Margaret slumps against the wall of the scrub room and stares blankly at her hands, which she cannot feel.
It had been a long seventeen hours in the OR beginning at one in the morning; with Hawkeye and BJ away on R&R, it was up to her, Potter, and Charles to keep things moving on their own. They’d been lucky; no one died on the tables, nothing went wrong, things went as smoothly as they could have with half a senior staff. But after a night and a day and an afternoon of unending blood and the latent fear that they would lose a patient always under her skin, Margaret is both keyed up and unfeeling. It’s impossible to explain.
Her hands look alien, strange, disconnected. These things that are connected to her arms have the power to provide care, to offer help, give life. But one wrong move, one slip up, and they have the power to harm. And she can’t even feel them.
She startles and looks up to see Potter staring at her with concern. “I apologize, sir, I didn’t hear what you said.” She rubs her eyes with hands curled into numb fists.
“You’re all right, Major, but you really ought to get some rest.”
Margaret feels her shoulders tighten. “I’m fine, sir.”
Potter raises a hand. “Margaret, I promise I’m not putting you down when I say that. You’re understandably exhausted, which is why I’m taking you off-duty for the next 24 hours.”
“Don’t try and argue with me,” Potter says firmly, though not unkindly. “You did a great job in there today; above, beyond, and then some. Get some sleep—if anything else happens, Hawkeye and BJ will be back tonight. I don’t want to see you for the next 24 hours, and that’s an order.”
She finds herself in the shower hours or minutes later, lukewarm water pouring over her skin. She can’t feel it. All she feels are her hands shaking.
“Margaret?” a voice says quietly, and Margaret suddenly blinks to see Helen standing in front of her with a towel on her head, wrapped in her green robe. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Margaret says automatically, staring at the dark green of the tent wall behind Helen, steadying herself. If she says it out loud, maybe she’ll convince herself that it’s true.
Helen gives her a little half smile. “You know better than to kid a kidder, Houlihan.”
That’s the problem with loving someone for as long as they have—they learn your tells, the giveaways that something’s wrong.
“I’m all right, Helen,” Margaret says firmly, trying to keep the edge out of her voice. She’s certainly more fine than before, though that didn’t take much. She can at least feel her hands again.
“Honey, you walked in here without a word and stared at the tent wall for ten minutes without noticing me two feet away from you in the next stall. You’re exhausted and I’m taking you home, okay?”
Her body won’t let her protest. She wants nothing more than for Helen to take her home. That’s all she wants.
Margaret lets Helen slide her robe onto her suddenly shivering frame, and they head back to her tent, Helen locking the door behind them. Margaret sits on her cot and watches absently as Helen pulls out two t-shirts and two pairs of cotton underwear from her closet. She then kneels in front of her and gently helps her pull them on. (Only Helen would have the power to dress Margaret without making her feel infantilized or embarrassed. It’s not the first time they’ve done anything like this for each other, but here in Korea, when she's Major Margaret Houlihan, Head Nurse and not just Margaret, it feels—different.)
After pulling on her own clothes, Helen sits on the cot opposite Margaret. “You feel like talking?”
“Not particularly,” Margaret says. Her impulse is to either shrug flippantly or avoid eye contact. She goes with the latter.
“Honey, I know you’re tired, but you seem a little edgy. You wanna do something?”
It’s not a come-on; Helen knows that’s not the type of release she needs right now. Right now her hands need steadying, they need something to do; something good, something gentle.
“Will you let me braid your hair?”
Helen smiles and settles in between her legs. “Of course, sweetheart.”
Margaret focuses on braiding, quietly weaving the soft strands of Helen’s hair over and over until the plaits begin to form. It’s grounding, it forces her to focus on the task at hand rather than the dull static that threatens to overwhelm her. She can do this for Helen; she can braid her lover’s hair and let Helen know that she is cared for and that her hands give tenderness and love. It frightens her, how overwhelmed she gets sometimes. (She hides it well, she thinks, but how ironic for Major Margaret Houlihan to be afraid of fear itself.) But she can do this for Helen, for herself.
As she ties a forest-green bow at the end of each little braid, she gets the sudden and overwhelming impulse to press her lips to the nape of Helen’s neck. She kisses her, trying to steady herself, and breathes in the smell of Helen’s shampoo. This is what safety always feels like—Helen in her arms, soft and warm and present; this is always where she has felt most safe. Why can’t she feel it in her bones?
Helen, ever the mind reader, asks gently, “What’s going through that head of yours, Houlihan?”
Margaret feels like she’s going to burst into tears. She can’t explain it. “You look beautiful in green.”
Helen laughs, surprised. “Is that all? Well, why do you think I joined the army?”
Margaret laughs in response and, to her deep embarrassment, feels the tears spill down her cheeks, dripping onto Helen’s shoulder.
At that, Helen shifts position on the cot, turning to face Margaret. She cradles Margaret’s face in her hands with such gentleness that it only makes Margaret want to cry more. “Honey, I can’t help unless you tell me what’s wrong.”
“Just a—difficult day,” Margaret says, trying to control her breathing. “It’s been hard for everyone, I know.”
“Did you lose anybody on the table?”
“No, no, thank goodness, I just—” She stops. Embarrassed, she finds that even with the person she loves most in the world, she still censors herself.
It’s not like they haven’t seen each other in emotional moments before. They’ve held each other’s hair back when throwing up, hungover before early morning hospital shifts. They’ve comforted each other through breakups and used up dozens of boxes of tissues sobbing over dates who didn’t deserve their tears. They’ve seen each other at their meanest and most biting and most vulnerable. Crying in front of Helen—especially over nothing—shouldn’t make Margaret feel such shame, not now. But how can you tell the person that you stay strong for that you’re feeling weak?
The truth comes out as a sob. “This all just gets to be a lot sometimes.”
“Don’t I know it,” Helen says, and wraps Margaret in her arms. “Don’t I know it, baby.”
Margaret cries and Helen rocks her softly, quietly, without judgement. It’s a moment of warmth and safety that Margaret hasn’t felt in a long, long time.
When her breathing steadies, she sits up and tries to smile at Helen through bleary eyes. Before she can open her mouth to say anything, Helen beats her to the punch. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re sorry, Houlihan, because you’ve got nothing to apologize for.”
Helen always knows. Margaret sighs, and kisses her hands in response. “Then I’ll just say thank you. I’m just—” She shakes her head, biting back the continued impulse to apologize. “Just tired.”
“You’re exhausted. We’re all exhausted,” Helen says, curling her fingers in Margaret’s hair. “I’d be worried if you weren’t.”
“What about you?” Margaret asks, wiping away the last of her tears.
“What about me?” Helen raises an eyebrow.
Margaret is always worried about Helen, about bad habits, about—but they’re tired. Everyone is tired. And Helen is here, and safe, and in her bed, and maybe Margaret can put the worry out of her head for a moment, however brief. She opts to not push. “I just know you’re tired, too.”
Helen softens. “You know it. So why don’t we both get some rest?”
“All right,” Margaret nods, and they settle under the covers of an army cot built for one, limbs tangled as close as can be. She lays her head on Helen’s chest and is out before either of them can move to turn out the light.
She dreams of the softness of skin.
When she wakes, it’s dark outside; the sounds of this week’s movie drift from across the compound. The temperature has dropped, but she’s warm cuddled next to Helen.
Helen is already awake, reading a book borrowed from Hawkeye; some twenty year old novel Margaret had never heard of called Strange Brother. Her hair has also slipped out of the braids, the short pieces framing her face. When Margaret shifts in the cot, Helen looks down, smiling softly at her. “How’re you feeling, honey?”
(The ways Helen says honey and baby and sweetheart always threaten to break Margaret’s heart into pieces.)
“Better,” Margaret says truthfully. “Not as on edge.” (They both know there are bigger issues at play, that three hours of sleep are simply a temporary balm. But Margaret isn’t lying to Helen or to herself.)
“Good,” Helen says, putting the book down to gently stroke Margaret’s hair. “I’m glad some sleep helped.”
“I am sorry your braids slipped while we slept, though.”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I think your handiwork has been unfortunately wrecked by your pillow. Will you fix it for me again later?”
“Of course,” Margaret says, sitting up, and unweaves what’s left in the two plaits. She pauses before moving, playing absently with a strand that falls across Helen’s cheek. Sometimes she wishes they could live in moments like this, when her body is filled with such affection for Helen that she doesn’t know what else to do with it but offer her a moment of gentle touch.
“What?” Helen says after the long moment.
“Nothing,” Margaret says softly. “Sometimes it just hits me how much I’ve missed you, you know. How much I love you.”
“Honey, don’t get me started on how much I love you, or we’ll be here for the next thousand years.” Helen chuckles before pressing her lips to Margaret’s. She pulls back, taking a moment to look at her carefully. “You all right?”
Margaret never quite knows how to answer that question. “All right” is always a relative state of being. She never stops thinking about the casualties, and about Helen, and about things like dogs getting run over by jeeps and newborn babies, and about keeping her hands steady. But in this moment, with Helen in her arms looking at her with such gentleness—a gentleness that almost, not quite, but almost, masks the nervous concern underneath—Margaret can kiss her and answer honestly, “For now.”
It’s amazing how quickly she finds herself dizzy with want; Helen has always been able to draw that deep sentiment of need from her that she’s never felt on that level with anyone else. However, even with the desire pooling in her stomach, she and Helen don’t rush as they pull their t-shirts off, allowing themselves to take their time touching each other’s skin. Margaret never knows what to do with her hands when Helen’s got her mouth around her nipple, so she opts for stroking Helen’s hair between gently gasped words of praise.
“You’re too good to me, darling,” she manages as Helen moves to her other breast, making her gasp again from the sensation of her tongue against her.
Helen lifts her head and smiles sweetly, always so sweetly, up at her. “Someone’s got to remind you that you deserve to be treated well.” Her fingertips pause at the waistband of Margaret’s underwear. “You want more?”
Helen knows when to tease and when to not. This isn’t a tease. It’s a check-in, an act of care, a confirmation.
“Always with you,” Margaret says, a little too honest, a little too earnest, and Helen kisses both her breasts, then her stomach, then her knee before pulling off her underwear. She wants to temper it, to clarify, but then Helen’s head is between her legs and her tongue is moving just so and Margaret quickly forgets whatever she was going to say.
She comes with her fingers tangled in Helen’s hair, pulled under the intensity of it all like a wave crashing. It vibrates through every nerve in her body. She feels.
When she comes back to herself, Helen kisses her way up Margaret’s torso, making her shiver through the aftershocks. “Satisfactory?”
Margaret laughs breathlessly. “If that was satisfactory, I’d be damned to know what fantastic is.”
“Well, I’ll just have to get creative for the next round.”
“I’d like to return the favor first,” Margaret says, stroking the soft inside of Helen’s thighs. She can feel Helen smile against her collarbone as she wiggles out of her underwear.
“It’s all right, darlin’,” she murmurs, gasping a little as Margaret rubs her through the wetness between her legs. “All I need is your hands. Good lord, Margaret, your hands.”
They’d gotten good at this over the years—done this many times in their dormitory after lights out, after leaving late-night parties with the doctors in residency, in the early morning light of their first R&Rs when they’d both joined up. Back then it had felt a little like playing pretend, like practicing for something with men that neither of them actually wanted. They understand what this is now. Now, Helen moving soft and warm against her is all Margaret can sense, all that matters, all that feels good , all that’s real.
It’s not long before Helen gasps and presses her face into Margaret’s shoulder, skinny hips twitching as Margaret feels her throb under her fingers.
They breathe together in silence, catching their breath. For once there’s no rush, they can exist in stillness. Here, together, they’re all right. For now.
Eventually the angle in which they’re slotted together grows uncomfortable, and they move to redress and clean themselves up. “I think I’ll head out,” Helen says, pulling on a pair of Margaret’s shorts. “I’ll let you get some proper rest.”
“Do you want to stay?” Margaret asks.
Helen’s hands still at her waist. “Would you like me to?”
I’d like you to stay forever isn’t something Margaret can handle saying out loud right now. But what she can do is open her arms and wrap Helen up tight and say, “I would love nothing more.”
“Then who would I be to let you down?” Helen asks, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Of course I’ll stay.”
They turn out the light and crawl back into Margaret’s too small cot, and Helen (playing big spoon for once) curls her body around her, and Margaret tries to swallow her worries for a little while longer. There are things under the surface they both know they need to talk about, but they can wait until the morning. Helen will still be here when she wakes up.
The last thing Margaret feels before she drifts off is Helen sleepily entangling her fingers with hers, softly but firmly, as if she’ll never let her go.