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If I Should Die

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Charles Emerson Winchester III was very good at pretending not to want things.

Not the inconsequential things, of course. A return to Tokyo, a decent meal, a clean bed, a bit of intelligent conversation – he was willing to be seen pining for those. First of all, because he really did want them; it was ridiculous that the military expected people to live in squalor, be bitten by fleas and bed bugs, eat rubbish and suffer fools, and yet still be able to perform to the best of their abilities. But far more importantly, he was happy to demand these small comforts as such things made a marvelous smokescreen behind which to hide his more urgent longings.

If Charles was known as a man who demanded what he wanted - loudly - and who repeated those demands when they were not met, then who could possibly guess that he truly yearned for tired blue eyes, a smile that was half sadness and clever capable surgeon's fingers on his skin?

He was good at hiding it by now. He had to be. The other boys at school had mocked him mercilessly when he'd stared at James Conwright, the open desire on his face providing all the fodder they needed for their cruelty. They had noticed that he turned bright red when Robert Braum walked past and had not let this transgression pass without comment either. Charles had bent beneath their scorn but he had also learned from it. By the time he graduated he had been desperately in love with Christopher Farrings and nobody had even imagined it. And now, he correctly surmised, there was no one at all who would guess – correctly – that he was entirely infatuated with Hawkeye Pierce.

Pierce, Charles discovered, was even more skilled at hiding than he was. No doubt, it helped that he could surround himself with a wall of willing, pretty women. But Charles was well-versed in seeing past wives and girlfriends, wedding rings and family pictures. And he knew.

He had made his discovery when he was awoken one night by Pierce's moaning. At first, to be entirely honest, he had thought that the other man was pleasuring himself. And even though Charles had been annoyed at having his precious sleep interrupted, his own cock had stiffened at the thought. Pierce was, after all, a handsome man. Life in the Swamp provided ample opportunities to admire his particular brand of beauty, even if there was nothing beyond admiration for Charles to enjoy. He willed himself to be still, to just go back to sleep, but he couldn't help but sneak a glance at Pierce's face. To his immense relief he realized that Pierce was still asleep - dreaming no doubt - and Charles was in no danger of being caught taking an undue interest. He had been about to will away his arousal, roll over and go back to sleep, when Pierce's voice, thick with longing and regret, cut through the air.

"Trapper. Oh, Trap!"

And Charles felt a new sort of panic taking over.

He'd found a reason to mention McIntyre the next day and had listened to how Pierce talked about him. Not just the words, of course, but the tone of his voice. The slow, reluctant ache he could not verbalize. After that, he'd made a few discreet inquiries, but all they did was confirm what he'd already known.

Hawkeye Pierce had been in love with a man who hadn't loved him back. And that alone was enough to make all the differences between them fade into nothingness. From that day on, Charles had not just lusted for Pierce. He had understood him.

It was frustrating that he could never let on. Charles had read Douglas, of course; he knew all about the love that dared not speak its name. But a mere understanding that needed to be kept silent? A secret sense of hail-fellow-well-met? That seemed even more pointless.

But pointless or not, he couldn't keep himself from feeling it. Nor could he help but notice as his feelings deepened and changed. He saw how tremendously Hawkeye gave of himself to his patients; his was the dedication of a good man who cared for people simply because they were there and in need of that care. Pierce was a skilled surgeon; there was no denying that. But he was also the sort who would quietly bury himself in a small town, tending to the little people who lived there rather than using his natural gifts to soar to the top of their field. Charles may not have fully comprehended that choice, but it still warmed the last uncynical part of his heart. More than that, Charles began to notice the way that Hawkeye forced out cheery laughter, even as his voice trembled with the need to either scream or cry. That pulled at Charles in a strange sad way. As did Hawkeye's tenderness to those he loved, his moments of helpless exhaustion, his reluctant respect for Charles' skills as a doctor, his determination in the face of overwhelming odds. All of this worked its way through the cracks in the ever-weakening façade of indifference and superiority that Charles had so carefully constructed over the course of his lonely lifetime until he had to admit - if only to himself - the sad truth of his situation.

He had fallen deeply in love.

He knew nothing could come of it. To begin with, Pierce would never reciprocate Charles' affections. He had asked enough questions to get a proper picture of Trapper John McIntyre in his mind now. If what Hawkeye longed for was boyish good looks, a charming rakishness, a devil-may-care sort of attitude, then what hope could stout, comfort-loving, middle-aged Charles have? Furthermore, that was probably for the best. They lived in close quarters at the 4077 and rumors bred like rats and flies. This was not a place to keep secrets that could ruin a man, unless they were as silent as those that Charles left unspoken, tucked up close to his heart.

And there they would remain, he believed, up until the night when the bombs began to fall.

Hunnicutt was away, assisting at the M*A*S*H* 4194, a unit which had lost a talented young cutter under similar circumstances. Hawkeye was particularly unsettled - he always was thrown off balance when Hunnicutt was absent – but they were all agitated. The strike on the other hospital had shattered their fragile sense of safety and their belief that they were a non-target. That there was no point in attacking doctors, nurses and wounded apparently no longer meant that no one would try to kill them anyway. So when the 4077 began to echo with the crashes of nearby explosions, the remaining residents of the Swamp silently called an unofficial truce as both Charles and Hawkeye huddled on their bunks and privately prayed that this stinking hellhole would not be the place where they died.

Their linked hands made a bridge between their two bunks.

That would not be happening, Charles knew, if Hunnicutt were there. In his presence Pierce would have kept up his bravado, made jokes, and might have even mocked Charles if he could not hide his fear. Even through the worst of the explosions, Charles was able to feel some small shred of gladness at not to have to deal with that. He needed the hand that he held in his; it was his lifeline to the other side of that dark night.

It seemed like the little tent was shaking with every sound. They were doctors, educated men with years of hard-won knowledge accumulated in their minds. They could have saved countless lives over the courses of long careers. Why had they been sent here, with only a thin sheet of canvas between them and death?

A particularly loud crash drew a helpless whimper from Charles. He would have been ashamed in any other circumstances but Hawkeye only grasped his hand even tighter. They waited until the reverberations stopped and then Hawkeye filled the brief silence with words.

"Winchester... Charles. Listen. If I don't make it-"

"Don't." Charles couldn't stand to hear it now.

"No, please. This is important."

Another crash cut off what Hawkeye had meant to say but Charles suspected he already knew. It was the neediness in Hawkeye's voice, more than the sentiment he didn't get the chance to express, that made Charles ache. And to drive that desperation away he found himself making a dangerously foolish promise as soon as it was quiet enough for him to be heard again.

"I'll tell him. I'll find your Trapper and I'll tell him."

The long pause that followed was louder than any bomb.

"Charles?" Hawkeye's voice sounded so small.

"Yes."

An explosion cut off the possibility of further speech but that didn't matter. Charles had said what he needed to say.

He wasn't sure how many more bombs went off before Hawkeye pulled his hand away. The simple lack of contact hit Charles like a fist to the gut, but then his bunk dipped in the darkness. He moved backwards instinctively until there was enough room for Pierce to settle on the thin mattress beside him. Wordlessly, he gathered Hawkeye's thin body against his own more solid one.

This was madness and he knew it. And yet his heart was singing.

"I'm scared." Hawkeye whispered it through the dark. And Charles was too, more than he could ever say. So he didn't bother to say it, opting instead to simply cup the cheek of the man he loved. He tried to send some comfort, worthless though it may well have been, through his touch.

When their lips crashed together it felt like a hundred explosions at once.