You want to be her friend. Obviously; another female consultant, expert in her field, your own age, with a recommendation from none other than Jac Naylor? Of course you do. Bernie is… well, new and everyone she works with on Keller seems slightly in awe of her. Her reputation precedes her, of course, but you’ve also heard the rumours.
Almost no scars at all! Just a couple of lines on her arm, barely even there!
It’s an anomaly, for sure; someone in their fifties coming along without some part of their skin looking at least a little like a mandala. White lies, after all, are what harmony is mostly built on, especially in this hospital. A little schmoozing here, balming of ego there, earns you paper thin silvery lines across fingers, the price you pay for funding, for smooth running of wards. Scars a little more visible, just that bit deeper and raised across necks and arms, the price you pay for missed family dinners, the apologies that are a necessity, but that you can’t wholly regret for the fact that you’re saving lives. If I had a choice... The words ingrained across shoulder blades with every late homecoming, every ruined dinner, every child’s tantrum.
Despite yourself, you are intrigued; know that she has a family - two children, and a life lived in deployment, and you ponder her lack of visible slivers as you absently finger your own. However, you also know from experience that it takes a while to not be seen as an outsider here, to gain that ‘Holby’ family status. You don’t want her to feel ostracised; you want a peer, and so you ask her for coffee, aren’t surprised when she’s reticent.
You hear more about her via the grapevine; how regimented she is, how brusque she is, how bad she is at patient interaction.
She’s honest, you think. And you’ve always known that people are rather afraid of honesty.
You ask her again, tell her, actually, to give you a shout for a coffee and a chat. You run into her outside where she’s fingering a cigarette, jumps to defend herself, justify herself to you, you, who’s had two conversations with her, if you can class them as that, that she’s not really smoking, hasn’t actually lit it yet. You laugh, tell her it’s really none of your business. You can’t remember what you were doing coming outside, actually, so you just lean on the railings, suspecting that she has something she’s trying to vocalise, something playing on her mind. She’s had that look since the moment you first met her. She talks, rather haltingly, a bit cryptically, about her family, her husband, how she’s trying to make this new life work, and you laugh.
May as well try to cure cancer.
She doesn’t outright laugh, but she relaxes, and then you nudge her, tell her this is silly, this bumping in to each other when you could just be meeting for a proper coffee and chat. She doesn’t respond much, but she seems less tense, and that’s enough for you.
You’re up on Keller for a consult, and that’s when you notice that the mood has shifted; that the awe seems to have changed into wariness. It’s nothing you can pinpoint, just that most staff are that bit more distant with her, and when you try to engage her in conversation, she’s more distracted and aloof than ever.
Despite what you and Ric talk about over a bottle, you try not to listen to hospital gossip, know first hand what it’s like to be the subject of whispers, ogles and general disdain. Still, you can’t help but pick up the odd tidbit: A locum anaesthetist, army colleague, a huge scar, seen under a scrub top in the locker room. Nothing that anyone can provide a complete story for, so you shake it off, figure that Bernie’s such an anomaly that she’s always going to draw speculative attention.
You’re contemplating all of this as you stand with your drink by Albie’s bar, when she comes in, orders a scotch and downs it immediately. Your eyebrows raise between her face and the glass.
“Buy you another?” you offer. “It’s not coffee…”
She smiles tightly, wipes her mouth, doesn’t look at you as she answers in the negative. Tells you she has something she needs to do. Doesn’t look at you until she turns to leave, offers you a tight smile. You order another drink, can’t help but contemplate the Bernie Wolfe phenomenon.
You end up on Keller again. Later, you’ll call it serendipitous, but right now, it’s inconvenience, and so when you have to tell Bernie she’ll be working alongside her almost-former husband and she smiles that tight smile, you pretend like you don’t know what it means; you rub her arm reassuringly, gratefully, and leave them to it.
And then you wish you hadn’t. Any of it.
“Don’t think I don’t know!”
Your patient’s been getting increasingly agitated with Bernie, since Bernie got to the bottom of the girl’s truth. She stands, shouting now, and you move to steady her whilst managing to keep your eyes trained on Bernie, your heart sinking as her face drains of colour. “Don’t think they’re not all talking, about that huge scar under your top, about that woman you’ve been screwing behind your husband’s back!”
Bernie recoils as though she’s been slapped; you’re hard pressed not to do the same. The girl must sense something, though, as she focuses on you. Her stance turns fearful. You turn back to her after Bernie fully disappears from the ward, don’t care that your face is set in stone, that you may be being brusque as you put her back in to bed.
You try to forget about it, but it’s there, constantly, and you can’t begin to analyse the situation, let alone why you see it as a personal betrayal, so when she asks you if she can take you up on that coffee, or maybe something stronger, all you can think about is your own situation; the Edward-shaped scar you literally carry over your heart: he couldn’t help it; if I wasn’t distracted; I wasn’t enough; Maybe if I… Maybe if he… Maybe if we…
“Maybe we should both leave home at home, and keep it professional,” is what you manage to say, make yourself meet her eyes before you walk away, trying to keep the air of disdain and not let the hurt seep through.
You see her again on your way out, almost hesitate when she offers up a drink again, but you don’t know if you can be around her without having had the space to sort out your own mind first. You leave her standing there, and you wonder, briefly, if her scar is hurting today; wonder if you hope it isn’t, or if you hate yourself for hoping it is.
You go to Albie’s, order a glass, acquiesce with not much argument when Raf appears and adds a bottle. Two. You’re impressed when it takes seven whole minutes for him to bring up Bernie, impressed with yourself when the glass doesn’t crack in your grip, even as you question why, exactly, you’re so bothered. He knows, of course he does, about the scar that’s been seen along Bernie’s back, deep and long. It starts on her shoulder blade, Raf says, and curves just under her ribs, and it looks mostly healed, according to the reliable witness, except for a tiny bit that is still open and sore. He’s eyeballing you, and you slug back some wine, intent on shutting him down; a lie of that magnitude obviously indicates untrustworthiness, and in your professional-
“You’ve seen Dom’s scar. Ya know… the scar. You know the scar, Serena.”
He shuts you up mid-open-mouth. Your jaw clenches and you empty your glass in one swallow.
“We all sympathise with Dom, now that we know. With you,” he looks emphatically at your chest, and you shift uncomfortably. You always feel like a bit of a fraud, when your big scar is compared to others’. After all, Dom felt he had no choice but to deny his sexuality, to try to fit in, to be something different. His was almost a matter of life and death, really. You chose to marry Edward, knew what he was, and still made excuses for him, made excuses for your marriage. You don’t just bear your scar knowing it was necessary; you live with the fact that its existence is entirely of your own making, if only you’d been better… You tune back into what Raf is saying, before you start worrying at its edges again. “Look at what Bernie’s gone through,” Raf says, gently, kindly not looking directly at you. “She wasn’t lying per se; she was living a life she thought she was supposed to, didn’t realise she was lying to herself until recently. Think about it, Serena.”
You go away and you think about it. That night, drunk, you haul your laptop onto your knees and, squinty eyed in bed, set to googling things that make your brain hurt when you sober up, but when you do sober up, you have a new perspective on life, can only imagine what it’s taken for Bernie to live the life that she has, to front it out since she was “outed”. You’ve read story upon story of women coming out in later life, having raised families, some not even realising what it was that made them ache, what made their skin bleed over and over for years. Some who knew, but were so afraid of the consequences, they kept quiet, did what they could to make life bearable. Put up with creating more scars by lying about the cause of the big one.
When Bernie gets seconded to AAU, you doubt yourself for a second, ready to let the mistrust and wariness take over, but then you remember the stories; people your age hiding themselves, and how heartbreaking it all is; how you’d cried into your wine glass; then later, when you couldn’t put down the laptop, your coffee, and so, when the stupid, somewhat exasperatingly adorable messenger turns up with her divorce papers, you have no qualms in manoeuvring her towards your office, finally sharing that coffee you’ve been offering since she appeared in your life.
No new scars appear; you don’t know why you expected them to, and you still haven’t actually seen the one they all talked about, on her back underneath her scrub top, but you’ve relaxed, and everyone on AAU seems to be almost in love with her. It’s like she’s found her place; an army trauma surgeon was always better suited to AAU than the mundane routine of post-op wards, you think. Raf winks at you, sometimes, and you go for stern, but sometimes, you wink back, and even Fletch and the regular nurses on your shift are relaxed enough to shine their eyes in your direction.
Everyone’s eyes are shining until Fletch gets stabbed.
Fletch gets stabbed and you’re both working frantically to make sure he stays alive, had been working frantically before that to make sure that everything on the ward was as it should be, and it all comes to a head.
You’re both sat on the theatre floor, and it’s inevitable that she blames herself, you suppose, almost inevitable that she feels wretched about it, even as you don’t really know what to do, because even when she was literally going home to leave her husband of twenty-five years, she didn’t look as wretched and sad as she did right then. You don’t really know what to do, except that you can’t bear the self-flagellation when she’s so, so brave, and fearless, and talented, and so you tell her in no less words, but no more, either, as you will them to sink in and don’t really notice how close you’re becoming until her lips are pressed to yours. She pulls back, roams your face with her utter soul but gives you time to consider. Time for horror at her actions to set in.
You don’t consider; or, you do, have been for months you suppose, so you kiss her back, of course you do, you can’t have another moment of doubt etch across her face, and it’s not what you imagined, this throwing yourselves at each other on a theatre floor still covered in Fletch’s blood, but here you are, and you don’t move, don’t separate even a millimetre, until you hear the cleaning team moving in, and you both pull back, the sounds drift back in, and you’re the first one to dust yourself down; she’s the first one to her feet, holding out her hand to help you up.
The cleaning team move in as you’re both standing there, and you let her hand go as though it’s on fire, make some half-arsed excuse and flee, aren’t sure whether you’re relieved or disappointed that you don’t see her whilst you gather your things from the locker room and make your way to your car.
You’re disappointed, you decide, after you haven’t spoken for days. You’re busy between AAU and corporate, and Bernie’s covering the time when you aren’t there.
You’ve been practicing, but it all goes out the window when you have to hold the lift; when you mistake that what she’s saying isn’t about Fletch, but about you; cover your left hand with your right and get off at the next possible stop before Bernie notices the tiny droplets of blood appearing on your knuckles, don’t even think to look to check whether she’s covering, too.
You don’t speak again; not for days. Not until you’re both working the same shift, and it’s brutal, and you’re both exhausted, but Jason is otherwise occupied, and Bernie’s kids are still a sore subject, so you decide on an Italian she’s been wanting to try since she got back. Neither of you realise that it’s a tiny restaurant catered towards couples until you’re sat at a table, jumping when you realise your leg is resting against hers and not the table, but she lets you finish the wine, orders two coffees, seems sadly resigned when she kisses you on the cheek and ushers you in to the taxi she ordered for you.
The next morning, you buy yourself a coffee and a pastry because she’s late, don’t have time to chastise her before Hanssen turns up and spirits her away. From the desperate look on her face, you go back to order her a coffee anyway; you catch her eye from across the cafe, and it’s as though her eyes bore in to your core and you melt from the inside out, fancying yourself as a warm pain au chocolat - it’s the hangover, you decide, taking a large swig of your Americano. It’s the hangover, you decide, until you share banter, until she takes the mick about how your pastry wouldn’t have to be medicinal if you’d just ordered by the glass, and you have to scoff, hold your hand out: I’m sorry; Serena Campbell, have we met?
It’s when she takes your hand, when your fingers touch her, that you immediately know, that your brain stops every other action or thought other than I love her.
You love her, you think, wondrously, and for want of scaring her off, you clear your throat and ask what Hanssen wanted.
You wish that you’d asked her anything else.
I don’t want you to go you say, somewhat desperately. The ward has been manic, and neither of you has had time to breathe outside of a cubicle, let alone talk.
“Ok,” she says, and she seems so open, so willing to listen, but so unforthcoming with anything that you’re rather pulled up short.
“That’s… that’s as far as I’ve got,” you say, reaching out to play with her sleeve, interrupted by Raf for a consult.
You can’t leave it there, though. You chastise yourself later, fingering the faded scar along your chest. You chastise yourself for chastising yourself, having vowed you’d never be in this situation again. But still, your scar isn’t opening, the one that means you’re lying to yourself, and so you hold out some hope that history isn’t repeating itself; that Bernie sodding off to Kiyv isn’t the same as Edward fucking off with a whore half your age, or even shagging a locum doctor, an on-call nurse, and you’re not making excuses for that.
When she doesn’t answer your calls, your texts, or even your emails from your work address, you both console and torture yourself with the thought that the soles of her feet, her underarms, the skin where her thighs meet are burning with freshly welted scars. Or even the one across her back; you imagine it opening again; bleeding because she’s dishonest, a coward, and you want to hate her, hate Raf, hate yourself, for giving her the benefit… You imagine yourself cleaning it, kissing it better. In the car every morning, you talk yourself out of reliving that nightmare dream, convince yourself you can’t see the blood, nor the beautiful aftermath.
She comes back. You’ve spent so long imagining it that now that it’s here, you panic; you wear too much make up, probably; dress too beautifully for work, probably; act too nonchalantly for just a colleague returning from sabbatical, probably. You don’t know what to do with yourself, so you ignore her. She asks you for a drink and you ignore her; she asks you about Jason, and if you’re ok, and you look at her with disdain before walking away, keeping your mouth shut because you can’t deal with more marks to add to the almost perfect teardrop patterned scars across your forearm.
Others take their cue from you; or, they pick up where they left off, the ones on Keller, the ones that hadn’t worked on AAU when you made it a space she could comfortably be, despite her past. Either way, you don’t make the effort to stop the gossip about her, about the circumstances of her leaving or her return, and someone in the locker room – who went out of their way to be there the same time as her, more than likely – has seen that the scar across her back looks fresher.
When Raf brings over a bottle that evening, you silence him before he even speaks.
She’s a consultant, a specialist in her field, and usually people would hide their mistrust somewhat better, but you’ve been there the longest and they take their cues from you. You’re tired of it. Try to ignore it, and so that’s what everyone else does, too. Stops looking between you both with wariness, and just… stop looking at her at all. Raf looks at you pitifully. Fletch, too; you know he drinks with Bernie when he thinks you haven’t a clue, but no new scars appear on his arms when you – nonchalantly, you think, although his face gives you away – question him on his evening activities and what is her co-lead up to these days, anyway? Credit to both Fletch and Raf, they never carry tales, even though it’s obvious that they just want to smash your heads together.
You’re pretty sure that Jason and Fletch are about to lock you both in your shared office – and to be honest, you’d probably have let them – when you get a trauma call; a soldier being flown in to the trauma bay. Bernie and Fletch go to meet them, whilst you prep the ward. As soon as they enter the unit, you know it’s a lost cause. Bernie is holding his hand, this almost tiny figure on the gurney, and Fletch shakes his head almost imperceptibly, even as you and Bernie both bark out orders.
He’s not screaming, not like you think he should or would be looking like the baby he is, no more than twelve to your eyes, but probably about twenty-five. His eyes are trained on Bernie; Bernie, who only looks away from him to flit her eyes towards the monitors. Bernie, the trauma specialist, who makes no move to let go of his hand; who squeezes harder when he whimpers “Major…” and widens his eyes at her, causing her to smooth his hair with her free hand. She makes no move to pick up her tools, and that’s when you know for sure; take a step back and let her talk, let her meet his desperate smile with her own reassuring one.
“You’ll tell them?” you hear him gasp, Bernie’s free hand is still smoothing back his hair whilst her other is held in a deathly grip.
“Of course I will,” she answers, smiling.
“It’s ok,” she says. “It’s all right; it’ll be all right; you’re all right; it’s ok…” over and over you hear her, watch as his eyes, his huge, terrified eyes, remain trained on her, the Major, trusting in her, as his colour dips, his eyes dim.
She carries on reassuring him, the softness never leaving her voice, her hand never faltering in its soothing motion along his hairline, until he’s flatlined for over half a minute, and Bernie is untangling herself from the bed. Lou, the nurse, is fussing; you think he’s been bleeding out from multiple places until you see Bernie walking off, see her holding the bottom of her scrub top. Fletch has blood covering his front; even you have some on your plastic apron, just from transferring from the paramedics. But Bernie… Suddenly, it makes such horrifying sense to you that you gasp, audibly.
You rip your plastics off, call time of death, squeeze Raf’s shoulder and wait for the half a second it takes him to nod at you, before you follow Bernie.
You don’t know how you got there before her, but you’re sat in the locker room when she comes in. You knew she’d come here to change, of course you did, but you weren’t sure what you’d do about it until now, when she’s standing in front of you, looking embarrassed but also pained, obviously trying to hold her top away from her skin. She offers you a tight smile, one that by now you know so well, so you stand when you see her pull out fresh clothes from her locker and head towards the shower.
“Let me help,” Not meaning to whisper, but that’s how it comes out, anyway, and you bite the apology back until you know for sure she’s taken offence. When her head snaps up, but she says nothing, you add, “You can’t reach that by yourself.
I get it.
Please, let me help.”
Your fingers reach up to ghost where you can see faint bloody marks on her scrub. Bernie sighs, her eyes close, but she removes the scrub top, lets you help peel the skin tight thermal gently away from her skin. Your thumb skirts the edges of the bleeding scar whilst she pulls the top over her head, swallowing against the tears when you see first-hand how deep it runs, how many times the skin has split, knitted back together only to be torn again, never quite fully healing over. You trace a drop of blood, but she starts forward, holding her bloodied thermal up across her front, hugging it to herself, not quite turning around to face you.
“No one has ever…” she says hoarsely, then, as if choking on her own truth, and after catching your eye for a split second in the mirror, she looks away, looks down.
“Marcus?” you ask, because surely, surely, if you’ve noticed, if you clicked after harbouring this… this love and doubt and everything in between for mere months, however much longer it may have seemed, surely he twigged?
Bernie shrugs. “He always thought I was lying about something. That I didn’t love him; that I was shagging around.”
Despite what you know – maybe because of it, too – the words come unbidden.
“And you weren’t?”
Bernie winces, and you want to apologise, but the residual hurt stops you, despite what you know now.
“I loved him,” she says, simply. Huffs a laugh a bit. “I still love him. He’s everything you could ever want in a man; my best friend; a brilliant father, best husband you could probably ask for… Just so happens, I never really asked for a husband.”
Before you can open your mouth, she elaborates. “I didn’t know that. I mean, obviously,” she gestures vaguely at herself. “When I started to have an inkling, it was only when I first met Alex; I had some cuts appear on my feet - really faint, only noticeable to me,” she huffs a laugh again. “Amazing how painful the tiny ones are, in places you take for granted.”
You wince a bit, sorry about what you wished upon her whilst she was gone. “I just… I never really knew there could be...well… anything else.”
You guide her towards the bathroom where she sits on a bench, still with her back towards you. You busy yourself finding a flannel, gauze, saline, warm water. Trying to process.
“And he never…” you stop yourself, afraid to push too far, but astonished that you could live with someone for so long, and not even question.
‘He never asked. Never really wanted to know about my work, about what went on. So I guess… I suppose I just never told. We just got used to… I mean it… it just… it is… what it is…”
You stop yourself from further comment when you hear her voice break. You haven’t exactly got the perfect model to fall back on, but…
“Did you ever want to? Tell him, I mean, about… about this one?” you ask, softly, pushing her hair out of the way whilst you wipe her back down with the flannel. You can’t imagine keeping that to yourself, not having the person who supposedly loves you to comfort you. But then, you’d loved Edward, in more of a physical sense than you suppose Bernie’s ever loved Marcus; might have loved Alex had she the chance to live that life. Your heart clenches, and in lieu of squeezing her, you run the hot flannel in a long, gentle line along her spine, pressing it for longer than necessary against her lower back.
“Yes,” she answers, eventually. You can hear it in her voice the moment her eyes open again, don’t feel the need to search for a fresh welt. “I’d come home, sometimes, and the words would be waiting to spew out, you know, especially after… well, after the harder times, but by the time I got through the door, and he’d caught me up on the kid’s lives, his life, the reality, I… He’d ask, eventually, once all that was out of the way, and we were sat on the sofa, drinking, and it was just… I didn’t want to burst this bubble, this… perfection outside the bubble of my own reality, and so… I mean, he was only asking politely, in the end, anyway, always assumed that the scar was… well, related to him, to the kids, to me denying every time he asked me if I was happy with them.”
Your eyebrows knit again, because you realise that the whole time she’s talked about her family, whenever she’s talked about her family, there’s never been any sign of a fresh scar appearing, so how could he just...
Bernie swallows, and you still resist the urge to reach out for her.
“He cried, a couple of times, when I came home, and I suppose I was a bit more distant because… well,” she shrugs self-deprecatingly, and you get it, you do, and you want to pummel Marcus retrospectively. “And I told him it was all right, it was all right, and…” Bernie’s voice gets higher pitched, breathier, and your heart breaks a bit more.
Her biggest lie. A good one. Set in skin, in flesh and blood.
“I’d want to tell him,” she was crying now, words so softly whispering out. “But the words wouldn’t come; they’d get stuck, and I’d be heaving, and in the end, I was glad. Because it meant I didn’t have to finish the sentence; didn’t have to start because I didn’t know how I’d stop, because I was afraid of crying until I ran out of sound, forever. It was easier, to live in their world, to slot myself in wherever and whenever I could, because it was different, and I didn’t have to keep reliving it. So when he asked me, I said it’s all right, and I’d bleed, and he’d… he just assumed, and he’d say “how can it be all right?” and I’d say, it is, this is, but the scar had already opened and nothing I said then made that any different.”
When you discard the flannel, you realise that she’s shaking as much as your hand is. You pick up the gauze, start bandaging around her, knowing the scar doesn’t need stitches; can see where it has done, on more than one occasion.
Your heart breaks a little bit more.
“Does it hurt?” you ask absently, as she lifts her arms, takes the bandage from you to wrap around her front and hand back to you.
“All the time,” she whispers, and it pulls you up short, stops you in the clinical assessment that’s taken over, and makes you want to kiss along the jagged, scarred skin that you’re so tenderly wrapping up. You don’t know whether it’s the dim light, the weight of the moment, the hitch of her breathing, or the fact that you love her –
but you do it anyway, and she tenses, but doesn’t pull away.
“I’m sorry,” you whisper over her shoulder. She flicks her neck minutely to the side, almost facing you, eyes still closed.
“It’s all right,” she answers, shortly. You flit your lips against her collarbone, lift your head to devour her profile, again. “It’s all right.”
You let the bandage drop, rest your forehead against her back andrealise that her scar isn’t getting any deeper; there is no fresh blood. So you place butterfly kisses along the top edge of it, back up across her shoulder, until you lift your fingers to tilt her chin, don’t need to so much because she’s already reaching to meet you, turning, eyes wide, red rimmed but hopeful. She twists completely, ignoring the stretch in her scar as she takes your hands, places one on her back and one just under her ribcage, all along the places she’s bled.
“It’s all right.”
And you finally kiss, knowing it will be.