Serena had known Bernie was in the building as Cameron had spoken of little outside of his mother’s impending visit since she’d flown into the postcode. Although mother and son still struggled to communicate, Bernie’s near-miss in Mogadishu this past summer had pushed them to mend their fractured relationship. Not an easy feat by any means but a worthy one. Serena had watched from the sidelines, wistful and not a little envious, but happy for them.
In the same time, Serena and Bernie had made halting, determined overtures to mend their friendship. They had been first-rate chums before those feelings of mutual regard turned to love; surely, that was worth something. It was, if Serena said so herself. There was nothing like the ease with which that had slotted into each other’s lives when they were strangers, but there was something. A way of bantering, an instinct and intimacy to their empathy for each other, born of hell. When past hurts cropped up in conversation, they were able to navigate them honestly albeit awkwardly. They still had the makings of the finest surgical team in either of their countries of residence, thus they always had medicine to fall back on when personal avenues proved too treacherous to tread. They were friends again and that was what Serena chose to focus on as the date of Bernie’s return drew closer.
Bernie had said she’d make herself available if Serena cared to get together for coffee and Serena had said she’d be glad to. They hadn’t set a time or a date. Bernie had set foot in the hospital and been immediately pulled in a half dozen directions once she was done being hugged by Cameron. There hadn’t been a free moment for Bernie to catch up with Serena, so in demand was her personal attention and her professional expertise, and Serena hadn’t jockeyed for position. A year was a long time; Serena had perfected the art of waiting her turn.
Eventually, Henrik had reasoned Bernie ought to be compensated for the hours she was putting in and so here she was, locum consultant Bernie Wolfe back in action, getting stuck in wherever she was needed at Holby City Hospital. There was something bittersweet about seeing Bernie in trauma blue in the ED or Keller plum in general surgery. She even moonlighted on Obs & Gynae for a risky pre-term multiple birth.
As Medical Director, Serena had had to sign off on all the paperwork before and after the fact. It was an exciting, perilous procedure with long odds. There were no two surgeons she’d have trusted more to undertake it than Bernie and Fleur. Reading their reports—Bernie’s rather more perfunctory, per custom, and Fleur’s candid and glowing—Serena got the first inkling of what it must have been like for Bernie to know she and Fleur were socializing quite so much in the old days. Bernie was brains, brawn, and beauty, to be sure, but Fleur was her equal in ability, in intellect, and could show any woman of her persuasion what life was all about. She knew her worth, and her allure, and loudly proclaimed the value of any woman who needed to glean her own. This is a procedure you celebrate, Serena had thought, and been jolted with dueling emotions of jealousy and desire at the thought of Fleur taking Bernie out for a celebratory night on the town she wasn’t quite sure where to file. Bernie and Fleur might have been unlikely, but then plenty of successful couples were. Serena and Bernie had been, though perhaps not as much as their end made them seem. Perhaps they would find something in one another neither found in Serena.
Unsettled, she had jotted her signature down with a brief note to both surgeons, praising their efforts and put the files aside. Mother and triplets had survived. Job done. Time would need to handle the rest. Per her expectations, Fleur had seen her note flagged in the system and replied via text with a cheeky, Thanks, boss xx. Contrary to her nil expectations, Bernie had replied too, evidently following Fleur’s advice: Just doing my job. -B. Serena almost hadn’t said anything, Bernie’s message hadn’t called for a response, but Serena’s self-control where Bernie was concerned was never impeccable. She wrote, You were exemplary. You’re never less.
Bernie read it, Serena saw as much from the notification below her message. Checkmark, Read 8:29 PM. She didn’t reply.
Serena left it at that.
A few days before Christmas events (and Donna, Zav, and likely Ric, Serena didn’t doubt) had conspired to put Bernie and Serena together on the same ward during the same shift.
Ric had begged off the ward under the guise of having a board meeting to oversee and Serena needed a second to split paperwork and theatre duty with her. The Winter Health Crisis had commenced, what with the cold and the snow, and the above average amounts of hapless reveling and maudlin dwelling. The ED and AAU were at risk of being overrun when Bernie had appeared in AAU scrubs, bearing scalding hot coffee to share.
“Someone called for reinforcements?” Bernie said, announcing her entrance to the consultant’s office.
Serena forgot herself and smiled wide enough to elicit and ache in her cheeks. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Bernie startled before returning her smile. “If I’d known you’d be this happy to see me, I’d have brought coffee sooner.” They hadn’t spoken much in the days since Bernie had come home besides pleasantries exchanged while sharing the lift and small talk at the counter at Pulses. There was always someplace else to be.
“You didn’t need to bring coffee for that.” Bernie cleared her throat, neck catching a slight flush, and Serena remembered who she was talking to her. Her colleague, technically her subordinate, and her friend. Her ex. She tamped down on her excitement and all the attendant emotions. “Have a seat, Ms. Wolfe. We kept that chair warm for you,” she said, indicating the desk Ric had vacated for the duration.
Bernie barked, “Ha, likely story.” She took it anyway after handing Serena her coffee. Serena permitted herself a moment to enjoy things as they were, so sure she had been once nothing would be like this again. The two of them in this office drinking coffee in preparation of the ensuing deluge. Campbell and Wolfe on AAU, let the miracles commence!
She laughed to herself and Bernie raised her eyebrows in question.
“I was thinking is all. You and I, here like this, it’s just like old times.”
Bernie smiled at her, eyes crinkling in fondness Serena couldn’t misinterpret. “I hope so.”
Out on the ward, Donna raised the alarm. They had incoming.
Bernie hopped to her feet and offered Serena hand up and away from her lovely coffee. “Come on, Campbell. Duty calls.”
Serena groaned. She loved her job, but what she wouldn’t give for a few quiet moments more alone with Bernie. “Kandahar-style?”
“Mogadishu-style. Who says you can’t teach a Wolfe new tricks?” Bernie winked, terribly, and Serena laughed outright. She never had got a hang of Serena’s signature affectation.
“Lead on, Major. This, I’ve got to see.”
Out on the ward, Bernie gave the staff an in-situ crash course in frontline triage. Serena watched closely and took copious mental notes. Not the least because Bernie was a capable teacher and Serena was an apt pupil. Bernie was the finest surgeon, nay finest medical professional, Serena had ever met, and as Medical Director it was Serena’s responsibility to advocate for state-of-the-art procedural changes when she could. Bernie was exemplary, and as clinical lead, Serena wanted her ward to be exemplary, too. As the woman who had loved Bernie, and likely always would, watching her in her element, confident, and devoid of pain and regret was a privilege she might not get again. Serena thought she could be forgiven for being enamored of the sight.
As miracles went, Serena would take having Bernie here with her as one.
Serena finally got the chance to spend some extended downtime with Bernie during the Holby Christmas ‘do at Albie’s. Serena had come dressed in what she had worn to work whilst Bernie had taken the time to change out of scrubs into a natty new suit. She’d come with a somewhat subdued Dom and a chatty, pre-buzzed Cameron and his latest conspicuously blonde love interest. The blonde eventually departed for other company and Cameron took it upon himself to cheer Dom up with a dance.
Serena sidled over to Bernie where she was seated at the bar watching her friend and only son attempt to cut a rug with wildly divergent ideas of rhythm.
“Talk about your unlikely match-ups,” Serena said in lieu of a greeting.
“People used to say that about us.”
Bernie hummed confirmation. They sat quietly for the next little while, exchanging the odd word with friends as they passed to get drinks and paired off to dance. Serena quite suddenly couldn’t put two words together to say to Bernie. Bernie who was alive and might not have been. Bernie who was here, beside her, beautiful and brave and still cared. Here was her opportunity not to be squandered and she couldn’t seem to help herself.
“Are you all right?” Bernie asked her.
“Sure, what made you ask that?”
“You have this look on your face. You used to get it when something wasn’t going according to Serena Campbell’s Carefully Laid Plan for Success.”
“I can hear the capital letters.”
“You’re meant to hear them. What’s wrong?”
What wasn’t, Serena wanted to ask. Everything was wrong. She didn’t have Bernie anymore. She didn’t have their relationship. Not quite their friendship. Bernie was in the army, on a different continent. Quite possibly shagging Fleur, or someone else who wasn’t Serena. A choice she’d permitted and could only live with now it must have come to pass. But for the moment, this unbelievable moment, Bernie was here and she cared, and Serena couldn’t find her words.
She squeezed Serena’s hand and suddenly Serena was here a year ago, telling Bernie to go. Telling her all the things she wasn’t, that she couldn’t be, when what she wanted to do was tell Bernie all she meant to her. Serena had been a fool last year and she remained one in the here and now. She was a coward, too, and so she took the coward’s way out.
She smiled a tremulous smile at Bernie’s worried face and changed the subject.
“Looks like we’re the odd two out.” She indicated their colleagues cutting a rug on the dance floor, alone or in twos or more. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, reveling as though the world wouldn’t go on tomorrow, and their hangovers with it.
Bernie let go of her hand and shifted slightly back from her on her barstool. “I don’t know, there’s something to be said for watching our colleagues enjoy themselves.”
“And make fools of themselves.” Seeing Sacha lead Henrik through the macarena was one for the diary.
Bernie sniggered. “There is that.” She nodded toward the floor. “You should be dancing, though. You could never refuse a good ABBA revue.” Watching Cameron, Dom, and Donna sing ‘Dancing Queen’ would make anyone jolly, she supposed.
“Remember that, do you?”
“I remember everything about you, Campbell. Besides, I’m friends with Fleur on Facebook; I’ve seen things.”
Serena flicked her pendant back and forth. “Things I should be concerned about?”
“Nothing like that. Fleur’s a good ‘un, she wouldn’t put your reputation at risk. Though, I often wondered what we didn’t get to see.”
“Once you’ve seen one past-her-prime consultant dancing topless on a table, you’ve seen them all.”
Bernie was taken aback. “That answers that question. I was talking about the drunken duet to One Last Summer she posted in April, but clearly you two have had many more adventures than make the rounds on Facebook.”
“I’m learning my way around gay clubs with Fleur as my willing tutor. We have fun.”
“Only a bit of fun?” Her insinuation brought a stammer to Serena’s tongue.
“Oh, no, not together. There’s nothing between us. It never felt right.” Not after how Bernie had reacted before. To say nothing of the fact Fleur wasn’t the type to play second fiddle to anybody’s so-called true love.
Bernie backtracked, seeming mortified at her slip. “Not that it’s any of my business. I mean, I-I wouldn’t mind if there was. Only Cameron said…You know, never mind, it’s no matter. I know I gave you a hard time about it before, but…we aren’t together now. I’d rather you be with someone I know cares about you than be alone.”
“I wish the same for you. I hope you’re happy.” It would make some of the pain worth it if Bernie were happy.
Bernie raised a stiff shoulder and pursed her lips in a gesture that was decidedly noncommittal. “I have the military hospital coming along nicely. I’m happy enough.”
“I have the hospital. You’ve heard I was made Medical Director?” Of course she did. You sent her memos in that capacity. Get a hold of yourself.
“I did. Congratulations.” Bernie made an abortive reach for her. She folded her hands together on her knee, a guilty look taking up residence on her face. Serena felt the weight of her touch as if the contact had landed. “They couldn’t have chosen better.” Serena was under the lasting impression everyone they’d asked before her had refused.
“Another thankless job for the CV.”
“Which you’ll perform admirably.”
Serena ducked her head to regard her hands. Bernie didn’t offer praise lightly. “I try. Some days, it seems the hospital and staff come up with new and more inventive ways to drive me up the wall.”
“You wouldn’t have it any other way.” Bernie grabbed her whiskey, leaving Serena to sketch the undulations of her throat with her eyes as she swallowed. Another irresistible sight. “You were made for this.”
“I used to think that.”
“Oh, this and that. Circumstances. Me.”
“How’ve you changed?”
She looked into Bernie’s eyes. Still darker than oceans Serena had crossed to get away from her when she was grieving and crossed to come back to her when she was done. The only eyes she wanted to look into as she dove into her final years, however many she had to look forward to. I realized that I still love you and I still want and need you. I let you go and I want you back.
Serena wished she had thought to refill her drink before coming over, but she had sworn to be clearheaded. Bernie deserved no less than Serena at her most lucid. The only courage she had to count on would need to come from inside her.
“You don’t want to hear about me when you could be dancing, do you?” Serena eyed an agency nurse glancing anxiously toward Bernie from across the room, amid a gaggle of cheerleading lookers-on. It was clear she was screwing up her courage.
Bernie didn’t seem to notice her or anyone besides Serena. “I haven’t got anyone to dance with.”
“I’m available.” That came out rather quicker than Serena had planned. Very subtle.
“Funny, so am I.” Bernie stood up and offered her arm, chivalrously. “What do you say we take a turn on the floor, for old time’s sake?”
“I’d like that very much.”
Anyone could have seen the nurse’s shoulders slump from a mile away. Serena wished her luck on finding someone else.
Their first dance was somewhat stiff, rife with idle chatter that tapered off after a single exchange. This was a perfect reenactment of that night, down to their inability to speak to each other or look one another in the eye. Serena held to Bernie, nevertheless. Sheer grit had brought them this far. Just talk to her. Ask her to stay. Don’t be a regretful idiot twice. You won’t get another shot.
When ‘Let It Snow’ crossfaded into ‘It Had to Be You,’ they kept dancing. Serena would have let go if Bernie did, but she wouldn’t do it first.
It was Bernie that broke the silence, voice soft. “What’s changed, Serena? You can tell me.”
Serena drew strength from Bernie’s hand on her back and other entwined with hers. They had drifted closer together over the course of the song. Chest to chest, breaths apart, traipsing to their own melody. Bernie bent her knees just so to meet her eye to eye. She did it without thinking. She did so many things without thinking, some wrong and some right; all with the best of intentions. That was what Serena loved about Bernie. She was all good inside. Not perfect and certainly not deeming herself so, but full of love and well-meaning. Bernie was the home fire Serena had needed to see burning, the flame she’d been left shivering without. Serena had longed for her heat.
“Bernie…I realized that nothing worth doing is worth doing alone. I love my job and I love Holby, but…it’s not my home now and I’ve twisted myself in knots to convince myself it still was.”
Bernie kept them moving when Serena began to slow, falling into a two-step to gather herself. “I’ve had similar thoughts myself about Somalia.”
“Mmhm. I love the country and the people. I love the work; I wouldn’t have gone back to the army if I didn’t think I could do the most good there. I could happily keep doing what I’m doing for years, but it isn’t home. When I touched down in Holby and saw the kids, I felt a little better.”
Serena permitted a lonely pulse in her chest for Elinor and let herself linger over it no more. Grief would be there tomorrow, as it was with her yesterday. Tonight was for love.
“Home is where the heart is,” she said, casting off the gloom. She would never begrudge Bernie and her children a family of love.
“That’s what they say.” They danced silently to Frank Sinatra crooning about the good and bad, the invariable fatedness of love.
For nobody else gave me a thrill
With all your faults, I love you still
It had to be you, wonderful you
It had to be you
“The thing is, Serena, I haven’t felt much at home anywhere since I left Albie’s last year around this time.” She sent Serena a skittish look before focusing at the wall over Serena’s shoulder. “What I guess I’m saying is…my home is with you.”
“Yes.” They stilled on the edge of the dance floor. “If I’m barking up the wrong tree, or I’ve left it too late, you can tell me and I’ll accept that, but-“
“You could never be too late. I wanted to be the one to do the asking. That’s the least you deserved. You shouldn’t have to be the brave one all the time.”
“I’m not the only brave one. At least, I don’t think I am.” Bernie plowed on. “I’m no domestic goddess and I’ll probably always forget to put out the bins unless you remind me but, Serena, I want to be with you.”
“I want to be with you. I’ve wanted to be with you since the moment you walked out that door a year ago. I nearly chased you down.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“What right did I have begging you to stay when I was the one who told you to go?”
“I waited. Not a long, an hour or so, because I thought you might stop me. I hoped you would.”
“I waited, here, hoping you’d forget something and come back, and when you didn’t, hoping I wouldn’t run into you at home. I knew there was no way I’d hold on to my dignity if I saw you again. I’d have made a fool of myself to keep you. I’d do it now, if it might help.”
“You don’t need to. It’s all—it’s water under the bridge. Bygones. You’re here now.” They were here now.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, that I don’t recognize how much asking you to leave hurt you. I thought I was only hurting me. I thought I deserved that pain, that I deserved to lose you for what I did, and in pushing you away I hurt us both.”
Bernie kissed her brow and pressed their foreheads together. They rocked slightly as the sound system cued another song, another ballad about love. Doris Day’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’.
“I can’t say you didn’t. It hurt like hell. Even when you said it was a one-time thing, part of me wondered, afterward, if you just didn’t want me anymore. If that was your gentle way of picking her over me. You wouldn’t be the first to find me wanting as a partner.”
“No, never that. It was—no, things weren’t perfect. In fact, they were chaotic and messy, less than ideal. But I didn’t end things because you aren’t good enough. Bernie, there’s nothing I don’t love about you. Even your snoring tips the scale at ‘sounds of home.’ I didn’t end things because I didn’t love you, I did it because I was scared to lose you. And I thought, if it was my decision it would hurt less than when you realized all you’d sacrificed to end up with just me, and you left anyway.”
“Ending up with you is the good ending, isn’t it?” Bernie’s eyes were wet, just perceptible through the tears in Serena’s.
“Depends where you’re standing.”
“Looks like paradise to me, and I should know, I’ve been there.”
Serena stroke the rogue tear escaping the corner of Bernie’s eye. “I’m not the woman I used to be or the woman want to be, but I’m still the woman who wants to be with you, and if you’ll have me, I’ll never send you away again.”
“You had me at ‘You must be Berenice Wolfe’ three years ago and you’ve had me ever since. Nothing else matters, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Everything else, everyone else, is just a hiatus from me and you. You’re it for me, Campbell. That’s all.”
“All that time, Bernie. I’ll make it up to you, I swear. I won’t make you wait again.”
“I said I’d wait an eternity, didn’t I? I can be patient.”
Serena looped her arms around Bernie’s neck as they swayed to the song’s piano solo. “Have I told you ‘I love you’ tonight?”
“I love you.”
“One more time.”
“I love you and your aversion to hairbrushes.”
Bernie honked and Serena guffawed, and together they were an obnoxious symphony of joy. That’s what I’ve missed. This is how it should be.
“I love your smart mouth and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you.” Bernie’s joyful mien crumbled. “Don’t leave me again, please. Don’t put a world between us this time because you’re upset at yourself. You aren’t the only one left alone when you do.”
Serena gathered her in to kiss her cheek and temple. She couldn’t wait to get her home, to show her how loved she was and how remorseful Serena had yet ceased to be. She would be sorry all her days. Her love was love and restitution.
“No more distance. I’m sorry.”
Bernie shook her head, though she didn’t refuse Serena’s kisses, the scoundrel. “I’m sorry for leaving. I should have been braver, I should have fought for you.”
“Should haves won’t make tonight easier. Looking backward will get us in a whole new world of trouble. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in the arms of a beautiful blonde in a sharp suit, and there’s a sprig of mistletoe with our names on. I’d like to kiss her.”
Bernie leaned away, her sorrow gone but for the sheen of tears drying on the apple of her cheeks. “Should I leave you and this mystery blonde alone?”
“Don’t be clever. You and I, we’ve got kisses to recoup.”
“How many do you reckon?”
“Hundreds, easily.” Thousands, in fact. Serena planned be terribly demonstrative in the future.
“Then, we’d better get a move on.” Bernie led the way off the dance floor, past a suspiciously gleeful Donna exchanging money with Fletch, and Ric who was grinning into his eggnog. Another scoundrel, though one without any kisses in his near future, if Serena had anything to say about it.
Serena peered up at the jolly mistletoe adorning the doorway where she and Bernie had once said a distant goodbye.
“I’ll make the first one good.”
“Don’t leave me in suspense, Campbell. My lips are getting cold.”
Serena cupped the nape of Bernie’s neck. “Well, we can’t have that.”
She kissed Bernie until the wolf whistles started and Bernie had to hold on to her to keep standing.
When they parted, Bernie looked thoroughly, wonderfully kissed.
Bernie was back again, golden as ever, and hers to keep. Another miracle.
Serena had got her Christmas wish.