M A S H Fan Fiction ❯ Theatre of War ❯ Merry Christmas, Father Mulcahy ( Chapter 5 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

A gentle voice called from somewhere beyond the darkness. It sounded so familiar and yet -
“Father? Father Mulcahy? Can you hear me?”
My eyes opened briefly to a set of deep blue, vibrant like the waters of California. I had gone to California to be shipped out, I remember. So warm, everything seemed to radiate with sunlight that day, air redolent of salty beaches and palm trees. Such inviting waves...
After a moment I felt my eyelid lift, and where there once was blue, a bright light shocked me. I recoiled and struggled away instinctively, seeking darkness once more.
A hand brushed my forehead. It felt cold.
“His eyes are dilated but there doesn't seem to be any signs of concussion. He feels feverish. I think we should move him to Post-OP for the time being.”
“Can't - we're full up. He'll have to stay here.”
What were they talking about? My mind felt soggy, like gravy swimming around a vat of cornmeal. Cornmeal...mmm. Katherine made cornmeal once. Or was it cornbread? It turned out a little too dry regardless, but oh so lovely. How I could almost taste it, fresh and hot and smothered in gravy...
“I'm due on Post-OP in a few minutes. Quite a bit of wounded we've had this evening, but I guess, what's Christmas without casualties? The enemy even gift wrapped a few of them for us. I spent almost an hour picking shrapnel out of one boy's bowels, another hour separating his stomach from his spleen.
“I'm telling you, Lena - the sooner they end this war, the better.”
Lena? Was Lena here? Did Lena have the cornbread?
“Alright, Hawkeye. I'm going to stay until he's stable. Make sure to get some sleep later on if you can.”
“I won't make any promises. If you need me, call.”
I felt myself slip on the gravy, and all was silent.
What seemed like a moment later my eyes opened, this time of their own volition. That strange brightness no longer burned my retinas, for which I was thankful. There was still light, but much hazier, drawn along the edges of the room. I was in my tent, a pair of boxing gloves hanging from a nail proving as much. Dark olive drab greeted me, speckled with the signs of morning.
Morning? I tried to sit up but two gentle hands stopped my attempt.
“No no, lay down. You need rest; you've been through a lot, Father.”
I accepted the proposal and slunk back into the bunk, head pounding through my ears. Was it possible to feel sound? My glasses were missing so I couldn't really make out the woman's face, but her voice -
“Shhhh, rest.” Apparently in my feverish stupor, I had been trying to form words. A damp cloth stroked my forehead, feeling cool against my flushed skin. “You've given us quite a scare, Father.”
Why was her voice so familiar? Something in my chest throbbed but I couldn't tell if it was real or imagined.
Then it hit me. “L-Lena?” I squeaked out, dragging up my covers protectively. Thunderous pain roared in my head, the room spinning. “W-what are you doing? What are you doing in my quarters -?
“-Touching me -” If my eyes had been any wider I think I might have been screened for drugs. My raving had dropped to barely a whisper, shivering like a child lost in the cold. “Oh, m-my...”
I thought for a moment Lena would be offended by my fright - get upset and flee as I had done the night before. But she did neither. Instead, the woman smiled kindly and continued dabbing my forehead as if I'd said nothing.
“I am a doctor, you know.”
What a strange response. I felt scandalized, forced to lay down while she anointed me with water. “B-but you're a...you're a -” The words had trouble forming, “-a woman!
Perhaps I was a bit more feverish than originally thought.
“Good observation, Father. Tell, me - what tipped you off, exactly?”
Her laughter was quiet for she knew I had a raging headache. Laughter. The betrayal I had felt the night before swelled up again, but I bit through it to sound halfway decent.
“S-surely Hawkeye -” well, not as decent as I could have been “- or BJ could attend to me instead? Colonel Potter?” Could Lena see my misery? Did she know what I went through to find her last night? I closed my eyes, not wishing to see any longer.
“Last time I checked BJ was on Post-OP duty, and both Colonel Potter and Hawkeye were still in the OR. We've been swamped with wounded - even the mess tent is acting as a makeshift ward for the time being. Shame Major Houlihan is in Tokyo, we could have used her help.
“Since I'm hardly as efficient as the other four doctors, I elected to stay with you. Meatball surgery is not my forte, I'm afraid I'd only be in the way.”
There was no shred of bitterness in her calm voice, soothing me and my vicious headache. Lena had wonderful bedside manner I decided, despite her shortcomings. “But -” I croaked out, “surely it doesn't take a doctor to still a fever?”
“No, it doesn't. I'll admit that. But I wanted to stay with you, Father.” I could tell something else was on her mind, but she fought against it. “We couldn't just leave one of our own to fend for himself, you know. Besides, everyone with able hands is already working elsewhere. Unless...you want me to call Major Burns?
There was a slight lilt to her voice at the end, and I recognized it instantly as humor. Another wave of agony hit me, remembering Lena clad in that purple bathrobe, sitting near an almost naked Hawkeye. Surely he had influenced her stance on Frank, it was only natural. The two of them appeared...quite close. My heart sank at the thought.
What a fool I was.
“No, don't call Major Burns.” I whispered defeated, hollow. I prayed my fever would break soon so I could be left alone. “You may stay, if you must.”
I wondered if Lena knew how much she had disappointed me, as she retracted the cloth and dipped it into a bowl of water. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Fine.” I answered much too quickly, eliciting a curious raise from Lena's eyebrow. With a sigh, I relented. “Well, my head hurts a bit, so do my eyes. They sting and feel rather...dry.” Probably from crying.
I refused to look at her, the memory of the purple bathrobe burning anew.
Lena nodded in silent assessment, taking me all in. With a hand, she continued cooling my forehead gently. “So, are you going to tell me what happened last night? Or do I let Hawkeye call Dr. Freedman here to ask instead?” There was a little smile on her face, as though she already knew the answer.
“Sidney? Why in Heaven's name would Hawkeye call him?”
She tilted her head to appraise me. “Well, a man who intentionally tries to give himself pneumonia can't exactly be deemed `stable', now can he? Hawkeye thought you might be succumbing to the pressures of stress.” Lena gave a mild frown. “You have been working a bit too much lately, you know. We hardly even see you anymore.”
I found myself furrowing my eyebrow with indignation. “I've been busy.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Lena's tender gaze melted into one of concern, watching my eyes twist away from her. “Father -” she stopped wiping my forehead and put the cloth back into its bowl. “- Is something the matter? Something other than stress, I mean?”
The sigh that I gave only further worked against me, silence thicker than pea soup filling the corners of my tent. How could I possibly tell her what was bothering me? I mumbled something deliberately ambiguous to try and end the conversation, hoping Lena would take the hint.
How could I tell her the problem when I didn't truly know myself?
“Alright, open.” She held before me a glass thermometer, waiting for my mouth to comply. I did grudgingly, uncomfortable to have her hand so close to my face. “Good -” Lena smiled deviously, like a wily old fox pursuing a cornered chicken, “- Now that you will be - ah - preoccupied for a minute, I thought I'd discuss something with you. Something I think needs clarification; something you may have taken the wrong way.”
She chuckled lightly, enjoying her newfound power. “About last night, Father. Call me crazy, but a man doesn't normally trudge through camp without a jacket on for nothing. You were running away from us, not some imaginary monster.” Lena folded her arms and regarded me for a moment. “I think you might have misunderstood something.”
That was all I could tolerate. Taking the thermometer out of my mouth quickly, I handed it back to her and turned away.
“Oh, I think I understood well enough,” I whispered painfully. “Your condition made it pointedly clear, thank you Lieutenant Trepp.” Tears brimmed in my eyes, but I fought to remain calm.
She shook her head desperately. “Please, let me continue. Father, I'm not quite sure I understand exactly what you think Hawkeye and I were doing last night, but I know whatever the case may be, you are wrong.”
My gaze dropped, suddenly finding the foot of my bunk rather interesting. “It's alright, Lieutenant, you don't need to explain. What you and Hawkeye do is none of my -”
“- We were discussing cheesecake.”
Her response was so unusual that I sat there dumbstruck into silence. Cheesecake? What? Surely that couldn't be true, and I voiced said suspicion.
“Honestly, Father. Hawkeye and I were discussing cheesecake.”
The details of last night crept back up my throat, tasting terrible. “But -” Oh, Lord, why was I even saying this? “- you were in his bathrobe.”
To this, Lena let out a bolt of laughter. “My clothing was wet!” She smiled as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Earlier that day, Hawkeye and I took a quick walk around the compound. I hit an icy spot near the mess tent and...never being the graceful type...fell into what can only described as a pool of frozen slush water. Completely soaked myself through, right down to my socks,” she admitted with a sheepish grin.
“Poor Hawkeye went to my rescue but ended up just as I had.”
“Slush water?” I felt my insides clench, remembering the hanging clothing over their lantern.
“Yes, slush water. Horrible stuff too, home to all sorts of odds and ends. Not to mention freezing.
“Well, we were a bit too far from Major Houlihan's tent, so the two of us trotted toward his quarters instead - the Swamp, as Hawkeye affectionately calls it - and settled in. It wasn't until about three seconds after arriving that Hawkeye remembered most of his laundry was still with the local girl that washes clothing.
“He had himself some random pants and a sock or two left over, so we divided the treasure equally amongst ourselves. I also took his robe, because I couldn't very well go topless -” Lena cut off before embarrassing us both. She smiled awkwardly at my wide eyes, her cheeks turning a slender shade of pink. “And don't worry; Hawkeye was a perfect gentleman, surprisingly enough. He turned around to give me my privacy, something that would frighten many a nurse to hear.”
The memory of Hawkeye lying on his bunk with only a pair of pants and a sock assaulted me, and I suddenly felt ashamed. There had been a legitimate reason for his state after all.
“BJ wasn't back yet, so we couldn't very well ask to borrow his clothing. Not that either of us would have felt comfortable wearing his clothing. I've heard tales of his dirty socks standing upright and talking after a few days.
“And it goes without saying Hawkeye would never shop from the Major Burns Collection.”
I took her tale in stride, still hung up over the cheesecake bit. Where did that fit in? Strangely enough, learning the truth hadn't put my mind at ease at all. I felt rotten, yes, but something still bothered me. Perhaps the story explained the two of them being scantily clad, but the conversation I overheard -
“BJ returned from Post-OP duty about an hour or so later, and quite amused by our predicament might I add. We had hung our wet clothing over a lantern, hoping they would dry before it got too late.
“We took to playing cards to pass our time.” Lena gave a little sigh, probably thinking back on the memory. “After a bit of winning and losing on both sides, Hawkeye suggested upping the ante.”
This was it, this was the part where Lena would tell me that they had....they had...
The smile on her face was crisp and even. “I'm afraid I'm not the richest of girls, so money was out of the question. Instead, we played for each other's dog tags - a tad odd, I'll admit - but when one has nothing else to barter they work with what they have. We talked about many things - our hobbies, fond childhood memories. Turns out we have little in common with each other, but we talked anyways -” Lena chuckled despite herself, “- about many things. It was during this conversation that the subject of food came up, remembering dinnertime was fast approaching. We ended up discussing our favorite desserts.
“For me it was ice cream, for Hawkeye -”
“Cheesecake.” I volunteered breathlessly, suddenly wondering if this was all just a misunderstanding as Lena had said. “Hawkeye's favorite dessert is...cheesecake?”
She nodded her blessing, happy I was following along. “One particular variety of cheesecake that is, his then-girlfriend's version to be precise. When he was fifteen he loved it, couldn't get enough. Marianne would put a thick layer of strawberries and cream on top, Hawkeye made sure to stress. I think it was the cheesecake that kept him dating her to be honest.” A round of giggles erupted, Lena shaking her head in mock disapproval.
“That was until one day when he accompanied his friend home, where his mother had been in the kitchen baking...”
I could guess where this was going, remembering Hawkeye's words. “I-I see. So, the conversation really was about...cheesecake then.” I felt like such a fool.
“Oh, by the way...I believe you dropped this last night, Father.”
Out of her jacket pocket she drew a neatly folded piece of parchment, spotted with watermarks, but crisp as if pressed between two thick books. Katherine's letter. Had Lena taken the trouble to restore it?
I took the paper and examined it with my hands, eyes unable to focus on its details. “M-my glasses -” before I could ask, Lena offered them to me. “Uh, thank you.” I looked dully at her, wondering how to apologize for my accusations. I felt rotten.
Katherine's letter was good as new, much to my surprise. Well, as new as it could have been all things considered. Some of her words had smudged and distorted from being wet with snow, but such care had been taken to preserve the writing. The parchment was a bit stiff and uneven in texture, but otherwise just fine. I couldn't believe it.
“You know, Father -” Lena began conversationally, “- I haven't seen you around camp as much these last two weeks. Not even at meals.
“Ever since we went to visit the orphanage, you've been very distant. You didn't even stay after service last Sunday. And then, with the way you reacted last night...” She sounded mildly concerned but I feigned deaf, concentrating on the small slanted scrawl of my older sister. That old feeling of shame crept back into my heart. I couldn't tell her the truth. That I had been -
“If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were avoiding me.”
Lena laughed lightheartedly, her joke never meant to ring so true. The honesty of her statement cut like ice, and I looked away miserably.
Our tense silence sobered her immediately, eyes widening with realization. Oh, Lord, she knew.
“Oh,” Lena lowered her gaze for a moment, brow knitted together. She frowned weakly. “I see.” But no sooner had she wilted, her face once again became composed.
“Well, let's try to check your temperature again, shall we? I'm afraid we didn't get a proper reading before.”
I faltered, not knowing how to respond. Her blue eyes looked a bit watery, but she continued on her happy way, as if I had said nothing.
“Lena,” I began timorously, “Thank you so much, for this.” I gestured toward Katherine's letter. The woman regarded me with an open look for a moment, but hastily went back to what she was doing. I needed to apologize, beg her forgiveness. But my head pounded darkly instead, making me feel dizzy with regret.
What if she didn't forgive me?
Lena held out the thermometer, but I hesitantly took her wrist instead. My eyes sought hers despite my reservations. “Lena...”
Before I could say another word a knock came from the other side of my door. Without a second's delay Hawkeye waltzed through, cheerfully humming an unfamiliar tune.
“- Mmm mmmm mmm, ah - Lena, I've come to relieve you. And how is our special patient fairing this morning -?” The man caught my hand around Lena's and stopped mid-step, quirking an eyebrow. A devilish grin plastered across his face. “Well, well, what do we have here? I say, Father, don't stop on my account.” His happy little buzz made my cheeks burn four shades of red. I let go immediately.
Hawkeye winked toward Lena, “Better watch yourself; Father Mulcahy might just be a lady's man in disguise after all. Don't worry, you two, your secret's safe with me.”
“H-Hawkeye!” I blurted, humiliated. He laughed casually, twisting his mouth into another grin. I sank back down into my bunk, heart fluttering dangerously. My mind kept trying to reason it was the fever.
Lena turned to our guest despondently. “Come to relieve me?” Apparently she wasn't going to deign his joke with a response. “May I ask why, Hawkeye? I'm perfectly capable -”
“You're due in Post-OP, missy. Or have you forgotten the time in your newfound bliss?” He smiled widely, quickly feigning hurt. Pressing a hand to his chest dramatically, Hawkeye rolled his eyes skyward and sighed. “I leave your side for two minutes and you've already moved on to another man. Oh, the insanity!” He ducked just in time to avoid a slightly damp cloth pummeling toward him.
“Ooo, fiery, I like that in a doctor.”
Lena smirked momentarily before realizing I was still behind her. She glanced back in earnest, looking tired for the first time that morning. “Well, I guess Hawkeye will take it over from here.”
The woman rose and passed her friend, who waved his saucy goodbye with a few fingers and a laugh.
I felt my chest tense as Lena reached the door, knowing I had to say something. How did this keep happening to us, these little misunderstandings? The silence after Sister Teresa's orphanage had damaged our friendship enough. I didn't think it could take this, too.
Why could I never say the words I needed to say? I struggled to talk but nothing would form, and once again I felt my hand crush Katherine's letter with despair. I had to say something, this was my chance. This might be my only chance. I felt like such a coward. I felt torn between two different burdens, and my mouth quivered in trepidation. Would I never be able to speak what I needed to say?
Lena paused at the door, turning back to me, eyes hanging a bit unfocused and sad. “Merry Christmas, Father Mulcahy.”
And she was gone.