It is a cold grey day. Another one.
But Serena barely registers the colour of the sky or indeed, the low temperature.
She’s always cold nowadays.
That is in part due to the fact that she now lives near the sea. The other reason is that, ever since Serena learned of Bernie’s death - from the lips of Bernie’s ex cum brand new fiancée no less - she hasn’t felt anything.
She’s been alone and empty for a little over a month now.
When the news came, she’d decided she’d had enough, she just couldn’t take it anymore. She resigned from her position the very next day, sold her beautiful house the very next week and left for Cornwall.
She’s still in touch with Jason and she sometimes goes to see him and his family in Holby, smiling and laughing with her beloved grand-niece, putting on a brave face for her adored nephew and his wife. She never stays long, though.
The whole city is filled with the ghosts of the women she loved the most in her whole life. A burden too heavy to bear. A pain too intense to endure.
She is better alone anyway.
She has her little, simple life now. Her habits.
She lives as a bit of a recluse yes, but she does have good relations with people in the village even landing a hand to the local GP from time to time.
Sometimes as a miracle surgeon.
Sometimes as a miracle secretary putting the files and finances to rights.
But, she is alone.
And she knows she is mostly to blame for that, hence her almost retreat, her penitence.
She will, probably, hopefully, find redemption in her solitude. In the time she has and takes everyday to reflect - with a cup of hot tea, sitting facing the sea - on what she’s done, what brought her here.
Bernie, her beautiful Bernie, isn’t the only reason she’s working on forgiving herself, but she is the latest one, the main one.
The one that started all this.
The one that made her realise that what brought her here, both physically and mentally, wasn’t just a flaw, but a problem.
One she’d been having for a good long while, but always refused to face.
She doesn’t have a choice anymore, she thinks half-morose, half-determined as she’s about to pour the hot water in the plain pink mug with no memories attached to it.
But her action is stopped right in the middle by the sound of her doorbell ringing.
Something so rare that she actually startles and narrowly misses burning herself in the process.
Putting the kettle back on its base, she takes a moment to mop some of the liquid off of her counter and she’s apparently taking too long to answer, if the almost angry ringing and heavy knocking on her door is anything to go by.
“Yes, I heard you the first time,” she replies, not even making the effort to be heard by her uninvited visitor.
Opening the door, she finds two things; one that surprises her and one that doesn’t even make her blink anymore.
The first one is Charlotte Dunn, with the usual angry scowl marring her face everytime she sees Serena.
The second one is Bernie. Looking as gorgeous as ever.
But she’s used to seeing Bernie everywhere she is and goes. Her imagination fabricates her presence almost daily so she doesn’t react and instead, addresses Charlie in as calm and gentle a voice as she can muster.
“Good morning Charlotte.”
Charlie lets out an almost grunt accompanied with an almighty rolling of her eyes.
She still hasn’t, and never probably never will, forgive Serena for cheating on her mother, and in her eyes, breaking her heart to the point that she decided she needed to start being the Major again.
Focused on her work, preferably in the middle of a warzone.
Where she ultimately died.
Serena understands, really. But she could do without the reproaches and the critiques.
“So you’re not even going to say hi to her?”
Bernie’s daughter’s voice is full of barely contained anger.
“What?” Serena asks, confused and frowning. “I did say hello to you.”
She pauses, thinks for a short moment and then looks at Charlie again.
“I’m talking about mum.”
Serena freezes on the spot.
Is Charlie capable of seeing Serena’s hallucination? Is she, herself, dreaming? Did she hurt her head?
The word is barely a whisper.
“Good grief, I really don’t see why you like her so much,” Charlotte snarls, looking directly at her mom. “She’s as dumb as bricks.”
“Charlie,” Bernie, or whatever she is, utters slowly, her patience waning.
“No, really, she cheats on you and -”
The growl is loud, strong. The sigh coming out of Bernie’s progeniture is its perfect equal.
But she stops when she realises that Serena is looking at her with wide eyes - both frightened and hopeful - full of tears that haven’t rolled down her cheeks yet. Her mouth hangs open in a silent question. Her face is pale, almost ashen.
Trying to gather enough strength to form a coherent phrase, only gurgling sounds tumble from her lips before her eyes roll back slightly and she starts falling backwards.
Bernie is quick to react. She grabs Serena’s shoulders before she has the chance to get hurt.
“Help me Charlie,” she prompts without looking at her daughter, focused as she is on Serena and checking her vitals, making sure she just fainted and isn’t in any immediate danger.
Finally realising that her daughter still hasn’t moved, she calls out to her again.
“Why are you even bothering?” is her answer.
“I asked you to help me bring her to her sofa. I didn’t ask you to comment.”
Bernie rearranges her hold on Serena to grab her under her arms, Charlie takes her feet and they shuffle awkwardly for a couple of meters towards the three seater where they deposit her.
“In fact,” Bernie adds, kneeling near Serena’s head, her thumb gently rubbing against her forehead, “I distinctly remember telling you that it wasn’t any of your business.”
“Right. I wouldn’t understand,” Charlie parrots sarcastically.
“No. You wouldn’t.” Bernie states firmly.
And it’s true. Her daughter still hasn’t been lucky enough to find a love like the one she shares with Serena.
A love like theirs isn’t feeble and it doesn’t break easily. But you need to work on it.
Something they never really did.
Either by lack of time. Or lack of strength.
“Do you need me to stay?”
The tone is gentler.
Bernie sighs and gets up to hug her daughter.
“No, it’s fine, just bring me back my bag, please.”
Which she does.
Bernie thanks her and hugs her again before closing the door and going to sit on the coffee table, ready to watch over Serena until she comes to.
About fifteen minutes later she wakes up, suddenly and with a loud gasp.
“Easy,” Bernie says softly. “I wouldn’t want you to faint again.”
The note of humor she interjects fails miserably at lightening the mood.
Her name is uttered so softly she can barely hear it, and only is sure that Serena has spoken because she has seen her lips move.
“Yes, it’s me,” she reassures with a smile. “And no, I’m not a ghost.”
“You’re not?” Serena wonders, genuinely concerned.
“No,” Bernie chuckles, “news of my demise was greatly exaggerated.”
Once more, Serena’s eyes fill with tears, only this time, they do spill and sobs come out of her throat, wracking her body, the heavy hiccups making her almost lose her breath.
Bernie hugs her tight, eyes moist, waiting for all the pain - or at least most of it - to pour out.
Then it will be time to talk.
It’s taken a good half hour, almost an eternity at this point, for Serena to calm down enough. For the flood of her tears to lessen and finally stop.
It isn’t pretty. Her nose is runny, her eyes and face are bloodshot and swollen, but still, Bernie looks at her with an undeniable tenderness.
“Sorry,” Serena before sniffing loudly.
Clearing her throat, she gets up from the sofa slowly - in case she should feel faint again - and goes to the kitchen to find some tissues. After taking care of most of the mess that is her appearance, she reenters the living room, her eyes never leaving the ground.
Before, when she thought Bernie was dead, she saw her everywhere.
Now she knows Bernie is alive, the mere idea of looking at her makes her uneasy.
Out of guilt. For what she’s done. For not believing that Berenice Griselda Wolfe was immortal.
Out of fear. That this is still one of her hallucinations. Or that she fell asleep in her chair and is dreaming.
She sits on the side of the sofa near the door. Either to bolt out of the room at any given time or to stop Bernie from ever leaving her again, she doesn’t know. She just sits there, shoulders hunched, head heavy, hands trembling between her knees.
Bernie, still sitting on the coffee table, slides towards Serena, and because she can’t stop herself, lays both hands squarely on Serena’s thighs, rubbing gently to try and comfort them both. Reassure them both.
But to her surprise, Serena recoils.
“You shouldn’t touch me like that,” she says in a hoarse voice, several shades of pain coloring it.
Bernie frowns. They are technically separated but they still love each other, don’t they?
“Why not?” she asks, a sick feeling taking over her being. Is Serena going to tell her that she’s seeing someone? Maybe that Leah tro - woman?
“Because you’re engaged.”
That, she definitely wasn’t expecting.
Getting injured while working on refugees in a warzone, she can understand that. Getting betrayed by someone you thought was still your friend or at the very least your comrade in arms, she can understand that as well.
Even being cheated on, to a certain extent, having been on the other side of that particular kind of pickle herself.
But the words Serena just uttered, they don’t make sense at all.
“I’m sorry, what?” she blurts out, blinking hard.
“You’re engaged,” Serena repeats, finally looking up and considering Bernie carefully, wondering if she suffered from amnesia after that terrible explosion. “Maybe you don’t remember,” she adds gently.
“I think I’d remember something so absurd,” Bernie retorts without missing a beat.
“There’s nothing absurd about you being engaged. Whoev -”
“No, but there’s something undeniably absurd about me being engaged to anyone other than you.”
That does manage to shut Serena up. And this time, it’s a different kind of shock that makes her look at Bernie with wide eyes.
“I -” Serena starts, but it’s as far as she goes.
What can you possibly answer to that?
What can you possibly say to someone who still loves you this much after everything you’ve put them through?
“How -”, but then, changing her mind and going on a hunch, Bernie changes tactics, “who told you that I was getting married?”
“Alex,” Serena answers after a millisecond, a profound frown creasing her forehead.
And Serena can see Bernie’s jaw clenching, her eyes darkening instantly and her hands closing in tight fists.
Her instincts take over, her old tactile self comes back as if she had never left, and she kneels in front of Bernie in an instant, hands rubbing the length of her arms, from wrists to shoulders. Slowly, gently. And after a minute or two, Bernie is a bit more relaxed.
“What is it,” Serena asks then, wondering what got her in such a mood.
“What about her?”
“She’s the reason … She’s the cause of this whole mess.”
“What?” Serena utters in complete disbelief.
Taking Serena’s hands, Bernie helps her get up and leads them both back to sit on the sofa, facing each other.
She lets out a long sigh, as if she’s preparing to tell the tale of a lifetime, a very unpleasant one.
“When I was in Mogadishu, I had the surprise one day of finding out that Alex had been transferred into my unit. She later told me that she’d asked for it in fact, even pulled a few strings to make it happen. Almost immediately, she tried to reignite our former relationship,” she says, lowering her eyes to their tangled hands, “and at first, I’m not going to lie, I was tempted.”
“Can’t blame you …”
A small sad smile appears on Bernie’s face after that statement but she chooses not to follow Serena into the rabbit hole and instead, decides to finish her story.
“I did love Alex at some point, but … I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I couldn’t stop loving you. Still can’t,” she adds, this time lifting her gaze to catch Serena’s expression at those words and she isn’t disappointed.
Serena’s face is full of wonder, hope and incredulousness. A gasp even making its way to her lips.
“I - I’ve never stopped loving you either. I know I have no right but -”
“No, please. Let’s not do this. You’ll understand why in a minute.”
Serena frowns but stays silent and Bernie takes another deep breath.
“She didn’t take it so well. Was very insistent, even. At first I tried to put a stop to it in a friendly way, to no avail. Then I tried pulling rank, but it still didn't work. Finally I had no choice but to go through the proper channels, and I wrote up a complaint against her. Ha,” she lets out in a humourless chuckle, “imagine my surprise when the captain in charge of taking statements informed me that they actually had a file a mile long on Alex, and getting even longer by the minute. To say that I was shocked when he told all about the harassment and bullying cases that had been brought to his attention would be putting it mildly. My ex, the excellent anesthetist, the kind-hearted woman was painted as a plain old psychopath, and he had the proof to back up each statement.”
Now Serena looks afraid of what she’s almost sure she’s going to hear. She also looks a little green around the gills, wondering how much of what she said was actually true. Clearly she lied about Bernie’s demise and the actual state of their relationship. What else has she lied about?
“You’re not going to like this,” Bernie warns gently, thus confirming Serena’s fears. “Turns out she’s been - well I guess plotting would be the right word, to break us up for a while before it actually happened.” She clears her throat, not exactly sure of how she should break this particular bit of news, “hm, Leah - Leah was her idea.”
Serena rips her hands away from Bernie’s, putting them on each side of her head, scraping nervously at her scalp, eyes - full of disgust and fury - down and unseeing. When it’s not enough to curb her agitation, she stands up and starts pacing the length of the living room.
“You’re - you’re telling me that - that - I’m going to be sick,” she says finally before sprinting towards her small downstairs bathroom.
Bernie doesn’t even have the time to join her and help her in any way. The sounds of painful retching echoes through the small house and she doesn’t even hesitate a second, enters the bathroom and kneels next to Serena, running a soothing hand all around her back. When Serena’s done, she leans heavily to the side against the wall, breathing as if she’d just run a marathon.
Bernie gets up, wets a small towel and fills the small glass sitting on the counter with cold water.
“Here,” she says, giving the glass to Serena and gently wiping her face and mouth, trying to make her a bit more comfortable. “I’m sorry, I should have been more careful about the way I delivered that particular piece of information.”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” she says between small sips, “you weren’t the one making a complete fool of herself because someone used her lack of self-confidence against herself, and knew exactly how she tends to react when that happens.”
“You look for that confidence in the arms of the first person who’s even remotely interested.”
Serena looks down, ashamed, but Bernie doesn’t let her and using a finger under her chin, makes sure they look straight at each other once more.
“All in the past.”
Serena nods slowly, “I’ve been seeing a therapist,” she says in a voice that she would have wanted stronger.
“That’s good. Me too,” she replies with a smile.
Again, Serena nods, taking it all in, one detail at a time.
“Who can be cruel enough to do that?” She can’t help asking, even though she knows the answer, Bernie said it earlier; Alex is a psychopath.
“You feeling better?”
Serena nods her head in affirmation.
“Come on then,” she says, taking Serena’s hands again, like she needs that connection at all costs, and helping her up and out back to the living room.
Before she sits down on the plush sofa however, Serena asks Bernie if she’d like a cup of tea and something to eat.
“I wouldn’t say no to an Earl Grey, and maybe some toast, if that’s possible?”
“With apricot jam,” Serena asks, knowing Bernie’s weakness for that particular delicacy.
“Hm, yes, please.”
“I’ll be right back.”
And Bernie lets her go. She figures they both need a few minutes alone to calm down. And the needed break afforded by the equally needed sustenance will do them some good as well. It will fortify them for the last piece that Bernie has yet to reveal to Serena. That and the fact that afterwards, they’ll need to talk about what will come next for them. Hopefully their last and best chapter.
Almost ten minutes later, Serena reappears with a platter full of delicious smelling comfort foods and drinks. She deposits it on the coffee table and they each tuck in. When they’re both feeling sufficiently full, they relax back into the sofa and share tentative looks.
They’ve had bad days, together and separately.
They’ve had weird days, together and separately.
They’ve had many good ones too.
Today is a bit of all of the above.
“I’ve wished for this, for you appearing on my front step to tell me it was all a bad dream,” Serena starts, making Bernie smile sadly. “Turns out we were both living through the same nightmare.”
“So many times I told myself Alex was wrong, that she was lying even, but right after I’d say it was my own guilt or my own sadness talking. My jealousy even,” Serena adds with a shrug.
She probably had no right in being jealous, but the terrible mistake she made out of sheer stupidity wasn’t proof of the fact that she didn’t love Bernie anymore, quite the contrary. She loved - and still does - Bernie too much. She consumed everything in her life. She needed her all the time.
She needs Bernie. And will till the day she dies.
“Well you were wrong, it wasn’t the jealousy or the sadness talking. And you were right, she was lying. She lied about so much … I’m starting to wonder if she ever really loved me.”
Serena frowns, “Why?”
Bernie lets out an awfully eloquent sigh, and it doesn’t take more than half a second for Serena to understand that, contrary to what she thought, the story of how the love of life came to be on her doorstep today, isn’t over.
“That -” This first word is a croak, more than anything and she has to clear her throat and start again, injecting enough strength into her voice to make sure Serena doesn’t have another fit of disgust or panic. “That explosion. It was - um - it was Alex’s doing.”
Hearing herself stumble on the words and seeing the naked fury exploding in the brown of Serena’s irises, Bernie realises that she’s failed at keeping the situation under control. On the other hand, she’s not sure there was or ever will be a way to reveal that tidbit of information with it being a complete shock.
And a shock it was when Bernie fully realised what was happening - almost too late, when she saw the marvellous look of pure hate on Alex’s face a few seconds before she was once again almost blown up to smithereens.
“Where is she,” Serena asks without looking at Bernie, her throat dry and tight.
A disdainful snort resonates in the small house.
“Are we sure about that,” she asks, turning back towards Bernie. “Because the army and everyone else bought into the bullshit that Alex served them. She made us all believe that you were dead! That - Oh my god! How could we be so -”
“Alright, stop,” Bernie intervenes once more before Serena beats herself up even more than what she’s probably already done for the past few weeks.
And once more, she gathers - a very willing - Serena into her arms.
Arms around each other, Serena’s face nuzzling into Bernie’s shoulder, Bernie smelling Serena’s hair, they gently sway from side to side, in silence, waiting for the worst of their anger to dissipate.
Without loosening her embrace one bit, Bernie whispers, “I saw her, in the morgue.”
Serena straightens up a bit, a frown once more marring her face.
“Wait, weren’t you injured?”
Bernie shakes her head.
“Just a few scratches and a dislocated shoulder.”
“What?? How does it take five weeks to heal from a few scratches and a dislocated shoulder? What are you not telling me?”
“I came back home as soon as I could, meaning only a couple days ago. Look,” she sighs, one of her hands going to the back of Serena’s neck and instinctively playing with the hair she finds there, “a captain of the Royal Army Medical Corps committed an act of terrorism on foreign soil, as you can imagine -”
“Oh … Right, of course, I should have - I’m sorry. I should have thought of that.”
“It’s okay, I know this is a lot to take in.”
Serena nods slowly, then after a pause, looks deep into Bernie’s eyes and asks a question she’s never really thought of asking Bernie before.
“Are you okay?”
Bernie shrugs, shaking her fringe out of her eyes.
“The first few days were hard, between the explosion and the betrayal, and the outpouring of information about Alex’s treason … The fact that I couldn’t get in contact with any of you. The fact that before some of the details were declassified I couldn’t tell you that I was alive, to not grieve for me … Yeah, it was - painful.”
Without thinking, Serena lifts a hand to gently cup Bernie’s jaw.
“Now, I’m home,” Bernie states firmly with her first real smile since she arrived.
“Yes, I’m sure your kids are thrilled to have you back. I know I am.”
Realising what she’s doing and saying, she becomes self conscious and starts back tracking.
“Not that - um - that I thought we were going to - to get back togeth -”
Amused, but finding that they’ve talked more than enough for now, Bernie does what she’s been dying - no pun intended - to do for weeks now. She kisses Serena, full on the mouth. No preambles. No warning.
And Serena doesn’t seem to mind if the passion with which she kisses Bernie back is anything to go by.
Separating after a while, faces blushing and lips red and slightly swollen - Serena might have gotten a little too enthusiastic with her nips and nibbles - they laugh, as much as is possible while being out of breath.
“So you want us to get back together?”
“Wasn’t that clear enough,” Bernie says, her voice husky and deep, one of the many things Serena had missed dearly.
“Well, you could - you know - try to make it a little clearer?”
Bernie doesn’t waste any time and goes straight back to kissing Serena with all she’s got. When she starts laying Serena on the sofa however, a firm hand stops her and she immediately freezes before lifting her head.
“No - just - don’t you think we should talk before - you know about, well, everything,” Serena stutters before gulping loudly.
“We already talked about all that. You made a mistake, I forgave you. You broke up with me because you thought you were holding me back, when in fact you were lifting me up, and I let you. I never should have let you go.”
“Don’t apologise,” Serena pleads with a broken voice, playing with Bernie’s hair who can’t help smiling tenderly.
“How about we stop talking about the past for now,” Bernie asks. “How about we focus on now and tomorrow instead?”
Serena just nods before brushing her nose against Bernie’s.
“I love you,” she says, her tone reverent.
“And I love you,” Bernie whispers in turn against Serena’s lips before kissing her fondly and this time, Serena lets her love lay her back on the sofa, fully intent on following her lead and focusing on the present. On them.
It’s all that matters now.