The heat was sweltering as they pulled into Manzanillo, the air slightly moist and pungent with the smell of bodies both unwashed and unliving. Two of the three other nurses who'd been on the jeep started throwing up as soon as they'd taken a few breaths. The third nurse gasped as she stared at the mud, at the demolished buildings and downed trees, and at the rows of bodies, lying under tarps and blankets. People walked along the rows, peeking under the covers, crying out, sometimes wailing, when they found someone they knew.
Margaret turned and walked into the middle of it, avoiding the searchers, heading for the large off-white tent in the distance and the smaller ones beside it.
"What's wrong with her?" one of the vomiters asked.
An excellent question. She hoped if they figured it out, they'd fill her in.
She turned. A handsome man wearing white, with a stethoscope around his neck, was following her.
"I just wanted to tell you to watch out for the scorpions," the other man said. "The mudslides have brought them up."
She'd heard they were a problem in nearby Minatitlan; rescue workers had been bitten as they tried to help. "Are there any landmines? Snipers?"
"Uh, no, senorita."
"Then I think I'll be fine. But you might want to tell those three. They're very green." She squelched through the mud, glad she'd brought her old army boots. The other three nurses wore shoes that worked great in an urban hospital, but would last about two minutes in the mired muck that used to be dirt before the hurricane rolled in.
"Yes, you are definitely different than the others." The man seemed determined not to leave her side. "You are stronger."
"Don't know about that." She gave him a tight smile. "Just seen more, done more. Sick of more."
"If that is so, why are you here?"
"Helping people gets in your blood."
He laughed. "I do understand that. My name, by the way, is Doctor Miguel Gutierrez. I come from a very rich family in the capital and I should be there, earning much money and enjoying many women. Instead, I come to places like this, or go the slums. It is very disconcerting for my family."
She laughed at the way he put things. "I like your story, Doctor."
He shook his head. "Call me Miguel. I'd tell you my nickname, but I was warned off you by a more senior medico from the north. Perhaps you know him? Benjamin Fr--"
"I know him."
"Do you like him?"
She had to think about that. Did she like Pierce?
"Oh, my, I am doomed. Only a woman in love has to think that hard about like."
She laughed. "It's complicated."
"I have found that everything worthwhile in life is complicated." He nodded back to the three novices trudging through the mud. "Any of them you'd recommend? Since you are most definitely off limits."
She liked his directness. No judgment like back home. No games. Although she was sure he could woo with the best of them. But he seemed to recognize that he could just ask which of the women she'd pair him up with. It was like Korea, and so few things were.
"Lisa," she said. "The brunette. Nice girl. Here for the right reasons." The two lighter-haired girls were empty headed and here for the adventure. But Lisa Stevens wanted to be a doctor, and thought that this might be a way to fortify her application while also allowing her to do something good. Margaret intended to make sure it did help her. Pierce would help. He loved her projects.
If only he loved her as much. She tried not to over-think how he felt about her, tried not to dwell on love or lust or whatever this was in those times between seeing him. How she felt was easy--or at least, part of it was. She knew she loved him, but Miguel's question was giving her trouble: did she like Pierce?
"There she is." The leer with the gentle gleam in the eyes hadn't changed. Neither had the way Pierce picked her up and swung her, his arms wrapped around her, holding her tight, keeping her safe.
Well, safe for a little while.
"Pierce, put me down." She didn't really want him to, and he wouldn't do it anyway, but her protests were expected. She felt his lips on her neck, shivered from his breath in her ear.
"You feel great, by the way. You were too thin the last time I saw you." He wasn't roaming her body, but his hands, where they held her, were gripping tightly.
"I missed you." Truth always slipped out when he was nearby. She really hated that.
"I missed you, too." He let her down. "I knew you'd come to this one."
"Who can resist mud and scorpions?"
"I know I couldn't."
The other girls were waiting with Miguel, watching the scene. One of them, Debbie, coughed gently. "Where should we put our stuff?"
Pierce didn't even look at them. "Over there." He pointed to what must be the nurses' sleeping tent as he put his arm around Margaret and led her off toward the biggest tent--the hospital, she could tell. "Put some boots on and then join us in the ward, ladies. And make it snappy."
"When did you get so bossy? You almost sounded like Frank."
"No one has any sense of urgency. Don't you find that?"
She did. The stellar surgeons she assisted on a daily basis wouldn't have lasted a day in Korea. "Well, let's teach them about urgency, okay?"
He checked behind them, then pulled her close, kissing her quickly but very thoroughly. "I really am glad to see you. It seemed...longer this time."
"It wasn't." She knew because she'd counted the days, pathetic fool that she was.
"It felt like it was. Humor me, Margaret. I'm holding my best gal and we're actually doing some good here. It doesn't get any better."
She pulled him back down to her and kissed him quickly. He was right. For them, it didn't get any better than this.
"I've...I've never seen anything like this," Lisa murmured as she dressed a wound on a little girl.
Margaret gave her points for not crying; the little girl was watching her as she worked, and she needed strength, not an overcome gringo.
"All this suffering." Lisa took a deep breath. "But we're helping, right? We're helping here?"
Margaret nodded as she gently checked on a fisherman's broken leg. The cast was bothering the man, and she tried to explain, in mediocre Spanish, that the thing was necessary if he wanted to walk again.
"Margarita," an old woman murmured, and Margaret went to her, checking her forehead. Her fever was up again, climbing as the wound on her arm festered despite their best efforts.
The arm needed to come off, but the woman had forbidden it. She was a seamstress, renowned for her beautiful work. Without her hand, she'd starve.
And with it, she'd die.
"Do you need some more painkiller, Alma?"
"No. Just sit with me." Alma was shivering, and Margaret felt her gut tighten in pity, in the dark compassion of Korea. This was why she came here. This feeling. This pain. This horrible, horrible place. She felt something here. She could help here.
She knew how screwed up that was. But as she glanced across the ward and met Pierce's eyes, she saw the support and pity and...life in them. And she knew she wasn't the only messed-up savior in the room.
"I have not always been a good woman, Margarita." Alma was whispering and Margaret leaned down to hear her. "I have loved the wrong man for so long. He is married. There is shame for me in this."
"I've loved lots of married men. The shame goes away." Or maybe it just got diluted the more you did it.
"I could have married. Had children. Not been the village soltera, the one who never found anyone. But I supported myself. I was never rich, but I did all right."
"Alma, you're a wonderful woman. Any man would have been glad to have you." The first part was true; the second part might not be. Men could sense when a woman was lost to them, in love with a man she couldn't have but would never give up. Some men saw it as a challenge, for a while. But most steered clear, their unconscious radar telling them danger lay ahead.
She'd certainly never had a problem being free for Pierce.
Too bad he hadn't returned the favor. If she dwelt on it, the pain would come back, the thoughts of his wife Ann and the way he'd shown up at the earthquake relief effort, his finger wielding a shiny gold band.
He'd fallen in love, he said. She was beautiful and sweet and graceful and innocent and tall. Everything Margaret knew she wasn't, that she would never be, and probably never had been. Beauty, grace, and height weren't in the cards for her. Her father hadn't valued sweetness, and innocence went the way of the neighbor who'd driven her home from babysitting and made her feel special. She'd been fourteen.
Pierce hadn't touched her during that particular sojourn with the needy; he'd been true to his young paragon of a wife.
The last time she'd seen Pierce, he'd lost the gold ring and she'd lost weight worrying about seeing him again. They'd both drunk too much and had too much sex. And in a drunken, crying fit he'd told her his wife had said he disgusted her. That he was weak for not being able to change, for not being able to stop the nightmares and the drinking and the sarcasm and the hatred of authority.
Margaret had pointed out that it sounded as if his wife didn't like who he was at heart. He'd told her she was right, and then shut her up with a kiss that was more mean than passionate.
They didn't usually take out their anger through sex. That night had been an exception. And it hadn't only been him. She'd taken her revenge, too. The sex had been on fire; the inspiration behind it had been wrong.
"You and the doctor, you are very much in love. I can see these things." Alma smiled, then grimaced, and Margaret went to get her more morphine.
"Did she change her mind? Will she let us take the arm?" Pierce murmured as she passed him with the needle.
"I didn't ask."
There was no censure in his voice. Just resignation. They couldn't save everyone. That was the sad fact, no matter how much help they did--or how much life that helping brought them. Someone always died. Usually many someones.
"Here," she said, as she rolled Alma onto her good side and slipped the needle under her skin, then eased her onto her back again.
The relief came fast, as it always did. The same way that smelling dank air and knowing Pierce was nearby brought relief to Margaret. Her own brand of painkiller and she thought she might be that for him, too.
"Pierce and I aren't in love," she whispered as Alma closed her eyes.
"Oh, yes, you are," the woman muttered and then she was out.
"That was a large dose," Lisa said as she glanced at the hypodermic.
"Yes. It was." The morphine would kill Alma eventually. But she'd die anyway without it, and more slowly, in agony. The pain wasn't necessary.
"You could take her arm now. She can't stop you." Lisa got up and pulled Margaret away from the woman. "Why are you and Doctor Pierce content to just let her die?"
"It's what she wants. You don't understand this place, Lisa. Or what it's like to be dependent on people who won't help, who can't help, because it's not their way."
"You could make sure she gets help. Or Pierce could. Miguel likes both of you; you could talk to him. Miguel comes from a prominent family. She could be a servant in one of his family's houses--a maid, maybe?"
"She is one of the most renowned dressmakers in all of the state. People from the farthest reaches of Colima come to her for wedding gowns and quincesanos dresses. She has pride. She has status, even if very little money. And you want her to trade her arm for life as a drudge?"
"I want her to live. How she does it is up to her."
"Whether she does it is up to her, too. I made enough decisions for people in Korea. I'm not doing it here. Not when her arguments make sense." Margaret pulled away from Lisa. "When you're the doctor, you can take the arm. You can make that decision. But you're not the doctor here. You're not even head nurse. I can live with this, so can Pierce. You've said your peace, so you have to live with it, too, now."
"On the plane. On the ride out. I thought I liked you."
"That was probably a mistake." Although she liked Lisa, she didn't expect her to understand anything about her.
"It gets old, you know? The 'Korea Club' thing you and Pierce go on about. It's old news. The world's moved on. Why can't you two?"
"That's an excellent question. And the answer is none of your goddamned business."
"Is there a problem?" Pierce asked, taking them both by the arms and leading them outside the ward. "And can we do whatever you two are doing somewhere other than in the middle of our patients?"
"Margaret wasn't doing anything, Doctor. Except watching an old woman die."
Pierce's face went dead, his eyes were like flat blue stones. "It's not your place to question."
"Why not? Because you're not doing anything, either?"
"Her family is dead, Nurse Stevens. She survives by the work she does, work she won't be able to do once her hand is gone."
"She could learn to use her other hand."
"Her other hand?" Pierce's voice dropped dangerously. "Have you taken a good look at her other hand, Nurse?" He moved in for the kill. "Have you noticed how she doesn't open it all the way?"
Lisa glanced over at Margaret, who looked away. Lisa should have noticed. It was the first thing Margaret had noticed--she'd seen it often enough in Korea, in children who had to go to work at much too young an age. Then again, Lisa hadn't spent much time with Alma; Margaret had been the one doing most of the caretaking. She'd sat with so many boys who weren't going to make it in Korea, pretending they were, that it was a relief to sit with someone who knew she was going to die.
"A childhood accident left her crippled in that hand. She couldn't write, couldn't play with her toys. She did learn to use her other hand once already. She's out of hands, Nurse."
"She couldn't do housework, Lisa," Margaret said. "She has no family. She'd be a beggar." She pulled Pierce back a little, knew from experience how intimidating he could be when he was worked up and looming. "It's her choice, and she's made it. Come on, Pierce."
He followed her without a word, but she could tell he was fuming. As soon as they were back in the ward, he muttered, "How dare she?"
"Don't. Okay? Just don't. We were her once upon a time. We really were; we just can't remember it anymore."
He looked like he was going to argue with her so she held up her hand to stop him. "Just don't, Pierce."
For once, he listened to her.
Margaret rolled over so she could watch Pierce as he pretended to sleep. This was the first time they'd shared his tent so openly. Usually, she stored her things in the sleeping tent with the other nurses and then snuck over to his tent--or met him for dinner and just never came back.
But this time he'd asked her to stay with him. And she'd said yes without thinking about it. It was 1959--times were changing and sex was something people did a lot more openly.
Although perhaps not this openly.
"You're staring at me," he said gently.
She sighed. The truth was such an inconvenient answer.
"Because I missed you. And I want to take advantage of this while I can." She lay down quickly. "You don't have to make up a response for that. I just felt like telling the truth for once. Go back to sleep."
"I wasn't asleep. I was thinking."
"Well quit that and go to sleep."
"I missed you, too. It's why I wanted you in here. I wanted every minute I could get with you."
It felt good, his truth. It also stung like hell. If he wanted every minute he could get with her, all he had to do was ask. What he meant was that he wanted every minute of this little dalliance that he could get. And that was different.
"You still there?"
"Lying right here."
"Okay, I've made you mad."
She didn't answer, just beat the pillow a bit trying to get comfortable, pretending it was him.
"Margaret?" He touched her on the hip, where he knew she liked it and she hated him for knowing all the things she liked, for doing them better than anyone she'd found who did want her around all the time.
"I hate you," she said, turning quickly, bumping his hand off her hip.
"No, you don't." His words were cocky, but his voice was off.
"Then I don't like you. At all. How's that?"
"What did I do?"
"You didn't do anything. You never do anything. You--" She had to stop, because she was starting to cry and soon her voice would do that annoying jump-moan sound that made her sound pathetic and weak and needy.
He reached for her, and she pushed him away hard. He grabbed her again, this time pulling her close. He was so strong; it always surprised her how strong he was. "What the hell is wrong, Margaret?"
She did start to cry then. She let go and wept and felt him pull her against him, his arms around her, his lips on her hair. "Us," she stammered out between tears. "This." She pulled away and tried to find his eyes in the near-total darkness. "Never seeing you. Then seeing you like this."
There, it was out. The truth, so desperate in its wanting. She was everything she hated to be. She was everything he hated her to be.
She pulled out of his arms, slowly got out of bed. She reached around for her robe.
"Where are you going?"
"To the Nurses' tent. Now that I've ruined this."
"You haven't ruined anything. Come back here."
"Margaret, come back here before you step on a scorpion. I found two last night."
"The only scorpions here are us, Hawk. Stingers up, grappling but ready to strike."
He sighed. "That's dramatic. I like it as an image, just not for us. Come back to bed."
"Now." He had the tone that said he'd get up and carry her back if he had to. And he could. He was strong and she lacked the will to fight him: a deadly advantage.
She shrugged off her robe and got back into bed, her back to him.
He cuddled around her, spooning her, his hand roaming up and down her body. "There was something I left out of my tale of woe about Ann the last time you and I met up."
"I don't care."
"You will care about this." He pulled her closer, until she could feel him all along the back of her. "She was convinced we were having an affair."
"We never touched when you were with her. You were sickeningly smitten when you were with her."
"I thought so, too. But apparently I...called out your name in my sleep. A lot."
She tried to turn, but he held her in place.
"I'd do this when I was lying asleep next to Ann." He rubbed up against her, thrusting as if they were making love. "And I'd murmur your name. It was always your name, never the other nurses I'd been with."
"Probably because you couldn't remember all of them."
He laughed. "Possibly, but I prefer to think that I had a clear favorite." He nuzzled her again. "After that hut, after our falling out and making up, I was less errr busy, if you bothered to notice. And you and I were often quite creative in finding excuses to make love. Your divorce from Donald. The one-week anniversary of your divorce from Donald. Marilyn Monroe appreciation day."
She laughed. That one had been her idea. "We were imaginative."
"That's always been one of our strong suits." He took a deep breath. "I've never wanted to love you, though."
"This is not news, Pierce."
"I do love you. Somehow...what I want and what I feel aren't the same thing."
"Is that supposed to make me feel good?" She tried to pull away, was held fast. "Is that supposed to make me feel special? That I can make you love me against your will?"
"Do you despise me for being weak?"
"For the nightmares or my sarcasm or the authority thing?"
"You left out the drinking."
He laughed softly. "Well, any or all of the four. Do you?"
"I don't understand your issues with authority, they confuse me but I don't despise you for them. And since the other three are failings of mine, too, I can't really despise you for them, now can I?"
He eased up on his death grip. "Good."
"That was not an endorsement, Pierce." She waited for him to say something smart or cutting, but he just sighed in what sounded like contentment and nestled against her, his lips coming down on the bare skin of her back and neck. "Pierce, stop. I love you. I'm in love with you. I'm madly, stupidly in love with you." She waited. "Aren't you going to run?"
"No. Isn't it great?" He moved her a bit, giving himself access, easing into her as she moaned and tried to think of a rebuttal of some kind, but damn it, this did feel great. Being with him like this, not sneaking around, felt great beyond imagination.
"I hate you," she muttered in between pants.
"I love you, too."
"Lisa. Come learn why the Korea Club was so crucial." Margaret gestured for Lisa to join her in the pre-op scrub area. "Just had a utilities worker come in. Gas leak, blew the surrounding shed to bits. Ever heard of shrapnel?"
"In theory," Lisa said as she followed Margaret in and began to wash up.
"Well, now you get to see it in practice. There's no one better to save this man's life than Pierce."
"We're not a full O.R."
"We are if the wounded man's going to make it to the real hospital. Besides, the Manzanillo hospital is still on back-up power and overrun with patients. Trust me on this--Pierce can do more under canvas and emergency lights than any man I know." She realized that might have more than one meaning, but it was true in the other case, too, so she just smiled and let it go. "He'll get this guy out of immediate danger and ready for the specialists. Besides, I doubt many of them will have seen shrapnel like this."
She rewashed up quickly and led Lisa into the O.R.
"Ah, the soon-to-be Doctor Stevens. Come observe the maestro and mistress"--Pierce waggled his eyebrows at Margaret--"operate."
Lisa laughed softly. Then she looked at the patient. For a moment, Margaret thought she might faint or throw up or run screaming from the room. Then she seemed to steel herself, to find whatever it was that made her want to be a doctor and jam it into place to keep her upright.
"This was what you saw in Korea?" she asked, her voice shaking, but only a little.
"Yes," Pierce said. "But this would have been mild."
He wasn't kidding. Or bragging. This man's bowels were in one piece. His heart was still pumping. Only one lung had collapsed. His appendix, spleen, and pancreas weren't punctured. As shrapnel wounds went, he'd gotten off light. By Korea standards.
"Okay, my lady, let's get to this." Pierce held out his hand, not even calling for the instrument, and Margaret handed him the forceps, saw him smile under his mask. "Stevens, pray you get a nurse like this. You'll never look like a surgical god until you have someone who knows you and understands you and likes you anyway at your back."
"Right on two of those, Pierce." Margaret was grinning under her mask. "And god?" Although he was a deity in the sack, she'd give him that.
"You wound me. Pull that back a bit." He worked quickly, finding pieces of shrapnel buried deep in tissue, hidden in folds, covered in blood and gore. He looked at Margaret and nodded, and she handed Lisa the forceps.
"What? I can't...I'm not..."
"Do you see a piece?" Pierce asked.
"No...I don't think--"
"Margaret, show her."
Margaret eased some tissue around the bottom of the stomach back, exposing a piece of metal. It wasn't lodged against a blood vessel, hadn't ruptured anything; it was the perfect one to practice on.
"Take it out. Gently." Pierce talked her through it, and when her hand began to shake, he said, "We're all scared at first. If you're not, then you shouldn't be in the room. For the patient's sake, you need to care; you need to really care."
Lisa met his eyes and took a deep breath. Margaret walked over and wiped her brow. "It's okay. You can do it."
"Why aren't you doing it, Margaret? You could--you knew right where it was."
"I'm a nurse, and I like being a nurse. But you remember this moment. You remember, when you're a high-and-mighty doctor, that there are nurses who know more than you do. Okay?"
Lisa nodded and turned back to the patient. She eased the metal piece out and dropped it the bedpan they were using to collect the scraps. "I uh...I thought I saw one over here." She gestured with the forceps.
"By all means," Pierce said, grinning because Lisa was right.
She found three more and then Pierce took over again, going for one last pass and then closing. Margaret left Lisa to assist while she looked for Miguel.
"Margarita, I heard we had a new patient today?"
"We did. Your girl got to operate." Miguel had lost no time in monopolizing Lisa as he charmed the muddy ground out from under her.
"Good for her. And she could not have a better teacher. I watched Hawkeye operate before you got here, assisted a few times even though I'm not a surgeon. It was...exhilarating. Saving a life that way."
"I know the feeling." She signed one of the several required forms for requisitioning a car--she hadn't thought it was possible to be more bureaucratic than the Army, but the Mexican government had risen to the challenge. "He'll be ready for transport in about three hours."
"The car will be ready. No problem. Margaret," he said as she turned to go, "you and Hawkeye and Lisa and I should go out tonight. To celebrate. There is a place I know in town, very fun in candlelight--very romantic. I think you'll like it."
She and Pierce had been staying back a lot, always on call for the other doctors and nurses who had taken advantage of what was left to do in the town after the storm. Then again, she and Pierce had also stayed back so they could take better advantage of each other--their camp cot was getting quite a workout.
"Sounds good. Let's just get our patient to town and I'll tell Hawkeye." She smiled at Miguel's expression. In the past, she might have asked Pierce, and suddenly she felt comfortable telling him. Something had changed.
She just wished she knew what it was. And how long it would last.
The food, despite the intermittent electrical outages in the restaurant was good; the staff knew Miguel and fawned all over him. Lisa seemed taken with that, and Margaret couldn't say she minded being treated like a queen for a night. Pierce didn't seem to notice; he was in a world of his own, smiling happily at her in a way that made her very nervous.
When he pulled her up and onto the dance floor after dinner, she tensed.
"Something wrong, darling?" He put a sarcastic spin on "darling," the way he always did.
"That's a rather large stretch of waterfront to cover. Any particular part of me?"
"Why are you so happy? It's giving me the creeps."
He laughed loudly, throwing his head back the way he did when he was really amused and causing other diners and dancers to turn to look at them. Margaret knew she was turning red.
"This, my dearest, is why I love you. You don't fawn over me. You don't treat me with kid gloves. Hell, you don't even always like me." He saw her look and held a finger over her mouth. "Liars go to hell, Margaret. You don't like me and I don't like you--not all the time."
She sighed and nodded, not trying to talk with his finger there. But then she pulled it into her mouth and sucked on it.
"Oh, good God in heaven, Margaret, have mercy."
She let go, and he kissed her as soon as his finger was clear.
"That, too, is why I love you. You're so damn sexual."
She pushed against him gently, felt his arms come around her as she laid her head on his chest. "Are you inventorying this for a reason, Pierce? It sounds like you're trying to convince yourself that you love me."
"I'm trying to convince you."
She let her hands drop, lower and lower and stopping just before it would have become risque. He laughed softly.
"Stop trying to convince me, 'kay?"
He didn't say anything and they swayed as one, the music seeming to fill her, to make her one with it and him. It was surreal almost. Or possibly just the multiple glasses of wine she'd had with dinner working their magic.
She pulled away a bit, was surprised when he didn't let her go.
"I am weak, Margaret," he murmured. "I do drink too much, and I probably should see someone about the nightmares. I'm sarcastic, and I pick fights with my bosses, even when they don't deserve it."
"You didn't with Potter. Maybe you've just had bad bosses?"
"Making excuses for me?"
"You didn't with Henry, either." She looked up at him. "He and Potter were two very different men, and they both adored you. You don't have a problem with authority, Pierce. Not when you respect and like the person above you." She looked down. "You always had a problem with me, though."
"I currently do not have a problem with you being on top."
She laughed. "You know what I mean."
"History. Frank baggage. The remnants of Hot Lips. I'd have gotten there eventually. But the war ended before I learned to take orders from you." He nuzzled her neck and ran his hands up and down her back. "You weren't exactly the model of respectful nursely admiration, yourself, you know?"
"No, I suppose I wasn't. But you got what you deserved." The music changed, the tempo faster, and she eased away and followed Pierce's lead as if she'd been doing it all her life. "We get along now."
"Yes, we do."
"You treat me well, now."
"And vice versa."
"Did we grow up? Or did we give up?"
"I don't know." He leaned in, whispered in her ear, "Those boys at the bar can't take their eyes off you. You look beautiful tonight."
"It's just the blonde hair."
"No. It's not. It's you and that sweater and those pants and what they do to your backside, which has always been one of your better sides." He laughed and nodded to the boys as they passed them. "All mine, fellas. Get your own if you can find one as nice."
The boys looked at him with raised eyebrows, clearly not understanding him.
"Knock it off, Pierce."
"I like that you're mine."
"I'm yours right now. That's not quite the same thing as being yours."
"Sure it is."
"No, Hawkeye. No, it's not." She pulled away, making vague references to needing to powder her nose. She stayed in the bathroom long enough for Lisa to come in.
"Everything all right?"
"Sure." Margaret looked at herself in the mirror. There was no damage to repair, because she hadn't cried. What was the use? After all this time? When she still found him and put herself through this? She didn't deserve tears.
She met Lisa's eyes. "How about you? Miguel treating you right?"
"He's wonderful. I think I might..." Lisa looked around as if someone might be listening. "I think I might stay here. In Mexico, I mean. Not in Manzanillo."
"And for me. They need doctors. Desperately, in the places he goes. They won't care that I'm a woman. In the States, it's still hard."
"That's good, then. I'm happy for you." She stood up and gave the other woman a hug. "He's a nice man. He'll treat you right."
She wondered what that was like.
Margaret wandered the backstreets of Manzanillo, looking for the butcher shop Alma had told her about. She finally found it, and walked inside, trying to breathe in the hot and heavy, blood-tinged air.
An old man behind the counter looked up and said, "Don't worry, the cases are chilled. I have a generator to keep the meat cold."
She nodded, moved closer, and said softly in halting Spanish, "Are you Senor Lopez?"
"Yes, have we met?"
"We have a mutual friend. Alma Garcia."
His expression froze for a moment. "Who are you?"
She tried her most reassuring smile on him. "I'm a nurse. Up at the relief hospital."
"Is she all right? She has been missing for so long."
"She's...not all right. She's dying, Senor."
He stepped away from the case, turned and leaned over as if in pain. He stood that way for a moment, then another, then he pushed himself back up and smiled as if nothing was wrong. "Please tell her she is in my prayers."
"It would mean the world to her if you told her that yourself."
He shook his head. "I am afraid that is impossible."
Margaret heard footsteps, then the door opened and an old woman stepped in.
"I'm sorry we don't have the veal, Senora," Senor Lopez said, motioning for Margaret to leave. "Perhaps you could check back." He smiled at his wife, who smiled back at him.
"It'll be a cold day in hell before I come back here, buster." She used English, and from the looks on their faces, neither Lopez understood it.
She fled the shop, wiping sweat off her face, not paying attention to where she was going until she walked right into someone. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you."
"Margaret, it's me." Pierce put his arm around her, pulling her close as they walked back to the hospital.
"Did you follow me?"
He held up a box of Cuban cigars. "They're cheaper here than back home."
"Why were you in the butcher shop?"
She shrugged. She could feel tears welling up and blinked furiously, trying to force them back.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" For once, an endearment from him held no trace of sarcasm.
And it undid her.
She pushed him off her, hurried up the street, tears coming now whether she wanted them to or not.
He caught up with her easily. "Margaret, what the hell?"
"That was her lover. Alma's. For years. Married. Scum. Won't come see her." She could barely get the words out between sobs but she kept going. "Liked her when he had her, I bet. Forgot her the rest of the time. Had someone else. Someone better. A wife." She practically spit the last word at him.
"That's not me in there. It's not fair of you to make me a villain."
"All she wants is so damn little. And he won't even give her that, Hawk. Why won't he give her that?"
"Because he's a jerk. Because he doesn't deserve her in any way, shape, or form. But can we separate our discussion of him from your ripping me apart? Because I may be a jerk, but it's not for the same reasons."
"I'm tired of this. I'm just so damned tired of this." She pulled him down to her, kissed him desperately, then let him go and ran away from him. Sweat poured down, and she felt like she might pass out as she ran faster and faster, but she didn't stop.
Finally, she made it back to the camp, just in time to find the toilets, to throw up over and over as she cried for Alma and for herself. Fortunately, no one came in, and Pierce didn't try to find her. She went to his tent, which was blessedly empty, and found some clean clothes and took them to the showers. Once she was clean, she went to see Alma.
"Did you find him?" Alma's face was ablaze with hope.
Margaret wished she'd never asked Alma for her lover's name, for where he could be found. Why couldn't she just leave things alone? Why did she always have to make things worse?
"He's out of town," she murmured. "He won't be back for some time. I'm so sorry."
"Oh..." There was such profound disappointment in the old woman's face that Margaret had to look away. "Oh, no, dear. You tried. Thank you for trying."
"I'll just sit with you for a while, if that's okay." She swallowed hard. "Are you in pain?"
Alma nodded. "Please make it a big dose this time. I'd like to sleep."
She'd fought sleep before. So sure her Josue was coming for her. If only to spend a moment. Margaret loaded the hypodermic and carried it back to her.
"I wish you could finish this for me."
Margaret felt a part of her withering inside as she said, "I could."
"It's a sin, my dear. I don't want to do that to either of us." Alma sighed as the medicine took hold. "How much longer do you think I have?" Her eyes closed.
She had weeks. Margaret got up, filled another hypodermic, and slid it under Alma's skin. "Not long," she said, unable to see for the tears in her eyes. She took Alma's crippled hand and held it as she waited for her breathing to stop. She'd sat like this before, in Korea. Waiting for her action to take effect. Not often but sometimes, when there was nothing to do but watch a boy suffer. A boy who was sure to die anyway.
Just like Alma did, her fingers slackening, the slow rise and fall of her chest stopping.
"Miguel," she said, motioning him over. "I think it's over."
"It's a mercy if it is." He listened with his stethoscope. "Yes, she's gone."
Alma was gone. Margaret was leaving, too.
"I know you cared for her," Miguel said. "You shouldn't be alone. Hawkeye is in the bar down the road. He looks like he could use company."
"He probably could." She got up, walked over to the tent she shared with Pierce, packed her things, carried them out to one of the cars, and drove it off without filling out a single piece of paperwork. A plane was leaving that evening for the capital; from there it was a short hop to Los Angeles and her job. And her life.
Life without Pierce. Had she really thought her life would be any other way?
Her doorbell rang and she cursed whoever thought that a Friday evening after a long week was the day to come calling without phoning ahead. She sat still, hoping whoever it was would go away. Since she'd gotten back from Mexico, she hadn't been what anyone would call friendly. She doubted her friends would be stupid enough to come over. It had to be a salesman.
The doorbell rang again.
Finally the person just sat on the chime, and she hurried to the door, throwing it open and yelling, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Pierce stood there, not smiling. "The frightening thing, dear Margaret, is that your greeting is probably warmer than our parting." He pushed past her into the apartment. "You left without saying goodbye."
"Goodbye. There, it's said, now get out."
"You left without saying anything. I came back to the tent--"
"Yes, from drinking, thank you, Carrie Nation, for the commentary. I came back and you were gone. Vamoosed. Skedaddled." He sat down on her couch. "You abandoned me." He looked up and held her eyes. "And you helped Alma off this mortal coil, didn't you?"
She had a cutting remark ready for everything he'd said except that. She stared at the floor and tried to find the energy to deny it, but he pulled her down, into his lap. Her arms stole around his neck without her wanting them to. Her lips found his against her will. She was pulling off his clothes and he was pulling off hers and they were making love on her couch, and she didn't mean for it to happen.
But she wanted it. Oh, God, she wanted it.
He didn't talk as he moved above her, as he watched her, his eyes holding hers, except when he bent down to kiss or suckle or even bite. She kissed and suckled and even bit back. And when she finally came, and he held her hands over her head and pounded her as if punishing her, she started to cry.
And then he was holding her, not pounding anymore, kissing her tears away, rolling off to the side and sliding his leg along hers to hold her close. "It's all right, Margaret. I won't censure you for Alma. I'll never say a thing about that. I know you did it in Korea, too. Who do you think made sure enough morphine was out?" He kissed her gently, then pulled her face roughly so she had to look at him. "But I'm mad as hell that you ran out on me."
"We end, Hawkeye. Every time, we end."
"We don't have to."
She swallowed hard, a lump forming in her throat. "We do. We always do. It's how we are. We don't work for long. Just the passion and then it's gone again. You're gone again."
"Not this time." He smiled and settled in next to her. "You're coming home with me."
"No, I'm not. Pierce, stop it."
"I stopped at the hospital before I came here. I'm head of surgery, you know? I found the head of surgery here. We've set up a nursing exchange program. He spoke very highly of you and I mentioned I knew you, that you'd be perfect. The job will be yours to turn down."
She wanted to push him away, but she held on tight to his arm. "And what if I do turn it down?"
"Then I go away. And we are over. We do end." He kissed her until her mouth opened, kissed her until her tongue found his. Touched her until she was breathing hard and moaning and writhing and finally coming. "Don't let us end, Margaret."
She pulled him on top of her, not wanting to talk, not wanting to think, just wanting him, the easy way, the way they knew with their eyes closed and their hearts shut off.
But he didn't move, just lay on top of her and touched her cheek. "I've changed, Margaret. I don't know why. I don't even fully understand how much I've changed. But I want you in my life, and these interludes aren't enough anymore. I've lived my life since I got back trying to keep the war from intruding. And it wasn't very good, and it didn't work. I want to start again. With you."
And then he started to move. Slowly. Deliberately. Pushing her the way he always did. Making her feel things no one else ever had.
"Say you love me," he said as she threw her head back.
"I love you."
"Say you'll come to Maine." He pulled her legs up around him, tangled his hands in her hair, holding her down. "Say it, Margaret. Please."
"You haven't said it," she whispered.
He looked confused for a moment, then he smiled and said, "I love you, Margaret Houlihan. Now, come home and make an honest man of me."
She was lost, moaning and clutching and feeling him do the same. When they finally lay still, he looked over at her, not saying anything, a small smile playing at his mouth.
The smile grew.
He kissed her.
"But it's a trial basis. I can come back when the nursing exchange is over."
"Agreed." He nuzzled against her. "But you won't want to."
"That will be entirely up to you."
Again the self-satisfied grin.
"Oh, get over yourself." She tried to push him off the couch, ended up squealing as he fought her, tickling his way down to parts that he then tickled in a far nicer way.
"How about if I just don't get over you?" he asked. "Would that do, Major?"
She laughed. "Fine, Captain, if that's the best you can do."
He moved up to lie next to her again. His look was very serious as he said, "You'll like it there, Margaret. You'll like me there."
She suddenly had a feeling she might like herself there, too.