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Time and again

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She surveyed them, row upon row of capsules that gleamed so brightly it seemed as if they shivered, though they never moved an inch. Her eyes cast up and down and across the shelves - there were getting on for 19,000 capsules now, one for each day of her life. Until a while ago they had been stored chronologically; this was the default, and it had suited her when there were fewer of them, and even fewer she would ever want to retrieve. Now that she had more to go back for, however, she had collected the most important ones and gathered them on the shelf in the corner, where she now stood worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

This was how it worked: every day you lived was saved, stored, in a capsule, and each capsule was stored on a shelf. You could go back and revisit any day you wanted to, as many times as you wanted to, and you could behave however you wanted to – but no matter what you did differently, the day followed its usual chain of events, and nothing changed back in the central timeline. And you had to be careful, you had to be sure, about your decision to relive a day, because it really did last 24 hours – there was no popping in and out just for the best bits. There were some people who never went back, who saw little point in sacrificing a new day for an old one, and who knew better than to torture themselves with what might have been. Bernie wasn’t one of them.

It was a Saturday afternoon, her preferred time for revisits. It meant she could see Cam for breakfast, or get some shopping done, beforehand, and be back in plenty of time for work on Monday. In the past she had found it easy to slip back and forth, the elation she felt from reliving the one school sports day her father had attended, say, helping her to sail through whatever followed on her return. (It had been a cloudy day, not the idyllic blue skies of fictional sports days, but it had hardly mattered once she’d spotted both of her parents taking a seat at the edge of the field. She had cruised to victory in the 800m, pulling so far clear of the rest of the girls that she could wind right down on the home straight and smile at her father, who clapped and whooped in the most ungentlemanly way possible. Her mother had looked away, a hand to her chest; Bernie had never loved him more.)

She hadn’t been back there in a while now, though, and revisiting the days on which Cameron and Charlotte had arrived had become harder since the divorce. With the benefit of hindsight, she realised that holding Cam in the delivery suite was her first experience of falling in love, so the capsule was here among the special ones, even if it was rarely picked up. Occasionally, very occasionally, and not for a long time, she would re-tread the day that Lily Parkinson from the upper sixth had spoken to her – about nothing, really – and she’d actually forgotten to breathe. It was embarrassing, but there was something about the rush, the giddiness, the burning of her ears, that made her feel for a moment as if she was more than alive.

And now there were the days with Serena. As they hadn’t spoken since Bernie returned from Kiev, Bernie’s only way of spending time with Serena was to slip down to the vault at the weekends and pick out a day from their summer. Bernie has diagnosed electromagnetic hypersensitivity more times that she would ever care to admit; has pronounced the alternator in Serena’s car cactus, toast, kaput; has sat on the fire escape, in Albies, in Italian restaurants, in the office, basking in the sunshine of Serena’s smile. More often than not, though, she chooses the capsule placed furthest to the right, nestled in the corner against the wall - makes a gesture of looking along the row, but inevitably ends up with that day in the palm of her hand. Each time, she closes her fingers around it and clenches her eyes shut, then takes a deep breath. “Ah, good morning Ms Wolfe,” she hears Hanssen say. “I have a proposition for you.”

 

*

 

She watched Serena hovering nearby with a coffee, the sight of her - even hungover and apprehensive - still quickening Bernie’s pulse. Flicking through the brochure, she bought time while she considered her options; she’d tried refusing Hanssen outright, she’d tried inviting Serena over to hear about the secondment herself, she’d even, once, accepted on the spot and spent the rest of the day hiding from Serena, just to see if it had felt any better. Whatever she did, though, she left the hospital alone that day, and it never felt anything less than horrible. Most of the time now she tinkered only with the details, if that, enjoying the morning before bracing herself for the afternoon.

“It’s medicinal and I blame you.” Bernie still got a fizzy feeling in her stomach as Serena approached brandishing the apparently pharmaceutical pastry; she looked tired but there was a light in her eyes, and it felt as though both of them wished the moon hadn’t risen and brought their evening to an end. Bernie teased Serena about the amount of wine she had drunk, but helping her to the car the night before – via Serena staggering to lean on a bin and take off her heels – had made Bernie laugh harder than she had in a long while. “Jesus Bernie, someone’ll think there are foxes shagging on the high street,” Serena had slurred at her, grinning widely and throwing her arm around the back of Bernie’s neck.

“Oh oh oh I’m sorry, Serena Campbell; have we met?” Bernie always walked ahead of Serena at this point, the thrill of spinning around to see Serena’s arm extended towards her never diminishing. She loved to graze her thumb over the back of Serena’s hand, to squeeze it for just a fraction of a second, and to look her right in the eye. I see you, Campbell. I know what this is. I wish… I wish I wasn’t about to make a total hash of this. 

There was too long and nowhere near enough time before they would find themselves in the office. Knowing it was coming, Bernie loved the sense of anticipation but found herself pacing the ward impatiently nonetheless, waiting for Raf to bash his elbow on the nurses’ station – that was the moment Serena would open the door to their office and hold up the brochure to call her in. Once, just once, she had gone in and immediately taken Serena’s hands in her own, told her she never wanted to go to Kiev, told her she never wanted to go anywhere that Serena wasn’t, and they had shared a delicious leisurely kiss free of any hesitation. The guilt of the stolen kiss had left her feeling queasy for days afterwards, though, so here they were again aheming and uh-huhing their way towards a kiss that still made her toes tingle. Maybe she’d lock Raf in the supplies cupboard next time.

She had lost count of how many times she had pronounced Cathy Higson dead; it was ironic, really, how often Bernie had gone back in time and battled to ensure that Cathy and Pete might get a chance to enjoy future days together. “If they think there’s even the slightest chance of a happy future together…” The first time around, Serena’s words had sent a shiver down Bernie’s spine that was six parts desire, one part disbelief and three parts fear. Even now she sometimes marvelled at the fact that she’d managed to squeak out “My place?” Mostly, though, she tried to steel herself against the sweetness of Serena’s smile for long enough that Serena could leave the room unperturbed before Bernie thudded her forehead into the wall. Damned coward.

 

*

 

The ambulance door clunked shut. “Thanks,” Serena said, as she always did. “I know you didn’t do that because you agreed with it.”

Bernie shook her head. “You were right; it was for his benefit, not hers.” She looked at Serena and narrowed her eyes. Here it comes, Wolfe. Your moment! She’s going to tell you she loves you, and you’re going to screw it up. As usual. As bloody usual.

Her eyes were still on Serena’s, still waiting for the slight tilt of the head that came before Serena opened her heart.

Still waiting.

I’m… I’m still waiting? But how?

Serena opened her mouth to speak, paused, and closed it again. Looked down at her toes and back up at Bernie. “Well, anyway, we’d best be getting on.” Bernie could only try not to look utterly dumbfounded, a weak smile the best she could muster, as Serena walked back towards the main part of the hospital. She was almost at the first set of swing doors before Bernie found her voice.

“Serena?”

For a second she wasn’t sure she’d said it loudly enough to carry, but then Serena turned around, her hand resting lightly on the door. “Mmm?”

“Did you… did you, uh, want to say anything? Anything else?” Bernie’s gaze darted around the room like a bluebottle, from Serena’s face to the wall to her own hands, alighting on each for only a moment before moving on.

“Such as?” Serena asked. To others she might have sounded nonchalant; to Bernie it sounded feigned. She took a step forward. Another.

“Serena…” Bernie closed her eyes and shook her head, as if trying to clear water from her ears. “Serena, what’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on!” Serena sing-songed in reply, throwing in a small chuckle for good measure. Bernie closed the gap between them and took Serena gently by both wrists, held their hands between them.

“No, Serena, SERENA! I’m here, it’s me, I know what you normally say!”

Serena’s mouth opened. She looked from one of Bernie’s eyes to the other. She swallowed.

“Serena, are you here? Are we both here?” Bernie had goosebumps all over, was stood bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Serena opened and closed her mouth a couple of more times. “I…”

“I’m here,” Bernie said again, the beginning of each word bumping into the end of the last in their haste. “I’m here, I come here all the time. I wanted… I wanted to be better.”

“Better?” Serena said. She grasped Bernie’s elbows, as if she was still working out just how real this was.

“I don’t want to run, Serena,” Bernie said, her eyes darkened with shame. “I wish I’d been braver. I wish I’d been like you – hang on, why are you here? Why would you be here?”

Serena cleared her throat. “I, uh, I wanted to be better.” She cast her eyes to the side, and Bernie could see there were tears in them.

“Better? Serena, you’re perfect. You did everything right today and I… I got it wrong. As usual.”

“I thought if I didn’t mention love you might stay,” Serena whispered as she allowed herself to be pulled into Bernie’s arms. She turned her head against Bernie’s shoulder so that her voice wouldn’t be too muffled. “I wanted to see if you’d stay. I wanted to have dinner with you.”

She felt a sob ripple through Bernie’s body.

“I’m so sorry Serena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Bernie pulled Serena tighter and tighter to her, one hand at the back of Serena’s neck, carding through her hair. In turn, Serena rubbed Bernie’s back, gentle shushes tumbling out of her. They stayed like that for as long as they could – after all, Hanssen himself could come down and dismiss them if he liked, and it wouldn’t make any real difference. Would it?

“Bernie, what happens if we’re both here?” Serena asked, collecting herself. She ran her hands up and down Bernie’s arms. Bernie looked at her through her fringe, a frown fluttering across her brow. “Do things change if we’re both here? Is that possible? Have you ever…?”

Bernie shook her head. “I don’t know, Serena. I mean… can it?” They looked at one another, three heartbeats, four, five.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter.” Serena broke the silence.

“Doesn’t it?”

“We’re both here, Bernie. We both came back to try and change things; even if we don’t manage it, we’ll know we both wanted to. We know, now, how we both feel.” God, her smile was like a drug to Bernie’s soul, which soared and swooped.

“You knew the first time,” she said, her tone hushed by regret. “We both knew, but you were the one brave enough to say it.”

Serena raised a hand to run her thumb along Bernie’s cheekbone, turning her head to ensure they were eye to eye before she pressed her lips firmly to Bernie’s. It wasn’t a movie kiss, like earlier, but a wordless reassurance; Bernie kissed back her gratitude, her neverending gratitude for Serena’s heart.

They stood forehead to forehead for a few seconds before another big smile broke across Serena’s face. “We've got a few hours yet. Your place?”