The first time Bernie Wolfe says it, she knows something is wrong. Marcus is a nice man - she likes him tremendously - and when he says it to her, she is so pleased that she’s finally found a man who accepts her for who she is. He knows all of her quirks and foibles and doesn’t seem to mind. She says it back because she feels like she ought to. And if there’s one thing she doesn’t shirk from, it’s her duty.
The first time Bernie Wolfe sleeps with Alex, she says it. She knows it’s got something to do with the fact that Alex has just treated her to the most mind-blowing and revelatory orgasm of her life. A lot to do with it, actually. So much so that she never says it to her again, too afraid of the consequences.
The first time Bernie Wolfe wakes up in Serena’s arms, she says it and it’s the easiest thing in the world. Serena’s face lights up when she says it back and they’re both welling up as they gently kiss. Every single previous utterance of those words was a lie, Bernie thinks. Nobody could have ever felt the absolute joy and fullness that she’s experiencing right now. When they part, she says it again, earns a teary laugh from Serena. Says it again as she presses a kiss to Serena’s cheek. Says it over and over, kissing down Serena’s neck, across her glorious chest, down her soft stomach, further.
Once she’s finally said it to Serena, she can’t stop. She needs this glorious woman to know just how much she feels it. She says it so often that she wonders whether Serena gets irritated by it. (When she quietly voices this concern one evening in front of some awful two-star American film on Channel 5, Serena very deliberately switches off the TV and leads Bernie upstairs to set her straight, in a very not-straight manner.) It’s unexpected, this newfound urge to say it all the time, but then this whole experience keeps throwing the unexpected at them and it’s heavenly. No matter how many times she says it, Serena’s face breaks out into a blinding smile.
Elinor dies, and there’s a period in which Bernie refrains from saying it so often - not because she doesn’t feel it any more, but because her words are rebuffed more than they’re reciprocated. Then there’s the roof incident and, from that night, Bernie says it with every ‘bye’, every ‘goodnight’, every ‘see you later’. She knows Serena knows - she’s sure the whole of Holby knows from the way she looks at her - but saying it always seems to steady Serena, if only for a millisecond, after she’s decided to leave.
When they part as Serena leaves for France, it’s the last thing Bernie says to her, her hands holding Serena’s face, and when they’re reunited in a remote train station at dusk, Bernie gathers Serena up in her arms, holds her tight and sobs it into her soft greying hair. Says it before anything else because it’s the most important thing. Says it repeatedly a couple of hours later when Serena builds her up and brings her over the edge. Says it as Serena pants into her neck once they’re both exhausted.
Bernie whispers it to Serena in orchards and vineyards and between rows of olive trees. She shouts it to be heard over the sound of a crashing waterfall. She breathes it in Serena’s ear as they meander through woods. She states it firmly on top of windy hills. She laughs it on beaches as they splash about in the waves.
Leaving for Sudan, Bernie kisses Serena softly and says it against her lips. Does the same when they’re briefly reunited. Does the same when she leaves for Nairobi.
When Serena calls her to tell her she’s temporarily returning to Holby, Bernie says it along with ‘good luck’. Then Serena calls to say she’s staying. Bernie isn’t surprised. They’ll make it work.
“I love you, darling.”
“Yep. Love you, too.”