Of course there’s a knock at the door. Of course there is. Serena barely has time to pull her rumpled shirt down at the waist before Ric turns the handle - certainly doesn’t have time to wipe the smudge of lipstick from Bernie’s top lip. They’ll just have to brazen that out.
“Ladies,” he says, struggling not to smirk. “Good to see you, Bernie.” He and Bernie nod at one another, like old comrades, Bernie completely oblivious to her dishevelled appearance. Ric laces his fingers together in front of him and looks at Serena, a grin breaking fully, now, across his face. “Chocolate and honeycomb, wasn’t it?”
Serena opens her mouth to respond and thinks better of it, what with Donna and Xavier standing in the doorway, determined not to miss a thing; Serena looks at Bernie, her heart clenching just briefly at the confused frown on Bernie’s face, the rich pink of her own lipstick on and around Bernie’s thoroughly kissed mouth, the blonde hair in disarray around Bernie’s left ear, and shakes her head. Bernie slides her hand into Serena’s coat pocket, holding her close, and makes a note to ask about that later.
“Anyway, I hear you two have brunch plans,” Ric says, stepping further into the office to send them on their way.
Now it’s Serena’s turn to frown at Bernie.
“He knew you were coming?” She thought she had meant to sound cross, or at least a bit put out, but her voice is all honey and her left hand has come to rest on Bernie’s thigh as if of its own volition.
Bernie ducks her head and grimaces, happy to play along like she’s in trouble. “Might’ve called in a few favours,” she says, tugging on Serena’s coat so that they’re closer still. “Need a bit of advance warning if you’re going to get him in scrubs at this time of day,” she adds, nodding towards Ric, who turns his ankle alluringly to model the light blue of AAU.
“But my underhandedness does mean that you’re free for brunch,” Bernie says, looking up and smiling, “if you’d like.” Serena rubs her thumb back and forth across the soft denim of Bernie’s jeans and smiles. They have rows, they have cross words – Serena has heard some belters of military origin in the past couple of years, but the gentle way that Bernie asks anything of her has remained constant, regardless of whether she’s asking a tired and sweaty and yes, quite crotchety Serena to drive to a different station in southern France to collect her because she fell asleep on the train, or asking Serena if she’d like to go to dinner at a restaurant with an extensive wine list.
Serena looks again at Ric, who nods encouragingly, and at Donna, who looks like she’s about to start throwing confetti in their direction. Even Xavier is smiling. Serena’s resistance, what there was of it, was reflexive, a gut reaction to playing hooky, and is almost entirely spent; she plucks Bernie’s hand from her pocket and clutches it in her own, pulling Bernie to her feet and then not letting go.
“I’d like,” she says, simply.
They agree to brunch at one of the hospital cafeterias – it’s not the best food in town, not by a long chalk, but Serena knows there are things waiting on her desk that she has to attend to before she can run out on the ward completely, and Bernie concedes that she has arrangements to make while she’s here and the consultants’ office is as good a place as any. They choose a table in the furthest corner, Bernie sitting so that her back is turned to the rest of the world.
“You look really well, Serena. And I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but I love your hair like that,” she says, squeezing Serena’s hand across the table. It’s not the same, over FaceTime, brief conversations on sometimes weak connections; how could anything compare to being a few feet apart again like this? The colour in Serena’s cheeks isn’t so vivid on a four-inch screen, the notes in her voice less distinctive through cheap earphones. Her perfume, still the same and not forgotten, exactly, is nonetheless fresh and enticing on warm skin. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Serena smiles, already feeling as though she’s done so more often this morning than in the last couple of months put together. She has felt herself growing impatient with people, frustrated, dissatisfied; there’s only so much that can be achieved by mindfulness and joss sticks, and replacing the affections of Bernie Wolfe isn’t on the list.
“You too,” Serena says, pulling her hand out of Bernie’s only so that she can replace it on top of Bernie’s palm, fingertips tracing the vein inside Bernie’s wrist as far as she can before Bernie’s shirt cuff becomes too tight. “You too.”
Seconds threaten to become minutes as they look at each other. Eventually Bernie nods at Serena’s plate and moves her hand away. “Don’t let your food go cold,” she says, chasing some fried mushrooms with her fork as Serena tries to remember how to hold cutlery. It’s a slightly messy business, eating through smiles and without taking their eyes off each other, but that’s what napkins are for. Or thumb pads, in Bernie’s case. Serena watches her scarf down some bacon and shakes her head.
“I don’t know where that picture of a fry up came from, Bernie. You don’t look like you’ve had a proper meal in ages. You’re all skinny. I can see I’m going to have call on Messrs Marks and Spencer to feed you up while you’re here.”
Gleefully stuffing half a sausage and lump of black pudding into her mouth, Bernie’s eyes gleam as she chews. “It was a picture of a full English, Serena,” she says, her hand across her mouth. “It was a clue. As to my plans.” Washing her food down with a healthy glug of tea, Bernie reaches for Serena’s hand again. “I’m fine. I graze. But I’m more than happy to eat whatever you put in front of me for the next few days.”
Serena’s responding smile is utterly, delightfully, and unashamedly sinful.
Bernie blushes and Serena chuckles, low and throaty; Bernie reaches for a laminated drinks menu to fan herself with. They’ve both missed this: just being together, their bodies reacting to one another.
“Well I’ll be glad to have you here in person and not sending me mysterious picture messages for a while,” Serena says, reaching under the table to rub her hand over Bernie’s knee. “You know I prefer phone calls, anyway. Even a voicemail.”
They share a knowing look. Serena has ribbed Bernie about this before, about how Bernie always says ‘It’s Bernie, by the way’ when she leaves a message, can’t help but do it. Bernie drinks her tea and tries to look defiant; Serena tries and fails not to giggle, just a little. She squeezes Bernie’s knee now and says, “I love your messages. Especially that bit. Even though I’m already quite confident that the message is not, in fact, from Jason, or Ric, or Henrik.” There is Serena’s call list in its entirety, and the missing name becomes apparent, silently announcing itself to both of them at the same time. Bernie watches the shadow pass over Serena’s face and waits for her to come back, pressing her knee to Serena’s and narrowing her eyes affectionately when she does. Serena smiles back and clears her throat.
“Are you seeing the kids while you’re here?”
“Nmf,” Bernie says, hastily chewing and swallowing her breakfast before adding, “Cam’s not back for a while yet; did you get that email from Morven? With the photos?” When Serena nods, Bernie continues. “And Charlotte’s—” Serena won’t find out until tomorrow what Charlotte is doing, because at that moment Jason and Greta appear, and the conversation is forgotten.
“Auntie Bernie!” Bernie stands and is pulled into a brief but firm hug by Jason.
Serena’s eyebrow arches on instinct. “Did everybody know but me?”
“Only essential personnel,” Bernie assures her, “isn’t that right, Jason?” Jason enthusiastically salutes.
“And you must be Greta,” Bernie says warmly. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“I see what you mean about her hair,” Greta says, and Jason and Serena both smile as Bernie looks from one to the other, unsure which of them is responsible, before laughing. She likes her hair messy, likes it to stay however Serena’s hands leave it, but she makes a gesture of raking her fingers through a few knots as Serena pulls up an extra couple of chairs.
It’s another hour or so before they make it back to the office, sauntering hand in hand along familiar corridors. Serena is confident that the rumour mill is too busy with Fletch’s love life to pay much attention to them, but she doesn’t really care if it’s not. Not long from now she and Bernie are going to be running their own world class trauma centre; she’s looking forward to a kind of personal and professional fulfilment that she had previously begun to think would forever escape her, and she definitely wouldn’t want them being mistaken for some sexless power couple. It’s a shame that they don’t see a single porter between the cafeteria and AAU, Serena thinks, because she has half a mind to press Bernie against the nearest wall and kiss her the second one should come into sight. Write a ditty about that, Derek.
“I just need to finalise these,” Serena says, pointing to a mercifully small pile of folders on her desk; Bernie perches on its edge, humming her assent as she toys with the front of Serena’s blouse. “It’ll be quicker if you don’t distract me, Berenice.” Bernie’s eyes widen briefly, just for the quickest of moments, but there’s no mistaking the impact of the use of her full name; Serena has it down to an art.
“Ms Campbell.” Serena’s full name is accompanied by the door rattling open – again, dear god – and is delivered by Xavier Duval, and therefore has entirely the opposite effect. Bernie folds her arms across her chest and heaves a sigh.
“Mr Duval,” Serena says, stepping back from the desk but leaving her hand at Bernie’s hip. “If someone isn’t bleeding out at the nurses’ station, you soon will be.” There isn’t time to enjoy Bernie’s smirk before the registrar responds.
“Two,” Xavier says. “Two of them.” Serena is already shrugging off her coat and reaching out for the tablet in Duval’s hand. She slides through the images and tuts, turning the screen so that Bernie can see. Ric, they are told, is already making a start on the patient in the most danger.
“Ask them to prep Theatre 2. You scrub in with Mr Griffin.” Turning to Bernie, Serena makes a face. “I’m sorry, darling.” What had promised to be a lingering open-mouthed kiss and another under-coat fumble is instead a quick peck on the cheek. “You head on to mine, if you like. I’ll be out of here as soon as I can.”
But Bernie Wolfe hasn’t travelled six and a half thousand miles to twiddle her thumbs in Serena’s leafy detached. Taking the stairs two at a time, she heads up to introduce herself to Holby City Hospital’s new CEO.
“Bernie, what are you doing?” Serena asks when, 15 minutes later, Bernie appears in her theatre, gloved hands raised and ready. It’s not a question, really, and for the second time today Serena is surprised by her inability to even pretend to sound cross after Bernie turns up somewhere she isn’t supposed to be. Because she is supposed to be here, isn’t she? On the other side of the operating table; calm and steady or full of chutzpah, whatever the occasion requires; brilliant and brave. They take barely a moment to fall into step with one another again.
“There you are, you see,” Bernie says, a note of triumph in her voice as they close up. It’s not more than two days since she was in theatre in Nairobi but operating with Serena is a different kind of adrenaline. It’s not what she had planned for today, yet Bernie feels like she’s had a wish granted, somehow. “We always did make a great team.”
For a moment Serena thinks it’s funny that she should get butterflies in her stomach at the sight of Bernie’s eyes sparkling above a surgical mask. Barely any of that delicious pale skin is visible, there’s this poor man’s blood all down the front of her, and not so much as a strand of Bernie’s hair has escaped her scrub cap. But this is the Bernie she first fell in love with. “Always,” she replies.
"What did you say to Abigail Tate?” Serena doesn’t look up from her phone as she asks, leaning back against the lockers.
Bernie hops on one foot, trying to get her trousers back on. “I just told her you could use an extra pair of hands,” she says, frowning. “Why? Please tell me I haven’t managed to upset another CEO within hours of arriving.”
“Far from it, I think,” Serena replies, smiling as Bernie sits down next to her, pulling her collar out of her jumper. Serena reads aloud: “‘Just had the pleasure of meeting your partner’, she says.” Serena tilts the phone towards Bernie, who looks at the row of heart eyes emoji and stutters out a laugh as her cheeks turn pink.
“Should I be worried?” Serena asks, teasing her fingers under Bernie’s collar to straighten it.
“Never.” As if to emphasise the point, Bernie slips her hands around Serena and pulls her in to a kiss, the sort of kiss that Serena had been trying to tell Ric about, the sort that made them both believe in soul mates and all those other things that they had dismissed at some point in their mid-30s and had now reassessed. It’s not all sentimentality, mind you – Serena has unbuttoned Bernie’s jeans and is struggling with the zip when Bernie pulls back and looks at her like she’s naughty, like she’s incorrigible, and yes I am! Serena thinks, I bloody well am!
“I thought maybe we could do dinner and a show, this evening,” Bernie says, throwing Serena a shy smile as she fastens her button again. “The RSC is in town.”
Serena pouts so hard she almost sprains her lip.
“You’re really going to make me wait until after dark, aren’t you?” she says. “You turn up in my office unannounced when I haven’t seen you in four months, haven’t touched you in four months, with your hair looking like it’s made from strands of the sun itself, and then expect me to sit through bloody Romeo and Juliet when I could be—”
“Okay, okay!” Bernie holds up her hands. “Dinner, then. Two courses and wine by the glass and then you can take me home and do whatever it is you want to do with me before the sun is down. Fair?”
“I might be impatient, Bernie, but you should know better than anyone that I will never order wine by the glass.”
Serena won’t admit it if asked, but she’s glad that they go out to dinner. She’s never seen Bernie so at ease, not in Holby, anyway, and there’s something about the way she leans back in her chair, eyes unashamedly on the strip of skin where the front panels of Serena’s blouse don’t meet, that is thrilling.
“What did Ric mean?” Bernie asks, as they share a chocolate mousse for dessert. Serena feigns innocence. “Earlier,” Bernie presses. “About chocolate and honeycomb.”
When Serena continues to pretend she doesn’t remember, Bernie slides her foot past the table leg and rubs Serena’s ankle, slowly. Serena resists for as long as she can, but it’s really not very long; Bernie had found that weak spot while they were in France, last summer, and has exploited it on several occasions since. Serena sips her wine, as if to steel her nerves.
“I, er, I might have been trying – and I was a bit drunk, okay, but I don’t tell just anyone about this, it was only Ric, and it was at my house, so I suppose actually Jason and Greta were there, but that’s it, basically family really…”
Bernie clears her throat, half in nervous anticipation of whatever it is that Serena is about to confess, half to remind Serena that she is going to have to end the preamble and confess it soon. Serena smiles.
“I was a bit tipsy,” she says, pressing her palms to the tablecloth and smoothing the crease in front of her. Bernie tries to look like this might be news to her. “And I was missing you. And I was trying to tell Ric what you mean to me, trying to explain how special this is, how much… more, this is. And I might’ve let slip that kissing you tastes…”
“Like chocolate and honeycomb.” Bernie finishes Serena’s sentence for her, trying not to laugh. “Really?”
Serena leans over and kisses Bernie, running her tongue along Bernie’s bottom lip and humming before sitting back in her chair. “Really,” she says. “Although I’m willing to increase the sample size.”
Bernie chuckles again and isn’t quick enough to hide the yawn that tumbles out of her open mouth when she does. Serena immediately signals the waitress.
“Two coffees, please,” she says. “Strong. Black.” As soon as the young woman turns away, Serena lowers her voice. “I’m going to need you to fall back on that training, soldier: no sleep just yet.” Bernie’s never actually been trained to go days at a time without sleep, it’s a misconception that most soldiers are, but she doesn’t think this is the time to explain that, so she simply pulls her shoulders back and shakes her hair off her face, looking serious, as if she’s about to march out.
“What do I taste like?” Serena asks in the cab home, her head on Bernie’s shoulder.
“Berries,” Bernie replies, after a moment’s thought.
“What kind of berries?”
“Well that depends,” Bernie says.
“On what?” Serena sits up, and Bernie smiles at her.
“On what bottle’s open.”
They’re not even fully through the front door before Serena snakes her hand under Bernie’s shirt, short fingernails teasing goosebumps across Bernie’s lower back. Bernie responds by walking them backwards across the hallway until Serena’s shoulder blades bump against the wall. The slow kisses of earlier in the day, the hello kisses, the we’re-in-the-hospital-but-don’t-think-I’m-not-thinking-about-later kisses, are all gone; these kisses are fierce, breathy, noisy. Bernie gets tangled trying to take Serena’s coat off her, uselessly tugging the material harder, making it worse, and grunts in frustration; Serena takes it off herself and drops it to the floor, salivating at the sight of a panting Bernie kicking it away.
They trip on the third stair, landing together with a bump.
“Sorry,” Bernie says, pushing her fringe off her face and trying to slow her breathing. “Are you okay?”
“More than,” Serena answers, ignoring the pain in her hip and taking advantage of having landed beneath Bernie by reaching up and undoing the last few buttons on Bernie’s shirt. “Do you remember that time…” she half asks, holding the shirt open and kissing Bernie’s midriff. Serena reapplied her lipstick before they left the restaurant precisely so that she could leave a trail of coral across Bernie’s body when they got home. “Boxing Day…”
“Remember?” Bernie quips, and her voice is deep and earthy, the way it gets when she’s keyed up. “I’m pretty sure I’ve still got the scar.”
“Mmm,” Serena hums, vibrating with desire. “My big macho army medic,” she mutters through lips that bump against the surgical scar down Bernie’s chest. The next step up is pressing hard into Serena’s spine but she won’t give up the feeling of Bernie’s fingers digging inside the waistband of her trousers just yet. There is much to be said for the half-dressed stage, on this they agree. There is almost always some kind of collision - hips bumping together, a door handle in the back, a stubbed toe - and often it has the effect of bringing them to their senses, of reminding them that their joints are not what they once were, but until then the heat of it, the intensity, the grasping desperation with which they meet is all they can think about, though thinking is the wrong word, thinking has nothing to do with it; sorry, but there is no room for the higher cognitive functions here. It’s chemical, it’s a mixing of elements: fizzing, sparking, unstoppable. Sometimes Bernie’s eyes are so black that Serena wonders if she can actually see out of them at all; sometimes Serena growls, makes Bernie jump at the noise, because it’s the only way she can remember to exhale.
Eventually Bernie’s knee cracks, loudly, and she laughs into Serena’s mouth, falling more completely against Serena’s body.
Serena is naked by the time they get there (she’s been planning this all evening, Bernie thinks, down to the last detail, to the last bit of underwear casually flung from her fingertip) while Bernie is still in her jeans, even if they are unzipped once more. Serena sits on the edge of the bed and pulls them down Bernie’s hips; when she manages to get them all the way down without help she looks up at Bernie with raised eyebrows.
“Skinny; I told you,” she says, pulling Bernie onto her lap, a knee either side of her. She was never drunk enough to attempt to tell Ric about this, about the two of them naked like this, though there’s plenty to wax lyrical about: the sensation of smooth skin against her own; the extraordinary feeling of Bernie’s thighs tightening around her; the smell of sex in the air. They surround each other completely, faces close together, soft, searching kisses. Serena noses at Bernie’s ear just to see her come apart at the warmth of Serena’s breath there; Bernie gasps when Serena starts to speak again, the whispered words exploding on her skin: “You’re going to need your calories while you’re here.”
Bernie has to find some resolve, has to dig deep to retain some semblance of consciousness here. Serena has a way of stripping it all away, of dissolving her completely, and in the past she has woken up surprised to find herself in Serena’s arms and not at the pearly gates, but that won’t do, not tonight, not when they are both so hungry for each other. Bernie breathes out harshly, loudly, a shuddering sound, when Serena lifts her right hand from Bernie’s hip to brush her fingers down Bernie’s stomach and through the hair between her legs; Serena is barely touching her, but there’s so much history, so much knowledge in the motion. Bernie folds herself around Serena.
“That reminds me,” Serena says, turning her lips to Bernie’s ear again. “I’ve got a new battery-operated friend that I think you’ll love. Recommended by Gillian Anderson, no less.”
“Oh?” Bernie asks, making eye contact for a moment before leaning forward to whisper into Serena’s ear. “Should I be jealous?” The colour is back in her voice, and her hands no longer cling to Serena but cradle the back of her head, press at her collar bone. She punctuates the question by dragging her teeth up Serena’s neck.
“Oh, yes please,” Serena says, resisting only for sport as Bernie pushes her back onto the bed.
They both know that Bernie is a different sort of jealous – silent and haunted at the thought of Serena with someone else – but here, in bed, for Serena, she can do riled and possessive, devouring Serena with cartoonish fervour. Bernie loves to hover over Serena anyway, to drop kisses all over her torso, her arms; loves the ‘pop’ as Serena’s nipples spring back from her mouth; loves to watch as Serena writhes beneath her, helpless but for the sting of her fingernails as they carve into Bernie’s buttocks. That’s the thing about them, together, and maybe Serena told Ric this and maybe she didn’t, she’s not 100 percent sure: the joy they both get from the give-and-take. They each have needs and desires, of course, but satisfying them is never a compromise, or a chore, or a favour. Serena has a feeling she might have given Ric a rambling lecture about the wonders of uncontrived reciprocity, now she thinks about it. She could’ve made a pin board from the corks she cleared off the kitchen counter the next day.
“Scooch back a bit,” Bernie says, her gaze trailing suggestively down Serena’s body. Serena pushes up on her elbows and moves backwards, eyes closing as Bernie’s breath teases her inner thigh. It’s wonderful, and later, much later, Bernie will lap thirstily at Serena, whose heels will push stark white lines into Bernie’s skin as they slide up and down her back; later, much later, with Bernie’s mouth on her, Serena will cry out until she’s hoarse. (Tomorrow, when Donna asks what’s happened to Serena’s voice, they will both blush.) But right now, Serena realises she misses the feeling of Bernie next to her, wants to have as much of Bernie’s skin as possible on her own. She pulls at Bernie’s shoulders and draws her back up the bed.
“Missed you,” she says simply, in answer to Bernie’s questioning look, and Bernie drops gladly against her, lips immediately seeking Serena’s own, the full length of their bodies pressed together. Their hands are slow, and careful, and seek out the places on each other where they already know their touch is most welcome, yet there’s a novelty and a rush to it because it’s been so long; they both know that Bernie loves the feeling of Serena’s hands on her ribs, but Bernie gasps and bites her lip just the same.
Bernie is draped over her and it’s a simple thing for Serena to move one leg between Bernie’s, a simple and delectable thing to find Bernie as wet and sensitive as she is herself, to rock her slowly. “Oh god, Serena, I…” Bernie says, gulping for air, already fighting back the beginnings of an orgasm. Serena is certain that the sight of Bernie coming is enough to tip her over the edge, is almost certain that the sight of Bernie trying not to come would do it, too, but she takes Bernie’s hand from her shoulder and presses it to herself anyway. They both whimper at the contact, but Bernie’s fingers soon match the rhythm of Serena’s hips.
“Ha,” Bernie pants, her back arching. “Serena. Serena.” A salutation, a request for permission. It’s never been necessary, but Serena wouldn’t change it for the world. Hearing Bernie say her name is one of the things she has missed the most.
“I’ve got you,” Serena whispers, and Bernie’s body goes taut, her fingers stopping inside Serena as her mind empties, but Serena feels herself clenching around them anyway, lets a slow, ear-popping orgasm ripple through her. She is prepared to admit that she’s missed Bernie giving her these, too.
Bernie kisses Serena’s shoulder because it’s the only bit of her she can reach without moving; Serena’s fingers twitch at Bernie’s hip, not yet capable of gripping it. This is another thing they’ve both missed: laying boneless together across the bed, skin slick with sweat, lungs burning, the rest of the world not quite real again. Not just yet.