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Merry Christmas to You

Chapter Text

“It was Cameron’s idea,” Bernie declared as soon as she saw Serena squinting at the words etched in the frost on the windshield of her car.

“Writing a message on my on car was your son’s idea? Do you usually listen to him?”

Bernie hunched down in her coat and scarf, shrugging. She’d been caught in the moment and it had seemed a rather romantic, albeit silly, idea at the time. Why do I let him talk me into things? Because she was so happy he was speaking to her again and approved of her new partner that she got a bit over excited.

Serena sighed and seemed to give up reading the brief note as a lost cause. The snow had started to fall more rapidly in the few minutes since they’d stepped out of the hospital and was rapidly occluding its contents.

“It’s almost impossible to see, in any event. Why don’t you tell me what it says?”

Bernie floundered, her already pink cheeks glowing red at Serena’s sudden attention. “It was just a joke. Nothing worth repeating.” Think it through next time. If there’s even a next time. Serena hasn’t given any indication…

“It ended in a heart, it must have been something of note.” Serena raised an eyebrow.

Bernie choked. Oh no. “I thought you couldn’t see it.”

“The heart was fairly legible. You know your handwriting.”

Bernie made a faintly distressed noise, and Serena sauntered to Bernie’s side to regard her squarely. Shit. What if I ruined it? Don’t let me ruin this.

“Am I going to need to perform CPR on you before we get out of here, because I suggest we return inside if so. I don’t like my chances of getting our lips apart in these temperatures if I have to do rescue breaths.”

Bernie’s sputtering only grew more nonsensical as she tried to deny what they both knew. Serena chuckled. She had Bernie dead to rights and they both knew it.

“Have I broken you?” Serena smirked. “Odd coming from a woman who thought writing ‘Marry me?’ on a car, in dust and snow was an appropriate way of proposing to one’s girlfriend, but I suppose stranger things have happened.” Serena pecked Bernie on her cold-chapped lips. “And by the way? The answer is yes.”

Chapter Text

Serena had known Bernie was in the building as Cameron had spoken of little outside of his mother’s impending visit since she’d flown into the postcode. Although mother and son still struggled to communicate, Bernie’s near-miss in Mogadishu this past summer had pushed them to mend their fractured relationship. Not an easy feat by any means but a worthy one. Serena had watched from the sidelines, wistful and not a little envious, but happy for them.

In the same time, Serena and Bernie had made halting, determined overtures to mend their friendship. They had been first-rate chums before those feelings of mutual regard turned to love; surely, that was worth something. It was, if Serena said so herself. There was nothing like the ease with which that had slotted into each other’s lives when they were strangers, but there was something. A way of bantering, an instinct and intimacy to their empathy for each other, born of hell. When past hurts cropped up in conversation, they were able to navigate them honestly albeit awkwardly. They still had the makings of the finest surgical team in either of their countries of residence, thus they always had medicine to fall back on when personal avenues proved too treacherous to tread. They were friends again and that was what Serena chose to focus on as the date of Bernie’s return drew closer.

Bernie had said she’d make herself available if Serena cared to get together for coffee and Serena had said she’d be glad to. They hadn’t set a time or a date. Bernie had set foot in the hospital and been immediately pulled in a half dozen directions once she was done being hugged by Cameron. There hadn’t been a free moment for Bernie to catch up with Serena, so in demand was her personal attention and her professional expertise, and Serena hadn’t jockeyed for position. A year was a long time; Serena had perfected the art of waiting her turn.

Eventually, Henrik had reasoned Bernie ought to be compensated for the hours she was putting in and so here she was, locum consultant Bernie Wolfe back in action, getting stuck in wherever she was needed at Holby City Hospital. There was something bittersweet about seeing Bernie in trauma blue in the ED or Keller plum in general surgery. She even moonlighted on Obs & Gynae for a risky pre-term multiple birth.

As Medical Director, Serena had had to sign off on all the paperwork before and after the fact. It was an exciting, perilous procedure with long odds. There were no two surgeons she’d have trusted more to undertake it than Bernie and Fleur. Reading their reports—Bernie’s rather more perfunctory, per custom, and Fleur’s candid and glowing—Serena got the first inkling of what it must have been like for Bernie to know she and Fleur were socializing quite so much in the old days. Bernie was brains, brawn, and beauty, to be sure, but Fleur was her equal in ability, in intellect, and could show any woman of her persuasion what life was all about. She knew her worth, and her allure, and loudly proclaimed the value of any woman who needed to glean her own. This is a procedure you celebrate, Serena had thought, and been jolted with dueling emotions of jealousy and desire at the thought of Fleur taking Bernie out for a celebratory night on the town she wasn’t quite sure where to file. Bernie and Fleur might have been unlikely, but then plenty of successful couples were. Serena and Bernie had been, though perhaps not as much as their end made them seem.  Perhaps they would find something in one another neither found in Serena.

Unsettled, she had jotted her signature down with a brief note to both surgeons, praising their efforts and put the files aside. Mother and triplets had survived. Job done. Time would need to handle the rest. Per her expectations, Fleur had seen her note flagged in the system and replied via text with a cheeky, Thanks, boss xx. Contrary to her nil expectations, Bernie had replied too, evidently following Fleur’s advice:  Just doing my job. -B. Serena almost hadn’t said anything, Bernie’s message hadn’t called for a response, but Serena’s self-control where Bernie was concerned was never impeccable.  She wrote, You were exemplary. You’re never less.

Bernie read it, Serena saw as much from the notification below her message. Checkmark, Read 8:29 PM. She didn’t reply.

Serena left it at that.


A few days before Christmas events (and Donna, Zav, and likely Ric, Serena didn’t doubt) had conspired to put Bernie and Serena together on the same ward during the same shift.

Ric had begged off the ward under the guise of having a board meeting to oversee and Serena needed a second to split paperwork and theatre duty with her. The Winter Health Crisis had commenced, what with the cold and the snow, and the above average amounts of hapless reveling and maudlin dwelling. The ED and AAU were at risk of being overrun when Bernie had appeared in AAU scrubs, bearing scalding hot coffee to share.

“Someone called for reinforcements?” Bernie said, announcing her entrance to the consultant’s office.

Serena forgot herself and smiled wide enough to elicit and ache in her cheeks. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

Bernie startled before returning her smile. “If I’d known you’d be this happy to see me, I’d have brought coffee sooner.” They hadn’t spoken much in the days since Bernie had come home besides pleasantries exchanged while sharing the lift and small talk at the counter at Pulses. There was always someplace else to be.

“You didn’t need to bring coffee for that.” Bernie cleared her throat, neck catching a slight flush, and Serena remembered who she was talking to her. Her colleague, technically her subordinate, and her friend. Her ex. She tamped down on her excitement and all the attendant emotions.  “Have a seat, Ms. Wolfe. We kept that chair warm for you,” she said, indicating the desk Ric had vacated for the duration.

Bernie barked, “Ha, likely story.” She took it anyway after handing Serena her coffee. Serena permitted herself a moment to enjoy things as they were, so sure she had been once nothing would be like this again. The two of them in this office drinking coffee in preparation of the ensuing deluge. Campbell and Wolfe on AAU, let the miracles commence!

She laughed to herself and Bernie raised her eyebrows in question.

“I was thinking is all. You and I, here like this, it’s just like old times.”

Bernie smiled at her, eyes crinkling in fondness Serena couldn’t misinterpret. “I hope so.”

Out on the ward, Donna raised the alarm. They had incoming.

Bernie hopped to her feet and offered Serena hand up and away from her lovely coffee. “Come on, Campbell. Duty calls.”

Serena groaned. She loved her job, but what she wouldn’t give for a few quiet moments more alone with Bernie. “Kandahar-style?”

“Mogadishu-style. Who says you can’t teach a Wolfe new tricks?” Bernie winked, terribly, and Serena laughed outright. She never had got a hang of Serena’s signature affectation.

“Lead on, Major. This, I’ve got to see.”

Out on the ward, Bernie gave the staff an in-situ crash course in frontline triage. Serena watched closely and took copious mental notes. Not the least because Bernie was a capable teacher and Serena was an apt pupil. Bernie was the finest surgeon, nay finest medical professional, Serena had ever met, and as Medical Director it was Serena’s responsibility to advocate for state-of-the-art procedural changes when she could.  Bernie was exemplary, and as clinical lead, Serena wanted her ward to be exemplary, too. As the woman who had loved Bernie, and likely always would, watching her in her element, confident, and devoid of pain and regret was a privilege she might not get again. Serena thought she could be forgiven for being enamored of the sight.

As miracles went, Serena would take having Bernie here with her as one.


Serena finally got the chance to spend some extended downtime with Bernie during the Holby Christmas ‘do at Albie’s. Serena had come dressed in what she had worn to work whilst Bernie had taken the time to change out of scrubs into a natty new suit. She’d come with a somewhat subdued Dom and a chatty, pre-buzzed Cameron and his latest conspicuously blonde love interest. The blonde eventually departed for other company and Cameron took it upon himself to cheer Dom up with a dance.

Serena sidled over to Bernie where she was seated at the bar watching her friend and only son attempt to cut a rug with wildly divergent ideas of rhythm.

“Talk about your unlikely match-ups,” Serena said in lieu of a greeting.

“People used to say that about us.”

“Did they?”

Bernie hummed confirmation. They sat quietly for the next little while, exchanging the odd word with friends as they passed to get drinks and paired off to dance.  Serena quite suddenly couldn’t put two words together to say to Bernie. Bernie who was alive and might not have been. Bernie who was here, beside her, beautiful and brave and still cared. Here was her opportunity not to be squandered and she couldn’t seem to help herself.

 “Are you all right?” Bernie asked her.

“Sure, what made you ask that?”

“You have this look on your face. You used to get it when something wasn’t going according to Serena Campbell’s Carefully Laid Plan for Success.”

“I can hear the capital letters.”

“You’re meant to hear them. What’s wrong?”

What wasn’t, Serena wanted to ask. Everything was wrong. She didn’t have Bernie anymore. She didn’t have their relationship. Not quite their friendship. Bernie was in the army, on a different continent. Quite possibly shagging Fleur, or someone else who wasn’t Serena. A choice she’d permitted and could only live with now it must have come to pass. But for the moment, this unbelievable moment, Bernie was here and she cared, and Serena couldn’t find her words.

“Serena?”

She squeezed Serena’s hand and suddenly Serena was here a year ago, telling Bernie to go. Telling her all the things she wasn’t, that she couldn’t be, when what she wanted to do was tell Bernie all she meant to her. Serena had been a fool last year and she remained one in the here and now. She was a coward, too, and so she took the coward’s way out.

She smiled a tremulous smile at Bernie’s worried face and changed the subject.

“Looks like we’re the odd two out.” She indicated their colleagues cutting a rug on the dance floor, alone or in twos or more. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, reveling as though the world wouldn’t go on tomorrow, and their hangovers with it.

Bernie let go of her hand and shifted slightly back from her on her barstool. “I don’t know, there’s something to be said for watching our colleagues enjoy themselves.”

“And make fools of themselves.” Seeing Sacha lead Henrik through the macarena was one for the diary.

Bernie sniggered. “There is that.” She nodded toward the floor.  “You should be dancing, though. You could never refuse a good ABBA revue.”  Watching Cameron, Dom, and Donna sing ‘Dancing Queen’ would make anyone jolly, she supposed.

“Remember that, do you?”

“I remember everything about you, Campbell. Besides, I’m friends with Fleur on Facebook; I’ve seen things.”

Serena flicked her pendant back and forth. “Things I should be concerned about?”

“Nothing like that. Fleur’s a good ‘un, she wouldn’t put your reputation at risk. Though, I often wondered what we didn’t get to see.”

“Once you’ve seen one past-her-prime consultant dancing topless on a table, you’ve seen them all.”

Bernie was taken aback.  “That answers that question. I was talking about the drunken duet to One Last Summer she posted in April, but clearly you two have had many more adventures than make the rounds on Facebook.”

“I’m learning my way around gay clubs with Fleur as my willing tutor. We have fun.”

“Only a bit of fun?” Her insinuation brought a stammer to Serena’s tongue.

“Oh, no, not together. There’s nothing between us. It never felt right.” Not after how Bernie had reacted before. To say nothing of the fact Fleur wasn’t the type to play second fiddle to anybody’s so-called true love.

Bernie backtracked, seeming mortified at her slip. “Not that it’s any of my business. I mean, I-I wouldn’t mind if there was. Only Cameron said…You know, never mind, it’s no matter. I know I gave you a hard time about it before, but…we aren’t together now. I’d rather you be with someone I know cares about you than be alone.”

“I wish the same for you. I hope you’re happy.” It would make some of the pain worth it if Bernie were happy.

Bernie raised a stiff shoulder and pursed her lips in a gesture that was decidedly noncommittal. “I have the military hospital coming along nicely. I’m happy enough.”

“I have the hospital. You’ve heard I was made Medical Director?” Of course she did. You sent her memos in that capacity. Get a hold of yourself.

“I did. Congratulations.” Bernie made an abortive reach for her. She folded her hands together on her knee, a guilty look taking up residence on her face. Serena felt the weight of her touch as if the contact had landed.  “They couldn’t have chosen better.” Serena was under the lasting impression everyone they’d asked before her had refused.

“Another thankless job for the CV.”

“Which you’ll perform admirably.”

Serena ducked her head to regard her hands. Bernie didn’t offer praise lightly. “I try. Some days, it seems the hospital and staff come up with new and more inventive ways to drive me up the wall.”

“You wouldn’t have it any other way.” Bernie grabbed her whiskey, leaving Serena to sketch the undulations of her throat with her eyes as she swallowed. Another irresistible sight.  “You were made for this.”

“I used to think that.”

“What changed?”

“Oh, this and that. Circumstances. Me.”

“How’ve you changed?”

She looked into Bernie’s eyes. Still darker than oceans Serena had crossed to get away from her when she was grieving and crossed to come back to her when she was done. The only eyes she wanted to look into as she dove into her final years, however many she had to look forward to.  I realized that I still love you and I still want and need you. I let you go and I want you back.

Serena wished she had thought to refill her drink before coming over, but she had sworn to be clearheaded. Bernie deserved no less than Serena at her most lucid. The only courage she had to count on would need to come from inside her.

“You don’t want to hear about me when you could be dancing, do you?” Serena eyed an agency nurse glancing anxiously toward Bernie from across the room, amid a gaggle of cheerleading lookers-on. It was clear she was screwing up her courage.

Bernie didn’t seem to notice her or anyone besides Serena. “I haven’t got anyone to dance with.”

“I’m available.” That came out rather quicker than Serena had planned. Very subtle.

“Funny, so am I.” Bernie stood up and offered her arm, chivalrously. “What do you say we take a turn on the floor, for old time’s sake?”

“I’d like that very much.”

Anyone could have seen the nurse’s shoulders slump from a mile away. Serena wished her luck on finding someone else.

Their first dance was somewhat stiff, rife with idle chatter that tapered off after a single exchange. This was a perfect reenactment of that night, down to their inability to speak to each other or look one another in the eye. Serena held to Bernie, nevertheless. Sheer grit had brought them this far. Just talk to her. Ask her to stay. Don’t be a regretful idiot twice. You won’t get another shot.

When ‘Let It Snow’ crossfaded into ‘It Had to Be You,’ they kept dancing. Serena would have let go if Bernie did, but she wouldn’t do it first.

It was Bernie that broke the silence, voice soft. “What’s changed, Serena? You can tell me.”

Serena drew strength from Bernie’s hand on her back and other entwined with hers. They had drifted closer together over the course of the song. Chest to chest, breaths apart, traipsing to their own melody. Bernie bent her knees just so to meet her eye to eye. She did it without thinking. She did so many things without thinking, some wrong and some right; all with the best of intentions. That was what Serena loved about Bernie. She was all good inside. Not perfect and certainly not deeming herself so, but full of love and well-meaning.  Bernie was the home fire Serena had needed to see burning, the flame she’d been left shivering without. Serena had longed for her heat.

“Bernie…I realized that nothing worth doing is worth doing alone. I love my job and I love Holby, but…it’s not my home now and I’ve twisted myself in knots to convince myself it still was.”

Bernie kept them moving when Serena began to slow, falling into a two-step to gather herself.  “I’ve had similar thoughts myself about Somalia.”

“Have you?”

“Mmhm. I love the country and the people. I love the work; I wouldn’t have gone back to the army if I didn’t think I could do the most good there. I could happily keep doing what I’m doing for years, but it isn’t home. When I touched down in Holby and saw the kids, I felt a little better.”

Serena permitted a lonely pulse in her chest for Elinor and let herself linger over it no more. Grief would be there tomorrow, as it was with her yesterday. Tonight was for love.

“Home is where the heart is,” she said, casting off the gloom. She would never begrudge Bernie and her children a family of love.

“That’s what they say.” They danced silently to Frank Sinatra crooning about the good and bad, the invariable fatedness of love.

For nobody else gave me a thrill

With all your faults, I love you still

It had to be you, wonderful you

It had to be you

“The thing is, Serena, I haven’t felt much at home anywhere since I left Albie’s last year around this time.” She sent Serena a skittish look before focusing at the wall over Serena’s shoulder. “What I guess I’m saying is…my home is with you.”

“Still?”

“Yes.” They stilled on the edge of the dance floor.  “If I’m barking up the wrong tree, or I’ve left it too late, you can tell me and I’ll accept that, but-“

“You could never be too late. I wanted to be the one to do the asking. That’s the least you deserved. You shouldn’t have to be the brave one all the time.”

“I’m not the only brave one. At least, I don’t think I am.” Bernie plowed on. “I’m no domestic goddess and I’ll probably always forget to put out the bins unless you remind me but, Serena, I want to be with you.”

“I want to be with you. I’ve wanted to be with you since the moment you walked out that door a year ago. I nearly chased you down.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“What right did I have begging you to stay when I was the one who told you to go?”

“I waited. Not a long, an hour or so, because I thought you might stop me. I hoped you would.”

“I waited, here, hoping you’d forget something and come back, and when you didn’t, hoping I wouldn’t run into you at home. I knew there was no way I’d hold on to my dignity if I saw you again. I’d have made a fool of myself to keep you. I’d do it now, if it might help.”

“You don’t need to. It’s all—it’s water under the bridge. Bygones. You’re here now.” They were here now.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, that I don’t recognize how much asking you to leave hurt you. I thought I was only hurting me. I thought I deserved that pain, that I deserved to lose you for what I did, and in pushing you away I hurt us both.”

Bernie kissed her brow and pressed their foreheads together. They rocked slightly as the sound system cued another song, another ballad about love. Doris Day’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’.

“I can’t say you didn’t. It hurt like hell. Even when you said it was a one-time thing, part of me wondered, afterward, if you just didn’t want me anymore. If that was your gentle way of picking her over me. You wouldn’t be the first to find me wanting as a partner.”

“No, never that. It was—no, things weren’t perfect. In fact, they were chaotic and messy, less than ideal. But I didn’t end things because you aren’t good enough. Bernie, there’s nothing I don’t love about you. Even your snoring tips the scale at ‘sounds of home.’ I didn’t end things because I didn’t love you, I did it because I was scared to lose you. And I thought, if it was my decision it would hurt less than when you realized all you’d sacrificed to end up with just me, and you left anyway.”

“Ending up with you is the good ending, isn’t it?” Bernie’s eyes were wet, just perceptible through the tears in Serena’s.

“Depends where you’re standing.”

“Looks like paradise to me, and I should know, I’ve been there.”

Serena stroke the rogue tear escaping the corner of Bernie’s eye. “I’m not the woman I used to be or the woman want to be, but I’m still the woman who wants to be with you, and if you’ll have me, I’ll never send you away again.”

“You had me at ‘You must be Berenice Wolfe’ three years ago and you’ve had me ever since. Nothing else matters, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Everything else, everyone else, is just a hiatus from me and you. You’re it for me, Campbell. That’s all.”

“All that time, Bernie. I’ll make it up to you, I swear. I won’t make you wait again.”

“I said I’d wait an eternity, didn’t I? I can be patient.”

Serena looped her arms around Bernie’s neck as they swayed to the song’s piano solo. “Have I told you ‘I love you’ tonight?”

“Not yet.”

“I love you.”

“One more time.”

“I love you and your aversion to hairbrushes.”

Bernie honked and Serena guffawed, and together they were an obnoxious symphony of joy. That’s what I’ve missed. This is how it should be.

“I love your smart mouth and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you.” Bernie’s joyful mien crumbled. “Don’t leave me again, please. Don’t put a world between us this time because you’re upset at yourself. You aren’t the only one left alone when you do.”

Serena gathered her in to kiss her cheek and temple. She couldn’t wait to get her home, to show her how loved she was and how remorseful Serena had yet ceased to be. She would be sorry all her days. Her love was love and restitution.

“No more distance. I’m sorry.”

Bernie shook her head, though she didn’t refuse Serena’s kisses, the scoundrel. “I’m sorry for leaving. I should have been braver, I should have fought for you.”

“Should haves won’t make tonight easier. Looking backward will get us in a whole new world of trouble. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in the arms of a beautiful blonde in a sharp suit, and there’s a sprig of mistletoe with our names on. I’d like to kiss her.”

Bernie leaned away, her sorrow gone but for the sheen of tears drying on the apple of her cheeks.  “Should I leave you and this mystery blonde alone?”

“Don’t be clever. You and I, we’ve got kisses to recoup.”

“How many do you reckon?”

“Hundreds, easily.” Thousands, in fact. Serena planned be terribly demonstrative in the future.

“Then, we’d better get a move on.” Bernie led the way off the dance floor, past a suspiciously gleeful Donna exchanging money with Fletch, and Ric who was grinning into his eggnog. Another scoundrel, though one without any kisses in his near future, if Serena had anything to say about it.

Serena peered up at the jolly mistletoe adorning the doorway where she and Bernie had once said a distant goodbye.

“I’ll make the first one good.”

“Don’t leave me in suspense, Campbell. My lips are getting cold.”

Serena cupped the nape of Bernie’s neck. “Well, we can’t have that.”

She kissed Bernie until the wolf whistles started and Bernie had to hold on to her to keep standing.

When they parted, Bernie looked thoroughly, wonderfully kissed.

Bernie was back again, golden as ever, and hers to keep. Another miracle.

Serena had got her Christmas wish.

Chapter Text

Bernie assessed the oblong package she was attempting to wrap for what must have been the fourth time. It was still an inconvenient shape; now it happened to be an inconvenient shape covered with bits of ripped paper and clear tape. It sat at the eye of the Yuletide hurricane that was the Campbell-Wolfe residence in full holiday splendor. The Christmas tree sparkled. Holiday music filled the air. There was the smell of baking gingerbread biscuits pervading every room. And there was Bernie attempting to wrapping a child’s Christmas presents, very poorly.

“I can handle that if you like,” offered Serena from the dining room entrance.

Bernie flicked an indignant look at her partner to convey what she thought of that unwelcome suggestion. Serena raised her hands in rueful acquiescence and repaired to the kitchen to refresh their hot cocoa.

Hop to, Wolfe. Gwen’s gift isn’t going to wrap itself.

Since reuniting with her family earlier in the year, Bernie had taken special care to earn her place as part of the family. That meant taking time to get to know Greta and spending as much time as possible with Jason and her growing grandniece. Serena had told her repeatedly she had nothing to prove, that she was welcome without reservation; Bernie still needed to be convinced.

Serena deposited a hot mug beside her and squeezed her shoulder. “You needn’t go to all this effort, darling. She’s only eighteen months, she’ll be happy if you hand her, her gift as-is because it’s from you. Guinevere loves you, Bernie. You don’t need to earn it.” Bernie covered Serena’s hand with hers.

“This will be my first Christmas as her grand-auntie and I want to make it special for her. I want her to know she’s special to me.”

“You’re here so she’ll always know. And you’ve always been her grand-auntie. Distance isn’t a stitch on love.” Serena hugged her from behind, pillowing her cheek in Bernie’s hair. The embrace lingered a moment past comfort to something else, something she’d felt off and on since she and Serena reunited last summer.

“All right?”

Serena sat up and made to step away. “I’m always all right.”

“Come around here.” Bernie guided a recalcitrant Serena to the chair next to her. Serena made to perk herself up. She did well, putting a comely smile on her lips that drew Bernie’s eye almost as certainly as the anxiety she was failing to hide. “What’s bothering you?”

“Nothing’s bothering me. I’m trying to get you to let me help you, but I know how important wrapping this gift is to you so I won’t force the matter.”

“Changing the subject won’t work.”

“I had really hoped it would.” She patted Bernie’s hand. “Nothing wrong. I’m—I’m happy you’re here and it’s making me more…affectionate than I usually am. It’s probably the time of year.” The time of year that made her think of her losses and regrets. How very near Bernie had come to being one. Serena tried not to talk about it more than necessary outside of therapy and Bernie tried not to bring up the topic knowing how raw the wounds were in the winter season. Her mother and father. Elinor. Raf and Jasmine.

Bernie felt it necessary to reassure her. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Serena laughed her off. “I’m not worried.”

“You’ve been watching me all afternoon.” Serena tended to orbit Bernie anyway when they were home, as Bernie did to Serena when they weren’t engaged in separate tasks. Something about being so very far apart for such a time made them prone to sticking together when their schedules allowed. Not falling over one another and not attached at the hip; together, united in purpose and mischief. It was a good way to live. Serena being watchful was another mood.

“You’re an attractive woman. Why shouldn’t I watch you?”

“You’ve seen me before.”

“And you get more attractive all the time, can you blame me for staring?” Serena made flamboyant cow eyes at her and Bernie chuckled.

“Haven’t you got other things to be doing?”

“Ah no, unlike some, I did my shopping early.” She had also wrapped her gifts ahead of time while Bernie was out shopping with Jason and Serena had volunteered to watch Gwen. Bernie had come home to find their grandniece dozing in a pile of wrapping paper off-cuts Serena had given her to keep occupied. That was the only indication she’d had that Serena had taken care of the domestic necessaries related to Christmas. The decorations had appeared like magic after one of Serena’s days off in November and that had been that. The Christmas tree they’d decorated in an extravagant tree trimming party with Cameron, Charlotte, Jason and his family.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“All right, I won’t.” She leaned to peer intently in Bernie’s eyes. “You’re gorgeous.”

“Serena.”

“You’re fantastic and fearless.”

Bernie squirmed. “You’re laying it on a bit thick.”

“I’m going to spend my life saying it. You should get used to it.”

Bernie shook her head, thoroughly diverted.

“You’re beautiful.”

“You’re getting repetitive.”

“I love seeing you smile.”

“I don’t know why.”

“What do you mean? You have a lovely smile. You know that.”

“Nobody thinks that.”

“I do.”

“Marcus used to say I looked ridiculous when I smiled.”

“We’re certainly not going to take his word for it. He’s a twat. Also wrong, but especially a twat.” Serena hadn’t forgiven Marcus for adding to her grief during Bernie’s premature funeral service. Bernie’d had choice words of her own for her former husband regarding his behavior. She’d revised her will to clarify who should be in charge of her arrangements should anything more final arise again. There’d be no room for Marcus usurp her loved ones next time.

 “You would think that.”

“Nobody who makes you doubt yourself is worth listening to. Anything that tells the world you’re happy is beautiful just as it is.” Serena dipped her head to catch Bernie’s eye. “I love you, Bernie, including the parts of you you don’t love.”

“We weren’t talking about that.”

“We are now.”

“Serena, I can see you struggling. Remember, we agreed we weren’t going to talk around it.”

Serena relented.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Now you’re the one repeating herself.” Bernie held her hands to keep her from physically retreating. Serena jutted out her chin, defiant. “I should check the biscuits.”

“No, you should listen to me, they’ll keep.” They were still learning to talk to each other, to show each other what they wouldn’t show anybody else.

“What is it you want me to say? I’m terrified all the time. I can’t believe you’re here. I’m waiting for this to belly-up and for you to go again. That it’s mad and I know it’s mad, and I’m trying not to drive you away with how much I need you to stay.” Serena slumped. “I don’t know how much else I can give you before you have everything. Can’t I keep my fear to myself?”

“Not if it means you suffer. That’s not what we’re about anymore. No more suffering in silence. We agreed, didn’t we?” Slowly, as if despite herself, Serena nodded. “When I was in the rubble, under the hospital in Mogadishu, I had plenty of time to think. I thought about my children and the amends I would never get to make. I thought of the grandchildren I wouldn’t ever see. But mostly I thought about never making it back to you. I tried to comfort myself that the journal would suffice. At least then, you could go forward with the knowledge I still loved you, for whatever that would be worth.”

“It was worth a great deal. It was something, having part of you.” Bernie had been MIA and presumed dead for two weeks before she’d finally been found alive under the rubble. There’d been a funeral and memorial service; Bernie had seen the video footage.

“I was jealous, did you know that? I realized Alex would get to see you, get to be with you when you were in pain and I wished it could be me there comforting you.” Bernie guiltily closed her eyes. “I didn’t treat her very well, come to think of it. I wasn’t in any fit state to be with anybody else while I was still…pining for you.”

“You, pining? I shudder to think.”

Bernie scoffed. “I pined quite a bit. I don’t draw flowers for just anyone. I tried to tell her that my heart was elsewhere but I don’t think she believed me.”

“I wasn’t wonderful to her either,” Serena admitted, averting her eyes. “I should have been kinder.”

“She said you were kind as you could be under the circumstances. She pushed your buttons to get you to react.” Alex had confessed while Bernie was recuperating in hospital that she’d niggled Serena to see if she was every bit Bernie had said she was. For good or bad, Serena was all that Bernie had said. Alex told her that was when she realized she couldn’t hope to compete.

“I did react. It wasn’t as if I didn’t expect you to find someone else. I simply hadn’t expected her to be the one. I don’t know why.” She sat back, pasting a smile on. “As I’ve always said, you deserve to be loved as much as she loved you. That was enough for me.”

“It wasn’t enough for me. I wouldn’t have written you a novel of love letters, otherwise.” Bernie had poured her heart out in ink and paper, in words she had somehow always known would be for Serena to read. Though she hadn’t believed herself to be prone to romantic overtures prior to re-upping in RAMC, the instant she had donned her uniform to begin her tour, she had been sure she wouldn’t come home again. If that were true, there was a wealth of things she had to say, with Serena Campbell as her primary recipient. And so had begun her journal, a love letter writ at length.

“I still have it.” Serena’s voice broke. She looked off toward the mantle, a forest of candid and sometimes staged photographs of a family growing and loving each day. There was a lifetime there, pressed between pages all year and brought out to air amid tinsel, holly, and pine needles littering the floor. Photos brought from family units lost to antiquity and one raised by their own loving hands. Having everything only made one more afraid of what it was they had to lose.

She jostled Serena’s hand, coaxing her from her melancholy. “Tell me something.  What did you miss when I was gone? What were you afraid of never experiencing again?” Perhaps if she had Serena lay out her fear, she could put it to bed. She hadn’t a hope of leaving Serena in pain if she could help it. She loved her too much.

“Watching you sleep.”

“Concerning.”

“Not like that. You don’t sleep much.  You’re always ‘on,’ always thinking. Planning. It’s the soldier in you. Getting you to turn ‘off’ for a few hours and relax, I knew how much you must trust me for that, and I missed it when I couldn’t see it because I knew what that meant too.”

“Ah.” She spontaneously darted forward to kiss Serena. “You can watch me sleep after Boxing Day since you can bet I’ll be worn out from all the festivities.” She trusted Serena with her life, she just hadn’t realized Serena had known. “What else?”

Serena smiled at her, her cheeks rising in a deep-seated pleasure that made Bernie shift. Something told her it wasn’t only the festivities that were going to leave her wrecked come Boxing Day. “I missed waking up with your hair in my mouth.”

“You’re having a laugh.” Serena used to complain about Bernie’s hair getting everywhere, so much so she’d taken to sleeping with it in a ponytail. That lasted until Serena needed something to hold on to as Bernie shimmied down her body with her destination well known, and the habit died before it was ever fully formed.

“No.” Serena arched her eyebrow and Bernie had to lick her lips. She had no interest in wrapping presents just now. Her partner was wonderfully distracting when she put her mind to it, as she no doubt had. Serena traced a nail along the sensitive flesh between her fingers. “I missed getting kicked while you dreamed.”

“Don’t remind me. I know I’m an active sleeper.” Alex used to complain about it.  Marcus would often retreat to the sofa or the guest room than endure the worst of it.

Serena cocked her head on an indulgent smile, the seduction leaving her demeanor. The tip of her nose was going slightly red, as were her ears and the rims of her eyes. Her voice came out in a husky murmur when she spoke again. “I missed…trying to get out of bed and finding you holding on to me.” She sniffed.  “I missed how you’d shove your cold hands under my pajama top during the night. How you refused to sit properly in a chair.” Bernie self-consciously dropped the leg she had tossed up on the chair opposite her. Serena’s brows beetled together. “That’s why I can’t stop looking at you. I don’t quite believe you aren’t in my head, but just in case, I’m memorizing you in case tomorrow you’re gone again.”

“Serena…”

“I know it’s…it’s bad. I know I’m catastrophizing. It isn’t healthy.” She laced her hands together, twiddling her thumbs in a nervous habit more suited to Sacha Levy than the powerhouse Bernie knew and loved. “I’m talking to my therapist about it. It will pass, I know it will.” She rambled that little bit longer. “I think part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s silly. I’m being ridiculous.”

“Don’t do that, don’t belittle what you’re going through because it’s you.” Serena might have held many a grudge, but no one more was prone to being subjected to her ruthless judgement than herself. Serena never forgave herself her foibles. Bernie recognize the tendency, she was just the same.  “You look at me as much as you want. Look until you realize I’m here and I’m not going anyplace. I don’t mind, so long as you don’t mind me looking back.”

Serena tried in vain to clear the frog from her throat but it was firmly lodged. She shook her head in response. Neither did she mind.

“I think that’s enough gift-wrapping for one evening, don’t you? I can think of something I’d much rather be doing.”

When Serena’s smile spread across her face, it was brighter than their blinking Christmas tree.


Serena roused in the night from a need for the bathroom. She threw back the covers to ease herself from the bed and got only muffled snuffling from beneath the covers for her trouble.

A tousled head emerged, and Bernie murmured, frowning, “Mm, don’t go.”

“Just to the bathroom.”

Bernie mumbled indistinctly, notably disgruntled at being disturbed from her rest.

Serena made quick work of the bathroom, shivering in the chilly house, and quickly climbed back under the surfeit of bedcovers topping their bed. Bernie squirmed over from her side to invade Serena, creeping over her with legs and arms, and a pointed nose that found its home in the crook of Serena’s neck.

Serena rubbed her cheek on the crown of Bernie’s head. “I love you, Bernie. I’m so glad you’re home.”

Bernie snuffled in her sleep, barely awake. She didn’t need to say a word. Serena knew she was loved too.

Serena was just dropping off into deep sleep when a pair of chilly hands dove under Serena’s top in search of heat. She yelped.

Bernie roused enough to let out a goose’s honk of delight and be kissed for it, bed breath and all. There wasn’t stamina enough in either of them for more than that, as they’d tuckered themselves out much earlier in the night. Though the night was young, they were not. Thankfully, they had tomorrow.

Exhausted and at peace, with an undeniably self-satisfied Wolfe wrapped around her, Serena let herself rest.

Chapter Text

Bernie had been out of the country when it happened. She would not forgive herself for that any day soon.

 Bernie had been in Mogadishu, up to her elbows and flesh and sinew, when an electrical fire tore through AAU, decimating a significant portion of Bernie’s previous ward. Not the result of criminal mischief, as was initially suspected, rather faulty wiring in the area of the former trauma unit. Serena was defibrillating a patient going into v-fib when a short in frayed wiring sent a 600+-volt shock coursing through her body and through the walls. The lights on the ward flickered off and on, and Serena seized, her body convulsing in a horrifying, ghoulish dance of electrocution. When the lights returned, Serena collapsed, a marionette abruptly robbed of strings.

Her heart wasn’t beating, and AAU began to burn.


Holby City Hospital was in a state when Bernie arrived, some eighteen hours on.  A notable number of emergency vehicles were arrayed haphazardly throughout the patient loading zone and easily a dozen uniformed emergency responders filled any given corridor. AAU was inaccessible by any but a few and Bernie didn’t qualify. She took the lift to ITU after being directed by Donna, temporarily berthed on Keller, to locate Ric. When she found him, still in surgical garb, he looked as downtrodden as Bernie was starting to feel.

“How is she?” Pleasantries could wait. Bernie’s doubts, her unanswered questions, could not.

“Stable. It was touch and go at first. She’d lapsed into full cardiac arrest by the time we cleared the bay, but we managed to restore a normal sinus rhythm in under three minutes.”

“A credit to the staff.”

“I’ll pass on your compliments.”

“Ric…”

He scrubbed a hand over his greying head. “I wish I could say I had better news. I’ve been on the operating table more often than I’d like to remember and operated on more of my colleagues and friends than I care to admit. It’s never been Serena. She’s dodged mayhem like there’s a guardian angel on her shoulder, but finally it’s taken a holiday.”

“I’d like a word with that angel.” Bernie wanted someone to blame. Chance couldn’t be made to see sense. Chance didn’t care and wouldn’t apologize. Chance and a roll of the die could deprive her of Serena tomorrow. She couldn’t go to war with chance.

“Any sign of regaining consciousness?”

“None yet.” That made over sixteen hours of unconsciousness. Bernie had been packed and on her way to the airport forty-five minutes after Cameron’s call had come in. She had hoped to arrive to Serena raising hell.  But evidently Serena carried hell with her, and she was trapped in it.

“She’ll be fine,” Bernie assured them both. “She has to be.”

“She might very well be. I know better than to discount Serena for sheer pigheadedness. But, Bernie, we need to prepare ourselves for the worst.”

Bernie was confronted with the worst day in and day out. She refused to concede to it now. “Brain activity?”

“Notably altered but present.”

“Oxygen deprivation?”

“Possible. It may also be a direct result of the high-voltage shock. We won’t know till she wakes. Everything is in the air in the meantime.”

“Can you tell me what happened? I’ve been on the phone with Henrik twice and I haven’t got a straight answer yet.”

“From what we can tell, the rapid dismantling of the trauma unit a year ago led to damage in the electrical wiring. The grounding in the modern biphasic defibrillators were able to compensate for the excess current but the older monophasic defibrillator had exposed wiring due to previous poor maintenance.”  From the brittle sound of him, Henrik and others could expect to hear from him about it. He’d have to get in line; Bernie would be shouting first.

“And Serena touched it.”

“She did. Given the damage to the machinery, the exact voltage can’t be determined but we estimate anywhere from 600 to 1200 volts coursed through her body at the moment of contact.” He showed her the diagram of Serena’s injuries, indicating the pathway followed by the electrical current. From her right hand, up her arm and shoulder, along her neck and head, and down her torso. The site of each flash burn, electrocution mark, partial-thickness burn was noted in ink. Serena was speckled in them from her tousled grey head to her overworked feet. Bernie bit back an animal noise of distress and fought to assume her habitual air of clinical detachment. But this was Serena, not a stranger; detachment was impossible to achieve.

“Are the burns…How bad are they?”

“Survivable and relatively minor, under the circumstances. I’m more concerned about the persistent cardiac arrhythmia, the prolonged unconsciousness, and the possibility of unforeseen deep internal damage.” Bloods, an ECG, MRI and CT scans had already been undertaken and would be periodically repeated until Ric began to like the looks of Serena’s results. Bernie worried that time might not come.

“I’m going to sit with her. I trust you have no objections.”

“I doubt anyone here could stop you if I did.” Besides Jason and Greta, Serena had no one else to sit at her side and hold her hand. Bernie could still do that.

She entered Serena’s room on ITU to find the lights dimmed. They were taking preemptive measures to reduce her discomfort as they weren’t sure what, if any, damage she might have taken to her eyes.  There was distinct odor of burnt hair and charred skin Bernie knew entirely too intimately. She shook those memories away to regard the swaddled figure propped on the bed.

She was resting on a set of plush pillows that Bernie would bet came direct from Serena’s bedroom suite. Her limbs were elevated to alleviate the onset of compartment syndrome. Serena’s right side was almost entirely covered in sterile dressings from shoulder to waist. Were it not for the angry, peeling red patches on her face and neck, her left side would have appeared untouched by her brush with death.

 But she was breathing on her own and her heart was beating, albeit irregularly. Blood pressure was normal. Brain activity was measurable and relatively normal under the present circumstances. This was the best Bernie could have hoped for. A body still in operation could yet heal.

Physician, heal thyself.

She sat gingerly at Serena’s beside.

“Look what you’ve got into. Campbell, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.”

Serena’s dominant hand was mummified in pristine white bandages, only the badly peeling tips of her fingers exposed to air. Bernie brushed a kiss over her exposed thumb. It twitched, startling a laugh out of Bernie.

Serena remained still in repose, only her a rasping breath and heart monitor disturbing the funereal air of the hospital room.

“Ric tells me you’re giving him trouble. Your vitals are below standard. That’s unacceptable, Campbell. You’ve got work to do and a ward to run. Ric certainly can’t be trusted to handle all that on his lonesome. You-you’ve got a grandniece who still needs to learn the ins and outs of a proper shepherd’s pie. You can’t do this to her.” Bernie choked on her heart. “You can’t do this to me.”

She swept Serena’s damaged fringe from her brow. Blackened strands broke off in her hand. She brushed them onto the floor. They hardly mattered, they weren’t part of Serena now.

“We’re supposed to come back to each other. That can’t happen if you slip off now. We’ve got talking to do.”

Serena wheezed in her sleep. Her eyes whizzed and scrambled under their lids. Bernie prayed as she never had that Serena’s dreams were sweet. Let Bernie dream of flames instead; she’d got there first.

“You’ve scared Ric. I haven’t seen him this worried since he decked Hanssen by mistake during his Rocky phase. You’d have a laugh at the look on his face.” She’d buy him a drink and put his mind at ease. Serena was the one for comfort; Bernie didn’t know where to start. She was the one aching to be comforted now.

“Really, you can’t go now. I came all this way. I’ve been in the air seventeen hours. I wrote my request for leave on my phone. I didn’t wait for permission. If I get arrested for being absent without leave, it’s down to you.” She sat forward to whisper in Serena’s ear. “You do that to me.” Disregarding the antibiotic ointment, she brushed the back of her fingers along Serena’s jaw. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. Didn’t I promise I’d come running at the first sign of danger?” Her chin wobbled and she had to stop to stiffen her upper lip. She needed to be strong, Serena would need her strong. “I came, Serena. I came like I promised.” Serena exhaled a sigh.

Bernie eyed her vitals and sat beside her chatting nonsense until she lost track of the hours. Ric and the nurses came and went. Henrik came but Bernie found she was too tired for rage, and Henrik’s face was long with guilt. There was no one more apt to punish him ad infinitum than himself.

Jason came bearing heartache and statistics. Bernie gave him hope. Cameron came bearing a hunched posture, needing her. She gave him everything else. Cameron had been the one to drag Serena out of danger when the defibrillator ignited a nearby oxygen tank, setting of a chain reaction that incapacitated AAU and felled two porters. He had initiated CPR before Ric came on the scene. He had saved her when Bernie couldn’t. Bernie owed her son more than she could hope to repay, many times over. When he asked her if Serena would be okay, she said she would. It was what they both needed to believe.

Once evening had yielded to night and the evening to swing shift, Bernie was once again alone with Serena. More tests with slightly improved results. More hope than fact; still, something Bernie could hang her optimism on, rather than the cynicism that would have dogged any other patient. She should have regained consciousness by now.

The thought festered however she suppressed it

Bernie sat on a moderately comfortable chair, hugging her knees.

“You could have just called if you wanted to talk. No need for grand displays.”

The childish impulse to throw a strop arose in her and she jumped to her feet. “Serena Campbell, you had better wake and you’d better be intact or, or…” Her impulse faded where reality intruded. “Or…I’ll-I’ll spend every day of my life making sure you are. Come back. I’ll take Guinevere to the park and put out the bins. I would have done it anyway. You’d know that if you knew me at all.” Serena should have known. Serena should have wanted all Bernie had to give. It should have been enough. Bernie should have been here. She could have done something to prevent this. Never mind that she couldn’t conceive how, no matter how she wracked her brain.

A pained groan filled the room, crowding out Bernie’s self-recriminations. “Some of us…are trying…to sleep.”

“Serena?”

She moaned unintelligibly in reply. Bernie hovered over her, thirty years of medical instincts deserting her as Serena opened bleary eyes.

 “Are you all right?”

“I’ve had better wake-up calls…I must say.” She tried to move and cried out.

“Easy, Tiger! You’re injured. Just lie still. Let me call someone.” Ric, she needed Ric. Bernie fully understood why doctors couldn’t treat their loved ones; she had lost all sense of professionalism the moment she clapped eyes on Serena in her current state.

“Wait, wait.” Bernie halted partway to the door. In her haste she’d entirely disregarded the call button. “What happened…to me?” Serena licked her dry, cracked lips, and Bernie fetched ice cubes to soothe her throat.

“Better?”

Serena nodded though the question remained in her eyes. Bernie permitted herself to card light fingers through the untouched cowlick of hair atop Serena’s head and was gratified by how Serena leaned into the contact.

“The short version is, you got the business end of a bad job in the old trauma bay. An improperly disassembled power source met some frayed wiring and you were the unlucky sod flipping the switch on the defibrillator when it shorted.”

Serena arched an expressive eyebrow. “I got singed?”

Bernie laughed, relieved to see Serena’s dry sense of humor hadn’t deserted her. “In a word.”

“Figures,” Serena rasped, trying in vain to shift into a more comfortable position. Bernie winced in sympathy.  “Everything tingles…burns.” Her hands and feet moved subtly, and Bernie began little by little to relax. Serena had retained gross motor control. She’d have Ric check for pulses in Serena’s extremities later, but this was a good sign.

“We can get you something for the pain.” Bernie squinted, noting Serena’s unfocused gaze flitting around the darkened room. She’d need her eyes checked ensure no irreversible damage had been done. “Do you know what day it is?”

“A day ending…in -y.” Saying that little bit seemed to exhaust her. Bernie continued her impromptu scalp massage to keep Serena conscious.

 “I’m serious, I need you to tell me. What day is it?”

Serena pealed her eyes open to glare up at Bernie. Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery. “If I’ve been out as long as I feel…Thursday.”

“Who’s the prime minister?”

“An idiot with a bad haircut.” She frowned. “Though, oddly, that doesn’t entirely narrow it down.”

Serena never was a fan of career politicians.

“I’ll allow it. Tell me your name.”

Serena’s sigh was long-suffering. “Serena…Campbell. You’re Bernie Wolfe.” She turned her glower onto Bernie. It was no less powerful for the drowsiness dulling it. “You’re…here. How are you here?”

“I got a call and I got on the first flight home.” It had cost her a pretty penny, to say nothing of the damage to her career prospects after dropping off the face of the earth unannounced for the second time in under a year. She would do it again.  “Seventeen hours, Serena. I can’t think of a time I’ve been that scared in my life, and I’ve been blown up with a damaged heart and a fractured spine.”

No sooner had Serena reached out for her than her dominant hand seized in a cramp. She cried out and Bernie guided the injured limb back to its elevated position. Serena had curled around her hand as much as her condition would allow. Bernie ached to see her hurt. She’d have given her own health to switch position with Serena if it spared her this.

“Didn’t mean…to worry you,” said Serena, between laborious pants. “I was only…working.” Bernie touched Serena’s neck to soothe the guilt she heard creeping into her voice, only retreating when Serena recoiled with a whimper.

“Sorry!”

Serena smiled to show no harm was done. Serena was a collective wound in all but a few places; anything and everything would hurt for a time. That didn’t ease Bernie’s guilt any. Hurting Serena was the last thing she’d come to do.

“Good to see you,” Serena managed. Her expression said what her words couldn’t.

“I wish it wasn’t like this.” Bernie returned her hand to Serena’s crown, the one area that didn’t sting and tingle with the force of damaged nerves.

“Not a fan myself.” She rubbed her head back into Bernie’s hand. “Still…good seeing you.”

“Should have done it sooner.” Bernie worried the stubborn lock of hair that always stuck straight up when Serena first woke up in the morning. It stood up like antennae in all Serena’s baby pictures and had survived today’s assault intact.

“I didn’t think…you wanted to.”

“I told you I’d come back. What made you think I wouldn’t want to?”

Serena didn’t answer, though her lips worked a moment to form words. Finally, she shut her eyes and shook her head, at a loss.

“I thought you didn’t want me to, that you didn’t need me, so I stayed away.”

Serena blinked in her direction, muzzier and dazed for Serena but sharper than most. “Needed you. You didn’t need me.” Bernie sat back. Serena was in no fit state to tell a lie.

“But I wanted you. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“It should have.” Serena stared at Bernie. There were a hundred things they each needed to say. Today was not the day for it and this hospital not the place. “You’re staying?”

‘Do you want me to,’ Bernie wanted to ask. But that wasn’t the question Serena was putting before her. Serena was asking if Bernie wanted to stay. That was the question Serena hadn’t had the courage to ask when they said goodbye. She’d been too afraid of the answer. She and Bernie had been speaking at cross-purposes and their erroneous conclusions had landed them both alone.

“No place I’d rather be.” Serena emitted a hiss when Bernie touched her cheek where the flesh was raw. “Oh Serena, I’m sorry.” Bernie balled her hands in her lap. It seemed she was helpless not to touch Serena when she was here to be touched and willing.

“ ‘S all right. ‘S all…fine.”

“How’s the pain?” she asked again.

Serena affected a grimacing smile, borrowing Bernie’s stiff upper lip.  “About…the same as always, but less today, if you can believe that.” She winked. Were it not for the grooves of strain carved into her forehead and alongside her mouth, Bernie might have believed it.

Bernie narrowed her eyes. She didn’t have the patience for Serena’s old-fashioned British reserve. That was her line.

“How bad is it? Scale of one to ten.” Given Serena’s neurological state Ric would be reluctant to give her anything strong; Bernie might have to twist his arm.

Serena spoke through pale, downturned lips, “Four, easily.”

“I’m getting Ric.”

Ric hadn’t gone far.

“She woke up. Disorientated but coherent. She passed a basic neuro check.”

After a more thorough neurological assessment, Ric prescribed Serena pain medication to get her through the next few hours and left them alone again, promising to return in pursuit of more testing and imaging.

The pain medication was fast-acting. What few inroads the two women had made into reconnecting faded into slurring syllables as Serena succumbed to the influence of morphine in the aftermath of trauma.

“You scared me, Campbell.”

Serena returned Bernie’s haunted glance with a distant one of her own.  “You live in a war zone. I’m scared…all…the time. Can’t…watch the news. Can’t…read the paper.” Serena’s cheeks rose in a rueful grin. “Knew I’d be a widow even if I never married you.”

So would Bernie had today gone any differently.

“I’ve heard the danger of loving someone is living in fear of what will happen when you’re not there to protect them. I was sure you’d be safe here, but I wasn’t gone a year, and you went and got yourself electrocuted.”

The pauses between Serena’s words grew longer and longer.

“I certainly…didn’t…volunteer for this. Bit too flashy…not my style.”

Serena’s eyelids drooped, and Bernie jerked toward the monitor displaying her vitals in real time. Her heartbeat remained irregular yet constant. She was leveling out. She was falling asleep.

“Don’t tell me if you’re…not here. I like thinking...can talk to you.”

“You can talk to me anytime.”

“It’s best when you talk…back.”

Bernie cracked an indulgent smile. “You just like arguing with me.”

“I just…miss you.”

Bernie cradled Serena’s unbandaged hand once Serena was too far under to feel the pain. She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. She wanted to turn back time and never have left. “Get some sleep. You can tell me off all you want when you wake up.”

Serena weakly flicked her fingers in Bernie’s grasp. “Hmm…can’t wait.”

Bernie lowered her head to rest on the uninjured side of Serena’s chest, tuning in to Serena’s labored breathing as she dropped to sleep. There was nothing else in the world she wanted to hear. When her vision blurred at the barely perceptible hitching in Serena’s deepening breaths, she closed her eyes. There was nothing else in the world she wanted to see.

Right now, there was nothing else in the world but Bernie and Serena.

It was a perfect world.


Bernie eventually left long enough to visit the ladies’ and dig up a cup of unsatisfying black coffee from the staff break room. Ric was dead on his feet on and what was easily his third cup of the hour. Every member of staff Bernie saw was the walking dead tonight.

“Arrythmia?” he asked in lieu of offering her a chair. She sat anyway.

“Still present but the remainder of her vitals are holding steady. To top it all off, she’s presenting with abnormal breath sounds.”

Ric swore. “Lung damage. I was hoping she’d get lucky.”

Bernie couldn’t think of once when Serena had. There hadn’t been a reason to expect it now.

“How is she now?”

“Mercifully asleep. I think she’s in more pain than she’s letting on.” Serena didn’t show damage if she could help it. She believed it sent people running. Could be Bernie was proof it did.

“Assuming minimal nerve damage.”

“I know nerve damage, Ric. You aren’t telling me anything I don’t know.”

“My apologies. I’m running on near to no sleep. We all are.” Holby had been on non-stop emergency protocol since the fire had broken out. As the interim deputy CEO Ric was putting out fires, administrative and medical, when he wasn’t tending to Serena. There was no telling how long it would take for the hospital to make a full recovery, or if Serena ever would.

Bernie would be here if Serena never did. Serena wasn’t her body or her capabilities; Serena was everything inside that body and the will behind those capabilities. Bernie would support Serena in uncovering what came after what happened now.

“Am I right to assume you won’t be leaving?”

“Not anytime soon.” She’d have to see about resigning her commission for a second time, this time permanently. She loved the army and what all it permitted her to do. She didn’t love it more than her family.  “Whatever happens with Serena, I need to see it through. She’d do the same for me.” Besides, things tended to go awry when they weren’t together. Bernie wouldn’t risk it. They couldn’t count on luck to save them a second time.

“I’m sure she would, and I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear that.” He returned to his coffee in pensive contemplation. “She’s missed you. She put up a good front and pretended to get on with it, but there hasn’t been anybody else. Evidently, an inability to stop talking about one’s ex is a detriment to getting a second date, or so I’ve heard.”

Bernie jaw dropped. “She doesn’t talk about me…does she?” Serena hadn’t called once and had only texted a handful of times. Bernie had no idea Serena thought of her much at all while they apart. I didn’t call or write, either. That’s what a clean break is. Perhaps it hadn’t been as complete as hoped on either end.

“Oh, she does., You’re never far from her thoughts. We all knew that. We understood.” His eyes were full of sympathy. Ric had been cheering for them when they’d been hellbent on destroying what they could have had, along with Jason and Fletch.

“She’s never far from mine.” It seemed everyone had seen what they hadn’t: that their story was far from over despite their turning the page.

Bernie put her coffee down. She was suddenly no longer thirsty or even very tired. There was something she had to do. “Keep an eye on Serena for me for a couple of hours, I need to head to my hotel. I’ve got to have a word with my CO.”

A fresh cup of coffee in hand, Ric watched as Bernie marched out the break room, a purposeful set to her shoulders and confidence in her stride. He didn’t envy Bernie’s commanding officer; that was the look of a woman prepared to get her way.

Serena Campbell’s guardian angel was back in action.

Chapter Text

Serena is grieving someplace else and Bernie is doing all she can to keep the home fires burning. She works, she comes home, she talks at her frustratingly distant children. She sees to Jason, and thank goodness she has Alan to pick up the slack there. Without Serena home, she fears he’s begun to fall through the cracks. Bernie’s life is all cracks anymore. 

When all that’s handled, she sees to Adrienne as best as she can. Adrienne does her best to make sure she can’t.

Today Bernie’s gritting her teeth through putting away the shopping at Adrienne’s apartment. It’s been an excruciating day on AAU with too many fatalities. Thoughts of the upcoming budget meeting with the Board have left Bernie with a raging tension headache that won’t abate.  Serena hasn’t responded to a text in three days.  To top it all off, Adrienne is refusing yet another of Bernie’s offers to stay at the house with her and Jason for the duration of Serena’s sabbatical.

“It would be easier on all of us were we together,” Bernie presses in what she hopes is a reasonable tone. It’s difficult to hear pass the thumping of her heart in her ears.  “That way I wouldn’t have to drive out of my way after my shift and you wouldn’t have to wait around for someone to take you to your appointments.”

“Why would I willingly go anywhere with you?” How she longs for the few days when Adrienne approved of her, before she found out about Marcus and Alex and Bernie got scared and ran. Kiev had been their Waterloo and it cannot be undone.

“Because I’m here to help you. I only want to help.”

“You’ve done enough.” It isn’t a compliment. It’s never a compliment from Adrienne. She hasn’t had a kind word for Bernie in months. It makes Serena’s intermittent contact all the more stinging; her mother is happy to fill in the gaps on her daughter’s behalf. Maybe, opines some treacherous voice in Bernie’s mind, Serena agrees.

"I want us to get along, Adrienne, because we can't go on like this. We can't fight every single day. We can't go three rounds at every meal. That isn't what Serena needs and Jason can't take it. So can we table this, once and for all? You disapprove of me, I get it. I accept it. Serena shouldn’t have to."

"Or what? You'll keep my daughter from me? Bad enough you had a hand in my granddaughter's death, now you want the only daughter I have left."

Bernie clamps her hands around the edge of the counter.  Adrienne still believes Bernie should have been the one to perform surgery on Elinor instead of Jason and claims that Bernie couldn’t due to her relationship with Serena fall on deaf ears.

"I do want her, Adrienne, more than I've ever wanted someone. But more than that, I love her. You and I supposedly have that in common. Prove it. Make her life a little bit easier. Not for me—god, don't do me any favors—but for Serena who loves both of us more than we deserve." 

“Not both of us.”  Adrienne fixes her with a frosty gaze so entirely alien to Bernie. Had she not seen it in Adrienne before, she would think the warmth she loves in Serena and Jason a fluke. She turns away to stow the last couple of ready-made meals she picked up on the way home. It isn’t the fresh produce she knows Serena would prefer for her mother, but Bernie’s reluctant to give Adrienne carte blanche to start waving a knife about to chop them. A fight for another evening and Bernie is sure it’s to come. All Bernie wants is check Adrienne’s vitals, taken earlier by her day nurse, and go home. It’s fish and chip night.

“If that’s everything, I’m going to take a look at your medical log and be on my way. You’ve clearly got everything you need and I’ve had more than enough for one night.”

“If Serena were here--”

Frustrated, Bernie cuts her off, “She isn’t! She is not here, Adrienne. Maybe if you hadn’t beat her about the head with all your misplaced anger she’d still be here. But she isn’t. She’s gone, so we’ve got to go on as best we can. Can you please just eat your dinner?” Bernie gestured vaguely toward the curry Adrienne loved despite it playing havoc with her digestion at bedtime. Coincidentally, it was also Bernie’s favorite.

Adrienne pushed it away. “It’s rubbish.”

“It’s your favorite.”

“When Serena makes it.”

Bernie takes a steadying breath. “Serena buys it. She told me so herself. She gave me a list of foods you like and don’t like so that I’d only get the ones you did.”  Serena had been apologetic as she relayed her instructions, all of it written down and organized in a shaky hand. Tear stains on every page. Bernie carries it with her in her coat pocket everywhere she goes.

“Don’t play the innocent with me. We both know what this is about.”

Bernie rubs the back of her neck, trying to relieve the pressure of this damned long day. “I can honestly say I have no idea what this is about. Why are you fighting me so bloody hard?”

Adrienne’s expression crumbles at the edges and the mother-daughter resemblance Bernie never noticed begins to bleed into view.

“Because if you go now, you can’t hurt her. I won’t let you hurt her again.”

“This is about Kiev. You’re still angry.” Kiev feels like another lifetime.  “Serena has forgiven me for that.”

“For now. How long until the next Kiev or the next anesthetist with a pretty smile?” They carry their grief the same, have the same blade of a tongue; know precisely where to cut to raise fresh blood. “She thinks I don’t know the details, but porters talk, you know.”

This was easier before with Serena at her side to wave her verbal sword till Adrienne withdrew. It’s Bernie who retreats, stung.  “There were mitigating circumstances.”

Adrienne scoffs.  Bernie’s stories have never interested her.  “Oh, there are always are. How long until your next mitigating circumstance? That’s the difference between you and Edward and me. You leave a mess and I help her sweep it up every time. She never learns. Falls for the same, hapless charmers again and again.  Anybody can say ‘I love you.’ What a fool she must be to believe it this time.”

Bernie only realizes how far she’s attempted to shrink from the older woman when the door of the cupboard begins to dig into her back. She stands up to her full height. “Don’t call her that”. She repeats herself, but louder, “Do not call her a fool.  I don't care what you say about me. I've never cared. I get to be with the woman I love and nothing you say can ruin that. But don't you dare talk about her like she's beneath you when she’s better than you’ve ever been."

Bernie snatches up the medical log attached to the refrigerator door by several magnets. Pulse normal. Blood pressure normal. It all checks out. Serena will be relieved.

“You’re in perfect health. Lucky you.”

Adrienne doesn’t sputter or follow after Bernie as she sweeps out of the apartment. She doesn’t need to. Adrienne’s already done what she does best: sow doubt.

*

Bernie is three cigarettes into a smoking jag when her mobile rings.

She stubs out her cigarette when she hears the voice on the other end. “Whatever she’s said, ignore her.”

“Easier said than done. She knows precisely where to aim.”

“I know she does, and I’m sorry I left you to her mercy. I knew she wouldn’t be easy on you.” Adrienne hasn’t ever been easy on Bernie. She had pretended for a time, though not long.

“I can handle this. I told you I would take care of her while you’re away. I will. I promised,” Bernie repeats like a mantra. It’s all that’s getting her out of bed some days.

“You’ve done beautifully,” Serena assures. “You needn’t do anymore.”

“You still need me.” A note of pleading enters her voice that makes her twitch from shame. Serena doesn’t need her desperation on top of what all she has to deal with.

“I always need you, Bernie, but I don’t need you hurting. That isn’t what you signed up for.”

“I signed up for you and everyone that comes with you. That includes Adrienne.” Though she hadn’t anticipated taking on the job of overseeing her care, she had known when they became a couple that Serena’s mother was part of the package. Only now, Adrienne has become The Package entire.

“I’m her daughter, she can hurt me. I won’t let her hurt you.” In the seconds after Serena say this, Bernie loathes Adrienne just a little. Nobody gets to hurt Serena on her watch, not even the woman who’s spent the better part of half a century doing just that.

“What makes you think she’s hurt me?”

“You sound hurt, and she told me. No more of that. I’ll get her a new nurse.”

“She has a nurse.”

“A full-time nurse. You won’t have to deal with her again. That’s my promise to you.”

“That isn’t necessary, Serena. I can handle this. Besides, I know you’ll worry about her unless someone you trust is looking after her.”

“I’ll worry if no one is looking after you, and since I can’t be there to do it, I don’t know who is. She doesn’t get to step on you to get to me.”

“She’s trying to protect you.”

“She’s trying to control me by controlling you. If she can send you running, she never has to worry about anybody taking me away from her.  Of every person I’ve loved, Bernie, you have the best chance of it.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Let me protect you from her. Let me be the big macho defender and send you away.”

“I’m strong and I love you.”

“Strong doesn’t mean invincible or incapable of being hurt. I proved that by my behavior, didn’t I?”

Bernie props her forehead on the rim of the steering wheel. “I didn’t hold it against you.”

“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. My pain doesn’t give me free rein to hurt you. I know that and if I have my way, you’ll realize that as well.”

“I’m holding the line. That’s what you need.”

“It’s not all about me, not even now. It’s about us. They’ve fallen to the bottom of the list for a long time now. Just hearing the words lightens the load on Bernie’s shoulders. “Forgive me for sucking all the air out of the room these last few months.”

“You’re grieving, it’s understandable.”

“Don’t make excuses for me, darling. Understandable doesn’t mean right. You’ve been so good to me. Let me be good to you.”

“I’ve said I can handle it.”

“I’m going to come home.” She brushes aside Bernie’s ensuing protests. “Because it’s what you need, and a relationship has to go both ways, for better or worse.” Bernie can’t think of an appropriate rebuttal. She wants Serena back. “I love you and I will be home soon. Wait for me.”

“Never occurred to me to do anything else.” Bernie had known when she met Serena she would never love another person the same. Those feelings haven’t changed; if anything they’ve calcified, hardened into inevitability. Serena is her person. “You sure it’ll be soon?”

“How soon do you need me?”

“The sooner, the better.” Tomorrow. Tonight. Right this instant. Adrienne’s comments have lashed her deep; her back stings from the blows.

“Then, you should really keep abreast of your surroundings.”

“Hmm?”

“A soldier should never let herself be snuck up on. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”

Bernie peers to either side of her. “What on earth are you on about, Campbell?”

“Look behind you, Major.”

Bernie twists back in her seat. Standing on the curb, bearing luggage and silver-strewn hair is Serena bloody Campbell in the flesh.

Getting out of the car is the work of a moment. Bernie hasn’t the first idea where she drops her phone. “You’re home. How are you home already?” Bernie sweeps her into her arms, and it’s she can do not to collapse into tears. On some level, she’d been sure she wouldn’t see Serena gain. But Serena’s here.

“Would you believe Mum was frustrating you to keep you from leaving?”

“She was in on this little surprise?” Bernie’s let out a shaky breath. “Her idea of a delaying tactic could use some fine-tuning.”

“I should have reconsidered my reunion strategy.”

“Next time, invite me to France. I’d prefer that to being harangued by herself.” Adrienne is a difficult woman; that, Bernie had known. She didn’t realize the extent of the older woman’s cruelty. Serena’s webwork of emotional scars aren’t a mystery to her anymore.

“Duly noted. Though I don’t mean to be leaving anytime soon. Seems I’m not done with Holby City, after all.”

“Even with the ghosts?”

“The ghosts aren’t all that’s here for me.” She brushes Bernie’s lips with her own. The spark still thrills her. They’re still alive. “There’s you.”

“You came back.” Bernie chokes up. “I hoped you would, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Now you know. When it comes to you, I will always come back.”

Bernie hugs Serena tight and prays as she hasn’t since a child that this will forever be true.

Chapter Text

Bernie was driving home after an uneventful shift on the Emergency Department of St. James Hospital. It had a been a quiet one for her, more occupied with catching up on her admin backlog than cases suited to her trauma expertise. There’d been a smattering of adolescent patients coming in as a result of treating an after-hours construction site as a skate park. A couple of open head wounds and a compound fracture for their trouble. Nothing that wouldn’t heal with time and rest.

The previous day had seen a single-occupant aircraft plow into a child’s outdoor birthday part. Today was relatively mild by comparison. Fewer deaths for one. No young children reminding Bernie of her estranged two. No consulting with Marcus as if they hadn’t each flown out of their solicitor’s office on winged feet, full of fury, only hours prior.

Bernie would take her share of mild days.

She was humming along to something vaguely familiar and picking up speed on the M5 when something caught her attention at the side of the motorway.

There was a car pulled onto the grassy shoulder. Not atypical in and of itself; cars broke down every day. A red-clad figure was on ground hunched beside the flat tire of a small green Mazda, its boot ajar.  What had drawn her notice was sports utility vehicle pulling up behind them.

Bernie slowed passing the scene, feeling an uneasy sensation crawl up spine. She didn’t pick up speed once it was behind her, to her fellow motorists’ notable dismay, instead continuing to peruse it in her side mirror. Something struck her as wrong about it.

It was the second vehicle. Its headlights weren’t on. Why would someone approach another vehicle without headlights unless they didn’t want to be seen? A better question, why wouldn’t someone want to be seen if they only intended to render aid?

It took Bernie about fifteen minutes to make her way back, and when she did the entire tableau had shifted. Where before the Mazda had been lit by hazard lights, now both vehicles were dark, parked end fender to fender. The person in red who’d originally drawn Bernie’s eye stood well away from their own vehicle, sandwiched between the rear of the dark SUV and another body broader and taller than theirs. 

Bernie pulled over to investigate. She could always blame her overdeveloped battlefield instincts if nothing turned out to be amiss.

Parking in front of the Mazda, she cut off her car to approach the couple on foot. She did a situational assessment on the fly. A nondescript caucasian man in dark clothing was clutching the arm of a brunette caucasian woman wearing a red trench coat. They were engaged in an intense staring match that elevated Bernie's initial unease to new heights. Something was wrong.

“Hi, I saw your car was stopped. Is everything okay?” she directed toward the woman.

The man cut off her response. “We’re fine. It’s just my wife’s clunker conked out and she called me for a ride home.”

Thought he woman’s eyes were blazing, she said nothing. Her short-cropped hair was mussed and her lips were pursed.  She was speaking in everything but words. Screaming, even. Liar liar.

“I know a thing or two about cars.  I could take a look.” She was still addressing the woman, who cut a pensive look at her.

“That won’t be ne—“

“I’d appreciate that,” interrupted the woman. “I always mean to learn more about how this thing runs, but I can never find the time. Too much work to be doing.” She wrenched out of the man's forbidding grip. Bernie blocked the man’s wild grab with her body, keeping a mild expression and open body language to convince him it was inadvertent.

“That’s how I feel about housework.” They moved toward the little green Mazda together, trading niceties that only just papered over the growing tension. The man hovered behind the woman in red, nearly touching her as she showed Bernie the steaming engine.

Bernie poked around underneath the bonnet, keeping the man squarely in her sights. The engine was fine. It had been the tire that was damaged.

“Looks like the transmission’s cactus,” Bernie projected, hoping the woman would follow her lead.

“Is that bad?” The other woman's hands clung to the rim of the engine well. Upon closer inspection, Bernie noted she had two broken nails and a bruised knuckle. There was a subtle bruising easing along the apple of her cheek.  She played along.

“It means it won’t run.” Bernie's gut shouted they were in danger, this woman was in danger and Bernie was all that separated her from a potentially deadly outcome.

“I figured that.”

“I know someone who’s good with cars, a sergeant from the motor pool at my old base. I could give her a call.”

“Base?”

“I was in the army until recently.”

The other woman’s eyes widened in silent understanding.  “An army woman. My lucky night.”

“Don’t let’s jinx it.” Bernie was going to handle this. Some much for my uneventful day. “I think I’ve got jumper cables in my boot. Come with? I’m not the best at storage; might need a hand untangling the lot.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

The man dogged their steps, growling with thinning tolerance for Bernie’s presence. She regretted leaving her mobile in her car. She should have been better prepared.

Bernie threw up the lid to the boot and began to rifle into the mess of spare clothes and spare tire and sundry detritus leftover from her move from the family house. The other woman leaned over as if to help her look, though it didn’t escape Bernie’s attention that she was staring vacantly into the chaos, worrying her lip as though thinking furiously.

With a marked “Aha!” Bernie unearthed the perfect spool of her jumper cables. The other woman made an odd noise, only just stopping herself from glancing over her shoulder at her husband. No, not her husband. Bernie didn't buy that.

“What’s your name?” She hadn't asked before because it felt important that the man not know either.

“Serena.”

“Bernie.”

Serena whispered, urgently, “I don’t know him.”

“I suspected.”

"He tried to get me into his car. I didn't see him coming up behind me. Please don't leave me here."

Bernie unfurled the coil of jumper cables and began to twist them into an unusable mass, carefully blocking the man’s view from what she was doing. Serena touched the fuzzy emergency blanket stuffed in the corner of the boot. Bernie covered her hand. She was shivering, possibly heading into shock. They needed to get out of this situation.

“On the count of three, make for the car. Get in, lock the doors, whether I’m with you or not.”

“Going to save my life?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Love a soldier.”

“Glad to be of service.” Bernie winked, getting Serena to smile.

The man was pacing closer, growing impatient at their companionable chatter.

"Aren't you finished? I said I could take care of it."

Serena's nostrils flared in a resurgence of primal fear. Bernie tickled the back of her hand. Serena laced their fingers together, her nails biting into Bernie's skin.

"Serena."

"Hm?" She was freezing up, shock was setting in, in earnest.

"1..."

Serena's eyes widened. Bernie separated their hands and tipped her head toward the nearest door.

"2…"

Bernie uncovered a crowbar. Serena shifted away, rightly interpreting Bernie’s intentions.

"3…"

Several events occurred at once:

Serena darted for the nearest car door.

Bernie grabbed her weapon of choice.

The unknown man realized the jig was up.

He produced a hunting knife the size of Bernie’s forearm.

“I'd be careful with that if I were you.”

His features twisted in a decided leer, “You'd better get a move on, or I'll nab you too.”

“Not too worried about that." Bernie flipped the weighty crowbar in her grasp. “Shall we?”

He smiled and tried to circle Bernie like a predator. Like hell she was giving him her back.

“Back. Off.”

He cocked his head. “Come on, love. Be friendly.” He lunged for her.

Bernie leapt back and swung wide, solidly connecting the hooked end of her weapon with the man’s shin.

“Fuck!” He staggered, grabbing at his leg.

“Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

He lurched forward on his good leg and thrust his hunting knife toward her abdomen. She blocked his parry with her crowbar and dodged left, almost tipping into traffic in the process. Time to wrap this up before I get killed. She didn’t like Serena’s chances if it came down to her and him.

Bernie twisted out of the way of a knife-wielding haymaker and spun back to slam the body of the crowbar across her assailant's back, sending him tumbling into the side of her car. He collapsed onto one knee but still had a hold of his knife. Bernie was reluctant to charge into striking distance without knowing if he was otherwise armed.

“This is your last chance. Go now or go down. Your call.”

“I can take you.” He'd begun to wheeze. She’d knocked the wind out of him.

“All evidence to the contrary.” She swatted at his arm, eliciting a shout of pain as he hugged his attack arm to his chest. He was down.

Serena was watching from inside the car, her features tight with anxiety. She was on Bernie's mobile talking fast.  To the police, Bernie hoped. She and Serena were going to get through this. They were going to survive.

Bernie let her guard down for a just a second looking at her. Serena might not be a soldier, and Bernie was fairly certain she wasn’t, but she was holding her own. She liked a woman with some gumption about her.

“Bernie, look out!”

Bernie jerked backward, awkwardly swiping her weapon to block a cutting blow to her forearm. Searing pain sliced the back of her wrist. Son of a bitch, he’d caught her unawares. Bernie staggered back from the man surging up from the ground, needing those crucial meters of distance.

As if by some unspoken agreement, Serena slammed the door open, clocking their assailant in the back of the head and knocking him out cold before he got to his feet. Bernie kicked his knife under her car and made quick work of checking him for other weapons. To her horror, she found more knives, plastic zip ties, a handkerchief and a flask that a passing whiff told her was likely chloroform. She decided against sharing that with Serena; the cops could sort that.

Serena chivvied Bernie into the car where she could lock them in securely in case himself wasn’t as unconscious as he seemed. She shed her coat and ripped the sleeve off her flowing blouse to wrap Bernie’s hand. They were both doctors, both surgeons. Serena vowed to take care of her, stating it was the least she could do.

Once the cavalry had come and their assailant was taken into custody, Bernie joined Serena in the rear of the ambulance. They’d each been given an itchy orange shock blanket during treatment. Bernie would need a few stitches and Serena would be sporting a black eye for a few days but was otherwise physically uninjured. Serena held her blanket shut with a clenched fist. Bernie put an arm around her. The shivering, while diminished, hadn’t gone away.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I’d say anytime, but I’m hoping not to go through that again.”

“Goes for both of us,” Serena quipped.  “I owe you one.”

“You don’t owe me anything. But,” she hurried to add, sensing Serena’s pending objection, “you can buy me drink and we'll call it even.”

“Make it dinner and we can call it a date.”

Bernie shot her a surprised look, at which Serena simply shrugged, somewhat bashfully. The flashing lights did little conceal the sudden color suffusing her cheeks.

“This might not be the best time to make rash decisions.”  Conscientiousness was the bane of Bernie’s dating life, which was really saying something.

“Says the woman who singlehandedly fought a knife-wielding would-be kidnapper to keep me safe.”

Impulsiveness was Bernie’s stock and trade. It came with the uniform in a field where hesitation could be a death sentence.

“Point taken.” It wasn’t as if Bernie was uninterested. Now they weren’t on the verge of being abducted or worse, Bernie noticed how attractive Serena was. Wide, dark eyes promising no end of mischief. An elegant neck and strong, capable hands. Lips that were piquing Bernie’s curiosity even as they spoke.  “Give it a couple of days. If you still want to go out then, we’ll give it a go.”

“Considerate and heroic. And those legs.” Her appreciative look warmed Bernie from the inside.  “You’re the total package.”

Bernie smiled. “I’ve been called worse.”

Bracing herself on Bernie, Serena stood, a little bit steadier after their chat. “I have to give my statement to the police, but I hope I’ll see you around…” Probably when Bernie went in to give her own statement. Their ordeal was far from over.

“How will I get in touch with you—to, to see how you are?” To see if maybe Serena wouldn’t change her mind about that date, after all.

“I took the liberty of saving my number in your phone. Give me a ring when you have a chance. Something tells me, after tonight, a round of life-affirming snogging is just what the doctor ordered.” Serena dropped a kiss on Bernie’s cheek and hastened to the police cruiser waiting to ferry her to Holby CID. Bernie’s own escort was waiting too.

“A hell of a woman, isn’t she,” the uniformed officer asked, admiration and not a little interest coloring his voice. Bernie waved her uninjured hand as Serena departed, whisked away into the night. She already couldn’t wait to see her again.

“That she is.”

Chapter Text

Right as Serena was grabbing the last mobile phone on the display, a lean body slunk under Serena’s arm and grabbed it.

Seething, she confronted her thief. “Hang on a minute, I got here first.”

The slender blonde woman in the leather jacket a knit cap hefted the box in her hand. “You may have come first but it’s in my hands now.”

“That’s not how this works.”

The woman tossed the box into her hand cart. “I think it is. We both wanted the same item, but I got my hands on it first.” She smiled somewhat apologetically from behind her overlong fringe. “Try another store?”

“You’re kidding me.” Serena grunted. “You’re not, of course you’re not. This is the kind of day I’m having.” There was no other store. Serena had been to three department stores in search of this blasted contraption Elinor simply had to have and they had all been sold out. The online retailers Serena had checked into were quoting delivery date as far New Year’s. It was mere days from Christmas and Elinor would be in from Cambridge starting tomorrow.

She cast her eyes to the harshly-lit ceiling in search of patience. Serena was going to be reasonable if it killed her, or drove her to drink, whichever came first.


 

“Look, I’m too old to argue over shopping, normally. My daughter is ruthlessly spoiled because I worked too much when she was coming up and overindulged her to compensate when her father left us. If I don’t give her this what’s-it, I won’t hear from her before Remembrance Day, and despite her being an enormous pain in my backside, I’d like to see her this holiday season.”

The other woman raised her chin in defiance, her unkempt flyaway hair doing nothing to diminish the force of her gaze or the sharpness of her cheekbones. “I’m compensating for a 20-year military career overseas; an acrimonious divorce from a loving, devoted father; and an affair with a much younger woman under my command. Still think you can compete?”

Serena stepped back. That was more than Serena had bargained for after the day she had had. She’d fit right in at Holby with that life story.

“In that case, have at it. Mine will come back when she’s out of money.” Serena was going to have to cough up a great deal more dosh than usual to stop Elinor complaining about Serena neglecting to produce the so-called ‘one thing she had asked for’. Elinor didn’t ask, she produced a list in order of preference and expected her parents to compete over who would present her with what she wanted most. This was how it had been since Serena and Edward divorced. It was a game they were still playing.

Serena wheeled around from the now barren display and took off in the opposite direction of her dastardly (and devilishly good-looking) gift-nabber. She had a Christmas dinner to plan for and very little time to prepare between her deputy CEO duties and her shifts on the ward. She was expecting a full-house between much of the ward staff, Elinor, Jason, and all the Fletchlings she’d agreed to keep an eye on while Raf and Fletch juggled their opposing shifts the day of.

What with the many stops Serena had to make before her shopping was done, it was hours before she returned to the snowy car park and the spot where her car was meant to be parked.

It wasn’t.

In its place was a smattering of glass Serena believed had come from one of the windows of her car.

Serena had parked beside a section signpost so she wouldn’t forget where she’d parked. Her car wasn’t there. When she clicked her key fob to check if she’d misremembered and parked some other place, there was no corresponding chirp. Her car had been here, and her car was gone.

Ergo, her car had been stolen.

“That’s bloody marvelous.” She adjusted her grip on her many shopping bags to root around for her phone.

“Erm, sorry to bother you, but you seem out of sorts. Is everything okay?” Her gift-nabber was loading her parcels into the boot of a small sports car on the opposite side of the aisle. Just wonderful.

“Not so much,” Serena retorted. “Someone’s made off with my car.”

“Ah.”

“Yes, my thoughts precisely.” Serena wasn’t looking forward to reporting the theft. She had a feeling her ex Robbie the Bobbie would be looking into the matter and she couldn’t fathom seeing him again so soon after their thwarted life plans.

The other woman wavered on the spot. “Do you need a ride somewhere? It’s the least I can do.”

“No need, thanks.” Serena was unlucky, not an idiot. She watched the news.

“I swear I’m not a murderer. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be wandering around the car park carrying all those bags. It’s getting late for that.” It was tilting rapidly towards dark, Serena had to admit. Even waiting for a taxi out here was taking a risk.

Serena shot the blonde woman a piercing look known to make F1s quake in their multicolor trainers. “Are you calling me a target?” The woman absorbed her suspicion, unphased by Serena’s tried and true intimidation tactic. Right, a soldier.

“I'm only saying you’re more vulnerable. It wouldn’t be right of me to leave you without support.”

“I can take care of myself.” Serena had a self-defense gadget buried in her bag…someplace. Possibly wherever she’d left her mobile? So much for a taxi.

“Humor me?”

Serena harrumphed. She was sure she’d had her phone on her when she left the hospital.

“I don’t even know your name.”

“Bernie, er, Wolfe. That’s my name.” She darted forward to catch one of Serena’s slipping shopping parcels. Though Serena preferred to do her own wrapping, it wasn’t practical between Elinor’s wants and gifts for all the Fletchings she’d be catering to this year.

“I’m Serena Campbell. It would appear I’m at your mercy, Bernie Wolfe.”

“You aren’t the first.”

“Was that meant to make you sound less like Ted Bundy?”

“No, I don’t really know what I was going for there.” Bernie parted the folds of her coat to put her hands in the pockets of her jeans. Serena didn’t consider herself an authority on jeans or women in jeans or women in very tight jeans, but Serena couldn’t conceive of how Bernie had got her hands in them, given how tight they clung to her body. They must have been painted on. Serena disregarded the observation and followed the other women to her car.

“Are you sure that toy car can hold both of us?” Bernie’s car was a sleek, sporty two-door that appeared just large enough to fit the other woman and her five-mile legs in relative comfort.

“I was in the army, packing is part of the skillset.” She popped open the boot and began to rearrange her shopping to make room for Serena’s.

“Do you always ride to the rescue of strange women in distress?”

“Only ones I’ve pilfered from.” Bernie twisted her lips in a contrite smile. “In any case, it’s a personal mission of mine to back other women when I can.”

“That what caused all the trouble at home?” A deeply personal question, Serena could admit, but considering she was about to get in the car with a woman she didn’t know, she was willing to chance it.

“Being gay and in denial, actually. Apparently simmering lesbian resentment isn’t conducive to a happy marriage with a member of the opposite sex.”

“I never would have guessed.”

Bernie let Serena in the car and got in herself. “Where can I take you?”

“Home.” Against her better judgment, she gave Bernie her address. Bernie typed it into her SatNav and they set off. The silent drive got the better of Serena and she decided to resume their previous conversation to channel her nerves.  “Was the divorce very long ago?”

“A few months final. This is my first holiday with the kids after, and I really want them to give me a chance.” She drummed her hands on her steering wheel and gear shift a mindless tattoo.

“Hence your willingness to go three rounds with a stranger for a mobile phone.” Serena didn’t let go of grudges that easily.

“It was the only thing my daughter asked for. She never makes requests for Christmas. It was the least I could do to get back in her good books.” Serena suspected it would take a great deal more consideration than an expensive doodad to accomplish that.

“Good luck.”

Bernie shot her a grateful look, and Serena was momentarily distracted by how expressive her dark brown eyes were.  “Thanks, I’ll probably need it.”


Once Bernie saw Serena home safely, she didn’t think much of her again. Well, all right, she did think of her once or twice. It wasn’t often a beautiful woman spent the better part of a half-hour car ride grilling Bernie on her professional bona fides to verify she wasn’t about to end up imprisoned in Bernie’s murder dungeon. Of Bernie’s varied life experiences, she couldn’t say that was a typical Tuesday for her.

It was something of a relief, she admitted, to spend some time with a woman unknown to her. Serena was a firecracker, spit and vinegar, temper and temptation; she was a tuning instrument for Bernie’s sexual attraction, calibrating the measure of her desire to precision. Bernie had found her bossy and entitled, then pig-headed but not unreasonable, and lastly sympathetic and encouraging. She was from their first meeting, effortlessly gorgeous and cool, possessed of a kind of feck-off desirability that filled Bernie’s head with static and her stomach with bees.

Bernie might have thought of Serena more than once or twice.

She was only driven from Bernie’s thoughts when she woke to a freezing flat mere days before Christmas. Her landlord swiftly diagnosed her with a broken boiler. It was going to be days before she had heat. No hot water. No heating. No working gas stove. Not before Christmas, at any rate. Murphy’s bloody law.

Bernie was packing a bag for a few nights at a local hotel when her mobile trilled with a phone call. Thinking it might be one of the kids, Bernie answered at once.

“Hello?”

“Bernie, it’s Serena?” Bernie blinked at the display screen in surprise. Serena’s pleased smile had flitted across her mind just a few minutes earlier.  “From the department store,” Serena elaborated. “The woman you picked up.” Bernie might have recognized on the flirtation in her voice were she not currently panicking about other matters.

“Serena, hi. Is everything all right? Do you need something?”

“Everything’s fine. I was just going through my shopping to start wrapping up and I found your knit cap. I wanted to send it back to you, along with a thank you gift for you helping me out of a bind, but I’m not sure where to send it.”

“I wondered where my hat had got to.” Bernie messed with her hair when she was off her game, and Serena had thrown her clear from the field. Headgear was not an option. “Um, I’ll give you my address, but you don’t need to send a gift. I was happy to help.”

“You were the only one to offer. I’m grateful and I don’t know how to show that but with a gift. Let me treat you.” Serena lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Something beautiful for someone beautiful. Get you started right for the New Year.”

Bernie stared again at her phone, attempting to make heads or tails of what Serena had casually vocalized. Her flirtation came as easily as her beauty. Another unobtainable woman, she chastised herself. Though she had only her own doubts as evidence that Serena was someone she couldn’t have.

“If it means that much to you, who am I to turn you down?” Bernie rattled off her address to Serena vocal approval. "Please don't to go any unnecessary expense. I don't deserve that."

“That's where you and I disagree. Women have to stick together, in my experience. Let me stick with you. You never know, you might like what I have in store for you.” Flirting. Very much flirting.

“When you put it like that, I'd be an idiot to refuse.”

“So don't.”

“Okay, I won’t.” Resisting Serena was out of the question, she felt. Bernie enjoyed the satisfied purr of her voice too much to deny her anything.

“Perfect.” Her feline satisfaction was palpable.  "Now tell me what's got you all worked up. You sound rushed off your feet.”

"It's just this entire holiday. The planning, the shopping, this day is going badly.” Work was…work. Testing and fortifying, validating. Isolating. Exhausting. Rewarding. It was all the rest of Bernie’s life rolling off the table like so many loose chicken eggs.

“Cooking?” Serena asked, having noted the conspicuous omission.

“To the best of my ability. I was getting ready for tonight and then the boiler blew in my building, scuppering my supper plans.” Even saying it struck Bernie as ridiculous. She was going to be foiled by a busted boiler. Where but in the movies did this sort of thing actually happen?

“Forget supper, in these temperatures, you’ll freeze!” Holby City had broken its recent warm-weather streak to dump several meters of snow on the city in time for Christmas. Bernie’s sports car was no match for the deteriorating road conditions.

“I’m packing for a hotel as we speak.” Bernie plopped down on her bed beside her luggage. She had hours before she’d have to check-in. There was nothing she could do to make her junior suite acceptable to her kids; she didn’t see the sense in hurrying.

“I wouldn’t turn down four stars right about now.”

“Three is about my purse tonight.” Her and Marcus’s joint assets were still frozen pending final settlement. Bernie had thankfully kept a separate account for her inheritance from her parents and so had some money to her name. Most of it was tied up in real estate; she had just enough available to splash out for the kids this Christmas and maybe take a short holiday once she got the hang of this civilian deal.

“I sense that’s not the problem.”

“There’s no kitchen. There’s probably not even going to be room enough for a table for me and the kids.” Bernie knew what sort of reception she could expect when she told Cameron and Charlotte what had happened.

“No dinner.”

“No dinner. Blimey, I’ve made a cock-up of everything. When I tell them, they’ll just make up some reason not to come.” Bernie had waged a month-long campaign to get them to agree and it had been with enormous reservations that they had acquiesced.

“Maybe they won’t.”

“You don’t know them like I do.” Her children had her stubbornness, her sense of righteousness. They could be brutally unforgiving to anyone who failed to live up their expectations, even the woman who taught them to have those expectations.

“I don’t, but I’ve met you and you’re generous, chivalrous. You’re trying. They should cut you some slack.”

“Did we cut our mothers slack when they failed to live up to our expectations?”

“Not as much as we should have. I know I gave my mother a hell of a time as a girl.” There it was again, that provoking, conspiratorial tone. Serena was inviting Bernie to ask about her.

“I can picture you arguing her to the ground.”

“You bet I did, and I was right!”

“I thought you’d say that!” Serena didn’t seem the type to admit she was anything but right under any circumstances.

“On that note, I think I have a solution to your dinner predicament. You might find it a little irregular.”

“I’m hardly in a position to turn my nose up at anything.”

“I have a big house and a bigger dining room table. Come over. Bring your kids. We’ll eat together.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“As serious as you were offering to drive me home in that carpark. Let me do this for you. One good turn deserves another.”

“Really? Are you sure you have room for three more? Serena, I can't invade your dinner table at Christmas.”

“No heat, no oven, no dinner. No way. You’re my hero and that comes with certain fringe benefits, namely my fine cooking and access to my rather extensive wine collection. What do you say?”

“I wouldn't want to put you out, you or your family.”

“My family will be fine. It’s going to be a madhouse, anyway, people all over. If you can withstand the chaos, you should fit right in with me and mine. Oh, Bernie, say you’ll come. I hate unpaid debts and I like taking care of my friends. Let me take care of you tonight.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am, come on over. I assume you still have the address.”

“Could you give it to me again?”

“Happily.”

Bernie noted the address, disbelieving her good fortune to have turned a chilling encounter at a department store into a bosom friendship this easily. Little else in life was as effortless as saying yes when Serena asked.

Cameron and Charlotte met Bernie's anxious proposal skeptically but agreed to join her on a Yuletide romp across town to her new friend's home. The drive was infinitely more stilted than Bernie’s maiden automotive trek with Serena.

She parked where she’d been told, noting Serena’s drive was already brimming with vehicles. Her house was a spacious brick detached house. There was a frozen-over garden out front that was sure to burst with color in spring. Light poured out of every main-level window, offering passers-by glimpses of a bustling found family gathering in progress.

The subdued trio treaded the brick walkway to the front door as if going to their death. There was something almost galling about seeing someone else happy when you were miserable. Bernie desperately hoped she hadn’t doomed all concerned to another miserable holiday.

At the ringing of the bell, Serena met them at the door in a Santa hat. A Santa hat and a holly berry red jumper that rendered Bernie’s mouth bone dry at once.

“Hello, you. Come inside, you must be chilled to your bones.”

Bernie made a quick round of introductions which her children submitted to with grudging civility. Serena smiled through their terseness, only the arching of her brow warning of the dangers ahead if they didn’t straight up quick.

Serena beckoned upon a young woman of around Charlotte’s age coming down from the upper level in a daring red coat dress and tights. She was the spit of Serena but for her auburn hair.

“Ellie, meet Charlotte and Cameron. They’re Bernie’s. Show Charlotte and Cameron to the kitchen and pour them some cider to get them all warm.”

“Since when do I have to play hostess to your guests?”

“Since you dropped in on me at the last minute after ghosting on me for our mother-daughter holiday last year. Get a move on!” She smiled extra bright for Cameron and Charlotte, encouraging them to follow Elinor out of the entry to the kitchen in the rear of the main level. All three looked as if they were going to their deaths.

Bernie palmed her eyes.

“That was…enlightening,” Serena said once their children were out of sight.

“I said it was bad, didn’t I?” Bernie packed away her misery a minute.  “I can’t thank you enough for inviting us over. It was going to be ready-meals and expensive whisky, if you hadn’t come through for us.”

Serena clapped her shoulder in something like commiseration.  “Tis the season. Besides, I like you. Come along, I’ll introduce you around.”

Serena swiftly and efficiently presented Bernie to her coworkers from Holby City Hospital, sharing tidbits of their initial meeting, to resounding laughter and good-natured ribbing. Serena was competitive over nothing so much as a bargain, and she could not turn down a pretty face.

That was…something Bernie had no business contemplating as a guest in somebody else’s home. Even if Serena was of a compatible sexuality to Bernie that didn’t mean anything was going to happen. They might not even see each other again after tonight.

They repaired to the kitchen to dispense with the last of the dinner preparation. There was Christmas music piping in from Serena’s sound system; for once, music Bernie even recognized. They tried their hands at harmonizing a few verses and only ended up laughing. They might have traversed the kitchen in a well-choreographed dance but they were no Hall & Oates.

Serena was serenading Bernie with the chorus of Wham!’s last Christmas when a metallic clatter disrupted their would-be karaoke routine.

Elinor stood before Serena and Bernie in the kitchen with a distinct air of boredom clinging to her,  interspersed with obvious disapproval  Does anything Serena does meet with her approval? It was maddening to think how they’d gone from being daughters who didn’t measure up to mothers who likewise failed to make the grade. Where were they permitted to excel?

Charlotte appeared from the living room with an empty platter of biscuits as if summoned.

“How’d this come about?” Elinor asked, breaking the silence and drawing Charlotte’s keen notice. Her daughter had seen a great deal more than Bernie realized over the year.

“We met in a department store and made fast friends.” That was one way to tell the tale.

“How cute.”

Bernie winced at Charlotte’s acerbic tone. Serena rubbed her back.

“I’ve got mulled wine if you’re thirsty. You can take some fresh out to everyone else while your mum and I handle things on our end.”

Elinor took her cue and led Charlotte through the motions until Bernie and Serena had the kitchen to themselves again.

Bernie slumped. “This was a bad idea.”

“Maybe but we’re committed now and, I’ve got a house full of guests, a fraction of whom I’ve no idea about. Pull it together, soldier.”

Once Bernie put on a brave face and had been put to work distributing pre-meal noshes, she was somewhat more clearheaded. Bernie was a woman who needed purpose and direction. Serena provided her with both.

Her hard-won equanimity was punctured overhearing her kids bickering in the solarium.

“I want to go home.” Charlotte

“Don’t be like this. Mum’s trying. The least we can do is try for her.”

“I don’t care about her new girlfriend, Cam. I don’t even know what we’re doing here. We should be with dad.”

“First, they’re not dating. They met three days ago. Second, we’re going to see dad all day tomorrow. You don’t want to listen to him moan about mum for hours on an end any more than I do. This is what we’re doing today. Mum is trying. Stop jumping to conclusions because you’re mad or you’ll ruin this day for everyone.”

“Why aren’t you angry at her?”

“I’m furious, Charlie, but she’s still our mum. We still have her. I know people who don’t.”

“Stop being reasonable or I’ll start thinking you have a brain in that head.”

“No, you won’t.”

“You’re right, I won’t.”

Bernie retreated to the kitchen to be with Serena. She was going to try and try and try until she got this right.

“Remind me again who’s got allergies and who’s vegan?”

Serena had originally prepared feast enough to feed a small village since she was expecting a hamlet’s worth of hospital personnel to pass through her house. Bernie’s contribution of a Christmas hen and several store-bought sides was therefore much appreciated when those who were staying into the evening sat down to eat.

It was immediately obvious Charlotte and Serena’s daughter Elinor had had bonded over having their respective dinner plans thwarted. Bernie remembered when shared grievances were once plenty enough to build a friendship on. To be that young again.

Bernie continued to make herself useful by helping Serena mete out the food and add additional place settings as needed. Serena’s was a house made for family and she had her own family, made all on her own, right here. They took Bernie and her chicks under their wings with no effort at all.

Serena carried out a glistening bird on a platter. Fletch, he of Fletchlings’ father fame, sliced and diced. There was roast potatoes and brussels sprouts, parsnip and swede, and pigs in a blanket. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gammon. To say nothing of Bernie’s hen, asparagus, and mince pies. It was an impressive spread that everyone ate from like they were ravenous, with plenty left over to take home. Serena reminded her that she was still expecting some of her colleagues to drop in after their shifts as well. A full house, indeed.

Everyone pitched in to clean up between dinner and pudding, bar the most mischievous of the children who were shooed to the living room to keep from spreading the mess around. Serena and Bernie were playfully bickering over the most efficient way to clear the table when Theo trundled in with the stuffed reindeer Serena had given him as an early gift. He was awfully cute, Bernie could understand the impulse to spoil he and his siblings rotten when they hadn’t much in the way of family themselves.

With vehemence only a toddler could muster, Theo pointed to the sprig of mistletoe pinned to the door frame above the dining room entry. “Kiss,” he demanded in that childish manner that was somehow impossible to defy.

Bernie turned to give Serena bewildered look, only Serena kissed her before she could.

Serena kissed her.

Their hands were preoccupied, each loaded down with dishes to be washed. Serena’s lips glided over hers, glanced the corner of her mouth to brush her chin. Bernie thought, she thought she felt the barest hint of teeth scrape her jaw. The kiss ended so abruptly Bernie’s vision swam.

Bernie licked her lips and followed her fellow hostess into the kitchen.

The kiss had been nice. Serena hadn’t taken any liberties Bernie disapproved. It was a simple gesture to entertain a precocious child for whom she had some fondness, nothing more. Damn if it didn’t linger on Bernie’s mind for the rest of pudding. Having felt it against her own, she couldn’t keep from watching Serena’s mouth. How she ate, how she drank, her laugh and smile.

Their second kiss was a slower affair, a challenge offered in jest from Fletch and a recently arrived Raf di Lucca. Serena had eyed Bernie to see if she minded and Bernie couldn’t find words for how little she minded being prompted to kiss Serena Campbell.  

Bernie initiated this one under the pretense of upholding tradition. Serena’s hands were occupied carrying a platter of Christmas biscuits fresh from the oven. Bernie caught her chin and kissed her.  She made it count.

She angled Serena’s mouth under hers to discreetly draw on her bottom lip, tracing the wine-stained  seam till Serena’s mouth opened to admit a teasing flick of Bernie’s tongue. Serena had just fitted their mouths together perfectly when Raf and Fletch began to cough significantly nearby.

Serena’s eyes were glassy and her gait unsteady as she trailed Bernie into the kitchen.

Their third kiss took place in the kitchen, beside the sink filling with hot, soapy water. This one was brandy soaked and smelt of gingerbread. This one Bernie loved best.

Serena was insatiable now she had Bernie where she wanted her: pinned to the rim of the sink, panting as Serena planted fluttering, open-mouthed kisses down her jaw and beneath her ear, down her neck. Bernie’s button-up had already been summarily untucked from her trousers to let Serena get her hands under.

Bernie’s heart was fluttering; her hands were sweating. She walked Serena to the cupboard to press her against the door. Bernie nipped gently at her lips. Serena whined, chasing the contact. She was a picture, flushed ears and eyes blown black. Color crept up from her chest to her throat. Bernie followed the color with her lips, skimming Serena’s own to favor her chin and her temple and cheeks.

Serena pulled her back down for a proper kiss, hands dug in her hair, her mouth open, tongue tasting, their bodies too flush to permit a breath of air between them. It was Bernie who moaned, who whined, pressed deeper, needing more, to get closer, to explore. One hand stroking Serena’s neck, the other caressing her back, caught in hypnotic sensation of cashmere over the lushest curves and softest skin.

When they broke the kiss, Bernie was dizzy and weak-kneed with desire. Serena’s own lustful delirium came equipped with a Cheshire grin. They slumped together against the cupboard.

“Sorry, I’ve wanted to do that for days.”

“Hope it was worth the wait.”

“You are.” Serena coaxed her to the counter with curled fingers that set heat zipping through Bernie. She uncovered a dozen or so chocolate-dipped cherries arrayed on doilie-covered silver platter, drizzled in white chocolate.

"I prepared these especially for the grownups among us. Have one?"

"Only for the grownups?" Bernie asked, mouth watering for other reasons.

"They might have been soaked in something my littler guests aren't old enough to appreciate."

“Just the one. I have to take the kids home.”

Serena selected one to her liking and instructed Bernie to open wide. Being hand-fed chocolate-dipped drunker cherries by a woman who looked like Serena exceeded her expectations for the evening and the end to her rather trying year. Serena's thumb on her lower lip easily overrode any fantasy Bernie had indulged in thus far. She tasted better than Bernie had thought she might up to now. Better than woman had a right to taste after three kisses.

“It’ll be a shame to see the back of you, nice though it is.” Her appreciative look gave Bernie a thrill.

Bernie kissed the inside of Serena’s hand. She was sure she felt her pulse jump.

“Thank you for sharing your Christmas dinner with us. I loved it. I think Charlotte’s softened a bit meeting Elinor.” A slow thawing but a thawing nonetheless.

“That would have to be the first time anybody’s said that about my daughter.”

Bernie interrupted her laughter. “I’d like to kiss you again.”

“Jumping right to business. I admire that can-do attitude in a woman.” Serena stroked her cheek. Serena adored her already. It was all in her eyes and her touch. How she sank her teeth into Bernie’s lip and kissed her deep and slow. “What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”

Bernie fought past the lump of want in her throat. Want, fear, self-recrimination. She could have Serena, who was already casually offering Bernie everything.

“No firm plans. Have any suggestions?”

Serena wound a lock of Bernie’s hair around her finger and gave a firm, deliberate tug.

Bernie swallowed, her lustful fire thoroughly lit.

“Call me. I’m sure I can come up with something.”

Chapter Text

In the office of the CEO, Serena and Henrik compared their respective itineraries, trying to find room to conduct interviews for their new hires.

“I’ll need to accompany the CQC inspectors through Darwin and Keller for spot-check inspections.” He emitted a grave hum. “Regrettably the inspections are to take place on the same day as I'm meant to speak to Major Berenice Wolfe about leading Holby City Hospital's prospective trauma team.”

Serena perused her schedule for the day in question. AAU had come through their spot check with flying colors the previous week, thus she wasn't needed on the ward that day.

“Why don’t you let me tender the invitation? I can meet with the dashing major and interview our second trauma candidate in the same evening. Kill two birds with one stone.”

“Assuming you're willing to leave your ward in Mr. Spence's capable hands for an evening.”

“That's what nanny cams are for—to keep him honest. I'll do it.”

Serena dropped news of Bernie Wolfe's impending job interview into a few select ears to see what the rumor mill would return to her. It was, as ever, enlightening as any firsthand biography appended to a peer-reviewed publication.  Top of her class during university. Had her choice of positions after university, chose University Hospital, London where she quickly rose in prominence. When she was set to be offered Head of Surgery she was recruited to the British Army where she served for twenty years. Months short of a surefire promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, she was gravely injured by an IED exploding her transport vehicle. Sustained heart and spinal injuries. As a consequence of her family's understandable distress, she resigned her commission effective immediately and ended her marriage not long after.  One assumes the latter wasn’t entirely divorced from the former.

There were some rumors about Bernie having been involved in a rather hush-hush extramarital affair with a female subordinate which Serena chose to take with a grain of salt. What Bernie had or hadn't got up to in the theater of war was entirely her own concern. Given the fabulist nature of the hospital rumor mill Serena was reluctant to believe everything she heard about the recently divorced major.  On the other hand, she was a firm believer in making use of any advantage.  Regardless of whether Bernie Wolfe preferred women, it couldn’t hurt for Serena to take special care in her appearance. She wanted to present an image of alluring authority. As such, Serena made sure to dress especially well for their interview.

Tuesday night, Serena entered the bar of Hopewell Hotel ahead of her 6 pm appointment. She liked to be early to model her expectations of future hospital employees. It also gave her the opportunity to observe them without being observed; to take the lie of the land, as it were. They tended to be more themselves before they put their game faces on and that was who Serena liked to assess.

After some gandering, Serena spotted Bernie Wolfe tucked away in a cushy booth. She largely resembled her service photo but for her hair which looked rather like she hadn't stopped combing her hands through it for hours.  When she stood to stretch her legs—and what legs they were—Serena hung back to watch a while longer. She too was well dressed. A tailored two-tone waistcoat over tailored slacks. Very well-tailored slacks by Serena's reckoning. A bit above Serena’s height. Athletic. Attractive, Serena noted right off. Very attractive, in fact.

She checked her watch once but seemed otherwise unfazed that Serena hadn't appeared when 6 pm rocked past. A cool head. Patient, too. Good. Just what we need.

This was all a matter of procedure. Bernie was who the Board wanted, and Serena happened to agree she was the best candidate to lead the hospital in a new direction. Now for the brass racks of securing her acceptance. Bernie wasn’t the only surgeon known for keeping a cool head under pressure.


When Serena Campbell strode into the Hopewell Hotel bar at ten to six, Bernie pretended she hadn't seen her. It wouldn't do admitting she'd looked her up to take stock of who her interviewer would be. She had a solid CV with impressive experience.  Copious publications to her name, some of featuring techniques Bernie had implemented in the field. She wasn't going to be easily impressed by a woman in or out of uniform, and Bernie did quite want to impress her. This was the woman who’d decide if Bernie was going to make a go of it in Holby City and perhaps repair her fractured relationships with her children.  Bernie needed to impress her.

Serena lingered by the entrance and then a nearby table, watching Bernie. Bernie checked her watch and tried not to squirm at being observed. The ten minutes her perusal lasted seemed like an hour. This felt like a game she didn't know the rules to and could easily lose.

She ordered coffee and drank her complimentary ice water, hoping against hope she wouldn't need to use the loos before their interview ended. She didn't have long to consider it. No sooner had a server had sat down Bernie’s pitch black cuppa than Serena joined her at her corner booth, hand already extended for a fair shake.

“Major Wolfe? Serena Campbell, deputy CEO of Holby City Hospital. We spoke on the phone.”

Bernie stood to greet Serena. She was on her back foot and doing her best to hide it. Now that Serena was near enough to examine in detail, Bernie’s nerves doubled. Calling Serena attractive was a profound understatement. Calling her Bernie’s type would have been putting it mildly. Eye on the prize. This is a job interview, not a blind date.

“Of course. Please sit down. I hope you don’t mind the seating arrangements; I prefer having my back to the wall if I can.”

“That’s more than fine.” Serena produced an employment contract from her briefcase for Bernie’s inspection. “Shall we get started, Major?”

“Let’s, and it’s Bernie, please.”

Bernie slipped on a pair of reading glasses from her jacket pocket and gave the standard sections of the contract a skim, placing asterisks anyplace questions arose. So involved was she in that task it took her a moment to realize Serena hadn’t begun the interview.

Bernie glanced over the top of her glasses at the other surgeon. Her fair complexion had gone rosy and her eyes bright, as though she’d stopped for a nightcap prior to their meeting.

“Everything all right, Ms. Campbell?”                                            

Serena cleared her throat and lightly fanned herself. “Apologies, it’s a bit warmer in here than I expected. Let me just get myself a drink.” She scampered off to the bar faster than Bernie could offer Serena the rest of her own. She really did look parched. Among other notable adjectives.

Bernie traced her shape against the outline of the bar. Loose-fitting trousers and a black blazer just kissed her silhouette. The sheer blouse and camisole combo Bernie was unable see from her current vantage that showcased her assets to spectacular effect. Serena crossed her legs behind her, flicking up a pointed kitten heel.  There was a flash of bare ankle and naked calve, scaling up to a cloth-draped knee and a robust thigh. Bernie admired the fullness of her backside and the span of her hips. That dip in her waist where someone’s arms might fit. Bernie’s arms come some fine day.

I need to get out more. She hadn’t known the woman five minutes and here she was mooning like a love-starved teenager. Or a touch-starved recent divorcée.

Glancing over her shoulder, Serena caught Bernie’s eye rising from her bum.

Bernie yanked off her glasses to give them an unneeded scrub on the hem of her top.

Crikey! She’d been caught looking.

Bernie cleared her throat and took a quick drink from her water glass to hide her encroaching nerves when Serena returned carrying a club soda.

“If you’re ready to begin?” Serena prompted, all business. Bernie mimicked her officiousness, wanting very much to forget her faux pas.

“Ready when you are.”

“Fantastic.” She sat right down as though she hadn’t caught Bernie eyeing her up like a Christmas ham.  “Call me Serena.”

They dove right in. This was all a formality, as far as Bernie knew.  The job was as good as hers if she wanted it, to hear Henrik Hanssen tell it.

“What’s brought you home from Afghanistan?”

“One too many near-death experiences for my liking.” Serena arched a brow in wordless censure.  She wanted a real answer.  Bernie sighed, averting her eyes to her callused hands.  “In all seriousness, my family is here and it’s where I’d like to be from now on.” The Deputy CEO needed someone she could rely on to tell the truth, not blur the lines with macho bollocks.

“Family, an admirable cause.  Do you expect to relocate in the next calendar year?”

“No. Holby is where I see my future, in the long and short term. I intend to put down roots. I’m not sure I’ve done that before, but I like the sound of it.”

“I can’t think of a better city for it.”

Bernie sat forward, interested to hear more. There weren’t enough friendly ears to bend in Holby City as Bernie saw it. She was happy lending herself to one.

“Do you have family here, in Holby?”

“I grew up not far from here and raised my daughter in Holby for the most part after moving around some. It’s like I never left, for the most part.” A daughter. Bernie stamped out a flicker of disappointment.

“Better than Harvard?”

“Have you been reading up on me?” Serena teased. “Good. I like a prepared woman. Massachusetts had its attractions; that’s where I met my ex-husband. Having got rid of him once and for all, I don’t see myself going back. Who knows what I’d end up bring home the next time?” Serena flipped through Bernie’s annotated contract. She pulled the contract away from her face a bit.

“Would you like to borrow my glasses? They’re mostly for reading.”

“If you wouldn’t mind. I see perfectly well in a well-lit theater but give me fine print in romantic lighting and I’m afraid I begin to show my years.” Serena donned Bernie’s proffered specs gratefully. For once Bernie was grateful for the nondescript frames that suited Serena as well as they did herself. Bernie felt an old familiar feeling taking up residence in the pit of her stomach. She’d look good in my clothes.

 “When asked to list accommodations that might sweeten the honey pot, as it were, you left it blank.” Serena took off Bernie’s glasses. “Isn’t there anything we can do bring you on board?”

“The primary attraction is location. The secondary attraction is access to the facilities and freedom to develop a trauma unit as I see fit. Everything else is tertiary.”

“Impressive. I like a woman who knows what she’s about.”

“Then you’re sure to get a kick out of me. I’m told I can be demanding.” Usually in a complaint to her commanding officer who backed her play each time. Being the best at what she did commanded some benefit.

“Nothing wrong with knowing your worth.”

“I’m told I can be uncooperative.” When she was willing to fight for patients unable to fight on their own behalves.

“The magic word for ‘bitch’ from those too afraid to say it outright. Can’t say I admire their cheek.”

“I don’t care what they mumble under their breath so long as they follow my orders.”

“Touché. A word of caution, Bernie, if I may. This is the NHS, not the army. You’ll be expected to consult your colleagues, not merely hand down orders expecting them to be obeyed.”

“That’ll take some getting used to, but I’m equal to it. Love a challenge.”

“Good woman. That’s what I like to hear.”

“Will you be the deciding factor in my hiring, Ms. Campbell?”

“Serena, please, and I’m afraid not. I’ll merely offer my hiring recommendation to the CEO, as well as the board.”

“What do you wager my chances are?”

Serena put on Bernie’s glasses a second time to review the contract again. They lent her an air studiousness that made Bernie smile behind her next sip of coffee.

“Better than most. Your credentials are impeccable, your references unimpregnable and your reputation unimpeachable. Holby City Hospital would be lucky to have you.” Her smile was wide and familiar, warmer than the first one she’d bestowed on Bernie.

“And I’d be lucky to have you. Holby Hospital. I meant…the hospital.”

“I’m sure you did.” Bernie’s oversized lenses did nothing to conceal the humor crinkling Serena’s eyes.

Bernie fiddled with the stirrer for her coffee. Despite the casual setting she hadn’t dared order anything stronger to drink during her sit-down interview with Holby City Hospital’s deputy CEO. She wanted to be hired and the hospital was prepared to meet her rather strenuous demands. No sense in buggering up a sure bet with alcohol. Flirtation was a separate, thornier bush.

“Have you worked at Holby long? Is it a good hospital?” Bernie could have kicked herself for asking such an inane question when all she wanted to do was keep Serena talking. Next, she might inquire about what dreary weather they were having, in England of all places.

Serena crossed her arms over the top of the contract, seemingly done giving it a read. All of Bernie’s questions and concerned had already been addressed.

“It has its quirks, I’ll admit, but the staff is dedicated and eager to learn. You’re the latest, greatest fascination echoing in the halls. I’ve fielded more questions about your CV than about the next hospital-wide salary bump due at the start of the fiscal year. You’ll enjoy an endless supply of enthusiastic pupils with us.”

“Should I expect to count you be among them?” Serena wouldn’t be the first administrator prone to watching over Bernie’s shoulder to make sure she toed the line.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret about me.” Serena leaned in. Bernie sloped forward to meet her halfway. There was something about a woman in glasses…“I never quite grew out of being teacher’s pet and I don’t mean to start now.” Which couldn’t be farther from a problem for Bernie; she was sure she had loads to teach Serena, and hands-on teaching was her preferred method of instruction. Thinking about said lessons while under the deputy CEO’s watchful eye was probably none too wise.

“I admire your passion for continual self-improvement.”

“Yes, well, I can be quite solicitous with proper instruction.” Serena pulled on the gold necklace around her neck, drawing Bernie’s eye down to the neckline of the sheer blouse she wore over a snug black camisole.  The benefits of employment at Holby City Hospital were generous, it could not be denied.

Bernie took a lukewarm drink to cover her stare. “Our respective positions aside, you know you’ll have to follow my lead from time to time.”

“You’ll find I’m rather versatile when it comes to switching positions.”

Bernie cleared her throat.  Blatant as a bell, she couldn’t have imagined that.  Serena’s victorious smirk was belied by the laughter in her eyes. “Your natural flexibility will serve you well in trauma medicine.”

“I hope it serves you even better.” Serena wrapped her red lips around her straw to sip her club soda without taking her eyes off Bernie. Bernie was gasping for something stronger than coffee of a sudden. Serena struck her as the type to leave anybody gasping for more.

“In theater?”

“Anywhere you need me, Major Wolfe. I’m at your service.”

With a single look Serena seemed to say, ‘I want to leave lipsticks marks on the inside of your thighs’.

Bernie hoped her answering glance replied, ‘Whenever you like.’

“If you don’t have any more questions, I’ll be off.”

Bernie wasn’t ready for her to go.

“People to boss around?”

“Oh, plenty of that. I’ve always been a bit…commanding. I enjoy being on top. Comes with the job.” Serena carefully removed Bernie’s glasses and handed them over to her. “Who knows, maybe you’ll teach me another way.” Their fingers brushed as Bernie took them back. They were still warm when she put them on.

 “May I call you if I think of anything?”

“I’d be insulted if you didn’t.” Their look lasted a hair longer than could be called appropriate by any stretch. “Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch soon.”

“I look forward to it.” Feeling bold, Bernie grazed the back of Serena’s hand. “This might be too forward of me, but would you care to join me for a drink?”

Serena watched her hand.

“I…shouldn’t. Could be seen as favoritism.”

Bernie withdrew, duly chastened. She’d gotten ahead of herself. No, she hadn’t; she’d gotten ahead of both of them. She’d read the signs as they were written.

“Maybe after it’s all said and done, then. It’s not often I meet another consultant so eager to make friends.”

Serena’s smile turned suggestive in a blink.

“I think I’d quite like making friends with you.” The word ‘friends’ did all the work in that sentence.

Bernie shifted in her seat. “I get the impression you’re flirting with me, Ms. Campbell.”

“That would be highly unethical of me.”

“Would it be?”

Serena grazed Bernie’s pinkie with her own.

“I’m afraid it would. You see, I’m going to be in the enviable position of confirming your appointment, should you choose to take the position. I would be remiss to allow you to enter our ranks under a cloud of suspicion. No, no flirtation on my part. Only frank appreciation for your many fine attributes.” Her eyes dropped to Bernie’s lips. Her neck. Lower until Bernie could only guess where they’d land. No flirtation, indeed.

“I’m also quite in awe of your attributes, Ms. Campbell.”

“I do work at them.” Serena bit her lip, perhaps weighing good judgment against bad. No, Bernie thought, best not to put the cart before the horse and risk going no place fast. They were professionals; they knew the score. “I should go before I say something I shouldn’t.” She nodded toward the lift. Bernie got up to join her once she’d retrieved her coat. She was staying at the Hopewell until she secured post-divorce accommodations. The bar held little attraction for her without Serena in it.

They entered the lift together, alone, and it was only when Serena pushed the button for a floor two below Bernie’s that she realized Serena had her own destination in mind.

“You have a room here? I assumed you lived in Holby proper.”

“I do, but I have another engagement in a couple of hours. It’s easier to take a breather and freshen up in a room than dashing home and running the risk of being late. Must make a sterling impression on the next one.”

“You’re interviewing other candidates for the position tonight? Here?”

“I couldn’t say. Confidentiality, you understand.”

“I do. I was under the impression I was the front runner for the position, is all.” On one hand, she was disappointed she might not get work with Serena after all. On the other hand, outside of a common workplace, the possibilities were endless.

“You are, but we’re at a rather delicate stage in planning.   We’re going to need a trauma lead if we’re to get this unit up and running. We can’t afford to play favorites. All qualified applicants are being considered. I’m afraid that’s really all I can say on the matter.” She sounded apologetic, regretful.

“Right, of course. You’ve probably said too much already. Thank you.” They arrived at Serena’s destination. They exchanged heated glances. Serena held the handle of her briefcase in a vicelike grip; Bernie kept her hands in her pockets, not entirely trusting them to behave. When the doors began to close, Bernie threw out an arm to stop them.

“Your stop,” she reminded Serena who stood rooted to the spot opposite her. The sudden lack of glasses also had the consequence of leaving Serena’s expressions exposed. Bernie was grateful for the chance to hide.

Serena came back to herself. “Right…my stop. Busy night ahead of me.”

“Not too busy, I hope, or I might be out of a job.”

Serena chanced a conspiratorial murmur: “I wouldn’t worry, hm?”

They shook hands again, this contact lingering where the first had been brusque; intimate where before it had only grazed geniality.

“Until next time.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Without breaking eye contact, Serena backed out of the lift.

"Goodnight, Bernie."

"Goodnight."

Bernie clung to her professionalism, her ethics, her innate common sense. All reasons why following Serena to her hotel room was inadvisable.

She watched Serena until the lift doors shut and she was gone from sight.

Bernie thought of Serena, two floors above her (and inches below her), for the rest of the night.

When morning saw her receiving a job offer courtesy of Henrik Hanssen, Bernie was quick to accept.  Holby City Hospital promised to be the adventure of a lifetime, and Bernie intended to enjoy every last minute.

But first, to have words with a certain deputy CEO about Bernie’s idea of hands-on education…