Bernie Wolfe steps back onto British soil three days after Elinor Campbell dies. The ward she finds upon her return is nothing like the one she left. Bernie wasn’t expecting a fanfare, never expected much, but this… This is something else.
She didn’t know at first, didn’t know about it, about any of it. Who in the world would have told her? Serena stopped e-mailing, texting, making any attempt at contact weeks, maybe months ago. She never talked much to anyone else. So Bernie woke up in the middle of the night in Kiev to the phone ringing, picked it up to Hanssen’s clipped tone.
“Ms. Wolfe,” he said, voice as even as ever, “I’m afraid your time in Ukraine needs to come to an end. We need you back here.”
She stumbled to her feet, brushed her fringe out of her eyes, pulled her old travel bag out of the back of her closet and tried to ignore how many empty bottles clanged to the ground from the movement. It didn’t take her very long to pack.
Raf is running things, in Serena’s departure. Barely holding things together might be a better way of phrasing that. He looks at her with dead eyes when she walks back onto the floor of AAU, no smile, no word of welcome, shoves a chart in her hands and stalks off. Fletch is just as cold, maybe worse, and she can’t think of a single reason to hold it against either of them. Even Morven, lovely sweet Morven, Morven who has a smile for everyone, has nothing but a distant look for her. Bernie nods, doesn’t attempt to add anything to the silence. Knows there’s no point.
She does listen, however. Listens to everyone, whenever they don’t think she can hear them, Bernie’s always wondered at that, how poor gossips assume everyone else’s hearing to be. Or perhaps they just don’t care.
She learns scrap by scrap, pieces them together and does her best to sift through the obviously-exaggerated, the lurid gossip, and find the truth. Elinor was fighting with Serena, that much was sure, and from the number of times Bernie hears it repeated, she’s fairly certain the fight was about her.
She rounds her shoulders and keeps her mouths shut and does her best to be the best surgeon, the best co-lead she can be. She can’t be anything more.
She comes to work early and leaves late and she spends her time outside the hospital doing her best to numb the pain. Whiskey, of course. Vodka occasionally. (Never, ever wine). She stands outside in the chill January air and draws in lungfuls of smoke, plays with getting her fingers too close to the tip of the fag, not quite close enough to burn. She cannot, will not, feel sorry for herself. She looks at her face in the mirror and sees no one deserving of sympathy. No, the person here who needs sympathy is Serena. And Bernie wasn’t even here to give her that.
She sits on her sofa, all the lights off, hasn’t bothered with a glass, lets the square bottle hang down between her legs and tries to imagine how it would feel, if it were Cam, if it were Charlotte. She knows she doesn’t get close, will never ever get anywhere close to understanding how Serena feels unless, god forbid, it happens to her.
Elinor’s funeral comes and goes. Bernie watches the ward so the others can go. The ones who earned the right to be there, who didn’t revoke it. She sends anonymous flowers and when she goes up to roof for a cigarette in the middle of her shift she bangs her fist against the rough surface of one of the little outcroppings and tells herself the tears welling in her eyes are because of the pain.
She combs through the incident reports. Again, again, again. Wonders if it would've been different if she had been there. Would she have double checked Jasmine's work? Could she have saved Elinor's life? The answer is maybe, probably not, but maybe. Maybe is enough. She wraps the guilt around her like a cloak, pulls it tight and knows it's more than she deserves.
Serena comes back to work, too soon, not soon enough. Bernie hardly recognises her, the shell of the woman she once was. She wonders if the laughter will ever return to those beautiful brown eyes, knows in that instant that if it does she won’t be the one to put it there. Serena freezes when she sees her and Bernie wonders for a single awful moment if she’s going to yell at her right then and there. And then her eyes slide over her past her, onto something or someone else like she isn’t even there and that’s much, much worse.
Bernie watches Serena from the sidelines whenever Serena can’t see her. She tracks her movements, notices all the little things that nobody else does. Nobody knows Serena like she does, Bernie thinks. And what is she supposed to do, now, with all those little facts about Serena? The unimportant ones, like how her breath hitches when Bernie kisses her and how soft her hair is and her absolute favourite mug from which to drink coffee and her favourite mug for tea because they’re different, of course. Who is she supposed to tell Serena’s favourite brand of shiraz and which of her blouses she feels most beautiful in?
She doesn’t tell anyone. But she uses what knowledge she has to keep an eye on her, to make sure that she’s okay. Of course she’s not okay.
Serena finds Bernie sitting at her desk, having just opened the drawer holding her secret stash of shiraz. It’s the first time they’ve been in the office at the same time since, well, the echo of ‘don’t go’ sounds through Bernie’s mind and she feels more wretched than she ever thought she could.
“I’m trying to help you, Serena,” she says, voice earnest, pleading.
“Don’t be ridiculous Ms. Wolfe,” Serena sneers, somehow puts more contempt into that honorific than Bernie ever thought possible. “You weren’t even here for me when things were good.”
Bernie goes home and pours herself a glass of whiskey and tells herself she doesn’t have a fucking leg to stand on. Pot, kettle...
Bernie throws away the rest of the bottle and doesn’t buy another one. Tells herself that AAU doesn’t need two consultants drinking themselves to sleep every night. Tells herself that she needs to be on top form for Serena. Tells herself that this needs to stop.
She stops drinking but she doesn’t stop feeling guilty and she certainly doesn’t stop watching Serena.
She pulls Jasmine aside and whispers to her quietly that she can come to her with any issues she has with Ms. Campbell. No need to bother Mr. Hanssen, she, Bernie, can take care of it all. She does her best to shield Serena. She knows Serena’s in the wrong, knows it beyond a shadow of a doubt but she doesn’t give a damn. She’ll protect Serena from anything, anyone, anywhere. She’s never claimed to be a good person anyway. Absent mother, cheater, liar, why not add to the list? At least now it’s for a cause, greater than she’ll ever be. Serena needs her, she tells herself every morning, every day. Bernie won’t let her down now.
Bernie runs up to the roof with her heart in her throat, shoulders the door in with all her might, feels like she might cry when she sees Serena: safe as can be, drinking and smoking with a blanket on her lap and headphones in her ears. She needs to remember she doesn’t have the right to be relieved.
Still, she can’t help the feeling.
She stands back, near the door, watches Serena talk to Jasmine, reassure her and squeeze her hand. She listens to Fletch ask Serena what her plans are, where she’ll go, if she’s going to come back.
“I hope so,” Serena says and Bernie wishes more than anything in the world that she were saying it to her.
Serena leaves to find herself.
Bernie stays in Holby and wonders if she has ever known where she was.
Thankfully, there’s surgery. She’s been using trauma as a distraction her entire life, she’s not stopping now.
She does her best to stick it out, to stay at Holby. She shoulders the burden of AAU quietly, accepts Ric’s take over of the ward without comment. She shows up and she works hard and she tries to stay away from politics, from clashes, from anything more. She tells herself that she must stay at Holby because Holby is Serena’s home and one day Serena will come back and she must must be there when she returns.
Bernie stands with her hands clasped behind her back at Jasmine Burrows’ funeral and wonders what Serena will say that Bernie couldn’t keep this one safe either. She sorrows for a life gone too soon
Her resolve to stay wanes more and more each passing day.
The trauma bay is the last straw. A blow barely felt. She doesn’t say anything when Henrik gives her the news, stays silent when the machines are hauled away. This was her trauma bay, yes, but more importantly this was Serena’s trauma bay. Their trauma bay. The only thing Bernie had left of their time together. She thinks of high fives and lingering glances and then she thinks about fresh starts.
She goes to Sudan, keeps going from there. Bernie used to think war was the worst of humanity, the aftermath teaches her better. She works her fingers to the bone, thinks of nothing but the job, gets to know those she works with only ever as casual acquaintances, a beer after work perhaps, a quip in theatre, never anything more.
“You need to eat more,” one of her fellow surgeons says to her when he comes to sit beside her in mess one day. Benjamin? No, Benton. Canadian. Former army, just like her. “You’re skin and bones, man. Not much point healing others if you can’t keep yourself in one piece doing it, eh?”
Bernie hadn’t noticed how loose her clothes were hanging on her frame these days. For an instant, she dreams of calorie-laden booze and pasta, Italian restaurants with wine lists as long as her arm and buttery, flaky—medicinal, of course—pastries the morning after. She shakes the thought away and nods at the man. “Fair point,” she says.
It’s amazing how life continues on. Bernie’s always thought that. She gets older and a bit more tired and her knees hurt more now when she runs. She works, as hard as ever, finds that there’s always someone else to help, someone else in need.
Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, she looks up at the stars from wherever she is and thinks of something other than disease and famine and war. She thinks of true loves, and great loves, and how she can no longer stand the taste of shiraz. She thinks that if everyone has just one love of their life she’s been lucky enough to have hers. And sometimes, in the quiet and the darkness, she wishes for more time.
She doesn’t count the years, but she tries to count the good that she does. She tries to smile a little more and reach out a little more and live her life better than she did before.
Bernie takes a couple of weeks leave, comes back to England to meet her first grandchild. Charlotte and Amanda had a beautiful baby girl and as Bernie holds the delicate creature close to her chest she thinks about the fact that Serena will never get this moment, will never get to hold her daughter’s child. The thought takes her by surprise, she doesn't let herself think of Serena very often. Her breath catches in her throat, she can feel tears pricking at her eyes. She hears Charlotte ask if she's okay and Bernie nods, lets her think these tears are for her, for the baby, not for a woman she's never met—a woman Bernie barely knew.
Bernie goes for a walk through the streets of Holby and admits to herself that she thinks of Serena more than she admits. She thinks of her every time she sees a beautiful cleft chin, every time she hears someone order shiraz, every time she sees a woman with short brown hair and thinks 'oh, that could be her'. But Serena's hair would be grey now, Bernie thinks, and her time in Bernie's life is long past.
She has to retire, eventually. She’s spent too many decades in war zones and her body is beginning to show the signs of it. She moves to Bridport, learns to love standing on the cliffs and watching the waves crash onto rocks below. She feels… free here, like she’s standing on the edge of the world. She feels as full of possibility as she ever has. She buys a little house and learns how to garden and with Charlotte in Exeter and Cameron in Southampton she can see her grandkids whenever she wants. She’s got five of them now, doesn’t feel really old enough to have any at all.
Her life is quiet and peaceful and beautiful and Bernie realises, after a few months, that she never really prepared for this. Rest and quiet sits uneven on her shoulders. She’s still RAMC, at the end of the day, she thinks. The Army ingrained into her very being in a way that will never leave. She faced the thought of her own death enough to be comfortable with it, matter of fact about it. She never really thought about retirement. She watches her body acquire new wrinkles with detached fascination and sometimes she thinks about what Serena must look like these days. Laughter lines creasing about her eyes deeper for sure, Bernie thinks, those lines around her mouth too. Bernie hopes she still smiles like she used to, now, hopes that wherever she went to find herself worked. Hopes she’s happy, hopes she’s found peace.
Bernie paints her sitting room and buys new curtains and only sometimes thinks about what it would be like to share it all with someone.
It’s summer now and Bernie has very happily agreed to give Charlotte and Amanda a kid-free week. Quinn is five now, almost six, her younger sister Isobel just turned one. Bernie still feels, sometimes, like she hasn’t done enough for her children, hasn’t made up for the iniquities of her past. Her kids don’t seem to mind, have moved past the baggage of the long ago. But Bernie knows that she will feel the guilt of those days to her grave. She will carry a lot of guilt to her grave. She looks at Quinn, so like Charlotte when she was that age, feels a little twinge of sadness for the wrongs she’ll never be able to fix.
They go to the farmers market to buy some fruit because that is who Bernie is now. She goes to the farmers market and remembers to eat the food in her fridge before it goes off, and sometimes looks like she might almost have her life together. She misses work and stress and teetering on the edge of dysfunction but this, this is nice. Will be nice when she gets used to it.
She’s picking out peaches, Isobel on her hip, when she looks up all of a sudden, makes eye contact with someone across the way and Bernie thinks she feels her heart stop in her chest.
There is no way, there is absolutely no way that those are the brown eyes she is thinking of. Lots of people have brown eyes, Bernie thinks. Many, many people and there is no way that those brown eyes are here, at a little farmers market in Dorset at 8 am on a Saturday morning.
She tears her eyes away, turns back to the peaches and doesn’t look up until she hears a murmur: her name.
Bernie looks up to see kind brown eyes and a tentative smile and short grey hair that suits Serena very, very well. Because it is Serena. Someway, somehow, and Bernie has to stop herself from reaching to touch her. Stroke her arm or clasp her shoulder, or do anything to prove that it’s her, here, now. Real and concrete and here.
She looks good, Bernie thinks.
She looks beautiful and ethereal.
She looks like everything Bernie has never let herself want.
“Hi,” Bernie says.
“Are you an’ Nana friends?” that’s Quinn, worming her way between them to look up at Serena. Serena looks at Bernie for a moment, shocked, mouths the word ‘Nana’. Bernie shrugs.
“Ummm,” Serena says in response to Quinn’s question and Bernie speaks up before Serena can say something heart-wrenching and awful like ‘once’ or ‘we used to be’.
“Yes,” Bernie says. Tells herself it’s just for the sake of the child. Tries not to notice how Serena smiles at the word.
“I’m Quinn,” Quinn says.
“Hello Quinn,” Serena says crouching down and reaching out one hand, “I’m Serena.”
“How do you know Nana?” Quinn asks.
“We used to work together,” Serena says, standing back up. “A very long time ago.”
Serena’s looking at her now and Bernie can’t look away. She feels awkward, completely unprepared to be standing in front of Serena, any words she might want to say dying on her tongue.
She feels like she’s been preparing for this moment for years.
“May I?” Serena asks then, holds her hands out to the baby girl and Bernie hands her over. Serena tucks her against her side and the baby holds one chubby hand out to grasp at Serena’s hair. “What’s her name?” Serena asks.
“Isobel,” Bernie says quietly.
“Hello Isobel,” Serena coos, tugging at her toes. Isobel looks completely entranced by Serena and Bernie knows exactly how she feels.
“She, um,” Bernie stops, takes a breath, tries again. “She’s named for Charlotte’s wife’s aunt or something but they let me choose her middle name…” Bernie trails off, tries so hard to take a deep breath and just say the words. “Her name, um, Serena, her name is Isobel Elinor Dunn.”
Serena chokes at that, a quiet little sound and Bernie suddenly realises how it could seem. How grossly had she overstepped? “I’m sorry I didn’t, I didn’t think—”
“Bernie,” Serena cuts her off. “Thank you, I’m honoured.” A breath, then, “Elinor would be honoured.”
She smiles at Bernie and Bernie can feel herself smiling back. She’s never smiled at anyone in her life as much as she’s smiled at Serena.
“Nana’s-friend-Serena,” those first words spill out in a jumble as Quinn breaks through their silence, “do you wanna come make biscuits with us?”
“Biscuits?” Serena asks, quirks her lips at Bernie. “Has someone graduated from take away then?”
“Barely,” Bernie replies. “But I can generally manage to make a couple of batches of biscuits without burning down the house.”
It feels… well, she doesn’t really know how it feels, to be standing here with Serena, bantering with Serena, talking and smiling with Serena.
“Well Quinn,” Serena says, “that’s a very kind offer but I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“It’s not,” Bernie bites her lip, “it’s not an intrusion,” she says. Quiet and plain. Wonders if she would beg Serena to come, knows in that instant she would.
But Serena doesn’t make her beg. Just says, “Okay,” lets Quinn lead the way and follows without another word.
They walk along the narrow streets to Bernie’s house and when Bernie pushes the door open, lets them all inside, she realises it’s the first time she’s thought of this place as home.