When he walked into the hospital, Richard saw her from the back first. She was as instantly recognizable as she would've been had he seen her face. McMurphy seemed to do a dozen things at once, and all of them well—changing an IV here, checking a dosage there, holding some other wounded soldier's hand for a moment before, always, moving on.
"McMurphy," he called. Her back straightened. The pencil in her hand scrawled off the edge of whatever form was on her clipboard. "Colleen." She turned to him, slowly, her mouth open with shock. The rest of the ward grew silent. "Colleen Margaret Theresa McMurphy. That's quite a mouthful. I hope you'll still consider adding one more to the collection, though."
"What are you doing here?" she finally asked, so quietly he almost didn't hear her over the beeping and whooshing of heart monitors and ventilators.
"I was in a bar, and the jukebox started playing 'The Gal That Got Away.' It made me think of you." He started walking toward her, crossing the ward in deliberate steps. "And then I thought, the hell with that! There are lots of things that remind me of you, but I'll be damned if that's going to be one of them."
She seemed to have lost the capacity for speech by the time he reached her. Her mouth moved, but no sounds came out. He looked at the small crowd that had appeared, fishing for rumor mill grist. "Much as I appreciate an audience, do you want to move the conversation I mean to have with you somewhere a little more private?"
"I'm on duty," she finally managed to blurt out. She held the metal clipboard in front of her like a shield.
"Hell, McMurphy, if there was ever a time to skive off, it's now," the attending, Dr. Sutter, grumbled. Richard knew he'd liked him. He had good instincts for a gastroenterologist. "Get outta here."
"But—" she tried to protest, but Sutter took the clipboard from her weakening grip. Lieutenant Kass shoved her toward Richard, and then the other three nurses standing nearby started chivvying her as well.
"But I—" she protested again. They ignored her, as well they should. "I can't—"
"Out!" Sutter yelled as the nurses finally delivered her to Richard.
He took her hand, and it seemed to break the last of her resistance. He tugged, gently, and she walked beside him through the swinging doors into the late afternoon sun, so much hotter and brighter here than in Boston. Had he really forgotten how red her hair was in this sun?
She stopped walking just as they stepped on the helipad, and he turned to face her. Her brow was furrowed, evidence of her curious mind gnawing at a problem. "I don't understand," she said.
"What's there to understand?"
"Why you're here! You were DEROSed, how did you..."
"Special dispensation. Don't worry, I didn't enlist. One tour was enough for me. I came to see you."
"But I—I've only got three days left!"
"That's lucky—I've only got three days here myself. That was all my former partner's wife's uncle could get me." He shrugged at her surprised look. "I didn't have many strings to pull, but believe me, I yanked the hell out of the ones I had."
She was shaking her head, eyes wide, like someone seeing Bigfoot or a UFO. "McMurphy," he said, and squeezed her hand. "Believe it. I'm really here."
Suddenly she was in his arms, the impact almost taking his breath away, and he'd never welcomed it more. He hung on, lifting her to her toes—he'd forgotten McMurphy was small; she loomed so large in his mind, took up so much mental real estate, that it seemed physical size should follow—and curled his fingers into the rough green fabric of her fatigue jacket.
She buried her face in his neck, her short, shaky breaths warm across his collarbone. He pressed his lips to her temple before dropping his mouth, whispering into the hair that covered her ear. "I missed you."
"Missed you too," she murmured, so low he felt it more than heard it.
"I never wanted to miss you."
His collar was getting damp, and it wasn't because of the humidity. He closed his eyes, which weren't particularly dry themselves right at the moment, and rested his cheek against McMurphy's soft hair. It smelled good, a light fruit scent he'd sometimes caught a hint of while they worked next to each other in the OR. He'd always assumed it was some distinctly non-government-issue shampoo, some small indulgence sent by her mother or possibly bought from K.C. Maybe he'd find out someday. Someday soon.
For a long, long moment, they just held each other. The choppers had the grace to stay away for a while, even.
But they weren't going to stay away forever, and he knew if one arrived while he and McMurphy were still there, he'd have no chance of tearing her away from the incoming casualties.
"Come on," he said when he could bring himself to let her go. "I know a place on the beach. Cozy, quiet, secluded..."
"Boonie still keeps the equipment in the equipment shack," she said before she turned and scrubbed her forearm over her eyes.
"I was actually thinking of the lifeguard tower."
She raised her eyebrows. "Lead on, then."
He took her hand and started walking.
Boonie was actually using the lifeguard tower, so they claimed a stretch of beach separated by a large rock formation from the GI's cavorting in the sun and surf. Only the occasional hoot or yell reached them over the sound of the waves.
The sun was slowly rolling down behind them, causing shadows to creep across McMurphy's creased brow and pursed lips. She had pulled her hand from his as they walked, and she didn't take his invitation to sit next to him, instead settling a good three feet away.
"What about your kids?" she asked as she folded her legs under her. "What about Beth Ann? Don't you need to..."
"Beth Ann's mother's been helping out while she got back on her feet. She's going to make a full recovery after the physical therapy. And Doug—" he gritted his teeth reflexively "—is actually rather good with the kids. Like a big, strong, Golden Retriever puppy."
He watched McMurphy's face carefully and was rewarded with the slightest upward twitch of her lip. "I stayed with them at first, of course, when we weren't sure if she was going to make it or not. Now that she's mobile, we've gone to the every-other-weekend schedule." He shrugged. "It could be worse, I suppose." It had been, not very long ago.
She nodded once, sharply. "Richard. Why are you here?"
"Why do I feel like this is an inquisition rather than a reunion?" he snapped.
She curled into herself at the words, pulling her knees up to her chest, her arms clasping over her shins. Silence expanded between them.
"I wasn't going to look you up when I got back," she finally said.
His heart thumped painfully. He'd known, of course, known all too well the self-sacrificing streak in her that was wider than the Amazon, but hearing it hurt all the same.
Her eyes turned to flint. "We agreed. We were just going to leave it be."
"Because we were idiots!" he exclaimed.
The look she gave him was as scornful as any he'd been the recipient of in the hospital, and this time there wasn't even a mask to soften it. "What a brilliant observation. And so quickly made! Spoken like a doctor."
"Spoken like a man who's in love with a woman too stubborn for her own good."
He could see the words hit like mortar shells; her back stiffened and her shoulders hunched as she gasped with the impact.
"And I know you felt the same way, or you wouldn't have said yes that night," he said, his voice cracking with the weight of his certainty.
Her mouth twisted with something she couldn't voice, and he thought he saw the glitter of tears in her eyes. "Richard..."
"Maybe now it's different," he forced himself to say. "If it is, then I'll lea—no, that's not true." He leaned toward her. "I think you still feel it, and I'm going to be the gigantic pain in the ass you always accused me of being until you admit it."
He'd seen the pale, wide-eyed expression on her face before when their flirting got a little too personal, and he'd never been sure if it was wonder or horror. He'd lay even odds on them both right now.
"McMurphy, the past three months without you...it's been like all the colors got turned down. I don't want to spend the rest of my life like that. You're my best friend. Here, out there..." He shrugged. "In a house, with a mouse."
She was silent for a long moment. "In a box, with a fox?"
The wobbliest beginning of a smile touched her mouth before she looked down at her knees. When she looked back up at him, it was gone. "I'm a different person in the world. At least—I think I am." She bit her lip. "I hope I am," she whispered so softly he could barely hear her.
"So am I. Everyone is. The world's different, too. More than I thought it would be. The hemlines are shorter, the hair's longer, the music's..." He paused at her disparaging look. "The protests are new." He looked down at his lap and swallowed hard. "Roger barely recognized me when I got back."
McMurphy's unfailing compassion always made her look like a Renaissance painting of an angel, missing only the gold-leafed halo. He headed her off before she could turn the conversation off the path he'd finally got it on. "Maybe the people we are in the world won't fit together like we do here. But I can't imagine it would hurt more to find out than to never know."
He scooted across the sand to her, crablike, probably looking extraordinarily ridiculous in the slacks and tie he’d worn for the plane ride from Travis AFB. Who the hell cared? He'd crawl like a baby to reach her if he had to. He knelt before her and put his hands on her knees. "Don't you think so?"
She shook her head. "No."
His heart fell. His stomach fell. Gravity rearranged all of his internal organs into a new configuration of despair. No?
"I can't imagine it could be worse than the last three months without you here."
Glory to God and all those saints and angels she believed in.
With something between a laugh and a yell he pulled her to him. She sprang forward, and they almost ended up toppling over onto the sand. They kissed desperately, like people who had—well, like people who had missed each other for far too long.
Colleen sighed when they finally broke apart, the shaky, guttural sound mirroring the shudder that went through her body and sending an electric charge straight to his groin. She opened her eyes and looked at him from under her eyelashes, which only intensified the effect. "I swear," she said, "if you say we should wait..."
"Will you still love me tomorrow?" he joked instinctively, before he caught his breath.
She caught hers too, but then she nodded slowly. "Yes."
He touched her face, tracing two fingers down her cheek. "Then there's no point in waiting, is there?"
"Nope," she whispered. He leaned in to kiss her again.
The sound of helicopter blades broke the air.
Richard felt her chin tilt in his hand as they both looked up. Two choppers made a beeline for the hospital above their heads—no, three choppers—no, four, five—was that a sixth bringing up the line out over the ocean?
"I haven't seen that many since Tet," he yelled over the noise, but McMurphy was already standing up. "Where are you going?" he cried as she started jogging away.
"I'm still on duty!" she called over her shoulder.
You've got to be kidding me, he thought as he pushed himself off the sand and ran after her. I hate this war.
She raised her eyebrows when he caught up with her on the hill above the hospital. "I'm going to regret this," he said as he started loosening his tie.
She smirked. "Probably."
The sun was just peeking out on the other side of the sky when they finally finished treating the last of the walking wounded. The entire night had escaped under the onslaught of casualties from a surprise attack on a firebase. They'd lost too many of them, but at least one, a nineteen-year-old from Wyoming who'd been triaged yellow with shrapnel wounds but then had stopped breathing when a piece in his neck moved into his trachea, had lived because of the extra pair of hands Richard provided. The familiar mixture of pride in his work and horror that it was necessary in the first place trickled through him as he and McMurphy pushed through the swinging doors to the dusty helipad.
She gave him a weary smile as they stood blinking in the breaking dawn. Under his hastily-donned scrubs, he was as soaked as if he'd taken a swim; the way her hair curled at the ends suggested the same of her. Pulling out the neck of his shirt, he took a cautious sniff. "I don't think this undershirt is coming back with me," he said wryly.
She laughed, but it was such a tired sound that it came out more like a wheeze. She swayed slightly where she stood, and he realized he wasn't all that stable himself. They needed to get to bed.
I watch you go off to your tent, and it feels all wrong, like we ought to be going home together.
"Um," he started. "My special dispensation didn't exactly come with a bunk attached."
She shrugged. "I know a place."
The women's quarters were dark and quiet when they arrived. Almost everyone had been involved in dealing with the influx of casualties, and they were either asleep after the long night or not yet back.
McMurphy's room was a lot cleaner than he remembered it being. Most of her belongings were in boxes, ready to be shipped back home. Kansas. Or maybe...
He felt her fingers fumbling at the knot keeping his scrub cap on. "McMurphy?" he asked as she pulled it off. He turned and gave her a questioning look.
"Just helping. You looked kind of catatonic there for a minute."
Her fingertips found the neck of his shirt, and his made their way to the hem of her own. For a moment, they just stared at each other.
Finally, he laughed, and she did as well. Her forehead came to rest against his shoulder as her body shook with borderline-hysterical amusement. When she looked up at him again, he said, "The spirit is willing, but..."
"The flesh is exhausted." She shook her head. "Damn."
"I guess we're waiting anyway."
Reluctantly, they parted and turned away from each other to change. Richard replaced his undershirt and added a pair of pajama pants. Although he was intensely curious about what McMurphy wore to bed, he decorously kept his back turned until she said, sounding amused, "Don't worry, I'm decent."
McMurphy, it turned out, wore an Army-issue t-shirt and a very thin pair of underpants to bed. And nothing else. "It's hot in here," she said in response to his raised eyebrow.
Wasn't it just.
They crawled into a bed that had definitely not been made for two people. To keep from falling off the sides, they had to lie pressed against each other like books on a shelf. He supposed the way their legs tangled together was their own fault.
McMurphy's breasts brushed against his chest every time she took a breath, and her hip, where the t-shirt had ridden up, curved so invitingly in the milky sunshine starting to come through the window that he was helpless to resist resting his palm on the swell. He couldn't imagine how he'd ever thought she was one of the guys.
"Colleen," he said quietly, looking into sleepy eyes that were barely an inch from his own. He could get used to saying that name. From the soft glow of happiness that lit her face, it looked like Colleen could get used to hearing it. "On the subject of waiting..."
"This is temporary," she interrupted. "Extenuating circumstances." A yawn split her face.
He laughed softly. "Believe me, I know." He squeezed her hip, his thumb slipping under the elastic of her underwear to brush the soft, pale skin underneath. "Anyway, there isn't a priest within a hundred miles—at least, not one that speaks English." She was struggling to keep her eyes open. "But I don’t seem to have any patience about this, and we're both about to fall asleep, so..."
"For a man with no patience, you're taking a long time to get to the point."
He narrowed his blurring eyes, which had no effect on her deadpan expression, at least not until another yawn broke it. "What?" she slurred from behind her knuckles.
"Will you—" Now a yawn of his own, half-covered by his curled hand, cut off the question. There had to be less romantic ways to ask this, he reflected, but at the moment he couldn't think of any. "Will you marry me, someday?"
She blinked. For a minute, he wasn’t sure she'd heard, if maybe her hearing was as muddled by exhaustion as his sight, but then her fingers twitched on his clavicle, smoothing along the line of the bone. "Yes," she said.
What a beautiful sound, that word, especially from her. He hadn't heard anything that lovely since the last time she'd said it, on that night when, for the first time since he'd arrived in Vietnam, everything made sense.
He grew bold. "Someday soon?"
That was a giggle, he was pretty sure. "Yes."
"I like hearing you say that."
"Don't get too used to it," she murmured as her eyes slid closed.
Despite the heat, he shifted closer to her. He was going to hold on this time, he vowed, just before he finally dropped into sleep. They weren't going to miss each other again.