A/N: Hey there, kids! While I can assure you I am working diligently on The Wind and the Rain — so don't get yourselves all worked up into a tizzy — I got this idea for a one-shot after watching the Season Nine episode "The Red/White Blues", and I just had to write it while the idea was fresh. Hope you like it!
Disclaimer: M*A*S*H and its wonderful characters do not belong to me. All I own is the DVD set, and a laptop computer with a dying AC adapter.
A M*A*S*H pastiche
by Bad Octopus
At precisely eighteen-hundred hours, the afternoon shift ended, and Margaret Houlihan stepped out the door of the Post-Operative Recovery Ward, her ash-blonde hair catching the light from the setting sun and turning it to a coppery gold. Pausing to stretch her arms over her head, she peered out across the compound. There didn't seem to be much going on, for which she was grateful. After the recent onslaught of casualties and the added stress of trying not to stress the commanding officer, the 4077th had been even more hectic than usual. Now, however, it seemed that the frenzy of activity had subsided at last.
Squaring her shoulders, Margaret strode purposefully toward the mess tent. She wasn't particularly hungry, despite the fact that it was dinner time. In fact, all Margaret wanted to do was stagger back to her tent, change into her most comfortable pair of pajamas, and snuggle down under her covers with a good book. But all that would have to wait. The major was on a mission.
As she ducked into the mess tent, she was surprised to find it nearly empty. She pondered over this as she waited in line with her tray, but her confusion was quickly dispelled as she took a closer look at the evening's offerings. None of the concoctions looked particularly appetizing, and a few of them were downright unrecognizable.
That explains the low attendance, she thought, her nose wrinkling involuntarily.
Still, appearances could often be deceiving. There was a slight chance that the food could be better than it looked. There was one man in camp, at least, who would know.
"Good evening, Private," she said as she stepped up to the serving table. "Anything good tonight?"
Igor Straminsky peered suspiciously down at the warming trays, as if expecting their contents to grow legs and crawl away. "That depends on your own personal definition of 'good', Major," he replied in a guarded tone. "If you like your Salisbury steak over-done and your mashed potatoes over-easy, then yes, we've got some pretty good grub tonight."
Margaret made a face. "Are you sure you don't have anything special?" she persisted. "Something suitable for someone who's under the weather?"
"Under the weather?" Straminsky's eyes widened. "Oh, no, ma'am. I wouldn't let a sick person anywhere near this stuff, if I were you. You've got to have an iron stomach just to keep it down."
"I'd expected as much," she said with a sigh. "It was worth a try, anyway."
"Hey, that's the spirit, Major. Never give up."
Rolling her eyes, Margaret replaced her unused tray on the stack and left the mess tent. Outside, the light was fading quickly, but the air was still warm. The weather was mild and balmy, for the time being, but Margaret knew it wouldn't last. Soon, monsoon season would be upon them, and a steady, unrelenting downpour would beat down on the camp and its residents, rendering both thoroughly soggy. Such were the charms of South Korea: half of the year was cold, dry, and miserable, and the other half warm, wet, and miserable.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Margaret stood for a while in thought. When it came to fine dining, there wasn't exactly an abundance of options to choose from around here. In fact, there was a grand total of two choices: the mess tent, and Rosie's bar. With the former unequivocally ruled out, that only left the latter.
With a sigh, Margaret set off at a trot in the direction of the bar.
As she approached the humble little establishment, she knew right away that it was a happening place tonight. The noise that issued from within indicated that there were a lot more patrons here than in the mess tent. Sure enough, as she ventured inside, she found that almost every table was occupied by nurses and servicemen. Under normal circumstances, she would have been appalled at the sight of so many members of the U.S. military abandoning their own camp in order to stuff their faces elsewhere, but in this case, she couldn't blame them. That suspicious-looking sludge they were serving in the mess tent wasn't even fit for a dog.
Making her way past the tables, Margaret stepped up to the bar and cleared her throat to get the hostess's attention. Rosie looked up from her task of drying out shotglasses and greeted her with a somewhat surprised smile.
"Major, long time no see," she said in her usual, overly familiar way. "You're in luck. I got new shipment, just come in. Real Irish whiskey, for real Irish nurse. I pour you one. You want neat, or on the rocks?"
"No, no, nothing to drink for me, thanks," Margaret replied quickly, as the Korean woman started to reach for the bottle. "I was wondering what sort of food you've got on tonight's menu."
"Oh, you want food? Okay. We got three choices." Rosie ticked each item off her fingertips. "We got spicy soup with dumpling. We got grilled squid, marinated in garlic. And we got my personal favorite, makchang. That's cow's stomach with green onion."
Margaret raised an eyebrow at the first choice, raised both eyebrows at the second, and tried very hard not to be ill at the third. "What... What kind of soup did you say you had?" she asked weakly.
"Oritang. Simmering duck soup with vegetable and chili pepper. Very spicy, but very good."
"That does sound pretty good, actually," Margaret admitted. "I'll have an order to go, please. With a side of dumplings."
"Coming right up, toots."
Shaking her head at Rosie's all-too American vernacular, Margaret waited at the bar as the hostess bustled off to the kitchen to prepare her order. As she stood listening with half an ear to the outdated music playing on the jukebox in the corner, she suddenly gave a squeak as she felt someone poke her in the ribs.
"Hiya, dollface," said a smarmy voice somewhere over her head. "Fancy seeing you here."
She might have known. "Pierce," she growled, glaring daggers at the chief surgeon, whose goofy grin only grew wider. "Go harass someone else. I'm busy."
"'Harass'?" Pierce drew back in feigned indignation. "Margaret, I'm hurt. Here I just forfeited a game of darts with B.J., which I happened to be winning, just to come over and talk to you, and this is the greeting I get? I haven't seen such a cold shoulder since that time Trapper and I cut the sleeves off all of your shirts."
"And don't think I've forgiven you for that, buster," she snapped.
"Ah, don't pay any attention to him, Margaret," said B.J. Hunnicutt as he sauntered over to join them. "He's just a little touchy because I just beat the pants off him at darts."
"You beat me? Au contraire, mon frère. For your information, I quit because I felt sorry for you!"
Hunnicutt laughed indulgently. "Sorry for me, huh? Okay, Hawk. Whatever you say."
"Don't patronize me, pal," said Pierce, waving a finger in the other man's face. "You looked so pathetic, your mustache was starting to wilt."
Margaret's patience was beginning to wear thin. Thankfully, at that moment, Rosie returned with a container of soup, along with a paper bag filled with dumplings. "That'll be three dollars, Major," she said. "Just bring back dishes next time you come."
"Of course. Thank you, Rosie." She laid the money out on the bar and picked up her order. "Well," she said to the two surgeons, "as much as I enjoy playing referee during your childish tantrums, I have more important things to do. Remember, no hitting, pinching, or biting while I'm gone, and make sure you're in bed by ten."
Hunnicutt's eyes widened as he caught the scent of her food. "Say," he said, sidling up to her. "That smells fantastic. You're not really going to eat all of that, are you?"
"Would you get lost?" she told him exasperatedly. "This isn't for you, bucket mouth. It's not even for me."
"Oh-ho, entertaining guests, are we?" Pierce wiggled his eyebrows salaciously. "You wanton little minx, you."
She would have socked him, if she'd had a free hand. "For your information," she said with dignity, "I'm taking this to a sick friend. So either get your mind out of the gutter, or get out of my way."
As she attempted to push past them, Pierce detained her with a hand on her shoulder. She glared up at him, fully prepared to read him the riot act, but she stopped when she saw the serious look on his face.
"We're sorry, Margaret," he told her quietly. "We didn't know what it was for. You tell him we said hi, okay?"
"Yeah, and tell him we'll come and see him soon," added Hunnicutt.
Margaret's glare softened. "I will," she replied with a nod.
She left Rosie's bar and hurried back toward camp, picking up her pace as the light rapidly began to fade. She was worried that her patient might already be asleep, and given his condition, it was a very real possibility. It wasn't easy to walk quickly while carrying hot soup, but as a nurse, she was no stranger to moving swiftly under time constraints. Fortunately, as she drew closer to the V.I.P. tent, she could see a light in the window.
Tucking the bag of dumplings under one arm and holding the soup with the other, Margaret knocked lightly on the door. "It's Major Houlihan," she called in a hushed voice, just in case the tent's occupant had fallen asleep with the lights on. "Can I come in?"
There was a very slight pause. "Sure, Major," came the tired reply.
Margaret pulled the door open and stepped quietly inside, smiling at the figure lying half-reclined on the bed. "Hey, Klinger," she said gently. "How are you feeling?"
Maxwell Klinger gave a shrug, then winced, as if the movement caused him pain. "Okay, I guess," he replied, albeit somewhat uncertainly. "I'm not doing any worse, anyway. That's good, right?"
She nodded in sympathy. "I hope you're hungry," she told him, holding up the parcels of food. "I brought you some take-out from Rosie's. Spicy duck soup with dumplings. If it tastes as good as it smells, you're in for a treat."
The Lebanese corporal's face broke out into a weak grin. "Hey, no kidding? That's awfully nice of you, ma'am. Thanks."
Margaret shook her head dismissively. As she removed the lid from the bowl of soup, a cloud of steam rose from its contents, and a delicious aroma filled the little tent. She saw Klinger trying laboriously to sit up, and she quickly set the food aside and came to his aid.
Very carefully, she raised the clerk to a sitting position, and grabbed an extra pillow to place behind his back. Then she put the meal on a folding bed tray and set it down on his lap. "Eat up, now," she said encouragingly. "You need to get your strength back."
Klinger gave a feeble chuckle as he picked up the spoon. "Yes, ma'am."
As he dug into his meal, Margaret pulled a chair up to his bedside and sat down, examining him with her nurse's eye. He was looking marginally better, but not nearly as well as she would have liked. His normally olive complexion was ashen, and there were dark smudges under his eyes. And he was still so very weak.
It had been two days since he and Private Goldman had been diagnosed with hemolytic anemia. Goldman was recovering in his tent, but since Klinger's bunk was in his office, and it wasn't exactly an ideal place to rest and recuperate, Colonel Potter had agreed to have him stay the V.I.P. tent until the clerk's condition improved.
Margaret felt her cheeks grow warm with shame as she remembered just how he had come to be there in the first place. The colonel had been informed by Pierce that his blood pressure was too high, and if he didn't find a way to lower it in two weeks, he would be forced to give up his command. As was so often in these cases, word spread throughout the camp like wildfire, and everyone began to handle their beloved leader with kid gloves. Naturally, this only succeeded in driving the man crazy.
To make matters even more tense, Klinger had been itching for a weekend in Tokyo, only to find that the morning reports he had filled out for the past sixty days were wrong. Apparently H.Q. had changed forms without informing him, and he had three days to send them the new ones. Needless to say, he was not a happy clerk.
And needless to say, when Margaret found him asleep instead of working, with his office a complete shambles of unfinished reports, she assumed he was sulking about not getting his weekend pass, despite his protests to the contrary. Even after he had insisted that he felt sore and exhausted, she hadn't believed him, and accused him of being a goldbrick, and a miserable, selfish, malingering louse. In fact, she and Pierce had been only too quick to think the worst of him.
And then Private Goldman had begun to display the exact same symptoms as Klinger.
The two had been moved into the V.I.P. tent without delay, until they could rule out an epidemic. The doctors considered every possible cause, and when each and every other cause had been dismissed, only one remained: the primaquine they had been administered, along with the rest of the camp, to prevent malaria. Normally, primaquine only produced a negative reaction in people of African descent. Nevertheless, the fact was that both Klinger and Goldman had been perfectly healthy before they had started taking it. And now they both had anemia.
Together with Pierce and Major Winchester, Margaret had somehow managed to finish the morning reports before the deadline arrived. When she was finally free to focus on other matters, however, she found herself thinking about the way she had treated Klinger. And then she felt like a miserable louse.
"Wow," said Klinger suddenly around a mouthful of soup, causing her to jolt out of her reverie. "This is really great, Major. You want to try some?"
Margaret smothered a smile. "No, you go ahead," she told him in a serious tone. "I had some cow's stomach with green onions earlier."
He shot her a look of revulsion, which soon disappeared as he saw the grin on her face. "Ah, you almost got me, ma'am," he said, laughing. However, his laughter quickly dissolved into a weak, pained cough. Margaret shot out a hand to hold his tray steady. "Damn," he gasped at length, his breath short. "This is starting to get old fast."
She rubbed his shoulder in sympathy while he caught his breath. "By the way," he added, "have the doctors figured out why Goldman and I are anemic yet?"
Margaret nodded. "They think it was the primaquine," she replied. "We've taken you both off of it, to see if there's any improvement."
Klinger's dark eyebrows drew together in confusion. "I don't get it," he said. "I thought that stuff only affected Negroes. Unless there's something my ma never told me, I'm pretty sure I'm pure Lebanese-American. And I've got the honker to prove it."
"Well, we've got a theory about that," Margaret explained. "You and Goldman are the only people in the camp who are of Mediterranean descent. We think maybe that's why you both reacted to the primaquine the way you did."
The corporal shook his head. "How do you like that?" he remarked sourly. "So this is what I get for being proud of my heritage: I get my pick of either malaria or anemia." He snorted. "Lousy genetics."
Margaret shrugged. "That's the problem with relying on new medicines. You never know for sure how they're going to affect people."
"Yeah, I guess so." Klinger sighed in resignation. "So how long am I going to feel like I've gone ten rounds with a kangaroo?"
"Hopefully not long," she told him. "We'll be keeping you on iron to build up your red blood count."
"Terrific," he muttered.
Margaret hesitated for a moment. "Klinger," she said quietly, "I'm so sorry I said all those rotten things to you."
"It's okay, Major," he answered automatically — almost as if he'd made it a habit of saying it.
"No, it's not okay," she insisted firmly. "I should have believed you when you said you were feeling under the weather."
Klinger shook his head wearily. "I appreciate that, ma'am. But you shouldn't feel so bad. You had every right to be ticked off. You had no way of knowing that that primaquine stuff would do this to me. From your point of view, I was just faking it to get out of work."
"But that's just it, Klinger," she said vehemently. "You wouldn't do that." He raised his eyebrows at her earnest tone. "I mean, sure, you've pulled some pretty hare-brained stunts to try to get out of the Army, but when there's work to be done, you're always right there in the middle of the action." She swallowed. "I guess... I guess I never realized it until recently, but... you've never let us down, Klinger. Not when it really counted."
He smiled weakly. "Thanks, Major," he murmured.
She reached over and patted his hand. "Forgive me, Corporal?"
"I already have."
Margaret returned his smile. "You know, Klinger," she said confidingly, "you may have a couple of screws loose, but you're all right."
"You're not so bad yourself. Dumpling?"
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him in shock. "What did you call me?" she asked indignantly.
Wordlessly, he held out the bag of dumplings toward her. "Oh," she blurted, her cheeks reddening in embarrassment. Klinger began to laugh, and she couldn't help but join in. "Thanks," she managed to reply, taking one of the proffered dumplings.
As she popped it into her mouth, Klinger settled back against his pillows. He was beginning to look increasingly fatigued. With his permission, Margaret took his tray and set it aside.
"I guess it's no big secret that I think this so-called 'civil action' really stinks," he was saying in a tired voice as she removed one of his pillows and helped him lie back down. "And this whole anemia business isn't making me feel any better about it."
"Mm-hmm," she said absently.
He sighed. "I hate it here," he said bluntly. "I'd give anything to be back home in Toledo." Margaret suppressed a smile; it seemed Klinger couldn't have a single conversation without mentioning his hometown. "But," he conceded, "I think this place would be a whole lot worse if you weren't here, Major."
She froze in the act of arranging his pillows. "You, and the colonel, and Captains Pierce and Hunnicutt, and the padre," he went on. "Even Major Winchester, but don't ever tell him I said that." She smiled at this. "You guys are the greatest bunch of people I ever met," he said sincerely. "And I can honestly say I'm proud to know you."
Margaret felt a sudden lump in her throat. "Now don't you go getting all sentimental on me, Corporal," she told him firmly. "I fully expect you to be on your feet and showing your usual blatant disrespect for the Army as soon as possible. Is that understood?"
The clerk grinned up at her. "Yes, ma'am."
She patted his head. "I'll be back to check on you later. Pierce and Hunnicutt might stop in for a visit, too. In the meantime, get some rest."
Picking up his tray, she moved to the door of the tent. As she pushed it open, she heard Klinger's voice again:
Margaret rolled her eyes in exasperation and walked out the door. Once she was outside, however, she permitted herself a chuckle.
A/N: That's all. Stupid and cute and pointless. Like I said, I had to write it before the idea fled my mind entirely. This is not a romance, by the way, in case you were wondering. I've just always liked the nature Margaret and Klinger's friendship. Over the course of the show, it went from utter loathing on her part, to grudging respect, to open affection. Then again, that's the sort of effect Klinger has on people. You just can't not like him. :)
Anyway, I am working on The Wind and the Rain, so don't fret. But please do let me know what you thought of my little ficlet. Thanks!