The next morning comes all too soon, it takes Bernie a few moments to come to, to figure out where she is, sprawled between soft richly coloured sheets in a massive bed. Then she remembers: she's in Serena's bed. For a split second her heart catches in her throat, had she and Serena—no. Definitely not. This was just a product of Serena's bad day. She rubs her hand over her face and stands up, squinting at the bright light coming in from the massive windows.
She pads downstairs, still barefoot, still dressed in that combination of well-worn hand me downs she’d had scrounged up for her last night. The sight that greets her in the kitchen really does stop her heart short, she briefly wonders if she's suddenly developed an arrhythmia, Serena is standing by the counter, intent on the gurgling coffee machine, her beautiful brown hair—as yet unbrushed—lit up by the morning sun, her neck a pale column that Bernie itches to kiss. She stands there for a moment, then blushes slightly as she realises she's staring.
“Morning,” she murmurs into the soft morning quiet and Serena whirls around in surprise.
“Could you walk a little bit louder please!” She exclaims, indignant.
“Sorry,” Bernie says with a guilty smile, pointing at her bare feet, “shall I wear shoes next time?”
“Please!” Her voice is that fake tetchy she gets when she’s teasing Bernie, but she can't hold up the facade for long and she softens immediately. “Good morning Berenice. Sleep okay?”
“Great thank you. You?”
“Wonderful.” Serena’s smiling now, that luminous smile that only ever comes out in the morning, her eyes lit up with joy just barely still traced with sleep, and Bernie feels herself fall even harder. “Berenice?” She says then, and it's more timid than before.
“Thank you for staying.”
“You're welcome.” They stand there smiling at each other for a long while before Serena tears her eyes away and clears her throat.
“Jason's at the table,” she says, pointing towards the adjacent room. “I think he was hoping to have a game of scrabble before you have to dash off to work.”
Bernie glances at the clock, it reads just before 8, and nods.
“I think I can manage that.”
“I'll come over with the coffee when it's ready.”
“Thanks, I'll need the caffeine for sure if I hope to give Jason a run for his money,” and with that she moves on towards the dining room.
Jason greets her with a wide grin: Bernie's grateful that he doesn't seem to find it awkward in the slightest, her having spent the night in his Aunt’s bed.
“Scrabble?” He asks brightly.
“I'd love to.”
They're a couple of words in when Serena walks in. She's holding two mugs of coffee and she puts them both down on the table near Bernie. Bernie murmurs her thanks and Serena smiles in response. Then, without further preamble, Serena sits down on Bernie's lap like it's the most natural thing in the world. She picks up her coffee and takes a sip, begins playing with Bernie's tiles, rearranging them into potential words. Completely at a loss for where she should place them, Bernie lets her hands fall to Serena's hips. She's trying not to blush fiercely but she doesn't quite succeed. What's Serena doing? Do friends do this? Serena's never had much of a personal bubble and Jason doesn't seem to think it strange so maybe it's okay.
Still there's the fact that Serena's gorgeous incredible arse is perched on Bernie's lap. How is she supposed to just accept that? She hasn't quite. But in the midst of trying to quantify it, her brain is well on its way down a particularly inappropriate tangent.
The game of scrabble ends up more of a match between Auntie and Nephew: Bernie is much too preoccupied with remembering to breathe to make much of a contribution.
A week and a half later, Bernie goes for lunch with her kids. She frets nervously about it the entire evening before, Serena graciously allows her to talk about it constantly, reminding her in the spaces between her anxious conjecturing that her children asked for this meeting, that they want to see her.
She gets to the deli half an hour early, bounces her legs in nervous anticipation and, irrationally, wishes Serena were there. Things are somehow always easier now with Serena's warm hand clasped in her own.
Her children show up, just a couple minutes late, and distract Bernie from her thoughts of her friend.
“Someone couldn't find his shoes,” Charlotte says with an expressive eye roll in explanation of their tardiness.
“I guess some things never change,” Bernie says before she thinks about it; bringing up the past probably isn't the best way to start this conversation. But Cameron and Charlotte both laugh and Bernie stands and they greet her both with tentative hugs.
The waitress comes by to take their order and Bernie relaxes a bit at the routine of it all.
“H-how have you been?” She asks, she has to start somewhere.
“Good, thanks.” It’s Cameron who speaks up first.
“Yeah, okay,” says Charlotte, “you?”
“Great. Thank you. It's great to see you both,” she smiles tentatively across the table at them.
“I was—” Cam lets out a little breath and starts again, “it was great to hear from you, Mum.”
Bernie nods, smiles a little wider. Then the waitress is back, sliding plates of massive sandwiches onto the table and conversation dwells in favour of eating.
“So, um, what have you both been up to?” Her kids look at each other and Charlotte nudges Cam’s shoulder with her own.
“Go on, tell her!” She tells her brother.
“I, um, I went back to school. Med school I mean. I’m working as an F1 at Royal United in Bath.”
“Really? Oh Cam that's marvellous!”
“Thanks,” he gives her a shy grin.
“And you Lottie?”
“I finished my BPTC, I'm in the midst of my pupillage now and, well, if all goes well I’ll be called to the bar in the fall.”
“Charlotte that's wonderful! I'm so proud of you! My bright girl, I always knew you'd do well.” She smiles at her daughter and then takes a deep breath and ploughs forward. “Look. Both of you. I just want you to know how sorry I am. For the divorce, for ending things the way I did. It was awful of me, it really was. And um, for earlier too. For not being there for the two of you when you were kids, I wasn't the mother you two deserved.”
No, Mum,” Cam speaks up. “That's. You were doing your job, hell you were out there risking your life for other people. You never have to apologise for that.”
“He's right,” Charlotte interjects, “we… Cam and I wanted to apologise too. For writing those letters for Dad,” she swallows nervously, “it was unfair of us. Not even asking to hear your side of the story. We shouldn't have done it.”
“Oh that. That's… it's nothing. Think nothing of it. You both had a lot to be angry about.”
“It was never about sexuality, either,” Cam chips in. “We couldn't care less that you're gay. Or bisexual or however you identify. That's not a problem in the slightest.”
“Yeah,” says Charlotte with a sly grin. “At least now we know where Cam gets it from.”
Bernie's brow furrows as she tries to parse that comment, looking at Cam in confusion.
“Umm, well,” he blushes, “yeah I have a boyfriend now. We met at uni in my last semester.”
“Oh Cam that’s great!”
“Before you ask,” Charlotte says, “I am not seeing anyone and am quite content. I have my own apartment. And a cat.”
“Well I'm glad to hear it. And I'd love to meet your cat.”
“Aren't you allergic?”
“Well. A bit yes.” It's actually a lot, she might have to give herself multiple rounds of injection antihistamines to get through it. “But I can't let some measly allergies get in the way of meeting my grandcat can I?”
Cam and Charlotte both burst out laughing at that and Bernie joins them joyously.
“Um, Mum?” That's Cam
“You seem really happy. It's so nice to see. I mean, I don't think I realised just how unhappy you were with Dad, near the end, until now. And it's just. It makes me really glad.”
“Yeah it is Mum,” Charlotte chimes in, “it's really really nice.”
And then Bernie's reaching across the table to squeeze both their hands and her eyes are watering and she's smiling wider than she has in weeks.
They spend a couple of hours at the diner. She hears all about Cam and Charlotte’s lives and trades stories about hers in return. They make plans to meet again next week and Charlotte mentions that she should bring Serena, that they'd love to meet her, Bernie doesn't realise just how much she'd talked about her until that comment.
She returns home in a daze. Serena is waiting for her on the sofa in her apartment, standing to greet Bernie with a hug as she arrives.
“How was it?” She asks.
“Amazing!” Bernie replies. “Absolutely amazing. We talked and they forgave me and they even apologised to me! Oh and they want to meet you.”
“Yeah. I guess I talk about you a lot. Next week. They want to see me again, and you, next week.”
“Oh Berenice that's wonderful!” She cups Bernie's face in her hands and smiles at her with that look of utter fondness Bernie's starting to get used to, “oh I am so happy for you, my dear dear Berenice.”
“So you'll come?”
“I would love to.”
In her giddy joy Bernie almost leans forward to capture Serena's lips in a kiss. She just barely restrains herself.
The next week Serena and Bernie go for lunch with her kids. It's surreal, really. Sitting there chatting and laughing in a group. It fills Bernie with a wild bubbling joy that she hasn't felt in, gosh, how long? Better, maybe, than anything she's ever felt. Bernie has felt her whole life like she's been running. She knows now that in a way she has been, running from her identity, her sexuality, her entire self. And running from her marriage too, all of it bundled up together.
She feels calm now. Better. Not that she'll never feel that itching burning need to bolt again. She got a little hit of it on the way to the deli, actually, a little burn in the back of her brain telling her to turn the car around and drive until she can drive no more.
But it's manageable now. She can recognise it, accept it, move past it. Is that mental health? Is it not the absence of those feelings but rather the knowledge of how to deal with them? Maybe. All she knows is it feels a thousand times better than that horrible empty feeling that filled her chest and clouded her brain for months on end.
She tunes back in in time to hear her children laughing at one of Serena's jokes. Serena's hand is hidden by the table, warm on Bernie's knee, she squeezes a little like she knows Bernie had drifted away and gives her a questioning smile: checking in, are you okay? Bernie nods, gives Serena a tight lipped little smile of reassurance in return.
“Can I just say,” Cam pipes up, “it's very nice, if a little surreal, to meet our mom’s girlfriend.”
“Oh! Oh no, Cam,” how could he have gotten that so wrong? “No Serena and I are just, I mean, not just of course, but we're not—”
“I believe what your mother is trying to say is that we're not dating. We're friends. Very close friends, but friends nonetheless.”
“Huh,” says Charlotte.
“Okay, sorry,” says Cam, his nose scrunched in shame. “We just assumed with the way you two… Oh. Well. Nevermind.”
Bernie blushes a bit then, can they see where Serena's hand is after all? No there’s no way thankfully. And even if there was, what, it’s not like friends can't hold hands or lay their hands on each other's knees under the tables at brightly lit delis in the middle of the day. Really where could Cam have gotten the idea?
Well, she has a faintest inkling. Perhaps for all of her attempts Bernie has not been as adept as she thought at keeping her, uh, desire for Serena under wraps. Perhaps some part of her inner thoughts have shone through. But then, had Serena seen it? Had Serena noticed?
But no. She hadn't mentioned it. Which means that even if Serena is aware of Bernie's feelings, she doesn't return them. Hasn't brought them up because she doesn't want to induce the awkwardness of admitting that she is cognizant of her friend’s daft unrequited crush.
Thankfully Bernie's children are quick to move on from that topic of conversation and soon all awkwardness is forgotten as they are laughing together again.
Serena invites them all for supper at her place next week, mentions offhand that it's much easier to host at hers, she has the space that Bernie lacks, and then Cameron and Charlotte can meet Jason as well.
In no time at all it seems, Bernie is walking through gentle snowflakes, going store to store doing her Christmas shopping, Serena's hand held in her own. They spend Christmas at Serena's house, of course, not just her and Serena and Jason, but Cam and Charlotte too. Both seem extraordinarily fond of their new cousin, or whatever, (‘they're family’ Charlotte says seriously when Bernie protests at that nomenclature, ‘it doesn't have to mean anything like that Mum, sometimes friends are family’), and it's not at all unheard of for them to invite Jason along on their weekend outings with their friends.
New Years is one such event: all three kids head out together to do god knows what, leaving Serena and Bernie for an intimate evening alone.
They order in Indian, get the butter chicken and the extra spicy lamb tikka that Jason hates, mop it all up with rice and naan, eat until they're stuffed and then eat a little more.
They end up on the sofa, not the bigger one in the living room by the tv but the small one in the rarely used sitting room. The one that's small enough that they end up pressed together in the middle no matter how they sit, Bernie lifts her arm up and slides it along Serena's shoulders, to make room of course, feels even better when Serena leans into the embrace.
She’s starting to get used to this: the duality of feeling calmed by Serena's presence as much as her nerves are lit up by the desire that pricks at her skin in her presence. It's good that she is, it seems to be Bernie's constant now. She doesn't know if these feelings will ever go away but she's determined not to ruin their friendship over them. So she's adjusting.
They sit in silence for quite a while, sipping at large glasses of Shiraz as Serena's fingers trace a gentle pattern over Bernie's knee and Bernie's hand cards through Serena's hair.
“I can't believe the year’s almost over,” Bernie says finally. “It's. I mean. So much has happened, it's wild.”
“Mmmm, well you did meet me after all,” Serena's teasing but Bernie is completely serious.
“Exactly though. It's. I don't know where I'd be without you Serena. I mean, statistically probably at work,” Serena does her the credit of laughing at the joke, “but really. I, um, I—” she stops herself then before she says something really daft. “Everything good in my life is because of you,” Serena starts to protest at that but Bernie cuts her off. “No. Don't. It's true Serena. You’re… I’m looking forward to a new year for once, with hope not dread, and that is entirely because what? 9? 10 months ago? I called up a woman—who happened to not be an escort anymore—and paid her an absurd amount of money to go to a party with me.”
“Did I ever thank you for that by the way? You bought me a new mattress and a couple of very nice bottles of shiraz with that money.”
“Ha! Well it is a very comfortable mattress at least,” Bernie replies, though she hadn't known you could spend that much on a mattress. “And now. Well now I see my kids almost every week, and if I don't see them I at least chat with them over phone or text, and I sleep! Not always phenomenally well but much better than I’d ever hoped. I have things to look forward to, things to smile about every day, a reason to leave work behind. I don't. I can't ever thank you enough for it Serena. I mean—” and then her voice is breaking off and she's murmuring, “thank you, thank you,” gasping it out as tears stream down her face and Serena is holding her tight, has twisted in her seat to pull all gangly 173 cm of blonde army major towards her in a bone crushing hug. She pulls back and holds Bernie's face in her hands, looks her straight in the eye and then speaks.
“That is all you, my dear. Oh Berenice, I may have been the catalyst, the push you needed, but this was you . You put in the effort, you showed up to therapy every week, and actually talked while you were there, you called your kids, you took the leap to go talk to them and explain yourself. I may have been there for you, supported you, but that in no way diminishes your strength, your courage, your hard work. And I am so, so, so proud of you my darling. So proud.”
And then they're hugging again, clinging to each other as though to a lifeline and Bernie thinks she could stay like this forever: she cannot conceive of a greater happiness than the feeling of Serena in her arms.
They separate in a bit, check the clock and turn on the radio because it’ll be midnight soon. They stay on that little sofa though, hands clasped together, content in their soft quiet closeness.
Then the countdown hits zero and Serena's leaning forward and pressing a gentle kiss to Bernie’s lips, just brushing across for a second, then pulling back, millimetres between them.
“Happy New Year, Berenice,” she says, barely more than a whisper.
“Happy New Year, Serena,” Bernie replies, her voice gruff, and it is.
The New Year's kiss means nothing.
Bernie is sure that if she tells herself this enough she will eventually begin to believe it. It doesn't change anything between them because it's just what friends do! Friends kiss at midnight on New Year’s just like friends kiss when caught under mistletoe. It is not a big deal.
Bernie's brain is making it into a big deal.
It's not that she thinks that Serena meant anything by it. Of course she didn't. Serena's just that kind of person—the kind to not fret about casual touch between girlfriends, or friends who are girls rather. Bernie's brain, however, just can't seem to stop thinking about how soft Serena's lips were. About how gentle she was. About the way her eyes looked when they sat with their faces almost touching. About the way Serena's warm breath felt on Bernie's face.
It's awfully distracting. It's worse than before because before it was all imagined. All pretend. Now there's a sliver of real life experience to inform her fantasies. And boy, does she fantasize.
She doesn't try to. She doesn't want to be thinking of Serena in all those inopportune moments. She doesn't want to have a part of her brain constantly focused on runaway thoughts about kissing Serena, holding Serena, pressing Serena against every available surface and…
She agonises about it for weeks and weeks before she decides that she does actually need to do something about it. Not the things her mind is supplying, no. But Bernie is starting to feel bad. She decides that Serena deserves to know about her thoughts. She holds no hope whatsoever of Serena feeling the same in return (Serena is what Bernie privately thinks of as a ‘functional adult’ and functional adults share their thoughts and talk about their feelings instead of letting them pile up for months on end until it's a burden that’s almost suffocating in its enormity) Serena would have said something surely.
So Serena doesn't, cannot feel the same way as Bernie and Bernie is fine with that. Bernie does think that Serena deserves to know about her own feelings because it's getting, well, awkward. She is sure that Serena would not be as touchy-feely with Bernie, might not want to spend as much time with Bernie, would certainly not be so okay with Bernie sharing her bed, were she to know of Bernie's private thoughts. So Bernie is going to tell her. Bernie must tell her.
Still, it takes her weeks. Oh she almost tells Serena about a thousand times. Almost opens her mouth almost lets the words bubble out. Each time something stops her.
Finally one day mid-February or thereabouts she can't contain it any longer. She's sitting in an arm chair in Serena's living room, Serena's stretched out on the sofa beside her, intent on a crossword puzzle. The low strains of Sibelius drifting out of the record player. It's calm and cozy and perfect so naturally Bernie's going to destroy it all.
She puts her hands on top of her thighs, then under them, then on top of them again. Are her palms always this sweaty? She tries to breathe normally. In and out. Does she always breathe at this pace? Should she hold her breath between breathing in and out? Why is breathing suddenly so hard when you start thinking about it? She tries to talk. Opens her mouth. Nothing comes out but a strange strangled sound as she chokes on the words. Serena doesn't seem to notice, doesn't look up from her puzzle. She tries again.
“Yes dear?” Serena doesn't look up
“Um, I,” Bernie rubs her palms on her jeans, this might actually be easier if Serena's not looking at her, “I need you to know. Um, sorry, I don't quite know how to. Sorry. Sorry.” She takes another deep breath. “I, uh, the thing is that I have feelings. And they're my feelings but I think that you need to know…” She pauses and now Serena is peering at her over the tops of her glasses and Bernie is looking anywhere but directly at her. “I think I might be—no! No. I know that I'm, I mean, that I have fallen.” She halts completely, swallows. “Serena. I'm in love with you.”
“Okay,” Serena says in that calm slow way of hers and that's not what Bernie had expected at all.
Serena puts her book and her pencil down on the coffee table, takes her glasses off and puts them on top, sits up, looks at Bernie, and smiles.
“Very okay.” Serena stands up and walks over to Bernie, takes her hands in her own and then sinks down onto her lap. “Berenice?”
“My dear dear Berenice. I have been absolutely mad about you since the first night we met. Maybe even a little from the first time I heard your voice. So yes. It is more than okay that you are in love with me. Fantastic really. Incredible.” Serena giggles a little as she says it, a spurt of laughter that bubbles out of her as though she can't quite contain herself. And then Serena's twining her arms around Bernie's neck and leaning in to brush her lips against hers.
It's amazing. Better than Bernie possibly could have imagined. The peck at New Year's has nothing on this. This is all soft perfect heat, a culmination of months of yearning poured into the meeting of their lips. Bernie wraps her arms about Serena's waist and pulls her in tight.
They separate, Bernie looks at the woman in her lap with a helpless grin and Serena's smiling right back at her, looking the happiest Bernie has ever seen her, the creases at the side of her mouth deepened in joy.
“I. Um.” Bernie says and then she's kissing Serena again. Because it's the best thing ever. Because she's been thinking about it for ages. Because she can.
This time when they separate they're both breathing a little harder and Bernie can't help the words that fall from her mouth. “Why. I. From the first night? Serena why didn't you just say something!”
Serena leans back, brings one hand to Bernie's cheek, cupping it gently, and gives her that look. That look Bernie could only ever label as fondness. That look she recognises now as love.
“Oh Berenice. Dearest. When we met you were barely ready for a friendship let alone anything more. And!” She adds quickly before Bernie can voice anything, “I don't want you to think that I was just sitting around waiting for this. For romance or sex or whatever. Don't think that friendship with you was some sort of consolation prize because that is not—that could not be further from the truth. I love you so much and if you had only ever loved me as a friend that would have been enough. That would have been more than enough.” And she's kissing Bernie again and Bernie, for whom words have never come easy, can't help the stream of ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ pouring out of her mouth.
It's later when they're tucked into bed together and Serena's arm is around Bernie and Bernie has her head pillowed in Serena's chest that Bernie says something more.
“Mmmm. Yes dear?”
“Thank you. For waiting.”
“Oh my dear Berenice. That is something you never have to thank me for.” She drops a kiss to the top of Bernie's head as Bernie snuggles in closer, then speaks up again. “Berenice?”
“You. I mean you said that you're in love with me, and you know now that I've loved you right from the get-go. But um, when were you, I mean when did you know that you were, that you loved me?” Bernie sits up at that, tilts her head and looks at Serena curiously. It's an interesting question, one that deserves a good answer. She leans forward, brushes her lips against Serena's simply because she may, and then curls into her side again, taking Serena's hand in her own and twining their fingers together. When she finally answers, it's with a quote. From the first book Serena ever read to her. She speaks out softly but steadily into the quiet of the room.
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”