Serena Campbell is good at her job. Damn good at it, in fact. She’s been part of the regular News at Ten presenting team for over a decade now and was part of the News at Six team for years before that, prides herself on her ability to cope with any news story, any situation that might arise. There’s very little that throws Serena: war, politics, natural disasters and technical hitches are all taken easily in her elegant, well-heeled stride. But everyone has an Achilles’ heel, even if Serena does her best to hide hers from her colleagues, from the nation.
Serena’s weakness – aside from Shiraz, that is? Bernie Wolfe.
Her heart always speeds up a little when she knows the programme is going to include a report from the war correspondent, a little more again if she’s actually going to get to speak to her. Messy blonde hair, skin permanently tanned and freckled from so much time spent in the deserts of the Middle East. An air of calm authority and expertise whatever’s going on around her, whatever fresh hell she’s seen that day.
A voice that – well, that Serena dreams of, quite frankly. Has dreamed of for years, on and off, ever since she first spoke to Bernie when she was reporting from Sarajevo. Bernie Wolfe could read the phone book and Serena would listen, rapt, to every single syllable.
Sometimes she doesn’t know how she makes it through a broadcast but she’s a professional, she’s trained to be unflappable. Even if that training didn’t include what to do if you find yourself with an almighty crush on a colleague you’re talking to live on air while she’s thousands of miles away in an active war zone.
Right now, Bernie is in Afghanistan. Her report is the second item on tonight’s programme. Serena takes an additional deep breath as Fletch counts her down, readies herself for hearing that voice, for seeing Bernie in flak jacket and helmet, rearranges her face into a neutral expression and does her best to ignore her racing heart.
‘Tonight at ten…’
Bernie pushes open the door of her flat at 21.35. Just enough time to call for a pizza, to wash the lingering desert dust and travel grime and London rain from her skin before settling in front of the news.
She shivers, cursing the fact that her leave has fallen in the coldest, dampest part of the year, spends fifteen glorious minutes standing under the hottest stream of water her shower can muster and then digs out her thickest, fluffiest pyjamas and a pair of fuzzy socks, tugs them on just before the buzzer sounds to herald the arrival of dinner.
A blanket wrapped around her shoulders, another ready to drape over herself when the glow of the shower fades, Bernie settles on the sofa and reaches for the remote, lifts her first slice of ham and pineapple from the box and sinks her teeth into the heavenly soft cheese and dough with a groan. God, she’s missed real pizza. Halal goat just isn’t the same.
The familiar theme for the News at Ten plays and then Bernie’s TV screen is filled with Serena Campbell, and Bernie can’t help but smile. You can keep Ric Griffin and Jac Naylor: for Bernie’s money, Serena is the best the BBC has. Something about her manner, that easy but undeniable authority in her posture, the way she exudes calm and trustworthiness. And, of course, the pretty face and sparkling eyes and voice like velvet don’t hurt.
Just as Serena is by far Bernie’s favourite to watch, she’s also her favourite when it comes to making live reports. It isn’t that Serena is more prepared than her colleagues – no one could ever accuse Jac Naylor of being less than meticulously prepared – or that her questions are more incisive. There’s just something about her that draws Bernie in, makes her want to be the best she can possibly be and give Serena her best work. Even if the timbre of Serena’s voice, low and husky and almost seductive even when she’s discussing suicide bombings and casualties, sometimes makes it hard to focus.
Most of her pizza inhaled, Bernie reaches to place the box on the floor and tugs the second blanket over herself. Her eyes flutter closed as Serena begins to talk about the flooding in the southwest, that delicious voice lulling her to sleep.
* * *
Serena reads the email with a grimace. “All nominees will be expected to attend.’ Well thank you very much, Henrik.’
‘I thought you liked this sort of thing?’ Ric frowns. ‘A chance to get dressed up, celebrate the best of our craft. A free bar…’
‘They haven’t had a decent Shiraz for the last few years,’ Serena says, unwilling – unable – to offer any further explanation. Ric’s right, she does usually enjoy these awards ceremonies.
Maybe I’m getting old, she thinks. Because a night on the sofa in her pyjamas – even a night at work while the rest of her colleagues get themselves drunk – sounds much better than going to all the effort of dolling herself up.
‘I know what might tempt you,’ Ric says, his voice wheedling and a glint in his eyes.
‘Have you looked at all the nominations?’
Serena sighs and scrolls through the rest of the email. She can feel Ric’s eyes on her, can feel his impatience. ‘Why don’t you just tell me what I’m looking for?’
‘Where would be the fun in that?’ he teases.
Serena rolls her eyes but keeps going. And then a name under the heading News Coverage: International catches her eye.
‘Thought that would interest you,’ Ric says smugly.
‘I never should have told you,’ Serena mutters, remembering a night with too much Shiraz when she had let slip her (not so) little crush.
‘Don’t tell me you’re not looking forward to it now,’ Ric smiles, slipping from the room before Serena can find a sheet of paper to ball up and toss at him.
She crumples it anyway, fingers crushing the folds. Bernie’s been nominated – deservingly so – for her work in Syria last autumn.
Bernie’s going to be there. And somehow, that instantly changes everything.
In the week running up to the awards ceremony Serena finds herself spending far longer than usual considering what she’s going to wear, goes so far as to buy herself a new dress but decides against new shoes; she doesn’t want to make a fool of herself falling over, after all. Especially not in front of Bernie. The leopard print heels no one will let her wear on air, even when she points out that her feet are hidden behind the desk practically all the time, will do the job just fine.
I wonder what Bernie’s going to wear? she finds herself thinking as she reaches awkwardly to zip up her dress, then sits in front of the mirror to do her make up. It’s hard to imagine her in anything other than the pale, desert-appropriate shirts she usually has on under her flak jacket. A suit or a dress? she wonders, unable to decide which she would prefer.
In the end it doesn’t matter. Just as she’s putting on the last layer of lipstick, Serena’s phone rings. She answers without checking who it is.
‘Just about to step out of the door,’ she says brightly, because it’s bound to be someone chivvying her along, ensuring she’s not defying Hanssen’s directive.
But it isn’t.
‘What? Oh, the awards ceremony,’ Fletch says. ‘Well, consider this your get out of jail free card.’
‘What’s happened?’ Serena asks, resignation seeping into her voice.
‘Russia’s gone into Crimea. Raf’s good, but there’s no way we can leave this to him.’
‘Alright,’ Serena sighs. ‘I guess I’ll take this dress off, then.’
‘I’ll email what we’ve got for you to read on the way in.’
‘Thanks, Fletch. See you soon.’
Serena hangs up and sets her phone down on the dressing table with a clatter. She looks at herself in the mirror, rues the fact that all this effort was for nothing, that she isn’t going to get to see what Bernie looks like out of a desert.
‘Bloody Putin,’ she grumbles as she changes. For just a moment she considers leaving the shoes on, but decides it won’t be worth the argument when she arrives.
A week later Bernie is back in the Middle East, back on Serena’s list of stories, and Serena feels it all over again, the sadness of an opportunity lost. When she watches Bernie’s first recorded segment she feels a sudden pang at having missed out on seeing her in the flesh, having missed the chance to count those freckles with her own eyes.
* * *
A year later, more or less, and Bernie is nine weeks into four months of leave. Decidedly not her choice, especially not now, when the cold and damp is all pervading and seeps right into her bones, making her feel creaky and old. It was nice to be home for Christmas, she’ll admit, nice to spend time with the kids even if they are all grown up now.
Staying longer, though? Well, Hanssen didn’t exactly leave her much of a choice, made a lengthy break one of the terms for allowing her to extend her posting in the Middle East beyond the expected end of her rotation.
‘At least three months, Ms Wolfe,’ he had said, and she had rolled her eyes but agreed because there’s nowhere else she wants to be based right now, and in the grand scheme of things it’s a small price to pay.
Three months would have meant leaving again a fortnight before Charlotte’s twenty-first birthday. Bernie has already missed enough milestones; she can hang around a little longer so she doesn’t miss this one too.
She gets the same email as last year, the same email as every year she’s been nominated for an award: “All nominees will be expected to attend, unless they are working abroad.”
Bernie groans and buries her face in her hands. How has this happened again? It’s nice to be recognised for her work, of course, but she’s usually out of the country. Being here, having to attend two years running? Once was bad enough, especially when the one bright spot – the opportunity to meet Serena Campbell – was extinguished by events in Crimea.
Still, she thinks, brightening a little. Maybe this year.
She sleeps late the morning of the ceremony, spends the day continuing to wade through the film releases of the past twelve months that the kids have decided she needs to catch up on, in a vain attempt to improve her pop culture knowledge. Thirty minutes into Guardians of the Galaxy her phone rings.
‘Wolfe,’ she answers, out of habit.
Five minutes later she’s out of the door and on her way to the Royal London, her heart pounding. Because despite the fact that she lives in danger almost every working day when she’s abroad, despite the fact that she’s come to terms with the inevitability of injuries to herself, the possibility of her own death due to her career, the thought of anything happening to one of her kids still makes her blood run cold.
‘He’s fine, Bern,’ Marcus says when she calls him, and she’s too worried to care or complain about the pet name she never liked even when they were married. ‘Just some bruises and scratches.’
She doesn’t believe him – not really, not in her heart – until she steps onto the ward and sees Cameron with her own two eyes, until she speaks to his consultant.
‘What were you thinking?’ she berates him. ‘Getting into the car with someone you knew had had too much to drink behind the wheel?’
‘I guess I didn’t think,’ he admits, flinching away from her fluttering hands. ‘I’m fine, Mum. We both know you’ve had worse.’
‘In a war zone, not a couple of miles from home.’
Cameron rolls his eyes, but after a moment reaches for her hand. ‘I’m fine,’ he repeats. ‘They’re keeping me in overnight but only to be on the safe side.’
Bernie nods and leans to press a kiss to his forehead, avoiding the scratches. ‘Don’t think this gets you out of brunch on Sunday,’ she murmurs.
‘Damn, you found me out,’ Cam teases, and then his face turns serious. ‘I’ll be there, Lottie too. You know we wouldn’t miss it.’
Bernie smiles, and feels something loosen in her chest. There was a time when she didn’t know if she’d ever have this with her children, what with being away so much, the affair with a camerawoman, the divorce. She squeezes Cam’s hand, looks up at the ceiling tiles and blinks hard to ward off the relieved, grateful tears she can feel building.
It isn’t until the following morning that Bernie remembers how she should have been spending her evening. She logs onto Twitter, scrolls mindlessly until she hits updates from lots of her colleagues, BBC and otherwise, from the ceremony. She slows, then, smiles at their successes, likes a few tweets, replies with congratulations to the CNN team who won the category she was nominated in.
And then she stops completely, her thumb hovering over a photo of the News at Ten team posing with their award. Bernie’s heart judders: Serena looks stunning.
Maybe it’s a good job I wasn’t there, she thinks as she retweets the photo.
‘Proud of you guys,’ she adds. ‘Not that I’m surprised ;) Only sorry I wasn’t there in person.’
Minutes later her phone pings with a direct message – from Serena.
‘Hope everything’s ok?’
‘Fine. My son just needs to learn not to accept lifts from drunk people,’ she replies. ‘Scratches and bruises only, thankfully.’
‘Glad to hear it.’ And then, a few seconds later: ‘You were missed.’
* * *
A year later again, give or take. Bernie has spent the last three months embedded with the RAMC medics at Camp Bastion. Serena has spent them following Bernie’s reports, liking and replying to Bernie’s sporadic tweets. She finds herself reading up on trauma and battlefield surgery because she wants to know more about the world Bernie is living in right now, as if Serena knowing more will somehow help to keep her safe. Her reports are enough to make Serena flinch if she’s watching from her sofa rather than presenting, but she forces herself not to look away because Bernie can’t, because this matters and only now is it being brought to the world’s attention.
Each day Bernie sees and reports on horrific injuries, sees the medics she works with fight to save limb and life. Sees the people she’s grown to know get injured themselves, because bullets and IEDs don’t discriminate between soldiers and civilians and healers.
It was only a matter of time. Logically Serena knows it, but it still comes as a shock.
The news comes in just minutes before they go on air.
A medical convoy, an IED.
A British Army surgeon and a BBC journalist dragged from the twisted, burning wreckage of their vehicle, stabilised and then loaded onto a C-17, flown to London for the best consultants to treat them.
Serena is immensely glad she’s already sitting down because the words, objective and dispassionate as they are, make her feel woozy, her legs wobbling and the edges of her vision blurring for just a moment. They don’t have any names yet, of course, but Bernie’s the only journalist with the medics. There’s no one else it could be.
‘You alright, Serena?’ comes Fletch’s voice through her earpiece. ‘Looking a bit pale there.’
‘I’m fine,’ she murmurs. She reaches for her glass and takes a sip of water, willing her hand to remain steady, doesn’t complain when Fletch calls for Essie to add a bit more colour to her cheeks.
She’s in the best place, with the best specialists, Serena tells herself firmly.
She resolutely doesn’t allow herself to think about what could happen, what might already have happened. That today she might have lost the chance to meet Bernie forever, might have lost Bernie forever.
Serena spends a sleepless night tossing and turning. She wakes in the dark, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare montage of all of Bernie’s reports and all that she’s read and seen, only with Bernie at the centre.
Bernie on the operating table, her body torn open and dripping with blood.
Bernie in the morgue, pale and lifeless under a sheet.
She gets up earlier than usual, drained and exhausted, sips tea in the dim light of a single lamp instead of trying to sleep because she knows there’ll only be more nightmares.
The good thing about her job, about the fact that Bernie is one of their own, is that Serena gets updates on her condition almost as soon as they’re available. The news from Hanssen a few hours later that she’s going to be fine, after a lengthy period of physio, might just be the best thing Serena has heard all year – particularly when she learns that Bernie’s had spinal surgery, that her heart stopped on the table and had to be coaxed back to life. That has her sending fervent thanks to a god she isn’t certain she believes in that Bernie has made it, that she’s been so lucky.
Serena leaves early for work, takes a detour to the florist two streets away and asks the young man behind the counter to put together something tasteful.
‘Anything in particular you’d like included?’ he asks, beginning to gather a selection of greenery.
Serena looks around the little shop, lost for ideas until she spot the buckets of tulips and remembers a photo Bernie tweeted, months ago, of bed after bed of them. ‘Tulips,’ she says decisively. ‘Not the frilly ones, though.’
While he finishes the arrangement Serena taps a pen on the counter as she tries to decide what to write in the accompanying card, what would be appropriate considering they don’t actually know each other, not really, not beyond Bernie’s reports and the odd exchange of messages via Twitter. For a moment she panics that she’s making a mistake, that this is far too personal for what they are.
And then she thinks of Bernie, lying in a sterile hospital bed, no doubt already bored almost to tears, and decides that if it were her then any burst of colour would be welcome, whoever they came from.
‘Nearly gave me a heart attack when I heard what happened,’ she writes eventually. ‘Relieved beyond belief that you’re ok. Serena x’
She looks at the card, realises she signed it with a kiss without even thinking about it. Ah well, too late to do anything about it now: the florist is looking at her expectantly, and if she dithers any longer she’s going to be horrendously late to work.
Later, after the day’s planning meeting, Serena scrolls through Twitter as she sips her coffee. The usual bits and bobs – and then an update from Bernie, a photo of a little table crammed to bursting with flowers and baskets of fruit, Serena’s bouquet of tulips in pride of place at front and centre.
‘Thanks for the wishes & gifts. Going to be a while until I’m back in the field but I’m ok. So is Maj Stewart. Huge thanks to #ramc & #nhs.’
Serena smiles, wider than she has since the news came in last night, feels immeasurably better for an update direct from Bernie’s hand. She tries not to read too much into the positioning of her flowers, the fact that they’re so prominent in Bernie’s view from her bed – the bed she’ll be spending almost all of her time in for now.
It’ll just be where one of the nurses put them, she tells herself. It doesn’t mean anything.
And then a notification pops up: a direct message, from Bernie.
‘Did you know they’re my favourite?’
‘Just a lucky guess,’ Serena replies, unwilling to admit that she remembers a throwaway photo Bernie tweeted months ago.
‘Well thank you, I love them. Much better than all these carnations and shockingly bright gerberas. What are yours? Just so I can return the favour on the off chance you find yourself in life threatening peril at the studio ;)’
‘Daffodils. Although I’d prefer a good bottle of Shiraz…’
‘Noted! Better let you get on. Have to see if I can bribe someone to put the news on later.’
‘Don’t want to miss out on all the lovely things we’ll be saying about you? ;)’ Serena replies, desperately trying to squash down the fluttering in her stomach at the thought that maybe Bernie wants to watch because it’s her, that maybe Bernie wants to watch her. That maybe Bernie might feel something like she feels.
Now’s hardly the time, she berates herself.
‘Something like that. Got to go – time to have yet more of my blood stolen.’
‘Make sure they leave you enough! Rest up, Bernie. The news isn’t the same when you’re in it rather than reporting on it x’
Another kiss, Serena realises as she hits send. Panic gnaws at her gut again, until a final reply pops up.
‘Will do! And thank you again, Serena. Really x’
‘Oh,’ Serena breathes, her thumb hovering over the kiss. And then she clears her throat and rolls her eyes at herself. ‘Silly old woman,’ she mutters, closing the thread.
She can’t help thinking of it throughout the day, though. Can’t help smiling every time she does.
Bernie’s attendance at this year’s ceremony is, Hanssen tells her, mandatory.
‘You’re in the country after all, Ms Wolfe,’ his email, hot on the heels of the customary missive to all nominated staff, says. ‘No excuse.’
‘I wasn’t supposed to be,’ Bernie mutters as she reads it. ‘What counts as a good excuse if even being blown up isn’t enough to get me out of it?’
Bernie knows, from the experience of two years ago, that the night will be all of the things she hates, all rolled into one handy package. People she doesn’t know or doesn’t like, small talk, having to get dressed up because for one night only the cameras care what she looks like not just what she says, want her to be a woman not just a journalist.
And of course this year there’ll be the added bonus of her injuries: a combination, no doubt, of awe at her dedication to the story and pity at her still uneven walk and the cane she’s reluctantly come to realise she still sometimes needs a fortnight after being discharged from hospital. Plus the niggling discomfort that will, at some point, turn to pain.
I’ll skive, she thinks. Say my injuries are playing up.
And then, with a jolt, Bernie realises that the News at Ten team is nominated again. Which means that Serena might be there. Will be there, seeing as Hanssen is, as usual, ordering everyone’s presence.
Third time lucky? she thinks hopefully.
Bernie spent a long time thinking about Serena while she was stuck in her hospital bed, gazing at the tulips Serena sent her, wondering if the kiss she signed the card with was just habit or if it meant something. If it means Serena feels something akin to what she feels. Hoping that it does.
She thinks that, in the past months – past years, even – she’s spoken to Serena more than she’s spoken to her children, even if there was always a crew with each of them at either end of the line and millions of TV viewers listening in too. Bernie wonders what it would be like to speak to Serena in person, just the two of them, to talk about something – anything – other than politics and religion, war and its consequences. She finds herself longing for it, longing for the ceremony. For the chance to see those eyes across from her instead of on a screen, to hear that voice vibrating through the same air as hers. She wonders what Serena looks like when she laughs, what she sounds like. Will it be light and joyous, or low and rumbling? Bernie doesn’t know which she would prefer, but she can’t wait to find out.
Bernie arrives on time, appropriately dressed, as she was told to. She accepts a glass of champagne and makes small talk, as is expected of her, brushing off the injury still visibly apparent thanks to the cane she’s leaning on – mostly for security rather than absolute necessity because the mere thought of stumbling and falling, especially here in front of so many colleagues and cameras, is embarrassing – and turning conversation to the medics she was shadowing as much as she can.
When she can’t face another (invariably young) journalist gushing about how fearless she is, how brave in the pursuit of a story, she sits where she’s directed to, twists in her seat to look around the steadily filling room until her back and chest both begin to protest. So instead she fidgets with the cuffs of her suit jacket, eyes front to placate her body, ears straining to pick up even the faintest hint of Serena’s oh so familiar voice over the growing hubbub.
‘The heroic journalist of the hour. Am I worthy enough to sit with you?’
Bernie looks to her left to find Ric Griffin, Serena’s veteran News at Ten presenting colleague, slipping into the seat beside her, a teasing glint in his eyes.
‘Don’t you start,’ she mutters.
‘Not enjoying being idolised for your apparent disregard of danger to your personal safety and near miraculous recovery?’
‘I’d rather they all focused on the real story.’
‘I know,’ Ric smiles. ‘Problem is you’re part of that story now, like it or not.’
‘Well, if it brings more attention to the situation then at least I’m still serving a purpose, even if I can’t be there reporting on it,’ Bernie says bitterly, with a wry twist of her mouth.
Ric lays a hand on her arm, looks like he’s about to offer some platitude but is interrupted by the arrival of a younger newsreader Bernie’s never met on his other side. The rest of the seats around them are rapidly filling now. Bernie ignores the twinges of pain and takes another look around the room. It’s almost time to start, and there’s still no sign of Serena.
‘Is Serena not coming?’ she asks Ric as nonchalantly as she can when there’s a break in his conversation. ‘Or has she somehow managed to sweet talk her way around Hanssen?’
Ric smiles briefly at the thought of this, and then his face falls. ‘Her daughter was involved in a car accident earlier today,’ he says quietly. ‘She’s had to race over to the hospital in Holby.’
‘Is she alright?’ Bernie asks, eyes wide and heart dropping as she remembers the hospital phoning her about Cam.
Ric shrugs, his face set. ‘Last text she sent, Elinor was still in surgery. It sounded serious.’
‘Fuck,’ Bernie breathes.
A moment later the lights dim and the ceremony begins. Bernie scarcely pays attention, just about manages to clap in the right places when prompted by the applause around her, because all she can think about is Serena, and how terrified she must be. How even now she might be losing her daughter, might already have lost her.
And then, suddenly, Ric is elbowing her in the side. ‘Get up,’ he hisses.
Bernie stares at him, uncomprehending.
‘You’ve won,’ he mutters, through a smile. ‘Go on.’
Bernie realises everyone is looking at her and applauding, forces herself out of her seat and somehow makes it onto the stage, infinitely thankful for the support of her cane because her legs feel shaky. She stumbles through her acceptance with no idea what she’s saying, stringing words together on autopilot like she’s more used to doing under the imminent threat of enemy fire and can only hope that she’s remembered to mention all the people who deserve thanks, who made her work possible, that she looks appropriately surprised at having won rather than like she has no idea what’s been going on.
She makes her way back to her seat to the sound of more applause, sinks down gratefully and smiles as the colleagues around her offer their congratulations. The rest of the night passes in a daze. Bernie barely feels the thrill of her success, can’t even feel disappointed that Serena isn’t here, that she hasn’t had the chance to speak to her, to see Serena’s smile and hear her congratulations. All her thoughts are in a hospital in a city she’s never been to, with a woman she’s never met. She doesn’t believe in god but if she did she’d be desperately praying, bargaining on Serena’s behalf.
Please don’t let her die.
Bernie only sleeps because her battered body is still using so much energy to heal. She wakes to find a three am tweet from Serena: ‘Thanks to the marvellous #nhs my daughter is still alive and going to be fine. Can’t praise or thank them enough’.
Bernie feels her heart settle back into its rightful place for the first time since Ric told her about Elinor’s accident, feels almost dizzy with relief.
And then she notices that Serena has replied to a photo of her receiving her award. ‘A very worthy win for a wonderful journalist. Only sorry I couldn’t congratulate you in person @berniewolfe.’
Bernie smiles at this, her pulse speeding at the thought that Serena might just want to meet her as much as she wants to meet Serena. Her heart speeds a little more when she scrolls further and sees that Serena hasn’t commented on any other photos from last night, hasn’t told anyone else that she wishes she’d been there to see them get their award. Ships in the night, she thinks ruefully.
She opens up her message thread with Serena, hesitates as she tries to decide what to write. Mentioning the ceremony seems wrong, somehow, petty and inconsequential considering how Serena spent her night.
‘I’m so relieved your daughter’s going to be alright,’ she settles on eventually. ‘If there’s anything I can do you know where I am x’
She doesn’t get a reply, didn’t really expect one. Serena has far more important things on her mind right now, far more important things to do, has no doubt been swamped with messages from colleagues and friends.
At least, she doesn’t get a reply until hours later.
‘Spend time with your kids. Hold them a little tighter, a little longer. Tell them you love them. All the things I wished I’d done when I thought I might lose her.’
‘I will,’ Bernie replies almost instantly, blinking away tears as she thinks, again, about what Serena must have gone through.
‘Promise me, Bernie.’
‘I promise. And I meant it, Serena. Anything I can do, anything at all.’
‘Thank you x’
Bernie keeps her promise, messages Cam and Charlie that afternoon and arranges to have lunch with them the following day, before her appointment with occupational health. She sits across the table from them and watches as they bicker, just like when they were little, and has to blink away tears.
‘I love you so much,’ she says to both of them as she hugs them tightly when they say goodbye. ‘So much.’
She watches them walk down the street together, her heart aching with both love and guilt at how little time she’s spent with them over the last few years.
We could so easily be ripped apart, she thinks as she heads towards her appointment. And I’ve already missed so much.
It perhaps makes it a little easier when she’s told that she won’t be cleared to go back into the field for a good few months yet.
‘Ok,’ she says quietly. ‘That’s ok.’
‘Ok?’ the therapist frowns. ‘That doesn’t sound like the ultra dedicated journalist I know you are. Getting blown up made you lose your taste for it?’
‘Oh no,’ Bernie smiles. ‘Not in the slightest. But a friend has made me realise how fleeting life is, how much I have here and how lucky I am to have it. Maybe some time at home would be a good thing.’
‘Right. Well, I would recommend you do something. Sitting around twiddling your thumbs is going to get mighty boring after what you’re used to.’
‘Agreed,’ Bernie replies. ‘I’m sure I can find something to keep me busy.’
In the end she doesn’t have to find anything at all. She doesn’t even have chance to really think about what she might do during this enforced sabbatical, let alone chance to look into anything.
‘I understand you’re going to be in the country for some time, Ms Wolfe,’ Hanssen says when he calls her, out of the blue, a couple of days later.
‘Um, yes,’ is all Bernie can manage, too shocked that the Director of News has called her himself, that she’s speaking to him rather than to an assistant.
‘Well then I have a proposal for you.’
‘As you’re aware, your placement in the Middle East was due to end in April. I know you will wish to be back in the field as soon as your health allows, but might I suggest a year out of rotation.’
‘A whole year?’ Bernie asks, her heart dropping. Suddenly she can see a yawning maw of empty time stretching in front of her. A matter of months she could imagine filling – look forward to, even – but a year?
‘I’m not suggesting a year off, Ms Wolfe,’ Hanssen says, and Bernie swears he’s smiling, swears she must have heard her near panic at the mere thought of it.
‘A year based in the UK – London mostly, I imagine. Studio work, commenting on affairs in the Middle East. You are an expert, after all. And you would, of course, be free to pursue other projects as well, as long as we are your priority.’
‘Projects like what?’ Bernie frowns.
‘Previous correspondents have written books documenting their experiences,’ he suggests. ‘Or given talks on them. I imagine Panorama may be interested in a documentary of your time with the RAMC. You have a wealth of knowledge, Ms Wolfe. I’m sure you can think of ways to impart it that don’t require you to be reporting from the scene.’
‘A whole year?’ Bernie checks.
‘I would prefer you not to rush your recovery in pursuit of an earlier return date,’ Hanssen replies.
‘And then we will discuss your next posting. Just as we usually would.’
‘Alright,’ Bernie sighs.
‘Excellent,’ Hanssen replies, and now Bernie’s sure he’s smiling. ‘I shall spread the good news. No doubt someone will be in touch shortly.’
Someone is. A week later, Bernie is asked to appear on the News at Ten to comment on the recapture of Palmyra by Syrian forces. She doesn’t find out until she arrives, until she’s sat in makeup, that the newsreader she’ll be talking to is Serena Campbell.
Serena has a matter of hours to prepare herself. It’s nowhere near enough. The moment Bernie is walked onto the set she finds herself breathless. Bernie is all long and lean, wearing sinfully tight black jeans that should surely be illegal. Especially when paired with a black shirt that drapes just so. And her hair – oh, her hair is almost as messy as she’s used to seeing it in the middle of a desert, and Serena longs to sink her fingers into it.
Hold it together, she tells herself firmly.
She risks a glance across at Bernie, now sat around the glass desk from her, but once their eyes meet she can’t look away. Bernie offers a hesitant, almost shy smile, and Serena can practically feel the nerves radiating from her. She wonders if it’s because Bernie isn’t used to being in the studio, or if she isn’t the only one fizzing at the fact that they’re finally in the same room as each other, finally meeting each other after so long.
There’s no time to ask. All she can do is offer a reassuring smile as Fletch tells them they have ten seconds. Just before she forces herself to look at her notes Serena sees Bernie smile in return, some of the tension dropping from her shoulders.
‘And joining me now in the studio is our war correspondent, Bernie Wolfe. Bernie, just how significant is this recapture of Palmyra for the war in Syria?’
‘Well Serena,’ Bernie begins.
The way Bernie says her name makes Serena shiver, and she’s inordinately glad the cameras are trained on Bernie rather than her because the sibilance is so much more pronounced in person and she can feel herself blushing. She allows herself the luxury of just watching and listening, although allowmay be the wrong word because really she has no choice.
My god, if Serena had thought that speaking to Bernie across a live link and thousands of miles was something – well, being sat just a few feet from her is something else entirely. Her face is animated, her eyes light up, her voice could be a lethal weapon and is certainly beginning to turn Serena’s insides to jelly, and Serena is almost mesmerised. She catches every flicker of Bernie’s fingers, every shift of expression, hangs off every word, Bernie’s passion for what she does tangible in the air.
Serena could happily listen to her all night, but all too soon they’re out of time. Bernie stops talking, smiling when Serena thanks her, and Serena somehow manages to link to the next item. With the recorded segment rolling she turns to gaze at Bernie again, beaming so much that her cheeks hurt, and finds Bernie already gazing at her. Her eyes are so dark and soft, and Serena thinks there’s more there than respect for a colleague, thinks she could almost be looking in a mirror and seeing her own expression reflected back at her.
Bernie opens her mouth but there’s no time, and before she can speak Fletch is talking to Serena through her earpiece and Serena has to look away to scribble on her notes. When she looks up it’s to see Bernie’s back as she’s ushered away. Her eyes linger on the line of her spine and those long, long legs until she’s out of the room, and then it’s back to business.
She doesn’t have time to feel disappointed until they’re off air, and all the way home Serena wonders what Bernie wanted to say to her, rues the fact that she didn’t even have chance to say goodbye.
Next morning, Serena wakes to a tweet from Bernie: ‘So lovely to meet my favourite newsreader @serenacampbell in person at last!’
‘Lovely to meet my favourite correspondent too,’ Serena replies, warmth that this mattered to Bernie too suffusing her.
She’s still smiling from it when she walks into her usual coffee shop around the corner from Broadcasting House on her way in to work. Staring unseeing at the board as she waits for her order she wonders if she could suggest bringing Bernie on again tonight, if anyone else would think it worth it. If Ric would see right through her to her real motive.
It is a big story, she thinks. Surely significant enough to warrant seeking her commentary two nights running.
‘Do you remember when coffee was just coffee?’
Serena forces herself not to spin around at the familiar voice, feels her heart speed up as she slowly turns to see Bernie standing right behind her in the queue, frowning at all the options on offer.
‘Strong and hot’s all I care about,’ Serena replies, her gaze raking Bernie’s figure without her permission, taking in the same skinny black jeans as yesterday, the plaid shirt.
Serena meets her eye, feels her cheeks flush at having been caught ogling her, but Bernie just grins.
‘I’ll have whatever she’s having,’ Bernie adds to the barista.
Serena takes her double shot latte. She really ought to leave straightaway but she can’t take her eyes from Bernie, can’t quite believe that she’s here, that they’re standing beside each other with no crew, no camera, no audience.
‘So what brings you back here again?’ she asks instead, her eyes still on Bernie as she takes a sip.
‘I was asked on to Breakfast,’ Bernie replies, yawning. ‘Sorry I’ve gone soft, not used to early starts any more. Need the caffeine in order to get home.’
‘How are you finding the quiet life?’
‘Quiet. Far from boring, though,’ she replies, looking right at Serena. ‘It really was lovely to meet you last night.’
‘Likewise,’ Serena smiles, holding Bernie’s dark, earnest gaze. ‘Can you believe we’d never met, after all these years?’
‘Or that it took me getting blown up for it to happen?’ Bernie adds with a rueful smile.
‘You know I had to report that?’ Serena asks, suppressing a shudder at the memory of that night. ‘We found out at five to ten. I’ve broken a lot of stories in my time, but that was one of the hardest. We didn’t even know if you were still alive.’
She feels foolish the moment she says it and drops her gaze to the cup in her hands, thinks about all the disasters she’s reported on, all the tragedies Bernie’s seen, how insignificant Bernie’s injury is in the grand scheme of things. But then Bernie places one hand over hers, her fingers cool in contrast to the coffee-filled cardboard, rough and dry in comparison to Serena’s own skin.
‘It’s never easy when it’s a colleague,’ she says softly.
Serena raises her eyes to meet Bernie’s, finds them full of sincerity and empathy.
You’re more than just a colleague, Serena wants to say, her heart almost bursting with it. Or you could be. I want you to be.
But she doesn’t, just holds Bernie’s gaze and focuses on the feel of her thumb lightly stroking her knuckles. After a long moment she realises what she’s doing, clears her throat and makes herself look away. She misses Bernie’s touch as soon as she draws her hand back.
‘Guess I’d better let you get to work,’ Bernie says reluctantly.
‘And I’d better let you get home. It, uh, it was lovely to see you again, Bernie.’
‘You too,’ Bernie smiles. ‘Have a good day, Serena. I’ll be watching tonight.’
Later that week Serena steps outside, scowling at the rain. It isn’t enough to drive her back indoors, though; she’s going to be here for a few more hours before meeting Jason for dinner, and she needs better coffee than Broadcasting House can offer. A pastry wouldn’t go amiss, either.
So she pulls her coat tightly around herself and quickly walks to the coffee shop. It’s busy at this time of day and in this weather, the windows steamy with condensation, multiple conversations overlapping into a formless, meaningless backdrop of noise.
Joining the back of the small queue, Serena cranes to see what pastries are left in the glass-fronted cabinet. In doing so she catches sight of the reflected profile of the person in front of her, right over the lone pain au chocolat she has her eye on.
‘We must stop meeting like this,’ she jokes.
Bernie almost spins around on her heel, already smiling. ‘I’d rather not,’ she replies, her eyes sparkling. ‘What are you having?’
‘Double shot latte, same as yesterday. And I’ll lay claim to that pain au chocolat, before anyone else can.’
‘Two double shot lattes, a pain au chocolat and a cinnamon swirl to go, please,’ Bernie says to the waiting barista.
‘You don’t need to buy my coffee,’ Serena protests, unzipping her purse.
But Bernie stops her, her fingers gentle on Serena’s. ‘I know,’ she says quietly. ‘But I’d like to. Seeing you has brightened my day no end, and definitely deserves a reward.’
‘Alright,’ Serena relents. ‘Next time we bump into each other here, I’ll repay the favour.’
‘I won’t argue with that,’ Bernie smiles.
They wait side by side in slightly awkward silence. Serena watches as Bernie looks around the shop, her eyes darting into every corner. There’s only one free seat, at a table full of students, and Serena sees the resignation on her face.
‘So, what are you around here for today, then?’ she asks.
‘I’ve been asked onto the six o’clock.’
‘Bit early, aren’t you?’ Serena frowns.
Bernie sighs. ‘I was supposed to be spending the afternoon with my daughter, but she got a better offer last minute. Thought I’d just sit in here and read, but…’ she trails off and gestures around them at the lack of space.
‘You could come in with me,’ Serena offers instantly. ‘If you’d like, that is,’ she adds hurriedly. ‘I can’t offer much in the way of entertainment but I should be able to find you a chair, at the very least, and a little more peace than this.’
‘Oh no, no Serena I couldn’t,’ Bernie protests. ‘I wouldn’t want to be in the way, or–’
‘You’d be doing nothing of the sort,’ Serena assures her, lightly touching her arm. ‘Please, I’d like to help.’ Not to mention how much I want to spend more time with you.
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ Bernie says, uncertainly.
‘I am,’ Serena says firmly.
They take the coffees and pastries handed to them, and Serena heads for the door before Bernie can put up an argument. She doesn’t even look back to see if Bernie’s following; if she had, she’d have seen a disbelieving smile spread wide across Bernie’s face as she jogged to catch up.
She’s got as far as getting Bernie ensconced in a chair and checking her emails, grateful beyond measure to find nothing requiring her immediate attention, nothing demanding that she divert her focus away from the woman beside her, when she catches sight of her producer and an intern scanning the newsroom. Serena crosses her fingers beneath the desk but to no avail; the intern spots her and rushes over, and Serena groans.
‘Looks like I’m about to be whisked away,’ she mutters to Bernie. ‘No no, you stay here,’ she says, placing a hand on Bernie’s arm as she begins to rise. ‘With any luck, I won’t be long.’
But it seems that all Serena’s luck for the day was used up on running into Bernie. By the time she returns, waylaid not once but three times on her way, Bernie is long gone, her empty pastry bag the only sign she was ever there.
‘Messy woman,’ Serena mutters. But when she goes to crumple the bag and throw it in the bin, she spots a scrawl across the paper.
‘Glad I saw you again, even if it was only briefly! I’ll hold you to that promise of coffee next time… B x’
Serena smiles, and instead of throwing the bag away carefully folds it and tucks it inside her handbag. And then, with a disappointed sigh, she pulls on her coat and leaves; however much she wants to stay and watch Bernie speaking to Raf, however much she wants to be able to see her afterwards, to say goodbye if nothing else, Jason will absolutely not tolerate her being late.
The following morning, Serena arrives at work to find a bouquet of daffodils waiting for her, and her heart begins to race.
‘Looks like someone’s got an admirer,’ Ric teases.
Serena scowls at him, her fingers straying to stroke the bright, delicate petals.
‘Not so secret either,’ he adds, nodding towards the accompanying card. ‘Although I don’t think we need to read that to know who they’re from.’
Serena reaches for the card, thumb caressing her name on the envelope, and frowns.
‘I saw you when she was on the show,’ Ric says. ‘Both of you.’
Serena finally tears her gaze from the flowers and looks at him, her eyes wide.
‘Not unrequited, if I’m any judge,’ is all he says before walking away.
Slowly, carefully, Serena opens the envelope and takes out the card inside, opens that too.
Finally meeting you is the best thing to happen to me in a long time, and I’d really like to get to know you better. I know you said you’d prefer Shiraz but I thought perhaps we could share a bottle. Can I take you out for dinner?’
Below, there’s a string of numbers. Eleven numbers, beginning with 07.
Serena stares at the daffodils a moment longer, thumb stroking across Bernie’s words. And then she fumbles in her handbag for her phone, snaps a picture of the bouquet and sends it to the number on the card along with a single word.
They arrange to meet outside the restaurant, a little family-run Italian with delicious food and, more importantly, an extensive wine list. Bernie is just barely on time, spent far too long dithering about which shirt to wear, but she strides down the street as the nearest church bells start to ring out the hour. Clearing a crowd of people, she stops dead at the kerb. Because standing over the road from her is Serena and suddenly Bernie – Bernie Wolfe, veteran reporter from more wars than she cares to count, renowned for being unflappable under fire – can’t even breathe.
And then Serena turns and sees her. Her smile is so bright that it’s almost blinding, and Bernie’s head spins and she feels like she’s soaring.
Someone brushes past Bernie, the touch grounding her. She looks both ways, waits for a cab to pass and then crosses the road as quickly as she can.
‘You look amazing,’ she murmurs.
Serena smiles again and this close – the closest they’ve ever been – Bernie can see how her eyes sparkle, how the delicate lines around them deepen in her happiness.
‘So do you,’ Serena replies, leaning to brush a lingering kiss to Bernie’s cheek, her hand on Bernie’s elbow to steady herself. She leaves it there as they head inside, only lets go when they’re shown to their table and have to separate to sit down.
‘I was a little worried,’ Serena admits after she’s asked for a bottle of Shiraz, ‘when I was waiting for you, that I’d misread things. That wishful thinking meant I’d got far too dressed up for what this really was.’
Bernie opens her mouth to reply, snaps it shut again when their wine arrives and she waits for Serena to taste it. As the waiter leaves she lays her hand on the table between them, beside the flickering candle; Serena reaches for it instantly, fingers sliding across Bernie’s knuckles.
‘I wasn’t wrong, was I?’ she asks, before Bernie can get a word out.
‘No,’ Bernie replies.
If she had thought Serena’s smile was bright before, it’s nothing compared to this. ‘Well then,’ she says, raising her glass. ‘Here’s to a long overdue first date.’
For all of her eloquence at work and under fire Bernie is surprisingly hesitant in conversation, all stuttering and false starts and hiding behind her fringe, like she’s terrified of getting it wrong. Just like in the studio, Serena offers a reassuring smile; unlike then there’s no need for a mask so she lets go a little, tries to let her own nerves show too so Bernie knows that she’s not alone in this, so Bernie knows that getting this right matters to her too.
It works. Bernie loosens a little over their entrees, they talk and flirt and laugh over risotto (for Serena) and ravioli (for Bernie). Somewhere along the line Bernie begins to open up, to offer stories of her own in exchange for Serena’s, and it’s a relief to find that things are so natural between them, that already she feels like they’ve known each other forever.
‘I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,’ Serena confesses over the dessert menu.
‘Really?’ Bernie asks, eyes wide in hope and disbelief.
‘Years,’ Serena confirms with a smile.
‘Hope I’m not a disappointment?’ Bernie asks, ducking behind her fringe.
‘Far from it,’ Serena says emphatically, doing her best to stifle a gasp when Bernie gazes at her over the rim of her almost empty wine glass.
It’s true: meeting Bernie – properly, not just fleetingly – is even better than Serena could ever have imagined it would be. This is far more than a crush, Serena realises, unable to tear her eyes from Bernie’s. In fact she thinks she could so easily fall head over heels for Bernie, finally understands the U-Haul cliché because if Bernie got down on one knee right now Serena’s pretty sure she’d say yes.
‘I, uh, I hope I’m not?’ she asks quietly, half terrified what the answer might be even though Bernie’s eyes don’t really leave any room for doubt.
‘I’ve spent years wondering what it would be like to talk to you – just us, just talking normally instead of for work,’ Bernie replies, a smile playing across her lips. ‘Wondering what you look like when you’re happy, what your laugh sounds like.’
She reaches across the table again, and again Serena takes her hand instantly. Bernie’s touch, Bernie’s fingers sliding between hers, Bernie’s thumb caressing hers, sends bright shivering sparks along Serena’s nerves and she can’t keep the sudden, vivid image of Bernie’s hands elsewhere from her mind.
‘You’re not a disappointment, Serena,’ Bernie says, her voice low and husky, only serving to further stoke Serena’s desire. ‘I doubt you ever could be.’
It’s too much. Serena has to clear her throat and tear her gaze away. She forces a deep breath and looks up at the ceiling, fingers of her free hand rising to toy with her pendant, to drag it back and forth along the chain, the movement soothing her just enough that when Bernie tries to draw her hand back she has the presence of mind grasp it.
‘Don’t apologise,’ Serena says softly when she looks across the table to find Bernie retreating behind her fringe, her mouth opening. ‘Look at me, Bernie.’
Bernie’s gaze flicks to her and then away again.
‘Properly,’ Serena admonishes fondly.
There’s a beat of hesitation and then Bernie obeys; Serena can practically feel her steeling herself, disarms her with a warm smile and a gaze that she hopes is filled with all the wanting she’s struggling to contain. It must do, if Bernie’s tiny gasp and the widening of her eyes is anything to go by.
‘You make me want things I absolutely cannot have right here,’ Serena says, pitching her voice low and letting it roughen with desire. ‘And that I probably shouldn’t have tonight, seeing as I have an early start in the morning.’
‘Oh,’ Bernie breathes.
‘You make me want other things too,’ Serena says, more gently now, fondness seeping in.
Bernie tilts her head in question.
‘Dinners, getting to know you, lazy Sunday afternoons,’ Serena lists. ‘Not just your body, delicious as it is.’
Bernie blushes, and then chews her lip. ‘I want all that too, it’s just I’m– well, I’m not sure I’m very good at it. But,’ she adds, taking a deep breath, ‘you make me want to try.’
‘Then try we will,’ Serena smiles. ‘It doesn’t mean that a kiss is off the table tonight, though,’ she adds in an undertone as the waiter reappears, winking at Bernie.
They ignore the closest Tube station in favour of a stroll, arm in arm. The underlying tension is still there but so is the rapport, conversation flowing easily, and Serena doesn’t want the night to end. But she does indeed have an earlier start than usual tomorrow and these heels were not designed with lengthy walks in mind, however wonderfully steadying Bernie’s arm is proving to be.
‘I guess this is goodnight, then,’ Bernie says reluctantly.
‘I suppose so,’ Serena sighs.
And then Bernie’s lips are on hers, soft and chaste and tender. They draw apart slowly, eyes locked and breaths mingling. Serena immediately pulls Bernie into another kiss, one that’s far longer and deeper, that has Bernie pulling Serena against her and Serena burying her hands in Bernie’s hair like she’s yearned to, that leaves them both breathless.
‘Goodnight, Serena,’ Bernie murmurs, slipping from her grasp and walking away.
‘Goodnight,’ Serena whispers, fingers touching her lips. She feels herself smile and then hears herself laugh, feels almost giddy. I kissed Bernie Wolfe, she thinks, grinning, as she practically skips down the steps into the Tube station.
As she’s getting ready for bed, not quite sure how she’s going to sleep for the mix of desire and excitement and joy bubbling inside her, Serena’s phone buzzes.
‘I had a wonderful time tonight. I hope we can do it again soon? B x’
‘So did I,’ Serena replies, a smile spreading across her face. ‘There’s nothing I’d like more x’
Bernie finds it hard to tear her eyes from Serena the next time she’s asked onto the News at Ten. It takes all her years of experience to get her words out – and god, it would be easier to be under the imminent threat of an explosion than to be offering expert commentary in response to questions from the woman around the desk from her, the woman she already knows she’s fallen in love with even after only five dates. She’s sure it must be obvious to everyone how she feels, how much she wants to kiss Serena’s clever, pretty lips, how she wants to find out exactly what’s underneath her perfectly professional outfit. How she knows that she will find out because she knows Serena wants it too.
Especially when Serena half rises from her seat when Bernie goes to leave as the next recorded segment rolls, when she reaches towards her and Bernie can’t stop herself from reaching back, their fingers catching for a few seconds, their eyes catching for longer, Serena’s professional mask slipping and all her affection and want shining from her. And then there’s Fletch’s voice in Serena’s ear, and with an apologetic smile Serena lets her go, mask instantly back in place.
Bernie doesn’t mean to hang around Broadcasting House, had planned to go straight home and to bed once she was off the set. But on her way out she sees a screen tuned to BBC One and her feet stop and she just can’t walk past. So she watches the rest of the programme, because even though they’re in the same country – even though she gets to spend time actually with Serena now – every glimpse and word still feels precious.
Only when it goes to the local news does she continue on her way, stopping outside the building and gazing up through the streetlamps and office lights towards where scudding clouds mostly hide the stars. For a moment she wishes she hadn’t given up smoking, feels the longing for that rush of nicotine through her veins. She gets something far better.
‘What are you still doing here?’ comes Serena’s confused, delighted voice from behind her.
Bernie turns on her heel, clenches her fists inside her coat pockets to keep her hands from reaching for Serena. ‘My eye got caught by a pretty lady on TV,’ she says with a wink.
Serena blushes, but the lines around her eyes and her mouth deepen with her smile. ‘Do you need to get off, or have you time for a drink?’
‘I’d love to get off with you,’ Bernie murmurs, her voice low.
Serena swats at her shoulder. ‘Not what I meant, and you know it,’ she scolds, but her voice lacks all bite and instead is filled with longing.
‘I’ve always got time for you,’ Bernie says seriously, holding out her elbow.
Serena slips her hand into the crook, squeezing slightly, and leads Bernie to a quiet little bar not too far away but far enough that it isn’t swarming with BBC employees, leads her to a cozy little booth in a dimly lit corner and gently pushes her down. Bernie watches her sashay to the bar and flirt with the woman behind it, young enough to be one of their daughters, watches her come back with two glasses of red and knows Serena knows she’s been watching.
‘Ordering by the glass? Who are you, and what have you done with Serena Campbell?’ Bernie teases when she sets the glasses down.
‘It’s a school night, Ms Wolfe,’ Serena says with mock reproof. She leans on the table, her eyes fixed on Bernie’s.
‘Since when has that ever stopped you?’
‘I do have some self-restraint, I’ll have you know,’ Serena murmurs, her eyes flicking from Bernie’s to her lips and then back again.
‘I know,’ Bernie agrees, leaning a little closer, their noses almost touching. ‘You’re doing admirably well right now.’
‘Sod it,’ Serena almost growls. Her lips are warm and soft and sure, tacky with lipstick that smears across Bernie’s mouth. ‘I want to take you home with me,’ she murmurs, her tone and the look in her eyes making it clear why.
‘Nothing I’d like more,’ Bernie says.
Serena hears the unspoken ‘but’ hanging at the end of her sentence and draws back a little. Bernie sees worry flit across her face and soothes it away with a hand caressing her waist, resting on the curve of her hip.
‘I have to catch an early train,’ Bernie says softly, her eyes all apology.
‘How early?’ Serena frowns.
‘You don’t want to know,’ Bernie grimaces, shifting to make space for Serena beside her.
‘And here’s me keeping you out late. Why didn’t you say?’ Serena scolds gently.
Bernie shrugs, lips just curving in a smile, and nudges against Serena. ‘Because I can’t resist you, Serena Campbell,’ she confesses. ‘One more glance, one more drink. One more touch,’ she adds, her fingers lighting on Serena’s arm.
‘The feeling’s mutual,’ Serena smiles.
‘When I get back,’ Bernie promises.
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ Serena warns.
‘I’m counting on it,’ Bernie replies, her eyes narrowing and darkening until Serena has to look away and clear her throat.
‘So, where are you off to?’
‘Edinburgh,’ Bernie replies.
‘Hope you’ve packed your woolies,’ Serena teases.
‘Jumpers and thermals,’ Bernie shoots back. ‘I’m all ready for May in Scotland.’
‘Why are you going?’
‘Major Stewart – the medic injured in the same IED as me? We got to know each other over there and have stayed in touch. She was medically discharged and I said it would be good to speak to her sometime to see what life’s like for her after the RAMC – a follow-up to what I was doing. Anyway, she’s been overhauling the trauma unit in Edinburgh and invited me to the opening, so I’m going up for a few days.’
‘Should I be jealous?’ Serena asks, only half teasing. She’s seen photos of Major Kate Stewart, a rather attractive woman around their own age.
‘Married with teenage kids, now working in the same hospital as her wife? I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about,’ Bernie smiles, gently squeezing Serena’s arm. ‘Besides, I’ve got my eye on this gorgeous newsreader, so no one else is going to get a look in.’
Serena flushes at this, at the look on Bernie’s face and the earnestness in her voice. ‘You’ll text me, while you’re away?’ she asks, the thought of days without contact from Bernie horrible even though the regular exchange of words between them has only been normal for a matter of weeks.
‘Just try and stop me,’ Bernie replies. ‘And I’ll, uh, I’ll see you when I get back?’
Serena hums her reply, leans close enough to brush her lips to Bernie’s cheek, just catching the corner of her mouth.
It feels like the longest four days of Serena’s life and she scoffs at herself, because Bernie is in Scotland not an active war zone, is away for days not months, is texting her frequently and has even called her, leaving a message on Serena’s voicemail that she’s planning on keeping forever.
(‘I know you’re still on air, I’m watching right now in my hotel room. You look gorgeous in that blouse. I can’t wait to see you in the flesh, the cameras don’t do you justice. I can’t wait to kiss you again, Serena. God, it’s a good job we didn’t meet sooner. I don’t know how I’d’ve managed being away from you for so long.)
She feels a rush of relief that Bernie misses her as much as she misses Bernie, that she isn’t being quite as ridiculous as she feels she is. A rush of desire at the low husk of Bernie’s voice.
Serena glances at the clock on the wall: five past seven. Bernie’s safely on the train back to King’s Cross, currently somewhere between Dunbar and Berwick-upon-Tweed. Four and a half hours to go. Her gaze falls on the bunch of flowers she bought on her lunch break – tulips and daffodils, a riot of flaming colours.
‘Are you sure you’ll make it on time?’ Ric had asked when he saw them, when Serena explained her plan of meeting Bernie off the train after presenting tonight.
‘As long as I’m out of here straight away,’ Serena had replied, and then sighed. ‘And if I don’t then it’s a surprise, so she won’t be disappointed.’
Serena checks in on Bernie throughout the evening, as they finish preparing for the night’s show. Her train gets held up just outside York, and while Serena sympathises she’s secretly glad, because even five extra minutes might make all the difference.
It does, in the end. Serena arrives at the exit she knows Bernie will use, breathless, at 23.33, has just long enough to compose herself before travellers start streaming out onto the street. She scans the thinning crowd desperately, panicking that she’s missed her, then spots the familiar figure and blonde hair and can’t keep from smiling. But Bernie’s moving slower than usual, her gait uneven, a cane in her right hand to support herself, and Serena’s heart clenches at the reminder of what happened to her, how close they came to never knowing each other.
As Bernie gets closer, Serena can see the tiredness in her whole body, the tightness of pain in her face and her frame. She still hasn’t looked up, hasn’t seen her, even though they’re right over the street from each other.
‘Hello stranger,’ Serena says softly.
Bernie stops instantly, head snapping up at the familiar voice, eyes wide in surprise. ‘Serena,’ she manages. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Promised you’d see me when you got back, didn’t I?’ Serena smiles. ‘And I do so hate to break a promise.’
‘I wasn’t expecting you to keep it quite this promptly,’ Bernie says, with a smile that chases the pain to the corners of her eyes. She takes the flowers Serena holds towards her, letting their fingers brush. ‘Thank you.’
‘What you need,’ Serena says, reaching for Bernie’s case and waving off her objection, ‘is a good, hot shower followed by a nice back rub, I think.’
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t want to impose,’ Bernie protests.
‘You can’t impose if I’m asking,’ Serena says firmly. ‘Actually, I’m not sure you could impose at all, Bernie.’
‘If you’re sure.’
‘I am,’ Serena replies.
‘Well then that would be nice. More than nice,’ Bernie corrects herself. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d like more.’
Serena comes out of the bathroom, face washed clean of make up, clothes discarded in favour of a silk robe, to find a naked Bernie face down on her bed, her skin still glowing from the heat of the shower.
‘Alright, darling?’ she asks softly as she walks over.
‘Mm,’ Bernie replies. ‘Feeling better already.’
‘Let’s see if we can’t make things even better, hm?’
Bernie lets out a grunt of surprise when Serena clambers onto the bed and carefully straddles her, a knee either side of her hips, cool silk sliding over her warm skin. Serena smiles, for a moment just lightly trails her fingers up and down the line of Bernie’s spine, the motion almost mesmerising her.
‘Right,’ she says, clearing her throat, reaching for a bottle of oil on the bedside table and pouring a little into her palm.
At the first firm sweep of her hands Bernie groans, and Serena has to force herself to focus on the feel of tense muscles and knots, on the job of easing them out, when every sound Bernie makes is vibrating through her, sending desire coursing through her veins.
‘God, you’re good with your hands,’ Bernie murmurs.
‘Never had any complaints,’ Serena teases, thumbs digging around Bernie’s shoulders. ‘Now, I don’t want you to think that I mind, or that I’m not enjoying this because I definitely am, but shouldn’t you be seeing an osteo regularly so this doesn’t happen?’
Bernie mumbles something incoherent into the pillow.
‘Real words, darling,’ Serena prompts.
‘Had to give them the boot,’ Bernie admits. ‘Turns out I’m fussier than I thought about who puts their hands on me.’
‘Well I’m honoured to be one of the chosen few,’ Serena smiles, working her way down Bernie’s spine.
‘It was the train journey,’ Bernie explains. ‘Five hours sitting down each way, stiffened me right up.’
‘Hence the cane?’ Serena guesses.
Bernie nods slightly. ‘Thought it might happen so I went prepared. Wasn’t expecting it to be quite this bad though.’
They fall silent, and as Bernie’s breaths lengthen and her body softens beneath her, Serena starts to wonder if she’s fallen asleep. But when she gentles her touch into a caress across Bernie’s shoulder blades, over the ridges of her ribs, fingertips just brushing the soft, soft sides of her breasts, Bernie shivers and lets out a far breathier moan than those induced by the massage. Serena leans forward to kiss the base of Bernie’s neck, body momentarily pressing against Bernie’s, and then slips off her.
‘Where are you going?’ Bernie asks, her voice husky.
‘Just to wash my hands,’ Serena replies. ‘Won’t be a moment.’
When she comes out of the bathroom this time, she freezes. Because Bernie has rolled over onto her side, has propped herself up on one elbow and is gazing at her, and Serena’s legs seem to have forgotten how to work.
‘You should give a girl some warning,’ Serena manages, eyes skimming Bernie’s body, catching on the scar down her sternum, before meeting hers again.
Bernie smirks, her own gaze tracing the edges of Serena’s robe as, legs reminded of their function, she comes closer.
‘I like this colour on you,’ Bernie murmurs, reaching out and stroking the silk. ‘Shiraz red.’ Her fingers move to the tie, eyes seeking permission.
Serena nods, a thrill running through her as the loose knot easily gives way, as the silk whispers across her skin and drops to pool at her feet.
‘Is that what you imagined under my blouses?’ Serena asks quietly.
‘Better,’ Bernie says, gazing at Serena with something akin to wonder. ‘Oh, so much better.’
‘I thought you were tired,’ Serena says, letting Bernie draw her down onto the bed beside her.
‘I was,’ Bernie replies, her hand sweeping down Serena’s side to rest in the dip of her waist. ‘But you’re all I’ve been able to think about, Serena, and now you’re right here. And we did leave things on something of a cliffhanger.’
‘Did we?’ Serena asks, feigning innocence. As if their last kiss before Bernie said goodbye isn’t seared in her memory, hasn’t ambushed her multiple times a day and made her shiver with want. As if it hasn’t haunted the dark hours and made her almost desperate for Bernie’s presence beside her in her bed. ‘Maybe you should remind me.’
Serena knows Bernie isn’t fooled. But that doesn’t stop her from nuzzling her nose against Serena’s, from bringing their lips together. She drags Serena the final inches across the mattress until they’re breast to breast, their legs tangling, moans swallowed in a deep kiss, the deepest yet, as acres of hot, soft, wanting skin slide and press together.
Their eyes meet, two pairs of wide pupils and narrow, glittering irises. Bernie trails her fingers down Serena’s spine, barely there but it’s enough to make Serena’s back arch, their hips pressing together.
‘God,’ Bernie groans. One of her thighs is between Serena’s, one of Serena’s between hers, and Serena can’t help pressing closer. Bernie tenses her leg, pushing more firmly against Serena, groans again at the wetness on her skin. ‘I was going to ask if you’re sure, if you’re ready,’ she says, after a kiss that leaves her struggling for breath. ‘But I don’t think I need to, do I?’ She draws back enough to meet Serena’s eye, enough that Serena can see that she is still asking, that she has all the power to decide what happens next.
‘You don’t,’ Serena smiles, heart clenching at the care on Bernie’s face.
Bernie shifts a little, creates just enough space between them. As her fingers dance around Serena’s waist and over the jut of her hip, her lips turn soft and tender. ‘I’ve wanted you so much,’ she murmurs into Serena’s neck.
‘And I you,’ Serena replies. She mirrors Bernie’s actions, catches up just as Bernie teases the sensitive skin of her inner thigh. ‘Look at me, darling,’ she whispers, the tips of her fingers edging into damp curls.
Bernie licks along Serena’s neck before raising her head and Serena shivers, knows Bernie must have been able to feel her racing, jumping pulse.
‘I can’t wait to really take my time,’ Bernie murmurs, one finger slowly sliding through liquid heat, her arousal spiking at Serena’s sharp intake of breath, at the feel of her. ‘To touch you everywhere, taste you everywhere.’
‘How are you fixed for the weekend?’ Serena asks, her words a strained rush.
‘Nothing that can’t be put off.’
‘Right answer,’ Serena smiles, sighing as she finally parts Bernie, finally touches her, finally feels just how much Bernie wants her. ‘Don’t think now’s the time for teasing explorations, do you?’
Bernie shakes her head. She’s already struggling to keep hold of herself, forces her eyes open to see the same struggle on Serena’s face.
‘I’m right with you, darling,’ Serena murmurs against her lips. ‘Just let go. We can both just let go.’
Bernie does. Her world shrinks to the points where their bodies are touching, to the fire flickering from Serena’s fingers and lips, to the sounds of Serena’s hoarse, laboured breaths and low moans in her ear, to the stuttering of Serena’s hips. Serena’s forehead pressed into her shoulder as she comes is the last thing Bernie is aware of before everything explodes around them.
‘Are you a snuggler or not?’ Serena’s sleepy, sated murmur breaks through the haze.
Bernie somehow raises her heavy head and sees that she’s holding out one arm. ‘Usually get complaints about my cold feet.’
‘I can manage cold feet if it means having the rest of you,’ Serena smiles.
So Bernie waits for Serena to switch off the lamp and then curls into her, nuzzling into the curve of her shoulder and smiling against her skin.
‘Apologies in advance for my alarm,’ Serena murmurs after a few moments, but there’s no response.
The shrilling of the alarm rouses Bernie just enough that she opens her eyes when Serena stirs, that she tilts her chin to press a sleepy, smiling kiss to Serena’s lips before she drags herself from the bed. But when Serena comes out of the bathroom Bernie is dozing again, sleeps right through the sound of the hairdryer and Serena getting dressed, right through the kettle boiling and Sacha’s voice on Breakfast drifting up from the kitchen.
She’s still dozing when Serena comes back upstairs and sits on the edge of the bed, only wakes when Serena gently runs her fingers through Bernie’s tangled hair.
‘Years of living in active war zones,’ she explains, her voice gravelled with sleep. ‘I can sleep through anything, otherwise I’d never get any at all.’
Serena smiles, leans to kiss her softly. ‘I have to go to work, darling. Take your time, help yourself to anything, and I’ll see you later.’
‘Rather presumptuous,’ Bernie teases, reaching for Serena’s hand, fingers running across her knuckles.
‘Check the headlines. I’d be surprised if you aren’t asked in to comment.’
Bernie nods her acknowledgement, and then pouts. ‘That’s all you want to see me for?’ she asks, all wide eyes and feigned hurt.
‘You know very well it isn’t,’ Serena murmurs, unable to resist when Bernie tugs her down for another kiss. ‘I really have to go, darling,’ she says, breathless all over again, drawing away.
‘Ok,’ Bernie whispers, chasing her to ghost their lips together one last time and then forcing herself to let go, to drop her head back to the pillow.
Serena makes herself stand and walk away. But she can’t stop herself turning on the threshold, finds Bernie watching her through half lidded eyes, a contented smile curving her mouth.
At quarter to ten that night, Serena taps on the door of makeup and sticks her head around it. Looking straight ahead into the mirror obediently as Essie adds a little colour to her cheeks is Bernie.
‘Give us a minute?’ she asks.
Essie nods and smiles, a glint in her eyes that Serena knows will mean fielding questions later, and leaves the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
Her gaze fixed on Bernie’s in the mirror, Serena stalks across the room, heels clicking on the floor. She runs her fingers through Bernie’s hair, lets the tips just brush her neck and feels her shiver, sees her eyes darken. There’s a touch of hesitancy in her actions, a touch of caution in her eyes, but Bernie instantly reaches to grasp her hand.
‘Hi,’ Bernie smiles, tearing her eyes from Serena’s in the mirror in favour of twisting to look at her directly. She’s spent years only being able to see Serena at one remove, she isn’t about to waste any more time when she has the real thing at last.
‘Hi,’ Serena echoes, finally smiling, biting her bottom lip to keep it from turning into a grin.
Bernie tilts her chin up, lightly tugs on Serena’s hand to encourage her to lean down until the tips of their noses touch, but it’s Serena who closes the final gap.
‘Fletch is asking for you,’ comes Essie’s apologetic voice through the door.
‘Tell him I’m on my way,’ Serena replies, although her actions instantly make a liar of her as she kisses Bernie again, again, again. ‘I’ll see you out there,’ she murmurs when she eventually pulls herself away. She takes a step back, examines herself in the mirror and reapplies her lipstick.
‘Can’t wait,’ Bernie smiles, plucking a tissue from the box on the counter and wiping the vivid red from her own mouth.
Twenty minutes later Bernie is ushered into the studio, and almost trips over her feet when she sees Serena, when Serena looks directly at her and doesn’t look away for a whole, dragging second.
‘Hello again,’ Serena says when Bernie’s sat down around the desk from her. ‘Fancy seeing you here.’
‘Serena Campbell, right?’ Bernie quips.
‘Five seconds, ladies,’ comes Fletch’s voice through their earpieces, reminding them with a jolt that they’re far from being alone.
Serena looks away and clears her throat. Bernie glances down at the desk, takes a deep breath and tries to calm her racing heart. It’s enough that they can both focus, that Serena can ask the questions she’s prepared and that Bernie can answer them adequately; Serena still makes her want to be the best she possibly can be, after all. But the tension is fairly crackling around the studio, and Bernie can’t wrest her gaze from Serena’s smouldering eyes the entire time they’re talking.
‘Wait for me?’ Serena murmurs once it’s over and she’s linked to the next recorded segment, reaching to grasp Bernie’s elbow before she leaves the set.
‘Always,’ Bernie replies, only walking away when Fletch’s harried voice in her ear tells her to get off right now unless she wants to be in full shot. ‘Come and find me,’ she whispers, and Serena nods.
Bernie sinks into a chair in front of the first TV she finds and watches the rest of the news, tension ratcheting higher with every word Serena speaks. And then it’s on to the local news and she loses focus, her gaze still on the screen but her mind on Serena, on the wicked glint in Serena’s eyes and the delicious husk in her voice, the way her breath caught in her throat when Bernie’s fingers brushed the inside of her wrist as she turned to leave.
‘There you are.’
Bernie looks around to see Serena walking towards her, towering heels replaced by a pair of flat pumps that, when Bernie stands up, put them at almost the same height.
‘Ready to go?’ Bernie asks, failing to entirely keep the quiver of yearning from her voice.
‘More than,’ Serena replies with a wink, turning and starting in the direction of the lift so that once Bernie can tear her eyes from the sway of Serena’s hips she has to jog to catch up.
She walks close, far closer than necessary, their shoulders bumping. But when Bernie reaches for her hand, Serena pulls hers away to fidget with the collar of her jacket.
‘The rumour mill is terrible in this place,’ Serena offers by way of explanation, with an apologetic smile. ‘No one quite like journalists for gossip. Might be nice to have a bit of time to ourselves before everyone gets wind of it.’
Bernie shakes her head and chuckles. ‘You couldn’t keep your eyes off me the entire time I was in the studio. Looked like you wanted to devour me.’
‘Mm, I did.’
‘Pretty sure I looked the same. So I think they probably already know.’
Serena blushes, and then laughs. ‘Not my fault you look so delicious, darling,’ she says, her eyes glittering with joy and desire.
She touches the backs of her fingers to Bernie’s and then slowly slides them together. Bernie looks down, watches Serena’s thumb caressing hers, then looks up again to meet Serena’s gaze.
‘Maybe we should refrain from snogging in the glass lift, though,’ Serena says as the doors open in front of them, tugging Bernie in after her.
Bernie pouts in mock disappointment, even as the promise in Serena’s eyes makes her heart flutter. Serena pulls her closer, close enough to murmur in her ear, breath whispering across Bernie’s skin and making her shiver, drawing desire hot through her veins.
‘Hold that thought, darling. I plan on snogging you very thoroughly indeed when I get you home.’
Bernie inhales sharply. ‘Any way to make this thing go faster?’ she asks unsteadily.
* * *
The months pass, spring turning to summer, somehow half of Bernie’s year of exile passing without her noticing. The wars continue and Bernie comments on them; she starts working on her book, spurred by Serena’s proclamation that it’s a marvellous idea, that she wants to be first on the list to get a copy; the country votes to leave the EU, leaving them both devastated, Bernie wrapping Serena in her arms and holding her tight when she gets home after spending all night and well into the morning at the studio presenting with Ric.
Because home is with Serena now: too soon, perhaps, but they’re both old enough to know what they want, have both seen enough devastation to know that time shouldn’t be wasted. And as the Olympics come and go and summer shows the first, tremulous signs of turning to autumn, the spectre of the future – of Bernie’s placement when her twelve months in London is up – hangs ever lower over their heads.
‘Do you miss it?’ Serena asks one lazy Sunday morning, her fingers stroking Bernie’s bare back.
‘Being out there, on location.’ Serena’s voice is steady, calm, but Bernie knows her well enough by now to know that that means nothing, that decades of presenting have rendered Serena perfectly able to hide her emotions behind a mask.
‘Yes,’ Bernie replies, because she also knows that Serena values honesty above almost all else. ‘Sometimes. Though I won’t deny there are certain pleasures in not living in a war zone,’ she adds, lightness seeping into her tone.
‘Such as?’ Serena asks, a answering teasing lilt to her voice.
‘The lack of gunfire, for one,’ Bernie begins, comfortable enough to tease in return, even though every word from her mouth is also true. ‘Not being covered in dust 24/7. Proper pizza.’ She turns her head on her pillow (and it is her pillow now, her side of the bed, in their bedroom), turns her face towards Serena. ‘A comfortable bed every night. A beautiful woman to share it with.’
Serena smiles at this, blushes even though she’s used to receiving compliments. Because she still isn’t used to receiving them from Bernie, still isn’t used to Bernie’s quiet, serious utterances and the way every one makes her feel cherished. She knows she could get used to them, though, thinks it’s just possible there are very few things she’s ever wanted more.
‘And one who puts up with your cold toes at that,’ Serena says, eyes glinting.
Bernie nudges said cold toes against Serena’s, slides them between Serena’s warm ankles. Her eyes flutter closed, a beatific smile on her face as if there’s nowhere she’d rather be, nothing she’d rather be spending her Sunday morning doing.
Serena leaves her hand where it is, palm flat against the small of Bernie’s back, closes her eyes too and enjoys the quiet, the soft sounds of their breath and the feel of Bernie beside her. Tries not to worry too much about a future that seems to be galloping closer at an ever-increasing speed, that despite how they feel about each other (and they haven’t said it yet, either of them, but Serena has been in love before and recognises the symptoms, in herself and in Bernie) seems almost guaranteed to send Bernie back to the Middle East.
Don’t waste precious time worrying, she tells herself firmly, breathing in the warm scent of Bernie, the lingering scent of sex on the sheets. Focus on the now.
She does, for the entire rest of the day and into Monday morning. Forgets that this isn’t forever, that in less than half a year she might only get to see Bernie on screen as she links to her reports. Thinks only about the holiday they’re going on (barring major incidents requiring Serena’s presence at work, of course) in just a few days, the week in Cornwall that she had suggested when she saw Bernie gazing longingly at a photograph of golden sands and turquoise sea in the travel supplement.
And then, as they’re having a later than usual breakfast with Sacha talking quietly in the background, Serena hears the faintest hitch of Bernie’s breath.
‘What is it, darling?’ she asks, looking up from her perusal of the morning papers.
‘I, uh, I’ve got an email from Hanssen,’ Bernie replies, her eyes wide and anxious. ‘He wants to see me. To talk about – well, about next year.’
Serena reaches across the table and takes Bernie’s hand, holds her gaze steadily, ignores her fluttering pulse in favour of trying to reassure Bernie. ‘As long as he doesn’t expect us to postpone our holiday for him,’ she says, smiling, but Bernie’s face remains stony and Serena sighs. ‘We both knew this was going to happen, darling.’
‘I know. It’s just – I love what I do, Serena, I don’t want to give it up.’
‘I know,’ Serena replies, the merest catch in her voice.
‘But I love you too, and I don’t want to give you up. And I don’t know how to reconcile the two.’
Serena says nothing – can’t, not with the tears pooling in her eyes and the sudden lump in her throat.
‘I love you, Serena,’ Bernie repeats, gripping Serena’s hand tighter.
‘I love you too,’ Serena manages. ‘I’ll love you wherever you are in the world, Bernie, whether I get to be with you or not. And it’s your choice,’ she adds. ‘I wouldn’t dream of standing in your way if you want to go back.’
Bernie smiles, thin and tight-lipped, consternation still creasing her brow and filling her eyes.
‘It’s your decision,’ Serena says quietly. ‘And whatever you choose, I’ll understand.’
‘It’s our decision,’ Bernie corrects her. ‘I’m not choosing anything until I know what the options are and until I’ve discussed them with you. And I’ll make sure Hanssen knows that.’
‘No buts,’ Bernie says firmly. ‘It’s our future, Serena, not just mine.’
‘Ok,’ Serena agrees, too anxious, too touched by Bernie’s words and fierce determination to argue.
‘I’ll go in tomorrow,’ Bernie says, starting to tap out a reply on her phone.
‘See if he can fit you in today. I’d rather know, Bernie,’ Serena says when Bernie looks at her in surprise. ‘I’d rather know.’
Once Bernie has gone Serena spends the day flitting around the house, unable to settle on anything. She picks up a book but can’t focus, ends up staring at the page reading the same few words over and over again. She tries to start packing for Cornwall but can’t make any decisions, just keeps flicking aimlessly through her wardrobe. She can’t even manage to get all the way through a cup of tea, only realises how long her eyes have been fixed on the leggy succulent she really ought to do something about when she takes a sip and finds it stone cold.
Eventually, an eternity later, she hears the front door open and Bernie’s familiar tread across the hall.
‘I’m back,’ she calls.
‘In here,’ Serena calls back from where she’s just about to decapitate the succulent, stretched out plant in one hand and a pair of sharp scissors in the other.
When Bernie walks into the room she carefully sets both down on the newspaper she spread over the table, brushes the compost from her hands and gazes at her, her breath coming just a little too fast.
‘Well?’ she asks quietly, when Bernie just stands there, twisting her hands.
‘He offered me my old job back, effectively,’ Bernie replies. ‘Three years in Beirut.’
Serena swallows hard, places one hand on the table to steady herself. ‘I don’t want you to go,’ she blurts out, even though she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t do this. ‘I don’t want you to go, Bernie,’ she repeats helplessly, toying with her pendant. ‘Selfish, I know, but there it is.’
‘He gave me another option. Elliott’s retiring at the end of the year. Apparently I’m Hanssen’s first pick to replace him.’
‘Middle East editor?’
‘What would that mean?’ Serena asks, hope rising tremulous within her.
‘Half the year in London, half in various locations across the Middle East but in short bursts.’ Bernie’s fingers are still gripping each other tightly, her jaw clenching and unclenching, eyes peeking out from behind her fringe.
‘Would that be enough for you?’ Serena asks, almost dreading the answer, her speeding heart seeming to suddenly stop.
But Bernie smiles almost shyly, shakes her fringe from in front of her eyes and looks right at Serena. ‘Six months in the field doing what I love and six months living with the woman I love? I don’t think I could have asked for a better compromise, Serena. Is– is that ok with you?’
‘Ok?’ Serena asks, a smile breaking across her face as she rounds the table and comes to stand in front of Bernie. ‘I’d say it’s just about bloody perfect. Until someone invents a teleporter, that is.’
Bernie laughs with relief, finally lets go of her hands to clasp Serena’s. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I thought I was going to lose you to the other side of the world for good,’ Serena says, gently stroking Bernie’s cheekbone, her hair. ‘Regular short trips away sound like heaven in comparison.’
Bernie lets out a long sigh and Serena sees the tension ebb from her body. ‘I nearly accepted the moment Hanssen offered it,’ she admits.
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘I promised we’d decide together,’ Bernie says simply.
‘You’re really sure?’ Serena checks.
‘Then call him right now and tell him.’
‘In a minute,’ Bernie says.
Serena frowns, and Bernie draws her closer and kisses her. It starts tenderly but Serena can’t help deepening it, can’t help running her tongue along the seam of Bernie’s lips and licking into her mouth, both hands burying themselves deep in Bernie’s hair apparently of their own accord, like they always do.
‘Call him,’ Serena says, breathless, when she draws back. Not that she goes far: her fingers seem reluctant to unwind themselves from Bernie’s hair, and she can’t look away from Bernie’s dark, earnest, happy eyes. ‘You call Hanssen, I’ll see if I can save this echeveria.’
‘And then?’ Bernie asks, breathless too, fingers caressing Serena’s waist through her blouse, tiny circles that somehow simultaneously soothe her and make her desperate for more.
‘I think this is worth celebrating, don’t you?’ she asks, a glint in her eyes, one eyebrow quirked.
* * *
The full blaze of autumn, all fiery colours and crisp, chilly mornings, begins to give way to the damp grey of earliest winter. Bernie’s bones start to protest again but the house is warm, and when Bernie announces her intention to devote as much time as she can before starting her new job to writing her book Serena gifts her with a new mug, a selection of fuzzy socks, a pair of fingerless gloves and the warmest blanket she’s ever curled under. The tea and the wool and the central heating help, but Serena herself is most effective by far, her touch – even just her presence – providing a warmth that seeps right into Bernie’s marrow. And her smile and the sparkle of her eyes are a more than fair replacement for the radiant, dazzling desert sun.
Bernie glances at the clock, saves her work and reluctantly extricates herself from her cocoon. Ric’s presenting tonight which means that Serena will be home soon, and Bernie promised to cook. She’s stirring the pan of Bolognese, just about to taste it, when the front door opens.
‘Hello you,’ Bernie calls, a smile colouring her voice.
She hears the thud as Serena sheds her bag, the whisper and rustle as she sheds her coat and scarf, but no answering welcome.
‘Good day?’ Bernie asks. She doesn’t need to turn from the hob to know Serena’s entered the kitchen, can somehow feel the change in the air every time she’s close.
‘I had the strangest phone call this afternoon.’
‘Go on,’ Bernie prompts, adding salt to the sauce and turning to give Serena her full attention.
‘From the Palace,’ Serena says, and Bernie’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘Yes, quite,’ Serena smiles. ‘The Prince wishes to discuss the possibility of an interview. And he wants me. Goodness knows why: I’ve never been Royal correspondent, never interviewed a member of the Royal Family, never even been lead reporter on a major Royal event.’
Bernie shrugs. ‘It’s because you’re the best,’ she says simply.
‘And you’re biased.’
‘Doesn’t mean it’s not true,’ Bernie smiles.
‘It’s just so odd, Bernie. Completely out of the blue.’
‘No hint what it’s about?’
‘None whatsoever,’ Serena sighs. ‘Which rather hampers my preparation for our initial meeting tomorrow.’
Bernie whistles. ‘Moving fast.’
Serena nods, takes Bernie’s outstretched hand and allows her to draw her into her arms.
‘You’ll be just fine, love,’ Bernie soothes, sliding her arms all the way around Serena’s waist and clasping her hands at the small of her back, shaking her slightly to emphasise her point. ‘More than fine. You always are – even when you’ve got me making eyes at you across the studio.’
‘Terrible distraction, you are,’ Serena huffs, but she can’t keep from smiling. ‘I just don’t like not knowing, Bernie. Not knowing anything.’
‘You’re brilliant, Serena. And they obviously chose you for a reason.’
‘Just wish I knew what it was,’ Serena murmurs into Bernie’s shoulder.
‘Well, you’ll find out soon enough,’ Bernie replies, pressing a kiss to Serena’s hair.
At eleven o’clock sharp the following morning, Serena is shown into a sitting room rather less sumptuous and more lived-in than she was expecting, shown to a sofa upholstered in duck egg blue velvet with gilt trim. On a matching sofa opposite sits the Prince, another young man Serena doesn’t recognise beside him.
‘Ms Serena Campbell,’ the footman announces.
The two men rise, and the Prince holds out his hand.
‘Your Royal Highness,’ Serena says, shaking it.
‘A pleasure to meet you, Ms Campbell. Can I introduce Antoine Malick?’
Serena shakes the hand Antoine offers, sits down when they both do and looks at the Prince expectantly. But before he can say anything there’s the soft chink of china, and Serena gets the distinct impression that he’s relieved to be able to put off whatever this is for a little longer as the tea is poured and served.
‘Thank you, Jenkins, that will be all.’
The footman retreats. They sit in silence as he closes the door, leaving just the three of them, their tea in its delicate blue and white cups, and a rather tense silence. Serena itches to break it, has to stop herself from reaching to fiddle with her necklace, sips her tea (a splash of milk, no sugar, just how she likes it) to keep herself from speaking out of turn; she’s not the one who knows what this is about, after all, and surely even Royals aren’t immune to the impulse to fill a stretching silence.
‘I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you here,’ the Prince says, setting his cup and saucer on the table beside the sofa. ‘Why I asked for you, specifically.’
‘I’m certainly curious,’ Serena allows, tilting her head.
‘Before I tell you, I want to make it clear that this is a delicate matter requiring the complete discretion of yourself and everyone you work with.’
Serena nods her understanding, her curiosity even further piqued. ‘I can assure you that I have a trustworthy team, and that everything will be dealt with on a strictly need to know basis.’
‘Good,’ the Prince says, lapsing back into silence.
His anxiety is almost palpable, and Serena succumbs to the desire to soothe, to pull the thread of this story and ease the atmosphere filling the room.
‘Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?’ Serena prompts gently.
‘I’ve lived my whole life in the public eye, having to play a role,’ the Prince says. ‘And it’s been fine: it’s my duty, I know that. But I have a different kind of duty now, and they’re not entirely compatible. I can’t play the same role any more, Ms Campbell. I won’t hide who I am, who I love.’
The Prince’s gaze shifts from Serena to Antoine and, with the barest hint of a smile and a look Serena recognises well, he takes his hand. Suddenly Serena understands exactly why she’s here, exactly why the Prince chose her over any of the usual Royal correspondents.
‘I want to be able to be myself, openly. To be with the man I love – to marry him.’
‘Congratulations,’ Serena smiles warmly. ‘This can’t have been an easy decision.’
‘Actually it was,’ the Prince smiles. ‘I just needed to find the right man.’
Serena’s smile widens. She looks at the two men and wonders how she could possibly have missed the love between them, realises they must have been so nervous that it dominated their body language and hid everything else.
They break eye contact and look at her, a little nervously, but Serena just beams. ‘I would be truly honoured to help you.’
Both men let out a sigh of relief, postures softening slightly now that it’s been said, now that they can be themselves together in front of her.
‘We can talk details later. For now, why don’t you tell me how you met?’ she suggests.
Forget Madeleine McCann or the Gaskell trial scandal, Serena thinks later on her way back to the office, her mind whirling. This is what I’m going to be remembered for: breaking the coming out of a Prince.
* * *
Finally they both manage to attend the same awards ceremony, no world or family crises to keep them away. Bernie is just a week back from her first sojourn as Middle East editor, tanned from the best part of a month in Jerusalem.
‘Fourth time lucky,’ Bernie murmurs as they take their seats, and Serena smiles and squeezes her hand.
They might both be here, but they haven’t both been nominated. Thanks to her time out of the field Bernie hasn’t produced anything worthy of note in the nomination period. Tonight she isn’t here as a journalist in her own right: she’s here as Serena’s plus one, didn’t hesitate for a single moment when Serena asked if she’d come. They coordinated their outfits, got ready together, arrived together. And just as Bernie first suspected, three years ago, Serena’s presence makes the event bearable – enjoyable, even – because she gets to spend the whole evening beside Serena, watching her sparkle, filled with love and pride.
It’s only been a few months but already Serena knows she was right: this story, this scoop, is by far the biggest of her career. Everything else she’s ever done – everything else she’ll do in the future – pales in comparison. Not a day goes by without something in her inbox or pigeonhole thanking her for her part in the programme, the impact it’s had on a specific life, a specific person. All the same, she doesn’t expect to win.
Bernie expects her to win, though. There’s never been any doubt in her mind that this would be huge and important, that it would make a real difference to so many people, that their colleagues would recognise this and recognise Serena for it.
Bernie’s right. And she’s the first person to start applauding when Serena’s name is called, a proud smile lighting her face.
‘This interview meant a lot to me, personally,’ Serena says on the podium, award in her hands. ‘It was a real privilege to help them tell their story, and to help the Prince fulfill what he saw as his duty to use his position to help others, to be a positive role model for other young gay men and women. I get letters every day – and I know the Prince and Antoine do too – from people whose lives have been touched by this interview, who no longer feel like they’re alone, who’ve felt able to come out to their parents and grandparents because they watched it together.
‘And that’s what journalism is all about really, isn’t it? Telling a story and having a real impact on people’s lives. Representation and visibility shouldn’t still be such a big deal in this day and age but they are, and we can’t take them for granted. I’m thrilled that that’s been recognised tonight.
‘Oh, and one more thing,’ Serena adds, smiling, ‘in the spirit of openness and representation. Bernie: I couldn’t have done this without you. I love you.’
Serena leaves the stage to a standing ovation, led by cheers from Bernie and Ric and the others around their table. When she gets back, before she can take her seat, Bernie slips one arm around her waist, cups her cheek with her other hand.
‘I’m so proud of you,’ she says, beaming. ‘And I love you.’
And then she kisses her, perhaps not quite chastely enough for the setting, but neither of them cares.