Bernie had been discharged from the physio with a stern, but fond, word of warning. “Keep mobile but don’t overdo it. Doctors are the worst patients when it comes to pushing themselves too far, despite knowing better.” She rolled her eyes with a sheepish grin: trying to increase both speed and distance had left her back spasming for days, exactly as her physio had told her it would.
She was hopeful for her recovery, felt that she was almost at a point of being able to stand for long periods of time, if there was anywhere in the NHS that would take a medically retired army surgeon. She was itching to get back out there, maybe locum around some of the country’s bigger trauma units with some training in there for good measure. Or setting up places in other countries, as she had done on a secondment for the army several times. The possibilities were endless, always looking for a new challenge.
Except perhaps the biggest challenge of all was the one that her therapist had set her. Staying put where she was, settling even. In Holby. Her immediate thought had been that she didn’t have a reason to. The kids were doing fine without her and she didn’t want them uprooted any more than they already were by the divorce. Being in Holby was almost constricting, a reminder of her current limitations and failures. She still got tired easily after a long day and she knew deep down that she needed to take things slower. Unfortunately, it felt like she had nothing in Holby to take anywhere at all.
“Small steps, Bernie. How about a smaller project to keep you focussed for a few months? Then reassess once you’ve got through your physical recovery? You might find then that you’re ready to commit to staying in one place.” Her words echoed in Bernie’s mind.
Now that the physio sessions had finished, she didn’t have any structure to her week, leaving her with too much time to ponder. This was supposedly good for her, a way to ‘consider what’s important to her, now and in the future’. Bernie wasn’t convinced, but was going along with the sessions to keep the conditions of the payment for her medical retirement.
She glanced at the time. On top of everything else, she had one more thing to worry about: her date with Serena that evening. She decided the best thing she could do was go for a quick run and stretch her legs. She sank into a familiar rhythm, the burn in her muscles her own personal white noise. She came to the park gate that completed her loop and as she slowed for the cool down back to her flat the notice board caught her eye.
A flyer advertising Holby’s Annual Half Marathon Event, claiming to be for all abilities, in a few months’ time. She had done a half marathon in the past, and further, so she took a photo to research later. Maybe this could be the focus she needed to stay in Holby for.
Her plan to get rid of her excess energy, and settle her nerves, had only been partially successful. When she returned to the flat she was still faced with the challenge of her first proper date in, well, ever. Her relationship with Marcus had gone from course mates to friends to more and they had sort of fallen into being a couple without her realising. And Afghanistan was hardly a place for candlelit dinners, especially not with another woman.
She thought back to the previous week: she had been convinced she had been wrong to kiss Serena, that she wasn’t interested in women and that she would say it was inappropriate considering Cam and Charlotte were at her school. Somehow though, Serena had not pulled back, rather the opposite, and she had been the one to suggest a drink.
She was nervous because she knew already how much she liked Serena, and how badly this could end if she fell too hard for someone who just wanted friendship. She also didn’t trust herself not to look like a fool in front of Serena, who seemed to ooze confidence and just be so sure of herself.
Bernie liked to be punctual, but it was early even by her standards, having got sick of pacing around her flat. She had quickly finished a whiskey for Dutch courage and was now trying to nurse a gin and tonic before Serena arrived.
Right on the time they’d agreed, the doors of the bar opened and she turned to see Serena approaching, smoothing her already impeccable hair. Dressier than her work clothes and less wrapped up than when they’d met, this new side of Serena merely added to Bernie’s first impression that she was gorgeous.
She stood and smiled shyly, not quite sure how to greet her, before deciding on a kiss to the cheek. She lunged forward before she could overthink and seemed to catch Serena by surprise.
“Hi,” she breathed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear nervously. “You look lovely. What can I get you?”
“As do you,” Serena’s hand lingered on Bernie’s forearm and she felt a shiver travel up to her spine. “A Shiraz please, large.”
She directed the last part at the bartender and Bernie chuckled.
She nodded. “I should have known that becoming a chemistry teacher would be less about inspiring fascinated young minds about the wonders of how the world works and more preventing teenage boys from seeing what happens when you stick anything in a Bunsen burner.”
“I can’t imagine, it’s bad enough dealing with two sulky teenagers, but to have a whole class of them? I should buy you a bottle.”
“No, no I’ll pay,” Serena offered but Bernie got in there first when the bartender returned with the drink. Serena acquiesced but Bernie suspected she would insist later. They found a quiet booth in the corner of the bar and sat for a moment both sipping their drinks. The silence, despite how comforting Bernie usually found it, made her squirm. Should she stick to a mundane topic, address what had happened the last time, flirt? That was a bad idea, but neither of the other two seemed like good ones either.
“Lovely weather today, have you been out running?” Serena saved her from overthinking how to speak to another person. “Oh Lord, sorry, classic British default isn’t it, talking about the weather?”
Some of the tension diffused with the acknowledgement of the awkwardness, Bernie sensing that Serena may be just as nervous as she was.
“Don’t apologise, any conversation has to start somewhere,” she hoped she was giving a reassuring smile. “I have, I’ve been discharged from the physio now so I don’t have anyone to tell me off for doing too much.”
“I bet they warned you before you left your last session. You’ll have to find someone else who will nag you about it.”
“My back will happily do that for me,” she subconsciously moved her hand to the small of her back, more out of habit than due to any pain.
“So how did you get into running?”
It might have been small talk but Bernie felt herself opening up, that Serena wasn’t grasping at conversational straws but was genuinely interested in her and what she had to say. She regaled her with tails of her childhood, the gangly kid who never really excelled at team sports due to poor coordination but needed an outlet for pent up energy.
“Of course, I also had a huge crush on the PE teacher and wanted to impress her although I didn’t realise it at the time.”
“Ahh yes, I was a very enthusiastic member of the Drama club for the same reason. Although it probably took me longer to work it out.”
A question was on the tip of Bernie’s tongue but Serena answered before she could ask.
“I’ve only, uh, recently become aware that my admiration of other women runs a little deeper than I thought.”
She wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, the worry that Serena would decide that it was nothing more than curiosity making her want to shield herself, run before anyone got hurt. She swallowed hard and Serena sensed her tension.
“What I mean is that I think I’ve always been attracted to women, but never had to confront it because I’d never met one who was…attainable. No that’s the wrong word, but someone with whom I would consider actually having a relationship. That is, if you wanted, obviously, sorry I’m babbling.”
“It’s fine Serena, I understand what you mean. I’m not exactly an expert at this either, considering I was married to a man for seventeen years. Not that, of course you don’t have to be exclusively attracted to any one gender but…”
“Did you know? When you married him?”
“Not in a way I could express. I assumed anything about love in fiction was over-romanticised, and that couples who were ‘truly madly deeply’ felt the same way I did. And I did love Marcus in a way, and thought that was enough.”
She stared at the bottom of her now empty glass, which as predicted, Serena offered to replenish for her. She returned moments later with a drink for each of them.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to turn the conversation onto that topic, it’s definitely on Sian’s never list.”
Bernie tilted her head in question.
“My friend from university has a list of never topics for first dates,” she explained. “And exes is the number one.”
Bernie wasn’t particularly bothered, as she saw it they were at an age where exes were inevitable, and significant relationships were bound to come up when talking about anything, so intricately linked were they into their lives.
Nevertheless, the conversation moved onto getting to know each other more than as teacher and parent, finding shared hobbies and swapping amusing work anecdotes. Time passed and despite them both finishing their drinks neither wanted to break the flow of conversation, nor did they need another one.
“So, any big plans for your new found freedom?”
Bernie huffed, partly amused as it was all she’d been thinking about all day and still hadn’t found an answer to. Her lips curled into a coy smile, the alcohol giving her a slight boost in confidence.
“Apart from talking to a beautiful woman in a bar, you mean?”
The heat rose in Serena’s cheeks and Bernie decided from there on to try and make her blush again before the evening was through.
“I’ve not got plans at the moment, unless you count the local half marathon as ‘big’. Retired army surgeons with a knackered back aren’t in huge demand funnily enough.”
“Well I can think of someone who is interested,” Serena lowered her voice and Bernie could almost swear her tongue darted over her lower lip. “And a half marathon is very impressive. Does that mean you’ll be out training a lot?”
“I’ve not committed to it yet, but I’ll probably find some online programme. It will give me a bit of structure in the week,” she was trying to stay composed but the glint in Serena’s eyes made Bernie suspect that she wasn’t just asking to make polite conversation.
“In those delightful lycra leggings?”
It was Bernie’s turn to blush then, as Serena’s gaze burned through her. She cleared her throat, reminding herself that this was another area of her life she shouldn’t take too fast.
“Aha, well I suppose, but like I say I haven’t decided definitely. It does seem like a casual one though, so I wouldn’t have to be really fast.”
“I think it’s a brilliant idea, for what it’s worth. Something to mark you getting through your recovery,” she paused to yawn and Bernie glanced at the time. It was later than she expected, so engrossed she had been in Serena’s company.
“Sorry, it’s been a long week, but this has been lovely. I’d like to do it again sometime, if,” she glanced at Bernie, worrying at the pendant around her neck. “If you would as well?”
“Absolutely, yes. Shall I book us a cab, you’re on the way back to mine so we might as well share?”
They made their way into the cool evening breeze to wait, a comfortable silence settling over them. Serena rolled her eyes fondly as Bernie opened the door to the taxi with a mock bow before taking her seat next to her in the back. Once at Serena’s, Bernie asked the driver to wait a moment so she could see her to her door.
“I can manage, you know, I’ve not drunk that much,” Serena chuckled.
“I know, I just wanted to say goodbye, properly,” she murmured, searching Serena’s expression for permission before leaning closer, capturing her lips in a kiss. She was more sure of herself this time, that Serena wanted it, wanted her and she sighed as Serena’s fingers tangled in her hair.
The blare of the horn brought her back to reality and they parted reluctantly.
“I’ll call you,” Bernie promised and Serena nodded with a smile, releasing her grip.
The tut she got from the taxi driver when she got back in did nothing to deflate her mood.
“Did you actually listen to any advice from the physio?”
Bernie tried to retort but all that came out was a low groan, which left Serena smirking. “I take it you’re not feeling up to a dinner date tonight?”
Serena wasn’t disappointed, in truth she had gone cross eyed from the marking and pile of reports and didn’t want to get dressed up and go out any more than it seemed Bernie did. When she had answered her call with clipped tones through gritted teeth, Serena knew she was in pain and immediately offered to go round. Spending the evening relaxing on the sofa was a more enticing option. She didn’t pause to examine the fact that despite only a few dates, she already felt at home with Bernie.
The dejected shake of Bernie’s head and the almost inaudible ‘sorry’ turned Serena’s slight amusement to sympathy. She knew how much this training meant to Bernie and would hate to see it go to waste.
“Right, let’s order a takeaway and then how about a massage? I’m no expert but Sian always comes to me when her shoulder’s playing up. Saves you finding a new osteo.”
With dinner finished and cleared away, Serena offered her hand to Bernie, who looked at her questioningly.
"Well I’ll need you on the bed to do this properly, that sofa isn’t the right height and I’ll do myself an injury, then where would we be?”
Bernie gingerly got up and lead the way to her room and then stood by the bed awkwardly, unsure of how this was going to work. Serena was not having any nonsense though, purposefully following her in and indicating that she take off her top. She obeyed and lay on her front, trying to settle her nerves, acutely aware that this was the first time Serena would have seen her at all undressed.
That worry melted away the moment Serena laid hands on her, she let an involuntary sigh slip as the initial light pressure eased some tension. Time seemed to stop as all Bernie could think about was the magic touch of Serena’s hands on her back.
The pressure increased and moved closer to the spot that was causing her the most bother.
“Ah fuck, Serena!” she yelped as her hands found the exact point.
“Is that the worst bit?” Serena murmured and pressed down again as Bernie tried to answer.
“Ye-ES!” she groaned and she felt Serena shift on the bed above her.
“I’m just going to get a better position, is that good?”
“Oh god, Serena,” she didn’t know whether she wanted the pressure to stop or just carry on forever, it was removing the knots in some sort of torturous delight. “Yes, just there, please.”
A hum of pleasure ran through her and she couldn’t help but let it out loud, until a call made her tense up again.
“Mum, I’m back, just in case you wanted to make sure you’re…decent.”
“Shit.” She had forgotten he said he would come round that evening to avoid Charlotte’s sleepover and that she had given him a key to let himself in. “Wait there.”
She hastily grabbed her top and pulled it over her head, wincing as the muscles protested from being disturbed in their relaxation. She followed the sound of clattering mugs in the kitchen to find Cam busy preparing tea and munching through her biscuit stash.
He raised an eyebrow as she walked in. “Is Ms Campbell here as well?”
“Ahem, well yes, but we weren’t, not that it’s any of your business, I was a bit tight and needed some relief, I mean, from running, not, it was my back, you know –”
Cameron, much to her relief, simply rolled his eyes and took his things through to the spare room. He had taken the news of her dating Serena rather well, on condition of his friends not finding out. He’d made it clear it was nothing to do with her dating a woman, and everything to do with her being the deputy head.
“It would be just as embarrassing if it was Dad dating her.”
Charlotte hadn’t been quite so receptive but disinterest was her usual reaction when it came to Bernie. She counted it as a win that she’d merely shrugged instead of accusing Bernie of ruining her life. She could only hope that having more time together would soften her daughter’s stubbornness.
When she got back to the bedroom, Serena was hovering by the door.
“I should get going,” she nodded towards the door. “I don’t want to make things awkward for you.”
“No, stay please,” Bernie closed the gap and took her hands in her own. “If you want to that is. Cameron is fine, honestly. I explained what was happening.” She gestured vaguely between the two of them.
Serena chuckled and nodded as she moved back to sit on the bed.
“Sorry, I want to make sure that we’re doing this right. I’m not exactly in the habit of dating parents,” she wrung her hands together. “I’d like to stay. I don’t want to be too forward but I, uh, I need to think about informing the school, make sure it’s all above board going from here. Because I really quite like you.”
Bernie sat down next to her on the bed, her mouth dry. She had been concerned that eventually Serena would pull away, given her job. She had unconsciously started to prepare herself for that event, but knowing Serena wanted to give them a shot opened her up to a whole barrage of emotions she hadn’t banked on. A small voice in her head was telling her to run, that it was easier to get out now before she messed things up. She took a deep breath, focussing on Serena’s face.
“I really quite like you too,” she said with a small smile, planting a chaste kiss on Serena’s lips. “Would you be willing to finish what you’d started before we were interrupted?”
“Only if you stay quiet so you don’t scar your poor son for life.”
She could feel the burn through her legs as she passed the 12 mile mark but it only spurred her on. She’d told Serena she wouldn’t push it but she the last shot of adrenaline emptied from her adrenal glands and pumped through her body and she had no choice. The competitive part of her kicked in and she looked ahead for imaginary opponents to pick off one by one, setting herself a new challenge with every person she passed. They were finishing on a sports track and there were crowds of spectators around, a buzz of energy for that final part of a race that everyone won just by crossing the finish line. Despite the number of people there she could hear Serena’s voice clear above them all, the encouragement she needed to pick up her stride as the end loomed.
The elation bubbled up in her chest, keeping her moving towards the volunteers handing out water, medals and t-shirts. She barely acknowledged them, the rush of having completed it, and in a time not miles off her personal best set early in her army career, had got to her head and she only wanted to share her joy with one person.
She had spied Serena and knew exactly where to head, nodding thanks at people congratulating her, despite being strangers. As she got closer her grin spread wider and she half jogged towards where she was standing with open arms. Serena gathered her into a tight embrace and pulled her head down to capture her in a kiss.
“I’m all sweaty,” Bernie half protested, but Serena didn’t acknowledge her.
“You look too good in that lycra,” Serena smirked when letting her have a breath. “And I am so proud of you.”
She would have gone for another kiss, completely ignoring their setting, but she shivered and Serena looked at her concerned. The effects of the adrenaline were wearing off and there was a chill in the air. Serena presented Bernie with her hoodie.
“Let’s get you back and into a warm bath to relax those muscles.”
Bernie had decided that Serena’s hands must be magic. And not just in that way. Her muscles melted beneath her ministrations, and although some soreness in the morning was inevitable, the consequences would be minimal. Eventually the massage slowed and she felt the weariness take over. She yawned and Serena gently tucked the duvet over her before settling into her side and drawing close for a kiss. Her eyelids were heavy and despite efforts to fight it, sleep overcame her. Her final thought flitted into her head unbidden, that before she had signed up for this half marathon, she had fully intended on it being a distraction while she found somewhere new to go. In the end, the running had kept her in the exact same place, but with an entirely new adventure right on her doorstep with Serena. And much to her surprise, she wouldn’t have it any other way.