Bernie drives herself home, body on autopilot. Wanders to her bedroom, strips out of her work clothes. Methodically throws them into the laundry basket. Passes by the mirror in her wardrobe in nothing but bra and panties; freezes when she catches sight of the words inked on her skin.
In arduis fidelis.
Faithful in adversity.
What irony, Bernie thinks, as she stops and stares, stands side-on to the mirror and runs her fingers over the tattoo. It all felt like a lifetime ago.
Faithful. She lost the right to be called that the first time she and Alex fell into a bunk together, eyes wide and breaths harsh against each others' necks.
Faithful in adversity.
Those three words, indelibly on her skin, part of an innocence she quickly lost - the biggest irony in her life because she had failed so spectacularly on that count, hadn't she? Faithfulness to her husband in the adversity of war. That was a simple enough interpretation.
Yet she couldn't do it. Could not look past her own selfish fears and desires to stay the path.
No, please don’t do this -
And now - she'd done it again. Only this time, it was a different betrayal, a different battlefield that she did not know the rules to.
I could come and see you; we could meet halfway
Bernie sighs, slumps against her mirror. Buries her face in her hands as she leans against the cool glass.
“Oh, you stupid , stupid coward,” she mutters to herself, for the second time that day.
A distant hammering at her front door shakes her and she grabs the nearest thing she can find, a pair of loose pyjama bottoms (Black Watch tartan, a gift from a grateful friend she had saved in Bastion).
The hammering increases in intensity and volume and Bernie scowls, throwing caution to the wind as she hurries to answer the door.
Cracks it open, pokes her head out.
Finds her breath leaving her chest when she finds Serena Campbell standing there, shopping bags in her hands.
A shaky inhale, Serena raising her head, defiantly.
"I believe you promised me dinner at your place tonight."
"I've brought the ingredients for pasta. Nothing too complicated."
A fierce glare, familiar lips (and oh how soft they were ) turning down into a frown.
"Bernie. We need to talk; don't let's part on... whatever that was that happened on AAU."
"Are you going to let me in? Because I'll stand here until you do, you know."
And there was no doubt at all in Bernie's mind that Serena would, too.
So she opens the door further, lets Serena slip in past her even as she stays hidden behind the door, conscious of her (nearly) bare torso.
"I got the ingredients for spaghetti Bolognese; I could whip that up in my sleep... "
Serena bustles right past Bernie and into her tiny kitchenette, settling the three Waitrose bags she'd brought with her onto the small countertop.
Serena’s voice cuts through the air as cleanly as a gunshot.
“You will sit there, Berenice Wolfe, and you will listen to me," Serena growls, shaking hands still frantically busy with the contents of the bags.
Bernie sits, folds herself into the barstool opposite Serena, hands wringing themselves in her lap.
Serena stays silent for a while more, pulls out the mince, the tomatoes and onion and garlic and pasta. Stacks them neatly before her, lines up the two bottles of Shiraz she had brought by the side.
A deep breath, and then she raises her eyes to meet Bernie's, the first time she'd deigned to set eyes on her properly since barreling through the front door.
Bernie blushes, inadvertently, as Serena’s eyes widen, a flush rising in her own cheeks as she takes in Bernie’s half-naked form. Self consciously she moves to hug herself, wrapping her arms across her ribs, one palm warm cupped protectively around her tattoo.
Dropping her gaze, Bernie stares at the counter, vaguely aware of Serena’s hands balling themselves into fists, clenching and unclenching.
(as though they wanted nothing better than to reach out and touch, bare skin on bare skin and Bernie knew - she just knew - that if Serena did, that would be them finished, the one and only time they would have each other and that would be it, their friendship torn asunder by stupid stupid cowardice and lust and - and she could not bear to think could not bear to feel - )
She is interrupted in her downward spiral of panic by Serena’s voice, low and insistent, dark eyes boring into Bernie’s when she finally dares to look up, away from those hands, forced by circumstance and the singular will of Serena Campbell to face her fears.
Serena is methodical; surgical, almost, in her delivery of what she had come to Bernie to say and in her mind Bernie finds herself collecting bullet points and sub-headings of what Serena Campbell doesn’t want and what she does want and how she understands why Bernie needed to run and oh - Berenice Griselda Wolfe had better stay true to her word, had better stay faithful to her promise of not hurting Serena whilst she was away, because it may be hard for you to believe, Bernie, but I...care for you too, and damn it all to hell, Serena Campbell was one to bear take it to the grave grudges, and really, Bernie wouldn’t want to end up on that list, would she?
Bernie only sits and listens, hands flexing, squeezing, bruising; grounding herself in this reality, nails digging into dark words on warm skin.
Serena takes a breath.
Sets down the knife, scrapes the tomatoes into a bowl. Does not meet Bernie’s eyes, speaks to the onion she begins to peel instead.
"So... Go. Go with my blessing, Bernie. It...It's what you should do. It's what you need to do, for your career, for yourself."
Another rattling breath, and she sets the onion down, picks up the knife again.
"Maybe... maybe you were right. I know I don't want you to go."
The onion, sliced neatly in half, and then halved again.
"But... But I also know that I want you back, Berenice Wolfe. Even if... Even if I come to decide in time that... I might or might not be in love with you. I know I would still want you back. As a friend, as a colleague... My first port of call. Maddening as you are."
Bernie’s breath hitches; she unwinds her death grip on herself, stills her hands in lap with forced calm.
Serena offers up a tremulous smile, and the tears in her eyes have nothing to do with the onion she continues to dice.
Bernie says nothing, looks down at her hands. Feels her heartbeat thudding against the thin skin of her wrist, feels the slight draft from the open kitchen window. Shivers.
Makes a decision.
She stands, ignoring Serena's laboured breathing, moves around the kitchen counter to hover behind Serena.
The chopping slows, and Serena draws another shuddering breath, swiping at her eyes with her wrists.
"Thank you," Bernie whispers, sliding her arms about Serena's waist, resting her forehead against the back of Serena's neck.
("I love you," she doesn't (cannot) say (yet); only squeezes a little harder, presses a kiss to the side of Serena's neck)
The knife clatters to the chopping board, then, and Serena turns in Bernie's arms, seeks a kiss and is rewarded, both of them exhaling in relief, in grief, in emotions too raw to name.
"Let's get your hands washed, eh?" Bernie murmurs, when Serena pulls back, her face pressed into the side of Bernie's neck.
A shaky laugh, huffed against her skin, and Serena complies, uncurling from Bernie's embrace.
Bernie watches her fondly, quick efficient hands scrubbing the familiar patterns across palms and wrists she'd seen so many times in the scrub room.
"Let's call takeout. I mean… You did say something about meeting me halfway, didn't you? We could... We could work out the details of that? If you like?"
Serena stills, turns off the tap and lets her hands drip dry in the sink for a long moment.
Bernie holds her breath.
And then Serena turns, reaches for a hand towel, smiles an impish smile that sends tingles down Bernie's spine.
"Why Ms Wolfe, I do believe that's the best idea you've had all day," she purrs, stepping close to kiss Bernie, again. Her hands wander, of course they do, because she's Serena Campbell, hedonism and sensuality defined, and Bernie's breath hitches (not for the last time that night) as careful fingers brush across her bare skin, her ribs, across the promise she had broken so often in the past.
"What's the matter?" Serena murmurs, breaking away, her palm still warm against Bernie's side.
"Ah... Nothing, nothing," Bernie mutters, leaning back in to kiss Serena's again, raising a hand to cover Serena's where it lay over her ribs, holding it in place.
In arduis fidelis.
Faithful in adversity.
For Serena, she would be.