Chapter 1: Day 3: Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Berena Advent 2019, Day 3: Frost
“It was Cameron’s idea,” Bernie declared as soon as she saw Serena squinting at the words etched in the frost on the windshield of her car.
“Writing a message on my on car was your son’s idea? Do you usually listen to him?”
Bernie hunched down in her coat and scarf, shrugging. She’d been caught in the moment and it had seemed a rather romantic, albeit silly, idea at the time. Why do I let him talk me into things? Because she was so happy he was speaking to her again and approved of her new partner that she got a bit over excited.
Serena sighed and seemed to give up reading the brief note as a lost cause. The snow had started to fall more rapidly in the few minutes since they’d stepped out of the hospital and was rapidly occluding its contents.
“It’s almost impossible to see, in any event. Why don’t you tell me what it says?”
Bernie floundered, her already pink cheeks glowing red at Serena’s sudden attention. “It was just a joke. Nothing worth repeating.” Think it through next time. If there’s even a next time. Serena hasn’t given any indication…
“It ended in a heart, it must have been something of note.” Serena raised an eyebrow.
Bernie choked. Oh no. “I thought you couldn’t see it.”
“The heart was fairly legible. You know your handwriting.”
Bernie made a faintly distressed noise, and Serena sauntered to Bernie’s side to regard her squarely. Shit. What if I ruined it? Don’t let me ruin this.
“Am I going to need to perform CPR on you before we get out of here, because I suggest we return inside if so. I don’t like my chances of getting our lips apart in these temperatures if I have to do rescue breaths.”
Bernie’s sputtering only grew more nonsensical as she tried to deny what they both knew. Serena chuckled. She had Bernie dead to rights and they both knew it.
“Have I broken you?” Serena smirked. “Odd coming from a woman who thought writing ‘Marry me?’ on a car, in dust and snow was an appropriate way of proposing to one’s girlfriend, but I suppose stranger things have happened.” Serena pecked Bernie on her cold-chapped lips. “And by the way? The answer is yes.”
Chapter 2: Day 2: Many Times, Many Ways
Berena Advent 2019, Day 2: Dance
Bernie's home for Christmas, and at the Holby Christmas 'do, she asks Serena for a dance. This is their song.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Serena had known Bernie was in the building as Cameron had spoken of little outside of his mother’s impending visit since she’d flown into the postcode. Although mother and son still struggled to communicate, Bernie’s near-miss in Mogadishu this past summer had pushed them to mend their fractured relationship. Not an easy feat by any means but a worthy one. Serena had watched from the sidelines, wistful and not a little envious, but happy for them.
In the same time, Serena and Bernie had made halting, determined overtures to mend their friendship. They had been first-rate chums before those feelings of mutual regard turned to love; surely, that was worth something. It was, if Serena said so herself. There was nothing like the ease with which that had slotted into each other’s lives when they were strangers, but there was something. A way of bantering, an instinct and intimacy to their empathy for each other, born of hell. When past hurts cropped up in conversation, they were able to navigate them honestly albeit awkwardly. They still had the makings of the finest surgical team in either of their countries of residence, thus they always had medicine to fall back on when personal avenues proved too treacherous to tread. They were friends again and that was what Serena chose to focus on as the date of Bernie’s return drew closer.
Bernie had said she’d make herself available if Serena cared to get together for coffee and Serena had said she’d be glad to. They hadn’t set a time or a date. Bernie had set foot in the hospital and been immediately pulled in a half dozen directions once she was done being hugged by Cameron. There hadn’t been a free moment for Bernie to catch up with Serena, so in demand was her personal attention and her professional expertise, and Serena hadn’t jockeyed for position. A year was a long time; Serena had perfected the art of waiting her turn.
Eventually, Henrik had reasoned Bernie ought to be compensated for the hours she was putting in and so here she was, locum consultant Bernie Wolfe back in action, getting stuck in wherever she was needed at Holby City Hospital. There was something bittersweet about seeing Bernie in trauma blue in the ED or Keller plum in general surgery. She even moonlighted on Obs & Gynae for a risky pre-term multiple birth.
As Medical Director, Serena had had to sign off on all the paperwork before and after the fact. It was an exciting, perilous procedure with long odds. There were no two surgeons she’d have trusted more to undertake it than Bernie and Fleur. Reading their reports—Bernie’s rather more perfunctory, per custom, and Fleur’s candid and glowing—Serena got the first inkling of what it must have been like for Bernie to know she and Fleur were socializing quite so much in the old days. Bernie was brains, brawn, and beauty, to be sure, but Fleur was her equal in ability, in intellect, and could show any woman of her persuasion what life was all about. She knew her worth, and her allure, and loudly proclaimed the value of any woman who needed to glean her own. This is a procedure you celebrate, Serena had thought, and been jolted with dueling emotions of jealousy and desire at the thought of Fleur taking Bernie out for a celebratory night on the town she wasn’t quite sure where to file. Bernie and Fleur might have been unlikely, but then plenty of successful couples were. Serena and Bernie had been, though perhaps not as much as their end made them seem. Perhaps they would find something in one another neither found in Serena.
Unsettled, she had jotted her signature down with a brief note to both surgeons, praising their efforts and put the files aside. Mother and triplets had survived. Job done. Time would need to handle the rest. Per her expectations, Fleur had seen her note flagged in the system and replied via text with a cheeky, Thanks, boss xx. Contrary to her nil expectations, Bernie had replied too, evidently following Fleur’s advice: Just doing my job. -B. Serena almost hadn’t said anything, Bernie’s message hadn’t called for a response, but Serena’s self-control where Bernie was concerned was never impeccable. She wrote, You were exemplary. You’re never less.
Bernie read it, Serena saw as much from the notification below her message. Checkmark, Read 8:29 PM. She didn’t reply.
Serena left it at that.
A few days before Christmas events (and Donna, Zav, and likely Ric, Serena didn’t doubt) had conspired to put Bernie and Serena together on the same ward during the same shift.
Ric had begged off the ward under the guise of having a board meeting to oversee and Serena needed a second to split paperwork and theatre duty with her. The Winter Health Crisis had commenced, what with the cold and the snow, and the above average amounts of hapless reveling and maudlin dwelling. The ED and AAU were at risk of being overrun when Bernie had appeared in AAU scrubs, bearing scalding hot coffee to share.
“Someone called for reinforcements?” Bernie said, announcing her entrance to the consultant’s office.
Serena forgot herself and smiled wide enough to elicit and ache in her cheeks. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Bernie startled before returning her smile. “If I’d known you’d be this happy to see me, I’d have brought coffee sooner.” They hadn’t spoken much in the days since Bernie had come home besides pleasantries exchanged while sharing the lift and small talk at the counter at Pulses. There was always someplace else to be.
“You didn’t need to bring coffee for that.” Bernie cleared her throat, neck catching a slight flush, and Serena remembered who she was talking to her. Her colleague, technically her subordinate, and her friend. Her ex. She tamped down on her excitement and all the attendant emotions. “Have a seat, Ms. Wolfe. We kept that chair warm for you,” she said, indicating the desk Ric had vacated for the duration.
Bernie barked, “Ha, likely story.” She took it anyway after handing Serena her coffee. Serena permitted herself a moment to enjoy things as they were, so sure she had been once nothing would be like this again. The two of them in this office drinking coffee in preparation of the ensuing deluge. Campbell and Wolfe on AAU, let the miracles commence!
She laughed to herself and Bernie raised her eyebrows in question.
“I was thinking is all. You and I, here like this, it’s just like old times.”
Bernie smiled at her, eyes crinkling in fondness Serena couldn’t misinterpret. “I hope so.”
Out on the ward, Donna raised the alarm. They had incoming.
Bernie hopped to her feet and offered Serena hand up and away from her lovely coffee. “Come on, Campbell. Duty calls.”
Serena groaned. She loved her job, but what she wouldn’t give for a few quiet moments more alone with Bernie. “Kandahar-style?”
“Mogadishu-style. Who says you can’t teach a Wolfe new tricks?” Bernie winked, terribly, and Serena laughed outright. She never had got a hang of Serena’s signature affectation.
“Lead on, Major. This, I’ve got to see.”
Out on the ward, Bernie gave the staff an in-situ crash course in frontline triage. Serena watched closely and took copious mental notes. Not the least because Bernie was a capable teacher and Serena was an apt pupil. Bernie was the finest surgeon, nay finest medical professional, Serena had ever met, and as Medical Director it was Serena’s responsibility to advocate for state-of-the-art procedural changes when she could. Bernie was exemplary, and as clinical lead, Serena wanted her ward to be exemplary, too. As the woman who had loved Bernie, and likely always would, watching her in her element, confident, and devoid of pain and regret was a privilege she might not get again. Serena thought she could be forgiven for being enamored of the sight.
As miracles went, Serena would take having Bernie here with her as one.
Serena finally got the chance to spend some extended downtime with Bernie during the Holby Christmas ‘do at Albie’s. Serena had come dressed in what she had worn to work whilst Bernie had taken the time to change out of scrubs into a natty new suit. She’d come with a somewhat subdued Dom and a chatty, pre-buzzed Cameron and his latest conspicuously blonde love interest. The blonde eventually departed for other company and Cameron took it upon himself to cheer Dom up with a dance.
Serena sidled over to Bernie where she was seated at the bar watching her friend and only son attempt to cut a rug with wildly divergent ideas of rhythm.
“Talk about your unlikely match-ups,” Serena said in lieu of a greeting.
“People used to say that about us.”
Bernie hummed confirmation. They sat quietly for the next little while, exchanging the odd word with friends as they passed to get drinks and paired off to dance. Serena quite suddenly couldn’t put two words together to say to Bernie. Bernie who was alive and might not have been. Bernie who was here, beside her, beautiful and brave and still cared. Here was her opportunity not to be squandered and she couldn’t seem to help herself.
“Are you all right?” Bernie asked her.
“Sure, what made you ask that?”
“You have this look on your face. You used to get it when something wasn’t going according to Serena Campbell’s Carefully Laid Plan for Success.”
“I can hear the capital letters.”
“You’re meant to hear them. What’s wrong?”
What wasn’t, Serena wanted to ask. Everything was wrong. She didn’t have Bernie anymore. She didn’t have their relationship. Not quite their friendship. Bernie was in the army, on a different continent. Quite possibly shagging Fleur, or someone else who wasn’t Serena. A choice she’d permitted and could only live with now it must have come to pass. But for the moment, this unbelievable moment, Bernie was here and she cared, and Serena couldn’t find her words.
She squeezed Serena’s hand and suddenly Serena was here a year ago, telling Bernie to go. Telling her all the things she wasn’t, that she couldn’t be, when what she wanted to do was tell Bernie all she meant to her. Serena had been a fool last year and she remained one in the here and now. She was a coward, too, and so she took the coward’s way out.
She smiled a tremulous smile at Bernie’s worried face and changed the subject.
“Looks like we’re the odd two out.” She indicated their colleagues cutting a rug on the dance floor, alone or in twos or more. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, reveling as though the world wouldn’t go on tomorrow, and their hangovers with it.
Bernie let go of her hand and shifted slightly back from her on her barstool. “I don’t know, there’s something to be said for watching our colleagues enjoy themselves.”
“And make fools of themselves.” Seeing Sacha lead Henrik through the macarena was one for the diary.
Bernie sniggered. “There is that.” She nodded toward the floor. “You should be dancing, though. You could never refuse a good ABBA revue.” Watching Cameron, Dom, and Donna sing ‘Dancing Queen’ would make anyone jolly, she supposed.
“Remember that, do you?”
“I remember everything about you, Campbell. Besides, I’m friends with Fleur on Facebook; I’ve seen things.”
Serena flicked her pendant back and forth. “Things I should be concerned about?”
“Nothing like that. Fleur’s a good ‘un, she wouldn’t put your reputation at risk. Though, I often wondered what we didn’t get to see.”
“Once you’ve seen one past-her-prime consultant dancing topless on a table, you’ve seen them all.”
Bernie was taken aback. “That answers that question. I was talking about the drunken duet to One Last Summer she posted in April, but clearly you two have had many more adventures than make the rounds on Facebook.”
“I’m learning my way around gay clubs with Fleur as my willing tutor. We have fun.”
“Only a bit of fun?” Her insinuation brought a stammer to Serena’s tongue.
“Oh, no, not together. There’s nothing between us. It never felt right.” Not after how Bernie had reacted before. To say nothing of the fact Fleur wasn’t the type to play second fiddle to anybody’s so-called true love.
Bernie backtracked, seeming mortified at her slip. “Not that it’s any of my business. I mean, I-I wouldn’t mind if there was. Only Cameron said…You know, never mind, it’s no matter. I know I gave you a hard time about it before, but…we aren’t together now. I’d rather you be with someone I know cares about you than be alone.”
“I wish the same for you. I hope you’re happy.” It would make some of the pain worth it if Bernie were happy.
Bernie raised a stiff shoulder and pursed her lips in a gesture that was decidedly noncommittal. “I have the military hospital coming along nicely. I’m happy enough.”
“I have the hospital. You’ve heard I was made Medical Director?” Of course she did. You sent her memos in that capacity. Get a hold of yourself.
“I did. Congratulations.” Bernie made an abortive reach for her. She folded her hands together on her knee, a guilty look taking up residence on her face. Serena felt the weight of her touch as if the contact had landed. “They couldn’t have chosen better.” Serena was under the lasting impression everyone they’d asked before her had refused.
“Another thankless job for the CV.”
“Which you’ll perform admirably.”
Serena ducked her head to regard her hands. Bernie didn’t offer praise lightly. “I try. Some days, it seems the hospital and staff come up with new and more inventive ways to drive me up the wall.”
“You wouldn’t have it any other way.” Bernie grabbed her whiskey, leaving Serena to sketch the undulations of her throat with her eyes as she swallowed. Another irresistible sight. “You were made for this.”
“I used to think that.”
“Oh, this and that. Circumstances. Me.”
“How’ve you changed?”
She looked into Bernie’s eyes. Still darker than oceans Serena had crossed to get away from her when she was grieving and crossed to come back to her when she was done. The only eyes she wanted to look into as she dove into her final years, however many she had to look forward to. I realized that I still love you and I still want and need you. I let you go and I want you back.
Serena wished she had thought to refill her drink before coming over, but she had sworn to be clearheaded. Bernie deserved no less than Serena at her most lucid. The only courage she had to count on would need to come from inside her.
“You don’t want to hear about me when you could be dancing, do you?” Serena eyed an agency nurse glancing anxiously toward Bernie from across the room, amid a gaggle of cheerleading lookers-on. It was clear she was screwing up her courage.
Bernie didn’t seem to notice her or anyone besides Serena. “I haven’t got anyone to dance with.”
“I’m available.” That came out rather quicker than Serena had planned. Very subtle.
“Funny, so am I.” Bernie stood up and offered her arm, chivalrously. “What do you say we take a turn on the floor, for old time’s sake?”
“I’d like that very much.”
Anyone could have seen the nurse’s shoulders slump from a mile away. Serena wished her luck on finding someone else.
Their first dance was somewhat stiff, rife with idle chatter that tapered off after a single exchange. This was a perfect reenactment of that night, down to their inability to speak to each other or look one another in the eye. Serena held to Bernie, nevertheless. Sheer grit had brought them this far. Just talk to her. Ask her to stay. Don’t be a regretful idiot twice. You won’t get another shot.
When ‘Let It Snow’ crossfaded into ‘It Had to Be You,’ they kept dancing. Serena would have let go if Bernie did, but she wouldn’t do it first.
It was Bernie that broke the silence, voice soft. “What’s changed, Serena? You can tell me.”
Serena drew strength from Bernie’s hand on her back and other entwined with hers. They had drifted closer together over the course of the song. Chest to chest, breaths apart, traipsing to their own melody. Bernie bent her knees just so to meet her eye to eye. She did it without thinking. She did so many things without thinking, some wrong and some right; all with the best of intentions. That was what Serena loved about Bernie. She was all good inside. Not perfect and certainly not deeming herself so, but full of love and well-meaning. Bernie was the home fire Serena had needed to see burning, the flame she’d been left shivering without. Serena had longed for her heat.
“Bernie…I realized that nothing worth doing is worth doing alone. I love my job and I love Holby, but…it’s not my home now and I’ve twisted myself in knots to convince myself it still was.”
Bernie kept them moving when Serena began to slow, falling into a two-step to gather herself. “I’ve had similar thoughts myself about Somalia.”
“Mmhm. I love the country and the people. I love the work; I wouldn’t have gone back to the army if I didn’t think I could do the most good there. I could happily keep doing what I’m doing for years, but it isn’t home. When I touched down in Holby and saw the kids, I felt a little better.”
Serena permitted a lonely pulse in her chest for Elinor and let herself linger over it no more. Grief would be there tomorrow, as it was with her yesterday. Tonight was for love.
“Home is where the heart is,” she said, casting off the gloom. She would never begrudge Bernie and her children a family of love.
“That’s what they say.” They danced silently to Frank Sinatra crooning about the good and bad, the invariable fatedness of love.
For nobody else gave me a thrill
With all your faults, I love you still
It had to be you, wonderful you
It had to be you
“The thing is, Serena, I haven’t felt much at home anywhere since I left Albie’s last year around this time.” She sent Serena a skittish look before focusing at the wall over Serena’s shoulder. “What I guess I’m saying is…my home is with you.”
“Yes.” They stilled on the edge of the dance floor. “If I’m barking up the wrong tree, or I’ve left it too late, you can tell me and I’ll accept that, but-“
“You could never be too late. I wanted to be the one to do the asking. That’s the least you deserved. You shouldn’t have to be the brave one all the time.”
“I’m not the only brave one. At least, I don’t think I am.” Bernie plowed on. “I’m no domestic goddess and I’ll probably always forget to put out the bins unless you remind me but, Serena, I want to be with you.”
“I want to be with you. I’ve wanted to be with you since the moment you walked out that door a year ago. I nearly chased you down.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“What right did I have begging you to stay when I was the one who told you to go?”
“I waited. Not a long, an hour or so, because I thought you might stop me. I hoped you would.”
“I waited, here, hoping you’d forget something and come back, and when you didn’t, hoping I wouldn’t run into you at home. I knew there was no way I’d hold on to my dignity if I saw you again. I’d have made a fool of myself to keep you. I’d do it now, if it might help.”
“You don’t need to. It’s all—it’s water under the bridge. Bygones. You’re here now.” They were here now.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, that I don’t recognize how much asking you to leave hurt you. I thought I was only hurting me. I thought I deserved that pain, that I deserved to lose you for what I did, and in pushing you away I hurt us both.”
Bernie kissed her brow and pressed their foreheads together. They rocked slightly as the sound system cued another song, another ballad about love. Doris Day’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’.
“I can’t say you didn’t. It hurt like hell. Even when you said it was a one-time thing, part of me wondered, afterward, if you just didn’t want me anymore. If that was your gentle way of picking her over me. You wouldn’t be the first to find me wanting as a partner.”
“No, never that. It was—no, things weren’t perfect. In fact, they were chaotic and messy, less than ideal. But I didn’t end things because you aren’t good enough. Bernie, there’s nothing I don’t love about you. Even your snoring tips the scale at ‘sounds of home.’ I didn’t end things because I didn’t love you, I did it because I was scared to lose you. And I thought, if it was my decision it would hurt less than when you realized all you’d sacrificed to end up with just me, and you left anyway.”
“Ending up with you is the good ending, isn’t it?” Bernie’s eyes were wet, just perceptible through the tears in Serena’s.
“Depends where you’re standing.”
“Looks like paradise to me, and I should know, I’ve been there.”
Serena stroke the rogue tear escaping the corner of Bernie’s eye. “I’m not the woman I used to be or the woman want to be, but I’m still the woman who wants to be with you, and if you’ll have me, I’ll never send you away again.”
“You had me at ‘You must be Berenice Wolfe’ three years ago and you’ve had me ever since. Nothing else matters, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Everything else, everyone else, is just a hiatus from me and you. You’re it for me, Campbell. That’s all.”
“All that time, Bernie. I’ll make it up to you, I swear. I won’t make you wait again.”
“I said I’d wait an eternity, didn’t I? I can be patient.”
Serena looped her arms around Bernie’s neck as they swayed to the song’s piano solo. “Have I told you ‘I love you’ tonight?”
“I love you.”
“One more time.”
“I love you and your aversion to hairbrushes.”
Bernie honked and Serena guffawed, and together they were an obnoxious symphony of joy. That’s what I’ve missed. This is how it should be.
“I love your smart mouth and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you.” Bernie’s joyful mien crumbled. “Don’t leave me again, please. Don’t put a world between us this time because you’re upset at yourself. You aren’t the only one left alone when you do.”
Serena gathered her in to kiss her cheek and temple. She couldn’t wait to get her home, to show her how loved she was and how remorseful Serena had yet ceased to be. She would be sorry all her days. Her love was love and restitution.
“No more distance. I’m sorry.”
Bernie shook her head, though she didn’t refuse Serena’s kisses, the scoundrel. “I’m sorry for leaving. I should have been braver, I should have fought for you.”
“Should haves won’t make tonight easier. Looking backward will get us in a whole new world of trouble. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in the arms of a beautiful blonde in a sharp suit, and there’s a sprig of mistletoe with our names on. I’d like to kiss her.”
Bernie leaned away, her sorrow gone but for the sheen of tears drying on the apple of her cheeks. “Should I leave you and this mystery blonde alone?”
“Don’t be clever. You and I, we’ve got kisses to recoup.”
“How many do you reckon?”
“Hundreds, easily.” Thousands, in fact. Serena planned be terribly demonstrative in the future.
“Then, we’d better get a move on.” Bernie led the way off the dance floor, past a suspiciously gleeful Donna exchanging money with Fletch, and Ric who was grinning into his eggnog. Another scoundrel, though one without any kisses in his near future, if Serena had anything to say about it.
Serena peered up at the jolly mistletoe adorning the doorway where she and Bernie had once said a distant goodbye.
“I’ll make the first one good.”
“Don’t leave me in suspense, Campbell. My lips are getting cold.”
Serena cupped the nape of Bernie’s neck. “Well, we can’t have that.”
She kissed Bernie until the wolf whistles started and Bernie had to hold on to her to keep standing.
When they parted, Bernie looked thoroughly, wonderfully kissed.
Bernie was back again, golden as ever, and hers to keep. Another miracle.
Serena had got her Christmas wish.
Originally posted here.
Chapter 3: Day 6: [We'll] Find It Hard to Sleep Tonight
Berena Advent 2019, Day 5: Peace/Day 6: Exhaustion
Bernie made it home for Christmas, but in Serena's mind, the nightmare isn't entirely over. Bernie tries to prove it is.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Bernie assessed the oblong package she was attempting to wrap for what must have been the fourth time. It was still an inconvenient shape; now it happened to be an inconvenient shape covered with bits of ripped paper and clear tape. It sat at the eye of the Yuletide hurricane that was the Campbell-Wolfe residence in full holiday splendor. The Christmas tree sparkled. Holiday music filled the air. There was the smell of baking gingerbread biscuits pervading every room. And there was Bernie attempting to wrapping a child’s Christmas presents, very poorly.
“I can handle that if you like,” offered Serena from the dining room entrance.
Bernie flicked an indignant look at her partner to convey what she thought of that unwelcome suggestion. Serena raised her hands in rueful acquiescence and repaired to the kitchen to refresh their hot cocoa.
Hop to, Wolfe. Gwen’s gift isn’t going to wrap itself.
Since reuniting with her family earlier in the year, Bernie had taken special care to earn her place as part of the family. That meant taking time to get to know Greta and spending as much time as possible with Jason and her growing grandniece. Serena had told her repeatedly she had nothing to prove, that she was welcome without reservation; Bernie still needed to be convinced.
Serena deposited a hot mug beside her and squeezed her shoulder. “You needn’t go to all this effort, darling. She’s only eighteen months, she’ll be happy if you hand her, her gift as-is because it’s from you. Guinevere loves you, Bernie. You don’t need to earn it.” Bernie covered Serena’s hand with hers.
“This will be my first Christmas as her grand-auntie and I want to make it special for her. I want her to know she’s special to me.”
“You’re here so she’ll always know. And you’ve always been her grand-auntie. Distance isn’t a stitch on love.” Serena hugged her from behind, pillowing her cheek in Bernie’s hair. The embrace lingered a moment past comfort to something else, something she’d felt off and on since she and Serena reunited last summer.
Serena sat up and made to step away. “I’m always all right.”
“Come around here.” Bernie guided a recalcitrant Serena to the chair next to her. Serena made to perk herself up. She did well, putting a comely smile on her lips that drew Bernie’s eye almost as certainly as the anxiety she was failing to hide. “What’s bothering you?”
“Nothing’s bothering me. I’m trying to get you to let me help you, but I know how important wrapping this gift is to you so I won’t force the matter.”
“Changing the subject won’t work.”
“I had really hoped it would.” She patted Bernie’s hand. “Nothing wrong. I’m—I’m happy you’re here and it’s making me more…affectionate than I usually am. It’s probably the time of year.” The time of year that made her think of her losses and regrets. How very near Bernie had come to being one. Serena tried not to talk about it more than necessary outside of therapy and Bernie tried not to bring up the topic knowing how raw the wounds were in the winter season. Her mother and father. Elinor. Raf and Jasmine.
Bernie felt it necessary to reassure her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Serena laughed her off. “I’m not worried.”
“You’ve been watching me all afternoon.” Serena tended to orbit Bernie anyway when they were home, as Bernie did to Serena when they weren’t engaged in separate tasks. Something about being so very far apart for such a time made them prone to sticking together when their schedules allowed. Not falling over one another and not attached at the hip; together, united in purpose and mischief. It was a good way to live. Serena being watchful was another mood.
“You’re an attractive woman. Why shouldn’t I watch you?”
“You’ve seen me before.”
“And you get more attractive all the time, can you blame me for staring?” Serena made flamboyant cow eyes at her and Bernie chuckled.
“Haven’t you got other things to be doing?”
“Ah no, unlike some, I did my shopping early.” She had also wrapped her gifts ahead of time while Bernie was out shopping with Jason and Serena had volunteered to watch Gwen. Bernie had come home to find their grandniece dozing in a pile of wrapping paper off-cuts Serena had given her to keep occupied. That was the only indication she’d had that Serena had taken care of the domestic necessaries related to Christmas. The decorations had appeared like magic after one of Serena’s days off in November and that had been that. The Christmas tree they’d decorated in an extravagant tree trimming party with Cameron, Charlotte, Jason and his family.
“Don’t change the subject.”
“All right, I won’t.” She leaned to peer intently in Bernie’s eyes. “You’re gorgeous.”
“You’re fantastic and fearless.”
Bernie squirmed. “You’re laying it on a bit thick.”
“I’m going to spend my life saying it. You should get used to it.”
Bernie shook her head, thoroughly diverted.
“You’re getting repetitive.”
“I love seeing you smile.”
“I don’t know why.”
“What do you mean? You have a lovely smile. You know that.”
“Nobody thinks that.”
“Marcus used to say I looked ridiculous when I smiled.”
“We’re certainly not going to take his word for it. He’s a twat. Also wrong, but especially a twat.” Serena hadn’t forgiven Marcus for adding to her grief during Bernie’s premature funeral service. Bernie’d had choice words of her own for her former husband regarding his behavior. She’d revised her will to clarify who should be in charge of her arrangements should anything more final arise again. There’d be no room for Marcus usurp her loved ones next time.
“You would think that.”
“Nobody who makes you doubt yourself is worth listening to. Anything that tells the world you’re happy is beautiful just as it is.” Serena dipped her head to catch Bernie’s eye. “I love you, Bernie, including the parts of you you don’t love.”
“We weren’t talking about that.”
“We are now.”
“Serena, I can see you struggling. Remember, we agreed we weren’t going to talk around it.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Now you’re the one repeating herself.” Bernie held her hands to keep her from physically retreating. Serena jutted out her chin, defiant. “I should check the biscuits.”
“No, you should listen to me, they’ll keep.” They were still learning to talk to each other, to show each other what they wouldn’t show anybody else.
“What is it you want me to say? I’m terrified all the time. I can’t believe you’re here. I’m waiting for this to belly-up and for you to go again. That it’s mad and I know it’s mad, and I’m trying not to drive you away with how much I need you to stay.” Serena slumped. “I don’t know how much else I can give you before you have everything. Can’t I keep my fear to myself?”
“Not if it means you suffer. That’s not what we’re about anymore. No more suffering in silence. We agreed, didn’t we?” Slowly, as if despite herself, Serena nodded. “When I was in the rubble, under the hospital in Mogadishu, I had plenty of time to think. I thought about my children and the amends I would never get to make. I thought of the grandchildren I wouldn’t ever see. But mostly I thought about never making it back to you. I tried to comfort myself that the journal would suffice. At least then, you could go forward with the knowledge I still loved you, for whatever that would be worth.”
“It was worth a great deal. It was something, having part of you.” Bernie had been MIA and presumed dead for two weeks before she’d finally been found alive under the rubble. There’d been a funeral and memorial service; Bernie had seen the video footage.
“I was jealous, did you know that? I realized Alex would get to see you, get to be with you when you were in pain and I wished it could be me there comforting you.” Bernie guiltily closed her eyes. “I didn’t treat her very well, come to think of it. I wasn’t in any fit state to be with anybody else while I was still…pining for you.”
“You, pining? I shudder to think.”
Bernie scoffed. “I pined quite a bit. I don’t draw flowers for just anyone. I tried to tell her that my heart was elsewhere but I don’t think she believed me.”
“I wasn’t wonderful to her either,” Serena admitted, averting her eyes. “I should have been kinder.”
“She said you were kind as you could be under the circumstances. She pushed your buttons to get you to react.” Alex had confessed while Bernie was recuperating in hospital that she’d niggled Serena to see if she was every bit Bernie had said she was. For good or bad, Serena was all that Bernie had said. Alex told her that was when she realized she couldn’t hope to compete.
“I did react. It wasn’t as if I didn’t expect you to find someone else. I simply hadn’t expected her to be the one. I don’t know why.” She sat back, pasting a smile on. “As I’ve always said, you deserve to be loved as much as she loved you. That was enough for me.”
“It wasn’t enough for me. I wouldn’t have written you a novel of love letters, otherwise.” Bernie had poured her heart out in ink and paper, in words she had somehow always known would be for Serena to read. Though she hadn’t believed herself to be prone to romantic overtures prior to re-upping in RAMC, the instant she had donned her uniform to begin her tour, she had been sure she wouldn’t come home again. If that were true, there was a wealth of things she had to say, with Serena Campbell as her primary recipient. And so had begun her journal, a love letter writ at length.
“I still have it.” Serena’s voice broke. She looked off toward the mantle, a forest of candid and sometimes staged photographs of a family growing and loving each day. There was a lifetime there, pressed between pages all year and brought out to air amid tinsel, holly, and pine needles littering the floor. Photos brought from family units lost to antiquity and one raised by their own loving hands. Having everything only made one more afraid of what it was they had to lose.
She jostled Serena’s hand, coaxing her from her melancholy. “Tell me something. What did you miss when I was gone? What were you afraid of never experiencing again?” Perhaps if she had Serena lay out her fear, she could put it to bed. She hadn’t a hope of leaving Serena in pain if she could help it. She loved her too much.
“Watching you sleep.”
“Not like that. You don’t sleep much. You’re always ‘on,’ always thinking. Planning. It’s the soldier in you. Getting you to turn ‘off’ for a few hours and relax, I knew how much you must trust me for that, and I missed it when I couldn’t see it because I knew what that meant too.”
“Ah.” She spontaneously darted forward to kiss Serena. “You can watch me sleep after Boxing Day since you can bet I’ll be worn out from all the festivities.” She trusted Serena with her life, she just hadn’t realized Serena had known. “What else?”
Serena smiled at her, her cheeks rising in a deep-seated pleasure that made Bernie shift. Something told her it wasn’t only the festivities that were going to leave her wrecked come Boxing Day. “I missed waking up with your hair in my mouth.”
“You’re having a laugh.” Serena used to complain about Bernie’s hair getting everywhere, so much so she’d taken to sleeping with it in a ponytail. That lasted until Serena needed something to hold on to as Bernie shimmied down her body with her destination well known, and the habit died before it was ever fully formed.
“No.” Serena arched her eyebrow and Bernie had to lick her lips. She had no interest in wrapping presents just now. Her partner was wonderfully distracting when she put her mind to it, as she no doubt had. Serena traced a nail along the sensitive flesh between her fingers. “I missed getting kicked while you dreamed.”
“Don’t remind me. I know I’m an active sleeper.” Alex used to complain about it. Marcus would often retreat to the sofa or the guest room than endure the worst of it.
Serena cocked her head on an indulgent smile, the seduction leaving her demeanor. The tip of her nose was going slightly red, as were her ears and the rims of her eyes. Her voice came out in a husky murmur when she spoke again. “I missed…trying to get out of bed and finding you holding on to me.” She sniffed. “I missed how you’d shove your cold hands under my pajama top during the night. How you refused to sit properly in a chair.” Bernie self-consciously dropped the leg she had tossed up on the chair opposite her. Serena’s brows beetled together. “That’s why I can’t stop looking at you. I don’t quite believe you aren’t in my head, but just in case, I’m memorizing you in case tomorrow you’re gone again.”
“I know it’s…it’s bad. I know I’m catastrophizing. It isn’t healthy.” She laced her hands together, twiddling her thumbs in a nervous habit more suited to Sacha Levy than the powerhouse Bernie knew and loved. “I’m talking to my therapist about it. It will pass, I know it will.” She rambled that little bit longer. “I think part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s silly. I’m being ridiculous.”
“Don’t do that, don’t belittle what you’re going through because it’s you.” Serena might have held many a grudge, but no one more was prone to being subjected to her ruthless judgement than herself. Serena never forgave herself her foibles. Bernie recognize the tendency, she was just the same. “You look at me as much as you want. Look until you realize I’m here and I’m not going anyplace. I don’t mind, so long as you don’t mind me looking back.”
Serena tried in vain to clear the frog from her throat but it was firmly lodged. She shook her head in response. Neither did she mind.
“I think that’s enough gift-wrapping for one evening, don’t you? I can think of something I’d much rather be doing.”
When Serena’s smile spread across her face, it was brighter than their blinking Christmas tree.
Serena roused in the night from a need for the bathroom. She threw back the covers to ease herself from the bed and got only muffled snuffling from beneath the covers for her trouble.
A tousled head emerged, and Bernie murmured, frowning, “Mm, don’t go.”
“Just to the bathroom.”
Bernie mumbled indistinctly, notably disgruntled at being disturbed from her rest.
Serena made quick work of the bathroom, shivering in the chilly house, and quickly climbed back under the surfeit of bedcovers topping their bed. Bernie squirmed over from her side to invade Serena, creeping over her with legs and arms, and a pointed nose that found its home in the crook of Serena’s neck.
Serena rubbed her cheek on the crown of Bernie’s head. “I love you, Bernie. I’m so glad you’re home.”
Bernie snuffled in her sleep, barely awake. She didn’t need to say a word. Serena knew she was loved too.
Serena was just dropping off into deep sleep when a pair of chilly hands dove under Serena’s top in search of heat. She yelped.
Bernie roused enough to let out a goose’s honk of delight and be kissed for it, bed breath and all. There wasn’t stamina enough in either of them for more than that, as they’d tuckered themselves out much earlier in the night. Though the night was young, they were not. Thankfully, they had tomorrow.
Exhausted and at peace, with an undeniably self-satisfied Wolfe wrapped around her, Serena let herself rest.
Originally posted on Tumblr here.
Chapter 4: Day 7: Everybody Knows
Berena Advent 2019, Day 7: Stable
When Serena is injured at Holby, Bernie crosses half the world to be with her.
I tried to do a reasonable amount of research on this but like it's finals week so just roll with it.
Serena gets pretty injured. It's not permanent but it is touch and go. Serena comes through it. If I find some energy I will go and fix this up later. Maybe.
Warning: Contains semi-graphic descriptions of electrocution and the ensuing burn injuries and non-graphic descriptions of potential medical complications.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bernie had been out of the country when it happened. She would not forgive herself for that any day soon.
Bernie had been in Mogadishu, up to her elbows and flesh and sinew, when an electrical fire tore through AAU, decimating a significant portion of Bernie’s previous ward. Not the result of criminal mischief, as was initially suspected, rather faulty wiring in the area of the former trauma unit. Serena was defibrillating a patient going into v-fib when a short in frayed wiring sent a 600+-volt shock coursing through her body and through the walls. The lights on the ward flickered off and on, and Serena seized, her body convulsing in a horrifying, ghoulish dance of electrocution. When the lights returned, Serena collapsed, a marionette abruptly robbed of strings.
Her heart wasn’t beating, and AAU began to burn.
Holby City Hospital was in a state when Bernie arrived, some eighteen hours on. A notable number of emergency vehicles were arrayed haphazardly throughout the patient loading zone and easily a dozen uniformed emergency responders filled any given corridor. AAU was inaccessible by any but a few and Bernie didn’t qualify. She took the lift to ITU after being directed by Donna, temporarily berthed on Keller, to locate Ric. When she found him, still in surgical garb, he looked as downtrodden as Bernie was starting to feel.
“How is she?” Pleasantries could wait. Bernie’s doubts, her unanswered questions, could not.
“Stable. It was touch and go at first. She’d lapsed into full cardiac arrest by the time we cleared the bay, but we managed to restore a normal sinus rhythm in under three minutes.”
“A credit to the staff.”
“I’ll pass on your compliments.”
He scrubbed a hand over his greying head. “I wish I could say I had better news. I’ve been on the operating table more often than I’d like to remember and operated on more of my colleagues and friends than I care to admit. It’s never been Serena. She’s dodged mayhem like there’s a guardian angel on her shoulder, but finally it’s taken a holiday.”
“I’d like a word with that angel.” Bernie wanted someone to blame. Chance couldn’t be made to see sense. Chance didn’t care and wouldn’t apologize. Chance and a roll of the die could deprive her of Serena tomorrow. She couldn’t go to war with chance.
“Any sign of regaining consciousness?”
“None yet.” That made over sixteen hours of unconsciousness. Bernie had been packed and on her way to the airport forty-five minutes after Cameron’s call had come in. She had hoped to arrive to Serena raising hell. But evidently Serena carried hell with her, and she was trapped in it.
“She’ll be fine,” Bernie assured them both. “She has to be.”
“She might very well be. I know better than to discount Serena for sheer pigheadedness. But, Bernie, we need to prepare ourselves for the worst.”
Bernie was confronted with the worst day in and day out. She refused to concede to it now. “Brain activity?”
“Notably altered but present.”
“Possible. It may also be a direct result of the high-voltage shock. We won’t know till she wakes. Everything is in the air in the meantime.”
“Can you tell me what happened? I’ve been on the phone with Henrik twice and I haven’t got a straight answer yet.”
“From what we can tell, the rapid dismantling of the trauma unit a year ago led to damage in the electrical wiring. The grounding in the modern biphasic defibrillators were able to compensate for the excess current but the older monophasic defibrillator had exposed wiring due to previous poor maintenance.” From the brittle sound of him, Henrik and others could expect to hear from him about it. He’d have to get in line; Bernie would be shouting first.
“And Serena touched it.”
“She did. Given the damage to the machinery, the exact voltage can’t be determined but we estimate anywhere from 600 to 1200 volts coursed through her body at the moment of contact.” He showed her the diagram of Serena’s injuries, indicating the pathway followed by the electrical current. From her right hand, up her arm and shoulder, along her neck and head, and down her torso. The site of each flash burn, electrocution mark, partial-thickness burn was noted in ink. Serena was speckled in them from her tousled grey head to her overworked feet. Bernie bit back an animal noise of distress and fought to assume her habitual air of clinical detachment. But this was Serena, not a stranger; detachment was impossible to achieve.
“Are the burns…How bad are they?”
“Survivable and relatively minor, under the circumstances. I’m more concerned about the persistent cardiac arrhythmia, the prolonged unconsciousness, and the possibility of unforeseen deep internal damage.” Bloods, an ECG, MRI and CT scans had already been undertaken and would be periodically repeated until Ric began to like the looks of Serena’s results. Bernie worried that time might not come.
“I’m going to sit with her. I trust you have no objections.”
“I doubt anyone here could stop you if I did.” Besides Jason and Greta, Serena had no one else to sit at her side and hold her hand. Bernie could still do that.
She entered Serena’s room on ITU to find the lights dimmed. They were taking preemptive measures to reduce her discomfort as they weren’t sure what, if any, damage she might have taken to her eyes. There was distinct odor of burnt hair and charred skin Bernie knew entirely too intimately. She shook those memories away to regard the swaddled figure propped on the bed.
She was resting on a set of plush pillows that Bernie would bet came direct from Serena’s bedroom suite. Her limbs were elevated to alleviate the onset of compartment syndrome. Serena’s right side was almost entirely covered in sterile dressings from shoulder to waist. Were it not for the angry, peeling red patches on her face and neck, her left side would have appeared untouched by her brush with death.
But she was breathing on her own and her heart was beating, albeit irregularly. Blood pressure was normal. Brain activity was measurable and relatively normal under the present circumstances. This was the best Bernie could have hoped for. A body still in operation could yet heal.
Physician, heal thyself.
She sat gingerly at Serena’s beside.
“Look what you’ve got into. Campbell, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.”
Serena’s dominant hand was mummified in pristine white bandages, only the badly peeling tips of her fingers exposed to air. Bernie brushed a kiss over her exposed thumb. It twitched, startling a laugh out of Bernie.
Serena remained still in repose, only her a rasping breath and heart monitor disturbing the funereal air of the hospital room.
“Ric tells me you’re giving him trouble. Your vitals are below standard. That’s unacceptable, Campbell. You’ve got work to do and a ward to run. Ric certainly can’t be trusted to handle all that on his lonesome. You-you’ve got a grandniece who still needs to learn the ins and outs of a proper shepherd’s pie. You can’t do this to her.” Bernie choked on her heart. “You can’t do this to me.”
She swept Serena’s damaged fringe from her brow. Blackened strands broke off in her hand. She brushed them onto the floor. They hardly mattered, they weren’t part of Serena now.
“We’re supposed to come back to each other. That can’t happen if you slip off now. We’ve got talking to do.”
Serena wheezed in her sleep. Her eyes whizzed and scrambled under their lids. Bernie prayed as she never had that Serena’s dreams were sweet. Let Bernie dream of flames instead; she’d got there first.
“You’ve scared Ric. I haven’t seen him this worried since he decked Hanssen by mistake during his Rocky phase. You’d have a laugh at the look on his face.” She’d buy him a drink and put his mind at ease. Serena was the one for comfort; Bernie didn’t know where to start. She was the one aching to be comforted now.
“Really, you can’t go now. I came all this way. I’ve been in the air seventeen hours. I wrote my request for leave on my phone. I didn’t wait for permission. If I get arrested for being absent without leave, it’s down to you.” She sat forward to whisper in Serena’s ear. “You do that to me.” Disregarding the antibiotic ointment, she brushed the back of her fingers along Serena’s jaw. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. Didn’t I promise I’d come running at the first sign of danger?” Her chin wobbled and she had to stop to stiffen her upper lip. She needed to be strong, Serena would need her strong. “I came, Serena. I came like I promised.” Serena exhaled a sigh.
Bernie eyed her vitals and sat beside her chatting nonsense until she lost track of the hours. Ric and the nurses came and went. Henrik came but Bernie found she was too tired for rage, and Henrik’s face was long with guilt. There was no one more apt to punish him ad infinitum than himself.
Jason came bearing heartache and statistics. Bernie gave him hope. Cameron came bearing a hunched posture, needing her. She gave him everything else. Cameron had been the one to drag Serena out of danger when the defibrillator ignited a nearby oxygen tank, setting of a chain reaction that incapacitated AAU and felled two porters. He had initiated CPR before Ric came on the scene. He had saved her when Bernie couldn’t. Bernie owed her son more than she could hope to repay, many times over. When he asked her if Serena would be okay, she said she would. It was what they both needed to believe.
Once evening had yielded to night and the evening to swing shift, Bernie was once again alone with Serena. More tests with slightly improved results. More hope than fact; still, something Bernie could hang her optimism on, rather than the cynicism that would have dogged any other patient. She should have regained consciousness by now.
The thought festered however she suppressed it
Bernie sat on a moderately comfortable chair, hugging her knees.
“You could have just called if you wanted to talk. No need for grand displays.”
The childish impulse to throw a strop arose in her and she jumped to her feet. “Serena Campbell, you had better wake and you’d better be intact or, or…” Her impulse faded where reality intruded. “Or…I’ll-I’ll spend every day of my life making sure you are. Come back. I’ll take Guinevere to the park and put out the bins. I would have done it anyway. You’d know that if you knew me at all.” Serena should have known. Serena should have wanted all Bernie had to give. It should have been enough. Bernie should have been here. She could have done something to prevent this. Never mind that she couldn’t conceive how, no matter how she wracked her brain.
A pained groan filled the room, crowding out Bernie’s self-recriminations. “Some of us…are trying…to sleep.”
She moaned unintelligibly in reply. Bernie hovered over her, thirty years of medical instincts deserting her as Serena opened bleary eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“I’ve had better wake-up calls…I must say.” She tried to move and cried out.
“Easy, Tiger! You’re injured. Just lie still. Let me call someone.” Ric, she needed Ric. Bernie fully understood why doctors couldn’t treat their loved ones; she had lost all sense of professionalism the moment she clapped eyes on Serena in her current state.
“Wait, wait.” Bernie halted partway to the door. In her haste she’d entirely disregarded the call button. “What happened…to me?” Serena licked her dry, cracked lips, and Bernie fetched ice cubes to soothe her throat.
Serena nodded though the question remained in her eyes. Bernie permitted herself to card light fingers through the untouched cowlick of hair atop Serena’s head and was gratified by how Serena leaned into the contact.
“The short version is, you got the business end of a bad job in the old trauma bay. An improperly disassembled power source met some frayed wiring and you were the unlucky sod flipping the switch on the defibrillator when it shorted.”
Serena arched an expressive eyebrow. “I got singed?”
Bernie laughed, relieved to see Serena’s dry sense of humor hadn’t deserted her. “In a word.”
“Figures,” Serena rasped, trying in vain to shift into a more comfortable position. Bernie winced in sympathy. “Everything tingles…burns.” Her hands and feet moved subtly, and Bernie began little by little to relax. Serena had retained gross motor control. She’d have Ric check for pulses in Serena’s extremities later, but this was a good sign.
“We can get you something for the pain.” Bernie squinted, noting Serena’s unfocused gaze flitting around the darkened room. She’d need her eyes checked ensure no irreversible damage had been done. “Do you know what day it is?”
“A day ending…in -y.” Saying that little bit seemed to exhaust her. Bernie continued her impromptu scalp massage to keep Serena conscious.
“I’m serious, I need you to tell me. What day is it?”
Serena pealed her eyes open to glare up at Bernie. Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery. “If I’ve been out as long as I feel…Thursday.”
“Who’s the prime minister?”
“An idiot with a bad haircut.” She frowned. “Though, oddly, that doesn’t entirely narrow it down.”
Serena never was a fan of career politicians.
“I’ll allow it. Tell me your name.”
Serena’s sigh was long-suffering. “Serena…Campbell. You’re Bernie Wolfe.” She turned her glower onto Bernie. It was no less powerful for the drowsiness dulling it. “You’re…here. How are you here?”
“I got a call and I got on the first flight home.” It had cost her a pretty penny, to say nothing of the damage to her career prospects after dropping off the face of the earth unannounced for the second time in under a year. She would do it again. “Seventeen hours, Serena. I can’t think of a time I’ve been that scared in my life, and I’ve been blown up with a damaged heart and a fractured spine.”
No sooner had Serena reached out for her than her dominant hand seized in a cramp. She cried out and Bernie guided the injured limb back to its elevated position. Serena had curled around her hand as much as her condition would allow. Bernie ached to see her hurt. She’d have given her own health to switch position with Serena if it spared her this.
“Didn’t mean…to worry you,” said Serena, between laborious pants. “I was only…working.” Bernie touched Serena’s neck to soothe the guilt she heard creeping into her voice, only retreating when Serena recoiled with a whimper.
Serena smiled to show no harm was done. Serena was a collective wound in all but a few places; anything and everything would hurt for a time. That didn’t ease Bernie’s guilt any. Hurting Serena was the last thing she’d come to do.
“Good to see you,” Serena managed. Her expression said what her words couldn’t.
“I wish it wasn’t like this.” Bernie returned her hand to Serena’s crown, the one area that didn’t sting and tingle with the force of damaged nerves.
“Not a fan myself.” She rubbed her head back into Bernie’s hand. “Still…good seeing you.”
“Should have done it sooner.” Bernie worried the stubborn lock of hair that always stuck straight up when Serena first woke up in the morning. It stood up like antennae in all Serena’s baby pictures and had survived today’s assault intact.
“I didn’t think…you wanted to.”
“I told you I’d come back. What made you think I wouldn’t want to?”
Serena didn’t answer, though her lips worked a moment to form words. Finally, she shut her eyes and shook her head, at a loss.
“I thought you didn’t want me to, that you didn’t need me, so I stayed away.”
Serena blinked in her direction, muzzier and dazed for Serena but sharper than most. “Needed you. You didn’t need me.” Bernie sat back. Serena was in no fit state to tell a lie.
“But I wanted you. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“It should have.” Serena stared at Bernie. There were a hundred things they each needed to say. Today was not the day for it and this hospital not the place. “You’re staying?”
‘Do you want me to,’ Bernie wanted to ask. But that wasn’t the question Serena was putting before her. Serena was asking if Bernie wanted to stay. That was the question Serena hadn’t had the courage to ask when they said goodbye. She’d been too afraid of the answer. She and Bernie had been speaking at cross-purposes and their erroneous conclusions had landed them both alone.
“No place I’d rather be.” Serena emitted a hiss when Bernie touched her cheek where the flesh was raw. “Oh Serena, I’m sorry.” Bernie balled her hands in her lap. It seemed she was helpless not to touch Serena when she was here to be touched and willing.
“ ‘S all right. ‘S all…fine.”
“How’s the pain?” she asked again.
Serena affected a grimacing smile, borrowing Bernie’s stiff upper lip. “About…the same as always, but less today, if you can believe that.” She winked. Were it not for the grooves of strain carved into her forehead and alongside her mouth, Bernie might have believed it.
Bernie narrowed her eyes. She didn’t have the patience for Serena’s old-fashioned British reserve. That was her line.
“How bad is it? Scale of one to ten.” Given Serena’s neurological state Ric would be reluctant to give her anything strong; Bernie might have to twist his arm.
Serena spoke through pale, downturned lips, “Four, easily.”
“I’m getting Ric.”
Ric hadn’t gone far.
“She woke up. Disorientated but coherent. She passed a basic neuro check.”
After a more thorough neurological assessment, Ric prescribed Serena pain medication to get her through the next few hours and left them alone again, promising to return in pursuit of more testing and imaging.
The pain medication was fast-acting. What few inroads the two women had made into reconnecting faded into slurring syllables as Serena succumbed to the influence of morphine in the aftermath of trauma.
“You scared me, Campbell.”
Serena returned Bernie’s haunted glance with a distant one of her own. “You live in a war zone. I’m scared…all…the time. Can’t…watch the news. Can’t…read the paper.” Serena’s cheeks rose in a rueful grin. “Knew I’d be a widow even if I never married you.”
So would Bernie had today gone any differently.
“I’ve heard the danger of loving someone is living in fear of what will happen when you’re not there to protect them. I was sure you’d be safe here, but I wasn’t gone a year, and you went and got yourself electrocuted.”
The pauses between Serena’s words grew longer and longer.
“I certainly…didn’t…volunteer for this. Bit too flashy…not my style.”
Serena’s eyelids drooped, and Bernie jerked toward the monitor displaying her vitals in real time. Her heartbeat remained irregular yet constant. She was leveling out. She was falling asleep.
“Don’t tell me if you’re…not here. I like thinking...can talk to you.”
“You can talk to me anytime.”
“It’s best when you talk…back.”
Bernie cracked an indulgent smile. “You just like arguing with me.”
“I just…miss you.”
Bernie cradled Serena’s unbandaged hand once Serena was too far under to feel the pain. She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. She wanted to turn back time and never have left. “Get some sleep. You can tell me off all you want when you wake up.”
Serena weakly flicked her fingers in Bernie’s grasp. “Hmm…can’t wait.”
Bernie lowered her head to rest on the uninjured side of Serena’s chest, tuning in to Serena’s labored breathing as she dropped to sleep. There was nothing else in the world she wanted to hear. When her vision blurred at the barely perceptible hitching in Serena’s deepening breaths, she closed her eyes. There was nothing else in the world she wanted to see.
Right now, there was nothing else in the world but Bernie and Serena.
It was a perfect world.
Bernie eventually left long enough to visit the ladies’ and dig up a cup of unsatisfying black coffee from the staff break room. Ric was dead on his feet on and what was easily his third cup of the hour. Every member of staff Bernie saw was the walking dead tonight.
“Arrythmia?” he asked in lieu of offering her a chair. She sat anyway.
“Still present but the remainder of her vitals are holding steady. To top it all off, she’s presenting with abnormal breath sounds.”
Ric swore. “Lung damage. I was hoping she’d get lucky.”
Bernie couldn’t think of once when Serena had. There hadn’t been a reason to expect it now.
“How is she now?”
“Mercifully asleep. I think she’s in more pain than she’s letting on.” Serena didn’t show damage if she could help it. She believed it sent people running. Could be Bernie was proof it did.
“Assuming minimal nerve damage.”
“I know nerve damage, Ric. You aren’t telling me anything I don’t know.”
“My apologies. I’m running on near to no sleep. We all are.” Holby had been on non-stop emergency protocol since the fire had broken out. As the interim deputy CEO Ric was putting out fires, administrative and medical, when he wasn’t tending to Serena. There was no telling how long it would take for the hospital to make a full recovery, or if Serena ever would.
Bernie would be here if Serena never did. Serena wasn’t her body or her capabilities; Serena was everything inside that body and the will behind those capabilities. Bernie would support Serena in uncovering what came after what happened now.
“Am I right to assume you won’t be leaving?”
“Not anytime soon.” She’d have to see about resigning her commission for a second time, this time permanently. She loved the army and what all it permitted her to do. She didn’t love it more than her family. “Whatever happens with Serena, I need to see it through. She’d do the same for me.” Besides, things tended to go awry when they weren’t together. Bernie wouldn’t risk it. They couldn’t count on luck to save them a second time.
“I’m sure she would, and I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear that.” He returned to his coffee in pensive contemplation. “She’s missed you. She put up a good front and pretended to get on with it, but there hasn’t been anybody else. Evidently, an inability to stop talking about one’s ex is a detriment to getting a second date, or so I’ve heard.”
Bernie jaw dropped. “She doesn’t talk about me…does she?” Serena hadn’t called once and had only texted a handful of times. Bernie had no idea Serena thought of her much at all while they apart. I didn’t call or write, either. That’s what a clean break is. Perhaps it hadn’t been as complete as hoped on either end.
“Oh, she does., You’re never far from her thoughts. We all knew that. We understood.” His eyes were full of sympathy. Ric had been cheering for them when they’d been hellbent on destroying what they could have had, along with Jason and Fletch.
“She’s never far from mine.” It seemed everyone had seen what they hadn’t: that their story was far from over despite their turning the page.
Bernie put her coffee down. She was suddenly no longer thirsty or even very tired. There was something she had to do. “Keep an eye on Serena for me for a couple of hours, I need to head to my hotel. I’ve got to have a word with my CO.”
A fresh cup of coffee in hand, Ric watched as Bernie marched out the break room, a purposeful set to her shoulders and confidence in her stride. He didn’t envy Bernie’s commanding officer; that was the look of a woman prepared to get her way.
Serena Campbell’s guardian angel was back in action.
Originally posted on Tumblr here.
I'm going to have to leave Obsession till later because the fic I have in mind for that one is a doozy. I'm going to need the rest of the month, if I manage it.
Chapter 5: Day 11: I'm Offering This Simple Phrase
Berena Advent 2019, Day 11: Comfort
After Elinor, Serena is away trying to cope whilst Bernie looks after a mutinous Adrienne. But all hope isn't lost for them. There's still time.
Originally posted on Tumblr, here.
Serena is grieving someplace else and Bernie is doing all she can to keep the home fires burning. She works, she comes home, she talks at her frustratingly distant children. She sees to Jason, and thank goodness she has Alan to pick up the slack there. Without Serena home, she fears he’s begun to fall through the cracks. Bernie’s life is all cracks anymore.
When all that’s handled, she sees to Adrienne as best as she can. Adrienne does her best to make sure she can’t.
Today Bernie’s gritting her teeth through putting away the shopping at Adrienne’s apartment. It’s been an excruciating day on AAU with too many fatalities. Thoughts of the upcoming budget meeting with the Board have left Bernie with a raging tension headache that won’t abate. Serena hasn’t responded to a text in three days. To top it all off, Adrienne is refusing yet another of Bernie’s offers to stay at the house with her and Jason for the duration of Serena’s sabbatical.
“It would be easier on all of us were we together,” Bernie presses in what she hopes is a reasonable tone. It’s difficult to hear pass the thumping of her heart in her ears. “That way I wouldn’t have to drive out of my way after my shift and you wouldn’t have to wait around for someone to take you to your appointments.”
“Why would I willingly go anywhere with you?” How she longs for the few days when Adrienne approved of her, before she found out about Marcus and Alex and Bernie got scared and ran. Kiev had been their Waterloo and it cannot be undone.
“Because I’m here to help you. I only want to help.”
“You’ve done enough.” It isn’t a compliment. It’s never a compliment from Adrienne. She hasn’t had a kind word for Bernie in months. It makes Serena’s intermittent contact all the more stinging; her mother is happy to fill in the gaps on her daughter’s behalf. Maybe, opines some treacherous voice in Bernie’s mind, Serena agrees.
"I want us to get along, Adrienne, because we can't go on like this. We can't fight every single day. We can't go three rounds at every meal. That isn't what Serena needs and Jason can't take it. So can we table this, once and for all? You disapprove of me, I get it. I accept it. Serena shouldn’t have to."
"Or what? You'll keep my daughter from me? Bad enough you had a hand in my granddaughter's death, now you want the only daughter I have left."
Bernie clamps her hands around the edge of the counter. Adrienne still believes Bernie should have been the one to perform surgery on Elinor instead of Jason and claims that Bernie couldn’t due to her relationship with Serena fall on deaf ears.
"I do want her, Adrienne, more than I've ever wanted someone. But more than that, I love her. You and I supposedly have that in common. Prove it. Make her life a little bit easier. Not for me—god, don't do me any favors—but for Serena who loves both of us more than we deserve."
“Not both of us.” Adrienne fixes her with a frosty gaze so entirely alien to Bernie. Had she not seen it in Adrienne before, she would think the warmth she loves in Serena and Jason a fluke. She turns away to stow the last couple of ready-made meals she picked up on the way home. It isn’t the fresh produce she knows Serena would prefer for her mother, but Bernie’s reluctant to give Adrienne carte blanche to start waving a knife about to chop them. A fight for another evening and Bernie is sure it’s to come. All Bernie wants is check Adrienne’s vitals, taken earlier by her day nurse, and go home. It’s fish and chip night.
“If that’s everything, I’m going to take a look at your medical log and be on my way. You’ve clearly got everything you need and I’ve had more than enough for one night.”
“If Serena were here--”
Frustrated, Bernie cuts her off, “She isn’t! She is not here, Adrienne. Maybe if you hadn’t beat her about the head with all your misplaced anger she’d still be here. But she isn’t. She’s gone, so we’ve got to go on as best we can. Can you please just eat your dinner?” Bernie gestured vaguely toward the curry Adrienne loved despite it playing havoc with her digestion at bedtime. Coincidentally, it was also Bernie’s favorite.
Adrienne pushed it away. “It’s rubbish.”
“It’s your favorite.”
“When Serena makes it.”
Bernie takes a steadying breath. “Serena buys it. She told me so herself. She gave me a list of foods you like and don’t like so that I’d only get the ones you did.” Serena had been apologetic as she relayed her instructions, all of it written down and organized in a shaky hand. Tear stains on every page. Bernie carries it with her in her coat pocket everywhere she goes.
“Don’t play the innocent with me. We both know what this is about.”
Bernie rubs the back of her neck, trying to relieve the pressure of this damned long day. “I can honestly say I have no idea what this is about. Why are you fighting me so bloody hard?”
Adrienne’s expression crumbles at the edges and the mother-daughter resemblance Bernie never noticed begins to bleed into view.
“Because if you go now, you can’t hurt her. I won’t let you hurt her again.”
“This is about Kiev. You’re still angry.” Kiev feels like another lifetime. “Serena has forgiven me for that.”
“For now. How long until the next Kiev or the next anesthetist with a pretty smile?” They carry their grief the same, have the same blade of a tongue; know precisely where to cut to raise fresh blood. “She thinks I don’t know the details, but porters talk, you know.”
This was easier before with Serena at her side to wave her verbal sword till Adrienne withdrew. It’s Bernie who retreats, stung. “There were mitigating circumstances.”
Adrienne scoffs. Bernie’s stories have never interested her. “Oh, there are always are. How long until your next mitigating circumstance? That’s the difference between you and Edward and me. You leave a mess and I help her sweep it up every time. She never learns. Falls for the same, hapless charmers again and again. Anybody can say ‘I love you.’ What a fool she must be to believe it this time.”
Bernie only realizes how far she’s attempted to shrink from the older woman when the door of the cupboard begins to dig into her back. She stands up to her full height. “Don’t call her that”. She repeats herself, but louder, “Do not call her a fool. I don't care what you say about me. I've never cared. I get to be with the woman I love and nothing you say can ruin that. But don't you dare talk about her like she's beneath you when she’s better than you’ve ever been."
Bernie snatches up the medical log attached to the refrigerator door by several magnets. Pulse normal. Blood pressure normal. It all checks out. Serena will be relieved.
“You’re in perfect health. Lucky you.”
Adrienne doesn’t sputter or follow after Bernie as she sweeps out of the apartment. She doesn’t need to. Adrienne’s already done what she does best: sow doubt.
Bernie is three cigarettes into a smoking jag when her mobile rings.
She stubs out her cigarette when she hears the voice on the other end. “Whatever she’s said, ignore her.”
“Easier said than done. She knows precisely where to aim.”
“I know she does, and I’m sorry I left you to her mercy. I knew she wouldn’t be easy on you.” Adrienne hasn’t ever been easy on Bernie. She had pretended for a time, though not long.
“I can handle this. I told you I would take care of her while you’re away. I will. I promised,” Bernie repeats like a mantra. It’s all that’s getting her out of bed some days.
“You’ve done beautifully,” Serena assures. “You needn’t do anymore.”
“You still need me.” A note of pleading enters her voice that makes her twitch from shame. Serena doesn’t need her desperation on top of what all she has to deal with.
“I always need you, Bernie, but I don’t need you hurting. That isn’t what you signed up for.”
“I signed up for you and everyone that comes with you. That includes Adrienne.” Though she hadn’t anticipated taking on the job of overseeing her care, she had known when they became a couple that Serena’s mother was part of the package. Only now, Adrienne has become The Package entire.
“I’m her daughter, she can hurt me. I won’t let her hurt you.” In the seconds after Serena say this, Bernie loathes Adrienne just a little. Nobody gets to hurt Serena on her watch, not even the woman who’s spent the better part of half a century doing just that.
“What makes you think she’s hurt me?”
“You sound hurt, and she told me. No more of that. I’ll get her a new nurse.”
“She has a nurse.”
“A full-time nurse. You won’t have to deal with her again. That’s my promise to you.”
“That isn’t necessary, Serena. I can handle this. Besides, I know you’ll worry about her unless someone you trust is looking after her.”
“I’ll worry if no one is looking after you, and since I can’t be there to do it, I don’t know who is. She doesn’t get to step on you to get to me.”
“She’s trying to protect you.”
“She’s trying to control me by controlling you. If she can send you running, she never has to worry about anybody taking me away from her. Of every person I’ve loved, Bernie, you have the best chance of it.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Let me protect you from her. Let me be the big macho defender and send you away.”
“I’m strong and I love you.”
“Strong doesn’t mean invincible or incapable of being hurt. I proved that by my behavior, didn’t I?”
Bernie props her forehead on the rim of the steering wheel. “I didn’t hold it against you.”
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. My pain doesn’t give me free rein to hurt you. I know that and if I have my way, you’ll realize that as well.”
“I’m holding the line. That’s what you need.”
“It’s not all about me, not even now. It’s about us. They’ve fallen to the bottom of the list for a long time now. Just hearing the words lightens the load on Bernie’s shoulders. “Forgive me for sucking all the air out of the room these last few months.”
“You’re grieving, it’s understandable.”
“Don’t make excuses for me, darling. Understandable doesn’t mean right. You’ve been so good to me. Let me be good to you.”
“I’ve said I can handle it.”
“I’m going to come home.” She brushes aside Bernie’s ensuing protests. “Because it’s what you need, and a relationship has to go both ways, for better or worse.” Bernie can’t think of an appropriate rebuttal. She wants Serena back. “I love you and I will be home soon. Wait for me.”
“Never occurred to me to do anything else.” Bernie had known when she met Serena she would never love another person the same. Those feelings haven’t changed; if anything they’ve calcified, hardened into inevitability. Serena is her person. “You sure it’ll be soon?”
“How soon do you need me?”
“The sooner, the better.” Tomorrow. Tonight. Right this instant. Adrienne’s comments have lashed her deep; her back stings from the blows.
“Then, you should really keep abreast of your surroundings.”
“A soldier should never let herself be snuck up on. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”
Bernie peers to either side of her. “What on earth are you on about, Campbell?”
“Look behind you, Major.”
Bernie twists back in her seat. Standing on the curb, bearing luggage and silver-strewn hair is Serena bloody Campbell in the flesh.
Getting out of the car is the work of a moment. Bernie hasn’t the first idea where she drops her phone. “You’re home. How are you home already?” Bernie sweeps her into her arms, and it’s she can do not to collapse into tears. On some level, she’d been sure she wouldn’t see Serena gain. But Serena’s here.
“Would you believe Mum was frustrating you to keep you from leaving?”
“She was in on this little surprise?” Bernie’s let out a shaky breath. “Her idea of a delaying tactic could use some fine-tuning.”
“I should have reconsidered my reunion strategy.”
“Next time, invite me to France. I’d prefer that to being harangued by herself.” Adrienne is a difficult woman; that, Bernie had known. She didn’t realize the extent of the older woman’s cruelty. Serena’s webwork of emotional scars aren’t a mystery to her anymore.
“Duly noted. Though I don’t mean to be leaving anytime soon. Seems I’m not done with Holby City, after all.”
“Even with the ghosts?”
“The ghosts aren’t all that’s here for me.” She brushes Bernie’s lips with her own. The spark still thrills her. They’re still alive. “There’s you.”
“You came back.” Bernie chokes up. “I hoped you would, but I wasn’t sure.”
“Now you know. When it comes to you, I will always come back.”
Bernie hugs Serena tight and prays as she hasn’t since a child that this will forever be true.