It’s one of the first things Serena notices about Bernie, her hair. Not the first time they meet – then it’s the firmness of her handshake – but when their paths start to cross around the hospital, when they start bumping into each other in the line at Pulses, on the bench outside, in the corridors.
It’s unfair, she thinks, that she should be able to look so good when she clearly hasn’t used a hairbrush. I wonder if she even owns one? She looks like she’s just rolled out of bed, run her fingers through it and then left the house.
And then later, sitting opposite her in Albie’s, she’s ambushed by a thought that makes her pause with her glass half way to her lips: I wonder what it would feel like to run my fingers through it?
(She finds out, on the theatre floor. Grasps at Bernie and pulls her closer, rakes her hand through her ponytail and dislodges the band holding it in place, finds that her fingers catch in the tangles but that it’s soft, soft as silk. She winds the strands around her fingers to hold Bernie to her, to keep their lips pressed together because she doesn’t think she could bear to be parted.)
Bernie is difficult to read. Most of the time her face is carefully blank, doesn’t give anything away if she doesn’t want it to. Her eyes, though, are another matter. She often hides them behind her fringe; Serena wonders if she knows she’s doing it, if that’s why she keeps it so long.
Serena has learned to read her from her eyes alone. It started in theatre, where all she has to go on are words and eyes and the sliver of face surrounding them. Confidence and stubbornness, anxiety and insecurity, reassurance and support. Her eyes always seem so much darker and deeper and wider when they’re all she can see, when they’re devoid of the rest of her face.
Out of theatre she can see all those things, and more besides. Hurt and sorrow and guilt, joy and gratitude and affection. She gets lost in Bernie’s eyes sometimes, in their warmth and depth. Side by side at the nurses station, across a table at Albie’s, over mountains of paperwork on their desks. Loses herself in them and has to snap herself out of it with a blink and a clearing of her throat.
(When Bernie’s away it might well be her eyes that Serena misses the most. Across the ward, the desk, in theatre, at Albie’s. She misses being able to share a look with her, to reassure or be reassured, to tease or be teased. To see her love. Because Bernie’s mouth might lie to her but her eyes cannot. Serena saw warring fear and love, clear as day, is left holding on to the hope that love will win out.)
Bernie likes to lean against things: door frames, walls, the bar at Albie’s, the nurses station. Likes to sit on the edge of the desk as though their office has no chairs. It gives Serena ample opportunity to admire her long, lean legs. Impossible to ignore them, really, when she insists on wearing such ridiculously tight jeans.
And how is it fair that she should look so damn good in them, at our age? How is that even possible?
(They really are very long, she thinks weeks later, in bed, when both of them are wrapped around her waist, when she’s entirely encircled by them.
And the next day when Bernie is leaning against the desk beside her Serena’s eyes trail up from her ankles to her hips, and she remembers last night with a blush, and refuses to meet Bernie’s eye because she knows she’ll be wearing a satisfied smirk, knows she’ll be smouldering with the same memory and the promise of what’s to come.)
Serena walks into the locker room to find herself confronted with the back of a half naked Bernie, her scrub top off after surgery and her shirt not back on yet, rummaging in her locker. She stops in her tracks, fingers instantly rising to tug at her pendant, knows she should look away but can’t. Instead her eyes trace the muscles her fingers had swept over and pressed into when she gave Bernie a massage. She looks just as lean and strong as she felt beneath Serena’s hands.
Only now she can see the freckles and scars too, has to stop her feet taking her closer, longs to reach out and trace each of them, feather light. To join the dots into constellations, to caress each scar, to hear the stories behind them and give thanks to a god she isn’t sure she believes in that none of them was any worse, that none of them took Bernie from her before they even met.
And then Bernie slips her arms into her shirt and turns around as she buttons it, and Serena blushes at having been caught staring, clears her throat and looks away and hurries to her own locker.
(After – after Serena has realised why she was so drawn to Bernie’s skin, after they have kissed, after Ukraine – Bernie makes good on her promise that she has changed. She lies on her stomach on Serena’s bed as Serena works tense muscles, sore and knotted from two long days in theatre. And then Serena’s touch turns light and Bernie recognises the patterns she’s tracing.
‘That one was Iraq,’ she begins quietly when Serena’s fingers dance across the bottom of her ribcage, almost on her waist. She feels Serena pause for the tiniest fraction of a second before she strokes the faded scar again and then lowers her head to press a soft, warm kiss to the silvery mar. Bernie draws strength from her touch, from the reminder of her love, and continues.
It isn’t as hard as she thought it would be, telling Serena.
It’s harder than Serena thought it would be, hearing all the ways Bernie could have been lost to her. But much as it hurts she’s glad she knows, glad Bernie has told her. Every time she watches Bernie from across the ward, every time she watches Bernie saunter away from her, she imagines all the marks and lines beneath her scrubs, reminds herself yet again just how lucky they are to have found each other, how lucky she is that Bernie has entrusted her with these stories of pain and fear.)
Serena hadn’t really paid all that much attention to Bernie’s mouth, beyond it being the source of witty remarks and steady reassurances and stubborn protests. Now she can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop her eyes flicking to Bernie’s lips every time she’s near. Can’t stop her mind wandering back to how Bernie’s mouth felt on hers, the soft insistence of her lips, the warm, wet strength of her tongue.
How Ric would laugh, she thinks, to know I’ve become undone at a just kiss. But oh, what a kiss.
Bernie’s talking to her again, but Serena has lost track of what she’s saying because all she can do is gaze at those lips, at the way they form themselves around each word with such care. She wants them against her own lips, wants them against her skin, wants them–
She clears her throat sharply to stop that train of thought, hopes the flush creeping up her chest and over her cheeks isn’t too obvious.
(Bernie’s mouth, Serena learns, is both wicked and sweet, sometimes in the same moment. She murmurs promises and teases and assurances, whispers her adoration and desire and love, moans curses and encouragement and satisfaction. Expresses all of this wordlessly too, with every perfect nip and caress and kiss.)
* * *
Serena wakes early thanks to her bladder, slips out of bed and pads to the bathroom. When she comes back she realises that she’d hogged the duvet again, that only Bernie’s ankles and feet and the arm that had been draped over her waist are covered. She’s beautiful – so beautiful – and Serena has to stop and just gaze at her, her breath catching in her throat.
How, she wonders, did this happen? How did I end up with such a gorgeous, wonderful woman in my life, my bed?
She takes a step towards the bed as Bernie snuffles and shifts a little, studies her more closely. She has mapped this body, with greedy lips and careful fingers. Has stroked soft skin, touched scars both faded and recent, plotted the constellations of her freckles, kissed every mark and the spaces in between. Knows every spot that is sensitive or ticklish or arousing, every spot that makes Bernie shiver or sigh or moan.
Serena wishes that she could draw, wishes that she could capture this moment – Bernie looking like this – for all eternity instead of having to rely on a memory she fears will one day slip from her grasp. Wishes she could put pencil to paper and carefully trace each curve and plane, each swell and dip. The graceful swoop of her spine, the mess of curls catching the earliest sunlight, the legs stretched out across the mattress. The warmth and glint of her eyes when she opens them, the upward curve of her lips when she sees Serena.
‘Are you coming back to bed?’ she asks, voice suffused with love.
‘In a minute,’ Serena replies, her heart swelling, her own lips lifting in a matching smile. ‘Just enjoying the view.’