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Serena’s breath forms little clouds in the air as she waits for a cab outside the hospital entrance. Stamping her feet, rubbing her hand up and down against one arm, trying to generate any sort of warmth into her limbs, she curses the fact that today of all days, she had to go and cut her hand while cooking dinner. The coldest day in December, Christmas Eve, not a taxi in sight. She supposes she could wait inside, but she’s had enough of the hospital, enough of doctors and people coughing all around her. She thought fresh air would be nice - instead it’s just making her fingers numb.

It feels lonely, to wait for a cab. No one to drive her to hospital with her hand wrapped in a bloody towel, no one to take her home with a fresh bandage around her palm. She doesn’t mind the loneliness, not usually, takes to it quite nicely, but sometimes, every once in a while, she wishes for a family, for people in her life who want to take care of her. With her mother’s death last year and no siblings to speak of, the busiest holiday season tends to be quite a solitary time for her.

Finally, twin headlights appear, bobbing as the car pulls into the parking lot and Serena feels a sense of relief at the thought of the warm backseat. It takes her a moment to realize that this isn't the taxi for her; a man gets out, turns so his face catches the light - Serena can't help but notice he's handsome - and then he falls into a heap on the concrete in front of the doors to A&E.

The taxi doesn't wait, doesn't stop to see what the matter is, and careens off into the night. Above his pay grade, I suppose, Serena thinks, moving to kneel next to the fallen man. "Hello? Sir?" she says, patting his cheek, grasping his hand. There's no response.

Sighing, her breath furling into the air, she pulls the man's arm around her shoulders, wincing as he brushes against her injured hand. Slow steps, leaden, take her to the doors, which open and, mercifully, allow a passing nurse to catch sight of them. "What happened?" she asks, helping Serena bring the man to a wheelchair.

"He just...collapsed," Serena says. "I don't...I don't know -" She stops. If she says she doesn't know who he is, then he'll be left alone in a strange hospital with no one about to keep him company. On Christmas. She isn't quite sure if it makes her even lonelier to decide that this strange comatose man will be better company than her television set. The nurse pats her arm sympathetically, and wheels the man to a bed, right next to the one Serena only recently vacated.

"I'll bring some forms for you to fill out for your husband," the nurse says, and Serena blushes at the assumption, but doesn't correct her. "We've got to page a doctor in - staffing's a little light tonight, as you can imagine."

While the nurse is away, Serena fumbles in his coat pockets for a wallet, ID, anything. She feels a bulge in his front trouser pocket and reaches in, hoping beyond measure it's his wallet and nothing else. By the time the nurse returns with a clipboard, Serena's got his name and date of birth down pat, accepts the pen to begin filling in the blank spaces. Phillip Wolfe, age 55, born the twenty-third of May. She looks at his features, his long slender nose, dark lashes, blonde hair. She was right in her first assessment - he is quite handsome.

It's a long wait for a doctor, and Serena occupies herself by imagining what this man is like, someone else who had to take a cab to the hospital, someone else who's alone. He's got a gym card in his wallet and not much else. A badge that lets him into one of the fancy buildings in Holby's business district - she recognizes the logo. There's a buzzing in his pocket, the one furthest from her, his cell phone. Serena dithers for a minute before deciding to take the call. Someone should know he's here.

The screen says "Mum" and it's somewhat endearing to see. She swipes to answer. "H-hello?"

"Who is this? Is this Phillip's phone? Have I dialed wrong?" The voice is warm, posh, and exactly what Serena might've guessed this man's mother sounded like. It makes her miss her own mother, a brief stabbing pain below her heart.

"Ah, no. My name's Serena. I'm - I'm at Holby Hospital with Phillip. He collapsed and - we don't know yet what's going on, waiting for a doctor. But we're in the A&E." There's a gasp at the other end of the line, a shuddering breath. Serena thinks this woman is crying. She wonders what her name is.

"We'll be there soon, Serena," his mother promises, and the line disconnects.

She truly doesn't know whether to stay or go, decides, ultimately, to be there until his mother comes, just in case something happens. She eases back into the chair next to the bed, rests her hand on the edge of the blanket, their fingers almost touching. "Your mum's on her way," she whispers, and doesn't know for whose benefit.

It's only fifteen minutes before an elderly couple arrives, looking panic and windswept. They rush to the front desk, are pointed to the bed where Serena sits with Phillip and all she can do is wave weakly.

"Serena, right?" the woman asks. "Ingrid Wolfe. I'm sure Phillip's talked about us. We're so glad you're with him, that you were there. So glad he wasn't alone." She clasps Serena's hand in her own. "What a calamity!"

"But it's very nice to meet you," the man adds. "Bernard," he says gruffly, clapping Serena on the shoulder, and she wonders if this is what it's like to have a father. "Finally Phillip's found someone his own age, eh? Nice not to have to explain what VHS is for a change." He laughs, and immediately sobers when Ingrid elbows him.

"Well - well now that you're here, I should go. It's good for him to be with family," Serena says, unsure of what's stopping her from correcting any of the misunderstandings that have occurred so far this evening. She flushes at the thought of being Phillip's girlfriend, flushes at the thought of how long it's been since she's been anyone's girlfriend.

"Nonsense, nonsense," Ingrid says, still holding onto Serena's hand. "You're family too, you're here with us. You were with him. Stay." She is so warm, so kind, her eyes so wide and dark, looking down at Serena like they've known each other forever. She feels the throb of missing her mother again, the feeling of guilt at allowing this woman to fawn over her. And then she remembers all that's waiting for her is quiz show reruns and microwaved remains of the dinner she left behind.

"Okay," she says. "We'll ask them to bring more chairs."

She loses track of time, Ingrid and Bernard telling stories of Phillip at Christmastime, opening his presents early, finding all the hiding places, never once being patient enough to wait. "I suppose you know all about that," Bernard says with a wink, and Serena can't stop the flush of red filling her cheeks.

"Oh, Bernie's here," Ingrid says when her phone buzzes, stopping in the middle of a story about Phillip eating the cookies they left out for Santa. "Serena, do you mind getting her? She's just in the parking lot." Serena hopes Bernie isn't some other girlfriend, that she's a maiden aunt or a grandmother, but just nods, like she knows who this person is.

She stands, brushes wrinkles from her trousers, and makes her way to the sliding doors, preparing herself for the onslaught of cold that will wind its way into the hospital.

Even without knowing anything about Bernie, she knows without a doubt that the blonde woman walking towards her is the woman in question. She has the same amalgamation of features as the rest of her family, the long nose, the dark eyes. Beautiful is the word that flies to Serena's mind and she banishes it just as quickly. "Bernie?" she asks, a quaver in her voice.

"Who are you?" Bernie's voice is low, not entirely unkind, but impatient.

"S-Serena. I'm Phillip's..." She trails off because she doesn't know how to talk about what she is, what people think she is. But Bernie accepts it, looks at Serena with an appraising eye.

"Older than his usual fare," she says, and Serena feels like she's been evaluated and dismissed all in one sentence.

"Yes, well. There's no accounting for taste." Bernie barks a laugh at that, a noise that catches her off guard, but one that she likes. Serena wonders if it's a family trait.

When they're all assembled around the bed again, Serena feels the itching urge to leave, to take flight. Her eyes keep flicking to Bernie, every inch the embodiment of a "handsome woman," her brother's features even more striking on a feminine face. Her blonde hair is messy, curls every which way, and Serena doesn't know if it's always like that or if it's because she rushed here from wherever she was.

The doctor finally appears, glasses far down on his nose, Phillip's chart in his hands. Bernard and Ingrid look up at him, worry creasing their faces, Ingrid clasping Phillip's hand. "What is it? Is he going to be all right?"

The doctor pauses for a long moment. "He's in a coma." Ingrid claps her hand to her mouth in a strangled gasp. "We're going to do everything we can. We'll move him to a more secluded location, a private room."

"A coma," Ingrid practically wails. "On Christmas." Bernie pats her mother's shoulder, her thumb rubbing in small circles and Serena can't move her eyes from the gesture. Bernard blows his nose into a handkerchief.

"Serena and I will let you and Dad handle the arrangements, Mum. We'll....go and water his plants." Serena tries to hide the startled look that she's sure is on her face. Going somewhere with Bernie? She doesn't even have her car. At least she won't need to explain why it is that she doesn't know Phillip's address. She does have the presence of mind to grab Phillip’s keys from the side table by the bed where his personal effects have been placed, jingling them on her finger idly.

Bernie's car is ridiculously small and Serena almost makes a comment but holds it in. She's hardly in a place to be offending family members of her faux boyfriend. She bundles herself in the front seat, holding her coat close as she waits for the heater to kick on.

"What happened to your hand?" Bernie asks as she pulls out onto the road, and Serena looks down at the gauze, thinks how long ago it seems that she sliced her palm instead of a tomato, how she's made up a whole new life for herself between then and now.

"Kitchen incident," she says with a shrug and Bernie lets it pass. The streets are quiet, people either at home with their families or at late night mass, and Serena just enjoys the streetlamps, white and glowing, whisk past the window.

It seems Phillip lives in one of the high-rises in Holby, perhaps near the posh office building where he works. Serena can't stop herself from speculating on this life she's inserted herself into. Bernie pulls into an open spot on the street and waits for Serena to get out before shutting off the car.

She scuffs her feet against the sidewalk, ice and sand making the pavement gritty. Bernie appears at her shoulder and Serena takes a moment to let Bernie take the lead, trying her best to act as though she's been here, though in this moment, she doesn't even feel fancy enough to stand in the lobby.

There's a doorman waiting, and he looks at Bernie and Serena expectantly. Serena looks back with a blank expression. "Who are you here to see?" he asks after a long moment.

"Uh, we're here to water Phillip W-w-wolfe's plants," Serena fumbles over his name, unpracticed at saying it out loud, unconscionably nervous.

"And how do you know Mr. Wolfe?" he asks, though his posture loosens, as if he's already ready to let them in.

"My boyfriend," Serena blurts, and flushes, putting a hand to her cheek as if that would hide it. "He's my boyfriend. And if you could remind me is apartment number - I've never been here without him - that would be appreciated." She forces confidence into her words, and it's enough to make the doorman step aside.

"2214, ma'am," he says, doffing his cap.

Serena can feel Bernie's eyes on her, feels a sort of suspicion coming from the other woman, but also feels a sort of desperate wish for Bernie to like her, for them to be friends. So she walks to the elevators purposefully, and punches the number 22. "We usually spend nights at my house," she says as the door close, the words coming out unbidden and she can't think why she's felt the need to work in yet another layer of lies.

Bernie just hums an answer and Serena isn’t exactly sure what it means. She doesn’t say anything for the rest of the ride up to the twenty-second floor, doesn’t want to put her foot in her mouth any further. She takes a breath as the doors open, hopes it’s one long hallway with no wrong turns to make it any more obvious that she doesn’t belong her.

Her prayers are answered, and they walk halfway down the hallway and Serena slides the key in the lock, turning it, opening the door on the first try. She’s curious to see where Phillip lives, and her first thought upon seeing his home is that it doesn’t look anything like a home, rather it’s far more like a furniture showroom. Everything is modern, soulless, no personal touches, art on the wall that could be found in any expensive hotel in London. There are no photos, no books half-opened on the coffee table. Not even any magnets on the fridge.

Serena wonders if she’d actually even like Phillip, if they ever had a chance to speak.

There’s a watering can in a corner and Serena fills it up from the sink, rounds the apartment, surprised that there are plants here at all. But there are, and she pours water into them, watches it soak into the soil. She can hear Bernie puttering around, doesn’t know what she’s up to, doesn’t think she’s in a position to ask.

Serena dumps the excess water in the sink, notes a few dirty dishes and decides to do the washing, what harm can it do. She’s elbow-deep in soap suds when Bernie comes back into view, a blanket on her arm and a few books in her hand. “Thought I’d bring things...for him,” she says, a little awkwardly.

“That’s nice,” Serena says, because it is. And then Bernie rounds the corner of the kitchen and starts drying the dishes Serena’s washed. There’s an ease to it, the picking up of each other’s movements. There’s a rhythm to their movements. Serena hears Bernie humming “Silver Bells,” and it takes her a moment to realize they’re humming together, that the song spilled out of her without her notice.

When they’ve finished, all the pots and pans clean, the plates gleaming in the drying rack, Bernie tosses the dishtowel to Serena so she can dry her hands. It’s playful, comfortable, unusual for a woman who’s practically a stranger. And who thinks she’s very involved with her brother.

Serena picks up the blanket that Bernie set down, and Bernie takes the books, and they move together back to the lift, shoulders brushing as they walk down the hallway. “Where did you meet Phillip?” Bernie asks, and Serena’s mind races, a lie she hadn’t thought to create.

“At a cafe, funnily enough,” she says as they step into the elevator car. “He leaned past me to grab the salt and ended up dumping it in my lap.” It sounds plausible to her ears, as she says it, and she laughs softly, like it’s a fond memory. “Told me I could call him for my next meal out, or if I wanted my trousers to be seasoned.” The words trip off her tongue and she marvels at what a clever person this imaginary Phillip is.

Getting into Bernie’s car is easier this time, she’s used to height now. She settles the blanket and books in her lap, and smiles at Bernie as she eases the car out onto the street. “Remind me of your age difference,” Serena says, wanting to know more about Bernie, about this beautiful woman sitting next to her in the car.

“Two years younger and he never let me forget it,” Bernie says, a quirk to her lips and Serena wonders what it’s like to grow up with a sibling, can imagine Phillip putting his younger sister in a headlock, maybe tweaking her nose. Definitely embarrassing her in front of his friends. That’s what she imagines, anyway. “Do you have an siblings?” she asks, “I haven’t heard anything about your life.”

The way she says it puts Serena back on edge, knowing that she’s built an ersatz world and has to keep plastering the walls and tiling the roof to keep everything from falling apart. “We’re...Phillip and I...it’s...I don’t have any siblings.” She doesn’t know how to explain why the Wolfe family doesn’t know about his new girlfriend, why they haven’t seen pictures of her, why she’s the one to finally make him date someone his own age. “But he made it seem nice, growing up with a younger sister.” She offers it as an olive branch and hopes it’s true.

Bernie shakes her head ruefully but doesn’t say anything for the rest of the drive, just flicks the radio on, Christmas music filling the silence, “Silver Bells,” coming on just as they pull back into the hospital parking lot.

Serena follows Bernie to the front desk where they ask what room Phillip’s been moved to, are directed to the third floor. It’s another quiet elevator ride, but not uncomfortable, and all Serena can think about is what’s going on in Bernie’s mind, but her blonde hair falls in a curtain, hiding her face, keeping her inscrutable.

Ingrid pulls them both into a hug when she sees them, happiness and relief on her face at having some part of her family restored, back in her sight, even while another part of the family lays prone on the bed in front of them. Bernard has gone to get coffee, but he’s back with four styrofoam cups soon enough.

As Serena is sipping her coffee, there’s a noise from the bed, a slight grunt. “Phillip!?” Ingrid all but drops her coffee, rushes to her son’s side, kneeling on the floor, their faces close. “Are you awake? Can you hear me?”

Phillip’s eyes are open, the same dark brown as Bernie’s, and he blinks, squints. “Mum? Dad? What’s - what’s happening?” His voice is deep and he looks around in understandable confusion. “Bernie?” Her name sounds incredulous from his lips and Serena wonders - feels like there’s more to that story. “Who’re you?” His eyes finally land on Serena.

“It’s Serena, Phil - your girlfriend.” Ingrid squeezes his hand. “We love her so much already.”

Confusion is etched more deeply in his face. “No, Bobbi - she’s my girlfriend - where’s Bobbi?” He blinks again into the light, and then his eyes close, his body slumped back into a catatonic state.

Six pairs of eyes turn to look at Serena, and she feels her eyes fill with worry, with tears. They’ll know, and they’ll hate her, and she’ll lose everything she’s gained in the last few hours, the feeling of family, the loneliness will come rushing back.

“He’s had an injury, easy mistake to make,” Bernard says after a long moment. “I’m sure he’ll remember you when he comes ‘round again.” He claps a hand on Serena’s shoulder, the second time, and it’s familiar and wonderful, and she smiles at him gratefully, glad he’s given a reason to explain away her lies, glad that one more fib didn’t have to come from her lips.

They all sit together for a while longer, watching the bed, hoping (or dreading) that Phillip might wake up again. Serena yawns, unable to hide how tired she is, her hand starting to ache a bit, fully aware of just how long it’s been since she’s been home now.

“You should get some rest, dear,” Ingrid says, her voice so motherly that Serena almost can’t bear it, feels tears come rushing back, a combination of missing her own mum and exhaustion that it’s hard to keep the emotions at bay. “Why don’t you go home, and we’ll call you if anything happens.”

Serena can’t find a reason to disagree, so badly wants to take a hot shower, to wipe the day away, to sink into her sheets, maybe to wake up with this family but without the lies. “I’ll drive you,” Bernie says, interrupting her thoughts, already standing. “If you weren’t scared off by my driving before.” She winks, so quick Serena almost misses it.

“I trust you,” she says, meaning to add lightness to her tone, a bit of jest, but it comes off genuine, significant, and she and Bernie just stare at each other for a long moment. Serena feels confusion roiling around in her stomach, just a look from Bernie making her feel more than her last several relationships combined. She chalks it up to Phillip’s good looks on his sister’s face, on transferred affections, on any number of things.

“Well, we should be going,” Bernie says finally, clearing her throat, looking down at the floor. If Bernard and Ingrid notice anything strange happening between their daughter and their son’s supposed girlfriend, they don’t comment.

Serena gives Bernie her address and Bernie knows where it is, doesn’t even have to ask directions, at home on the streets of Holby. She’s only a little embarrassed to point out her house, the only dark one on the street, not even a Christmas tree in the window. She didn’t quite have it in her this year to decorate alone.

“Do you - do you want to come in?” she asks, not really thinking, not really wanting this time to end. “I have coffee. Or whatever leftovers have survived sitting out on the counter.” It sounds like a line, something a man might try on her after a night at a pub, and Serena feels a little bit lecherous, isn’t quite sure why.

But Bernie nods, turns off the car, and follows Serena inside. The kitchen is still a bit of a mess, a bloody towel in the sink, half-chopped vegetables on the counter, but the rest of the house is presentable enough.

“Why don’t you make the coffee while I clean up?” Bernie offers, and Serena is surprised at how easy it is to say yes. Most of the food ends up in the bin, dishes put in the sink to soak, but there’s cheese and bread in the fridge, and Serena manages a small toastie for them each, the coffee bubbling in the pot.

They move to the sitting room, settling on each end of the sofa. “How are you doing with this all?” Serena asks, “With your brother in the hospital? At Christmas?” No one’s really asked Bernie, the attention focused on Ingrid, on Bernard, on Serena.

Bernie looks pensive, takes a bite of her sandwich before she speaks. “It’s strange,” she says, “I’ve been away so much, Phillip is like a stranger to me.” Serena can’t mask her confusion, and Bernie adds, “I’ve been in the army, part of the Medical Corps. Lots of time in the desert, much less time home with family.” If she wonders why it’s strange that Serena knows so little, she blessedly doesn’t ask.

“It must be hard, to feel like you don’t know your family,” Serena says, reaching out to touch Bernie’s hand, resting on the back of the couch. Their fingers intertwine for a brief moment and then Bernie pulls her hand back. “I don’t have any family left to speak of, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.” She ignores the flutter of her heart at the feeling of their fingers touch, ignores the sinking feeling when Bernie moved away.

Bernie just shrugs, clearly uncomfortable with being the center of attention, with the topic of discussion, with all of it. “I’m glad I can be here, at least,” she says, staring into her mug, the steam rising in curls, hitting her nose. Serena can’t help but stare at her profile, the same profile she saw silhouetted in the headlamps of the cab before Phillip collapsed. The Wolfes are an attractive family, she supposes, just lots of good genes.

Serena gets Bernie to talk a little bit more about army life, laughs at a story of a scorpion in her boot, hears the honk of laughter that Bernie says her whole family has.

When the coffee is finished, the toasties nothing more than crumbs, Serena wishes there was a reason she could think of to ask Bernie to stay. But instead Bernie stands, pulls on her coat again, walks to the door. “You know,” she says, turning, her hand still on the door knob, “I don’t really know Phillip that well anymore, but he must be good, if he’s found someone like you.”

Serena can feel the blush on her cheeks, just smiles, doesn’t know what to say. As she moves behind Bernie to close the door after her, Bernie looks into her face once more, a long moment, and Serena can’t stop her eyes from flicking to Bernie’s lips. What might it be like to kiss them?

The moment breaks as a car alarm a few streets over goes off, the faint honking startling them both. “Be seeing you,” Bernie says, hopping down the steps of the front walk, unlocking her car with the push of a button, the lights flashing into the dark night.

Serena closes the door behind Bernie as her car pulls away, leans her head against the solid wood. Why did that feel like the end of a really good first date?

 

Morning comes and goes and Serena sleeps through it, doesn’t wake up until after noon. It’s hard to resist the urge to stay in bed, to hide away from the rest of the day. There aren’t presents to open, no stockings to fill. She doesn’t have to make dinner for guests, no cookie bakes. It’s all rather anticlimactic. Rolling over, face squashed in her pillow, the memories of Christmas Eve come flooding back. Her aching hand, Phillip’s fall. The Wolfes. Bernie.

She tries to remember the things she said the day before, make some sense out of the story she spun. All she can really remember is the way it felt to be pulled into a family, Ingrid’s hugs, Bernard’s hand on her shoulder. And she remembers the way Bernie’s dark eyes looked into her own before leaving last night.

This is by far the most confusing Christmas she’s ever had.

She pushes herself up from the bed, bracing her arms. and then rolling over so her legs hang off the bed. Sinking her toes into the thick carpet, she makes her way to the shower, turns it on as hot as it'll go, enjoys the way her skin pinks at the heat, watches the steam fog up the mirror.

She pushes herself up from the bed, bracing her arms. and then rolling over so her legs hang off the bed. Sinking her toes into the thick carpet, she makes her way to the shower, turns it on as hot as it'll go, enjoys the way her skin pinks at the heat, watches the steam fog up the mirror.

When the shower's over and done with, she stands in front of the sink, dripping water onto the tiled floor. Rubbing a circle into the mirror, she stares at herself through the blurry reflection. "You are in a mess," she says sternly, but her reversed self doesn't seem to show any sort of remorse.

It's also the most interesting Christmas she's ever had.

She hears a knock at her front door and grabs for her bathrobe, just managing to tie the ends into a knot at her waist as she reaches the door. There's a small part of her that wonders if Bernie's turned up, wondering at her absence from the hospital. Or maybe it's Ingrid. Or Bernard. Or maybe all the Wolfes have come over. She could make a Christmas supper if pressed.

“Not who you hoped would be on this side of the door?” Sian asks. “Who were you waiting on? Santa Claus?” Her laugh cheers Serena, her arms coming around her in a hug, holding her tight, and Serena is once again reminded that she’s not quite as alone as she feels.

Serena feels tears pricking her eyes, knows that Sian sees them as they pull apart. “What’s this?” she asks, a finger underneath Serena’s chin, her other hand wiping a tear from under Serena’s lashes. “What’s going on, duck?”

Serena doesn't know how to encompass all the things she's feeling, flaps her hands a bit in front of her and tries to stop herself from breaking down further, dressed in nothing but a robe, for all the neighbors to see. "The holidays," she manages in a watery sort of gurgle.

"Seems I came at the right time. Open this," Sian says, handing the bottle to Serena, pushing past her into the living room. Serena follows, rather meekly, and makes her way to the kitchen, the corkscrew already out on the counter, never too far from reach. The bottle opens with a satisfying 'pop' and Sian's there with glasses, waiting to be filled.

Serena knows Sian would understand her loneliness, but Sian also has scads of friends, endless party invitations and a rotating horde of men to welcome to her bed. She tries to think of the words for it. "I miss having a family," she says, isn't ready for the concern, the pity, in Sian's eyes, and wells up again, hides her tears in her wine.

"Oh, 'Rena," Sian says, an arm around Serena's shoulders, pulling her into a half hug. "You should've said. We could've gone together to my work fete last night."

"Do you know what I did instead?" Serena asks, feeling a sparkle in her eye, the knowledge that she's about to say something that will surprise even Sian.

"Does it have something to do with that bandage on your hand?" Sian asks, filling up Serena's glass to the brim and half-pushing her towards the sofa.

"That's just the start of it." Serena launches into the tale, into discovering Phillip, in the assumption that they're involved. Sian oohs and laughs at all the right spots, an avid listener, the devil on Serena's shoulder. And then Serena talks about the Wolfes, about Ingrid's hugs and Bernie washing dishes with her.

"And then Bernie came over last night. Well, dropped me off, and then we had coffee." Serena ends, tapering off. She wishes there were a bigger finish to it all.

"Coffee?" Sian asks, eyebrows waggling and Serena resists the urge to hit her with a pillow. She knows Sian would win a pillow fight, prior experience at university being her guide.

"Just coffee," she confirms, but can feel the slight blush on her cheeks, at the idea that there might be something more. Even if something more is all knotted up in the lie she's been telling Phillip's family.

"So you found yourself a family for the holidays. Nothing wrong with that," Sian says, draining her glass. "But I'm more interested in this Bernie character. What's he like? Handsome as his brother?"

Serena flushes a deeper red. The idea of having to "come out" to her best friend seems like something young people do, not a woman in her fifties. "Ah, Bernie's - Bernie's a girl. A woman. Woman." She corrects herself quickly.

"You're falling for your fake boyfriend's sister?" Sian asks incredulously. "I can't imagine how you've had time to be sad and lonely with all this going on!"

"I'm not falling for anyone," Serena protests. "We just had coffee, that's all."

"So you've said," Sian says, rather primly and Serena just scowls, knows there's more that she wants to say. They're both saved from further conversation by a knock on the door, a loud, firm rapping. "Better get that," she says. "It might be Bernie." The teasing in Sian's voice makes Serena blush again, and she knows she can't even blame it on the wine.

The blush only increases when she opens the door to see that it is, in fact, Bernie Wolfe, and she's still wearing nothing but a bathrobe. "Ah. Hello," she says, a cold wind coming up, straight through the silken fabric. She wraps her arms around herself, and forces her mouth to form words inviting Bernie in, though a meeting with Sian is the last thing she wants to put the poor woman through.

Serena opens her mouth to answer, but Sian bustles into the hall, coat half-on. "You must be Phillip's sister!" she says, grasping Bernie's hand in both of her own. "Serena's been telling me about meeting his family last night. Ghastly circumstances, but at least you're all together for Christmas." Serena knows her mouth has dropped open at this performance from Sian, and she can see that Bernie looks similarly poleaxed.

"I didn't mean to interrupt anyth-" Bernie starts and Sian cuts her off again.

"Nonsense, I was just leaving. Dropped off wine and brownies for Serena. She had such a difficult evening." Sian bumps Serena's hip.

"Well, if she's leaving," Bernie says, turning to Serena, all three of their bodies quite close in the cramped space of Serena's front hall, "why don't you come back to the hospital with me? We've got disgusting fast food and you can bring your brownies - probably not the wine, I should think - and we can have Christmas supper together."

"Oh yes, Serena, go with Bernie. You want to be with your loved one at Christmas, don't you?" Sian practically simpers and Serena wishes she could shoot daggers from her eyes. "You get yourself together and I'll show myself out. Lovely to meet you, Bernie." Sian almost shoves Serena towards the stairs, and trots out the door with a tiny little wave to Bernie, who looks like she might never recover.

"Let me just...," Serena gestures to herself and Bernie nods, her eyes not leaving Serena's face, and she wonders how intentional that is. She tries not to think about Bernie watching her walk up the stairs, tries to go as quickly as she can without tripping.

She dresses without too much thought, an overly knit jumper, slacks, and, at the last moment, silver drop earrings and a swipe of lipstick, though who she's dressing up for, she isn't quite sure.

For the fourth time, Serena gets into the passenger seat of Bernie's car, is starting to find it a familiar ritual as she belts herself in. There's a bit of an awkward silence stretching between them and she doesn't know what to say. "Do I look presentable?" she says finally, when they're at a stop light.

Bernie smiles before turning to look at Serena, and she likes the way her cheeks bunch as her lips tip up. "I haven't known you for long," she says, "but I think you always do."

 

Christmas passes, Boxing Day too, and Serena finds a sort of routine in going to the hospital to visit with the Wolfes, to hold Ingrid’s hand and look at Phillip, laying on the bed. Bernie’s there, too, finding time around her work schedule. There’s always a few minutes when they get coffee from the cafeteria, when Bernie offers to drop Serena somewhere, when they have time just to themselves.

Serena thinks that, if nothing else, this whole kerfuffle has brought her a new friend. She puts Bernie’s number in her phone, finds herself texting at night, when a funny thought pops into her head, when she sees something on television she thinks Bernie might like too. But all the while, she feels the tension of not being completely truthful, the weight of the lie heavy on her shoulders. She almost tells Bernie a thousand times, when Bernie buys her coffee, when she slides into the front seat of Bernie’s car, when Bernie gives her a hug good night. Instead, she just says “thank you,” she just closes her eyes at the feeling of Bernie’s arms around her, lets the moment pass.

When New Year’s Eve comes, Serena finds herself unable to escape Sian’s invitation to her party. “It’s just friends, Serena. When’s the last time you had any fun?” Serena decides not to mention fighting over the crossword with Bernie earlier in the day, reaching across the other woman to grab the paper out of her hands, arm grazing Bernie’s chest.

She stares at herself in the mirror, tries to decide what to wear. Sian said the dress code was fancy, but not too fancy, whatever that means. She has three dresses in all, one meant for very formal occasions, one only appropriate for summer, and a third one that is the only option left. She slides the red dress up over her body, is struggling to finish the zipper when the doorbell rings.

Serena expects it to be Sian, planning to strong arm her into showing up, but instead it’s Bernie, pink from the cold, a smile on her face. When she sees Serena, though, her face drops. “Oh, you’re heading out somewhere,” she says. “I brought over the boxset of Orange is the New Black, since you said you’d never seen it.” She holds up the cardboard box as a gift.

“I wish we could just sit and watch a few episodes, but Sian’s forcing me out of my hermit hole and to a party at hers. Speaking of, do you mind zipping me up?” Serena says, taking the box and walking further into her home, knowing Bernie will follow. She doesn’t anticipate what it will feel like when Bernie’s hands hit her waist, to stop her, steady her. She couldn’t have guessed that goosepimples would erupt on her arms as Bernie’s fingers pull the top of the zipper up, her nails just slightly grazing the bare skin of her back.

“All set?” she murmurs, but doesn’t move away, her breath warm on Serena’s neck. Serena doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to break this moment, but she knows Bernie’s waiting for a response and all she can do is nod, doesn’t quite trust herself to speak.

“I just need to…,” she says finally, taking a step away from Bernie, missing the feeling of her hands already. “Finish getting ready,” she finishes, turning her head to see Bernie with downcast eyes and flushed cheeks. “Five minutes?” she says, because she doesn’t want Bernie to leave, doesn’t think she can stay. But she has five minutes to figure it out.

She finds a shade of lipstick that matches her dress, carefully lines her eyes, swipes mascara on her lashes, a little afraid to admit to herself who she’s dressing up for. Running her fingers through her hair, artfully mussing it, she takes a deep breath, runs her hands down the front of her dress, and decides herself fit to be seen.

Bernie’s leaning against the wall, long legs bent ever so slightly, and Serena takes in the sight before the other woman realizes she’s come down the stairs. Her foot catches on the carpet, her heel making a scraping sound and Bernie looks up, isn’t fast enough to hide the look of awe, of want, that flashes in her eyes, and Serena swallows deeply. It’s been quite some time since anyone looked at her quite that way.

She has to remind herself that she currently exists in a world where this is her boyfriend’s sister, where the inkling that she might not be a dyed-in-the-wool heterosexual hasn’t crossed Bernie’s mind. Serena smiles weakly as she stands in front of Bernie, opens her mouth, but doesn’t know what to say.

Bernie saves her by asking a question instead. “Can I give you a lift?” It’s an appealing thought. Serena’s come to love Bernie’s car, the way she speeds around town, zipping through intersections, making her feel younger just sitting in the passenger seat. “That way you can drink as much as you like at Sian’s, and you don’t have to worry about your car.” Bernie adds reasons like she thinks Serena needs them to be convinced.

“You make a good argument,” she says. “Lead on, MacDuff.” She gestures for Bernie to lead the way back down the front hall, thinks they’ve had an unusually large number of interactions in this small space. She slips her red coat on as Bernie opens the door, locks up behind them. “Thanks,” she says, “I’m really glad you showed up.”

She’s a step above Bernie, looking down into her face, her fingers twitching as she resists the urge to brush a curl back from her forehead. They stare at each other for a long moment, Bernie’s eyes flicking around Serena’s face. It seems to last forever, not long enough, like the feeling of waiting for Christmas as a child. She clears her throat and looks away, fiddles with the pendant at her neck.

“Right,” Bernie says. “Let’s get going.”

She hops down the last two steps, unlocks her car with the press of a button, and opens the front door for Serena. It’s chivalrous, it’s lovely, and it makes Serena blush. Again.

Sian’s house isn’t too far, just a few turns, a few streets, a few lights. Bernie seems tense, maybe because she doesn’t know where she’s going, maybe because there’s something else nagging at her, but Serena doesn’t pry. When they pull up to Sian’s house, the lights are blazing, music pouring out into the street. Bernie pulls up to the curb a few houses down, the only spot open on the block.

“Come in for a drink?” Serena asks, “It’s the least you deserve, for all the chauffeuring you’ve done this week.” She doesn’t add that she would love to have Bernie in that party with her, to have someone to talk to when all the men act like boors and when Sian’s too busy flirting with the bartender to notice anything else. She doesn’t add that she wants to spend more time with her, that somehow, in these last few days, there’s never been enough time. Something inside of her just craves Bernie, her attention, her laugh, her smile.

Bernie’s nod is a blessing, Serena feels relief wash over her.

Sian rockets towards Serena as soon as they step inside. “You brought Bernie!” she exclaims, pulling them both into a hug, their shoulders pressing against each other. “You have to stay,” she adds, moving to hold Bernie’s hands. “That way ‘Rena will have someone to talk to all evening.”

“‘Rena?” Bernie mouths incredulously at Serena.

“Shush. You’re not allowed,” she whispers, elbowing Bernie in the side.

They ease their way through a horde of guests, all at varying stages of intoxication. Bernie pours out two glasses of red wine, hands one over. “Your favorite, right?” she asks, brow slightly furrowed in worry, as if she fears she’s remembered wrong, as if Serena’s unprompted ode to shiraz three nights previous didn’t send a very specific message.

“Knowing Sian, this is a very nice vintage,” Serena answers, smelling her drink before sipping, and she’s right. It’s very nice indeed.

Nice enough that she’s had three glasses before she’s quite realized it. Giggling at Bernie’s horrible puns, holding onto Bernie’s arm, a small part of her brain is yelling that she’s being ridiculous, that this is a bad idea, that she should stop now.

But Bernie seems happy, her cheeks flushed from alcohol, her hair somehow even more wild, a halo of blonde encircling her head. And she doesn’t seem to mind when Serena moves in close to avoid the throng of people moving past them, their chests touching, a hand coming up to Serena’s back to steady her.

Time passes in rather a blur, and before long it’s nearing midnight, a frenzied excitement hitting the crowd, a flurry of movement as people try to find someone to partner up with. The countdown begins and Serena can’t tear her eyes away from Bernie’s mouth as she calls out “Ten, nine, eight…” with the rest of the group.

When the ball drops, when fireworks explode, Serena looks into Bernie’s eyes, sees those deep dark pools staring back. She looks down at Bernie’s lips, pink and lovely, sees her tongue flick out as she wets them. There’s a moment where she leans in, a moment where she thinks about giving herself over to feeling, to ignore all the voices in her head that are telling her otherwise.

And then she runs away. She leaves her coat, leaves her friend, doesn’t say anything to Sian. Instead she hails a cab, phone clutched in her hand, promises to pay as soon as she’s home, and ignores the buzzing of her mobile, ignores the screen that reads “Bernie” in large letters.

She pulls off her dress, leaves it in a pile next to her bed and burrows under the duvet, feeling tears prick her eyes. Her phone buzzes again, Bernie’s name lighting it up once more and Serena just turns it off, rolls over and shuts her eyes.

A banner start to a new year.

 

There’s pounding on both her head and her door when she wakes in the morning, squinting against the sunlight peeping through her curtains. Serena takes a moment to orient herself, wonder if she’s imagined the knocking on her door, some sort of auditory manifestation of what she feels in her brain.

She remembers drinking too much wine, fleeing Sian’s party, and in between that, staring at Bernie’s lips. She’s about to flop back against her pillow at the thought of what an ass she’s made of herself when the knocking on her front door resumes.

Serena hastily pulls on a hoodie and a pair of stretchy bottoms and makes her way down the stairs. She can see the top of Bernie’s head through the glass, doesn’t know if she’s quite ready to face the other woman, what there is to say. She hasn’t quite got her head on straight, as it were.

Bernie doesn’t look happy when Serena opens the door. “At least you made it home safely,” she says, rather curtly, but Serena can’t exactly blame her. “Phillip’s awake,” she adds before Serena can make any apologies or offer any explanations. Lurking under her words is the sense that she’s not entirely happy about the development.

Serena thinks she can relate.

Yet again, in an experience that is becoming quite familiar, Serena gets into the front seat of Bernie’s car, allows herself to be driven to the hospital, trying to find a balance between a girlfriend excited to see her boyfriend awake for the first time and also a sort of trepidation that whatever she has with Bernie will come to an end. She doesn’t know how much longer she can keep up the ruse, but she feels such affection in her heart for this family that’s taken her in that she also doesn’t know if she can bear the looks on their faces when she tells them the truth.

When she walks the familiar path to Phillip’s room, it feels like she’s marching towards some sort of death sentence. But Ingrid and Bernard are there, beaming smiles, happy to see their daughter, happy to see Serena. And Phillip is upright in the bed, pillows helping to prop him up. He has the same dark eyes as his sister, but Serena thinks he’s missing a little of the warmth. Maybe a little of the sadness too.

Ingrid looks eagerly between her son and Serena, head flicking back and forth, like she’s hoping for tears, for a love-filled reunion. Instead there’s no recognition on Phillip’s face, just a blank look as he sees her. He does smile at Bernie, perfunctory and small. Serena’s seen that look on Bernie’s face too, when she’s just being polite, when she’s not where she wants to be. She doesn’t think how strange it is that she’s cataloged Bernie’s facial expressions already, how well she knows the play of emotions on her lovely face.

“Remember Serena, Phil?” Ingrid asks hopefully, nudging Serena forward. He shakes his head slowly. “Amnesia. They said it might be a side effect.”

Serena bites her lip, feels horrible guilt at how easy it is for Ingrid to fill in blanks, to make excuses for the holes in her lies. “Hello,” she says softly to Phillip, and he looks up at her, still rather emotionless, rather blasé. She pats his hand, bends down to kiss his cheek, his skin slightly cold, rough, his cheek stubbly from his time in hospital.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” she says, honest for once, and takes her hand away. She catches Bernie’s eyes, sees curiosity, suspicion, sadness, all reflected back. He smiles at that finally, nods.

“I’m glad to be awake.” His voice is gravely, rough, exactly what Serena thinks Bernie would sound like if she were a man. Ingrid moves to his side once more, clasps his hand, kisses his palm, tears in her eyes, the grateful mother.

“The doctors need to look you over, Phil, but we’ll be back later. We’re going to make you some home-cooked food. Nothing against the NHS but their food services could use some care and attention too,” she says. “We’ll be back.” It’s a promise, a wish for him to stay awake, the knowledge the whole family can keep, that they’ll be together again soon.

Serena gets brought along, shuffled back into Bernie’s car. They’re tasked with shopping and Bernie’s been given a list from Ingrid that’s as long as Serena’s arm. It’s pasta and ingredients for sauce, it’s flour and baking soda, to make Phillip’s favorite cake. It’s a feast for a hospital room, and Serena wonders if there’s a small fridge in there, or if he’s expected to eat the whole lot in one go.

She reaches for carrots, to roast with the other vegetables and Bernie stops her. “Phillip’s allergic,” she says with a funny look on her face. “I thought you’d know that.” Serena drops her hand, turns away to hide the blush of embarrassment, of being caught out.

The rest of the shopping is uneventful. Serena pushes the cart and Bernie fills it up. It feels nice, easy, she knows when Bernie wants her to turn down an aisle, Bernie’s gentle fingers against her arm tell her to pause. Already they have a rhythm for this, already it’s simple. Serena tries to imagine doing this with Phillip and his blank eyes, finds it hard to imagine enjoyment there.

Making food at the Wolfes is a noisy affair. Bernard trumpets his opinions and Ingrid shoes him away. Serena begins chopping tomatoes for the sauce when Bernie takes the knife away. “Wouldn’t want you to injure yourself again,” she says with a wink and Serena’s heart folds over on itself.

As she’s stirring the garlic and oil and onions around in the pan, Bernie comes beside her to slide the cleanly diced tomatoes into the pot. Their hands graze, the barest touch of skin and Serena feels electrified, sees from the pinking of Bernie’s cheeks that she feels something too. She almost finds it in herself to come clean, to open her mouth and say the words aloud.

But then Ingrid comes over to check on the sauce, praises Serena for her cooking, an arm around the shoulders pulling her into a hug. “Your mum taught you well,” she says, so warm and loving, and Serena closes her mouth right up, as much to swallow her words as to keep the sob threatening to break free at bay.

They package the food up in tupperware, in bags, in tubs. All together, they pile into Bernard’s large car, Serena and Bernie nestled in the back, food in their laps, hands next to each other on the middle seat. She thinks about reaching out to touch Bernie, how easy it would be, how simple, how her finger could just trail a path from her middle finger to her wrist. It’s easy to imagine, easy to picture the way their hands might fit together.

Easy to imagine how quickly it all might fracture.

The hospital staff knows them well, laughs as the four of them walk down the hallway. Ingrid shares a platter of cookies at the nurse’s station, thanks them for all they’ve done. Serena glows at being included, at being a part of this.

Everything comes to a halt when they get to Phillip’s room. There’s a young, petite woman, blonde and permed, holding Phillip’s hand. Serena knows, instinctively, her heart sinking, that this must be Bobbi, that this must be the woman he asked for. That there’s no way she would ever be this man’s type.

She wants to run away, but Ingrid grasps her hand, keeps her from fleeing. “Who is that?” she asks, “Has Phillip been cheating on you? I know he just woke up from a coma but I’ll have words with him if he mistreated you at all!” Her motherhood, all fired up, blazes from her and Serena can’t stop the tears from escaping her eyes this time.

“I’m Bobbi,” the young woman says, as if they all should know. “And no one told me Phil was here!” She sounds plaintive, whiny. Serena supposes she has some rights there. No one even thought to look for her because Serena took her place.

“Who’s Serena, then?” Phillip asks, looking a little angry, confusion still writ across his face. She huffs out a forced laugh, a bark, because she doesn’t know how to explain it, now that she’s got the chance. She pulls her hand from Ingrid, wraps her arms around herself, trying to hold it together, hold herself together.

“I-I found him. I was waiting outside for a taxi, and one dropped him off. I brought him in and - and the only way they’d let me stay with him was if they thought we were - we were together.” She fumbles over the story, even though it’s one she’s practiced in her head over and over again. “And then it was just - you were all so nice.” She shrugs, feeling helpless in her explanation, feeling the need to flee again, to run away from these people who are so kind, from this young woman who has judgment in her eyes, from Bernie, whose mouth is open in bewilderment.

She sees Bernie reach for her, sees that lovely hand, those beautiful fingers, reaching out. And instead she pulls her arm away and runs from Bernie for the second time in as many days. As she turns the corner, she hears Bernard, loud and plaintive, “Why couldn’t it have been Serena?”

 

Serena spends the next few days in a sort of haze. She goes about her work, lives her life as she did before Christmas, before any of this all happened. Work, home, bed, nothing much to boast about. But there’s comfort in the routine, comfort in knowing that her old life welcomed her back with open arms.

There’s an itchiness, too, because she glimpsed a new life, and she finds that she’s chafing against the boundaries she once set for herself.

She finds where Bernie works by accident, sees a headline about an army trauma surgeon working at St. James. She clicks on the article and sees a professional photo of Bernie Wolfe staring back at her, the new consultant for A&E. It’s made the news because she’s won medals, earned accolades. Not just the everyday RAMC doctor, it seems.

It takes her another four days to work up the courage to go to St. James to see Bernie. Four days of thinking about the other woman, four nights of imagining what it would be like to kiss those lips, four lunch breaks where she misses having someone to talk to. Her phone’s sat mostly silent this past week, no funny texts from Bernie, no idle thoughts. It’s something else she misses.

Bernie is easy to find, talking with similarly scrubbed staff members at the desk just inside A&E. Serena clears her throat once, twice, and then freezes as Bernie looks up, as they meet each other’s eyes. “Hello,” she says, aware that she greeted Bernie’s brother in the exact same way when he was sat in a hospital bed. She doesn’t know how to read Bernie’s face, her fringe long enough to hide her eyes a bit. She wants to reach out, to tuck it away.

“I’ll just - we’ll just be a moment,” Bernie says to her colleagues, and motions for Serena to follow her to an office, closes the door behind them. Serena doesn’t know if this is good or bad, if Bernie’s going to yell, or if something else might happen.

“I’m sorry,” she says, when Bernie’s turned to face her. “I’m sorry for lying, I’m sorry for making you think - I’m sorry for running away from you.” The last thing is what she’s most sorry for, the thing she feels the most regret about.

Bernie looks down, her hair falling even further, obscuring her face completely for a moment. But when she looks up, her face - her face - is bright, lovely, incadescent. She is looking at Serena with eyes blazing affectionately, with a smile that spreads her thin lips wide. “You know,” she says, moving towards Serena ever so slowly, just inching forward, “I was jealous of my brother, for the first time ever.”

Serena finds herself moving too, finds herself meeting Bernie, her hands fluttering, fidgeting, uncertain of what to do. To grab Bernie, to hold her, to pull them together. It’s Bernie who decides, and Serena thinks that’s right, that it’s correct. Their mouths fit together, awkward at first, because they’re both smiling, strange for only a moment because Bernie’s the first woman she’s ever kissed, lovely for many seconds, because Serena melts in Bernie’s arms as they wrap around her.

She hums, low in her throat, thrusts her fingers into Bernie’s beautiful, intractable hair finally finally and presses her tongue against Bernie’s lips, slides it against her teeth. When they finally part, Serena is breathless, knows her lips must look a fright, that her cheeks must be flushed, but all she can do is grip Bernie’s arm, make sure she’s real, that this is real.

“I thought Phillip found someone lovely and kind and smart and beautiful. Turns out you found him,” Bernie says, flicking a piece of hair back from Serena’s forehead, so casual, so intimate, and Serena’s heart aches to kiss Bernie again. So she does, a quick peck to Bernie’s lips, like something she’s done a million times, like something she’s going to do a million times more.

“I found you, too,” she whispers against Bernie’s lips and wonders just how it is she got to be so lucky.

Only a knock on Bernie’s office door keeps them from spending the afternoon pressed against each other. With a promise to come over after her shift and a kiss to the cheek, Bernie lets Serena leave. She feels a bit doe-eyed and young, all overcome from a first kiss, just waiting for the next moment when they can see each other.

When she’s in her car, she swipes to Sian’s number and waits, impatiently, for Sian to answer the phone. The moment she picks up, Serena hisses into the phone, “I kissed her!”

“Who?” Sian asks, rather blandly and Serena wishes she was in front of her so she could shake Sian.

“The Queen! Who do you think? Bernie! I kissed Bernie!” The words fly out of her mouth like a song, the realization, the confirmation, that this is something she’s wanted, something she’s been waiting for, something that fulfilled her in a way she didn’t know a single kiss could.

“Didn’t you kiss at New Year’s? I thought that’s why you ran away without so much as a good night.” Sian is just so lax about it all that Serena groans in frustration. “I’m very happy for you and your new girlfriend,” she amends. “Call me when you spend the night together - those are the details I want to hear.”

Serena hangs up the phone with a fond smile at her oldest friend, pretends that she isn’t blushing at the word “girlfriend,” at the idea that “girlfriend” and “Bernie” might be the same thing one day.

The knock on her door that night is expected and welcome. Serena’s fully dressed in clothing she knows looks good. She has wine poured and music playing. And when she opens the door, she lets out a contented sigh, because Bernie is exactly as beautiful as she remembered, exactly as lovely as she is in her mind’s eye.

She leans in for a kiss, the only way she wants to greet Bernie from now on, finds herself getting rather lost in the scheme of things, Bernie’s hands toying with the hem of her blouse, just skimming the bare skin at her waist, more than a little bit distracting. “Hi,” she says, almost shyly, when they part. “You can actually come into the house, if you like.” Bernie laughs at that, a low chuff that makes Serena’s heart clench a little, like someone once told her the honking laugh was too much and she found a way to contract it.

Her hand goes to Bernie’s cheek, pausing their movement, and she rubs her thumb against the soft skin of Bernie’s face, looks deep into her eyes, doesn’t know exactly what it is she wants to convey, but knows that Bernie sees something, that the kiss pressed to her palm is acceptance, desire, affection.

Bernie has questions, questions about why Serena lied for so long, why she didn’t come clean the first night, and Serena explains as best she can, feeling relief when Bernie nods, when she squeezes Serena’s hand, when she lets her fingers rest against Serena’s thigh. She also asks when Serena thought about the two of them together, and Serena finds it only slightly embarrassing to admit that it was the very first night. “You were like a Christmas present,” she says, “one that I didn’t know quite what to do with.”

She gets a rather lovely kiss for that.

When Bernie yawns, through clenched teeth, like she doesn’t want to admit she’s tired, it’s easy enough for Serena to invite her to spend the night. “We don’t have to do...anything,” she says, halting over the words. “Not that I’m not - it’s just - we can sleep together. Just sleep. In my bed. Together. Sleep.” It’s such a mush of words, such a muddle, but Bernie just laughs, louder this time, closer to the honk, and just presses her forehead to Serena’s.

“I’d like that,” she says, and kisses Serena once more. She feels giddy, to have Bernie spend the night, to get to spend time with her, hours upon hours of unfettered access to her. Grasping Bernie’s hand, Serena leads her up the stairs, points out the guest bathroom, clarifies there’s one in her room too.

It’s heady to open the door to her room, to show Bernie her large bed, to see the way Bernie swallows, to imagine what Bernie must be thinking, to know that, to some extent, they’re thinking the same thing.

“Another night,” Serena promises. Bernie nods quickly, emphatically.

She hasn’t shared a bed with another person in ages, but finds she welcomes the dip in the mattress as Bernie slides in next to her, wearing nothing but her pants and one of Serena’s old t-shirts. Her legs seem even longer under the covers, toes tapping against her shins, knees tucked up and hitting her thighs as she turns on her side to look at Serena.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, honest and true, reaching out to touch Bernie’s nose, her eyelid, her cheek, tucking her fringe back. “I’m sorry for all - everything I did. And I’m just glad you’re here.”

Bernie smiles sleepily, burrows further into the pillow. “Good night, Serena,” she says, a small kiss to Serena’s wrist before clasping Serena’s hand in her own, holding it on the pillow next to her face. “Sleep well.”

And that’s what they both do.

 

When Bernie drives them to the hospital the next morning, it’s with trepidation that Serena gets into the car. “Are you sure they want to see you?” she asks shakily when they’re paused at a light.

“Mum fell in love with you, Serena. I think she wants to make you an honorary Wolfe just because. Also they both hate Bobbi. I think I hate Bobbi. Who just ends their name in an ‘i’?” Serena smiles at that, lets her fingers rest atop Bernie’s hand on the gearshift, sees a small secret smile in Bernie’s profile, feels her heart speed up at the sight.

Ingrid is pleased to see Serena, pulls her into a hug. She’s even more pleased to see that she and Bernie are holding hands. “Upgraded a bit, didn’t you?” she murmurs into Serena’s ear with a wink. “Not that I don’t love Phillip, of course.” Serena laughs at that. Bernard greets her with his tell-tale clap on the shoulder, and she loves the familiar weight of it, lets him pull her into a hug too.

Phillip is standing when Serena walks into his room, and he smiles at her, a smile she recognizes from Bernie’s face, and he holds out his hand to shake hers. “I didn’t thank you before, for saving my life.” His hand is rough, nothing like the smooth skin of his sister’s, and Serena finds herself feeling some relief at not having to pretend to love him anymore.

Bernie comes up behind her, chin resting against Serena’s shoulder, a quick kiss to Serena’s cheek, as if she’s marking her territory. Serena smiles at the thought, tips her head to touch the top of Bernie’s. Phillip’s eyes are wide. “When - when did this happen?” he asks, looking between them.

Serena shrugs, dislodging Bernie’s head, turns away from Phillip to look Bernie, meeting her dark and lovely eyes, lets the blush fill her cheeks, the joy fill her heart. “While you were sleeping.”