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The Return

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Serena ends the call, her eyes closed, her heart heavy.

The view from her window is jarring after hearing the news from Hanssen. The rows and rows of vines, bare now after the harvest, stretch as far as the eye can see.

Serena tries to calm her breathing by remembering the happy hours spent clipping grapes into her basket. The sun beating on her bare forearms. The melodious French spoken around her. The easy smiles of the workers at lunchtime.

Her fingers instinctively seek out the pendant at her throat, and her mind stills. She’s not used to the unfamiliar shape yet, but it brings a smile to her face before her heart skips.

She’s going to have to tell Bernie. Bernie who is half a world away in Sudan.

The tears come suddenly and she hugs herself, a ragged sob escaping her lips.

Raf, dead. Her dear friend left to die alone in a lift.

She clutches her knees, tears falling on her lap. It’s hard no to imagine it, the blood seeping out, the colour leaving Raf’s cheeks, his eyes closing for the last time.

Had he been scared? In the end? All alone in his last moments?

Serena lets her grief out and it’s like ripping off a bloody bandage. Her therapist in France, a lovely young woman called Marie that has a charming southern accent, has encouraged her to express herself, be it through conversation or writing. Serena is hard pressed to find the appropriate words to describe the unfairness she feels.

Raf was the sweetest friend one could hope for and Serena is already thinking about him in the past tense and it hurts and Serena can’t breathe.

Night is falling over the hills, the sky purple, and Serena can’t believe she’s going to have to mourn someone else so soon.

Raf’s funeral is in a few days. Serena looks around the living room. There are books, photos, reminders that she has built a life here. She hadn’t planned on coming back to Holby so soon, had planned on waiting until Bernie’s tour was over in a couple of months. But Hanssen had sounded so broken on the phone.

Her house is let on a month to month basis, and there is nothing tying her here apart from fond memories and an easy peace.

It’s time to go home and get her hands dirty. After months of rebuilding herself, she feels ready to be strong for others.

*

When Bernie calls one evening with the news that the trauma bay has been closed, Serena’s first instinct is to invite her to France. She can hear Bernie’s wariness, her anger, her sadness. She can’t believe Hanssen offered hip replacement surgeries to Bernie Wolfe. It would be like forcing Mozart to play the same tune over and over again.

Bernie needs trauma, the thrill, the excitement, the challenge, and she’s obviously not going to get it at Holby City anymore.

“Come here. Think for a while,” she says firmly.

They speak a few times a week, in the evenings after Bernie’s shifts and after Serena’s days amongst the fields and vines.

The first conversations were difficult, Bernie wary not to push, Serena unsure at what she should be feeling, at how she should rebuild herself. One thing was clear however: they were going to get through this together. After two months of radio silence where Serena had cried herself to sleep every night, the resolve was there. Bernie was part of her life. Would always be. So she picked up the phone, made the first call, smiled at Bernie’s relief.

The calls vary. Some are full of tears. Others are fun and light. A few are even hot and heavy, Serena gasping in bed with her hand down her pyjama shorts, Bernie’s voice low and filthy in her ear.

That evening Bernie doesn’t even let one second go by before she says yes, she will come. Serena’s heart flutters. They haven’t seen each other in 6 months.
*

Bernie cries when she finds out about Raf. Not great sobs, like Serena, but her voice is wet and her words are all jumbled, and Serena closes her eyes and wants to reach out and hold Bernie close.

At least the line is clear and Bernie seems relatively alone.

They hang on to medical vocabulary, the exact cause of death, to put a bit of distance, but then Bernie mentions the Fletchlings and Serena hears a choked whimper on the other end. Serena soothes the best she can, having the benefit of a couple of hours. She feels calmer now, Bernie’s grief making her set aside her own.

“I’m going to the funeral,” she says.

“Of course. I’m sorry I can’t be with you,” Bernie replies, and her voice is steadier.

The Sudan tour is 4 months non stop. They both knew when Bernie signed up, and, short of a family death, Bernie isn’t going anywhere. The work she is doing is important and she loves it, but the regret in her voice is welcome nonetheless.

“I’m thinking of staying. In Holby. Hanssen…he didn’t sound like he was coping,” Serena says, her voice tight at the memory of the call.

Bernie doesn’t sound surprised. They have talked about their plans for when Bernie comes back in the spring. Jason is still in Holby and Serena wants to make another go at it, misses him terribly despite weekly Skype calls. They’ve discussed moving in together, buying somewhere that doesn’t have memories.

A clean slate.

“You feel ready?” Is all Bernie asks.

“Yes.” And Serena’s voice is strong.

*

Serena feels like a teenager again as she waits for Bernie at the train station in Avignon. The heat is oppressive. Everyone is in shorts or dresses. It’s still the summer holidays in France, the last week, in fact, and there are gaggles of kids running around harassed-looking parents.

The station doesn’t have air conditioning and Serena can feel beads of sweat running down her back, her dress sticking to her skin. She tries to remember if Bernie has ever seen her in a dress, flushes when she imagines Bernie’s dark eyes taking her in.

The train is late, something about a faulty signal. Serena’s French is vastly improved, almost fluent, but she still has issues with non face-to-face interactions, like phone calls or announcements. There is a collective resigned sigh when the delay climbs up to 20 minutes.

Serena’s nerves go up a notch. What if Bernie finds her too changed? Serena knows she’s harder, a little more reserved. Phone calls, even though frequent, might not have given Bernie the full picture.

There’s a burst of laughter to her right and Serena turns to see a young couple stealing kisses under the arrivals board. The man is looking at his partner with adoring eyes.

Serena shift on her feet, a hand playing with her pendant, the other carding through her hair.

What if Bernie also finds her too changed physically? She’s stopped dying her hair. First because she couldn’t be bothered, could hardly shower some days. Then because she liked it. Bernie used to sink her hands in her hair, would tug just above her nape when they kissed.

The couple walk towards the exit, hand in hand in their own bubble of happiness.

Serena switches her bag from one shoulder to the other, straightens her dress. Frowns. She’s lost weight, not a lot, but enough to be noticeable. She had trouble eating when she arrived in France.

Food has always been a pleasure. Wine, desserts, indulgent things especially. But pleasure had felt too decadent, even indecent after Elinor’s death.
When she’d resurfaced after those two dark months, Serena had looked at her gaunt figure and started cooking again. Healthy food, juicy tomatoes full of sunshine, warm bread from the bakery, elaborate salads.

She’s at the slimmest she’s ever been. Bernie had liked her curves though. Had heaped praised upon her breasts, her hips. Had worshipped her curves.

Serena hopes she will still love her body. She’s tanned and toned after hours of work in the fields. She’s picked lemons, olives, and is preparing for the grape harvest.

Her hand is back at her pendant. What if they can’t make it work? The very thought makes Serena’s blood run cold.

The cool tones of another announcement ring clear throughout the station. Bernie’s train is pulling up.

Serena breathes in deeply.

*

The house doesn’t take long to pack up. Jean, Serena’s landlord, boss and friend, helps her with her boxes. He huffs and puffs as he loads Serena’s possessions into a lorry bound for England, but Serena knows it’s all for show and that he’s sad she’s leaving.

When the last box is gone, Serena looks around a final time. She smiles at all the memories, is proud at how far she’s come.

The house is empty and silent, only a shell now and not the place where she’s learnt to live again.

Jean calls out from outside and Serena whispers a “thank you” before she locks up for the last time.

She lets tears fall down her cheeks on the way to the station. Jean, ever the gentleman, pretends not to notice, only pats her thigh at red lights.

*

Serena cranes her neck as the first passengers stream through the gates, heart hammering in her chest. She feels a little faint, blood rushing in her ears.

She spots blond hair and takes a few steps, her teeth worrying her bottom lip. A family moves away and suddenly there she is, as beautiful as Serena remembers, wearing tight black jeans and a white linen shirt. Their eyes meet and a smile appears on Bernie’s face, and Serena can’t bear it anymore, she runs into Bernie’s arms, pulls her unto a tight embrace.

Bernie smells the same, smells like home, like love.

“Hello, you,” Bernie says softly against Serena’s temple, her arms strong around her.

Serena feels tears pricking her eyes and she takes a shuddering breath.

“Oh how I’ve missed you,” she says in Bernie’s neck.

Bernie tightens her hold.

“Me too,” she replies, and Serena can hear the love in her voice.

Bernie takes a step back and Serena stills. Time for the inspection, she thinks, but Bernie just looks at her at arms length, her gaze intent and warm. The look feels like a caress. Serena blushes when Bernie’s eyes widen at her cleavage and bare legs.

“You are so beautiful,” Bernie whispers.

Serena ducks her head, her hand flying to her hair.

“Even this?” She asks self consciously.

Bernie looks up and the fire in her eyes jolts something deep in Serena’s belly. The train station seems very far away.

“I love it. I love you,” Bernie says with a wide smile.

Over the last few weeks, Serena has opened up more and more, to her therapist’s delight. She thinks it must have rubbed off on Bernie, because talking about their feelings has become much easier. The words warm her heart and she smiles, eyes still a little wet.

“I love you,” she says back.

Bernie takes Serena’s face between her hands and kisses her slowly, deeply, their first kiss in months. Serena melts. She still feels the same rush at Bernie’s lips sliding against her own. The kiss is sure and heated, and when Serena whimpers they separate, eyes wide and a little embarrassed.

Serena looks around, flushed, but no one is paying them attention. People walk past them and Serena laughs when a young man winks at her.

She’s so happy she thinks she might burst.

“Come on, let’s go before we get arrested,” she says with a low chuckle.

Bernie looks stunned, but she picks up her forgotten bag and follows her out of the station.

“I thought the French were more relaxed about this sort of thing,” Bernie jokes as they step into the blinding sunshine.

“Not for what I have planned,” Serena replies cheekily over her shoulder.

She hears Bernie’s surprised whoop of delight and laughs.

*

Holby is cold and wet and exactly how Serena left it. Her house is cold too, but it’s clean, and even if it doesn’t feel like home anymore, it’s nice to be somewhere familiar.

The lorry with most of her things won’t arrive until the next day, but there is enough that she can survive for a few days.

Bernie emptied Elinor’s room and stocked everything up in the loft. That room is bare now, and impersonal. But there are still photos dotted around the house and Serena can look at them without feeling like her heart is being ripped out of her chest.
The only thing she can do now is call Hanssen, offer support, and be strong for her AAU family. She won’t be able to waltz back into work, Henrik warned. There are procedures and assessments to be made. Serena hasn’t operated in almost a year. But she can do other things. She can look after Fletch’s kids. She can reconnect with Jason. She can make sure Hanssen isn’t going to have a meltdown.

A sense of purpose fuels her anew.

*

Serena watches as Bernie takes in where she lives. The farm and vineyard has many outhouses and barns, and Jean has offered her the use of a single level mas, a small house with terracotta walls and tiles that he usually rents out to wealthy Parisians in the summer. It has sweeping views of the whole domain. Serena likes to sit outside for the sunset, feet bare to feel the grass between her toes.

Bernie looks in every room. She whistles her appreciation at the large bathtub. She hums happily at the shelves full of books in the living room. She laughs at the huge four poster bed in the master suite. Serena grins.

“Quite the place you’ve got there, Ms Campbell,” Bernie says when they end up by the bay window in the living room.

All the windows are open and there is a pleasant breeze flowing through the house that smells of freshly cut grass and ripe fruit. Serena smiles and steps closer. Bernie is looking at her with such love and desire that her heart aches and soars.

It’s obvious that Bernie is letting her make the first move. Serena wants to savour the moment, to draw it out, but she’s impatient and Bernie is right there, finally, and she looks good enough to eat.

She doesn’t pause to be scared of all the time spent apart or to wonder if intimacy might be hard after all these months. Bernie is smiling that crooked grin of hers, the one that’s never failed to make Serena’s heart race, that speaks of desire and want. She takes the last few steps and sinks her hands into Bernie’s hair to kiss her soundly.

Now that Serena has made her move, Bernie can’t seem to stop herself. Her hands are everywhere, trying to touch everything at once, as if Serena is a mirage and might disappear at any second.

Serena can feel the tension in Bernie’s body, the raw strength of her arms. Words are whispered in her ear and it takes her a while to understand them, distracted as she is by the skin of Bernie’s neck.

Her heart thumps when she realises Bernie is sobbing, repeating “I’ve missed you” over and over again.

She hugs her tightly, soothing rather than seducing, and leads them to the sofa, Bernie’s face buried in her neck. They stumble down and Serena tightens her arms around Bernie’s slighter frame, murmurs words of love while Bernie cries.

Not once during their calls had Bernie broken down at the loneliness she must have felt. Ever the noble Major.

Serena presses her lips to Bernie’s forehead, aching at Bernie’s distress, the other woman shaking against her side. It takes time, but the sobs die down. Serena’s neck is wet, but Bernie is calmer.

“I’m sorry. This isn’t how I thought it would go,” Bernie whispers, clearly embarrassed.

Serena raises her head and smiles. Bernie looks lovely even with red eyes and tear tracks down her cheeks.

“I think this has been a long time coming, darling,” Serena replies softly.

Bernie clears her throat, and before she pulls away and mortification sets in, Serena carefully rubs the tears off with gentle thumbs.

“You’ve been so strong for me for so long. You’re allowed a wobble,” Serena continues.

Bernie’s jaw is set in a tight line but she hasn’t pulled away, so Serena leans forward and kisses her cheekbones, her temples, her lips, and Bernie sighs, a happy sound in the quiet of the room.

“I should have told you more, how much you’ve helped me over the last few months.”

They both fall silent at the memories. Serena has come to terms with the lashing out, the bullying, the drinking, the lying. The shame she used to feel, mixed with the grief, has made for some pretty heavy sessions with Marie.

Bernie has probably bottled everything up to avoid burdening Serena. Well, Serena thinks, that stops now.

She knows now that she could’ve survived without Bernie. The therapy has shown her that. But her life would’ve been grey, flat, dreary.

“I can’t imagine these months, how I would’ve been, without you,” Serena says, her breath hitching.

Bernie looks at her then. It’s not hard to read how touched she is by Serena’s words, and Serena can see her relax, the tension ebbing away.

“You’ve always been a fighter Serena. I’m so proud of you,” Bernie says as she grabs one of Serena’s hands.

Marie has said as much. Some days are still dark pits of despair, but Serena has come to expect them. She takes care of herself. Draws a bath. Lights candles. Cries over photos. Allows herself to let grief take over for a little while. The following morning is always better, as if her mind is thanking her for treating it well, for not ignoring its needs.

Trust Bernie to use a fighting analogy. As if grief is something to conquer and not live with. In this they are different, and Serena knows not to draw up her bridges, but to accept Bernie’s support. Not everyone knows how it is to lose someone, especially a child. Serena must make allowances.

“And I, of you. Holding the fort like that and taking care of everything.”

Serena leans forward and kisses Bernie sweetly. She enjoys the unhurried movement, hums when Bernie pulls her bottom lip between her own and begins to suck. The kiss speaks of languid mornings and whispered words of devotion.

It’s almost a surprise when Bernie slips a hand on Serena’s knee, the hot contact making Serena gasp.

*

It rains on the day they bury Raf. The church is packed and the smell of flowers is cloying, sickeningly sweet and too reminiscent of the ones used for Elinor. But Serena has Evie pressed against her side, her young face crumpled and wet with tears, so Serena just hugs her closer.

All her colleagues and friends are here, sad and tired, but none more so than Fletch, who helped carry in the coffin, eyes empty. He is sitting up front next to the family, and Serena can see his shoulders shaking.

The vicar steps forward. Serena’s head spins for a second and she remembers Elinor’s funeral and the feel of Bernie’s hand in hers. She takes a steadying breath. Imagines Bernie at her side, and it does the trick.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” the vicar intones.

Serena presses her lips to Evie’s temple, the girl trembling. No-one got much sleep at Fletch’s house the previous night, including Serena who spent hours consoling Mikey and soothing Ella.

The vicar stops. Fletch rises, looking like he’s aged thirty years. Serena reaches for her necklace, wills Bernie’s love to envelop her once more.

*

Turns out Bernie had never seen her in a dress. Instead of removing it, Bernie simply rucks it up around Serena’s waist while pressing fevered kisses on Serena’s neck.

The earlier wobble has made way to six months of pent-up desire. There will be plenty of time to talk later, but for now, Bernie is licking Serena’s breasts and Serena is seeing stars.

The heat between her legs is a delicious burn. She isn’t even going to try to last long.

Bernie’s fingers slip between her legs and start teasing her through her underwear. Serena can feel how wet she is and how much it affects Bernie. There is a growl somewhere under her breast and it makes Serena chuckle breathlessly.

“All for me?” Bernie groans against her skin.

“All for you,” Serena confirms, back arching off the sofa.

There hasn’t been anyone else, not since they shook hands in the car park the previous year. How could there be after seeing Bernie smile, laugh, fight her demons and finally fight for them?

Serena never stood a chance.

She manages to grab Bernie’s shirt and to yank it off. Bernie’s not even wearing a bra and she’s all lean and toned and so lovely, her small breasts pressed against Serena’s side. Serena makes a movement to touch them but Bernie stills her.

Bernie slowly sinks to her knees in between Serena’s legs.

Serena starts to shake.

“Can I?” Bernie asks, her eyes dark behind her fringe.

Serena nods, not trusting her voice, and she moans when Bernie licks the sensitive skin of her inner thighs.

They didn’t have much time together before Elinor died. Even though they made good use of those heady weeks, where not much sleep was had, they never got to the stage where making love was common place before Serena left.

Bernie’s hands on her breasts and her hair splayed over her belly still feel new, and all of Serena’s nerve endings are alight and her muscles tensed. She feels so hot, and wanton, and a little outside of herself.
Bernie sets aside her underwear, apparently too impatient to remove it completely, and licks a long sure line in Serena’s wetness.

Serena screams, head thrown back against the sofa cushions, holds for dear life onto Bernie’s wrists. She’s forgotten how good this feels. Her body is coming to life under Bernie’s tongue. She looks down and sees Bernie’s black, eager eyes staring back at her.

In the end, what pushes Serena over the edge isn’t so much Bernie’s actions but how much she seems to be enjoying herself, moaning into Serena like she could do this for hours because she loves it and she can’t stop herself.

Serena buries a hand into Bernie’s glorious hair and she comes with a joyous shout, her pleasure white hot and blinding.

*

“I like the hair.”

Serena turns around, Theo on her hip, and smiles when she sees Morven. They embrace a little awkwardly because of the sleeping child.

“Thank you. It saves a lot of time, I’ll tell you that,” Serena says as they walk into Fletch’s living room.

There are still a few people milling around, but the reception is dying down.

“How is Ms Wolfe?” Morven asks.

Serena smiles, her eyes alight with joy at the mere thought of Bernie.

“Still sunbathing in Sudan,” she jokes. “She’ll be back in a couple of months. She was sad to miss this,” she adds with a little grimace.

Morven, the sweet girl, smiles at this and they chat about the last few months. As Serena walks around with a hand on Theo’s back, she thinks that surely now the hospital’s curse has been lifted. So many deaths, she muses with the soft body of the child pressed against her. Surely, no more.

*

Serena blinks and sounds come rushing back. Her eyes are wet. Bernie is at her side once more, kissing her tear stained cheeks, looking at her with soft eyes. She is truly at peace, her mind at rest, her body spent. Somewhere outside, a tractor starts. Serena’s knees are still shaking.

“You still taste the same,” Bernie whispers in her ear.

Serena lets out a chuckle that sounds more like a moan. She turns and they kiss, open mouthed and sloppy. Bernie, Serena can tell, is restraining herself.

She remembers their first time together, when she had been so full of desperate love and want and Bernie had been so slow, pausing to ask for permission at every new patch of skin, hands trembling and eyes full of awe.

Serena feels that same deference now, and she smiles against Bernie’s lips. Her ever noble Major, she thinks with a flush. Always putting others before herself.

Serena drags a thumb over one of Bernie’s nipples and swallows the resulting moan in a greedy kiss. God, she has missed this. Bernie’s skin is soft and smooth and dotted with freckles and moles that Serena connects with her tongue.

She knows this body well, has memorised what makes Bernie gasp and moan, and she takes great pleasure in getting reacquainted with every inch of her.

She encourages Bernie to straddle her with a brilliant smile, winks when she sees Bernie’s eyes glaze over. Bernie’s hands go to her hips and her fingers grasp Serena’s dress, her fringe hiding her eyes. Serena cups her face, tucks a strand of hair behind Bernie’s ear, slides her hands on Bernie’s shoulders.

Bernie is lovely like this, flushed and waiting, her eyes tracking Serena’s every movement. Serena tells her so between hot kisses pressed along Bernie’s neck, her scars, her breasts.

Serena hasn’t been drunk in months, not since passing out in a field, her throat raw from screaming and crying. She feels drunk now, though. Drunk on Bernie’s skin, her taste, the sounds she makes as Serena nips and sucks her breasts.

She slips a hand down, manages to undo Bernie’s jeans, and slides her fingers through damp curls. Bernie arches her back, her hands now digging into the back of the sofa behind Serena’s head.

Bernie is so wet. Serena has to close her eyes to ground herself, her heart is beating fast and hard and Bernie is grinding herself on Serena’s fingers.

“You feel so good,” Serena chokes out, setting a rhythm that has Bernie mewling in her neck.

When Bernie tenses, she looks up, puts her forehead against Serena’s, their eyes locked. Bernie comes like that, flushed against Serena, her muscles tensed, her mouth open in a silent scream, looking deep into Serena’s eyes.

*

Serena cooks a lot before going back to work.

They’ve worked out a date, Hanssen and her, and a schedule of assessments and observations. Henrik might be desperate for help, but he’s still going to do this the right way. It’s reassuring in a way, to know that even now he’s a stickler for protocol.

It’s obvious he’s not coping. He often trails off, unfocused. His eyes are empty. His heart probably numb.

So Serena cooks for him. Gratins, hearty stews, quiches and tarts that probably don’t get eaten but that are always accepted with a small smile.

Serena also looks after the Fletchlings. She reads bedtime stories, dries tears, picks them up from school. She stays up with Fletch, listens to him pour his heart out, great sobs wracking his body.

She realises she hates the house. Decides to put it on the market as soon as Bernie comes back. She phones Jason to sound him out, he did live there after all, and to her great surprise he suggests having lunch in town.

At the café he’s chosen, Serena can’t tear her eyes off his face. Her last blood relative, her last link to her mother. Her perfect boy.

The first thing he asks is how Bernie is. Serena smiles. It’s hard not to get down on her knees and beg him to come back to her. They need time. Jason offers a weekly lunch and Serena takes it. She will bide her time until Jason feels comfortable with her once more.

*

Serena shows Bernie everything. They walk hand in hand through lemon orchards, olive groves and down long rows of vines. The weather is kind to them.

They often go to the nearby village and sit at the terrace of the only café to talk. The owner is happy to let them be, flirts outrageously with Serena, gives them free pastries.

Bernie gets a tan. She only wears tank tops that make Serena’s breath hitch. She goes swimming in the lake at the bottom of the property, and finally, for the first time in decades, just relaxes.

One evening, dinner is just over and they are outside listening to a cacophony of crickets. Bernie leans back in her chair, glass of wine in hand. Her face is dappled in gold from the sunset and her hair is like fire, and Serena can feel her heart speed up at the thoughts swirling in her head. Bernie’s eyebrow goes up and she smirks. Serena ducks her head and chuckles, happy to let the anticipation build up.

“Cameron texted earlier,” Bernie says after a sip of wine.

Serena tries not to show her surprise. While they have rekindled their relationship, Cameron rarely initiates interaction.

“He’s fishing for an invite,” Bernie says with a delighted smile.

The smile is contagious.

“Oh he is, is he?” Serena replies with a teasing tilt of her head.

“I sent him pictures of the lake and the village a few days ago, and he’s just reminded me of how many days of leave he could still take before his next placement starts.”
Serena rolls her eyes playfully. She wants to say something about how typical that is of children of that age, that it’s all push and pull, but the words die in her throat. She feels tears prickling the back of her eyes, so she turns her head.

The sun sets, and she stays still until the moment passes.

When the tight ball in the pit of her stomach dissolves, she finds Bernie kneeling at her feet, head turned upwards to look at her. Her eyes are full of love and support.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think. He can go off with his mates,” Bernie says softly.

There is no censure, no judgement, and no mention of the grieving process. If they are different in this, it doesn’t seem to negate support and understanding, Serena has realised these past few weeks.

“No. No, it’s fine. I like him, always have. It’ll be good to see him and to show him around,” Serena says.

It’s all true. She remembers Cameron on AAU, his cleverness and how very much like Bernie he is. She remembers him teasing her at Albie’s and how delighted he was when she teased back.

That first Christmas all together, when Elinor had been such a nightmare, he’d made everybody laugh and forget how rude Elinor was. A sweet, cheeky lad, Serena thinks fondly.

Bernie still isn’t convinced, so she smiles reassuringly.

“Go, call him,” Serena insists.

She leans down and kisses Bernie, her tongue teasing Bernie’s bottom lip. She smiles when Bernie growls.

“And then come and join me in my bath,” she says with a raised eyebrow and a grin.

Bernie gets up then and all but runs into the house. Serena laughs after her.

*
There’s a surprise with Serena’s post one morning.

It’s a postcard from Amsterdam that makes Serena snort with laughter. Cameron sends news that he bypassed the red light completely, he swears, and that he’s been asked to fill in at Holby for a bit. And that he has news. Good news, he promises. Serena smiles and shakes her head.

She quickly locates her phone, sends an email to Bernie because that’s the quickest way to reach her, and then a text to Cameron. Would he like to stay with her for the duration of his time at Holby? The house is more than big enough, and more homely now, even though Serena still plans to sell it.

Her phone chimes back with a string of emojis from Cameron. A thumbs up, a wine glass, a telly, spaghetti and finally fireworks. She laughs.

*

Serena rolls onto her side and hums happily, face now buried into Bernie’s neck. Bernie mumbles sleepily but she still gathers up Serena and presses her to her side.

The sun is already streaming through the curtains, bathing the room in a soft orange glow.

“Morning Major,” Serena says, and she kisses Bernie’s jaw.

Bernie keeps her eyes shut but there is a small smile playing on her lips that gives her away. She exaggerates a groan.

“What’s that? Too early, even for my fearless surgeon? I guess I better get up and let you sleep in peace then,” Serena says and she makes a move to disentangle herself.

Bernie’s eyes fly open and she holds on to Serena, even manages to flip her on top of her. Serena laughs and squirms and Bernie joins her and soon they are rolling around in bed, stealing kisses from each other.

It’s all fun and games until Bernie slides a thigh between Serena’s legs and Serena moans. They both freeze, a little breathless from playing around. Serena arches her back, tries to get a little more pressure where she needs it. Bernie’s eyes grow dark. Their next kiss is more heated, and Serena slides her hands into Bernie’s hair, draws her closer until their bodies are flush together.

They both slept in the nude, too exhausted to reach for nightwear after an evening of inspired lovemaking. Serena’s pretty sure that crack in the headboard is new.

“Oh god, I can’t believe how wet I am already,” Serena moans.

They can’t seem to get enough of each other. Bernie’s even joked that there must be something in the cool water of Provence. Serena wears a multitude of dresses and finds herself pinned against walls and trees, dress rucked up, Bernie’s lips latched onto her neck.

They make love in the bath surrounded by candles, against the kitchen counter following a flour flight, and Serena can’t look at the front door without blushing. She’s truly thankful for the lack of immediate neighbours. They can just grab at each other when the mood strikes, which is often.

But Serena’s favourite location is still her big bed, where there is space to spread out, just like now.

Bernie takes the scenic route this morning. Serena is sweating and panting by the time Bernie gets to her breasts. She whimpers when Bernie slides her tongue over her nipples. Her entire body is alight and she revels in the sensation, gasps when Bernie uses her teeth, and then again when she sucks greedily.

She has come just from this before, much to Bernie’s awe and delight, but Bernie takes pity on her today and continues her journey down Serena’s body.

Serena groans at the first touch of Bernie’s tongue between her legs. She raises her knees, her head hits the pillows, and her hands make fists in Bernie’s hair. Bernie looks up, her eyes black and intense now.

Bernie has confessed to loving this particular activity, to loving how Serena tastes and sounds. She certainly has a gift for it, as far as Serena is concerned. The very sight of Bernie’s hair splayed on her thighs is enough to make her tremble.

Bernie teases. She brings Serena to the edge and then eases off, and Serena is almost sobbing with the need to come.

“Please, Bernie. Oh, please,” she begs.

She knows the effect her words will have. She has learned that begging will go a long way with Bernie, and sure enough Bernie growls and she starts sucking at just the right pressure and Serena is flying, a scream dying in her throat.

When she finally opens her eyes, she’s in Bernie’s arms and Bernie is whispering in her ear.

“So beautiful. My Serena. Love to touch you. Want to kiss you everywhere. I love you so much.”

Serena smiles, her heart full, her eye a little wet. Moments like these, when she is in Bernie’s arms, safe and loved, still overwhelm her.

She can’t believe her luck, to have met Bernie, to have her love, to have weathered such violent storms together.

She tightens her hold around Bernie’s torso and takes in a shuddering breath. Wills her heart to slow down. Savours the softness of Bernie’s skin. Listens to the birds and the raucous crickets.

She feels so loved.

*

Jason invites himself over for dinner on Cameron’s first night at Serena’s. He does it pretty cleverly, by suggesting that Cameron won’t know how to negotiate his very specific DVD reference system.

Serena smiles as she watches the two boys, well, men really, spar over who the best Doctor is. She’s made way too much lasagne, but her guests seem happy to plough through an entire pan.

For the first time in ages the kitchen is filled with laughter.

When Jason has gone and Cameron heads towards the guest bedroom, he stops and turns. His eyes are so like Bernie’s in that moment that it throws Serena off.

“And, you’re okay?” He asks in a quiet voice.

Serena’s heart swells. She smiles.

“I’m okay. It’s nice having you here,” she replies truthfully.

Cameron smiles and seemingly without thinking about it, he leans downs and kisses Serena on the cheek.

“Good night, Serena. Thanks again,” he says with a blush high on his cheekbones.

“Good night, sleep well,” Serena replies, her voice tight.

She’s glad it’s dark on the landing and that Cameron won’t see how wet her eyes are.

*

Serena looks up from her book and smiles when she spots the two figures among the vegetable garden at the edge of the vineyard. Bernie and Cameron are tending the herb section, snipping off dead leaves and collecting rosemary and thyme for the lamb shoulder Serena is planning on cooking.

The sun is high and strong, and Cameron has taken his shirt off, much to the delight of Jean’s daughter, who whistled appreciatively while driving past in a tractor. Serena thinks she can still see the blush on Cameron’s cheeks.

The young man is on good form, happy his placement in London has gone well and is over, and eager to start the next step. He has been talking about going abroad, maybe the Caribbean.

“Don’t forget sun lotion!” She shouts at them.

They look up and wave at her, big matching grins, and Serena watches the ensuing comedy skit of the two helping each other apply the lotion and fool around, and somehow it ends with Bernie spraying the hose at Cameron and them running around laughing like idiots. Serena smiles and goes back to her book, shaking her head.

The lamb shoulder is well received.

“So, mum, what are you going to do next?” Cameron asks as they try Jean’s pear liqueur with Serena’s apricot tart.

Bernie slides a look towards Serena, who nods back at her.

“There’s a position in Kharasan, near El Obeid, in Sudan. Humanitarian medicine. Mainly to train local doctors,” Bernie says cautiously.

Cameron thinks for a moment. He turns to Serena.

“Are you okay with that?” He asks.

It’s not confrontational. His eyes are curious. Serena can see some fear there, too.

“Yes. Your mother needs a little excitement, and Holby can’t provide that for now. I’m…not ready to go back yet, but we will go back. This is something that we have agreed on,” Serena says.

“It’s only for 4 months. And it’s not an active war zone. I won’t lie and say it’s completely safe, there’s always a risk, but it’ll be working in refugee camps and helping people,” Bernie adds.

Cameron nods, his posture easing. Bernie leans back in her chair.

“With the UN? Not the army?” He asks.

Bernie nods and explains a bit more. Serena leaves them to it. She clears the table and starts washing up at the kitchen sink. The sky is clear and the stars spread out brilliantly as far as she can see. She hears Cameron go into his room and Bernie slips her hands around Serena’s waist from behind, kisses her neck softly.

“Everything all right?”

“He will be. He said the whole thing gave him not so great memories of me going off on tour. And I still have to tell Charlotte. But it’ll be fine.”

Serena relaxes into their embrace, her head on Bernie’s shoulder. She puts her hands on Bernie’s forearms.

“They are good kids.”

Bernie hums, clearly distracted by Serena’s neck. She presses hot kisses along Serena’s jaw, and then lower on her neck and her bare shoulder. Serena gasps a little when Bernie bites.

“You smell good,” Bernie whispers.

Serena whimpers as Bernie’s hands palm her breasts, the sensation electric even through the cotton of her dress.

“Oh Jesus! Come on!”

They separate and Bernie laughs that great honk of hers when Cameron enters the kitchen with a hand on his eyes and an empty glass.

“Just getting some water, my god,” he mutters.

“We should get you a bell,” Serena jokes.

He looks a them and rolls his eyes, gets water, mumbles a hasty “good night” and makes his escape.

This is not the first time he has caught them in a compromising situation. They have sworn never to mention the barn incident again. Nor lake-gate. And certainly not what Cameron saw as he was taking a post dinner walk in the lemon orchard.

Serena takes Bernie’s hand and draws her close for a kiss.

“Let’s continue this behind closed doors, yes?” She murmurs against Bernie’s lips.

*

As the day of her return approaches, Serena feels the nerves kicking in. She has found a new therapist in town, and while Pete is no Marie, he does have a no-nonsense approach that appeals to her. They talk about expectations and fears, and coping mechanisms.

She treats herself to a few new shirts. She choses bold colours. Takes a few pictures to send to Bernie. If a couple of them happen to be sans shirt, she doesn’t think Bernie will mind.

*

Cameron has been gone for a few days when the paperwork for Bernie’s new job comes in through the post. It all looks very official, with many a stamp and even a wax seal. Bernie peruses the thick forms in the shade of an olive tree. Serena is sitting between her legs, idly reading the local paper. The crickets are as loud as always, and the heat is making her a little lazy.

She’s about to fall asleep, her head pillowed on Bernie’s shoulder, when Bernie puts a sheet of paper in front of her eyes. She focuses with a frown.

“Next of kin?” She asks in confusion.

“I want to put you down,” Bernie says softly behind her.

“Of course, Bernie. I’ll do the same from now on,” Serena replies with a smile.

It’s nice to have her name on one of Bernie’s forms. It makes everything a little more official. Serena closes her eyes again, the paper falling to the ground, her hands resting on Bernie’s bare legs. Bernie is rustling behind her and she’s about to complain about the quality of her pillow when Bernie shifts and a black box appears in her field of vision.

Serena pauses. It seems the crickets pause too. She turns into Bernie’s embrace. Bernie’s jaw is tight and her eyes are intent.

“I…uh…wanted to ask you if you…god, I’m doing this very badly,” Bernie stutters.

The knowledge of what is happening blooms in Serena’s mind and her eyes widen, her heart skips, and she feels a smile bursting on her lips.

“Will you marry me?” Bernie finally manages to ask.

Serena puts a hand on her mouth and a laugh escapes her lips. Bernie smiles with relief. They stare at each other. Serena wants to remember this exact moment. There are patches of sunlight dancing on Bernie’s face. She is wearing shorts and a linen shirt with three buttons open at her neck, and the skin on show is tanned and inviting. She is perfect.

“Of course I will,” Serena remembers to say.

Bernie smiles and they kiss, and Serena still can’t quite believe it. The ring is a simple gold band.

“It was my grandmother’s. She was one of the first female doctors in Kent. And you know what?” Bernie says with a shy expression. “I think I’ve always wanted to give this to a girl. And I couldn’t wish for a better woman,” she continues, and her voice is a little wet.

Serena’s not faring much better and they hold on to each other with tears in their eyes, under an olive tree, with crickets serenading them.

*

Serena gets out of her car. Holby City looms in front of her. She looks up, tugs fretfully at the hair on her nape. The bag on her shoulder feels heavy. In fact, everything feels heavy. She slowly breathes in and out, and she reaches for her necklace. The ring Bernie gave her sits in the hollow between her collarbones.

She holds it in her palm, squeezes it. When she looks back up, there is a determined look on her face. People better watch out.

Serena is back in town.