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someone who'll be strong beside you

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1)

Bernie Wolfe had only been part of the AAU team for a month when she’d first forgotten the money for her morning coffee. Cameron had started answering her calls, but his words were always brusque and closed-off, and no matter how many times Charlotte’s phone went to voicemail, she never gave up trying. ‘They’ll come round’ Serena had offered on a rare quiet afternoon in her office, and Bernie had believed it. But her mind was always racing, running over the events of the past few months, tying the threads of her life into knots and making futile attempts to untangle them.

Lately, this had resulted in absentmindedness. Going to the shop for milk and returning with a packet of twenty cigarettes that she knew she wouldn’t smoke. Leaving washed laundry in a heap on the floor until the only clean clothes she had left were crumpled and in want of ironing. One morning, she’d forgotten her house key. She’d moved into a new place and (as expected) not immediately attached them to her car key ring.  Arriving back to the flat, exhausted and unable to get inside, she had slumped onto the floor, head against the door. Luckily, she had learned to pick locks as a child, and she had never forgotten.

Today, it is her purse that receives the distinction of being left behind in place of some other important thought. Only when she has ordered her coffee at Pulses does she discover it to be missing from her bag, leading to an embarrassed apology and a quick dash up the stairs. She'd rather be out of breath than await the lift to be stared down by the disgruntled customers in the queue behind her.

She throws her coat onto the chair in Serena’s office, and goes to the AAU staff room to find a mug and a caffeine boost to clear her head. It is the first time she’s really been here, often eating on the run or at home. The room is empty, so she begins to open and shut cupboards in quick succession in search of a spare mug. She is crouching by a cupboard near to the sink when two feet appear next to her, and she has to steady herself to avoid falling over backwards.

“Looking for something?” Serena says, and Bernie can hear the smile in her voice, almost feel the warmth of it.

“Um ... cups,” she says, standing up. She pushes her fringe out of her eyes.

Serena moves to the other side of the room, to a cupboard Bernie swears she has shuffled through already, and pulls out two mugs. One is printed with 'World's Best Auntie'; the other covered in a generic flowery pattern. She puts them onto the counter top while Bernie grabs a jar of instant coffee and flicks the kettle switch on.

She twists the top, squeezes it, her knuckles whiten under the pressure. Serena is hovering behind her, her body barely an inch from Bernie’s and she can feel the heat rising in her neck as she struggles with the jar.

“Big and macho army medic, are we?” Serena says, her breath hitting Bernie’s bare neck and sending shivers down her spine, “Need a hand?”

Bernie turns and sees her smiling face, handing over the jar in defeat. Serena twists it once, effortlessly removing the lid and using a teaspoon to put the coffee into the two cups. She doesn’t say anything else, but Bernie can tell she’s brimming with victory.

She determines to get to the gym and lift weights straight after work.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

2)

When Serena invites Bernie for dinner, it is with every intention of getting a good home cooked meal inside her. The stories she hears of microwaveable lasagne and Cup a Soup are enough to send her mothering instincts into overdrive, and she resolves to ensure her new co-lead is full and content before leaving the Campbell abode. She spends her day off shopping for ingredients; picking up flowers and Shiraz at the supermarket almost before anything else.

She lays the table with her best napkins. She seeks out her best set of plates. She slots two candles into the silver candlesticks she saves for very special occasions.

“Does Bernie not know how to cook?” Jason asks, hovering behind her.

He has been mulling over the visit all day, and Serena senses that he is half-annoyed, half-excited with Ms. Wolfe's imminent arrival.

“Evidently she’s not doing the best job of it at the moment,” she smiles.

Gently gripping his arm, she thinks how smart he looks, and how proud she is to call him hers. After a moment’s pondering, the clock on the dining room mantelpiece chimes the half hour, and she suddenly realises she has very little time to get dressed.

The doorbell rings as she is still teasing her hair in the bedroom mirror. She smooths her new red dress and tiptoes downstairs, her tights catching on a loose nail in the skirting board as she descends.

“Hello Bernie. You were due to arrive exactly eighteen minues and thirty-seven seconds ago,” Jason says as their guest steps over the threshold nervously clutching a bottle of wine.

“Sorry I’m late – got stuck in a traffic jam,” she says, removing her rain-damp coat. She gazes up at Serena, who is waiting on the bottom step.

“Don’t apologise. You’re here now,” she grins.

Bernie’s breath catches in her throat as she sees her colleague in a dress for the first time. She looks particularly beautiful this evening; her soft make up accentuates her eyes and mouth.

At Serena's request, they all head into the dining room. Taking a long look around the room, Bernie feels safe. She’s never really had this kind of friendship before. No one had invited her to their home because they wanted to be in her company, and she’d never felt comfortable enough to go. The quiet domesticity of Serena’s house is exactly what she had imagined, but the change in Serena’s demeanour is a wonder to behold. At home, she loses the steely exterior - she isn’t as forthright and determined. Her actions are light and soothing, her voice exudes quiet contentedness, and Bernie feels a wave of calm wash over her.

“Auntie Serena, there is a hole in your tights.”

Both women glance down to see a ladder reaching from Serena’s calf way up beyond where the dress falls above her knee. She sighs in annoyance, then slips off her shoes, and rolls the tights over her feet and away. Bernie tries her best to retain composure, but having just been faced with Serena Campbell’s smooth and shapely white legs, she manages to crash into her chair before sitting down.

The wine flows with the conversation, and the three of them enjoy a meal as though it is something that they’ve been doing every night for years.

Jason soon relocates to the living room in front of the television, and the two of them are left sitting at the dining table. Serena has removed her kitten heels and has her feet resting on the seat next to her. Bernie is leaning back in her chair opposite, wondering which fluke of the universe she should thank for throwing her a friend like this just when she needed one most.

“What about the washing up?” Bernie asks eventually.

A frantic mid-morning text alerted her to the fact that Serena’s dishwasher has gone on the blink.

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“Why don’t I do it?”

“No, you’re my guest.”

“It’s the least I could do after you cooked me such a delicious meal ... ”

A playful glint arises in Serena’s eyes. She puts down her glass and Bernie wonders what she’s in for this time.

“Tell you what, I’ll arm wrestle you for it. If I win, I have to do the washing up, because I’m nothing if not a gracious host.”

“All right.”

“But you can’t let me win this time,” she says, pointing a finger playfully at Bernie.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Serena moves the placemats aside, and places her elbow onto the table. She waits for Bernie to slot her hand into hers; her soft moisturised palms flush against sandpapery surgeons' skin.

“Ready? Go!”

They both try hard this time. Their eyes lock in almost as strong a grip as their fingers, and it takes a good two minutes before Bernie feels her wrist begin to spasm from the strain. Serena slams her hand hard onto the table.

“Victory at last!”

“I don’t see what’s victorious about having to do the washing up,” Bernie says, taking a large gulp of wine from her glass in an attempt to restore her spirit.

“All right, Major. But if I agree to share the dishes, you have to agree to stay in the spare room tonight. I'm not about to let you drive home after all that Shiraz ... deal?”

“Deal,” Bernie exhales, overpowered by Serena in more ways than one.

 

Chapter Text

3)

“It’s a bit bare, isn’t it?” Serena blurts out, as she takes a quick glance around Bernie’s tiny flat.

She’d come to pick Bernie up for work earlier that week, and had noticed how empty it seemed. It composes three rooms; an open plan kitchen/living area, a fair-sized bedroom and an en-suite with a shower that tends to run cold.

In the middle of the room is a disarranged sofa bed that looks to Serena as though Bernie has been sleeping on it for some time.

She pushes the bedroom door ajar and is met with the sight of a double mattress on the floor, covered in a single blanket. There is a socket next to the bed with a small lamp and charger plugged into her laptop. At least she has a built-in wardrobe to store innumerable pairs of black skinny jeans, Serena thinks.

“Honestly, Bernie! It’s no wonder you’ve got back trouble,” she exclaims.

“I like minimalistic,” Bernie argues, shrugging. She shovels empty cartons and packets into the recycling bin before Serena can complain about her mess.

“I’m not leaving until I’ve ordered you a bed frame.”

Bernie opens her mouth to protest, but Serena continues before she can find the words.

“No ifs and buts, follow your doctor’s advice.”

--

The bed is delivered one Wednesday morning, and the delivery men are kind enough to lug it up four flights of stairs for her when it doesn’t quite fit into the lift. Bernie has the day off, so immediately starts cutting the tape and opening up the cardboard box. Flatpack furniture had always been something she enjoyed; the nuts and bolts are reminiscent of the mechanics of trauma surgery and she loves a challenge.

She is just reading through the instruction leaflet when she feels her phone vibrate on the bare floorboards beside her.

It’s Serena.

“Hello?” she says, only half concentrating on the conversation as she counts the pieces.

“Did the new bed arrive?”

“Yes ... how did you know?”

“Got an email alert. Want a hand putting it together?”

Bernie considers for a moment. She used to get annoyed if Marcus started interfering in one of her projects. But Serena isn’t Marcus – she’s far from it.

“If you like.”

“Okay,” Serena says, Bernie hearing the happiness alter her voice, “I’ll bring some lunch. We can make a proper day of it.”

“That would be lovely. See you in a bit.”

When she arrives, Serena is taken aback by the sight of Bernie, casually dressed in a loose vest top and leggings. Her legs are outstretched alongside the pieces of wood in her bedroom, and Serena could swear they’ve grown since yesterday. Her hair is scraped back into a high ponytail, strands escaping down her neck as she leans down to look for a screw.

For all the things Bernie doesn’t own, she is very grateful she packed her little toolbox when she moved out. It doesn’t take them long to assemble the main frame. They work together the way they do in theatre; collaboratively and co-operatively. Serena fetches them two bottles of icy water and some sandwiches as they begin to feel tired halfway through.

Sitting there on Bernie’s bedroom floor, surrounded by her clothes and mattress, Serena feels unusually content. As if this day, spent with her best friend, with the sun streaming through the window, is something she could get used to.

After they have finished eating lunch, there are a few pieces remaining until it is complete. Bernie locates a piece of metal, but hours of using the screwdriver have defeated her grip. She sighs and steps back, unable to exert the strength to add the final piece to the jigsaw.

“Everything all right?” Serena asks, noticing the familiar pout.

“My hands have gone. Years of gripping scalpels and knives.”

“Let me have a go,” she says, smiling sympathetically and holding an outstretched hand to take the screwdriver.

She twists in the final screws effortlessly, and shoulders much of the weight of Bernie’s mattress when her back begins to twinge.

Serena makes the bed neatly using fresh sheets. The room smells of the cottony scented fabric softener that clings to Bernie's clothes at work.

“There. Fit for a queen. I’d quite like to sleep on that myself,” Serena says, not realising what she’s said until it’s too late.

She doesn’t sleep there, though. They are only friends, after all.

 

Chapter Text

4)

Things are a bit awkward between Ms. Wolfe and Ms. Campbell for a while after Cameron’s accident. Fletch and Morven notice a slightly prickly tension in their conversations at work, and Serena especially seems to have built up a wall around herself following the run-in with the police.

Bernie takes to running more frequently than usual to clear her head. She’d begun living in a delicate little bubble, and Cam had burst in and popped it. She couldn’t have feelings like that for Serena, could she?

It’s early August and the weather has been seasonably warm, the summer rain holding back to allow for bright sunshine and blue skies. Serena revels in the heat, using every spare minute to tidy up the garden that she’s been neglecting since winter. After numerous failed attempts to interest Jason, she weeds the flowerbeds and patio alone.

On one of those hot afternoons, Bernie decides to make a mile long detour on her usual jogging route – to Serena’s house. If she makes amends, they can return to a happy working friendship, and none of Cameron’s assumptions will be grounded.

The heat is getting to her. The sweat drips down her face and back as she waits in full sun, bobbing on the balls of her feet on the doorstep. She’s just about mustered the courage to ring the bell, when the door suddenly opens in front of her.

“Hello Bernie. I saw you through the living room window. Auntie Serena is in the garden.”

“Right, thanks Jason,” she says breathlessly, “I’ll go through the side gate.”

She takes a sip of the water from a bottle she's brought with her and unlatches the gate, walking slowly around to the back of the house. Serena has her back to her, kneeling in a sunhat and pink gardening gloves, digging in the dirt with a little trowel.

“Hi,” Bernie says, rubbing her wet palms down the length of her shorts.

Serena almost falls down backwards, then turns on her knees to give her a withering look.

“For the second time - can you wear louder shoes, please? Or at least announce your entrance?”

“Sorry.”

Her nerves are on full display in the way she stands, clutching the water bottle to her chest in locked fingers, twitching and flexing.

“What can I do for you?” Serena asks, lifting herself up and taking a sip of wine from its place on the patio table.

“I – I just – ”

“How do you do it, by the way?” she interrupts.

Bernie’s expression becomes quizzical.

“Look so bloody good at our age? You could be twenty-five with that figure.”

Good job she’s already flushed from the exercise, or Bernie’s cheeks would be turning beetroot red. Perhaps there is something in Cam’s observation. Maybe she does look at her in the same way ...

Serena licks stray drops of Shiraz from around her lips. It’s almost too much to bear, and Bernie’s throat is constricting, but she needs to say something to avoid standing there like a lovestruck teenager.

“You look pretty good yourself,” Bernie says.

Serena gives her that smile; the one that tugs at her sparkling eyes, barely hides a multitude of sins, entices you in and then shuts you out the moment it’s gone.

“Think you could help me with that weed? Seeing as you’re all muscles and rugged brute strength?”

Bernie has no idea what happened to the awkwardness. Whether it’s just the wine, or the weather, or the day off, or simply that time is the best healer where Serena’s concerned - she doesn’t know, but she’s exceptionally grateful.

She goes to the corner of the patio where Serena directs her, and pulls at the weed. Its roots are buried deep beneath the concrete, and even when she steadies herself by placing one foot on the garage wall, she can’t get the leverage needed to remove it.

“Nevermind,” Serena smiles, “I’ll give it one more go, then I’ll have to get some Round-Up on it.”

Bernie steps back beneath the shade of the house, taking another drink of water but wishing she had something more substantial. She watches Serena’s arms tense, watches her shirt move to expose her sun-kissed and freckly shoulders. But it’s her hands, soft and veiny from years of use, that send her imagination to places she wished it hadn’t traversed.

Eventually, Serena gives one last tug and the weed gives way. Soil flies across the patio and the momentum propels her straight into Bernie. They both lose their footing slightly. Bernie can feel the glistening sweat beading on her chest as it makes contact with the warm skin of Serena’s upper back for a fleeting moment. Then they are upright again, and Serena turns around, clutching the weed in her hand like a victory rosette. Her face is bright and grinning, and Bernie can’t help laughing. She laughs because Serena is funny, because she is beautiful, because she makes her feel good, about the world and about herself.

“I loosened it for you. No need to thank me,” she says, smirking.

Serena rolls her eyes. She steps forward; is close enough for them to feel each other’s breath brushing past their lips.

“How's a drink for your reward?”

 

Chapter Text

5)

Christmas comes around, and Bernie hardly knows how to feel. Her first Christmas as a civilian, as a divorcée, as a woman in a committed relationship with another woman - and she doesn’t know where to put herself.

Serena’s festive spirit is off the charts. It’s like nothing she’s ever seen before. One cold morning in early December, they are cuddled together in bed, when her face seems to light up.

“We should get the tree today,” she says.

Bernie had never been one for getting a real tree. The artificial one was quick, cheap, and left a quarter of the mess come January. Not that she'd often spent Christmas at home, anyway.

“Okay.”

--

When they reach the garden centre, Bernie finds herself grinning at Serena’s excitement. She is all wrapped up in her winter coat, mittens and scarf, and her cheeks are as rosy red as her lips. She almost bounds into the shop, heading straight for the Christmas tree section outside.

Her spirit is infectious, and Bernie is only too happy to be swept silently along on it.

Serena walks through rows and rows of mesh-wrapped trees, pressing her face in close and inhaling the pine scent. She is full of nostalgia.

“We’ve always had a real tree, for as long as I can remember. Dad used to take me with him to get it every year,” she says, finding Bernie, slipping an arm into hers and snuggling into her shoulder, “It wouldn’t feel right without it."

Bernie smiles again, taking immense pleasure in the radiant joy that Serena is exuding. She didn’t have good Christmases growing up – they seemed marred by judgemental grandparents and an often absent military father. She had tried her best with her own family when the time came, but it was Marcus who took responsibility. He delighted in decorating the house with 20,000 flashing lights and dressing up to deliver the presents when the children were small.

“This looks like the one,” Serena says, stopping and detaching herself from Bernie to give it the once over.

“Shall we get it delivered?”

“Oh, no, it’ll fit in the car. I’ll go and get a trolley.”

To say she is bewildered would be an understatement. She stands and waits, wondering what feat of flexibility will be required to fit an almost six foot Christmas tree into Serena Campbell’s five-seater Volkswagen. 

She soon hears the clattering of the industrial trolley, which somehow doesn't overpower Serena's hummed rendition of 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'. Bernie goes to grasp one end of the mesh, but Serena has already wrapped her arms around the tree, and is lowering it carefully down.

“There.”

She shakes the stray needles from her clothes and they go to pay. On their way back to the car, Serena decides to broach a subject she’s been mulling over for some days.

“What’re your two doing for Christmas Day this year?” she asks as casually as possible as they cross the car park.

“Don’t know,” Bernie mumbles, “I suppose they’ll want to be with Marcus and his new partner.”

“Have you actually asked them?”

“Not in so many words ... ”

“Oh, Bernie,” she smiles, “You should. It would be lovely to have them both, with Ellie and Jason too.”

Serena opens the car boot and folds down the back seats. Then she lifts the tree and slides it to the front of the car, until its trunk is free of the door.

“I think Cam would like it. It’s Charlotte I’m not sure about – she likes to stick to traditions. And she’s still not my biggest fan.”

“Call her later. I’ll talk to her if you like,” Serena offers from halfway across the car park where she’s returning the trolley.

It begins to rain, but Bernie doesn’t take shelter in the car. She waits for Serena to come back.

“Why aren’t you getting into the car?” she asks, wondering about the meaning behind Bernie’s expression, “What is it?”

When she comes around to Bernie’s side, she notices a slight smile ghosting her lips. Bernie pulls her in close with her scarf and kisses her full on the mouth. She smells sweet, of rose and pine. Serena is surprised, but she returns it with full force, hands spread tight across Bernie’s back. When they eventually pull apart, the rain is heavy and driving.

Serena laughs, then runs quickly into the driver’s seat. Bernie sits beside her. When Serena goes to grasp the steering wheel, she tangles their fingers together.

“What was that for?” Serena asks, feeling the heat rise as the windows steam up.

“For including me, and my kids. For making me feel like I belong.”

The sincerity in her voice, the way she opens up so easily now, the shine on her face where the rain has been. All of these things combine, and Serena feels very emotional indeed.

“You’ll always be part of my traditions, darling. You're a part of my life.”

 

Chapter Text

+ 1)

“Ms Wolfe? It’s Serena,” Jasmine says, her voice cracking and her eyes big and shining with fear.

She looks like a baby deer caught in front of speeding headlights, waiting for someone or something to help.

“What about her, Dr Burrows?”

“She’s on the roof.”

Immediately, Bernie feels her body click into autopilot. She runs straight out of the ward, not holding the door open behind her. In the distance, she is aware of footsteps following her – but they don’t matter now. The important thing is that she gets to Serena. She has to get to Serena.

She jumps up the stairs, taking them in long strides, ascending two, three at a time. Her hands grip onto the railings and pull her up and up until she reaches the door to the roof.

Her wrist twists as she tries to open it and finds it’s locked.

“Serena? Serena, open up!” she shouts. Her throat is dry and her voice is hoarse with emotion.

No answer. Please, no. She can’t be too late, not again.

Without taking a second to think, she rams her whole body into the metal door. The thick mass of muscle and bone snap the lock free, propelling her outside into the pitch black night.

The orangey glow of the streetlights illuminates half of Serena’s figure. Her coat envelopes her as she stands near the edge - like a tiny child, alone and afraid.

Bernie walks over slowly. She avoids any sudden movements. Fletcher and Jasmine are hanging back in the doorway.

“Serena,” she says, soft and gentle, almost a whisper.

Serena’s eyes are fixed to the tarmac below. There are tears streaming down her sodden face. Bernie stands next to her, watching, sharing a minute fraction of the unbearable pain. All she wants is to make it better for her. And that’s the one thing she can never do.

“Please don’t do this.”

At those words, Serena silently brings a finger up to brush a tear away from her cheek.

“She’s gone. Again,” she croaks.

“Serena ...”

“Her heart – it stopped beating. Again.”

Bernie can’t find the words of comfort this time. It’s not a shared confidence recently broken. It’s not a misunderstanding over Jason’s new girlfriend. It’s not even the loss of a beloved friend and colleague. It’s Serena’s daughter; her flesh and blood; a part of her very soul has been snatched away, never to return.

“But ... she gave another person life. Even if it was only for a few months. Elinor gave someone more days on this earth.”

Serena blinks, only for her tired and bloodshot eyes to brim with more salty water. Her face is pink in the low light.

“I’ve tried so hard to carry on – and I can’t. Even Jason can’t stand to be around me. It was my job to protect her, and I failed. I failed her.”

“No, Serena,” Bernie sighs, stepping closer and wrapping her arms as tightly as she can around her.

She’ll hold her until the end of time if it means she’ll never suffer this agony again.

Serena turns into the embrace, buries her face deep into Bernie’s chest. Bernie lifts her hand up, runs her fingers gently through her hair, makes soothing circles on her back. All the time, Serena’s body quivers and fresh tears stain Bernie’s hoodie. The cold winter air nips at their faces and hands. Bernie feels the goosebumps rising beneath the thin materal of her scrubs. She wishes Serena safe. One of the people she cares most about in the world.

“I don’t want to lose you – I can’t lose you. I love you so much.”

The unspoken words just spill out of her. They feel natural and familiar on her tongue. Her chest feels aglow with emotion. It’s the first time she’s said those words to anyone, besides her children, and truly meant them. She realises that now.

“Please come back inside ... so we can talk?”

Serena moves out of the embrace, only slightly. Bernie’s long arms are still looped around her, her hands clasped and resting gently on her lower back. She manages a tiny nod and a deep sigh. Bernie reaches up, strokes a thumb across her cheek to brush away the last tear as it falls. She presses her lips to her forehead, and Serena’s mouth twitches slightly. The faintest flicker of hope on a face frozen with anguish.

They walk slowly towards the door; the strength of Bernie’s body and heart supporting her partner all the way.