheeks.
"Be safe," he whispered, his forehead touching hers. "Please, be safe."
"You, too," she said brokenly, placing her hand on the side of his face. "My love. My dearest Charles."
He kissed her again, and again. Finally, at the risk of oxygen deprivation, they were forced to stop. She grabbed her crutches, and he helped her to her feet. They stepped out of the lobby into the gray morning light, where the Curtiss C-46 was waiting. "I'll call when I get to San Francisco," she told him as they approached the boarding stairs.
"Promise," said Charles, shouting above the engine noise.
"I love you, Malone."
"I love you!"
As Nellie turned to board the plane, he caught her by the sleeve of her jacket and kissed her again. "Go," he said thickly.
Then someone was taking hold of her, helping her up the stairs and onto the plane. Inside the cabin, she was ushered to her seat on the aisle, where she was forced to lean over to peer out the window. Charles still stood where she had left him, her book tucked securely under his arm. As he caught sight of her in the window, he gave her his customary half-nod, his eyes shining with tears.
And then the plane rumbled away across the tarmac, and he was gone.
Reluctantly, she sat back in her seat as the C-46 steadily picked up speed, hurtling over the runway. Then she felt her stomach give a lurch as the ground abruptly fell away beneath her. Outside the window, the Kimpo airfield grew smaller and smaller, until it too had vanished.
Through blurred vision, Nellie looked down at her cast, gazing at the innumerable messages and drawings that had been scrawled all over it. Among the various "Bon voyage"s and "Get well soon"s was a short message, written in Charles's impeccable hand.
"Journeys end in lovers' meeting."
Slowly, she removed her glasses and placed them in her lap. Lowering her face into her hands, she gave over to quiet sobbing.
Long after the outline of the C-46 had disappeared into the clouds, Charles stood on the tarmac, staring up at the dull gray sky. At last, he couldn't put it off any longer. Forcing himself to turn away, he walked slowly over to his jeep and got in behind the wheel.
Beside him, a brown Army Nurse Corps cap lay forgotten on the passenger seat. Very carefully, he placed the battered copy of Twelfth Night next to it.
He turned the key, and the engine roared to life. Throwing the jeep into gear, he eased it out of the parking area and headed away from the air base in the direction of Seoul. As he drove, droplets of rain began to splash against the windshield, sparsely at first, and then more heavily. He stopped and put up the canvas top, but he was obliged to pull over twice more and wait for the rain to slacken off, until he was able to see the road again.
The third time, on the road to Uijeongbu, Charles simply sat in the idling jeep, staring ahead of him. His hands shook almost imperceptibly as they gripped the steering wheel. Turning slightly, he stared down at the slender hardcover book on the seat beside him. He reached out and picked it up, holding it to his chest. And it was there, alone on that mountainous road in the middle of a downpour, that he allowed himself to succumb to a rare moment of weakness.
Even after the rain had lessened to a drizzle, he didn't move. He couldn't. How could he go back to the 4077th, knowing that Malone would not be there? Knowing that everything in that blasted camp would remind him of her? He wouldn't be able to bear it. He could hardly even bear to think about it.
Involuntarily, he looked over at Malone's hat, still lying on the passenger seat. He was inevitably reminded of the first time he had seen it on her, the day she had arrived. He could recall with perfect clarity how she had looked as she sat half-dozing at one of the tables in the mess tent — her Class A uniform rumpled, her eyelids drooping behind her glasses, her messy red hair escaping from its loose bun under that hat. She had looked so comically disheveled. How could he have ever known that he would end up surrendering himself, body and soul, to that frazzled little thing?
If only he had known. He would have done so many things differently. He had made so many mistakes, wasted so much time that he could have spent simply enjoying Malone's company. He could have taken her dancing, or on picnics, or even to Tokyo. Instead, he had belittled her heritage, criticized her judgment in O.R. and then refused to forgive her for becoming angry, deliberately alienated her, and lied to her about his true feelings. He had done everything to drive her away that he could have possibly done.
Yet, for all that, she loved him. Him.
And, fool that he was, he had just put her on a plane which was taking her further away from him with every passing second.
Never again would Charles hear her whistling in the operating room. He still remembered the way his heart had leapt into his throat at the sound, even before he had known it was her. Never again would they play Go in the Officers' Club while the other patrons looked on, baffled and bemused by their intense concentration. His thoughts drifted back to the night of the Christmas party, when she had given him that Go board. It had been on that same night that she had first embraced him.
He thought of their first kiss, on the porch of that farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The way Malone's soft lips had felt, pressing against his for the first time. The memory of it still made him shiver, even now.
Oh, God. How could he face another day in this place without her?
He wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand. That was quite enough of that. He was a Winchester, for heaven's sake. Winchesters did not give in to despair, and they certainly did not indulge in self-pity. Or, if they did, they didn't do it on the side of the road, where anyone could pass by and see them.
Easing back onto the road, Charles drove on, passing presently through the little town of Uijeongbu. All was quiet, and no one was walking through the streets. The rain had driven everyone into their homes.
Before long, the wooden signpost of the 4077th came into view. He pulled into the compound and switched off the engine, tucking both book and cap carefully inside his jacket. As he climbed out of his jeep, he looked around. There was very little activity here, either. The camp seemed sad, empty, lifeless.
As he trudged through the puddles toward the Swamp, a pair of nurses emerged from the mess tent. They caught sight of him, and their features flooded with sympathy. Charles suppressed a sigh. He supposed he would have to get used to that.
Inside the Swamp, Pierce and Hunnicutt were playing cards with Danny. The boy was not due back at the 28th Medical Dispensary for another day. To be sure, it was safer there than at the front lines, but if Charles's experiences in Korea had taught him anything, it was that nowhere was truly safe.
As he entered, the others looked up at him. "Welcome back, Charles," said Pierce, his voice unusually mild.
Charles nodded silently. For the present, he didn't trust himself to speak.
"You were gone for quite a while," Hunnicutt observed quietly, watching him above his cards. "Was Nellie's plane delayed?"
He shook his head. Striding over to his corner of the Swamp, he took the book and cap from his jacket and stowed them safely away in the drawer of his desk. He turned, and found Danny smiling up at him. The boy's smile was so much like his sister's that Charles could hardly bear to look at him.
"Would you like to play some poker?" he asked. "We could use a fourth."
Charles merely shook his head again. Without a word, he walked out of the Swamp.
He had no idea where he was going. All he knew was that he could not face anyone. Not yet. On their own accord, his feet took him in the direction of the Officers' Club. At this time of day, it would almost certainly be empty. Perhaps there he could be alone with his thoughts for a while.
Sure enough, as he pulled the door open and stepped inside, he found that all the lights were off. He switched them on and meandered over to his preferred table in the corner, feeling rather like he was in a dream. Propping his elbows on the table, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, closing his eyes.
He wondered where Malone was at that moment. Somewhere over the Sea of Japan, no doubt. If he recalled correctly, that was where Colonel Henry Blake's plane had been shot down. Suddenly he wished he hadn't thought about that.
He should have made her promise to call when she got to Tokyo, not San Francisco. Too many things could go wrong on the way. And if her flight to Honolulu was delayed for some reason, and she was detained for several hours, he wouldn't know of it until much later. Naturally, he would assume the worst had happened. Perhaps she would realize that, and decide to call from Tokyo anyway. He could only hope.
So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he failed to hear the sound of the door of the Officers' Club swinging open and shut. It was not until he heard the harsh scrape of a stool being pulled across the floor that he realized he was no longer alone. Opening his eyes, he was greeted by the sight of Klinger sitting on the other side of his table, a glass of whiskey in one hand and a snifter of cognac in the other.
"This one's on me, Major," he said, placing the latter in front of Charles.
When he spoke, his throat felt raw and irritated. "Isn't eleven-thirty in the morning a little early to be drinking?" he asked dryly.
Klinger gave an apathetic shrug. "What difference does it make? This place is Hell twenty-four hours a day."
He shook his head, wishing the man would just go away. "I don't want your sympathy, Klinger," he said wearily.
In response, the clerk only pushed the drink closer to him. "I'm buying you a drink, Charles," he said in a low, firm voice. "Don't try to stop me."
Charles looked up at Klinger, surprised by his use of his first name. As he returned the man's gaze, he noticed for the first time that his dark eyes were rimmed with red.
Slowly, he nodded, taking the snifter in his hand. As he did so, Klinger lifted his own drink in the air. "A toast," he said quietly. "To sweet Nellie Malone."
As they clinked their glasses together, Charles didn't bother to brush away the tear that rolled down his cheek. "To sweet Nellie Malone," he murmured hoarsely in reply.
A/N: I have very little to say in my own defense, except this: it will get less sad. I swear on my life that this story has a happy ending. It's so happy, you guys won't even know what to do with yourselves. In the meantime, I do apologize for the depressing content of this chapter. In all honesty, it was the most difficult one to write so far. That's probably why it took me a month. Argh.
If you have the time, do tell me what you thought. Thank you for reading. You're awesome.