On the first morning of the three-day gathering, the Maine conference proudly welcomed distinguished guest speakers from fields of the medical profession as diverse as neurosurgery through embryology, and played host to a grand crowd.
After posing for their badge ID photos, during which Margaret was grabbed by a fit of ridiculously loud laughter while Hawkeye posed and flailed arms and legs behind an oblivious camera operator, the pair made their way to the first gathering of the morning. Their argument about the quality of their respective photos echoed through the grand foyer as they walked.
"I can't help it if I'm unnaturally gorgeous Margaret!" Hawkeye insisted.
"You made me laugh, you fiend!" she cried, slapping his arm. "I look like a baboon, my eyes are closed and my mouth is open!"
"Margaret, if you're a baboon, I have a healthy new respect for the species," he laughed.
"Are you implying I look like a monkey, Doctor?" Margaret tone was dangerously calm.
"I think you're confusing that with my animal magnetism.." she hid a smile.
Hawkeye's eyebrows went through his hairline.
They found seats in the third row of the first theatre venue of the day at the university campus, squeezing past those already seated and busily pursuing their programmes, into the scarred flip-top desks. Hawkeye had more than a little trouble arranging his comically long legs into a comfortable wedge between the chairs in front and Margaret smiled in sympathy.
"Feel like a college kid again?" she poked Hawkeye and rolled her eyes.
"What are you doing Friday after class?" he whispered in a tone only several decibels too loud.
"I don't know him," Margaret mouthed to the distinguished looking gentleman sitting on her right, pointing at Hawkeye in mock disgust.
The first guest speaker of the morning strode into the theatre with an air of importance lain over his broad shoulders like a cape. He paced his stride to the podium, thoroughly enjoying the respectful whispers of approval that crept from corners of the large lecture theatre.
"Oh my god!" Margaret hissed, whacking Hawkeye with her elbow. "That's Charles!"
"Where?" his eyes were on the programme's extensive list of doctors in attendance, searching for a name with the ever pretentious Roman numeral after it.
"No, no, there!" Margaret flailed her arms at the speaker's podium. When that failed, she grabbed Hawkeye's jaw and forced his eyes on center stage.
"Margaret, shouldn't we find someplace private before... oh, hey!" Hawkeye's voice rose to a volume not suitable for distinguished gatherings.
"Ssshh!" Margaret clapped a hand over his mouth.
Charles Emerson Winchester the Third placed one hand on either side of the lectern and paused to survey his audience. Letting the anticipatory silence wash over him, he deliberately allowed the dramatic tension to reach its climax, before clearing his throat importantly. Sensing all were watching, the doctor launched confidently into his speech without so much as a glance at his notes, which had been, he was proud to admit, meticulously ordered months in advance.
Charles danced over his brief introduction and welcome, pirouetted through his hopes for the conference and began a slow waltz through the specifics of the current successful state of his career at Boston's Mercy Hospital. The audience were particularly attentive, eagerly listening to this most respected professional who, as well as having established a career as head surgeon at one of the county's most honoured hospitals, had proceeded to do so only months after returning from the Korean War. This was one of many such facts well publicised in Charles E. Winchester's book, Working Against Adversity: A Tale from the Swamp, which, according to the book's dust jacket, "paints a vivid portrait of civilized man in a contemporary antechamber of hell." Charles' debut work of non-fiction had achieved a large measure of both critical and popular success for its author, remaining a popular topic of water-cooler discussion for several months.
The doctor had reached what he knew to be a particularly high point of his speech, dealing with his recent successes with venous transplants and grafting between vessels, when his eyes met familiar ones.
He missed a word. "Uh. Excuse me," he offered to the audience with an apologetic smile, reaching for the glass of water.
Charles grabbed the glass and pulled a mouthful past his lips, using the pause to furtively scan the audience for that fleeting familiar face.
The eyes smiled at him and the attached hand waggled a finger in greeting.
Good lord.. that's Margaret, Charles mused in mild shock.
And.. oh no.
Charles closed his eyes and tried in vain to remove the image of the lord fool Hawkeye Pierce grinning ridiculously at him from the third row of the theatre.
With a sigh, he put down the glass, searched for his place in his notes and forged on confidently.
Charles was almost certain his speech had been a success, according to the numerous handshakes, backslaps and overly vocal congratulations overloading his senses in the grand foyer afterwards. He hated to admit, even to himself, that he might possibly have spent more time avoiding the eyes of his three year tormentor, than in worrying over his elocution and correct pronunciation of his words, but refused to let it bother him outwardly.
The doctor felt a light hand on his shoulder and turned to face its owner. Charles felt himself grabbed by a slight body and hugged furiously.
"Uh.. Margaret. Lovely to see you again too," he said with a surprised chuckle. "Had I known you would be present, I would have brought caviar and champagne to toast our success as civilians."
Margaret released the doctor and gave him a brilliant smile. He returned the expression and complimented Margaret on her "exquisite new hairstyle.. very becoming," for which he was returned a profuse blush.
Charles rolled his eyes as he saw the bane of his Korean existence standing off Margaret's shoulder.
"Hello Pierce.." Charles said with a resigned laugh, extending a hand in greeting.
"Hi Charles!" Hawkeye replied with gusto. "Good to see you again in another colour scheme," he grinned, shaking the doctor's hand furiously.
"Oh, you too, of course. I did not recognise you both in a decor other than slime-green. Actually, I was completely unaware that you both would be joining the conference," he admittedly sheepishly. "I didn't see your names on the day's program. Are you not speaking Pierce?"
"No, not me Charles, I'm just here for the free food and the badge. See my cute photo?" he waved his badge more for Margaret's benefit than for Charles' and was rewarded with another dirty look and an elbow dug into his side.
"Ow! Margaret, I told you we should take this someplace private," Hawkeye insisted with a grin. "But of course, Charles, the lovely Nurse Houlihan was reason enough to come. She's speaking tomorrow afternoon. I wouldn't miss that one for all the rice wine in Korea."
"Ah.." Charles' face registered understanding and he smiled. "Well. Indeed, it is good to see you found yourself a better half, Pierce. Better being the operative word, of course." Charles joked.
"Uh, no, Charles, we're not married!" Margaret said with too excessive a laugh.
"That's right. We're just friends." Hawkeye qualified. "Oh, sugarpuff, would you remind me to get milk on the way home?"
"That really was a excellent speech Doctor," Margaret said, shouldering Hawkeye out of the conversation.
"Well thank you Margaret. And I am sorry to have jumped to such a conclusion about the both of you, my apologies." Charles looked as though he didn't regret a word. "Margaret, may I ask how your career is progressing? I imagine your plans to work in a big city hospital have come to fruition a hundred fold."
"Oh, thank you Charles, they have. I'm very happy with my career, everything is.. is good. I'm very happy. There really aren't words enough to express how.. happy I am."
"Careful Margaret, don't glow too much, you might attract moths," Hawkeye stuck his head through the barrier Margaret had made to keep him from the conversation.
"You'd better shut your mouth Hawkeye, or you'll attract gnats," she whipped back with a grin, linking her arm through Charles' and strutting away, to leave Hawkeye picking his jaw up from the floor.
Later, while Margaret rushed away to pay a visit to the Nursing Throughout History display with several of her colleagues who had arrived in a flurry of hugs and delighted squeals, Charles and Hawkeye were left standing in the foyer. They looked at each other awkwardly. Charles hummed a tune and pretended to admire the vaulted ceiling, while Hawkeye stuffed his hands into his pockets.
Hawkeye spoke first. "Well, Charles, here we are."
"We certainly are here."
"Shall we take A Life-size Tour Through the Bowel," Hawkeye gestured at a dubious looking display, "or shall we get.."
"I thought you'd never ask."
After the two were seated with their coffee, each man took a turn congratulating the other on the successes of their post-war career.
"I like your book," Hawkeye said, hiding a smile that threatened to break across his face in his coffee cup.
"Oh, you've since learned to read have you?" Charles feigned grand surprise. "Kudos to the intelligent chimp that educated you!"
"Har har Charles," Hawkeye laughed. "I see your sense of humour hasn't suffered for the time spent away from me."
"Oh you flatter yourself my good man," Charles insisted good-humouredly. "BJ was always more of a pest than you were."
"Oh, ouch! Charles, that hurts my little feelings," Hawkeye grinned. "No," he said abruptly, all humour leaving his tone. "You captured the tragedy we lived through, all the senselessness.. but still, I found myself missing people and places and moments, all the same. It was.. sad. You did the war justice, Charles, if that word can possibly apply."
"Well, thank you Pierce."
The grin broke across Hawkeye's face again. "And that chief surgeon character was a particularly well written one. What a dashing, charming, handsome, intelligent, sublimely stunning man he was! Five stars!" Hawkeye laughed. "What was his name again.. ah, that's right, one Doctor 'Pearce.' Charles..." he chided, "couldn't you even spell my name right?"
"Oh, that baboon was a complete work of fiction, I assure you," Charles said with a chuckle, not seeing the look of shock on Hawkeye's face at the mention of a familiar primate.
"And I quite enjoyed the subtleties of your head nurse character too, Charles," Hawkeye's grin widened. "If I didn't know better, I'd have said you were enamoured with a certain headstrong blonde.."
"Oh.. jealous are we, Doctor?"
"Well, yes Charles, I've always thought you were an attractive man.."
"Not me, you great fool. Margaret."
"I'm sure she thought so too." Hawkeye leaned back from the table, sufficiently pleased with his antagonising.
The larger man stirred his coffee again, and resisted a satisfied smile.
"So tell me Pierce.." he cleared his throat importantly. "Are you and Margaret.." he left the question hanging.
"Hmm?" Hawkeye feigned ignorance.
"Are you.. at each other's throats again, as was the way of your.. relationship in Korea?"
"Actually, no, I've since stopped with the head-nurse harassing, and it seems to have paid off. We're getting on like old friends." His voice lowered. "It's really quite nice.. actually. We had dinner last night.. it was nice."
"Careful Pierce, don't glow too much.." Charles said gently.
The two men were wandering the halls, admiring the smattering of medical displays, having become sufficiently bored with the sterile coffee shop location.
"May I be frank with you Pierce?" Charles said softly, not meeting Hawkeye's eyes.
"You can be Frank, but you'll have to revoke your medical skills," Hawkeye laughed. "Ah, no that's right.. you never had the pleasure of the company of the so-called Doctor Burns did you?"
"Actually, no, I do on a daily basis," Charles confessed. "A certain self-professed Doctor Frank Burns was transferred from his previous posting and now works under me.. far under me at Boston Mercy."
Hawkeye erupted in laughter, grabbing a nearby doorframe for support.
"Oh, god, I'm sorry Charles, that's hilarious!" he managed, wiping a stray tear from his eye. "Well, I don't know who he bribed to get that assignment, but I do pity you, having to work with that professional incompetent."
"Pierce, if I ever insulted your skills.. I take it back." Charles said with a resigned shake of his head. "I knew not the limits of bad doctoring and do wish I had never asked."
Hawkeye could only laugh at the image of Frank taking lessons in surgery from Charles. "Now, what were you saying?" he said, still stifling a last chuckle.
"I was going to say that I envy you immensely."
Hawkeye stopped mid-laugh, shocked by Charles' immediacy. "You do?"
"Yes." Charles' eyes wandered aimlessly over several figures in the distance. "At the risk of sounding impossibly cliched, I do believe you have been more successful than I, in your post-hell life.." he said quietly.
"Oh, Charles, don't give me that!" Hawkeye said forcefully. "You have the most successful career of the lot of us, you've written a book, you.."
"Yes, but as much as it pains me to admit it, I'm lonely." Charles' voice dropped an octave.
"That's why I come to gatherings such as these, immersing myself in my work seems the only way to forget that my existence is indeed..." he stopped. "A lonely one."
"Charles, I don't know w.."
"That's why it irks me to see two people who obviously are meant to share.. everything, instead pretending and playing games."
"Well that's nice of you Charles, I'm sure the guilty parties are grateful for your concern."
"I'm talking about you and Margaret, Pierce."
"Charles I told you, Margaret.. and I, we're just friends. Really."
"Oh, don't give me that. You've avoided the topic for the last five minutes. If I had to prod you anymore, I'd need gloves and a gown," he insisted.
Hawkeye opened his mouth and shut it again aimlessly.
Charles studied Hawkeye's face. And from the way the man was staring awkwardly into the distance, he decided a change of subject was in order.
"So, how is your practice progressi.."
"She's leaving in two days." Hawkeye blurted out, unable to clamp his mouth down on the words any longer. "I don't know what to do, what to say, I'm completely at a loss for words that don't contain some stupid joke."
"Pierce.. Hawkeye. Why don't you just.."
"Ah! There you two are!" Margaret's voice came clearly across the foyer.
"Margaret, as usual, you have the impeccable timing of a Swiss watch," Charles said. "Pierce and I were just saying how much we were looking forward to your speech tomorrow afternoon."
"Oh really?" Margaret said with a pleased note in her voice.
"Indeed, yes." Charles replied. "But for now, I must go and keep company with some utterly intolerable colleagues of mine," he said wearily, "after which, I believe I am scheduled to give a lecture to some backwater bumpkins on the proper usage of a icepack."
"Can we keep you company?" Margaret asked, looking to Hawkeye for acknowledgement.
"Oh, no, you two go and do.. whatever there is to do in this so-called town, and I'll catch up with you later," he waved them away.
"Bye Charles!" Margaret waved at the doctor's departing figure.
"Bye.. Charles." Hawkeye said with an absent wave.
"Soo.." Margaret said slyly, bumping Hawkeye with a shoulder, bringing him out of his reverie. "I hope you two weren't talking about me behind my back."
"Oh, Margaret, of course we were."
"Were you now?"
"Mmm hmm. And, just between you and me," he bumped her back playfully, "I know a certain doctor who's got a thing for you."
He laughed and walked on ahead, not wanting Margaret to see the expression lending an entirely different meaning to his words.
"Oh do you now?" she swaggered to catch up with Hawkeye. "Yes, I read Charles' book too, and drew some interesting parallels myself." She snuck a glance at Hawkeye, who had turned away from her abruptly and was attempting to pull the leg off a plastic skeleton.
"What really struck me though," she continued, "was that odd relationship between one of the doctors and the head nurse, which was.."
"Ah, Charles told me he had to fictionalise parts of his book.." Hawkeye interrupted, speaking a little more loudly than he had intended.
"Oh, I mustn't have reached those yet.." Margaret said innocently, grabbing his hand and leading him into the morning's second gathering.