"Hey Jimmy. Ready for a game?"
"Hi Hawkeye, and yep, I've got a whole strategy planned."
Hawkeye slumped into the office chair on the opposite side of the board, dropping a clinking bag to the floor beside him, as Jimmy set up the pieces. He looked about. They'd moved the injured man to the VIP tent and Hawkeye couldn't help but notice that a few personal touches had been added. As well as the crate with the chess board, someone had moved in some flowers and books. All very snug.
"Nice place you've got here," he ventured to Jimmy.
His patient shrugged. "Yeah, I was meaning to ask you 'bout that. How come I've been moved here? Was it Maggie's doing?"
Hawkeye reached down and produced two dirty and mismatched glasses from his bag. He cleaned them on his shirt as he answered. "Nope. The road's unsafe and the choppers are busy further west so it's going to be a couple of days before we can evac you. Since I wanted to best you at this fiendish game, I had you moved to the best hotel on the frontline."
Hawkeye held the glass he was polishing up to the bare bulb and decided it was as clean as it was going to get. He placed it on the table with a snap of the wrist and reached down once more. With a proud ta-da and a flourish, he presented Jimmy with a bottle. "The suite you are in even has its own bar, and this one is on the house."
Jimmy shuffled slightly on the bed, repositioning himself to sit up more so he could sniff the bottle. He winced at the smell and pulled away. "What you making that with?"
"The finest socks in Korea, loving crushed by foot. As a doctor, I ought to point out that this is more likely to kill you than the North Koreans."
"Pour me one?"
Hawkeye managed to pour an equal amount of the hooch into each glass. Jimmy took it up and raised it slightly. "Cheers."
"Bottoms up." Hawkeye threw it to the back of his throat, managing to swallow before he could taste too much of it. "See, this is why I moved you here, using all my Chief Surgeon skills of coercion. We couldn't really have a drink in post op. Who's move to start?"
"Aha," Hawkeye wagged a finger at his patient, "you think I'm going for my standard opening..."
They played for a few minutes silently, each move being considered. Hawkeye refilled his glass but didn't drink it. Instead he watched Jimmy. The man seemed quieter today which didn't fit with the usual recovery pattern, and his game was slower. Maybe it was the move to the isolation of the VIP camp. When Jimmy left an opening in his defence that was just schoolboy-ish, Hawkeye decided to break the silence.
"You seem distracted today, Jimmy. What's up?"
"Is it the leg? I know the cramps can get pretty bad after a day or so...?"
"No, it's not that."
They played a couple more moves. Then Jimmy left himself open for a mate in three. Hawkeye knocked back his drink and poured them both another.
"Come on, spill it."
Jimmy downed his glass of booze in one gulp and lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. Hawkeye waited. Despite his continual fidgeting and mania, he could be a patient man when he needed to be.
"Last night, I was playing chess with Maggie-"
"Well, that would weary any man." Hawkeye took another pull of the booze.
"And I asked her to marry me."
Hawkeye nearly spat his drink straight back out. "You asked her to marry you?"
"I was gonna do it that first summer I got back from university, but the war had started in Europe and her father had been reassigned to another station. The army keeps bits of paper on everything but could I find her? Hell no…and then there she was, calling my name in the chaos, by my side when I woke. It's like the decade since that summer had vanished."
Hawkeye played with his knight, rocking it back and forth and staring at it intensely. He didn't know why he felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. Must have been that damn gut-rot liquor hitting his insides. He didn't look up as he asked his next question.
"Did she say yes?"
"Well, that's what's bothering me. She didn't say yes and she didn't say no."
Hawkeye looked up then and saw Jimmy frowning at him, biting his lower lip. Hawk was torn between his desire to reassure the man and wonder at the way his stomach was unfurling again.
"She's had a rough time of it, Jimmy. Her last marriage was a real rush and really didn't work out." Jimmy looked a bit surprised so Hawkeye back-pedalled fast. "You knew she'd been married, right?"
"No. Well, she kind of hinted that there had been other men but...married?"
"Yeah, he was a louse. I'd have belted him if he wasn't twice my size. And, well, some of the others have been less than kind to her." He still internally winced at their behaviour that one time. They'd both been a right pair of trouble then. There were worse offenders though. He realised Jimmy was smiling gently, looking hopeful.
"So you think she just needs a little time? I mean, I loved her so much in High School. Never wanted to marry anyone else so I'm kind of scared here."
"Just give her a day or so."
Margaret was staring at the noticeboard outside the office without taking in any of the messages. She'd surprised herself when she hadn't immediately said yes to Jimmy. He wasn't exactly a stranger, but she felt she was. Ten years for him had brought him a good job teaching at an inner city school, a small house and security. Ten years for her had brought her a tough career, a string of relationships and the chaos of living in a war zone. She wasn't the same sassy know-all school girl but he treated her like she was. It was rather appealing, being treated as precious in the harsh surroundings. She'd got used to being one of the boys and it was rather fun to be seen as a woman again. So why, looking into his loving eyes, hadn't she immediately said yes?
"Really, Margaret, I can't believe the duty roster for the night watch is that entrancing."
She shook herself slightly and turned to smile at Major Winchester.
"I'm sorry Major. I was miles away."
"Would you consider being a mere mile away?" He glanced downwards and she realised he was carrying one of the occasional hampers he got from home. That's right, she remembered, he'd been eating marmalade only the other morning so he must have got a new package. Oh, the food he got sent. She knew her eyes gleamed with greed at the thought of it but she tried to act casual.
"What are you suggesting, Major?"
"It's a pleasant afternoon, so I thought you might care to join me by the 'lake' for some pate and a bottle of Chablis. I'm afraid the wine is not chilled, but...?"
"Thank you, Charles. I would be delighted. Just let me get my things."
Margaret hurried to her tent, put on a little lipstick and grabbed her sunshade. She enjoyed Charles' company - not to mention his food - and it would be a good distraction from the distraction of Jimmy's proposal.
They strolled to the 'lake', the rather generous name for a large pond beyond the minefield. There was a bit of meadow beside it, with just a few overgrown craters from the days of five o'clock Charlie's bombing raids. A low spreading tree provided some shade. It was just close enough to camp to hear if the tannoy started up, and a downhill run back if casualties started to pour in. Unfortunately, Margaret could also remember coming here with Frank all those times when there had been a lull in the action, back before Donald.
Charles had spread an army blanket on the grass in the shade and Margaret sat on it, helping him to unload the hamper. The wine was, indeed, unchilled but still many leagues better than anything on offer inside Korea. In fact, she'd not even tasted such good wine in Tokyo. The food was astonishing, flavours exploding on her tongue and reminding her that there was tastes other than mushed up vegetables and chewy meat. They talked about poetry which Margaret found both enjoyable and disturbing. She tended to keep her love of the stuff quiet in camp and she had always found relief in being able to discuss the finer points of a verse with Charles but now, as the subject turned to sonnets, she found herself applying them to herself personally.
"I do find these occasional conversations stimulating. There is such a lack of intellectual rigour in this life, don't you find?"
"Mmm. My mind is so occupied with the daily grind I tend to forget there are beautiful words in the world."
"Quite. And beautiful people." Charles raised his glass in toast to her and she found herself blushing. She looked down and played with the dry grass prickling at the edge of the blanket.
"Margaret, I'd like for you to hear me out. I know that we do not always see eye to eye in certain situations but I admire your courage under fire, your professionalism and calmness in this chaos and that you can find time to love beautiful admirable things despite the world we endure. I think there have been moments of mutual attraction between us and that the elements we have in common could outweigh our different backgrounds."
"Charles..." Margaret had a terrible feeling she knew where this was going but found she couldn't look up, or raise her hand to stop him.
"Margaret, would you do me the honour of becoming a Winchester?"
Charles hummed a little of Verdi as he approached the Swamp, even the thought of re-entered that fetid hole did not dent his good mood. Fine wine, fine food and fine company: the memory of that would carry him through the inevitable tedium of Pierce and Hunnicutt's mindless banter.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he greeted them as he entered, before resuming the Verdi. Hunnicutt was sitting up, wearing that stupid straw hat and the silk dressing gown, scribbling another ridiculously long letter to his family. He didn't glance up as he replied "Hi Charles."
"You're in a good mood, tonight, Charles," Pierce said.
Having put the empty hamper under his bed, Charles turned to look at Hawkeye. The younger surgeon was lying back on his bed, one arm over his eyes. He was clearly feeling a bit lethargic as he'd yet to put on the increasingly ratty red dressing gown and was just in his tee-shirt and pants.
"Hawkeye isn't," Hunnicutt mentioned, still without raising his eyes from the letter he was composing.
"I'm just not bounding about the hovel with joy, is all."
"Uh-huh. See, Charles? Bad mood."
Charles decided to interrupt them, before it turned into a lengthy monotonous verbal tennis match. "Yes, I am in a good mood, Pierce. I've just had delightful afternoon discussing love poems - and love itself - over some vintage Chablis and fine food, sat in the almost bearable surroundings of the 'lake'."
Hawkeye propped himself up on one elbow and gave BJ a smile that warned Charles they were about to start a teasing routine. "Ah-ah! Charles has got himself a lady friend."
Hunnicutt stopped writing and looked up, an irritating look of incredulity on his face. "Charles? Is this true? Do you need to give us both a quarter and send us to the movies?"
"Really, gentlemen, it is none of your affair."
Hawkeye sat up at this, finally looking energetic. "Oh but Charles it is. Who is she? Do we know her? Is the famous Winchester uprightness about to get horizontal?"
"Pierce! That crudity is low, even for you. I have in fact, asked the lady to consent to be my wife."
He hadn't meant to say it, but really where was the harm? No matter what he said or did, these two moronic cellmates would find a way to laugh about it so he might as well be honest.
"There's going to be a Mrs Winchester the Third?"
"Well, Margaret hasn't said yes yet but..."
"MARGARET?" Pierce had actually jumped off his bed, his jaw dropped. Hunnicutt managed to keep the volume down a little as he asked the same thing.
"Isn't she a little...beneath your usual standards, Charles?"
"It's true her social behaviour has a few rough edges which require smoothing, but mother will arrange for her to go to the same finishing school as my sister and she'll be groomed perfectly for introduction in polite society."
He noticed Hunnicutt glancing at Hawkeye. They had a long established pattern of teasing and it was Pierce's turn to make a snide remark. He was just standing there, frowning though, so Hunnicutt continued.
"You love Margaret?"
"I find pleasure in her company, and admire her personality greatly."
"Lemme get this straight," Pierce finally spoke and Charles was surprised by the controlled tone of his voice, "you've asked and she's not said yes yet?"
"Quite. But I'm sure that, on reflection, she is unlikely to turn down this opportunity."
Pierce suddenly slammed the door of the Swamp open and stomped out into the compound, letting it bang shut behind him. Charles looked at Hunnicutt, who shrugged. "Don't ask me, he's been like this all day."
She was brushing her hair when the rapping on the door started. She frowned. Who on earth was using the old secret knock she and Frank had once had? Admittedly, it hadn't been a very well kept secret but no-one had used it in a long while. There were probably only three people left in camp who knew it.
"I'm busy!" she called and went back to her damp-speckled mirror. She stared at her face in it. There were new lines, and she was bothered by the confusion in her eyes. She couldn't believe Jimmy was back in her life. She couldn't believe he wanted to marry her. She couldn't believe Charles wanted her to marry him.
"I can wait all night!" the door-rapper called and she recognised Hawkeye's voice. And he was in a bad mood.
"Buzz off, Pierce!"
The door rattled. "I'm sure Charles wouldn't want to hear you talk like that."
Damn. What did he know? She slammed her brush down and stepped over to unlatch the catch. Pierce was inside before she got a chance to push it open. If he'd sounded angry he looked furious.
"What do you want, Pierce?"
"Margaret, you can't marry him. You can't marry either of them!"
She turned her back on him and went back to brushing her hair vigorously, not wanting to see the glare of his eyes. It was none of his damn business anyway. She turned back and pointed at him with her hairbrush.
"Why the hell not! I can marry who I want!"
"Yeah, and look how well the last one turned out."
"That was low, Pierce. Get out."
She stepped up close to him, glaring up into his face, and pointed at the door with her brush. He grabbed her by her upper arms, almost shook her. This close, he had to look down to hold her eyes but he did, his own full of earnestness.
"Margaret, listen to me. Charles doesn't love you. He 'admires' you, he finds you companionable. He wants to send you to finishing school to get rid of all the things that make you you. And Jimmy? He's still got a crush on a schoolgirl you've not been in ten years. He doesn't even know the real you."
"What's it to you who I marry anyway?"
"I'm not going to let you do this to yourself again, that's what. I'm not going to be the shoulder for you to cry on or the body you use to make your husband jealous. I'm not going to see you demean yourself with either of them, two men who don't love you but some idealised version, just because you're lonely and want someone to keep you warm at night. Dammit, Margaret, if you must have someone, have me!"