What, what had he said? Hawkeye rapidly replayed what he'd just said, checking for keywords. He'd not used the m or the l words, but he had broken that unspoken agreement between them. The one that said to act like siblings with each other and not to mention anything else. Certainly not the feelings generated one time together in a collapsing building. The one that let them both believe his every pass at her was a joke and that they were never, ever bothered if they spotted each other kissing a stranger. Margaret was still staring up at him, frowning, but she'd yet to move away or pull her arms free from his grip. He smiled slowly and opened his hands so she could pull back if that's what she wanted. May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, he thought.
"Margaret Houlihan. You infuriate me, you antagonise me, you make me crazy. How about we get married?"
She did pull free then, scowling and stepping back towards her cotbed. "This is some kind of stupid prank, Pierce, and it isn't funny."
"I'm not joking, Margaret. I stood by and watched you marry Penobscott because I thought it was what you wanted and there wasn't a day went by when he was making you miserable that I didn't damn myself for not yelling my objection to the roof of the mess tent. So I'm objecting now, getting in early. Those two, Charles and Jimmy, they just want a wife - they don't want you in all your irritating glory. I do."
She had backed so far that her calves were pressed against the edge of the bed, still just staring at him. He continued to talk.
"D'you want me to beg? I suppose I really ought to be on my knees anyway. I bet Charles was." Hawkeye dropped, vaguely aware of how insane this must look. Margaret had dropped her head as he knelt, trying not to see him but he shuffled forward and took her unresisting hand in his. He was so close that the only way she could avoid his eyes was to close hers. He was bothered by that but he'd gone this far.
"I mean it, Margaret. I love you. Will you marry me?"
She was keeping her face turned away from him, no matter how he tried to get a glimpse beneath the floating waves of her newly brushed hair. Her body was shaking though, as if she was building up to a really good parade ground shout. He dropped her hand and stood. She kept her head turned away and Hawkeye resisted the urge to smooth her hair from her face, stopping his hand before it could touch.
After Hawkeye had walked silently from her tent, Margaret let her legs give way. She thumped into her cot heavily and stared at the floor. She could feel her upper body shaking and tried to make it stop. She was so angry. Angry at herself for starting to cry. Angry at Pierce for doing that. As if the world wasn't complex enough without him breaking down the carefully constructed sanity of their friendship.
How could he do this to her? Didn't he realise how upset the whole situation was making her? And then for him to throw his feelings into the pot, like the three men were playing poker and she was the prize? Calmly, very calmly, she stood and put her hairbrush back on her makeshift dressing table. She tied her hair back with an old ribbon and checked her clothes were folded away ready for the next day. Then she climbed onto her cot and went to switch out the light. The tears of frustration hadn't stopped the whole way through the routine. She turned over and pummelled her stone-hard pillow with her fists, letting an incoherent yell of annoyance out.
"Colonel, may I have a word?"
Potter took in the badly concealed shadows around Major Houlihan's eyes and nodded. "Of course, Major."
He noticed she glanced about post-op, frowning slightly towards the oblivious Hunnicutt before lowering her voice. "It's on a personal matter, sir."
"In that case, Margaret, I think we should retire to my office and see what we can rustle up from the liquor cabinet." He let her led the way and paused only to give Radar the look that said no listening at the door. Inside his office, Margaret paced about, twisting and turning her fingers into cats' cradles of worry. So it was a good whiskey problem then. He found a bottle of something decent which had been successfully hidden from his doctors and poured them both a shot. Then he perched himself on the corner of the desk and waited.
"Well, Major?" "Sir. I...as you know, my father is a fine military man but...well, he'd not one for being around to give personal advice."
"So you want me to stand in for him, I suppose?"
"Yes. That is, I respect your opinion. I can't talk to anyone about this. The one person who maybe I could have gone to is part of the problem."
She was still wearing a track in the dirt of his floor and he wanted to get her to sit down. Well, at least with Margaret that was pretty easy. "Sit down, Major. Have a drink. Tell me it slowly. Piece by piece. Why don't you start with that conscript who stole your heart when you were at high school."
He knew Jimmy would be relatively easy for her to tell him about. The scuttlebug had reached him over a day ago on that one. He noticed she spoke of her former sweetheart with her rare, gentle smile. It was all stuff about their childhood though, about how Jimmy had been living out his dream Stateside until Uncle Sam had called him up. How the man even saw that as providence since he'd found Margaret again through it - the one thing that had been missing from his ideal world.
"So the lad wants to marry you. Is that so bad?"
"I hadn't thought so, hadn't made up my mind though. After Donald... Then Charles made it more difficult."
Potter covered his surprise fairly well, quickly pouring himself another shot and taking it, so his splutter of laughter was disguised as a cough at the liquor. Thankfully, Margaret skipped on the details of the proposal. Potter wasn't really sure that was something he wanted to visualise. Margaret was more animated describing Charles, her eye had got that feral glint he'd sometimes seen in it. Charles' money could tempt a girl in a way the man himself couldn't. Good ol' fashioned avarice. Still, if that's what a woman wanted then Charles would make her secure for life.
"That's when I thought it couldn't get any worse," Margaret said and helped herself to a massive shot of the whiskey. She sat staring into it. Potter thought it best to prompt.
"I can see why having two gentlemen acourting you puts you in a tricky position, Major, but it seems a fairly straight forward choice. Jimmy or Charles. Can't say I know this Jimmy right well and Winchester can be a pompous fuddy-duddy of an ass sometimes but if you love one of them then you have my faux father's blessing."
She laughed bitterly and threw back the shot, fast. He poured them both a third measure and leaned back in his creaking old chair. She held his eye so he could see she was about to tell the truth.
"Pierce went and proposed too."
Potter sprayed his desk with expensive whiskey. He was only glad his chair hadn't tipped backwards in the shock. Well. It wasn't that the idea of Hawkeye and Margaret was so shocking: he was pretty damn sure the two of them had a 'history' and he'd not failed to notice how often they leaned on each other, physically and mentally. But commitment-phobic Hawkeye Pierce proposing?
"Now I can see why you have a problem. Well, my comment stands. If you love one of 'em, then you have my blessing."
"But which one, Colonel, which one?"
"The ways of a woman's heart are a mystery to me, Margaret. Why, the first time I met Mildred she as good as slapped me in the kisser and we've done just fine since. You have to decide which one of 'em you could stand waking up to every day."
Jimmy was alone in the VIP tent, for which Margaret was grateful. She assumed, rightly, that Charles and Pierce were feeling uncomfortable around him. He put down the tatty novel he was reading - she recognised it as something from Father Mulchay's small collection of inoffensive material kept for loaning to soldiers in post-op - and propped himself up on his bed, smiling at her.
He patted the bed next to him, then frowned as she picked up the chair instead and moved it next to his cot. Her heart coiled up at his look of hurt, but she knew if she gave way to her compassion it would end far worse. She took his hand in both of hers and leaned forward, keeping eye contact.
"Jimmy-" she began but he half-smiled at her when she faltered.
"This isn't going to end with a 'yes', is it, Maggie?"
"I'm sorry, Jimmy." Inexplicably, she felt hurt when he withdrew his hand from hers.
"Is it someone else?"
"It's that things wouldn't work out. You're still holding a torch for Maggie Houlihan. She's been gone a long time now. I really enjoy how you treat me, how you make me feel like that girl again. It's been a wonderful break from having to be me. But that's all it can be, a break. I've changed and I'm fairly sure you wouldn't want me as I am."
"You don't seem so different."
"You've only seen the one side of me here. You've only seen how I am with patients, and with a patient I'm very fond of at that. I'm not like this with my colleagues, my friends. They've seen all sides of me and some of it isn't very nice. I can't go and live in a little house in a nice suburb and be a wife. I'd hate it and pretty soon we'd come to hate each other - all because you'd have married a memory. I'm sorry, Jimmy, but you need to find a real woman to love, not a ghost."
Hawkeye and Charles were playing chess. Hawkeye had wanted something to do and when Charles had offered it, as some kind of silence-breaker between them, he'd accepted willingly. He was still furious with Charles' attitude towards Margaret and his outburst in her tent hadn't resolved that. He rather doubted that Margaret would turn down the chance of a financially useful marriage - she'd always had that streak of greed in her. So a chance to try to beat the man at chess was at least a way of getting his aggression out. BJ had originally sat on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary on the play but the sense of anger coming off one player and smugness from the other had made him announce he was off to Rosie's "where the fights will be more fun". Hawkeye supposed his bad mood was inexplicable to his friend - he hadn't told anyone about his emotional, impromptu proposal.
They were about evenly matched. Hawkeye knew Charles' smugness was the man's main handicap, and his own anger was giving him a certain amount of clarity to his game. Both had manoeuvred the other into a check position once and it would only be a few more moves before someone made mate.
The clatter of the door indicated someone had just come in. Both men glanced simultaneously towards the door, but Hawkeye was the first to swivel away totally from the game.
"Margaret," they both said at the same moment. Then scowled at each other.
Margaret looked at Charles and Hawkeye's heart sank. That would be his cue to leave then. For once, his desire to witness events was overcome by his desire not to see his own emotions dashed. He stood, planning to head for Rosie's and get absolutely stinkingly drunk. At which point he would doubtless tell BJ all, sob into his shoulder half the night and they'd then never speak of the whole farce again.
"No, Hawkeye, please stay."
"I really don't think I want to see whatever touching display is about to occur," he tried.
"This concerns you both," she said.
He felt Charles look at him with a frown then, wondering why on earth the captain was required for this. He slung himself onto his bunk and stared at the canvas roof of the Swamp, determined not to show anything. Then he decided he could pretend not to be there by closing his eyes. Charles, predictably, spluttered,
"Really, Margaret, do you think-"
"I often think, Charles. I think how much I'd like to be whisked away from this nightmare and never have to work again. I think how much I'd enjoy a life without responsibility, without financial worry. I think how much I like good food, good poetry and good company. And then I think about how much I don't want to have my decisions taken away from me, how much of myself I'd have to strip away to live that apparently carefree life."
"I don't understand, Margaret. You'd be free of all the trials, of all the struggle-"
"At what price? I'm sorry, Charles. You're a fine man, intelligent, charming, caring and will doubtless find the right woman. But I'm not her and no amount of finishing schools will turn me into her."
Hawkeye opened his eyes and stared at the canvas roof in confusion. She was turning Charles down? She must have picked homeboy Jimmy then. He also sensed Charles glaring at him: he must have worked out that Hawkeye had told Margaret his remarks. And doubtless still wondering why he was still here.
"Very well, Margaret, I accept your declination of my offer. I presume then that we will be invited instead to witness your betrothal to Jimmy Baxter?"
Hawkeye sat up at this, and stared at her. "No?"
She tilted her head in his direction and smiled. "He loves a memory of me, not the real me at all."
Hawkeye felt his heart splutter and start. Was he having palpitations? Oh gods, she wasn't...she was going to pick him. He wasn't sure whether to cheer with pleasure or be terrified. He was going to be committed? He...
His bewilderment must have been showing, because Margaret moved over to his side, sat on the bunk next to him. She put one hand on his arm but he continued to stare ahead, not feeling her touch was real. He was going into shock, he was sure. They'd have to treat him in a moment.
"I'm not marrying anyone."
Now he could turn to look at her, feel her hand clutching his arm warmly.
"What d'you mean? You're not marrying anyone?" He could hear Charles about to point out the obvious to him, since the great fool didn't know of the third proposal. "Aren't I good enough?"
"Hawk, you're good enough. You love me the way I am. We tried changing each other once before, remember? And it didn't work because what we've got isn't based on false images of each other. If I were to marry any of you, it would be you, and I'm really flattered that you asked."
"But you only asked because you were afraid. You saw me walking away and were so afraid that you'd lost the chance that you overcame your loathing of commitment to propose. That's how you were with that nurse-"
"Yes, and it's how you always are when you fall for someone. I don't want to marry someone who's only asking from fear. I want it to be someone who wants to get married."
He'd held her eyes the whole time and could tell she'd seen the mixture of hurt and relief in them. There was a clack as Charles left the tent silently. Presumably off to drown his disappointment with Jimmy. He suspected he'd be joining them, or BJ, in a few minutes.
Margaret smiled and leaned in close, despite there being no-one else to hear. Her hand was now brushing along his arm in an almost caress. He smiled at her final whispered words, her breath on his ear.
"But I think I'll have to take you up on the offer of the warm arms at night."
A/N: I am, accidentally, indebted to the musings article, which suggests that male romantic leads tend to fall into one of three roles. I only realised, with part 3, that I was giving Margaret the choice of all three.