Coda: Flying Free

A/N: I would like to thank the many people who have sent me comments about this story in the two years since I've posted it. Although I was not able to get back to everyone personally, I want to take this opportunity to thank each of you for your kind words and interest. Kind words mean a lot to an author, and your interest helps keep these wonderful characters alive. I hope they go on having adventures in our minds and hearts for many years to come. Peace.

The sun beat down on the swarm of tents, booths, and straw hats that cluttered the fairground. A perpetual haze of dirt hung in the air, kicked up by the feet of the crowd as they shuffled over the baking earth. The squeals of children, fair rides, and the occasional hog split the general drone. It was a fine Iowa gathering, despite the heat.

Walter O'Reilly stood under the shelter of his particular tent, surrounded by the wire cages housing his current passion. The coos of the pigeons rose meekly around him. Most of them huddled with droopy or closed lids on their perches. One bird, his favorite, Walter held in his hand. The surprisingly warm feet gripped the upper edge of his left hand, while he stroked the beautiful mottled gray plumage with his right.

A passerby stepped in under the awning. "Whew, it's hot!" He drew an arm across his pink, sweaty forehead, then fanned himself with his hat. The nearest pigeons slitted their eyes against the sudden breeze, but didn't otherwise stir. "It's nice to be out of the sun, friend, but isn't it a bit ripe in here?" The man grinned.

Walter suppressed a flash of irritation. He liked the smell of animals. All animals were okay by him. Well, maybe pigs could get a little overpowering, unless you gave them a big enough yard to run in. "I don't mind it," he said.

The stranger leaned forward to peer into the cages, blinking – no doubt still dazzled from the sunlight. "What you got there, doves?"

"Racing pigeons," said Walter.

"Huh." The man straightened. "You really race those things?"

"I took top prize with this fellah at our last meet. He found his way back across three hundred miles, which maybe doesn't sound like much, but there was a storm and not many of the birds got through."

The newcomer seemed impressed. "Three hundred miles?"

"It's not the distance," Walter explained. "It's the difficulty of the journey." He stroked the bird fondly. "This here's an older fellah. He's got a great homing instinct. He'll never get lost."

"What's his name?"

"Hawkeye."

The man barked a laugh. "Hawkeye! What kind of name is that for a pigeon?"

Walter narrowed his eyes. "It's the name for the kind of fellow who will always find his way home, no matter what. And he does, too."

The man raised his hands. "All right, buddy. No offense. I was just asking."

The man moved on, and Walter was glad to see him go. Walter stroked his champion soothingly. "You don't have to be a hawk to be named Hawkeye,'" he murmured. "You just have to have the heart."

The pigeon cooed.

#

Francis waited patiently for Toby to look up from where he sat sullenly, tracing a nail against the cracked rim of the linoleum table in the youth center.

One of the things that had delighted Francis when he first started working with the deaf was their wonderful sense of humor. Apparently the world was a funnier place to those who made their way through it without the benefit of standard hearing. Their refreshing outlook did much to pull Francis out of his post-Korean funk, and put his self-pitying preoccupation with his own recent deafness into the proper perspective.

But Toby was different. He was a typical teenager – sullen, withdrawn, and borderline hostile. He'd had a tough background for an American, and Francis wouldn't minimize that. Yet, after having seen his Korean children pull through crises that would have bowled this young man over, Francis was more interested in getting Toby to stop dwelling on his setbacks and focus on his opportunities.

Francis opened and closed the fingers of his right hand rapidly, "flashing" into Toby's peripheral vision for attention. Toby's brown eyes lifted, the line of his mouth grim and nothing but resentment in his eyes.

Francis signed to him. Despite his years of practice, he still mentally translated the phrases into sentences. He supposed he probably always would, particularly as he kept reading and writing. The students who didn't like to read or write, like Toby, came up with some interesting sentence constructions indeed.

What will you do now? Francis signed.

Toby's response was a cursory flash of his fingers that Francis wouldn't have been able to decipher when he had first started this ministry. Who cares?

You must care, first of all. Only you can choose your path.

I didn't choose to lose my parents! Toby's face was angry.

We can't choose our circumstances, Francis signed back. Only our response to them.

Toby wrinkled his face. Are you going to tell me about how you were a hearing person until the war?

Francis smiled, pleased by the boy's perception. Actually, I was thinking of another man I knew. He came through more adversity than anyone I know.

And came out a better person, I'll bet, Toby signed wryly.

I don't know. Francis was genuinely puzzled. He was a very good man going in. I do think, at the end of it all, perhaps he understood his heart a little better.

And that's all?

What more do you want? Francis paused, to allow Toby to ponder. We don't always know how our lives affect others. But the effect is there, Toby. What we do inspires others, touches others – even when we are not conscious of it ourselves.

Toby pursed his lips. I don't inspire anyone.

How do you know?

Toby blinked, caught off guard. I just know. No one sees me. Toby ended with a frustrated thump on his chest.

Sometimes, Francis signed back, it is when we feel most alone that we have the most profound effect on others. The more difficult our circumstances, the greater the inspiration.

Toby flicked his thumb hard across the bottom of his chin in disagreement.

When you have seen it with your own eyes, Francis signed, you will be astonished at how true it is.

Toby looked doubtful. You're crazy, he signed, but not emphatically, and when he turned away his expression was thoughtful.

Then the discernment that was Francis' gift from the war let him hear, faintly, the creak of a rusty door swinging open somewhere in Toby's soul -- the squeak of a long-unused window being pushed up to let in a little air. And Francis knew that he had been heard. Someday Toby would walk out of the wilderness under his own power, however battered, just like the other man that Francis had known. And on that day, even through his joy, Francis knew that he also would feel sadness – an aching regret for all the suffering that was the portion of the living to endure. And he would pray again for understanding: how pain can lead to insight, how evil sets the stage for greatness of spirit, and so is overcome.

Yes, on that day Francis would rejoice, even as he would cry for all the hurt and loss in this world. But that was as it must be, and Francis was content.

#

"Doctor!"

The salutation startled Charles out of his reverie – thank goodness. He shouldn't be standing in the hall like this, clipboard in hand, lost in his own little world. Not quite the image he wanted to project for the chief of thoracic surgery.

Charles blinked and forced himself to focus on the person responsible for this timely interruption – or persons, rather. Two young surgical nurses stood before him, one eyeing him teasingly, and the other with trepidation. Charles had no idea which of the twain had addressed him.

He smiled chivalrously. "I beg your pardon, I was wool gathering. How may I help you?"

"That's just it, Doctor," said the older of the two. Judith, was that her name? In her second year of residency, he believed. Competent, though a bit too irreverent for Charles' taste.

Charles shook himself. He seemed to be missing a vital aspect of this communication. "What is it?"

"What does it mean when you stare into space like that?"

Fortunately for Judith, before Charles could frame a response that likely would have been a tad more frigid than she would have cared to stomach, she gave a deprecating smile. It gave Charles pause – enough to let Judith get out another sentence. "It's none of our business, I know," the girl continued politely. "But Alyssa and I just wondered."

Alyssa merely watched him with big eyes, seemingly over-awed by her own brashness. It was this, more than anything, that let Charles allow the inquiry to continue.

He lowered his voice. "I do that a lot, hmm? Certainly I must, if you two are questioning me about it."

Judith shrugged. "Not a lot. But … now and then. You stop, and go still, and you lift your head as if you're listening to something very faint and far away."

Charles felt warmth rush to his cheeks, and pushed the emotion down. He cleared his throat. "I had no idea that I had such an obvious and unusual habit."

"Only the people who are around you a lot would really notice it," said Judith. "I asked Trish about it, and she said that you've always been that way, ever since she joined the unit."

"I see." As uncomfortable as Charles felt discussing his personal life with the staff, he supposed an explanation was preferable to speculation, given that his "habit" had already apparently generated a certain amount of gossip. Charles forged ahead. "Well, my dear, the reason I lift my head and appear to be listening is that I am, in fact … listening."

The girls exchanged a glance. Alyssa spoke up for the first time, in an awed whisper. "What are you listening to, Doctor?"

"Music."

"Music." Judith's clipped response held more dubiousness than awe.

Alyssa, meanwhile, moved straight from awe to confusion. "You mean, music like what they play over the PA?"

"I mean music that I listen to, here." Charles tapped the side of his head.

"You hear music in your head?" Alyssa moved on rapidly from confusion to fear. Her ignorance was almost comical. Oh, Charles, were you ever so young?

"There's nothing frightening about it, my dear," Charles explained. "Music is my refuge. There's nothing more mysterious about it than that."

"Really?" Judith's sentence was more of a challenge than a question. She looked bewildered. "I wouldn't have guessed that."

Charles was almost insulted – until he remembered that he rarely played any music except while in his office or safely at home. "Why should this strike you as surprising?"

Judith met his eyes. "Last Christmas, when the whole department went to the symphony for our big celebration? You were one of the only people who didn't go." She shrugged. "I just assumed you didn't like music."

"Music is my passion," Charles said. "It just so happened that, for Christmas … at certain times, certain seasons, my memory is stirred." He smiled apologetically. "I simply couldn't face Mozart – not at that time. Certainly not among so many people." He drew an uneasy breath. "Indeed, there are few instances when I'm strong enough to listen to Mozart at all."

Alyssa had moved back to confusion, apparently her strong suit. "Why do you have to be strong to listen to music?"

"Because it conveys so much. Even those who do not consider themselves connoisseurs must surely be aware of it – how music positively brims with connotation, expression, emotion … memory." Charles reined himself in, enough to lighten his tone. "It can be overwhelming, the effect of music on one's life. Overpowering, in some cases. In my case, it certainly is."

Judith was fast as ever off the mark. "So when you listen to music in your head, you're revisiting old memories?"

"On occasion. Often it is merely a pressure valve, my private means of escape when I must clear my mind and gather my resources. At least, it is what I had always assumed to be my private means of escape, until your questions informed me as to it being otherwise."

"Oh, I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Judith said, with the unthinking arrogance of youth. "It's just …"

"Odd?" Charles finished for her. He was rewarded for his temerity by seeing her blush. "Yes, it might seem a bit odd if one has never had to recast an overwhelming event into a more bearable form – yet this is what happened to me. Music, which had always been my refuge, had become linked with … well, let us say, a painful incident that I knew I would never be able to forget. Fortunately, the strongest man I ever knew had introduced me to this little trick – how to listen to music without hearing it. The events that led to this discovery have always deeply moved me. So, inevitably, when I remember the pain associated with music, I am forced also to recall its saving power. And so he saved music for me -- a deed of which I'm certain he is entirely unaware, but for which I am no less profoundly grateful."

Alyssa exchanged a look with Judith. "Well, you've told us a whole lot, Doctor, but I'm not sure I understand what you mean."

"I don't think you can understand," Charles said kindly. "Not until it happens to you. Then you will know."

"Who was he?" asked Judith. "That strong man you mentioned?"

"Another doctor. A surgeon I served with in the war."

"Ah," said Judith, as if all was suddenly made clear. And who knows? Charles thought. Perhaps for her it was.

#

When BJ saw the old man sitting at the corner, he shifted his grip on Erin to his left hand, while his right groped through his pocket for some change. Erin watched curiously as he sorted through the pile of change, nudging free three quarters and one nickel. He dropped the assortment into the old man's hat as he went by.

"Get yourself something to eat, okay, pal?"

The old man, hair awry and eyes watery, thanked him with a hoarse voice.

Together with Erin, BJ stepped off the curb to cross the street.

Erin took big steps to keep up, although at six she kept pace pretty well, even with BJ's long legs. "Why do you always do that, Daddy?"

"I don't like to see people hungry," said BJ, as they reached the far curb.

"That's not what I meant."

BJ lifted Erin by her wrist so she could jump onto the curb the way she liked. "What do you mean, sweetheart?"

"You always add a nickel. Whenever you give money, you always put a nickel, too."

BJ paused, embarrassed at being found out. "You're a clever girl, to notice that."

"So why do you do it?"

BJ hesitated, then hoisted Erin onto his hip so they could talk more quietly. "I had a friend once who was starving. I didn't have any way to help him. Lots of us missed him, but he was far away and no one could reach him."

Erin pondered BJ with large, serious eyes. "Was he missing like Uncle Hawkeye was missing, Daddy?"

BJ felt another blush of embarrassment. Erin was growing up too fast, if she kept catching him out like this. Erin had only met her "uncle" twice, but she clearly adored him. BJ hoped his revelation about Hawkeye wouldn't upset her. "As a matter of fact, it was your Uncle Hawkeye. We all missed him very much. Whenever we felt that way, we would put down a nickel for him."

"Why?"

"Because Hawkeye once gave his friend a nickel, and it made us feel better if we gave a nickel to somebody, too."

Erin knitted her puffy baby eyebrows. "So you give a nickel to starving people …"

"Because none of my nickels ever reached Uncle Hawkeye." BJ nuzzled her chin. "Silly, isn't it?"

Erin answered seriously, "Not if you like Uncle Hawkeye."

"Oh, I think we'll always like Uncle Hawkeye. Don't you?"

"Yes. He's funny."

"He is that."

BJ set Erin down, but she tugged at his arm. "Daddy, can I give the nickel next time?"

BJ gave her a kiss. "Yes, you can, baby girl. You most definitely can."

#

Max's heart beat fast as he took in the vastness of the American Midwest spread out below him. It was so unlike Korea – the flatness, the patchwork of cultivated fields, the numerous ponds and lakes. Max swallowed hard. Home. After too many years, he was coming home.

Beside him, Soon-Lee said softly, "Is that the lake?"

Max squeezed her hand, reluctant to turn his gaze from the window. "Not yet, sweetheart. You'll know it when you see it."

"I don't know how. I have never seen it before."

"You'll know."

Max stroked her hand. Such a fine-boned hand, so very strong. She was an amazing woman, his Soon-Lee. They had searched for two years before they had finally located all the missing members of her family – all those who had survived the horrible war, and its desperate aftermath. Max counted himself lucky. As an ex-GI, his little bit of mustering-out money went a long way. In Korea, they were actually rich. It had been a great help to them all, as Soon-Lee's family tried to rebuild their lives after the war's devastation.

All that had taken time. Yet Max had been patient. He had known, somehow, that Soon-Lee understood his need to go home. Finally, four years after the war's end, they were actually doing it. The remembered sights, left behind so long ago, kept closing Max's throat with emotion. Yet how intimidating it must be to his wife. How brave she had been in San Francisco, where they had caught their connecting flight. Here she was, a small Korean woman, swept to a strange land to meet the even stranger characters of Klinger's extensive clan. He wouldn't blame her if she wanted to run away and hide. In fact, he'd offered her the choice of remaining behind, when his trip at long last took shape. But she only shook her head. "Where you go, I go." And that was the end of the matter.

As they flew, Max couldn't help thinking of the friends he'd made in the Service, friends he'd never seen in their native land. Max still remembered Captain Hunnicutt's address in Mill Valley. Yet, when the time came for his trip, Max had been too intimidated to write to him. The war was well over, and his stateside friends had all moved on with their lives. Most of them had married, just as he had done. Even Captain Pierce and Major Houlihan had married – married each other, no less! You could have knocked Max over with a feather when he read that letter. That was a few years ago. He guessed they were happy – they would have killed each other if they weren't. Perhaps they were killing each other right now. No. Max shook his head. If a visit to Captain Hunnicutt was intimidating, the idea of dropping in on Mr. and Mrs. Pierce was downright terrifying.

Colonel Potter, now, that was a different story. Max could picture himself dropping in on the colonel. Such a kindly man. He'd kept up a correspondence with Max, despite Max's tardy and sporadic replies. They weren't so far away from each other, anymore. After all those years in Korea, Missouri seemed hardly a hop, skip, and a jump from Illinois. And Radar's farm was between them, more or less. Perhaps Max could convince the colonel to travel north, and he'd go west, and they'd meet at Radar's farm. Farms were slightly less daunting to Max, after all that time he'd spent helping Soon-Lee's family set up theirs. He would face being on a farm for a while, if it meant that he could see his old friends again. Max's eyes misted, as his mind went back. He could see all of their faces, so clearly…

Beside him, Soon-Lee gasped and tightened her grip. "That's it!"

Max looked ahead. A blue field of sun sparkle stretched away to the horizon. The pain of familiarity leaped into his chest. Tenderly, he squeezed his wife's hand. "I told you you'd know it." He cleared his throat. "Lake Erie. And all those buildings right before it? Toledo."

"Toledo," Soon-Lee whispered, as if she were about to enter a temple.

And it was, in a way: the temple of Max Klinger's life. The thing that had housed everything dear to him – everything until he had met the sweet girl at his side. Only she could have kept him away. And now she was here, with him. Coming to his home.

Until this moment, the war had never really ended. But now, as the plane began its final descent, its grip finally fell away. Max felt it go, released as surely as the flood of tears that streamed down his face. Tears that Soon-Lee gently kissed away.

#

Hawkeye stretched his long legs before him, listening to the pop and crackle of the fire. Margaret lay against him, her hands tucked under her chin and her head pillowed upon his chest. Idly, Hawkeye ran his hand up and down her back, stroking the soft sweater and softer hair that covered the strong, straight back. Her chest rose and fell steadily; she'd held out long past her usual bedtime, and had finally succumbed to sleep. Her soft breathing was like music to Hawkeye's ears.

Colonel Potter (Retired) sat in the overstuffed armchair across from him. His glass of port gleamed in the glow of the dying fire, his watery gray eyes fixed on the flames. Potter looked smaller in his civvies than he had in uniform. Though still active, he had become slightly frail in the years since his retirement. Hawkeye observed the changes with regret. Sherman Potter was more than his former commanding officer. In a way, he'd become Hawkeye's surrogate father during those terrible years of war. He'd been a guide and a lifeline. Tonight, Hawkeye had learned that he still was.

Softly he asked, "When were you finally liberated?"

"May 16th," Potter answered promptly. But then, he'd told the entire tale straightforward and factually, as Hawkeye had imagined he would. "I spent some time in France, of course, rehabilitating. It wasn't over for us, you know. Everyone in Europe was celebrating – people were dancing in the streets. But for many of us, the Pacific War was still going on."

Hawkeye stared. "They were going to send you to that – after what you'd been through?"

"Everyone who could serve," Sherman confirmed in his growly voice. "I'd been lucky. Our work detail always had food. Not much of it; I don't need to tell you how low prisoners of war rank when it comes to rations. But there was enough to keep us on our feet, shoveling snow and clearing roads and the like. So many fellows had it much, much worse. And some of those camps…" Sherman shook his head. The weary eyes looked bleak. "I'll never forget it, seeing what these people had been doing to one another. The walking skeletons – or worse, the ones who couldn't walk." Sherman lifted his eyes to Hawkeye's. "That's what made it so hard for me, seeing you again at the 121st. I jumped back eight years, to that little French town somewhere near Varennes-en-Argonne, where they were taking in the former prisoners on stretchers." Potter swallowed hard. "You don't forget…"

Hawkeye nodded solemnly. No, you don't forget. He remembered it all – the missing limbs, the blasted bodies, the tragic eyes of those he couldn't help. Somehow, their suffering meant more to him than his own. Hawkeye had come through his time of trial, sustained by his will and the love of his friends. He hugged Margaret tighter; she nestled closer in her sleep. Hawkeye said, in a voice husky with emotion, "You didn't tell anyone."

Potter shook his head. "I didn't see the point of it. There was work to do, and I did it. I wasn't debriefed the way you were. There were so many of us, and the war wasn't over. When it finally was, I was so glad to get back to Mrs. Potter that I just wanted to put it all behind me. There were years to reclaim. You never get them back, of course, but I was determined not to lose any more of 'em, wallowing in the past."

Hawkeye nodded. He also avoided … wallowing, at least ordinarily. But for some reason this evening Sherman had suddenly started talking, quietly and matter-of-factly, about his imprisonment during World War II. Hawkeye had listened, spellbound, as the quiet words brought up memory after memory of his own. He'd told things to Potter tonight that he'd never mentioned to anyone – not even to Margaret. She'd been there for most of it, holding his hand, drinking in his words, weeping with his sadness. Potter had merely nodded. Of course he understood. And they kept talking, long after Margaret had drifted off, riding those endless waves to an unseen shore.

Hawkeye glanced at his unconscious wife. "Mildred must know something."

Sherman chuckled, and sipped his drink. "Yes, she wheedled it out of me, dear soul. Enough to give her peace." He smiled at Hawkeye. "How long did it take our Major to do the same operation on you?"

Hawkeye snorted. "A few months. We had to … find our way around to it."

"It's a fine woman who won't give up on you," Sherman nodded. "And an even better one who knows when to push."

Hawkeye felt an inking of suspicion. "Did Margaret ask you to talk about this?" Hawkeye had privately determined that Mildred was in on the conspiracy, ever since she had excused herself upstairs just before Sherman began his astounding story. Hawkeye had to admire her for it; her tactful withdrawal had left Hawkeye free to respond in whatever way he might need to. With only Potter and Margaret as his audience, he had no public image to uphold. It made Hawkeye fall in love with the Potters all over again. He only hoped that, as the years advanced, he and Margaret would make so wise a couple.

"You can't blame your lovely wife this time -- or mine, either," Sherman grinned. "Truth be told, it was Sidney who put me up to it."

"Sidney!" Hawkeye sat up in astonishment, drawing a sleepy murmur of protest from Margaret. "Are you still in touch with him?"

"I'm not, more's the pity. No, he made this request to me the evening after he first spoke to you at the 121st. He could see you weren't ready to talk. He said you needed time. Well, it's been four years. I figured that was time enough – particularly at my age."

Hawkeye was astounded. "You're one hell of a commanding officer – no, I mean that. And a hell of a committed doctor."

"If you called me a stubborn old cuss who doesn't know when to call it quits, you'd be closer to the truth. But you've been so happy lately, you and Margaret. I judged it was time."

Hawkeye thought back over the evening's discussion. Sherman's experience inevitably brought up comparisons to Hawkeye's own. The appalling brutality that he had witnessed equaled the worst of Hawkeye's nightmares. It was terrifying and frustrating and infuriating -- but somehow, it had become bearable. That was the miracle. However Sherman had determined it, his timing was right.

"How long did it take you to tell your story, the first time?"

"I don't suppose I've ever told anyone the entire story, not like you've heard it tonight. But there was a time, not too long after the war, when my old double-U-double-U-one buddies decided to get together. You might remember them – the tontine we made. Geonelli hadn't made it through the second war, but the rest of us got together, all who were left: Stein and Gretzky and me. They were the first to hear my story. Now, tonight, you and Margaret were the second." Potter polished off his drink.

Hawkeye looked away into the fire, blinking rapidly. Sometimes his heart was so full, it closed his throat. How blessed Hawkeye had been, so very blessed in his friends and family. Huskily he whispered, "Thank you."

"Thank you, Hawkeye." Potter's eyes, heavy lidded as they were, were still keen. "I don't just mean for tonight."

Hawkeye hesitated. "Is it better for you, having spoken about this?"

Potter pondered the fire. At length he said, "I think so. But there's no sense in making it out to be more than it is. My life's been a fine thing overall, Hawkeye, and I'm glad to have lived it."

Hawkeye nodded. He didn't need the reminder, these days. Gently, he jostled Margaret's shoulder. "Sweetheart? Time for bed."

"Mmm." Her arms snaked about his neck. "Potter's talking," she murmured.

"He's stopped."

Sherman's eyes twinkled. "I hope I didn't always have this effect on her."

"I'm amazed she lasted as long as she did." Hawkeye shifted to prop Margaret against him. She groaned as she sat up, eyes still closed. Hawkeye shook his head. It always amazed him, to see that huge belly sprouting from such a narrow form. He took one of her hands and kissed it. "Do you want me to carry you?"

"I c'n walk." Her head bobbed, and her eyes blinked. Suddenly they opened wider, as she spotted Potter grinning from his chair. She sat up. "Oh, did I fall asleep?" She pushed back her hair. "How rude."

"Don't be foolish, Margaret," said Potter. "It's I who should apologize, talking on into the wee hours the way I've done."

"Come on." Hawkeye worked an arm behind her shoulders. "Let's get you up."

"Oof!" Margaret heaved her bulk off the couch. She would have lost her balance, save for Hawkeye's steadying arm. Margaret placed a hand on her belly, in the way of pregnant women everywhere. "I'm as big as a house."

Potter shook his head. "You're as bad as Mildred. Once the little one gets here, you'll forget all this and be happier than ever – just as you were when your first little one was born."

"I won't forget it," Margaret puffed, taking a shaky step. "It just won't … bother me so much, to remember."

Hawkeye exchanged a startled glance with Sherman. His former CO winked. Hawkeye looked back to find Margaret staring at him. "What?"

Hawkeye shrugged to cover his confusion. "I think you've just stated tonight's theme."

She took another swaying step towards the door. "What theme?"

"Embracing life," said Potter cheerily. "Joi de vivre. Putting all those awkward moments behind you."

"At this moment," Margaret huffed, "I think I've got all my awkwardness in front of me."

"Not for long," said Hawkeye. "Two more weeks."

"Ugh. It will seem like two months."

"Wouldn't it be wonderful," said Hawkeye, "if that were true?"

Margaret stared. "You want two more months of me – like this?"

"If I could make weeks into months with you, I would. That means I'd have you all the longer to love." He kissed the side of her face.

Potter pushed himself up briskly. "Well, it's time for me to be going!" He headed for the stairs. "Don't feel you have to get up too early. Mildred and I know our way around by now." He chucked Margaret under the chin as he passed. "Sleep well." He disappeared up the stairs.

Hawkeye shook his head. "How does he do it?"

"What?"

"Read minds. He always seems to know the right thing to say or do."

"Yes, it's terribly annoying. Speaking of which –"

"I know. Pit stop."

"Thank you, mind reader. And hurry."

Later, as Hawkeye helped her up the stairs, Margaret said, "It really was a special evening, wasn't it? No, that's not the right word. Important, I think."

"Yes. It was."

Hawkeye guided her around the banister to their room. The Potters were staying across the hall. The nursery was next to the master bedroom.

"I'll look in on Daniel," Hawkeye whispered in his wife's ear.

Margaret gave him a kiss. "Don't be long."

"What do I get if I'm on time?"

Margaret stroked his cheek. "Fresh."

"I'm only fresh because you've spoiled me."

Margaret chuckled. He watched her silhouette disappear into the door of their room, and then pushed open the nursery door.

The crib was next to the wall, set in readiness. Under the window, a larger bed, still with side rails, contained a rumpled blanket. Hawkeye drew near to peep in.

One rosy cheek was turned towards the door. The dark locks were damp, tousled over the round baby brow. Little Daniel Alvin Pierce, named after both of their fathers. Once again Hawkeye felt the joy swell in his breast, happiness so strong it had to come out in a smile on his face. He could almost hear his heart singing.

The breaths were quick and loud – deep, unconscious baby breaths. Hawkeye stroked the chubby cheek. He whispered, "You and me, and baby makes … four. Will you like that, little fellow?"

Daniel went on breathing. Hawkeye straightened, then backed away and softly closed the door. Ahead of him Margaret was waiting, and the rest of his life.

The End

#

Author's note:

I'd like to thank everyone for the wonderful and inspiring feedback that they've given me regarding this story in the two years since I first posted it. This novelette is the result of one of those rare but exciting occasions when the story leaps out and demands to be written. For weeks I was drawn towards the computer as soon as I was awake, to continue the saga of Hawkeye and his dear friends at the 4077th.

My inspiration for the piece was twofold. First, I had always been intrigued with how the characters might have reacted had they been able to hear the message that Hawkeye had penned for each of them in his will in the episode "Where There's a Will." This is reproduced word-for-word at the end of in Chapter 2. (At least, it's verbatim according to the edited version of MASH that I've seen on broadcast TV. It's possible that the original version of the show might have more words from Hawkeye to his friends in the two minutes that were cut out. I've always wondered whether some words might be missing, as his message to Charles seems to begin with a sentence fragment.)

The second is that I've long been interested in the plight of prisoners of war. I had already read several books on the subject, mostly from World War II, focusing on American prisoners of Germany and Japan and the experience of holocaust survivors. When I started writing this story, I went on a search to find books focusing on the Korean War. I used John Toland's book, In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953, as one of my principle sources. His accounts focused on various soldiers' experiences, including some gripping tales of men stranded behind enemy lines. One of his stories detailed the snatch pickup rescue method that Colonel Potter talks about in Chapter 4, and how a nutty intelligence man botched the mission, causing all the men to be captured. Flagg immediately sprang to mind.

After reading his book, however, I despaired of ever getting Hawkeye across enemy lines. It seemed impossible for a sick and injured man to work his way across the heavily guarded front. Then I ran across the amazing story of "Cave Man" Lt. Donald Thomas, a downed navigator who ended up spending more time uncaptured behind enemy lines than anyone else (you can find his story under ). He eventually escaped by boat, and so Hawkeye's rescue was accomplished. I owe an even greater debt to Bob Festa, who wrote "13 Months as a POW" at the same web site. I carried over many of his experiences to Hawkeye's confinement, from the treatment of prisoners to their diet. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the many servicemen and women who shared their harrowing and moving war experiences. Your bravery and sacrifice is honored and appreciated.

I also looked up many accounts of MASH operation online, to find out how close to the front I could put my forward aid station. The description of battalion aid I use in this story is taken from an account where the ambulances drove under the cover of an embankment to within 50 feet of the front line. I tried to be as accurate to the actual operation of a MASH unit as possible, given the impossibly limited staff of the fictional 4077th. The number of casualties I had Hawkeye treat were based on a few records that I was able to find about actual patients treated at a MASH, divided by the number of doctors, and then boosted some to make Hawkeye pretty amazing. I hope it's not too off base. The number of beds at a typical MASH compared to those at the 121st Evac was pretty easy to verify online.

For medical facts about caring for wounded personnel under primitive conditions, I am indebted to Elizabeth M. Norman's incredible book, We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. I borrowed heavily from their accounts of the effects of long-term undernourishment, and followed with pride their reintegration into society at the war's conclusion.

For basic facts about the Korean conflict, I relied upon Rod Paschall's book, Witness to War: Korea. I wanted to place my story in correct historical context, so that the characters could speak about actual events in the way that I imagine they would have reacted. The TV show necessarily had to stay away from an actual timeline, but I plotted my story so that the inmates of the 4077th could see the war through to its conclusion. I had to have Hawkeye disappear in March for the timing to work out. (As the characters are clearly cold in this episode, I just made it an unusually cold spring.) References to Operation Little Switch, the massive prisoner release, and so forth are as historically accurate as my limited research allowed. I also used the maps in Paschall's book to plot Hawkeye's train journey across North Korea via railroad. Images and descriptions of Songnim and Inchon I found on the web.

I can't close without thanking the producers, writers, cast, and crew of MASH for bringing us such an addictive series and engaging characters. It's a tribute to all of them that new fans continue to emerge decades after the show first aired, and that the series continues to inspire fanfics like this story. Thank you all for the many smiles, tears, and insights that you have given me. Best wishes to you all.