Bernie threw her hands up in the air, expelling another cloud of flour into the kitchen.
“I give up!” she exclaimed.
“You’re really not very good at this, are you?”
Bernie rolled her eyes. “Well, I wasn’t lying to you, no,” she answered, tinged with exasperation.
“The missus is gonna kill ya,” Mikey observed, solemnly. His words barely registered with Bernie as she looked around the kitchen.
“Oh, shi---take mushrooms!” she caught herself just in time, and a rather sticky Ella giggled. “How the bl---inking heck did we get into this one?” she muttered.
Bernie rang the doorbell and stood back, hands shoved into her pockets. A minute later, the front door flew open, but when no one appeared, Bernie edged gingerly back up to the doorstep.
“Serena?” she called softly. She winced as a huge crash assaulted her ears, followed by muffled cries.
“Well, are you coming to the rescue or not?” Serena called. She sounded… flustered, and so Bernie hurried through the door, following the noise into the living room. Where she stopped dead in the doorway.
“The babysitter is sick,” a disembodied mop of hair called from behind the chair. As if that explained why Bernie had to pick her way across a Lego strewn floor, almost toppling over a softly snoring child cocooned in a sofa throw in the middle of a rug, to reach the end of the living room where Serena Campbell was down behind the armchair on her hands and knees, haphazardly picking up dvd’s and stuffing them back into a cabinet, jiggling and shushing the tiny human wailing at her hip.
“Oh, Theo, come on now, it’s all all right,” she cooed, jolting him rather violently as she straightened her torso. Bernie raised an eyebrow and Serena rolled her eyes. She made an impatient noise as she wafted her hand at Bernie, until Bernie belatedly took the hint, and scrambled to heft Serena to her feet.
“What-” Bernie began, indicating vaguely with her hand.
“Oh, Lord,” Serena groaned, shifting a slightly calmed Theo to her other hip. “So I’d offered to have the Fletchlings this morning as he’s working a split shift. Claire was meant to be picking them up at eleven,” she shifted Theo back to her other hip as he attempted to grab her head and fix her gaze on him alone. “Claire,” she sighed dramatically. “Is sick. Very sick, actually, as we were witness to over the phone,”
Bernie scrunched her nose.
“Exactly. Anyway. Raf, it seems, is also completely incapacitated – I won’t relay that phone call – so, the ward has also called, begging me to cover at least a few hours today,” her face morphed into an almost pained expression. “Therefore, I’m afraid we need a little change of plan for today – would you mind most awfully?”
Although Bernie hadn’t been looking forward to a day spent trawling the shopping centres for things Serena was adamant she needed but Bernie wasn’t at all sure she’d ever want, she had been looking forward to spending a rare whole day off with Serena. The disappointment on her face, therefore, far outweighed any relief she may have felt. She shrugged. “Of course – can’t be helped,” she shucked Theo’s chin, then expelled a violent shot of air as Serena thrust the boy at her.
“Oh, excellent, thank you so much,” Serena beamed, tucking Bernie’s arms tighter around Theo, who was looking between them, almost as perplexed as Bernie was panicked.
“Evie and Mikey will be arriving shortly; they’ve been to drama rehearsals. They’ll all be due lunch at about one. There’s plenty of food here. And… err, toys,” she gestured to the floor with a slightly apologetic look, then patted Bernie’s hand.
“You’re a lifesaver!”
Bernie almost tripped over herself to catch up with Serena at the front door.
“Wait! I don’t- I mean-it’s not really my-my...” she trailed off and sighed as Serena smiled expectantly. “What time am I here until?”
“I will be home by five, six at the very latest,” Serena ruffled Theo’s hair and winked at him. “Have fun with Auntie Bernie. Try not to tear the place apart!”
By the time Bernie gathered her wits and lunged at the door, Serena was already pulling out of the driveway, throwing a cheery wave over her shoulder.
“Six?!” Bernie practically wailed. When Theo jumped, Bernie eyed him for a few moments, then squared her shoulders. “Right.”
The first few hours were a breeze, and Bernie found herself almost relaxed. Evie and Mikey had been dropped off, and though Bernie sensed that Evie’s standoffishness was more to do with finding her at the house as opposed to Serena, who was, evidently, Evie’s almost favourite person, she had soon warmed to Bernie’s gentle, awkward manner. Bernie, already taken with Mikey’s wide-boy attitude, had burst into snorts of laughter more times in the first ten minutes of his arrival, than she had in weeks. Evie had helped settle Ella when she’d woken up still tired and grumpy, and then she and Mikey had insisted that they all watch Oliver! for research purposes.
As the film ended, their attention was drawn to Evie’s stomach.
“Lunchtime?” Bernie smirked. She shucked Ella, who had formed quite the attachment to Bernie and had buried herself in Bernie’s lap for the entirety of the film, over to Evie, and made to stand. A sharp pain stole the breath from her and sent her firmly back onto the sofa. Mikey was on his feet in seconds, holding out his arm.
“May I give yer an ‘and there, beautiful?” Despite the pain, Bernie laughed, albeit shakily.
“Bernie?” Evie looked at her in concern.
“It’s nothing,” Bernie reassured, squeezing the small hand that had a death grip on her forearm. “Put my back out hefting a mattress yesterday. It’ll be fine,” she reached for Mikey’s arm and stood carefully. “Thank you, kind sir,”
“Pleasure, Major,” he bowed and saluted simultaneously. Bernie caught Evie’s eyes and they both rolled them fondly. Bernie threw Evie a tiny wink, and the girl relaxed back into the sofa, smiling.
She managed to put together four bowls of pasta, all still hot, at the same time, courtesy of Serena having left a saucepan on the draining board and keeping her kitchen cupboards as organised as theatre. She grated cheese over two, put a small pot of cheese next to one, left the other to its simple tomato sauce, and retrieved the kids to eat around the table.
“Dig in!” she said, brightly, and turned to wash the dishes.
“What about you?” Evie frowned.
“I’ll just grab something later,” Bernie shrugged.
“But, Dad and Raf and Serena always say that eating properly is really important,”
Bernie turned around, arms soapy and a platitude ready on her lips, when she was greeted by frowns from Evie and Mikey, and a waving forkful of pasta from a grinning Ella. She dried off her hands, and pulled up a chair, and after Ella had wormed her way onto Bernie’s lap, Bernie allowed her to, somewhat sloppily, feed her every other piece of pasta she managed to spear.
“Beautifully done, Blondie,” Mikey said, resting back in his chair, hands clenched around his stomach. At Bernie’s raised eyebrow, he squirmed.
She stood and placed Ella down in the empty chair, gathering their dishes, and nodded.
“Save some of it for the show, eh, Dodge?”
Mikey grinned and saluted her again.
“Soz, Major. What’s for dessert, ‘en?”
Bernie blanched. “Dessert?”
“They usually have yoghurts,” Evie supplied. Bernie opened the fridge, hopefully, but found nothing, and she highly doubted that the twelve year old, never mind the baby, would be overly enthused by dusty cheese and crackers.
“Pancakes,” Ella said, and Bernie yanked her head out of the fridge to stare at her.
“Pancakes,” Ella dutifully repeated, smiling. Bernie looked between Ella and Evie expectantly.
“Oh, yeah,” Evie’s face lit up in remembrance. “Claire promised to make pancakes today. She don’t believe in Valentine’s Day, but seeing as everyone else in the entire world is doing nice things, we was all gunnar make pancakes.”
“Ella’s favourite is chocolate spread and banana,” Mikey supplied. “Mine’s chocolate and ice cream,” he licked his lips. “Them two eat anyffin,” he gestured at Theo and Evie, who flipped him a finger whilst Bernie sat back down.
“How about,” she said, slowly, evidently playing for time. “How about we… give Serena a ring and ask her to bring us some pancakes for tea?” she finished, brightly.
Mikey frowned. “But then it’s tea, not dessert,”
Bernie had to concede. Ella slid down off her chair and scrambled up on Bernie’s lap, grabbing Bernie’s cheeks between her sticky hands tightly.
“Make. Pancakes,” she enunciated carefully, as though Bernie were a particularly dense being.
Bernie internally railed at herself and her apparently newfound inability to put no to productive use, as she found her face contorting into a weak, squashed smile.
“Let’s see what we can do, then,”
They couldn’t make pancakes. The five of them peered at the pan as Bernie emptied a watery-but-lumpy mix into it, then scrunched their noses at it as it fizzled, smoked around the edges and stuck in the middle. Theo, rapidly losing interest, sloped off back to the table, and Ella determinedly threw more flour into her bowl, covering a preoccupied Bernie in the process of her frenzied mixing.
What they could do, apparently, was destroy Serena’s kitchen. Caught up in the panic and then hilarity of trying to make pancakes without any prior experience, with ingredients that they weren’t entirely sure were accurate – “How many eggs go in?” “Do you actually use eggs? Or just milk? Or is it butter?” “How about one egg, a cup of milk and a dollop of butter, then? Cup of sugar?” – and having absolutely no idea where Serena kept the utensils they needed, Bernie had lost track of tidying up behind them, and of having four eyes switched on at once, as Ella stood proudly wearing half a bowl of questionable mix and Theo sat at the table drawing pictures into a whole bag of spilled flour.
After a few moments of watching Bernie standing stock-still in horror, Evie let out a snort, then a full blown giggle.
“He’s right,” she said, and Bernie snapped out of her stupor, taking in the two oldest, batter-smudged kids.
“I’m sorry, wha-who-what did you say?” she blinked at Mikey, suddenly remembering his Missus comment.. Evie rolled her eyes fondly, nudging Mikey.
“We forgot, they’re not there yet,” she whispered exaggeratedly. Before Bernie could question them further, Ella tugged at her trouser leg. This time Bernie couldn’t contain a pitiful groan as she fully examined the mess in front of her.
“Try mine,” Ella insisted, holding up her bowl.
“Not a lot to lose at this point,” Mikey offered. Bernie considered the situation, and could only come up with a blank shrug.
“In for a penny,”
She scraped the contents of the still smoking frying pan into a bowl, and added a lump of butter to the pan. When it melted, she hoisted Ella up to sit on the counter, and helped her tip the mixture into a perfect round shape.
“It’s working!” Evie exclaimed. “Flip it!” Bernie loosened the pancake with the spatula, then manoeuvred the pan so that she could help Ella toss it. She giggled in delight when the pancake landed perfectly back in the pan, and Bernie found herself thoroughly engrossed once more.
They each had a turn at making and tossing a pancake out of Ella’s batter mix. When it came to Theo, Bernie turned to retrieve him and was thrown rather violently back to the reality of their surroundings. He had clambered onto the tabletop in his quest to achieve his artistic, floury vision, and now sat, proudly explaining to Bernie what all the different squiggles meant, whilst she tried not to wince at the amount of flour he was still enthusiastically kicking to the floor.
“Come on then, before your pancake burns,” she reached out a hand to him, and placed a hand on the table to steady herself.
“Bernie!” he screamed, and she jumped, engulfing them all in a haze of flour. “Your hand messed up Seena’s boobies!”
Evie burst out laughing, and when Bernie’s brain caught up, she shuffled in place, trying not to blush, unsuccessfully, if Mikey’s wicked grin was any judgement.
“So sorry, Theo,” Bernie grunted as she lifted him carefully from the midst of his canvas and set him down. “Here, toss your pancake, and then whilst I dig out some ice cream, you can... um, un-mess...um, Serena’s, um... You can draw her again, ok?”
Theo grabbed the pan enthusiastically, and before Bernie could steady him, his pancake flew into the air, splatted the ceiling, and splodged back down. He caught it, triumphantly, but Ella’s wicked laugh drew Bernie’s eyes heavenward, where dollops of pancake mix clung on precariously.
She took a deep breath, and noticed that all the kids copied her, watching her with widened eyes. Despite herself, despite everything, she burst out laughing. Great, honking barks of laughter that soon had everyone in stitches. Wiping tears from their eyes and spreading batter mix further over their faces, they set about retrieving any sweet toppings they could find, and in deference to Theo’s creative masterpiece, they all sat on the floor and dug in.
Bernie and Evie rested their backs against the fridge, enjoying watching the concentration on Theo’s face as he carefully swiped the last of his ice cream with his finger, and the utter wickedness on Ella’s as she held her plate up to lick it over and over, melted ice cream dribbling down her chin.
“We’d better get cleaned up before Serena gets back,” Evie said eventually, sly-eyeing Bernie.
Bernie sighed, rolled her eyes with a soft smile.
“Yes, I suppose we’d better. Right, then, Fletchlings,” she put on her most commanding voice. “Best foot forward,” she braced herself to stand, about to pull herself up, when Mikey scrambled to his feet.
“A lil ‘and for me lady?” he asked. She took the proffered arm, and put enough weight on it to allow him to think it was helpful.
“How terribly kind, for a street urchin,” she winked. Mikey held his hands over his heart.
“You offend me,” he deftly caught a single key on a simple keyring that Evie tossed to him, and handed it to Bernie. Her hands flew to the back pocket of her jeans, then she spun to face a too-innocent Evie.
“I’ve got to practice, too,” she shrugged, then patted Bernie’s arm once she was on her feet. “You’re not very observant, for an army doctor,”
Bernie glanced around the kitchen once more, at half the cupboards emptied over the counter, the dollops of raw ingredients dotted about the place, the flour that dusted absolutely everything, the almost unrecognisable faces and hands underneath the sticky food substances.
“No, it would appear not. Right!”
Evie flipped the cd player and upbeat 50s pop blasted through the kitchen. The kids looked at each other momentarily, before shrugging, and started to wiggle. Bernie gathered all the dirty bowls and piled them in the sink to rinse the gloop before loading the dishwasher. Her own hips began to wiggle as the song changed, and Ella clapped her hands gleefully.
“Let’s dance, let’s dance!” she squealed as Bernie scooped her up and began whirling them around the kitchen. Theo abandoned his tea towel to grab Evie’s hands and they began to jive in earnest. Mikey held his hand out for Bernie’s and she twirled him around and back, their arms swinging wildly.
“Come on-a my house, my house a come on!” Bernie twirled Mikey.
“Come on-a my house, my house a come on!” their delighted laughs resonated with the music as Bernie bumped her hip to Evie’s and she shimmied down to Theo’s level, wiggled Ella at him until they touched noses, then spun back up, hoisting Ella into the air.
“I’m gonna give you!” she shouted the words freely as they danced, until she almost toppled over Mikey as he stood, stock still in the middle of the room. “Marriage ring and a pomegranate too ah – AH!”
Bernie stumbled to a halt as she found herself warbling right into the amused face of Serena Campbell, stood leaning in the doorway.
“Indeed,” Serena arched an eyebrow, as Ella let out another wicked giggle. Bernie bent down to plonk her on the floor, wiping her hands, rather futilely, on her trousers.
“Hello,” she offered, a little breathless. “You’re… umm… early,”
Serena sucked her cheeks in, but her eyes were dancing, as Bernie shifted uncomfortably.
“Hello,” Serena intoned as the song faded out. Evie clicked off the cd player, and Theo whirled around at the interruption.
“Seena!” he squealed, running up to her and wrapping his pudgy arms around her leg. “We made pancakes!”
Serena’s eyebrows almost disappeared into her hairline, and Bernie hid her eyes as Theo slowly ingratiated Serena into the catastrophic mess that was them and the kitchen.
“Oh, is that what this is called? Making pancakes?” she pinned Bernie with a look that, usually, Bernie would gamely front out, but she could do nothing but throw up her hands.
Mikey leaned in to Serena conspiratorially. “She ain’t very good at makin’ pancakes. She ain’t very observant, either. She’s a ledge, though.”
Serena snorted. “Indeed! Well, then-” she tickled under Theo’s arms as he tugged insistently at the hem of her shirt. “Oh, you’ve done a drawing. In flour! All over the kitchen table. Marvellous. Righty-ho, let’s get everything else cleaned up, and then you can explain it all to me, ok?” She rolled up her sleeves, sauntered past the very sheepish looking Bernie, and leaned across Evie to flick the cd player back on.
“Lickety-spit, Major. Ledge away!” she threw a sneaky wink at Evie, and much to everyone’s surprise and delight, she grabbed her hand and twirled her round as the first strains of Amore filled the kitchen. As she sashayed about, she threw wipes and tea towels at various bodies, until everyone was engrossed in a task, and the kitchen painstakingly returned to normal.
It started with Evie. The low “Weem-oh-weh oh weem-oh-weh” spread amongst them like a yawn from there, the swaying hips followed, and then they were Hula-ing and howling as Evie became the first to try to hit the high note, followed by Mikey, with Theo and Ella providing a constant shouty background vibe. Serena slid her feet closer to Bernie, her eyes challenging.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight
“You don’t want to hear it,” Bernie shook her head. Serena merely raised an eyebrow.
“It won’t be pretty,”
Serena looked pointedly at the kids. Bernie shrugged.
In the jungle the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight
“WEEEE OH-O-OH-” Bernie was abruptly cut off by Serena’s hand clamping over her mouth.
“In retrospect,” Serena drawled with a tiny shake of her head. Bernie’s look of consternation dissolved in the face of Serena’s easy laughter. Mikey hula’d up next to them.
“She’s a crackin’ dancer, though,” he nudged Serena.
“Is that right? Well, it seems everyone else has had the pleasure?” She opened her arms and Bernie rolled her eyes fondly as she stepped closer. They linked hands, and, with a wide grin to the youngest Fletchlings over Bernie’s shoulder, Serena swooshed them recklessly about the kitchen, revelling in the peals of laughter from all directions. They waltzed violently through the rest of the song, exaggeratedly barging smaller bodies out of their way, until the music faded and they slowed, rosy cheeked and slightly breathless. Bernie watched Serena’s eyes, captivated, whilst they traced the soft smile on Bernie’s face.
Suddenly, they became aware of their surroundings once again, as Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me was shouted at them from the player. They jumped apart coughing, spluttering, covering mouths with slightly trembling fingers, until their attention was drawn by the tail end of Evie and Mikey’s conversation.
“You’re right, bit dense, in’ they?”
Serena blinked at Bernie, who shrugged, blankly.
“Right. Well, then. That’s the kitchen sorted- oh! Yes, I am sorry, Theo. Right, let’s have a look, then!”
Serena helped him to stand on a chair, and listened, smile firmly plastered to her face, to his explanations.
“This one’s not right,” he turned to glare darkly at Bernie, who shuffled and tried to look contrite. “Bernie’s hand messed it up so I just did it again,” he finished, brightly. Bernie peered over her shoulder. At her scrunched face, Evie leaned in for a nose, and promptly burst into laughter.
“It’s Seena and Bernie dancing!” Theo exclaimed, frowning at Evie now.
“Of course it is!” Bernie said brightly, patting his head. She turned to Evie and muttered under her breath. “Do you think he has some sort of obsession we should worry about?”
Evie laughed again. “Maybe he just thinks you do,”
Serena turned her head slightly, oblivious to Bernie’s goldfish impersonation, and muttered out the side of her mouth.
“Can you see something I can’t?”
Bernie’s gaze swept once more along the handprint of hers that Theo had left in place, simply redrawing Serena around it. A Serena made out of two legs, two boobs, and a head.
Bernie shook her head. “Nope. Nothing,”
After Bernie appeased Theo by taking numerous photos of his drawing on her phone, and promising to print them for everyone’s fridges, they were allowed to wipe the table down. Serena retrieved her bags from the hallway, and fished out two brightly coloured bags that made the kids whoop.
“It’s just a one-off. A treat,” Serena warned, eyeing the curly fries and chicken nuggets with considerable distaste. “Seeing as though you’ve all been so… well-behaved as you partially destroyed my house,”
Bernie sidled up to her side. “But we put it back together again. Does that mean we deserve dessert, too?” Bernie batted her lashes.
“I think they’ve all had quite enough sugar for one day, don’t you?”
Bernie pouted, poked Serena in the ribs, and the brunette had to bite her lip to keep from squealing.
“You’ll be fine dining with the kids, if you’re not careful!”
Bernie smirked. “Curly fries, my favourite. Go down really well with ice-cream.”
Serena rolled her eyes, swatted her on the arm.
“Right, I’ll get this lot in the oven, then I think you all need as much of a scrub as the kitchen before you even think of parking yourselves on anymore furniture in this house,”
Ella tapped Bernie’s leg. “You bath me,” she said, insistently. Bernie ruffled her hair.
“Looks life you’ve a new BFF,” Serena smiled. “Would you…?”
“Sure. Can I…?”
“Of course. Use the ensuite. Spare towels in the airing cupboard. You’ll find clothes that should fit you in the drawers in Elinor’s room. You two,” she turned to Mikey and Evie, who were busy whispering in the furthest corner of the kitchen. “Can go and use the bathroom to get cleaned up. Bernie can get you some towels. Your overnight bags are under the stairs. Shoo!”
Evie and Mikey dutifully followed Bernie up the stairs.
“Nasty twitch you got there, Major,” Mikey observed, as she spun her head around for the umpteenth time, no longer trusting them in the slightest. Bernie narrowed her eyes. On the landing, as she dug for towels, she snapped her head around the door to find two perfectly innocent, wide-eyed faces staring up at her.
“Now, I definitely know you’re up to something,” she said, thrusting their towels at them.
“Us?” Mikey scoffed, as Evie practically dragged him into the bathroom.
Bernie entered Elinor’s old room and out of the chest of drawers fished out a baggy jumper and a pair of leggings that she was almost sure started off as hers, anyway. Raised voices coming from the bathroom made her pause.
“When I grow up. If I wanna kiss someone, I’m just gonna kiss ‘em. I don’t wanna kiss anyone but if I did, I would. Wochyar all gotta complicate stuff for?”
Bernie shook her head, decided she couldn’t really cope with knowing, and entered Serena’s bedroom. She dumped her clean clothes on the bed, and hurried through to the ensuite. Being in Serena’s bedroom was nothing new; she’d sat on the bed, amused and frustrated a few times, as Serena threw various outfits about the place, bemoaning gender inequality and high heels. Stripping off in her ensuite, however, engulfed by Serena’s unique scent, faced with washing in Serena’s soap and wrapping up in her towel… Well, Bernie began to minutely accept the niggling feelings and words that had been forming inside her for weeks.
She arrived back downstairs, and barely managed to catch Ella as the girl stood on her chair and launched herself at Bernie. She laughed as she held her at arms length.
“Oh, no you don’t. I’m clean!” she admonished, smiling as she put Ella down. Bernie held her hand out for Theo, but he shook his head emphatically at her.
“No, Seena do it,”
Bernie raised her eyebrows. “Looks like you’ve a new BFF… Would you…?” she gestured at the children.
“NO!” They both looked in shock at Ella, who was glowering at her brother. “Bernie do it,”
Both women tried valiantly to hide smiles as the little ones geared up to fight.
“I’ll sort the food, you can both go,” Evie chimed in. Serena looked at her gratefully.
“I haven’t had two people fight for my attentions since the kids were the same age,” Bernie chuckled as they trudged up the stairs. “I think I’m a little disappointed it was resolved so quickly.”
“Ah, but now you get the joys of my company for that much longer, and over a bubble bath, no less,”
“Mmm, almost seems a shame about the children,”
They blinked and simultaneously stumbled slightly, equally surprised not so much by Bernie’s words, but by the less than innocent way they were uttered. Serena turned to look at Bernie, and upon seeing the other woman, eyes wide and horrified, lips pinched and determinedly staring at the floor, Serena snorted. Which set off Ella’s giggles, which set off Theo’s complaining, which relaxed Bernie, and for the next forty minutes, they traded bottles and rubber ducks, and blew bubble beards off each other until everyone’s hands were wrinkly and the children were satisfied that they had washed every reachable tile around Serena’s bathtub, and extracted promises that next time, Bernie would dress up with them and be a pirate.
Pyjamas on and hair dried, they navigated the stairs back to the kitchen, everyone’s stomachs audibly rumbling.
“Have you eaten at all today?” Serena asked Bernie, from her awkward stoop holding Theo’s hand.
“I’ve been force fed some delicious forkfuls of slightly congealed pasta,” Bernie replied, and Serena laughed.
“We can order in, later,” she muttered. “Once the gannets are asleep.”
Bernie, trying to concentrate on deciding what to eat, as opposed to the who she’d like to, walked straight in to Serena’s back, who had stopped dead in the kitchen doorway.
“S’rena wha-oh,” Bernie peered around Serena’s shoulder, and saw Evie and Mikey standing by the kitchen table, nervous smiles on their faces. The table was set with a tablecloth, placemats, candles, two wine glasses, and two steaming bowls.
“What’s this?” Serena asked softly, edging in to the kitchen at Bernie’s insistent prodding.
“We… err… wanted to do something nice for you, to say fanks for having us today. And, like, all the other times,” Evie shrugged self-consciously.
Mikey extended his arm to Serena, who looked to be on the verge of tears.
“We was gunna cook ya meatballs. Raf taught us how. But you didn’t av any mince. And, the blonde job’s probably sick of pasta,” he smiled cheekily, then blushed as Serena practically squashed him into her.
“So we found some stuff in the freezer. Rice, curry and a coupla naans. Shared some curly fries, on the side,” she added, glancing shyly at Bernie. Bernie’s mouth worked futilely for a couple of seconds, before she gave up and launched herself into the kitchen, scooping Evie into a bear hug.
“They’re killin’ us! You never said they’d kill us!” Mikey gasped from where he was still, red-faced, buried in Serena’s chest.
“Oh, shush!” Serena chided warmly, ruffling his hair as she released him. He held out her chair and she sat, staring between Evie and Bernie, clinging tightly to each other, and the table in front of her.
“Thank you,” she heard Bernie whisper as she finally released Evie. Evie’s face glowed.
“We couldn’t open the wine,” she shrugged apologetically.
“Dad says it’s just an extra tool that’ll get me in trouble,” Mikey added, and they all barked a laugh.
“Our food’s all set up in the living room. We’re gonna watch some cartoons.”
When Serena reached out to brush Evie’s cheek, the girl practically floated out of the room.
“Wow,” Bernie managed after another moment of staring. She lowered herself into her chair, and met Serena’s watery gaze. They stared at each other for a few moments. Bernie’s eyes crinkled as she studied Serena, whose cheeks tinged pink as she took a breath.
The two women jumped as Mikey came barrelling into the kitchen on the tail of Evie’s stern shout.
“Sorry for the interruption, ladies, but we forgot summink!”
He darted to the radio, and after a few moments, a low crooning filled the room. Mikey produced a small, slightly crushed flower with a flourish and placed it in the middle of the table in a glass. He looked between them with a wink.
“Dig in, then!” He bounced back out again. They heard a muffled thump, followed by a less muffled “Ouch!” and when their eyes met again, they burst out laughing.
Bernie uncorked the wine as Serena wiped her eyes.
“Do you… umm… get the sense that something else is at play here?” she asked.
When Serena merely raised her eyebrows, she poured the wine carefully.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Serena.”
Serena blinked, swivelled around comically in her seat to stare at the kitchen door, where they could hear giggles coming from the living room. She almost violently twisted back around again and stared at Bernie, wide eyed, before coughing.
“Do you think…” Serena waved her hand airily.
Bernie inclined her head.
“I think they think, yes,”
“Right,” Serena laughed, shrilly, causing Bernie to suck in her cheek. She reached across the table and slowly, lightly placed her hand over Serena’s.
“And I think, that we don’t have to think, if we don’t want to,” she smiled warmly. Serena took a deep breath, and lifted her eyes.
“And if… if we want to think about it?” she said, her tone flipping Bernie’s stomach. Bernie squeezed her hand.
“Then… I suggest, we think about it over this delicious meal, and then… then we can tell each other what we’re thinking, for a change?” Bernie replied gently.
Serena let out a shaky breath and smiled gingerly. “That… that seems like a solid plan, yes.”
They ate in comfortable silence, punctuated by frequent loaded looks. Bernie eventually slumped back in her chair, hands splayed over her stomach.
“Well, they warm a good meal, I’ll give them that,” Bernie said fondly, as Serena chuckled, then groaned.
“Yes, though, perhaps we didn’t need to eat quite so much of it,”
“Speak for yourself!” Bernie’s laugh, though, descended into a groan of her own as she heaved herself from the chair. “Fair point,” she conceded, as she held out her hand for Serena, and all but hefted her up. Stumbling forward with the impact, Serena ended up inches from Bernie’s face, her free hand automatically wrapping around Bernie’s waist.
“Hello,” Bernie jested, her breath tickling Serena’s forehead. Serena swallowed audibly.
“I’ve been...I’ve been thinking,” Serena breathed, her eyes darting between Bernie’s eyes and lips.
“Hmm?” Bernie’s eyes tracked Serena’s, and her hand came up to hover around Serena’s cheek.
“Yes, I was thinking maybe-”
Serena was abruptly cut off. They looked around wildly for the source of the squelching, ripping noises, before suddenly, Serena’s nose was unceremoniously smacked with a lump of gooey wetness that dangled audaciously before landing with a final plop on Bernie’s shoe. Bernie stared, wide eyed, between the disgusting mass of batter stuck to her toes and Serena’s blinking, uncomprehending face, and the ceiling, before dissolving into peals of laughter. When Serena remained stony, Bernie tried to collect herself. She quickly scooped up the dollop on the floor with some kitchen roll, grabbed a wet cloth and began swiping gently at Serena’s face.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “I completely forgot about that incident. I did tell them I couldn’t make pancakes. And Theo was very enthusiastic,” she tossed the cloth aside and swiped her finger across Serena’s cheek.
Her thumb drifted to the edge of Serena’s mouth, and Serena leaned her cheek into Bernie’s palm. Serena’s hand came up to Bernie’s neck, fingertips gingerly touching, becoming more daring until-
“We have an audience,” Bernie whispered, inclining her head towards the door. Serena jumped back and suddenly the kitchen was a flurry of activity and voices, people tripping over themselves in embarrassment and petrification, until Serena held up her hands.
“Enough!” She smiled to soften the bark.
“We just came to say that it’s the kids bedtime, and me and Mikey-” she elbowed the boy next to her, who jumped to attention and yawned, comically falsely. Evie rolled her eyes as Bernie and Serena hid smirks. “-are really tired, so we’re gonna go bed an’ all. But, they want a story… One each… Sorry,”
Bernie winked as she brushed Evie’s arm.
Even though Evie and Mikey had elected to have a camp out in the living room, they bounced on to the double bed at the same time as Theo and Ella. With raised eyebrows and a shrug, Bernie and Serena sat either side of the children, resting back against the headboard, and by silent agreement, Bernie began to speak. She weaved a story in the sands of Kandahar, turned the Buddhas of Bamiyan into big, friendly giants, and when her voice faltered, and Serena saw the ghost of crumbling cities etched on her face, she picked up the threads, her voice low and magical as she took them along the Silk Road, offered them potions and hero’s dreams until the two youngest were snuffling softly in their sleep.
“Don’t stop,” Mikey murmured, his eyes wide and evidently enthralled. Serena smiled gently and smoothed his hair, heart bursting with the innocence of him that he so rarely displayed.
“Chapter two next time, I promise,” she whispered as she smoothly swept to her feet. Bernie had a little more trouble extricating herself. Evie had ended up using her as a pillow, with Ella laying in her arms, and Bernie’s hand still held tightly in Ella’s grip. Evie managed to shuffle forward enough to let Bernie up, and Serena lost her heart again as the young girl gazed adoringly up at the blonde whilst snuggling Ella back down in the bed.
“I’ll stay here, make sure they stay asleep,” Evie said. Seeing Mikey making no effort to move, they left the door ajar behind them and crept back to the kitchen, retrieving their glasses of wine but opting to stand leaning against the worktops.
“You’ve certainly charmed the socks off them today,” Serena smiled softly, her eyes sparkling.
Bernie ducked her head. “Well, they’re very charming kids.”
Serena laughed. “Yes, well. Let’s see if you’re still saying that when Ella’s poking your eyelids at four thirty in the morning, asking if it’s time for breakfast.”
Her smile faltered under Bernie’s gaze. “Well… err… Not that you’ll be here for that, of course. I mean, err, you’ve probably got things to do and all that I just… well, not that you wouldn’t be welcome but… umm…” she took a deep breath, let it out slowly and nodded decisively. “I’m sure the children would be delighted if you stayed the night. I… umm… I’m sure I would be, too. Is what I’m trying to say. Feel free to ignore the last twenty seconds of conversation, if you like.”
Bernie ignored the instruction, and smiled, shyly. “I’m invited to the sleepover?”
Serena rolled her eyes. “If you like,”
“Well,” Bernie said, coyly, her face inching towards Serena’s. “Then I guess it just depends on one thing,”
“And what’s that?” Serena asked, in a tone of voice that suggested she’d lay Olympus at Bernie’s feet if that was the condition.
“Coco pops for breakfast,” she answered immediately. When Serena let out a whoosh of air, Bernie wiggled her eyebrows. Serena abandoned any hope of piecing together a witty response.
“Yes,” she breathed instead. Their glasses clinked together as they set them down and moved incrementally closer to each other.
“You know….umm… earlier on, Mikey called you my Missus,” Bernie said tentatively. Serena’s eyebrows shot up.
“Did he now?”
“Are we the only ones that are unaware that we’re dating?”
Their eyes roamed each other’s faces hungrily, breaths quickening.
“Apparently so,” Bernie’s eyes flickered with amusement amidst the desire.
“What a terrible oversight,” Serena muttered. “One we should… We should definitely set about rectifying if you… if you’re…”
Their noses touched before their lips, but it was that first, tiniest contact of skin that finally propelled Serena forward, Bernie’s own forward motion ensuring that she wasn’t knocked off balance. At the first touch of their lips, the air left both of them with the intensity of the feeling, and they gasped around each other, not willing to break contact. When Serena’s hand tangled in Bernie’s hair, Bernie’s own pressed between Serena’s shoulder blades and brought them closer together, eliciting a groan from one, or both. Their hands carried on wandering, their lips exploring firmly, frantically, until another, louder moan was torn from them, and their movements slowed. Serena’s eyes opened first as Bernie’s lips ghosted over hers, and she lost her breath in a shaky laugh as she rested her hands in Bernie’s hair once more. Their foreheads rested together as Bernie’s thumbs stroked Serena’s cheeks.
“Hello,” Serena joked, her voice raspy. Bernie peppered Serena’s mouth with tiny kisses.
“Shut up, Mikey, God!”
Bernie jumped and Serena’s eyes fell resignedly closed, but her hands in Bernie’s hair kept them close together. Serena opened her eyes to Bernie’s blushing almost-smirk, and she rolled her eyes fondly at the scuffling sounds.
“Hello, Fletchlings,” Serena called, and two sets of footsteps thudded sheepishly the rest of the way down the stairs.
They disentangled themselves, fingers lingering together as they made their way out to the hallway. Even Serena’s glare couldn’t wipe the smug grin off Mikey’s face, and she poked and tickled him into the living room, leaving Bernie to deal with Evie’s violent blush and beaming smile.
“We would’ve stayed upstairs, but Theo snores somethin’ wicked, and Ella’s like a dying worm,” Evie offered.
“Plus, we ‘ad to make sure. Dad so owes us McDonald’s now,”
At Bernie’s raised eyebrow and Serena’s crossed arms, Mikey just smiled wickedly as he jumped into his makeshift bed, whilst Evie’s blush deepened.
“We just want you to be happy,” she muttered, then looked up through her lashes at Bernie with a soft chuckle. “Plus, you two are really clueless, honestly, we thought we’d be as old as Dad before you actually-”
“Yes, yes, all right,” Serena chided kindly, as Bernie’s tinkling laugh filled the room. Mikey fiddled with the tv remote as Evie got comfy under her covers, and when they were both settled, Serena and Bernie made their way to the door, exchanging goodnights and sweet dreams and behave, please, and pointedly refusing to maintain eye contact with anyone at Evie’s innocent you, too. Before Bernie flicked the lights, Evie’s quiet, hesitant call turned her back. “Will you read to us again, sometime?”
Bernie melted, her smile wide and free and contagious. “I’d like that,” she replied.
Bernie went to the kitchen to retrieve their wine as Serena went ahead to check on the youngest. Bernie found her in the doorway, gazing adoringly on them.
“Aren’t they wonderful when they’re asleep?” she whispered, turning and leading Bernie into her room.
“They’re wonderful anyway,” Bernie replied, closing the door but leaving a gap in case one or the other woke in the night.
Serena snorted. “You’re on early morning call, then, Ms. Wolfe. Let’s see if we can’t dispel you of some of that wonder. Plus,” she tossed some pyjamas at Bernie with a small wink. “I am decidedly not at my best before 7am, and I’d rather not have your wonder in me dispelled quite this soon into our dating foray, thank you.”
Bernie laughed, quickly clamping a hand over her mouth as Serena aggressively shushed her, whilst unsuccessfully trying to contain her own mirth at the sound.
“Oh, Ms. Campbell, you speak as though I haven’t folded you into taxis, twirled you from dance floors and thrown sugar filled carbs in your general direction in lieu of having to speak to you!”
“Oi!” Serena threw a pillow at her, laughing, then sobering rather quickly. “Yes, I do suppose I’ve been very remiss of my dating etiquette. Though, if anyone had been so kind as to inform me that I was dating, well…” she offered Bernie a self-conscious shrug. Bernie smiled, tucking her chin into her shoulder as she replied tenderly. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of not dating you, Serena Campbell. I can only imagine that being aware of dating you will be, well…”
She gestured vaguely to her clothes and made her way to the en-suite, leaving Serena to gaze sappily after her.
They migrated automatically to the centre of the bed, adjusting arms and legs until they were comfortably tangled side by side, hands stroking each other’s hair, faces, shoulders, arms. They searched each other’s eyes, dark and deep, knowing yet secretive smiles playing on the corners of their mouths. Serena leant forward to capture Bernie’s lips, rendering them both breathless, again, almost immediately. When Bernie’s hand pressed at Serena’s prominent hip bone, and Serena’s own hand came to rest halfway up Bernie’s thigh, their kisses once again slowed, and they broke apart enough to form words.
“As terribly unromantic as this is,” Serena panted, her lips nipping at Bernie’s. “I can’t help but think about a toddler swinging the door wide open at any moment,” Her eyebrows knitted together apologetically as her fingers worried Bernie’s waistband.
Bernie’s body relaxed into the mattress as she laughed quietly, and covered Serena’s hand with her own.
“It’s ok,” she reassured, planting a firm kiss to Serena’s lips before pulling back far enough to meet her eyes. “Truth be told, I’m a bit paranoid about two older sets of eyes peering ‘round the door, “just to check”,”
Serena hastily muffled a barked laugh into Bernie’s shoulder, then groaned wistfully. Her hand patted Bernie’s hip.
“Well, at least you have clothes on. Makes it a tad more bearable, at a stretch,”
Bernie shuffled until she was sitting up against the headboard.
“Why, Ms. Campbell, whatever are you suggesting anyway? Further than second base on a first unofficial official date? If that’s what you think of me, well, I may have to re-evaluate this whole non-dating-you lifestyle I’ve been living,” She dug Serena playfully in the ribs as the other woman pulled herself up to sitting level.
“Honestly,” Serena tutted as she stretched across Bernie to retrieve a wine glass from the bedside table. “You’re supposed to be fast-acting and intuitive, Bernie, I mean, really. It takes two prepubescents to jolt you into action…” Serena trailed off, unable to keep a straight face under Bernie’s incredulous stare.
“All right, Mrs. Perceptive!” Bernie retaliated. She leaned over to capture wine stained lips, taking the sting out of her words.
They sipped their wine in companionable silence for a few minutes, until, after the third uncrossing and recrossing of Serena’s legs, Bernie rolled her eyes indulgently, relieved them of glasses, and wrapped Serena, who willingly acquiesced, in her arms.
“It’s still too early to bloody sleep,” Serena grumbled, as she shifted to make herself comfortable in Bernie’s arms. It was barely 9pm, but at the mention of it, Bernie worked hard to stifle a yawn. She had almost forgotten that kids were almost akin to trauma treatment. She shiggled down in the bed, tucking Serena firmly under her chin.
“One day I’ll tell you,” she whispered into Serena’s hair, her voice low and steady. “About driving past the Buddhas. About stopping, the second time, and getting out of the trucks, just to stand underneath something that has seen millions of lives played out before it; that was built by thousands of lives; has names and histories to so many different people. That gave so many people hope,”
Serena squeezed her arm firmly. Bernie pressed her lips to Serena’s head. “I could even recite you some poetry, albeit a bit brokenly,”
Serena snorted. “You’re already a poet, and you don’t know it. Carry on,” she drawled, her voice sleep laden. Bernie buried her lips once more in Serena’s hair, and pulled her impossibly closer.
“The witch Tusheeta lives in the Sulaiman mountains. No one knows much about her; she only lives in some, almost forgotten, stories. It’s said, sometimes, that she has the power to bring life to stone, the power to make the Buddhas weep, crumbling them to glass. But then, it’s said, other times, that she’s one with herbs, and potions, and sings to the moon to save blue babies and make the last breath the best,”
Serena snored lightly on her intake of breath, her lips pressed to Bernie’s collarbone, where her head rested. “‘M’glad the mountains didn’t need ‘nother witch, then,”
Bernie sighed, her eyes drifting closed as her heartbeat slowed to match Serena’s. “If they did,” she drifted off slowly. “They’d have led me to you, eventually, anyway.”