The phone rang loudly, disturbing the quiet of the house. Charles Winchester picked up the receiver. "Winchester residence."
"Hi, Charles. It's me."
"Ah, good morning, Eileen." Winchester greeted the woman without enthusiasm.
"Well that's not a very friendly greeting for your girlfriend!" She teased him lightly, hoping to get a rise out of him.
"I fear I'm not in an especially amiable mood today."
"I hope you're feeling better by this evening! Don't forget we have a date tonight at the symphony." Eileen Oliver had been seeing Charles on a regular basis for almost three years now, but it was only in the past few months that she'd been able to convince him to accompany her to the symphony. She'd never met a man with such an aversion to classical music before.
"Was that tonight? I'm very sorry to do this, but I'm afraid I won't be able to make it."
"Oh." Her tone was colored with disappointment. "Why not?"
"One of the surgeons who was supposed to be on duty at the hospital tonight called in sick. I have to fill in for him."
"Can't someone else do it for once? You're always working extra shifts."
"I tried, Eileen. No one else is available, so it falls to me to pick up the slack."
"I suppose your dedication is one of the things I love about you. But I wouldn't mind seeing you occasionally too." Sometimes she wasn't sure why she put up with all the walls he threw up in front of her, but for all his faults and weaknesses, or maybe because of them, she loved him.
"And I want to see you too." It was a reflexive response. "Only it can't be today. I'll call you in a day or two, alright?"
Eileen sighed under her breath. He could be so difficult sometimes! "Charles, you're pushing me away again. What's bothering you?"
"Absolutely nothing, my dear. I'll talk to you soon."
"Alright, Charles." She gave in reluctantly. "I love you."
"I love you too. Good-bye." Winchester hung up the phone, and for a brief moment his head sagged forward against the wall.
"You don't have to work tonight, do you?"
Charles turned in surprise to find his sister, Honoria, sitting at the kitchen table watching him. "Spying on me again, are you? Why don't you go meddle in somebody else's business for once?"
The redhead ignored the question. "I know you don't. So why are you avoiding Eileen?"
"It has nothing to do with her. I just need to be alone today!" He glared pointedly at her.
Honoria regarded her brother silently for a long moment. "Charles, what is going on with you? You're always moody, but usually you wait for a little more provocation before biting my head off."
"I don't want to talk about it." He walked out of the room, trying to escape, but Honoria followed him.
"Talk about what? Is this because you two were supposed to attend the symphony tonight?" She knew she was the only person in whom her brother had ever confided about the horrors he had seen during his time in Korea. "I know how hard it is for you to go there, but you need to at least tell Eileen why that is. If you keep shutting her out like you have been, she's going to get fed up and leave you."
"Honoria, as I just said, I am not avoiding Eileen! I am in love with the woman, after all."
"Then why haven't you ever asked her to marry you? You two have been together for years, and I know she at least is committed to the relationship." Honoria knew she really was badgering her brother now, but sometimes he simply needed to be told the way things were.
Charles put his hand to his temple, his head aching as if he'd had entire bottles of cognac the night before. "My dear sister, you do realize that this is absolutely none of your business? I can handle my own affairs quite nicely without your help. Now, my head hurts and I am going to go find some aspirin. If you will excuse me?"
"No, I won't excuse you!" She pursued him again, this time up the staircase to the second floor. "You're acting like an utter and complete jerk! Usually I excuse your attitude because you're my brother and I know you don't mean half the things you say, but this churlish behavior is impossible! I don't care if you're rude to me, but you have a woman who loves you and you treat her as if she were a business associate of yours. You can't keep doing that!"
"Do you realize what today is?" Charles turned at the top of the stairs to glare at his sister, finally fed-up enough to respond.
"It's the 27th of July. What difference does the date make?"
"All the difference in the world!" His voice rose sharply. "Five years ago, on this date, the peace treaty was signed at Panmunjom."
"The end of the war?" The change of subject had confused her.
"No, the treaty to choose an official Korean breakfast cereal. Yes, the end of the war!"
"And your point would be what?" The revelation didn't deter Honoria for long. "You loved Korea so much you get upset remembering being allowed to come home? Most people would be in a good mood on the anniversary of a peace treaty, Charles, not trying to skewer everyone within a five mile radius!"
"You don't understand! This date only reminds me of everything the war took from me. It has been five years and yet I cannot go a single day without a reminder of that infernal place!"
"Maybe if you stopped feeling sorry for yourself and got on with your life, you might have better luck." She knew as she spoke that the words were cruel, but he spent far too much time wrapped up in himself.
"How dare you question me? You have no idea what I went through!" Her comment incensed him, as it was intended to do.
"What about your friends from the M*A*S*H unit? How are they faring? They probably don't mope as much as you do." She ignored his reply, and went on hassling him, looking for an opening.
"I'm sure my colleagues have all resumed their lives quite satisfactorily, just as I have. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit if they too look at today with something less than pure joy."
"When was the last time you saw any of them?"
"Five years ago! When we all left the 4077. Why must you persist in asking these irrelevant questions?" Charles winced as he spoke. The argument was not helping his head. He made his way to the bathroom, digging out a bottle of aspirin from the medicine cabinet.
Honoria trailed after him, not giving up. "Why haven't you kept in touch with any of them? If you want someone who understands, don't you think they'd be a good bet?"
"The people you are referring to helped to make an unbearable situation bearable for a time. They served their purpose and passed out of my life. Seeing them now would be purely superfluous." He explained impatiently as he filled a glass with water and downed three of the pills.
"Then why won't you let the people who are in your life help you? I know there are scars, Charles, but despite your best attempts you have people that care about you."
This time her words hit hard. Charles set the glass on the counter, and turned to look at his sister. His voice softened. "You are good at backing me into a corner, aren't you?"
"You get yourself into these spots. I just make you open your eyes and acknowledge where you are." The edge disappeared from her voice as she saw that he was beginning to look beyond his blinders.
"I am not trying to shut anybody out. I have attended the symphony many times for Eileen's sake. I will continue to do so in the future." He took a deep breath, letting it out raggedly. "What you don't understand is that I cannot listen to a piece of music without seeing a Chinese POW with half his chest missing. The composition in my ears disappears and I hear only Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. I loathe that song."
Honoria said nothing. There was a time to push and a time to simply listen.
"Usually it is endurable, the pain at acceptable levels, but today I simply could not bear to attend the symphony, not on this anniversary. I would have fallen apart." He made the admission quietly and starkly.
"Why don't you pick up the phone and tell Eileen exactly what you just told me?"
Charles smiled halfheartedly. "You certainly have a one-track mind."
"That I do," she admitted. "I know you haven't told her much about your time in Korea. You say you love her, Charles. Don't keep driving her away."
"She won't understand – she can't." He protested, but without the vehemence of before.
"Give her a chance. She does love you."
There was a long moment as Charles contemplated the wisdom of his sister's words. "Do you think possibly she would agree to trade the symphony tonight for a quiet dinner?"
"I know she would. She's not going to expect anything of you that you can't give."
"No, she's not, is she?" The last was almost a whisper, directed at himself rather than his sister. He left the room, heading back down the stairs. "Perhaps it is possible. Perhaps."
This time, Honoria let him walk away.