Bernie stood with her arms folded, her pink coat wrapped around her securely, wishing she had brought a proper woolly scarf and hat instead of the silky article currently surrounding her neck. She stared out at the falling flakes, flurries of snow spiralling around the hospital car park like whispers of dreams, hating the idea of walking all the way to her small flat, and then spending an hour or two trying to get warm again. Her heating didn’t work brilliantly and her shower had broken the day before.
A soft hum of pleasure drifted across as she felt, more than saw, Serena step up from behind. “Isn’t it lovely,” Serena said.
Bernie turned and was greeted by a sparkling-eyed and furry-hatted brunette, who was dressed much more appropriately than she was. “It looks lovely,” Bernie agreed.
Serena pushed her bottom lip out, obviously not buying the lie. “You don’t like the snow?”
“Oh no, I love it.” Bernie shuffled one foot forward, the toe of her boot inching into a white pile, which crumbled forwards. “I just don’t like the cold so much.”
“I’m sure you’ve a nice glass of whiskey and a warm blanket waiting for you at home.”
Bernie shook her head and kept staring out into the blizzard. The wind had picked up even more and was swishing the snow around the cars, which were slowly becoming completely covered.
“That’s a shame. I think I have some mulled wine left over from Christmas.” Serena nudged her shoulder with her own. “Fancy joining me?”
Bernie eyed her, wondering whether accepting would mean more to her than it did to Serena. She wouldn’t ask if she didn’t mean it. “Does your shower work?” She clamped a mittenned hand over her mouth, but dropped it quickly so as not to alert Serena to her embarrassment.
Serena’s hand flattened against the space between Bernie’s shoulder blades and then swept up and down her coat. “It does. What’s the matter with yours?”
“And you don’t have a bath, do you?”
Bernie’s cheeks reddened and not because of the icy temperature. She shook her head, pained at the reminder of her poky little flat compared to Serena’s beautiful townhouse.
“Best thing for it, a bath, after the day we’ve had.”
Bernie nodded again, recalling the breaks and bruises of the patients they had treated, most of whom should simply have stayed at home, rather than venturing out in the snow. Too many broken bones that could have been avoided.
“You can have one at mine.” Serena’s voice was gentle.
Bernie looked at her, felt the smile tugging her own lips, and nodded. “That would be…you’ve no idea how wonderful that sounds.”
“Come on then. Off we go.”
They made their way slowly over to Serena’s car and climbed inside. The shelter was a retreat, the wind whipped around the car but inside it was calm. Serena turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened.
Bernie sat for a few minutes in silence whilst Serena tried several times to start the car. The car remained silent too, as if not wanting to damage the soft snow with its roar and rumble. Bernie rubbed her mittens together.
Smacking her hands against the steering wheel, Serena groaned. “Looks like we’ll be walking.”
Bernie sent her a sympathetic look.
Serena sighed and shrugged, adjusting her fur hat and plumping up her woolly scarf so that it hid her chin and met her hat at the back. She made doubly sure her coat was done up all the way, before swinging her legs out of the car and throwing the door closed.
Bernie followed suit and they met at the bonnet, the bleep of the car lock almost lost in the roar of the blizzard. She skidded on a patch of compacted snow as they began to walk, and Serena caught her elbow.
Serena giggled. “Careful. Don’t want you joining the bent and broken on AAU.”
“Yeah,” Bernie said, chuckling. “That would be embarrassing.”
They headed off, their boots churning the soft snow with each step. Bernie knew it was a couple of miles to Serena’s house, so, she figured, maybe forty minutes, if they were careful but made good progress. The wind bit her neck where her substandard scarf failed to keep her warm, and her thick mittens didn’t protect her much from the wind either. She tried not to shiver, to walk with steady strides next to Serena, who seemed to be having no problems at all with her thick fur-lined boots and weather-sensible attire.
Half way there, the wind eased off a bit and Bernie caught Serena’s eye. “Did you have snow days as a child?”
“Oh yes. Most of them out of the country.”
“Yep. My mother carted me off to various meetings with her in the school holidays. February half term and Easter were often spent in cold countries, experiencing culture and bad weather whilst she mingled with the high and mighty.”
Bernie tried to imagine a twelve-year-old Serena playing the good little daughter whilst her mother worked. “That mustn’t have been fun. Don’t kids usually go out and play in the holidays?”
“I wish you could have told her that.” Serena smiled affectionately however, at the memories of her mother. “It wasn’t all bad. I got to drink wine, see amazing things. My mother and I once had a snowball fight, underneath the Eiffel Tower. I spoke to some interesting people too.” She kicked a patch of snow with her boot and the soft downy stuff floated into the air. “I met my first female surgeon whilst in Munich. I think I was ten.”
“Oh yes. She convinced me to study medicine.”
“Well no. I had adolescence to get through, and the rest of school, of course. But she made me want to be a surgeon.”
Bernie stuffed her hands into her coat pockets and pushed her shoulders up against the chill. “What was her name?”
“Rachael Conran. Consultant general surgeon at Rechts Der Isar Hospital. Her speciality was vascular.”
Bernie smiled across at her as she walked. “You liked her.”
“She was amazing, of course I liked her.” Serena’s eyes shone with something Bernie thought resembled attraction.
“Girl crush?” she asked, and then bit her lip. God, I hope she doesn’t think…
Serena laughed, her breath clouding the air around her. “Yes, I suppose she was.”
Bernie was surprised. Since her untimely and involuntary outing to the entire hospital, she’d been careful about being too friendly with people, not wanting anyone to think she didn’t feel bad about it. Serena was different, of course, with her slow but willing acceptance of Bernie’s lie, but Bernie was still tense about it, as if she’d say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and ruin it all.
“Did you have crushes on girls when you were younger?” Serena asked her and Bernie skidded on the concrete.
Again, Serena grabbed her arm to steady her.
“I don’t think I ever considered them crushes, exactly,” Bernie said, wanting to be honest, wanting to respect Serena’s question with an answer.
“I suppose you don’t when you’re ten. I certainly didn’t.”
Bernie looked at her and couldn’t hide the feeling of surprise.
“Oh, you know.” Serena made a sweeping gesture into the falling snow. The arm of her coat was dusted in crisp, fluffy snowflakes. Bernie wanted to brush them away. “I mean with men.”
Her heart falling into her feet, Bernie forced a smile and a nod, and then continued walking, her boots crunching and kicking up the drifts that had gathered by the little garden walls to the side of the pavement. Of course she only likes men. I don’t know why you thought otherwise. She sighed and dropped her head.
“Was there a moment when you realised?” Serena asked and her voice was softer than the snow that had gathered on her furry hat.
Stalling, Bernie shrugged, stopping at the road so that they could make their way across and to Serena’s gate. She turned to Serena when they reached it and brushed snow from the ornate metalwork along the top.
Serena gaze on her was steady. “Was it with…Ms Dawson? Or before that?”
“Before.” Bernie stared at the ground and ran her hand along the wall from the gate, piling snow up under her mitten, feeling the sharp wet iciness soak her fingers. Her heart thudded and she chewed on her lip. I don’t want to talk about this.
When she looked back up at Serena, Serena’s head was tilted to one side. Serena touched her shoulder, thumbing the material of her coat. “You can talk to me. But you do that only when you’re ready.”
“Thank you. I know I can. But just not quite yet…” Bernie flushed again, her cheeks feeling warm against the biting wind.
Serena nodded and dropped her hand. She reached for the handle of the gate and tugged it open. They made their way up the path.
Bernie felt like she should do something to break the tension fizzling between them. She liked their easy friendship, the way they teased one another, and worked so well together. She loved the trauma bay, the gift Serena had given her, expecting nothing back but her hard work and trust. She loved their little AAU family, a mismatched group of people that looked out for each other and was sometimes playful when they needed to be. She loved Serena, her deep dark eyes, the way her mouth crinkled when she smiled, the dimple in her chin, and the way she allowed Bernie into more of her life than Bernie probably deserved.
So Bernie took a handful of snow from the little wall that hugged the path, and balled it up. The ball hit the back of Serena’s neck and caused her to spin on one foot, a look of pure mischief in her eye. For one whole half-second, Bernie’s hopes soared and she felt certain they would begin what would be the best snowball fight of her life, perhaps even better than the one in Paris in her youth. Flashes of Serena giggling in her arms, surrounded by snow, her pink cheek pressed to her own, invaded her brain.
Unfortunately, Serena’s spin caused her to lose her balance and drop like a sack of potatoes onto the concrete path. She tried desperately to catch herself, but her hands slipped out from under her on the snow and her face disappeared an inch into the horrible white stuff with an audible smack.
Bernie immediately slipped over to her, disregarding her own safety on the ice, and fell next to her, her hands reaching out. “Oh God, are you okay?”
Serena managed to roll so that her face was no longer sunken into the snow. Her cheek was bruised and her face was screwed up. Red trickled into the snow, turning it pink. Blood.
“Serena.” Bernie hooked her hands underneath Serena’s arms and lifted her, slipping and sliding on the path as she struggled to remain upright. Serena’s fingers gripped Bernie’s coat. Eventually she got Serena back onto her feet. Serena had a large abrasion on her temple. Bernie stomach dropped like lead. She’s really hurt. Oh you idiot! “I’m so sorry.”
Serena reached up to her own head and blinked at the blood that smeared onto her fingers.
Placing a hand to the small of her back, Bernie guided her to the front door, anxious to get her inside so that she could carry out a thorough examination. It’s the least I can do. Who throws a snowball at someone? Idiot.
Managing to get her keys out and into the door with shaky hands, Serena pushed the door open and practically fell inside.
Bernie followed her, wrapping an arm around her waist and unwilling to let her go. Once the door was closed, she touched Serena’s cheek in horror and felt tears burn her own eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“Bloody snow,” Serena growled, but seemed more embarrassed and angry at the weather than at Bernie.
The lead stone in Bernie’s middle lightened a bit. She sat Serena down on the stool by the door and carefully took her fur hat off, laying it gently over a peg. Then she knelt down in front of her, her fingers hovering close to her face. “Can I?”
Serena nodded, her eyebrows dropping and her hands folding in her lap. When Bernie touched the wound on her forehead, she shrank away.
“It’s fine. Just hurts.”
“I mean…” Bernie swallowed back the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry I…caused this.”
“Oh come on now.” Serena’s eyebrow rose. “It’s just this damn weather. People have been hitting the deck all over Holby, it was about time we had our fair share.”
“But if I hadn’t…”
“I haven’t had a snowball thrown at me for years.” The glint in her eye almost looked amused. Another few grams lifted from Bernie’s stomach.
“Still…” Bernie touched around the gash, checking for bony tenderness and any other injury.
Serena grimaced again but didn’t flinch away.
Then she checked the rest of Serena’s face. Her skin was chilly, but soft under her fingertips. Bernie wished she was allowed to touch her when she wasn’t injured, when she didn’t need an excuse. Sitting back on her heels, Bernie nodded. “I don’t think you have a facial fracture. And you probably don’t need stitches.”
“I could have told you that,” Serena replied bitterly. When Bernie looked away, she put a hand on her shoulder. The gentle weight grounded Bernie and she could feel the warmth of her touch through her coat. “I have some dressings in my kitchen cabinet. Some swabs and saline. I don’t fancy looking in a mirror to do it myself.” She caught Bernie’s eye and smiled. “Would you mind?”
Bernie jumped to her feet and they went about taking off many layers and boots, leaving them all by the front door to dry. Bernie went into the kitchen and was guided towards the aforementioned cupboard by Serena’s pointed finger.
She washed her hands thoroughly before getting out a small bottle of saline and drenching some swabs. Very gently, she cleaned Serena’s forehead wound, wiping away blood and grime from her path.
Serena’s gaze was trained somewhere over Bernie’s shoulder. She seemed embarrassed, and Bernie could understand why. A sudden loss of control from the woman who was always in control, and thrived on her own control of the universe. A silly accident that should never have happened to a middle-aged, well-educated and independent woman. And now she was being taken care of by the very person at the heart of her self-esteem’s demise.
Bernie stepped back and studied her handiwork. The dressing covered the gash neatly and remained in place with two short strips of tape. It finished just above Serena’s left eyebrow and disappeared into her hairline. A rush of affection and shame flooded Bernie’s chest as Serena looked at her, all sad and frustrated. I did that.
“All done,” Bernie said, and was surprised at the strength in her voice. Her well-practised British reserve was obviously taking over, masking her feelings.
“Thank you.” Serena touched her shoulder again, and pushed up from where she’d been leaning against the counter. “Will I live?” she asked, her lips curving upwards.
Unable to do anything but smile back, Bernie looked at her boots and nodded. “I think it would take a lot more than an icy path to defeat you.”
“I should say so. Come on, let’s have a cuppa. And, if you don’t mind, a sit down.”
Bernie sprang into action and had the kettle filled before Serena could protest. She made them both a cup of tea and threw the teabags into the bin, before taking both mugs and leading Serena into her living room.
Serena took the steaming mug gratefully from Bernie and settled back against the cushions of her sofa. Her head throbbed and she idly considered painkillers. Tea first, however. She sipped from the hot liquid and hummed in appreciation, at the beverage, but also at the woman who had made it.
Bernie perched next to her, the mug clasped in both hands, and her gaze trailing over Serena in a way only a doctor would recognise.
“Would you stop assessing me now, Ms Wolfe?”
Pink tinged Bernie’s cheeks as she dropped her head, her fringe falling into her eyes to hide them.
Affection warmed Serena’s insides as she looked at Bernie, all guilty and worried. “I’m okay. No LOC, no breakages. Like you said, it’d take more than a bit of snow…”
“It’s my fault you fell…though.” Bernie swallowed visibly and blew across the surface of her tea to cool it. “If I hadn’t…”
“Stop it. You’re far too hard on yourself.” Serena placed her mug on the coffee table and rubbed Bernie’s upper arm sharply.
Bernie set her mug next to Serena’s and looked at her with large eyes.
“I’m fine.” Serena tried to convey how certain she was of the fact with her gaze.
Bernie blinked a few times and Serena was shocked to see tears gather in her eyes.
“Oh love, what’s the matter?”
Serena wasn’t sure if it was the name she called her, or the drama of the day taking its toll on Bernie’s tired mind. Bernie crumpled forward and pushed her hands over her face as she desperately tried to hide the tears that seeped between her fingers.
Laying a hand against Bernie’s back, Serena rubbed up and down. She rested her other hand on Bernie’s knee and allowed her the moments to cry, not knowing exactly what it was all about, but understanding that some kind of release was needed.
When Bernie’s shoulders slowed their shaking, and her back had stopped trembling beneath Serena’s fingers, Bernie sat up. She wiped her eyes fitfully, her head shaking slowly back and forth.
Serena waited. Her fingers began to trail little circles against Bernie’s spine.
Bernie stilled under her fingers, and then moved across the sofa, away from her.
Her hand dropping into her lap, Serena waited a little while longer. Eventually, her concern took over. “What was that about?”
Bernie looked around her suddenly. “Is Jason…”
“He’s at Alan’s. They’re watching reruns of Doctor Who.” She shifted closer again, but made sure Bernie had room to breathe, at least. “Talk to me, Bernie.”
It was a while before Bernie lifted her head properly. Her gaze was so guilty, and so sad, Serena wanted to reach out. But she remained where she was, hands itching to stroke Bernie’s hair, to calm her from whatever demons were torturing her.
“I never want to hurt you, Serena.” Bernie’s voice broke and a tear dribbled down her cheek. “The thought of hurting you…”
“What’s this now?” Serena whispered, searching Bernie’s face for some kind of indication of what she meant. “You would never hurt me.”
Bernie let out a derisive snort and indicated the dressing on Serena’s forehead. “I did. I have. I probably will again.”
“What d’you mean?”
Bernie slumped backwards on the sofa, her eyes closing, Serena thought, against the world.
Serena’s stomach ached as she saw the anguish on Bernie’s face.
“I’ve hurt everyone. It’s what I do. I hurt my husband, my children. I nearly ruined our chances of the Trauma Unit being a success. I hurt the woman I loved when I decided to be a coward to save my family, whom I then lost anyway.” She looked across at Serena, her eyes glistening with tears. “And I hurt you. Look at this.” She touched Serena’s dressing with the tip of one finger. “All I ever do is hurt people.”
“You didn’t mean to hurt your family. I understand that. And I understood what happened with Cameron; I know how you felt when he asked you to lie for him. I would have probably done the same thing—I told you that—if it was Elinor.”
Bernie paused, but then nodded.
“And today was not your fault. I slipped. It happens.” Serena gave in to the urge to touch Bernie, resting a hand on her jaw. “You’re very sweet, you know. And you feel like you bugger life up a lot, but I promise you, you don’t. Ask anyone. Everyone loves you. The whole of AAU thinks you’re fantastic.”
Her eyebrows furrowing, Bernie turned a little towards her on the sofa.
“It’s true. You remind me of that surgeon I met as a child. The number of people you inspire greatly outweighs the things you should feel sorry for. And that includes my little argument with my garden path.”
Finally, Bernie smiled. She pushed her hair out of her face and wiped her eyes.
Serena’s smile widened. “You inspire me. You’re the main reason we have a Trauma Unit. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—have done it without you.”
Bernie’s eyes half-closed and her gaze seemed to flick downwards for a second.
Serena smoothed Bernie’s jaw with her thumb in what she hoped was a comforting gesture. “Do you believe me?”
Bernie chuckled and looked down, then pulled her gaze back to Serena’s. “No.”
Serena’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What would it take to make you believe me?”
Bernie lifted her hands to cup Serena’s cheeks, her expression dropping so that she looked so serious.
Serena smiled at her, her thumb still caressing Bernie’s jaw.
Bernie’s gaze dropped again, and then she leant in closer. Serena inhaled sharply as Bernie’s lips touched her own, the contact surprising her. Then her whole body went still and she was unsure how to respond.
So soft. Her body took over, for once reacting for her before her brain could catch up and tell her to stop. She pressed back, returned the kiss with a vigour she didn’t know she possessed at that moment. She gripped Bernie’s jaw, tugging her close and turning her head so the kiss deepened. Her lips parted and Bernie’s moan rumbled against her lips.
Bernie’s fingers grappled behind Serena’s head, digging into her scalp.
Pain shot through Serena’s skull and she grasped Bernie’s hands, pulling away from her.
Panic shot across Bernie’s features and Serena thought she was going to cry again.
“No,” Serena said firmly, her hands softening in Bernie’s. “It’s not…it wasn’t…” She huffed to herself in frustration, rational thought and the English language currently residing miles away from her reach. “My head hurts,” she said, hoping the simple explanation would placate Bernie enough to stop her running away.
Bernie relaxed somewhat, but her eyes shot from side to side, as if thoughts were flying through her like the snow being swarmed by the wind outside.
“I’ll take some paracetamol in a minute.” Serena released one of Bernie’s hands and touched her chin, lifting it to encourage Bernie to look at her. “First, I think we should…” Bernie’s gaze locked with hers and they both smiled. “Talk.”
“I shouldn’t have…you’re vulnerable and…” Bernie ran her hand through her hair and sighed. “It wasn’t the right thing to do.”
“Felt pretty right to me,” Serena said, tentatively. I hope I’m not missing the boat here.
“Did it?” Bernie sounded like a hopeful puppy, desperate to right anything she’d done wrong.
“It did.” Serena’s words were firm, and she hoped her smile was genuine.
“It’s not just your head injury?” A smirk played at the corner of Bernie’s lips.
Serena grinned and poked Bernie’s shoulder. “It’s barely a scratch.”
“Maybe I should do a full neurological assessment, just to be sure.”
They grinned at one another and then the atmosphere quietened. Serena dropped her hand from Bernie’s chin and took her hands, one in each of her own. She stroked the backs of Bernie’s hands with her thumbs.
The snow swirled outside, coating each tree branch and each car. The massive blanket of white, tinged with the orange glow from the streetlights, seemed to separate them from the rest of the town. Hidden in their fortress, Serena felt like she and Bernie were completely alone.
Slowly, Bernie started to stroke her hands too, and then leaned in a little, her eyes asking permission.
Keeping their hands joined between them, Serena leant forward and kissed Bernie, softly and with no eager destination. This is wonderful. So soft.
After several minutes of tentative brushings of lips against lips, Bernie broke away and squeezed Serena’s hands. She seemed as if she was in a daze, as if she couldn’t believe what was happening.
Serena’s lips tingled and her head felt light, despite the dull ache that was beginning at her temple. She lifted one of Bernie’s hands to her lips and kissed her knuckles. “Do you believe me now?” she whispered.
Bernie laughed and leant her cheek against the back of the sofa. “Okay, okay. You’ve convinced me.” She mellowed and simply smiled at Serena through lowered lashes. “You inspire me too.”
Bernie’s cheeks flushed and she cleared her throat. “Yes well.”
“I’m only teasing. I’m not sure what’s happening, but I know I’d like it to continue.” Serena bit her lip and stared out of the window for a long moment. “If you’re not adverse to the idea.”
“Are you asking me out?”
“In a roundabout way. And a way that doesn’t evoke my teenage years.”
“Ah. Serena and Bernie, sitting in a tree. And so forth.”
“Indeed.” Serena narrowed her eyes at Bernie, who seemed thoughtful. “So is that a yes?”
“It’s a ‘let’s see what happens but I like you’ kind of an answer.”
“I like you too.”
Bernie smiled. They snuggled against the back of the sofa, hands still joined.
The snow continued to fall, but the warmth between them would have melted a tonne of the stuff.