Bernie Wolfe’s life is a mess. She can by this point freely admit this, at least in the privacy of her own thoughts. Who would’ve thought when the explosion hit three years ago that the IED would do more damage to her life than to her person? Not her, certainly. Her life was, well not perfect, but sort of great before the explosion. Okay not great . A closeted… Something married to a man and having a very illicit affair with a colleague was not quite where she expected to find herself on her 50th birthday. But she had been happy at the least. How very like her, really, to find happiness when making all the wrong choices. She can remember the white hot flash of pain that had overtaken her entire being at the moment of the explosion. She never thought she’d survive it. Now here she is, very much alive even if she doesn’t have much to show for it. Marriage ended. Lesbian love affair outed. Children estranged. She honestly can’t say why she didn’t just go back to the army. Perhaps because she had committed to civilian life and was determined to see it through? More likely because she just didn’t want to admit the shame of defeat. Bernie Wolfe does what she sets out to do, professionally at least if not personally. So she took on a locum at Holby, and the locum turned into a consultant job. After she managed to ruffle the feathers of every doctor on Keller, Hanssen handed her the keys to AAU. The ward was suffering from inconsistent and incompetent management at the time, was all chaos and disorder and Bernie thought it was a wonder they managed to help anyone at all. She threw herself into the job of reshaping it, imbued it with a little army rigor if you will, and in just a few months had a ward running in tip top shape if she does say so herself. What she wouldn’t give for proper trauma facilities, though. As it is, she runs it rather like a field hospital: they make do with what they’ve got. Her colleagues respect her, fear her, probably don’t like her. But they’re better doctors for her and likeability is a poor consolation prize compared to saving lives.
And Bernie, well… She works, a lot. All the time actually. She worked it out once to be about 115 hours a week, give or take. But there’s nothing for her at home and god bless the bureaucracy of the NHS there’s always some paperwork to be done here. She doesn’t sleep so much as lies down for a few hours a night, stares at the ceiling, and contemplates everything she’s done wrong in her life. It doesn’t matter, a couple of hours here and there are enough, bolstered by the occasional nap in an on call room, usually after hours and hours in surgery (for some reason she’s never figured out why it’s easier to sleep against the backdrop of the noisy bustle of her ward than it ever is at home), and sometimes—once a month, maybe she manages to drink enough whiskey to knock herself unconscious for 5 or 6 hours. Unhealthy? Probably. But she’s not pretending to be the poster girl for mental health. She’s surviving and that’s enough.
She stretches her back and cants her head from side to side, stretching out her neck. What she wouldn’t give for a good massage… Out of the corner of her eye she spots the looming figure of her boss and she looks up at him through her fringe.
“Mr. Hanssen,” she greets him. Why must he always loom so?
“Ms. Wolfe,” he inclines his head slightly, “you’re here early this morning.” Bernie glances at the clock and sees it’s 7:05, chooses not to mention that she’s been there since 3:30—last night was particularly bad.
“What can I help you with, Henrik?”
“I couldn’t help but notice I have yet to have received confirmation that you will be attending the charity gala on the 7th,” his tone is as usual faintly disparaging but Bernie ignores it.
“Right. Because I won’t be,” he’s her boss but she has earned the right to be terse with him.
“I haven’t attended for the past two years, what makes you think I’ll be attending now?” Bernie has, in fact, made it clear from the get go that fawning and personability should not be expected from her as a department head.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Wolfe, Brexit has not been kind to the budget of the NHS. We need donor money more than ever and as a head of department I need you to make an appearance. So this is how it will go. You will come, you will bring a date. You and she,” he pauses and coughs awkwardly and Bernie spares a moment to think it’s nice to know that gossip does make it’s way to the top after all, “they will make pleasant conversation and charm and laugh at all the awful jokes. And if you do a very very good job, you may get a proper trauma bay out of the deal.” That gets Bernie’s attention.
“Are you bribing me?”
“Incentivizing you, Ms. Wolfe, to work in the furtherance of our mutual benefaction. I have often thought of how much good you could be doing with the right facilities. Unfortunately, such facilities cost a great deal of money. Money that can only be found...”
“In the deep pockets of our donors. Very well, I’ll go,” and she hates it a little on principle, being so predictable, but she’s learned with Hanssen that sometimes it is easier to just give in. He saunters off, too smug by half. Bernie remembers suddenly his edict about her needing to bring a date and lets her head fall into her hands. “Fuck!”
She stays like that, cursing fate and Hanssen and everyone in between, until Raf comes in with some patient files that need her attention. Later that day, during a short lull she makes herself a list.
- Get a date
- Find an outfit
- Don’t fuck it up
She looks at it and wonders if a trauma bay is really worth this level of effort. 3 hours later she loses a teenager who fell from some height onto a piece of rebar at a construction site. She doesn’t know if better facilities would’ve meant he wouldn’t have died but she does know that they would’ve given him a much better chance. And so she is resolute: anything is worth it if she can save even one more life.
Two days later she is out running at 10 pm, doing her best to tire herself out in a bid for some rest, when she is struck with inspiration. She remembers a conversation she once overheard between Ric Griffin and Sacha Levy. They had been in the break room on Keller joking around and Bernie remembers her mixed feelings at it more than anything, on the one hand she hates ‘locker room talk’ in all of its iterations especially in the workplace, on the other hand the tone of it had reminded her of the men she had served with in the army and she had felt a twinge of longing for the simplicity of her old life. Ric had been regaling Sacha with the tale of the time he had gone to some sort of reunion party and had brought an escort as a date. It’s the perfect solution for Bernie’s predicament. Why should she bother trying to find a woman to go with when there are professionals around? She thinks, briefly, that perhaps for decorum’s sake she should go with a man. But by Hanssen’s comments he doesn’t care and Bernie knows it’ll be a lot easier to be convincingly enjoying herself if she doesn’t have to pretend to be interested in a man the whole time. She tracks Ric down at work the next day, corners him in an empty room, and convinces him to give her the information on this woman. Somewhere in there is a fairly inventive threat involving his testicles and a rusty scalpel should he ever divulge the conversation to anyone and Bernie heads back to AAU with a business card and Ric’s fervent affirmations that he will keep her secret well.
It takes Bernie 4 days to work up the courage to actually make the phone call. It seems so… Oh salacious and taboo and really what does one even say in this kind of situation? But her other option is actually going out and meeting someone and, well, she snorts silently at the mere thought of that. So she grips the phone tight in her hand and hopes desperately that her voice doesn’t crack.
“Hi this is Serena.” Bernie is immediately struck by the warmth of the voice that answers her call. She doesn’t sound tawdry in the slightest. Sounds nice, actually. Like the kind of person you could talk to all night. “Hello?” Serena says again and Bernie realises she hasn’t replied yet.
“Oh. Um. Hi. Hello.”
“Hi.” Is that a smile in the woman’s tone? Bernie decides to ignore any potential ridicule and soldier on regardless.
“I… I’m calling because I’d like to hire you. For a party. I’d like you to be my date to a party, I mean. If you’d like to, that is…” She trails off and fights the urge to bang her head against the nearest wall. Serena’s respondent laugh is warm and doesn’t feel mocking in the slightest.
“I’m sure I’d love to. What’s your name, dear?”
“Berenice Wolfe. Bernie.”
“Which do you prefer? Bernie or Berenice?”
“Either’s fine,” Bernie replies lamely, her usual answer of ‘Bernie’ sticking in her throat. She hates her full name, or she always had until she heard it roll off this stranger’s tongue.
“Very well Berenice,” Bernie tries to stop the shiver that goes down her spine because really what the hell is wrong with her? “And when is this party of yours?”
“The 7th of next month. It’s some big benefactor’s do. Over-cooked chicken, over-priced drinks. I’m sure you know the type.”
“I’m familiar with the idea, yes. And what do you want out of the evening, Berenice?”
“A trauma bay,” the words slip out of Bernie’s mouth before she has a half second to think about them and she curses her stupidity because obviously that’s not at all what she meant.
“I am many things my dear,” Serena replies with a laugh, “but a carpenter I am not.”
“No, no. Sorry. That’s not what I—” Bernie pauses to take a deep breath and try again. “I’m a surgeon. A department head. At Holby City Hospital. My boss said that if we raise enough money from this event he would build a trauma bay in my department.”
“Ah, I see. Well that may just be within my capabilities.”
“I am somewhat of an expert at getting men to spend frankly ludicrous amounts of money, if I do say so myself.”
“Right. Of course.” Bernie’s quite glad Serena can’t see her fierce blush. She had forgotten, for a moment, that she was talking to a lady of the night.
“What will you be wearing to this event, Berenice?” Serena continues, apparently unfazed.
“Yes. We should look somewhat coordinated don’t you think?”
“I, um. I don’t know. So you’ll do it?”
“Mmmm, I do have space in my calendar. So?”
“Uh, right, uh I don't know.”
“Well I'll tell you what Berenice Wolfe, you have my number; how about when you do know you text me a photo of it and we can go from there, how's that?”
“Fine. Yes. Thank you,” Bernie rolls her eyes at herself, could she be any less smooth?
“We should probably meet up somewhere beforehand? Cement our backstory and all that?”
“Well yes, I am assuming that you mean for your colleagues to think that I'm your girlfriend or something of the sort and not an escort you hired for the evening?”
“Oh. Yup. Yes. That would be nice, um, good,” Bernie pauses to take a breath and mentally try to get a hold of herself, it was like she'd never spoken to a real human being before, “um, well it's being held in a hotel. I could just get a room?” She stops herself as soon as she realises what she just said. The implications therein. “Oh. God! No. No not that I, I mean. Um. Not that I wouldn't… But I don't… I mean I don't expect —”
“A room will do fine. Just text me when you know the details, okay?”
They hang up shortly thereafter and Bernie lets the phone fall from her grip, her cheeks still hot with shame. Could she possibly have been any more awkward? She wonders if she could maybe re-enlist after all. The army never made her do things like this.
She solves the outfit issue the next day. She takes an extended lunch break, dashes into the nearest clothing store and pulls the first dress that looks halfway decent off the rack. She tries it on, it fits and doesn’t look awful and that’s good enough for her. Despite not really giving a toss about her appearance, Bernie is no fool and she realises that she will be expected to show up with her hair coiffed and face made up. She decides after some deliberation to ask for help, and well, reaching out to work colleagues probably isn’t the worst idea in the world. So when Raf pokes his head into the office with some paperwork for her she decides to take the plunge.
“Are you going to the benefactor’s party next month?” She asks after taking the stack of files he’s handed her.
“No, thank god. Why,” he pauses and cocks his head, “are you?”
“Hanssen wouldn’t take no for an answer, unfortunately. How did you get out of it?”
“Fletch is working so I’m taking care of the kids,” he says with an easy grin, “best excuse in the world.”
“Right. Well some of us aren’t so lucky, which brings me to my main issue. I need help with hair and makeup and I was wondering if you had any recommendations?” Raf’s brow furrows in confusion at her words.
“And you’re coming to me with this… Why?”
“Well you know I thought as a gay man you would know someone…” She trails off with a little wave of her hand and at Raf’s taken aback look begins to reassess why she ever thinks personal interaction is a good idea.
“Ms. Wolfe, I’m not gay,” he says after a moment.
“Okay, right, bisexual then, sorry,” she’s beginning to consider a hasty retreat, but she’s this far into it so she may as well just press ahead.
“No,” he bites his lip and hesitates for a moment, “I mean, I’m straight.”
“But you and Fletch?” Bernie is truly confused now. Raf and Fletch have been together since before she started working on AAU.
“We’re just friends,” he says it emphatically. He says it like he’s said it a hundred times before.
“You’re married, aren’t you though?” She knows that much from the paperwork. Or at least she thought she did.
“Oh that. Well that’s only technically. And only because after a couple of years living together we realised we get some pretty good tax breaks what with the kids and all.”
“I’m so sorry Raf,” and she really is because if it weren’t for the entire mess of trying to hire an escort earlier this week this would be going down as her most awkward conversation in months, “I just assumed. I just thought it was obvious, I mean the way you look at him and everything, and the living together and the kids...” Bernie trails off, wishing she had stopped talking ages ago. Actually, she wishes she’d never brought it up in the first place. Raf, on the other hand, looks like he’s just been punched. He sinks down onto the extra chair in the office and says in a very small voice,
“I didn’t think it was that obvious.” And oh Bernie is really wishing she had never brought any of this up now. She is not the right person to be having this conversation in the slightest. Maybe they can never speak of this again? Would it be entirely wrong for her to have Mr. Di Lucca transferred to another ward so she never has to see him again? But she feels bad, she really does like Raf. So she does her best to say the right thing. She remembers in medical school they were always supposed to ask ‘how does that make you feel’ to patients, until one of her teachers pulled her aside one day and told her she would never be able to make that turn of phrase sound sincere so she needed to find something else.
“Do you want to talk about it?” She says, which has always rolled off her tongue much better.
“Um, open up about my embarrassing unforetold gay crush to my boss? Wasn’t exactly what I had planned for the day,” he’s not really making eye contact as he talks but that suits Bernie just fine.
“Right, of course not. I have, um, been there before though. With the, um, crush and the late in life, uh, sexuality crisis,” she grins a little, “at least you’re not married to someone else?” He laughs a little awkwardly at that.
“True. Well, um, I think I’ll suffer in silence, thanks. And uh, for the hair and makeup thing you might want to ask Dr. Copeland on Keller? Much more up his alley than mine.”
“Okay. Thanks Raf,” she gives him a little smile as he leaves and then leans back in her chair and lets out an explosive breath. That had been… Unexpected.
She wonders whether or not she wants to bother trying to ask Dr. Copeland for help, but she figures she’s probably used up her quota for embarrassing conversations for the next while and, well, it can’t go worse than that just had, could it? So she stands up and squares her shoulders and heads to Keller to get it over with.
She doesn’t know much about Dom, they had interacted a little when she first got to Holby, she still feels a twinge of guilt for blaming him for her affair with Alex being outed, and she remembers the hubbub that had surrounded him last year when his boyfriend Dr. Mayfield plummeted off the roof to his death. But she needs the help so she finds him and pulls him aside and manages to ask him for help without stumbling over the words too much. His initial response is to grin like a 6 year old on Christmas morning but at her withering look he calms down (somewhat) and manages to give her a name and number for a friend’s salon with only a couple of mentions of how incredibly honoured he is that she came to him. Bernie wonders for about the umpteenth time that morning if all of this is really actually worth it.
It is though, definitely. Because even if she won’t quite admit to herself there’s an ever-growing part of her that wants desperately to impress Serena. She’s had one abysmal phone conversation with the woman, that’s it, but she can’t suppress the funny feeling in her stomach or how her mind keeps drifting to wondering what she’ll be like in person when they finally meet. She’ll be warm and calming and beautiful, just like her voice, Bernie thinks. Then tries not to think about it too much.
hi everybody thanks for reading and giving this au a chance! i would be wordier but my asshole cat woke me up last night and im exhausted :)
Serena is absolutely beautiful in person. Maybe that should’ve been obvious, that a successful escort would be attractive, but when she opens the door to the room at her knock it takes Bernie’s breath away. Her hair, her eyes, her chin, her smile. The dress she’s wearing is dark blue and cut low to reveal pale skin and an expanse of delicate cleavage and Bernie does her best not to blush when she realises she’s been staring. She invites her in and almost trips over her own feet. She feels gangly and awkward and foolish, like a newborn colt who’s just discovered its own limbs and she hands her a cheque with the required amount before she does anything else. Serena takes it without looking at it, puts in the pocket of the coat that she hangs up by the door. They iron out a few details (where they met, how long they’ve been together) so they can be prepared for any questions people may ask, and then Serena grins and says,
“Well then Berenice, give me your arm and let’s go get you that trauma bay.”
She does so and they make their way to the lift. Bernie’s dress is also blue and she can’t deny that Serena made a good choice with her attire. They look complementary but not matching and with Bernie’s low heels and Serena’s death defying stilettos they stand at almost equal height. She feels nervous, of course, but Serena seems to notice and gives her arm a little squeeze right before they enter the ostentatious ballroom in which the event is being held, calming her down somewhat. The room is full of people dressed to the nines milling about and chatting, drinks in hand, and Serena dispatches Bernie to the bar almost immediately.
Bernie is quite happy to have a mission and she fights through throngs of people to reach the bar and order two glasses of Shiraz. It is, apparently, Serena’s drink of choice and as Bernie doesn’t have much of a preference she figures she may as well drink the same. Wine is a better choice than liquor, at any rate, the last thing Bernie needs is to get sloshed and make a fool of herself. She’s quite capable of reaching that end without the help of any alcohol anyway.
She makes her way back, generously filled glasses in hand, and finds Serena has already amassed herself a group of admirers: seven or so men standing in a circle hanging on her every word. Apparently the magnetic pull of Serena’s personality is felt universally. Bernie comes up to stand beside her and Serena turns her attention to her immediately. She takes the proffered glass with a smile and brushes her lips over Bernie’s cheek with murmured thanks. She slings her arm about Bernie’s waist, her hand resting on Bernie’s hip with clear possessive intent and Bernie can’t help but enjoy the reactions from the men about them (surprised and appreciative in turn). Serena makes the introductions between Bernie and her would-be suitors, referring to Bernie as ‘one of, if not the foremost trauma surgeons in the country’. Bernie lets her arm fall in place about Serena’s shoulder, happy to let Serena lead the conversation but dutifully chiming in with tales of her forays with the RAMC and particularly impressive surgical stunts at Holby when bid.
While at first she felt unbearably awkward around Serena, feeling each aspect of her like a harsh contrast against Bernie’s much less feminine attributes, the more time she spends with her the more Serena makes her feel comfortable. At peace. Whenever Bernie speaks up, she focuses solely on the warmth of Serena’s gaze, revelling in her admiration at some of Bernie’s more expert accomplishments, the atriocaval shunt earning her a particularly impressed look that Bernie thinks will stay with her for days.
The evening continues in much the same way. Serena shamelessly talks Bernie up to everyone there, making an impressive case for the necessity of a trauma bay on AAU, and while some of it is in Bernie’s opinion a bit over the top (like hiring Beethoven and not giving him a piano Serena says at one point) she cannot deny the efficacy of her methods. She loses track of the number of donations made by way of Serena’s gentle encouragement, many of them earmarked specifically for better trauma facilities. Bernie’s personal favourite is the one from a very large red-faced man with an impressive moustache who writes out a cheque and scrawls ‘For The Wolfe’ over the bottom left hand corner. Most of the pledges are handled more delicately than that, but the flow of money is unmistakeable.
Hanssen looks overjoyed, which is to say that his lips quirk in an almost smile that lasts for about a nanosecond before he moves on to loom somewhere else, and Bernie breathes a sigh of relief at that.
Her coworkers are easily charmed by her date as well. Under Bernie’s watchful eye Ric makes an admiral job of pretending he’s never met Serena before. Mr. Levy spills his drink and blushes and manages to stumble over saying hello and Bernie feels more kinship with the man than she ever has before. Even Jac Naylor, with whom Bernie shares an amicable relationship built on mutual respect and a dislike of small talk, seems impressed by her. She gives Bernie a nod of approval as she walks away, back to where Dr. March is waiting for her with a drink and smile. Bernie watches them disappear into the crowd together with mild surprise. It doesn’t seem like Jac to make friends with one of the more junior doctors on the ward. Serena’s laugh (glorious and enchanting) calls her attention away from dwelling on it any further and she tunes back in just in time to catch the tail end of a man telling a rather unfunny joke about acute appendicitis.
And then, when the evening is truly beginning to tire on Bernie and the attendees seem poised on the brink of true drunkenness, Serena leans over and whispers in her ear,
“Shall we get out of here?” Bernie nods, grateful that she didn’t have to be the one to suggest it. When they’re safe in the quiet sanctuary of the lift Serena speaks up again, “I hope I didn’t misread the situation, but it seemed to me as though you were beginning to wane.”
“I was, thank you,” they share a smile in the mirrored surface of the lift’s walls. Serena has yet to let go of Bernie’s hand.
They make their way back to the room they had met up in earlier and Bernie’s glad she had booked a small suite instead of a singular room as it gives them somewhere to sit and talk. Just before they sit down Serena pulls a bottle of wine out from her wrap and winks at Bernie.
“Wheedled it out of the young lad tending bar,” she says as explanation, “I think he may have had a tiny crush on me.”
‘Who can blame him?’ Bernie wants to say. She settles for a little smile as she grabs a couple of glasses off the sideboard instead.
“You mentioned you have children,” Serena says after a few minutes in silence.
“Yes, two,” Bernie replies, “a boy and a girl,” she dithers for a moment, wondering if she should elaborate. “They don’t talk to me anymore, not since their dad and I...”
“Divorce can be challenging at any age,” Serena says with a sympathetic nod.
“Have you ever been married?”
“No I haven’t, but I’ve seen enough marriages fall apart to know the damage that it does.”
“I tried so hard to make a go of it,” Bernie says, picking absentmindedly at the fabric of her dress, “to be the dutiful wife, the loving mother. But, well...”
“Instead everything fell apart and you feel like it was all your fault?” Serena’s gaze is full of warmth and understanding and Bernie has to look away from the force of it.
“Well I was the one who had the affair,” she says quietly, “I was the one who kept running away.”
“From him or from yourself?” Serena asks and it’s too astute by half. “Sorry,” she says almost immediately, “I shouldn’t. I don’t mean to pry. Just thought you might need to talk.”
“No, no. It’s fine. I just… I’m not good at sharing,” she explains lamely. She’s really not, never has been, but Serena has been so great and nice and for some reason Bernie feels like she owes her a real response, “from both, I think. I didn’t know I was… Um, I mean, I had no idea I liked, um, women, at least not on a conscious level… But there was this woman in Afghanistan, we served together, her name was Alex. I think I wanted her to like me more than I’ve ever wanted anyone to like me my whole life. It was like my heart was bubbling out my chest every time I was near her. One day she kissed me and, well, then it all made sense, you see.” She grimaces a little, shrugs her shoulders. “It didn’t matter that it was wrong, that it was against the rules, that we could both lose everything, because in the moment it was everything.”
“An IED. I got rushed back to Holby for emergency surgery and Marcus asked me to stay, so we could be a normal family for once,” she huffs out an almost laugh, “that was the beginning of the end.”
“And before Alex? Were you happy?” Serena’s questions are asked without that condescending pity to which Bernie has become accustomed when telling people about her past.
“I don’t know,” it must be the wine, making her open up like this, “I thought so, but maybe not. Maybe Marcus and I were never more than friends. I certainly never… Wanted him like I wanted Alex. But with the kids? I think so.”
“And yet you don’t speak to them.”
“Yes, well. I’ve never been very maternal. Some women are able to tell their children they love them, to show it at every turn. As for me…” She takes a gulp of wine and turns to Serena with a wistful smile, “I have this fantasy that I’d have been Maria Von Trapp if it weren’t for my career.”
“Yes I can’t quite see you making dresses out of curtains and singing ‘Edelweiss’ around the fire,” Serena shoots back.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. What about you? Any children?”
“No. Well, sort of I guess. My nephew’s lived with me since his mum, my sister, died. He has asperger’s so it can be a challenge at times but it’s nice,” the smile on Serena’s face as she speaks of him says it all. Bernie can tell that Serena obviously adores the boy.
“How, um I mean, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you get into this, uh, line of work?”
“I was in med school, actually.” It makes sense, considering the level of Serena’s medical knowledge Bernie had witnessed that night. “First year. I was working at a strip club to pay for it all, we weren’t very well off you see. And then my mother got very sick.”
“I’m sorry,” and Bernie is, truly.
“Thank you. It was a very long time ago. She had dementia, required a lot of care. I moved on to working as an escort. It was a logical segue; I needed the money: for the house, for medical care. And it only required a few hours in the evening, left the rest of my day free to take care of her,” Serena is being very matter-of-fact about it all but Bernie can only imagine how taxing that must have been for her, especially at such a young age.
“That must have been hard,” she says because she can’t think of anything else that doesn’t sound glib.
“It was. Years later she passed away and I couldn’t see a good reason to change careers. I liked the work, anyway, and the money was good.”
“I’m sorry,” Bernie can’t help herself from saying it, “you like being an escort?” Serena stiffens immediately and the look she levels at Bernie is dangerous.
“I’ll credit you as not knowing any better, but I don’t like your tone. Yes I like this work. I like people, and I get to help people in a very individual way. I will freely admit that the sex industry is full of problems and many sex workers, disproportionately trans women of colour, work in incredibly high risk situations. To say nothing of those who are forced into it against their will. But it is as viable a career choice as any other and it deserves respect.”
“I’m sorry,” Bernie says, “that was foolish of me, you’re right.”
“I forgive you. It’s something I feel very passionately about, if you couldn’t tell. It’s not all Pretty Woman but it’s not a bad job. And after all, I’m drinking a very expensive bottle of wine with a beautiful woman thanks to my job right now.” There’s that smile again and the tension is broken just like that. “You know, if it weren’t for my very strict confidentiality rules I would let you know how many of the men in the room down there have also been clients of mine.”
“You’re joking!” Bernie’s happy to put her foolish words behind her as Serena changes the subject.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve seen any of them, but yes there were a few familiar faces. I mean, a group of well-off Holby businessmen, what did you expect?” A fair point, Bernie must concede, after all Ric Griffin is the reason she found out about Serena in the first place.
They stay on the couches, working their way through the bottle of wine and sharing stories from their past. Serena is even more wickedly funny when they’re alone and Bernie almost spits her drink across the room on more than one occasion. The evening comes to an end when Bernie lets out a massive yawn, unable to help herself. Serena grins at her.
“Exhausted. Not all of us are extroverts, you know.”
“True.” They both stand, and Bernie wavers with uncertainty as to her next move.
“Well you’ve paid for me for the night, why don’t you take that gown off and get into bed,” Serena says before Bernie has a chance to speak up. Bernie stiffens immediately, can feel her eyes widen and her cheeks flush hot. Serena laughs, her eyes wicked, “nothing of the sort! Trust me, Ms. Wolfe, you didn’t pay me nearly enough for that . But good old fashioned human contact is a boon not to be underestimated and I’m willing to wager you haven’t had anything of the sort in far too long.”
“I haven’t, no,” Bernie agrees, though part of her is reeling at the comment that she hasn’t paid Serena enough for, um, that, because she is paying Serena an unholy amount of money. Then again, the back of her mind pipes up unbidden, any amount of money would be worth it to...
“Well then?” Serena’s voice breaks through her thoughts and Bernie nods, made malleable by the alcohol and the hours in Serena’s warm presence.
She dutifully shucks the gown she’s wearing, looks down and remembers that the cut of it hadn’t allowed for a bra but Serena seems unfazed as she directs her once more to get into the bed. She lays there, eyes screwed shut, fingers fisted in the bedding as she listens to the sound of Serena getting undressed, washing her face, turning the light off. Then the mattress dips and she feels the warmth of another human being crawling under the covers beside her. Serena wastes no time in moving right into Bernie’s side, curling around her and wrapping her arm around Bernie’s waist. Bernie allows it begrudgingly, shifting onto her side and folding her knees up.
“You’re too small to be the big spoon,” she mutters, angry that she already feels better. Who is this woman that she can look right through her, see the things that not even Bernie knows she needs?
“Go to sleep Berenice,” Serena replies gently.
Bernie wakes up the next morning alone and feeling more rested than she has in, gosh, years probably. She squints at the clock on the bedside table and that can’t be right because it says 8:30 and if that’s true that would mean Bernie slept for over 8 hours. Without waking up once. She finds her phone, confirms it. There’s a notification for a text on her phone and she opens it. It’s from Serena, just over an hour ago,
‘Had a great time. Feel free to give me a ring the next time you’re headed to a fancy do. X’
She clutches the phone to her chest with a smile as she falls back against the pillows.
this fic is essentially just my thesis on the fact that the single best sleeping position in the world is curled up, spooning, titty in hand.
The problem, Bernie decides, with getting one really good night’s rest is that it reminds her body what she's been missing. You can deprive yourself of almost anything for any conceivable period of time as long as you take care not to give yourself a taste of what you once had. Many things are more enjoyable in the wanting anyway: a pint of ice cream pure in your mind’s eye may leave you feeling bloated, a glass of wine as likely to contribute to your headache as to do away with it, and the actual act of smoking will never live up to the exquisite expectation of that first drag of a fag. Sleep, however, dreamless restful sleep was infinitely better than Bernie had remembered. There lies her predicament, for try as she might she hasn’t been able to catch more than a couple of hours shut-eye since that night in the hotel with Serena.
She tries everything, even goes as far as to rent a room in that same hotel in case the reason for her sudden magical ability to rest lay in the atmosphere of that place. It doesn’t help. She tosses and turns and finally admits it to be a waste of money. After three weeks she is forced to come to terms with the fact that Serena herself is the reason for Bernie finally getting some rest. She wrestles with what to do for another day and a half: somehow hiring an escort to go to a party feels a hundred times more legitimate than hiring one to come over and sleep in her bed with her.
It is three thirty in the afternoon on a Saturday when she finally breaks. She’s sitting at her desk doing paperwork and she’s read the same sentence 6 times over without absorbing a single thing. Somehow the exhaustion-be-damned exemplary concentration that her brain affords her in surgery never holds over to the more administrative areas of her job. She holds her phone in her hand for a couple of moments wondering if she had sunk low enough to make this call in her office in the middle of AAU before changing her mind and dashing up the stairs to the roof.
She passes by Dr. Copeland at the top of the stairs, he’s just leaving the rooftop it seems, and Bernie gives him a tense smile before moving through the doorway and stepping out onto the rough surface. She dials the number before she can think twice about it, squints up at the sky as she listens to it ring.
“Berenice!” Serena answers nigh immediately and her voice is warm and welcoming.
“Serena. Hi.” She remembers immediately just how absolute the effect this woman has on her is.
“I was hoping I’d hear from you again soon.”
“Oh. Um, w- were you?” Great, now she probably sounds downright desperate. “Right. Um, good.”
“What can I help you with? Another party full of benefactors to impress on your horizon?”
“No, actually. I was hoping to hire you to sleep with me,” she pauses abruptly as she realises how that could be interpreted, “just sleep I mean! Not, um, not other things. But actual sleeping…” Bernie would desperately like to know what it is about this woman that reduces her to a quivering mess.
“I’d like that,” Serena’s tone is kind and Bernie can picture then gentle smile on her face in her mind’s eye. “I’m free tonight, if that works for you?”
“Tonight?” Somehow she had expected to be put on a waiting list, certainly there were men lining up around the block to hire Serena for themselves, nonetheless she’ll happily accept this opportunity, “yes, yes tonight would be perfect.”
They talk a little bit longer, setting a time and place (11:00pm, Bernie’s apartment) and deciding on a rate (£1500.00). It’s expensive. Not quite as much as Bernie paid her for the party but still not cheap. Then again, besides her rent and the money she’s been putting aside for Cam and Charlotte on the off chance that they might ever speak to her again, Bernie doesn’t actually spend her salary on anything. She figures this is as good a use as any: she’d pay six times as much for another full night of rest. She’s most of the way back to AAU when she realises she’s going to need to clean her apartment.
It’s not that Bernie’s messy, per se. It’s just that she can’t really be arsed to care about not leaving her clothes on the floor or her empty takeaway containers on the counter. It’s not like anyone else sees her place. And it’s not like she spends any fraction of quality time here. It’s somewhere to store her things and, occasionally, her person in those moments between her very important job of saving lives. So she has to sniff her clothes to make sure they’re clean before she puts them on. So what? It’s fine and it suits her. Certainly she has never wanted to mirror her old life with Marcus in any way now that she’s struck out on her own.
It is, however, an inconvenience in this exact moment. Just as she was returning to AAU, intending to beg off early and go home to tidy a trauma came in. She got tied up in surgery and didn’t make it out of the building until just past 10. She surveys her disaster of an apartment, well aware of the mounting anxiety she feels at the prospect of tonight. She cleans by shoving her clothing into the closet in a huge pile and wedging the door closed. She fills a garbage bag with the trash from her kitchen and puts it out in the bin. She does a half hearted attempt at doing the dishes, before glancing at the clock and realising she definitely does not have the time. So she shoves the rest of them into a cupboard and tries not to think of what her mother would say if she could see what Bernie was doing.
Slightly specious methods notwithstanding, when Serena rings the buzzer at the door downstairs Bernie’s apartment appears respectably neat and tidy. She presses the button to let her in, does her best not to wait by the door, fails miserably. Still she waits until Serena knocks to open it, to maybe potentially make her seem not entirely too eager. She invites her in, takes her coat and hangs it on the hook by the door, and hands her the prepared cheque which is slipped into Serena’s bag without a comment or a second look. That taken care of, they move the couple of steps into Bernie’s tiny living room. It’s awkward. Almost unbearably so. Bernie stands there, wringing her hands and willing herself to say something, anything. As it is, it’s Serena who speaks up first.
“You have a lovely place.”
“Ha, yeah, it’s... It’s adequate. Sorry, um,” she gestures towards the sofa, “did you want to have a seat? I could get you a glass of wine if you’d like?”
“Shiraz?” Serena says hopefully as she takes a seat. Bernie takes the couple of steps into the kitchen and retrieves the bottle from the back of the liquor cabinet, peering at the label.
“Ooof,” Serena looks like that’s just about the worst response she could’ve gotten, “well I guess it will have to do.”
Bernie nods and turns back around to find glasses. The problem is she has yet to manage to shake her nerves. Her hands, unshakeable when performing emergency surgery under gunfire in a war zone, tremble and she manages to hit the side of a cabinet with the glass in her hand, causing it to shatter in her grip. She swears as she feels the glass cut her skin and Serena is by her side a moment later.
“Oh dear,” she says, completely matter of fact, then, “don’t move,” as Bernie goes to do just that. “Where’s your broom?”
“It’s fine Serena, I can take care of—”
“Where’s your broom, Berenice?”
Bernie points reluctantly and waits as Serena busies herself with cleaning up the shards. She concentrates instead on her thumb which is bleeding quite a bit now and really this was not at all how she wanted the evening to go. Serena finishes up, puts the broom away, and then looks at Bernie critically, “you’re bleeding.”
“Okay,” Serena pats the counter top with one hand, “hop up and let me see.” The look on her face brooks no protest so Bernie dutifully obeys, sitting on the countertop and holding her hand out for inspection. “Not too bad,” she says, “I’m sure you’ll agree Doctor ,” the last word is accompanied by a sly smile and Bernie gives a little grin in return.
“Yes it should be fine.”
“Still, we should clean it and cover it. Where do you keep your plasters?”
“Oh,” Bernie purses her lips, “um I don’t own any.”
“You don’t have anything of the sort?”
“Nope,” Bernie shakes her head as she says it.
“You’re a doctor!” She says it with a little laugh. “No, never mind. I think I’ve got some in my bag. Give me a moment.”
And then Serena is cleaning off Bernie’s thumb with a disinfectant wipe and applying a plaster with gentle fingers and brushing her lips over the area when she’s all done.
“Thank you,” Bernie’s voice is quiet but she doesn’t know what else to say in the face of all that care and affection.
“You’re very welcome.” Serena holds out her hand to Bernie, “what say you we skip the wine tonight and head straight for bed?” Bernie just nods, takes her hand, hops down from the counter.
They get ready for bed without much more talking. Serena’s brought an overnight bag and Bernie shows her the loo so she can change. Meanwhile she shucks her clothes and dresses in the boxer briefs and worn out old t-shirt she sleeps in. She’s only just begun to worry about whether or not this is an appropriate thing to be wearing when Serena comes out and takes her breath away.
It’s a simple look. Maroon satin nightdress, her face washed clean of makeup but as she stands there haloed by the soft light of the bedside lamp Bernie can’t help but think she might be the most beautiful woman on earth. What is it about Serena? This grace and charm that effuses her. It makes Bernie’s stomach twist and her throat dry. At Serena’s curious look, she pushes past her into the loo. She brushes her teeth and washes her face and whispers to herself in the mirror to get herself together.
Last time she didn’t really have time to dwell on what was happening. This time she can’t help but overthink everything. Is she being weird? Or awkward? Does Serena think her completely daft? Is she somehow managing to cock up a situation where the other person is literally being paid to spend time with her? Probably. But Serena just smiles in that way that makes Bernie forget about her anxieties.
“Come on now,” Serena says, her voice soft and low as she pats the bed beside her and Bernie gingerly slides underneath the covers. She lifts her arm, inviting Bernie into her embrace and Bernie nestles her head in the crook of Serena’s neck, wraps an arm around her waist and tries not to think about any of it too much. Because if she does she’ll become obsessed with the feeling of Serena in her arms and that’s a road she very much does not need to go down. “Where did you get these sheets?” Serena asks, breaking the tense silence.
“They’re awful.” Bernie cranes her head up to glare up at Serena at that.
“I got them from Ikea. They were 5 quid!”
“You can buy sheets from Ikea?” Serena wrinkles her nose at the name, looking for all the world as though she has never deigned to step foot in one.
“You can buy anything at Ikea. Anyway, I didn’t think they were that bad.”
“Hmmph. If you say so I guess,” but her tone is more playful than truly disparaging and it makes Bernie smile, at the least. “Well how did you want to go about this?”
“I just mean I don’t exactly know what generally helps you fall asleep.”
“Oh. Right,” she decides not say ‘nothing’ even if that might be the answer. ‘You’ likely has some veracity as well but obviously not something she should say aloud.
“I could read to you, if you’d like? I brought a book with me, I just thought…”
“That would be lovely,” Bernie agrees immediately.
She waits as Serena grabs both e-reader and reading glasses off the side table. No one could say she doesn’t come prepared. Her face looks beautiful, lit up by the warm glow of the lamp, glasses perched on the end of her nose.
“Yes, yes I know. I need reading glasses like a frumpy old lady,” Serena snaps when she notices her looking. Frumpy was the furthest thing from Bernie’s mind however. Hot as hell, more like. She doesn’t say that, of course. But she lets herself think for a moment what it would be like to lean up and press her lips against Serena’s and feel those ‘frumpy’ glasses dig into her skin.
They settle in, Serena holding the e-book with one hand and bringing the other up to play with Bernie’s hair as she begins to read.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” Serena says. Her voice is rich and low. Her hand cards through Bernie’s hair with care, taking the time to scratch her scalp at measured intervals. Bernie snuggles in a little closer, blames it on the fatigue. She falls asleep like that: toasty warm, eminently comfortable, half-listening as Serena tells her the tale of the Bennets.
Bernie is happily ensconced in the embrace of dreamless sleep so she misses Serena’s fond smile down at the gently snoring woman in her arms. She misses the tender kiss Serena drops onto the top of her head. Sleeps soundly through Serena putting both book and glasses on the bedside table and shifting them both down into a comfortable lying down position. Does not witness the enigmatic look on Serena’s face as she turns the light off and pulls her close.
Bernie wakes up the next morning alone.
trigger warning for Bernie mentions of dissociation, this chapter's a little heavy but Bernie is super fucked up so yeah!!
thanks everyone for your patience, work and getting sick got in the way of me writing this week (boo!)
By Sunday night, Bernie has convinced herself that she will not be calling Serena again. Sure actually sleeping is amazing and probably doing wonders for her health, and when she popped by Holby for a few hours to do paperwork no less than 5 people commented on how well she was looking, but she's a grown woman goddammit. She should not need a warm body in her bed to be able to sleep. And there is likely something to be said for the fact that she is a hospital administrator and should she be caught hiring a sex worker (as innocent as the whole affair has been) there would undoubtedly be consequences to her career.
She keeps this belief alive until 10:43 Tuesday morning. It's not her fault: Tuesday is the worst day of the week anyway and she's just come out of 6 hours in theatre doing her very best to save someone from their own stupidity. The ward is in chaos, an endless stream of crises being sent up from the ED, and she thinks to herself that she needs something to look forward to to get her through the week. (The fact that she's never needed that before is not to be brought up.)
So in a split second of time to herself she pulls out her phone and taps out a quick text.
‘Sorry, no time to call. Saturday again?’
She doesn't have time to wait for a response; the red phone rings and she drops her phone on her desk and runs to answer it. She's on her way home before she even remembers sending the text. She waits til she's pulled into her parking spot and turned off her car before she goes to check for a response.
'Shame, I would've loved to hear your voice. Saturday's perfect, see you then. x'
Bernie looks up cleaning services almost immediately. She doesn't love the idea of a stranger in her space she'll admit. But she likes the idea of actually having to clean even less. She calls around to a few before she finds one that she thinks sounds okay. This woman will even do her laundry and her dishes, for a price. Bernie immediately reserves her for every Friday, wonders why she didn't do this years ago. Of course, this is the first time in years that she's actually cared what her flat looks like. The first time ever. The only person other than herself who's been in there since she moved in was the super, once, to fix the sink when a pipe burst. Is that sad and pathetic? Maybe. But who would she even invite over? It doesn’t bear thinking on, she decides. Now is now and the past is the past and she is a working woman with a cleaning person. Not so abnormal in the grand scheme of things.
Serena's late. It's a quarter past the hour when she arrives and Bernie's well on the way to wearing a hole in her floor from her anxious pacing. She comes in, hangs up her coat, accepts the requisite cheque from Bernie and sits down on the sofa as though she belongs there. Bernie perches on a nearby stool and tries to look natural.
“Sorry,” Serena says, catching Bernie’s eyes, “Jason needed something just as I was leaving the house, I couldn't leave until I had taken care of it.”
“Oh. No problem. Is Jason your, um, boyfriend?” Bernie hates herself a little for asking the question, for the neediness in her tone, for the part of herself wishing that Jason is just an oddly named cat.
“No!” Serena laughs like it’s the most absurd thing she’s ever heard. “No, my nephew. I think I told you about him in passing.”
“Yes. Right.” She tamps down the relief. “You mentioned, he has asperger's?”
“Yes. It just means that any deviation from the schedule is rather a matter of dire importance.” She gives Bernie a curious smile, “I'm not seeing anyone at the moment, actually.”
“Ah.” Bernie tries not to grin at that, can’t help herself from immediately following up with, “why not? I mean, you're perfect who wouldn't want to date you?”
Serena laughs at that,
“Well thank you, that's very kind. But well, mostly, because most of the men I meet are through my work.”
“And you wouldn't date someone who hired you.”
“I wouldn't say that, necessarily. I wouldn't not date someone just because they were once a client. It's more that generally the people who hire someone like me do so for a reason. For starters many of them are married and that's just not my bag. Many are workaholics who don’t have time for a proper relationship. And then of course there’s the fetishists, those in search of rather more peculiar services. And as much as I do enjoy a bit of kink now and then it is nice to take off the leather and leave the chains aside now and then,” she grins wickedly at that and Bernie can feel herself turning bright red.
“Right,” she manages to squeak out. Serena’s grin widens and she shakes her head a little, she can’t possibly not know the effect she has on Bernie when she says things like that.
“Now, as for you my dear Berenice, what are your plans?”
Bernie, mind still stuck firmly on the past topic of conversation turns an even deeper shade of red and sends up a silent prayer of absolution for all the wayward thoughts that phrase will bring on.
“I mean,” Serena continues with a slight inclination of her head, “was this something you wanted to continue? On a semi-permanent basis I mean. In that we would assume, without prior arrangements being made, that I will be spending my Saturday nights with you.”
“I’d like that,” Bernie says before she can change her mind.
“Good. Now that that's settled, I have something for you,” she reaches into her bag, tossing two packages to Bernie who barely manages to catch them in surprise. “While I am more than happy to spend as many nights with you as you’d like to hire me for Berenice,” she says by way of explanation, “I refuse to spend one more minute on what you’ve been referring to as sheets.”
Bernie turns them over in her hands, the sheets are burgundy, the colour of Shiraz she thinks fleetingly, the duvet cover a dark chocolate brown.
“Thank you,” she says and registers how rather pathetic it sounds, “I didn’t know they made sheets in 600 thread count,” she continues before realising that probably sounds even worse.
Serena’s laugh clears away any of Bernie’s anxiety.
“Then this will be quite the treat.”
They make short work of changing over Bernie’s bedding and once they’ve changed and visited the loo and finally slid beneath the brand new sheets, Bernie has to admit that Serena was correct. She’s never before cared about what she was sleeping on but these sheets may just change her mind. It’s the softest thing she thinks she’s ever touched, except for Serena’s skin her traitorous brain interjects, but she ignores that in favour of concentrating on Serena’s victorious smile.
“So?” Serena asked, her brow arched in that way that says she already knows she’s won.
“They’re incredible, Serena. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome my dear. Now come here,” she lifts her arm and Bernie obligingly comes in closer, laying her head on Serena’s shoulder, “some more Jane Austen tonight?” She asks as she brings her arm down to encircle Bernie. Bernie nods and Serena squeezes tight for a moment before reaching for her glasses and e-reader.
Bernie listens to the soft timbre of her voice continuing the tale of the willful Elizabeth Bennet with a smile. Her arm reaches around Serena’s waist, her hand splayed over Serena’s hip, her fingers dancing patterns over the fabric of Serena’s nightgown. She wonders to herself if anything feels more comfortable, more cozy than this.
The next Saturday it is Bernie who’s almost late. She gets home just as Serena arrives and they walk up the stairs together.
“Mmmm,” she really doesn’t want to talk about it.
“You’ve got something on you, looks like it might be blood,” Serena reaches out to stroke her cheek and Bernie pulls away, concentrates on getting her key in the lock without her hands trembling.
“Surgery ran late. Didn’t have a chance to shower before I came here.” She doesn’t tell Serena that she had spent her entire day doing any surgery she could get her hands on. Doesn’t offer up the knowledge that Raf was more than ready to and capable of doing this last procedure. She doesn’t want to talk about any of it and the sympathy in Serena’s eyes, usually so comforting, is not something she can deal with today.
“Okay,” is all Serena says and Bernie’s grateful. That’s the point of hiring someone for this anyway, isn’t it? So it can be on her terms.
They step through the door and Bernie’s stomach decides to take the opportunity to grumble loudly. She hopes that Serena hasn’t heard it but as soon as she looks at her she knows that’s not the case.
“Berenice,” Serena says softly, and as pathetic as she knows it to be, Bernie pretends not to hear her. She thinks she may have gotten away with it, too. Serena busies herself with hanging up her coat and putting her shoes neatly on the mat. But once that’s done and they’re both in the sitting room she tries again. “Berenice,” she reaches out and brushes Bernie’s arm gently, “hey, look at me.” Bernie bites her lip, looks at the ground then up at the ceiling, casts her gaze anywhere but at Serena. Serena waits patiently as Bernie finally works her way up to looking directly at her and Bernie can’t quite decipher the look painted on her face. Concern, yes, but also something else that Bernie can’t name for the life of her.
“When did you last eat anything?” Serena asks and Bernie realises that she doesn’t quite know. She must have grabbed something from Pulses in the morning? She vaguely remembers going to grab something from the vending machine, seeing the packet of milky buttons, punching the side of the machine before she’d walked away. She still hasn’t answered Serena’s question, has she? She opens her mouth, catches Serena’s eye, and then Serena’s speaking again before she’s had the chance to think of what she’ll say. “Hmph, I think that’s my answer there isn’t it? How about you go hop in the shower and clean off and I’ll take care of running down something to eat?” Bernie nods, she can’t think of a reason to object. She’s oh so tired and she can feel the grime of the day clinging to her skin.
She stands under the spray—set so hot that she can just scarcely bear it—and tries to keep herself grounded in the here and now. She can feel her mind trying to shut down, to clear itself of any thought whatsoever. She clings to the knowledge that Serena is in the next room, that tonight is not one of the nights where she can stand under the steady stream of water until it turns ice cold around her.
She takes a deep breath, holds it, exhales. Repeats. Fills her hands with soap and lathers her skin with it. Her grip on reality has been tenuous at best today. She digs her fingers into her hair and concentrates on the fact that she’ll get to sleep soon. She rinses herself off, turns the tap all the way to cold for a split second and tells herself to get a grip.
Once she’s dried herself off and dressed in her regular pyjamas, she pads barefoot into the kitchen where she’s greeted by the most delicious smell and sight. Serena’s sitting at the kitchen table—and at some point she’s changed into her nightgown and wrapped herself in a plush housecoat looking for all the world at home there in Bernie’s kitchen—she has a glass of wine in hand from which she’s sipping and on the table beside her is a bowl of curry and a plate of samosas. She looks up at Serena in confusion,
“Oh god no!” Serena laughs, “can’t cook worth a damn, I’ll have you know. But were you aware that the curry place down the block is open late?”
“They don’t deliver,” Bernie counters. She should know, she’s had the internal debate of whether to put pants on and make the walk or give up on eating curry that night enough times.
“Oh come now Berenice, anyone does anything if you pay them enough,” Serena’s eyes twinkle as she says it but it just serves as a reminder to Bernie that she’s only there because she’s paying her. And that she hasn’t actually paid her yet tonight. Crap. She turns to go in search of her chequebook but Serena grabs her hand before she can and tugs her back. “Berenice leave it,” she says and Bernie wonders how she knows. Is she really so obvious? “Sit down and eat,” it’s a command more than a suggestion but Bernie is grateful for the direction and she sinks bonelessly into the chair. The chicken tikka masala is delicious and she wolfs it down, she’s most of the way through it before she remembers to breathe. She looks up abashedly but Serena’s just watching her with a heartwarming little smile and Bernie can’t help but give her a little grin in return.
She finishes her food and Serena finishes her wine and they leave the dishes in the sink and retire to bed. Bernie pauses to write out the cheque she never got to before, hands it over without another word and doesn’t think too much on the curious look on Serena’s face as she takes it. They slide under the covers and Bernie doesn’t need to be prompted to cuddle close to Serena. She feels better for having showered and eaten. Here, in Serena’s arms, she feels grounded for the first time in days. Tonight Serena doesn’t reach immediately for the book, instead she drags her fingernails over Bernie’s back, rucking up her shirt and drawing soothing patterns on her bare skin.
“Today is Cameron’s birthday,” the words are out of Bernie’s mouth before she’s thought about them. “Well yesterday, now, I guess. He’s 28,” she doesn’t even know why she’s talking. “I wrote him a card, well, more of a letter I guess. I don't know why, I haven't spoken to him in years… I wouldn't even know where to send it.”
“Sometimes it helps to write it anyway,” Serena says and the understanding in her tone makes Bernie’s breath hitch.
“I never even wanted kids,” the words are almost lost, Bernie's face buried in Serena’s shoulder. “I mean, not really. Not like some girls. I didn't not want to have them but, I don't know… I guess I just saw so many of my friends—not that there were many women in my year—but those that were… How many of them did I see go all the way through school, med school, the whole process and then just, give it up! Have kids and never go back! What a terrible waste of it all, I always thought,” she shifts a little, moving even closer into Serena's side, seeking solace in the warmth of her. Serena is all curves and softness and Bernie wants to never let go. “I think it was most of why I married Marcus, you know, for everything that happened after the whole, um, mess with Alex and the bitterness that set in, I did always like him and unlike most of the men I knew he didn't expect me to give it all up to have children. I wouldn't have, you know, no matter what my mother or anyone else would've said. But with Marcus he still very much wanted to have kids. And I didn't mind, either way, except for the time I had to take off, that is.”
“Would that all our medical professionals were as dedicated as you,” Serena says wryly and Bernie laughs shortly.
“We’d have a lot more screwed up kids!”
Serena hums a little, like she takes issue with that, but doesn't say anything else.
“It was better once they were older,” Bernie continues, “when they were babies, I mean, I loved them of course. But I never felt my heart sing like some women say. Never yearned for their babyhood in later days. But when they got older, that was when it got better, to my mind. When you could have a conversation with them, you know? I was away so much but it was nice when I was home. Even just taking them to school and picking them up. Talking to them about their days. Or on break, we would build pillow forts in the living room, stay up late reading and talking, go on family outings and explore as far as we could. They were such bright kids! So inquisitive,” she smiles, remembering it. “Cameron was always my quiet one. Always the gentle one. Didn't like anyone picking on anything. He got in trouble once, I remember, found some older boys picking the wings off crickets and flew at them. They hauled us into the school to chat with the headmaster about it and I told him right then and there I couldn't be prouder.”
“A good kid,” Serena agrees.
“Probably better off now that I'm not part of his life,” Bernie turns morose now, thinking about it all too much.
“I think you're a lot harder on yourself than you deserve.”
“I always wonder what it would be like. If I could just open up, reach out, tell them both how much I love them.”
“Well, there’s something to be said for good old British reserve,” Serena rebuts gently.
“Not if it’s something you’re hiding behind,” Bernie murmurs back and then it’s too much, she’s too open, too exposed. She flounders for a change in topic, blurts out, “they’ll begin work on the new trauma bay next week.” She doesn’t say thank you, hopes it’s there in her tone. Can’t bear for some reason to be anymore beholden to this woman in this moment.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Serena replies, “you deserve it.” And then it’s Serena changing the topic, “shall I read to you some more tonight?”
Bernie doesn’t verbalise, just nods against her collarbone. She’s exhausted, wrecked by the emotional toll of the day, and she can feel herself beginning to drift off at Serena’s first words.
hey all! sorry about the wait for this chapter. unfortunately i keep getting distracted from writing by the actual world going up in flames around us.
thanks everyone for the well wishes, not to jinx it but it does look like I've kicked this cold/whatever it was for good!
this is an extra long chapter in apology for the wait. i added a couple new tags, please heed them. trigger warnings for dissociation and just generally not healthy mental states on Bernie's part.
the hugest shoutout to Crystal and Nova as usual. This chapter was hard to put in order and they were invaluable talking it through with me and giving me ideas.
They fall into an easy routine. Bernie stops counting her weeks by the shift schedule, instead she parses time by its proximity to Saturdays. It must be months that have gone by now, if she counts the number of Saturdays, they work their way through the entirety of Pride and Prejudice, start on Sense and Sensibility next. Serena never stays the night. Until, one morning, Bernie opens her eyes in response to the insistent glare of the sun and her nose is buried in soft brown hair. Her arms are still around Serena and she stays still for a few moments, reveling in the warmth, the comfort of it all. She looks at the clock, and that can’t be right. It says 10:45 and if that’s true it would mean Bernie slept for almost ten and a half hours. She can’t even remember the last time she slept in past 9. Doesn’t know if she ever has.
The need to pee propels her out of bed, and once she’s visited the loo she moves to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee and is struck by the fact that she has absolutely nothing to eat. Surely Serena will expect food of some sort? She is still rummaging through cabinets when she hears Serena pad into the kitchen behind her.
“Mmm coffee,” Serena says, voice still laden with sleep. Bernie turns around and the image she sees strikes her very core. She has seen Serena in casual street clothes, and dressed to kill in a gorgeous gown, but those images pales in comparison to this. Serena’s eyes are warm and shining, her smile lazy. Her hair is sticking out at odd angles and she’s wrapped up in a housecoat. She looks like she belongs there in Bernie’s kitchen. Bernie ignores the odd little twinge in her chest in favour of returning to the task of finding something for breakfast.
She finally manages to unearth a (hopefully only slightly stale) croissant. She puts it on a plate and offers it to Serena with a nervous little smile.
“Sorry, this is all I have.”
“As long as you’ve got some strong, hot coffee I’m satisfied.” Bernie wishes she could keep her talking, the husk of her voice in the early morning something she will immediately miss once it’s no longer present.
“That I can do.”
She learns how Serena takes her coffee (milk, two sugars). She learns that Serena does not believe in launching into movement first thing in the morning, that she’d rather loll about with some coffee and do a crossword puzzle, or lean into Bernie on the sofa and keep reading the book from the night before.
This, too, the next morning that is, becomes part of their routine. Bernie gets used to lazy Sunday mornings. Reading, occasionally chatting. Sometimes she wakes before Serena and lays in bed perfectly still listening to the comforting sounds of Serena sleeping. Sometimes they return to bed after they’ve gotten up and Serena draws patterns over Bernie’s back until Bernie’s eyelids grow heavy and close in the pursuit of a mid-morning nap. No matter what they do, it’s always perfect. When Serena leaves (always before noon) Bernie goes to work and revels in the increased alertness and productivity all this sleep is getting her.
The more time they spend together, the more Bernie gets used to the warm feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she’s in Serena’s presence. She doesn’t think about it too much, just accepts this strange comforting feeling as part and parcel of her weekends. Manages to be grateful for it without ever acknowledging it directly, even within her own mind.
She gets to know Serena better too, they often talk about their lives before they fall asleep. Bernie learns about her sister, how it was only after her mother's death that she learned about her and how grateful she was to meet her. She learns about said sister passing away of cancer and how Serena immediately opened her home to her nephew. She speaks fondly of Jason, despite his more trying personality foibles, and Bernie feels honoured to be given these little peeks into who Serena is when she’s not being a comforting warm presence in Bernie’s bed.
Bernie does her best to share in return. It has never been her forte but she likes Serena and she feels safe sharing with her. Her colleagues notice a change, too. She no longer spends Saturday nights in her office and often it is noon on a Sunday before she finds herself at work again. And Serena’s influence seeps in elsewhere as well. Bernie gets used to little texts throughout the day. Sometimes a funny little story, sometimes just an emoticon, and fairly often a question: did you remember to eat today?
It seems to be that life is going quite well, over all. However, because it is Bernie Wolfe's life, this inevitably gets fucked up.
Bernie in no way pretends to be an exemplary adult. She, in fact, tends to shirk all typical duties that are not related to work. In furtherance of this goal, she has her finances set up for minimum involvement on her end. The hospital direct deposits her paycheques, the landlord cashes her post dated cheques, some predetermined amount is automatically wired to her savings every month, and that’s it. She knows that paying Serena will have taken a hefty cut out of it all, but she has a decent sum from the divorce so she doesn’t feel the need to check on that either. Then, one day, someone from HR calls her in a tizzy. It appears that they direct deposited the wrong amount of money in her account, someone messed up the records of who was paid what and they need her to go into it and determine where they went wrong. Bernie complies reluctantly, digs out the slip of paper on which she wrote her online banking information, and takes a look into her account. She has been vaguely curious, she’ll admit, at just what a dent her… arrangement with Serena has been making in her finances. Her balance is higher than she thought it would be, considering these expenses. After she’s sorted out the paycheque issue, she finds herself curious about it so she goes to take a look. It takes her a couple of minutes to locate the section with her statements, chooses to view them by six months, and scrolls through.
This can’t be right though. She doesn’t see evidence of Serena cashing any of her cheques on here. She wonders briefly if she knows for certain that cashed cheques show up on here? She can’t remember the last time she actually used online banking.
That hope is dashed as soon as she spies where her landlord cashed her rent at the top of the month. She chooses to keep scrolling, needs to know why she isn’t seeing any evidence of Serena taking the money she’s been paying her. She finally sees something, a withdrawal for fifteen hundred pounds. She looks at the date, and really this can’t possibly be right because this was months ago and that would mean that Serena had been coming and staying with her for free. Bernie is at least enough of an adult to know that nothing happens for free. She takes another look at it and that’s when she truly notices the date.
The last time Serena cashed a cheque was a few days before Cam’s birthday. She freezes for a few moments, letting this information wash over her. So what? She’s some charity case now? Serena took one look at her snivelling pathetic self and decided she couldn’t bear to charge her for her time anymore. She logs out and moves away from her desk, goes out onto the ward and finds something to do to take her mind off of it. Does her best to ignore the entire situation.
She keeps coming back to it though. She can’t stop dwelling on the fact that for some reason Serena has not been taking the money she deserves for her work. The only reason she can possibly think of is that Serena pities poor sad lonely divorced Berenice Wolfe too much to take another cent from her.
She builds up fake arguments in her head, writes a script where she tells Serena that she is fine, she has her life under control, she needs no pity. She almost cancels the upcoming Saturday a hundred times, fingers wavering over the screen of her phone but something keeps her from sending the text, from making the call. She feels like an addict, unable to say no to the promise of her next hit. Hates that she doesn’t want to let this week go by without that bit of sleep she has come to rely on. And that’s all it is, she tells herself angrily. Just a way to get to sleep, nothing more.
Two days later, when Saturday finally comes around, Bernie has let her anger flourish inside of her. She is ready and waiting for the fight. Berenice Wolfe doesn’t back down from a confrontation and she definitely isn’t going to let this go without giving Serena a piece of her mind. In many ways it feels like a typical Saturday, were it not for the chaos in Bernie’s mind. Serena buzzes up as usual, Bernie lets her in as usual, waits as she hangs up her coat and puts her shoes away as usual. In her mind she is witty and clever, snaps out something that makes Serena recoil, that rightfully puts her in place.
In reality she just frowns and jerks away when Serena reaches out to put a friendly hand on her arm.
“What’s the matter?” Serena asks and Bernie looks anywhere but at the hurt in her eyes. She opens her mouth to say something, then closes it again. “Berenice?” Serena prompts her.
“I’m not a child,” she snaps out finally looking at Serena, her jaw tensed, her mouth in a defiant line.
“I would certainly hope not,” Serena replies, but Bernie is not in the mood for that gentle teasing tone.
“I don’t need your pity Serena. I’m not some charity case that needs to be looked after,” there, that’s closer to what she’d planned.
“Berenice, I’d love to give some rebuttal but I’m afraid I’ll need you to tell me what’s going on.”
“You haven’t been cashing my cheques.”
“Ah,” Serena says, “that.”
“Yes. That.” She’s seething now, wishes she had something to do with all the wrathful energy flowing through her, settles for tapping her feet insistently.
“I, well, I rather thought you knew?”
“You thought I knew? Why would I still be handing them to you then?”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it. And stopping giving them to me would necessitate us talking about it.” She takes a deep breath and keeps going before Bernie can interrupt her. “As to why, I rather thought we had become friends, at some point. And I don’t charge my friends for spending time with them.”
“Oh.” That had not been what Bernie had been expecting. “Friends?”
“Yes, friends,” Serena says this with a gentle smile and Bernie finds herself softening immediately at the sight of it. “Unless you feel otherwise?”
“No, um, friends sounds nice.”
“Good,” she reaches out to squeeze Bernie’s shoulder gently. “I am very sorry though Berenice. It was unfair of me to not bring it up immediately. You deserve better than that.”
Bernie fights off the inclination to say ‘no worries’ or ‘no problem’, to brush it off.
“I forgive you,” she says instead. Solemn and honest because Serena seems to always inspire her to be better than she is.
“C’mon,” Serena says with a little jerk of her head, “friends hug it out when they have an argument, don’t they?”
Bernie allows herself to be pulled into a tight hug. She wraps her arms around Serena, buries her face in her hair, and immediately feels a little more grounded. She can’t remember the last time she had a proper friend. Alex maybe? Marcus before everything got nasty?
Nothing recently, that’s for sure.
They separate and Bernie’s immediately struck with worry.
“If we’re friends, can we still…” She trails off, gesturing lamely toward her room and Serena laughs gently.
“Friends share beds all the time Berenice.”
It’s a little strange, to go from anger and fighting to everything being okay so quickly. She still feels a little too tightly wound as she gets ready for bed. Serena seems to notice, she pulls Bernie close and plays with her hair as she reads to her, moves her hand down to rub her back, and as Bernie falls asleep she’s vaguely aware of Serena stopping reading in favour of murmuring ‘shhh’ and ‘it’s okay’ and ‘I’m here.’
“I’m so sorry, Berenice. Something’s come up with Jason that I need to deal with. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it tonight. I am very sorry, and even sorrier that I only caught your voicemail, I did so want to talk to you about this. I’ll see you next week. Okay? Bye.”
Bernie listens to the message 3 times before she deletes it and tries to resist the urge to chuck her phone across the room. At the end of the day it’s not really all that surprising that one of them would need to cancel. Given the nature of Bernie’s job it’s probably more of an accomplishment that she hasn’t had to take a rain cheque in the past months. And Bernie understands that Jason has his own particular challenges and she would never dare try to stand between Serena and her duties to her nephew. Cancelled plans are just a part of life. Not that big of a deal, right?
The thing is, she tries really hard not to self-combust. She tries to act like everything’s normal, like everything’s okay. She works a bit later than usual and then goes home. She gets takeaway and eats it standing in the middle of her pristine kitchen, leaves a mess because she just doesn’t care. No one’s gonna see it anyway so what does it matter? She can feel her brain spiralling into the dark chasm of ‘what does anything matter?’, steps back from the edge and does her best to cast her brain to something else. She pulls on her running shoes and goes for a run, runs fast enough that the only thoughts she has surround the burning sensation in her lungs, in her legs.
She wants to be okay. Serena and she are just friends and she’s an adult and she can definitely survive a single fucking night without her because if she can’t what does that make her? A little part of her hates Serena in that moment. Who is she to make Bernie need her? Who is she to come into the careful balance of managing things Bernie had set up and give her the hint of something better?
Bernie Wolfe has never needed anybody else. Not here, not in the middle of the Afghanistan desert. She is fine .
Except for how she’s not.
She runs until all of her muscles scream at the exertion. Gets into the shower because she thinks, vaguely, that it’s probably what she should do. The water is cold and bracing, then scalding hot. She lets it prick her skin and tries not to dwell on the fact that she feels like she’s bursting apart. Thankfully that awful feeling—like she’s about to fly into pieces at any second—is soon replaced by the all too familiar numbness. This, she thinks, she can deal with. This she has all too much experience dealing with.
She lies in bed for a while. Figures that she probably should make an effort at sleeping. If only so she could say she did. Sleep is unsurprisingly elusive, she watches the clock roll past midnight and then gets up. If she’s not going to be able to go to sleep she may as well be useful. She drives to work with the top down lets the night air bite at her clammy skin, wonders how she forgot so quickly what this feels like. It hasn’t gone away, it never did. But somehow sleeping every weekend was able to keep it at bay. She hasn’t felt it this strongly in months. The sensation and the complete lack of sensation. It’s foreign and familiar. It’s dizzying.
She digs her nails into her palms and wills it all away. Hangs onto the here and now. She lights a fag and she’d forgotten, really, how good smoking feels when she’s like this. It’s so powerful, so tangible. She breathes in deep, lets the smoke fill her lungs and holds its for a second. Then exhales and goes again. She can feel the nicotine coursing through her. She’s a doctor, she knows it’s a stimulant, but christ if it doesn’t feel like the most relaxing thing on earth right now. Her stupid brain rebutts that thought by pulling up the image of waking up in Serena’s arms. Bernie shakes her head and wills it away. Focuses on the fag again, on her feet on the pedals, on the clutch and the gears, on anything but that.
When she gets to work, gets to her ward, she tries to sneak in quietly. The last thing she wants is someone commenting on the fact that she’s here when she hasn’t been seen at work on a Saturday night since the spring. She almost gets her wish. It seems Raf is working tonight, they haven’t spoken about anything personal since the day he admitted his unrequited crush on Fletcher to her but she likes to think they’ve reached a sort of companionship beyond a strict boss-employee relationship, he doesn’t say anything to her but he does look at her with concern filling his eyes and Bernie has to avoid his gaze. Thankfully he’s busy on the ward, he doesn’t come into the office except once for a quick second opinion on something.
Bernie boots up her computer and opens her files. She does absolutely nothing else.
She ends up staring at her computer screen for who knows how long. Except she’s not really staring at the screen, it’s like she’s staring past the screen, her eyes remaining trained on the harsh glare of it. Her mind doesn’t wander so much as it just stops. It’s like she’s just hanging there, suspended and motionless, like her brain is suspended in zero gravity.
She doesn’t come out of it until she hears somebody calling her name. It’s hazy and quiet at first, she can barely hear it. And then it’s not quite right, either. It’s not Ms. Wolfe, not even Bernie. It’s a warm gentle and much too familiar voice saying ‘Berenice’. She startles, jumps a little in her seat, and is brought crashing back into reality staring into Serena’s warm dark eyes with Serena’s hand on her shoulder.
It takes her a while before she can speak. At first there’s just too much happening—the noise of the ward and Serena’s presence and the glow of her computer screen—she feels like her senses are going into overload just trying to take everything in.
“What?” She manages after a while and it’s only once she’s spoken that Serena moves at all. She comes in a bit closer, perches on the edge of her desk. She takes her hand off Bernie’s shoulder for a moment and Bernie immediately misses the warmth, is grateful the moment she puts it back.
“I’m not a stalker just so you know,” Serena says and it’s with that joking little grin that Bernie loves so much. “I finished up with Jason and, to be perfectly honest, felt a bit bereft at the prospect of a Saturday night without you. I didn’t want to call you, I know you leave the ringer on, and I didn’t want to risk waking you if you were asleep. So, and this is a tad stalkerish I’ll admit, I drove past your place to see if your lights were on. They weren’t and your car wasn’t there and I got a bit worried. I tried calling you but you didn’t answer.” Bernie remembers putting her phone on silent and throwing it in her bottom drawer to keep herself from scrolling through old text conversations with Serena. “So I came here. And you…” Serena trails off then, looks at Bernie with an expression that Bernie can’t even begin to decipher. “My dear Berenice,” she says then, and Bernie’s breath catches a little at the fondness in her tone. Serena moves her hand up from Bernie’s shoulder and cups her cheek. “How much do you sleep? When I’m not around that is?”
Bernie averts her gaze at that. She breathes and tries not to let her entire facade of being okay crumble about her. She can feel her mouth settling into that hardened line that Marcus always used to chide her about. Her personal signal to the world at large that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is. Serena is having none of that.
“Berenice, I need to know,” she presses.
“A couple hours, a few, I don’t know, it’s fine.”
“Is it?” She shoots back. Then, softer, “Berenice look at me and tell me you’re fine.”
Bernie turns her head to look at her, catches her gaze intent on telling Serena that she is absolutely fine, thank you, and that she can go back to just being the woman Bernie happens to share a bed with once a week and stop worrying. She meets Serena’s eyes and does none of that.
Instead she can feel herself shaking her head just the slightest amount. In an instant Serena is crouched beside her chair pulling Bernie into a fierce hug. Bernie can’t keep herself from wrapping her arms around Serena’s waist, from burying her head in Serena’s neck and breathing deep. She doesn’t know how long they stay like that. It’s a while though, long enough that one day in the far future Serena will lovingly complain about how much it hurt her back to stay like that for so long. When Serena does pull back, she stays close, cups Bernie’s cheeks in her hands and holds her gaze as she talks.
“Berenice, you need to see somebody about this. I know I like to joke that my job is half therapist but I’m not one. Not really. You need to see somebody and talk to them and get some help. Okay?”
Bernie just nods. She wants to rail against the suggestion, to tell Serena she is too strong to need therapy, but she’s so very tired and she can’t help but feel that Serena is probably right. This is probably not normal. She should probably get help.
“Now come on,” Serena says, getting to her feet and holding a hand out to Bernie, “let’s go get some sleep. I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted.”
I just want to say that as someone with bipolar disorder, having Bernie go to therapy was really important to me. As great as Serena has been through all this, Bernie does need therapy as well as a good support system. Love isn't enough with mental illness, unfortunately.
Thanks for still being on this AU roller-coaster with me guys!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It takes a few tries before Bernie finds a therapist that fits. The first, a woman around her own age seems nice enough but not at all what she needs. She tells Bernie very seriously that she believes everyone has the tools inside of themselves to fix their problems. Bernie does not feel as though she does in the slightest, thinks that she is going to therapy because she doesn’t have those tools. She accepts that everyone needs different approaches to therapy, thanks her for her time, and doesn’t make another appointment. The second, a man probably a decade older than Bernie, isn’t a good fit either. He talks too much and after two sessions Bernie rather feels as though she was the one giving the therapy, not the other way around. The third, another man of about the same age, comes highly recommended but is a poor fit as well. Bernie doesn’t know why, can’t pinpoint exactly what the problem is, she confesses to Serena that she has no reason behind not liking him. Serena tells her in that way that always makes Bernie feel calm that she doesn’t need a reason or a list as to what doesn’t work. Not feeling right is more than reason enough.
The fourth one, the one Bernie ends up sticking with, is considerably younger. At first she feels as though she's talking to one of her children in session with them. But they're forthright and not afraid to call Bernie on her shit and Bernie ends up with a deep and abiding respect for them.
Serena, to her credit, did not let Bernie back down on her promise to see someone. She gave it a couple of days, didn't mention it that night or the following day, but later that same week Bernie got a text listing a couple of the best therapists in the city.
She did make an attempt at protesting: that the night Serena had found her in her office was an abnormally bad one, that as a doctor Bernie was already familiar with all the methods of behavioural therapy, then a weaker one at the gross expense of a visit to a private counsellor (at that one Serena just raises one perfectly groomed eyebrow and doesn’t do Bernie the disservice of telling her exactly how ludicrous she sounds).
Serena is also unequivocally there for Bernie throughout it all. She offers to phone and make the appointments for Bernie, should Bernie need that, Bernie thanks her and timidly asks if she’ll just sit beside her as she makes the calls herself. Serena does, of course, rests her hand on Bernie’s knee or shoulder and imparts the quiet confidence that Bernie feels imbuing her very soul when she’s with her. Bernie ends up with a standing Saturday afternoon appointment with Sam, the therapist, and they get into the habit of Serena being at her place waiting for her when she’s done. Bernie gives Serena her extra key and it is not unusual for Bernie to walk into her apartment and find Serena waiting for her on the sofa, always game to talk about it should Bernie need to, to talk about literally anything else in the world, or to remain in companionable silence until Bernie has recovered.
Therapy is hard. Not least because Bernie had always been taught that therapy was the refute of the weak and those with nothing better to do with their lives. Those beliefs are immediately disputed and soon Bernie is forced to admit that she would rather spend 8 hours performing emergency surgery at the side of the road in the desert than endure one hour with Sam. She bears the burden in quiet, generally, especially at first. She is taciturn in therapy, she knows, but talking doesn’t come naturally to her. It never has, and since her split from Marcus she hasn’t been in the practice of talking about anything but work to anyone but Serena. And Serena is always gentler with her, doesn’t prod or pry. Bernie knows it’s Sam’s job to do so but it doesn’t make it any easier.
One day, one especially tough day, Bernie returns home after her session and sinks down on the sofa beside Serena with neither a smile nor a word of hello.
“Rough one?” Serena asks gently after a moment. Bernie can only nod in return. “Need a cry?” Bernie jerked her head up, only realises she’s glaring when she sees Serena’s face respond. She does her best to soften her mouth but Serena speaks immediately.
“Don't look at me like that!” She smiles as she said it, shaking her head fondly, “everyone needs a good cry now and then. For me I usually go for a bottle of shiraz alone on the couch and the entirety of Gone With The Wind on the telly, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of company while you do it. I've been told I'm a very comfortable person to cry on, you know,” Serena reaches out with one hand and squeezes Bernie's shoulder gently; that's what breaks her. She was all ready to keep up her facade of managing but Serena's sweet and unassuming gentleness coupled with the stress of the day becomes all too much and before she knows it Bernie's starting to cry. As good as her word, Serena gathers her up in a warm embrace, rubbing her back soothingly while Bernie sobs into her neck. It’s a while, a long while, before Bernie can do anything but cry. The tears pour out of her and she can hear the harshness of her breaths in the stillness of the room, stifled slightly by the way her face is pressed right up against the fabric of Serena’s blouse. Eventually she begins to speak, not even knowing if Serena can make out her words between the sobs and the fact that she hasn’t moved her face away.
“Sam asked about Cameron and Charlotte, wanted to, um, I guess explore why I feel like… Why I well, I feel like I was a bad mum…” She sits up then, stays close to Serena though, and is grateful that Serena keeps her hand on her back. “I can’t help it. I mean, they don’t even want to talk to me anymore, no one does that unless their parents really cocked it all up do they?”
“Hmmmm, well,” Serena pauses for a moment, then continues, “I’m not a parent but I think sometimes loving your parents, and maintaining a relationship with them past childhood, can be very challenging. Did you tell Sam any of this?” Bernie purses her lips, looks down at her hands folded in her lap and shakes her head. “Oh Berenice, I—” she breaks off, takes a breath and smiles, “you are a brilliant surgeon and a lovely friend but you really are a bit daft aren’t you?” Bernie looks up in shock and Serena laughs. “The point of therapy is to get help! How are they supposed to help you if you don’t share these things with them?”
“I…” Bernie doesn’t know how to respond, really. How is she supposed to tell Serena that she’s the first person with whom talking about her life didn’t seem like a chore. “I just, it’s so much easier to talk to you.”
“Well then just pretend that you’re talking to me if you have to!” Serena grins saucily, “I can provide a lovely photo of myself if you’d like Sam to just hold it in front of their face while you talk.” That elicits a timid smile from Bernie and at the sight of it Serena’s grin grows even wider.
“I’ll try that. Thank you. Without the photo.” She fumbles over what she wants to say before finally managing it, “sorry about the, uh…” she waves her hand at the wet spot on Serena’s blouse, blushing a bit as she realises just how large it is.
“Don’t worry about it. Any time.”
“And, um,” Bernie wills herself to be brave, to give something back to Serena after all she’s done for her, “the next time you need a cry, maybe instead of Gone With The Wind you can give me a call and I’ll, uh, return the favour?” Serena smiles widely at that, one of those smiles that lights up her entire face like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day and she brings her hand up to brush the hair out of Bernie’s face, cups Bernie’s cheek, and gently wipes the tear tracks away with her thumb.
“My dear Berenice,” she says, and she’s looking at Bernie with that expression Bernie can only name as extreme fondness, “you are incredibly sweet. Thank you.” And then it’s that feeling in the pit of Bernie’s stomach again and she has to look away because she feels like she’s going to burst at the seams.
Serena’s right, of course. Bernie should expect nothing less by now. She goes to her next therapy appointment and pretends that she’s at her house having a quiet conversation with Serena instead and it works! And if she sometimes screws her eyes shut while talking, Sam doesn’t say anything about it. She manages to talk about her life, digs down into her insecurities and examines her history, learns that she was attracted to women long before Alex pressed her lips against hers in a dark supply shed. Talks about her marriage and her children and her time with the RAMC and everything that’s made her who she is. It’s tough, still, but Bernie reminds herself of surgery, thinks about how sometimes they have to make a cut deeper and wider before they can fix it, and keeps going.
And life continues, too. She still works too much, by most people’s metrics, but she’s sleeping a little more (never as well as on Saturday nights, but a couple more hours here and there are not to be scoffed at) and she starts to feel… Better. More grounded, maybe. The best way she can possibly describe it is she feels more like the person she’s always wanted to be when she’s with Serena. And she’s starting to feel it when she’s not around Serena too.
She is also, she’s hoping, trying to be a better friend to Serena. Because they are friends, now. Have been for a while. Best friends, maybe, and she hasn’t had a best friend since, oh, primary school probably. Bernie can see that in the course of their friendship it has been mostly Serena giving: her time, her energy, her endless support. Bernie doesn’t even know why she has, why she’s so good to her. She tries to talk it out with Sam but Sam tries to delve into how Bernie feels about Serena and that’s not really the point so she leaves it be. Anyway, Bernie knows that Serena has been an incredible friend to her so she does her best to be a good friend back. Asks Serena about her life and her days, tries to be the first person to initiate a texting conversation, sends Serena pictures and stories of things that remind Bernie of her, wants Serena to know she will do her best to be there for her like she’s been there for her.
She meets Jason for the simplest reason in the world: Serena asks her to. They’re sitting in bed, laughing at the story Serena had just told her about Jason and then Serena says simply,
“I’d love for you to meet him.”
“Oh,” it takes Bernie completely by surprise, “would you?”
“Well you are rather the two most important people in my life, I’d very much like you to get to know each other.” Serena says it so simply and Bernie has to tamp down the bright, overwhelming feeling in her chest at hearing that she’s one of Serena’s most important people , feels the wide smile take over her face and struggles to keep her voice steady.
“I’d love to.”
She loves Jason before she meets him, because he’s Serena’s and that would always be enough. She is pleasantly surprised to find she likes him and he seems to like her too. They get along incredibly well and it’s not long before they’re watching a quiz show together shouting out answers and Serena’s rolling her eyes and smiling. It feels wonderful. It feels like she belongs.
Bernie manages to work Wednesday night fish and chips at Serena’s house into her schedule and suddenly she has two days to look forward to every week. She never stays the night at Serena’s, it would be too much to explain to Jason, Bernie thinks. And she can’t imagine intruding on Serena’s life like that. It doesn’t make the nights any less perfect, though.
One session Sam suggests to Bernie that she should try coming out to three people in her life. They think it would be good for Bernie to verbalise it, to be able to tell someone she’s a lesbian, to say the words and own them and not think of them as criminal or negative. She agrees to do it to two people because who else would she come out to? The postman? And she surprises herself by coming out to Jason first.
They’re at Serena’s house on a Wednesday evening, sitting at the table playing scrabble—a frequent activity of theirs—while Serena’s run to the shop to get their dinner. Bernie takes a deep breath and says,
“Jason I’d like you to know that I’m a lesbian.”
“Why?” He looks up from his letters, brow furrowed.
“Because I was told I should tell the most important people in my life, and you are one of them,” she says, matter of fact.
“Okay,” he replies. He seems to think on it for a moment, then nods. “The ability to accurately self-classify is important.”
“It is.” Bernie never imagined it going so smoothly and she breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Do you feel better for having told me?”
“I think I do, yes.”
“That’s good.” And then he puts some tiles down on the board, plays ‘quasars’ on a triple word score and absolutely demolishes her lead.
She waits until Saturday night to tell Serena. She’s sure Serena knows, or has guessed, but she can see Sam’s point, that saying the words to people she trusts does matter even if they might already know. She itches with it all night but she waits until they’re in bed and she’s got Serena’s arm around her before she says anything.
“I’m a lesbian,” she blurts out, no finesse.
“Okay,” Serena replies and Bernie can’t help but laugh. “What?” Serena asks, tilting her head to look down at Bernie.
“That’s just exactly what Jason said when I told him. Like Auntie like Nephew, I guess.”
“Well he’s a bright boy.”
Serena doesn’t press Bernie any further about her revelation, just reaches for her glasses and her e-reader as she does every other night. They’ve made it through Sense and Sensibility now, are almost all the way through Emma, and Bernie snuggles down into Serena’s arms, closes her eyes and listens. Serena’s gentle voice reads of Knightley confessing his feelings to Emma. And then she reads out,
“‘I cannot make speeches, Emma:’ he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—’If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.’”
The words strike at Bernie’s very core. She has never heard anything that has described her in such a way. She thinks of that phrase every day for longer that she should care to admit. If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more . Bernie thinks of it as feelings she can scarce name well inside her chest, as she feels that warmth in the pit of her stomach and keeps her mouth closed on the matter. That night she dreams of going to the seaside with Serena, holding her hand as they walk barefoot through the sand, kissing her softly as waves lap at their toes.
She doesn’t tell Serena about her dream.
that Emma quote is honestly something I think about for Bernie pretty much every day, I had to include it!
trying desperately to finish this one in a timely manner, folks. my dear friend Nova is visiting for the next week so I won't be doing much writing but I'll try not to let this wither. probably only looking at one more chapter before we're done with this one.
Unfortunately for Bernie these strange dreams do not stop. For some awful reason her subconscious seems driven to interrupt the placid routine of her life. She finds herself strangely happy that Serena never tells her tales of her clients. Bernie is sure this is for reasons of confidentiality. For her sake, she gets an odd feeling of jealousy—completely irrational—whenever she thinks of Serena seeing other people. People that is to say, ‘other’ people implies that she is seeing Bernie and they are definitely not… That. They are friends, nothing more, and Bernie is happy to be so. Truly.
Still she finds herself wanting to deck Ric Griffin during a staff meeting as her cruel brain reminds her that Ric hired Serena first, no doubt showed none of the restraint Bernie herself has shown. Not that Bernie has the opportunity to sleep with Serena. Except in the most literal sense of course. She clenches her fists on her lap as her mind provides, unbidden, images of Ric and Serena falling into bed together, does her best to ignore herself and pay attention to whatever Hanssen is saying about new personnel forms.
She also finds herself exerting more and more will to not react to Serena's presence. She will not—cannot—lose this friendship. And she absolutely refuses to lose it just because her libido has decided to rear its ugly head. So she vows to put all of her thoughts, both prurient and needlessly romantic, in a box in her mind, sealed and locked and not to be revisited. Life provides a welcome distraction from these troublesome thoughts in the form of Sam suggesting she should contact her children. Such a thing would've been a concept of terror for her before. Still is, really. However now, the anxious turning over in her mind of what to say to Cam and Charlotte, and what their responses, if any, might be is a welcome preoccupation over the smoothness of Serena's skin, the beauty of her laughter, what her body might look like under those satin nightgowns that hide too much and not enough all at once.
She might have continued like this forever, content in the contemplation of what could be. Never sending off a letter meaning never having to face the reality of a reply. Her procrastinatory tendencies are thwarted by two things: first Sam gives her a deadline, second she makes the mistake of telling this deadline to Serena. Serena, when on a mission, is incredibly tenacious. Like a bulldog, Bernie thinks. The moment Serena knows about the task is the moment that Bernie knows Serena is going to devote her considerable time and energy to ensuring Bernie completes the task. Serena does not believe in failure. Ever. It’s a little terrifying and, if Bernie is completely honest, hot as hell.
Serena sets her little mini-deadlines. Breaks the task down into setting goals for first drafts, first edits, and so forth. It makes Bernie feel a little as though she’s back in school. But she can’t deny by the end of it that Serena’s method worked wonders. And really, by now Bernie should know better than to question Serena. She has a most frustrating habit of always being right. So, due in large part to Serena’s involvement, three weeks after Sam first suggests it, Bernie has two neatly typed out emails ready to be sent to her children. It takes her another week to actually send them, they linger in her drafts folder until one night after hours in surgery, when she’s already late for fish and chips at Serena’s, she grows tired of staring at the unsent missives and presses the send button before she can think the better of it.
She does her best not to obsess over it.
She fails miserably.
Serena finds out that she’s sent the letters when Bernie tries to casually get Jason to put her work email on her phone that night after dinner. Serena is immediately suspicious and grills Bernie until she admits the truth. Jason tells her that he can’t put her hospital email on her phone, it would likely need to be done by one of the IT people at her work and would also likely need some authorisation from someone higher up the food chain considering the potential breach of confidentiality entailed therein. Thankfully Jason does not see any reason to push further and Bernie gratefully challenges him to a game of scrabble to take her mind off it all. Serena seems to understand that Bernie doesn’t want to talk about it. She settles for pressing a gentle kiss to the top of Bernie’s head and telling her how happy for her, and proud of her, she is. Bernie blames losing the game on her preoccupation with the feeling of Serena’s lips brushing against her hair, and with how good she looks sitting at the table enjoying a glass of Shiraz as she watches them play.
On Friday Bernie gets a reply. It’s from Cam and she stares at it, unopened, for what is easily thirty minutes. She should be doing paperwork. She should probably just open it and get it over with. She sits there and stares at the screen instead. She gets called into theatre for emergency surgery, then to the trauma bay to deal with the aftermath of a nasty RTC. She doesn’t make it back to her office until late that evening. She’s tired, exhausted. She considers leaving the email until tomorrow but she’s not sure she’ll manage to fall asleep without knowing. She takes a deep breath and then takes the plunge. It’s just a couple of lines. He says hi, and thank you, and asks her to call him when she has a moment. Bernie can feel the smile grow on her face. It’s a start.
She leaves the hospital ebullient. Her son replied to her, her son wants to talk to her. Her son maybe after all doesn’t entirely hate her. It's late fall now and the blustering winds whip her hair into her face as she makes the walk from the front doors to her car but the weather can’t dampen her mood.
Bernie waits to make the phone call. She waits until the next day, until she is sitting on her couch at home and Serena’s hand is held tightly in her own making her feel strong and warm and better than she can be on her own. She dials the number, waits as it rings. Once, twice, the third is cut off by a voice.
“Hi. Cam?” There's a pause, she can hear him taking a breath and then.
Serena's squeezing her fingers and it's the only thing grounding her, she wants to fly away on a cloud of joy. She is here. Sitting on her sofa with Serena. Talking on the telephone with her son.
“H-how have you been?”
“I'm doing good. You?”
“Fine. Great.” She pauses and tries again, “better now.”
“It was good to hear from you. Ummm, Lottie and I talked, we wanted to meet for lunch sometime? Might be better to talk everything out in person, we thought.”
“That sounds lovely, Cam,” she can barely keep her voice steady. They both want to see her, she never expected anything this good.
“Maybe two Sundays from now, the 17th? We could go to that deli near—”
“Near the old church,” she finishes for him. “I remember. You kids used to love that place.”
“Right, of course.” There’s a commotion in the background on Cam’s end, she can hear people talking excitedly about something. “I should let you go,” she says, because the last thing she wants to do now is ruin this tentative peace.
“Yeah. Bye, Mum.”
She hangs up and she can feel the unshed tears shining in her eyes. Serena doesn’t mention it, just pulls Bernie in for a tight hug and murmurs in her ear.
“Good job,” she says. “Well done Berenice. I’m so very proud of you.”
Bernie’s ebullient mood, only slightly weighed down by the anxiety of wondering how lunch with her children will go, lasts until Tuesday. It is replaced entirely by worry. When Serena doesn't answer Bernie's first text she tells herself not to panic. Serena's life doesn't revolve around her. It's early, maybe she just slept in. By noon, she's sent two more texts that have all gone unanswered. She can feel the anxiety rising like bile in her throat. Since they first became friends Serena has never, ever avoided Bernie's messages like this. She dithers on the issue, working herself into a state somewhat resembling full blown panic, until exactly two oh seven when she decides to pull the pin as it were and steals away to the roof to try calling Serena.
She lights a fag, hopes that the nicotine will calm her down. The wind up here is fierce, stealing the smoke away a nanosecond after she exhales. She taps her foot, pulls her jumper tight around her, and listens as the call rings through to voicemail. She hangs up, tries again. Her fingers itch nervously and she fights the urge to throw up. Finally the call is answered.
“Hullo?” It’s Serena’s voice, for sure, but it doesn’t sound like her, it’s groggy and strange.
“Sorry to call I just, you didn’t answer my texts and I got worried.”
“Oh. I was asleep,” she still sounds off, hearing Serena’s voice should be calming Bernie but it’s only making her more worried.
“Are you sick?”
“No, no I’m fine. Just... having a bad day.”
“I’m coming over.” The decision is immediate, made in the second that the words leave Bernie’s mouth.
“What? No, Berenice you’re at work. You can’t just—”
“I can and I am. What’s the use of being department head if you can’t skive off work sometimes, right?” She knows as she says it that she has never in her life skived off work. But, well, she never had a reason to before this. “I’ll be there within the hour,” she continues before Serena can protest any further, “I’ll use my key so don’t worry about waiting by the door for me.” She does wait for a reply, hears Serena’s weak affirmative and hangs up, rushing inside and down the stairs to make the necessary arrangements. She tells Raf that she has a family emergency and he is immediately accommodating, she calls Hanssen and tells him the same thing. She doesn’t even feel bad about lying—she is halfway to Serena’s before she realises it isn’t even really a lie: Serena and Jason are the closest thing to family she’s had in years.
Bernie does make a couple of stops on the way to Serena’s, first to pick up some stew—she has a strong suspicion that Serena hasn’t eaten—then to grab a couple of bottles of Shiraz, in case that’s what Serena needs instead. She lets herself in with her key, the key Serena had pressed into her palm one Wednesday as she bid Bernie farewell with a look that said she didn’t want it mentioned, and puts her purchases down in the kitchen before moving on to locate Serena.
She’s not on the ground floor, Bernie discovers. She heads up the stairs with the briefest realisation that she’s never actually been upstairs in Serena’s house before. She is thus completely unfamiliar with the layout so she squares her shoulders and starts opening doors. Bathroom, guest room, what must be Jason’s room, and then finally the master. She steps in tentatively. The room itself is, in a word, magnificent. Large, airy, with a giant four poster bed covered in richly coloured linens. Bernie ignores all of this because at the center of said bed is a Serena-shaped lump, and it sounds like she might be crying. She sits down tentatively on the edge of the bed. The movement disturbs Serena and she sits up somewhat, poking her head out from under the comforter, and Bernie is met by tousled hair and bloodshot eyes.
“Hi,” she says tentatively, and then Serena's crying suddenly and the only thing Bernie can think to do is gather her up in her arms and pull her close. She leans back against the headboard, Serena half in her lap, and pats her head and back in what she hopes vaguely resembles a comforting gesture.
She doesn’t know how Serena does it really, always manages to do the right thing in these situations. Bernie settles for holding her and prays that she’s not doing an awful job of it.
Serena's tears turn to wracking breathy sobs and then finally she stops. She stays in Bernie's embrace for a few minutes before sitting up, sniffling a little as she rubs at her eyes.
“Sorry,” she breathes out.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Bernie replies immediately. “Do you feel a bit better for the cry?” Serena nods, giving Bernie a wan smile. “Good. Think you could face eating? We definitely need to get some food into you.” There's that nod again, so Bernie stands and reaches her hand out to Serena. “Shall we?”
Serena stands, takes the proffered hand and allows Bernie to lead her downstairs.
The stew is fortifying. Bernie's glad she bought it, both for Serena and for herself. She didn't eat lunch, couldn't stomach the thought of it with her gut twisted in worry. After they're done, Bernie suggests retiring to the sitting room.
“Did you want something to drink?” She asks, “tea? Shiraz?”
“Hmmm. As lovely as a glass of wine would be I think tea would be the better choice right now.”
“I agree,” Bernie replies with a sharp nod, “why don't you go get comfortable on the sofa and I'll make us both a cuppa?”
She puts on the kettle, makes two mugfuls of strong hot earl grey tea. She doctors Serena’s with a hefty slosh of milk and a bit of honey, and leaves her own clear. Bernie heads to the sitting room, passes over one mug and Serena murmurs her thanks. Bernie sits down, she wants to say that Serena's welcome to cuddle with her, but she can't quite think of how to phrase it. Instead she puts her arm up along the back of the couch and offers Serena a small smile, hoping she’ll take the hint. Thankfully she does. She scooches over, curls into Bernie's side, Bernie brings her arm down around Serena's shoulders, rests her cheek against the top of Serena's head.
“It's the twenty fifth anniversary of my mother’s death,” Serena says after a spell.
“I'm sorry,” Bernie replies.
“She was…” Serena's playing with the hem of Bernie's shirt as she talks, her fingers tracing over the fabric. “She was a formidable woman. Hard to impress, hard to love sometimes, but still incredible. I think I spent half my childhood trying to make her proud.”
“Parents can be challenging.”
“Were you ever a girl guide Berenice?”
“I was. And every single merit badge I won, my mother diligently sewed them onto my sash. Every exam I passed, she would laminate the certificates and display them to her friends like her little trophies.”
“She must have taken great pride.”
“It made it all the worse, when the dementia started. Such a proud intelligent woman reduced to nothing by her own mind,” Serena takes a shaky breath and grabs Bernie’s hand, clasping it in her own, tangling their fingers together, and running her thumb over her skin. “I, um, I don't talk about this much—ever, really. But it got really bad there, after a while. She got violent, because of the sickness. She wasn't a bad person. I don't want you to think that. She just. She lost control.”
“Mmm. Dementia can do that. Is that, um, what the scars on your back are from?” Bernie had noticed the old faded marks long ago, she had never thought it appropriate to ask about them.
“Oh. I, uh, I didn't know you had seen those. Yes. Yes. Her, uh, her rings. I had to take them away after a certain point.”
“That’s awful Serena, I’m sorry you had to experience that. And all on your own, too.”
“It was awful.”
“Oh, god, years and years. I was 19 when she first started displaying symptoms, she passed away when I was 28.”
“Wow. And all just you? No home care or anything?”
“No. Um, at first. But it got so bad I—” she holds Bernie’s hand a little tighter and Bernie squeezes her fingers in response. “It got so bad I couldn’t trust her with anyone but myself.”
“I can't imagine how hard that must have been for you. You were so young.”
“It was, but, well,” she gives a dejected little shrug. “I guess, at the end of the day, it made me the woman I am today.”
“That's a bullshit equivocation,” the words are out of Bernie's mouth before she can stop herself. Serena stiffens a little,
“I just mean, just because you had the personal mettle to grow from that experience doesn't mitigate how awful it was, doesn't lessen how little you—or anyone—deserves to have that happen.” Serena turns a little, sits up slightly and meets Bernie's gaze. “What?” Bernie asks of the strange look in Serena's eyes.
“Berenice Wolfe, has anyone ever told you what a wise woman you are?”
Bernie wants to say something pithy, brush it off, she can’t take a compliment like that with grace. Instead she just gives a tight-lipped grin and shakes her head, tendrils of blonde messy hair swinging about her face. Serena reaches up, tucks Bernie's hair behind her ear, and smiles at her.
“Thank you,” she says. “For coming over. For being here with me. For listening to me.”
“Anytime,” Bernie replies. And she means it.
“Would you mind… I mean. I hope it's okay to ask but would you be willing to stay tonight? With me, I mean, sleep with me,” she's babbling a little and Bernie can't help but find it adorable.
“Of course I will. I'm not scheduled tomorrow until a little later,” a thought strikes her suddenly, “will it be okay with Jason? Though I mean I guess he's used to strangers in your room, what with your job and all. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course…” now she's the one babbling and she trails off as Serena's brow furrows in confusion.
“First of all, I never ever bring clients home. God made hotels for a reason, Berenice. Second, I’m retired so that wouldn’t really be an issue anyway.”
“You’re what?” Bernie isn’t quite sure if she heard Serena correctly.
“I never mentioned that, did I?” Serena says it casually but Bernie knows her well enough by now to see through that.
“You bloody well know you didn’t! For how long?”
“Five years… Give or take.”
“Five years? How did Ric have your number then—oh god don’t tell me you dated Ric.”
“I most certainly did not. Amongst other things, he’s not exactly my type. No, Ric hired me, back when I was still actively working, to go to a sort of alumni do with him. While we were there he ended up reconnecting with an old flame and I encouraged him to go after her, to spend the evening with her instead.”
“He left you alone there?”
“At my insistence, Don’t worry, I met a lovely young Canadian who was more than happy to enlist my services for the remainder of the evening. Anyway, Ric contacted me a few days later to thank me and we ended up meeting up for coffee. We’re rather good friends, even if we don’t see each other all too often. He really shouldn’t have given you my number, not for the reasons you were looking for it for, at the very least. I called him up about it after we talked, he told me you terrified it out of him.”
“Oh,” Bernie blushes, “I guess I did rather.”
“After I learned that I knew I had to meet you.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t do this stuff anymore?”
“I was going to but you sounded so sweet and desperate on the phone. I was immediately swayed.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Doesn’t really matter anymore now. You could’ve told me though!”
“I know, I know. I just could never find the right time to bring it up.”
“I guess late’s better than never,” Bernie replies with a smile, her internal thoughts an explosion of pure joy because she no longer need entertain the thoughts plaguing her of Serena out on dates with strange men. She knows it’s awful to be this happy—she has no actual hold on Serena or say on who she dates—but she can’t help the joy.
“Do you want to watch something?” Serena asks, returning her head to Bernie’s chest as she snuggles in close.
“Sure. Is it time for Gone With The Wind?”
“I’m done with crying for the day, thank you. I think something happy and comforting’s in order.”
“And just what is Serena’s chosen comfort film? No, wait, don’t tell me: Jane Austen?”
“However did you know?” Serena replies with a chuckle. “Though I suppose it’s a bit late in the day for all six hours of Pride and Prejudice. How does Sense and Sensibility sound to you?”
“Perfect,” Bernie picks up the remote and scrolls through Netflix until she finds the film in question. In reality anything would be perfect right now. Bernie thinks she could quite happily watch sixteen hours of paint drying in high definition as long as Serena stayed burrowed into her side. As the title card comes on the screen Bernie is suddenly struck by a thought, “oh! What about supper? I don’t want to mess up Jason’s routine any more than I will by my mere presence.”
“It’s shepherd’s pie night but I made extra last week. It’s in the freezer, just needs to be popped in the oven around five.”
“Okay, good,” Bernie is quite glad she will not be required to cook. She would do her best to rise to the situation if necessary but Serena’s day could probably do without a bout of mild food poisoning.
Later they’re lying in Serena’s bed, Bernie’s wearing a pair of Jason’s old sweatpants and a t-shirt Serena unearthed at the bottom of a drawer, and she’s on her side, curled around Serena, when she brings up something she’s been thinking about for hours.
“What did you mean earlier, when you said Ric ‘wasn’t your type’?”
“Oh, that. I sleep with men for money, Berenice, never for pleasure,” Serena replies, in that completely blasé way of hers. Bernie’s brain reels with the implications for hours.
You should all give a big shoutout to BC ferries. The ferry ride between Van and Victoria is the only reason I got any writing done lol
And, well, here we are! Finally! Thanks everyone for coming along on this ride with me. I know the words 'escort au' gave many of you pause so thank you for trusting me enough to give this one a chance. I had a really good time exploring this universe, especially in regards to Bernie's psyche, and I'm a little sad to see it go.
Thanks as always to Crystal and Nova for being tireless cheerleaders to me. They're wonderful humans and their help is indispensable.
Come find me on tumblr (magnass) or twitter (queerandnerdy) if you wanna chat! ♥
(also a quick music note, in the last scene I'm imagining spring song playing cause Sibelius' tone poems are just a+)
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.”