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But I'm Strong

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Charlotte Wolfe had kissed her new husband goodbye just hours after marrying him with a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. His promises of returning a few days later made her worry, but she trusted him. Trusted that he’d return with her stepmother and the things that were overwhelming her by a week at most.

 

However, they are nearing two weeks now. Charlie had read reports of intense flooding in the region where she knew Serena Campbell’s flat to be, but was ever so slightly relieved that Serena’s flat was a first floor walk up. However, radio silence never put anyone at ease. Charlie brings her mobile up from her pocket, reading over the single message she’s received from her partner.

 

Got in fine, raining crazy here. Alex Dawson is helping us. Helped them find common ground. She’s actually pretty nice, but will tell you about that l8r. Love you, babe.

 

Charlie’s chin trembles, her eyes damp. All she feels like doing anymore is crying. She’s probably read this message hundreds of times by now.

 

Bernie Wolfe enters the kitchen space, seeing her daughter just staring at the screen of her mobile as she faces a window leading to the back garden. “Anything?” Her voice is hopeful, the soft hiss of oxygen at her nose from the pack on her back. She’s come so far in just a few short months, hardly ever needing her cane at all.

 

“Just the one John sent a couple days after he would have gotten there. At least I know he’s safe...they’re safe, right?” Charlie turns slowly before tossing her mobile onto the kitchen island a bit harder than she intended, luckily the clear protective case works, keeping the device intact.

 

Lifting the device in her hand, Bernie uses the other to scroll through the other messages Charlotte had sent in reply. All unanswered, all unread. “I um...I remember when there would be bad storms that we’d lose all connection.” Bernie nods a little, “it’s...the memory is vague, but it might explain things.”

 

Raising an eyebrow, Charlie stares her mother down, “and you’re just now remembering this?”

 

“Yes.” Bernie answers simply, unbothered by the look her daughter is giving her. Setting the mobile back onto the kitchen island, she takes a seat on one of the stools, “I’m intrigued by Alex’s presence.”

 

“She probably thought Serena would be alone.” Charlie sighs, leaning her back against the counter top near the sink. “Cuppa?”

 

“Let me get it.” Bernie effortlessly slides off the stool, rounding the kitchen island to the same side as her daughter, “you take a seat. You’re still on bedrest.”

 

“Hopefully not for much longer.” Charlotte mumbles, but does as her mother says. She then closes her eyes, sighing, “if Johnny isn’t back in a couple of days, he’s going to miss my next appointment.” Charlie carefully slides onto the stool, “I just...completely forgot with everything going on...or not going on.”

 

Bernie pauses, deciding not to look toward her daughter as she speaks, “if you’d like, I could go with you.” When she doesn’t hear an immediate refusal, Bernie glances over toward the young woman slowly, “but if you’d rather I-”

 

“I would appreciate that.” Charlie offers her mother a slight smirk, “as long as you want to. I don’t want you to feel-”

 

“I want to.” Bernie smiles to herself, a wave of relief flowing over her. She faces the single serve cup machine again, “which one would you like?”

 

“I’d love some black tea, but we don't have any more decaf. In fact, we’re sort of...running out of everything.” Charlie sighs softly, “there’s, um...white tea there, I think. I’ll have that.” She watches as her mother places the cup into its place and closes the lid. “We should do the weekly shopping later.”

 

“I can go.” Bernie tries, “I’m not an invalid.”

 

“Neither am I and I’ve seen what Serena would bring home when you’d go with, opposed to when she started going by herself.” Charlotte watches her mother, amused, “we’ll take stock and make a list before we go. A list that we will not deviate from.”

 

“So,” Bernie removes the mug of hot tea from the device, carefully turning and setting it in front of her daughter, “if we add things to the list, that means we must buy them...” She offers, noticing her daughter’s shrug, “okay then.” A clever smirk begins to grow across Bernie’s face.

 

“Don’t get any ideas, please.” Charlie mumbles, hearing the hazardous squeaking coming from the leather shoes that Nicky would put on Tala. Spinning on the stool to face the babe, Charlie smirks, “there’s my girl.”

 

“Any word?” Nicky McKendrick asks as she rounds the corridor from the stairs clad in aubergine scrubs. Since the guest house hadn't finished its repairs, she and her daughter were still living on the second floor.

 

“Afraid not.” Bernie shakes her head as she answers for her daughter, glancing down to her granddaughter when the girl steps around the kitchen island. “We’ll be heading to the grocery in a bit, is there anything you’d like to add to our list, Nicky?” She carefully lifts Tala into her arms when the girl holds her hands up, demanding attention. Bernie was always a bit hesitant and nervous about holding her granddaughter when she wasn’t sitting down because of the weakness in her hands due to what happened to her in Mogadishu. “Those little...puff snacks that she likes, maybe?”

 

“She still has a canister of them, but I’m sure she’d love variety.” Nicky smirks, tilting her head to the side, “oh, also, I caught her trying to get over the gate at the top of the stairs. Just wanted to make you all aware.”

 

Bernie sets the girl on top of the kitchen island, keeping a protective arm around her as she leans down, “is that so, little cub?” She receives a slobbery kiss to her cheek from the babe, causing her smile to grow into a broad grin.

 

“We’ll get her something.” Charlie smirks at how loving her mother always seems with the girl.

 

“Okay, I’m off.” Nicky reaches over the kitchen island, giving her daughter a kiss on the head before collecting her things, “let me know if you hear anything?” There's a tone of concern in her voice. Nicky had grown much closer to everyone in the house since moving in a few months prior, especially Serena Campbell since the woman was once her work superior and professional mentor. Nicky notices the subtle nod from the younger of the two women, “good then.”

 

Charlotte lifts a hand, running it through her own hair, “I’m going to shower so that we-”

 

“You’ve hardly slept, Charlie.” Bernie points out, keeping her tone serious enough for her daughter to take note, “it isn’t safe for you to drive.”

 

“Well, you aren’t driving.” Charlie raises an eyebrow, glancing over to her mother, “and staying in the house any longer would just drive both of us mad.” She pauses, bringing her mug to her lips and blowing softly before mumbling, “madder than we already are.”

 

“Ha.” Bernie smirks, standing upright and carefully letting Tala back down onto the hardwood to explore. “I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in months...or years, if you want to count that bit where I was... out .” She explains, keeping an eye on her granddaughter even though they could both certainly hear where she was with the squeaking of the babe’s shoes.

 

“I’ve taken my blood pressure this morning and it’s...fantastic. You, technically, don’t have a driving license.” Charlie takes a long sip of her tea.

 

Bernie raises an eyebrow, “why the pause?”

 

“There was no pause.” Charlotte sighs, motioning to Tala, “are you keeping an eye on her while I-”

 

“Charlotte, we’re fine.” Bernie shakes her head slowly, “kept you alive all that time, didn’t I?”

 

“Barely.” Charlie mumbles jokingly, quickly finishing her tea. She slides off her seat and begins to make her way down the hall when she hears her mother’s mobile ring. Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, the song Charlotte knew was the ringtone for Serena. Charlie stops in her tracks, turning slowly.

 

Bernie is quick to reach into the back pocket of her black jeans, touching the screen of the mobile, “Campbell?” She tries to listen, only to hear a static filled mess. Bernie shakes her head a little, bringing a hand up to cover her other ear, “you’re breaking up.”

 

“We’re fine. Just waiting for the airport to open again.” Serena tries, bringing her free hand up to rub over her brow, hearing Bernie just fine, but noticing the raised volume to her voice. Serena knows that the connection isn’t clear enough. “I love you.” She says, hoping at least that gets through before she touches the screen to end the call. Serena takes a deep breath, standing by the window in her flat that she knows gets the best reception during times like this. She’s used it plenty of times with Jason and even a few with Cameron.

 

John Hampton steps closer to Serena, placing his hands onto his hips, wearing only a pair of his cotton lounge shorts. The only time he has left the flat was to walk Alex Dawson to the clinic, roughly half an hour from Serena’s flat with water that was just above his knees. That was only a day or two after his arrival. Nearly a fortnight later, the streets still contained quite a significant amount of water and various government agencies were attempting to help their people to the best of their abilities. “Were you able to get through?” Everything they needed to do at Serena’s flat was already finished within a few days and her landlord had offered to purchase the furniture within, whatever she didn’t want or couldn’t take with her. She had far too much furniture anyway for a house that rarely had anymore than a single visitor.

 

Taking a moment before turning around, Serena starts to nod, “hardly.” She swallows, “just...Bernie. I don’t know about Charlotte.”

 

Nodding a little, John continues to keep his eyes on her, “they’re probably living it up over there without us. You have nothing to worry about.”

 

“I have everything to worry about. We both know they aren’t going to follow any medical direction given to them.” Serena leaves her mobile on the window sill, stepping over to take a seat on the sofa, “well, Charlotte may because Bernie would attempt to enforce them, but they’re both so stubborn.” She closes her eyes, exhaling slowly, “I just don’t want the two of them stuck together because they’re generally unable to go anywhere, falling back into old habits. I don’t want them to argue.”

 

John waits a moment, taking a seat on the other end of the sofa, “you might not have known Charlie very well before she came to find you, but...since finding out that her mother was alive, Charlie’s been like...a whole different person. She used to really guard herself. Um...I could have counted on two hands the amount of times she said she loved me in four years.” There’s something sad about his expression, “she always had this...playful side as well as a...don’t-let-them-see-ya-sweat sort of attitude. She’d bring the second one home more often than not.”

 

“That’s tough.” Serena adjusts her position on the sofa, looking over to the man while sitting sideways, her head leaning against the back of the sofa. She wears a cotton, maroon sleeveless shirt. She had bought some for hot days while at home, especially here. Luckily, they were still here.

 

He shrugs, licking his lips. “I loved her. There was never any other option.” John slowly inhales, then exhales, “I understood the affair...” He begins to bite the inside of his bottom lip, “I took her on as a patient when she was nineteen. I...found myself having feelings for her...and there was this...youthful wonder in regards to the world.” John stops his biting, smiling softly at the thought of Charlotte when he first started speaking to her. “She...adored her mother. Even going as far as to call Bernie her personal hero. When the IED happened and Bernie came back here, I remember how anxious Charlie was. By that time, we’d stopped being doctor-patient and became...romantically involved.”

 

Serena certainly wasn’t expecting that. She remembers the young woman who seemed busy and stressed with University and having a side job as an assistant at a local law firm. During the only Christmas that they all spent together, Elinor’s last, it seemed as though Charlotte desired more from her mother, but couldn’t bear to say anything. Charlotte was smart, confident, and inches away from giving Elinor a piece of her mind when the young woman had said some harsh things to Serena. She still remembers the hug that Charlotte gave her after Elinor stormed from the house. “I-I don’t understand the leap.”

 

“When she found out about Alex Dawson and how Bernie carried on an affair, she was more hurt than anything. Hurt that her mother couldn’t trust her enough to tell her the truth. Then it turned into this...jealous anger.” John shrugs, “she’d text or email...even call and...maybe a tenth of her calls were returned or got through. It all just...festered. Little things would set her off, like Bernie visiting Holby for your nephew’s wedding, but not for a Christmas with her own children.”

 

“Bernie’s always had a habit of going radio silent.” Serena responds quietly, “not in a malicious way, she tends to just...focus on what’s in front of her and not what’s at home.” She smiles softly, “but she loves to surprise people. So she would really go quiet before just...showing up unexpectedly.”

 

John huffs a soft laugh, actually glad they weren’t watching another DVD or listening to the radio, as they had been doing with their free time. He loved talking with Serena. With the stories they both told about their significant others, they would continually make one another laugh with the similarities. “Yep.” He starts to smile, “you know, there’s so much we can compare and contrast, whether we do that consciously or unconsciously, but I can see why Charlie respects you as much as she does. The two of you are very similar as well. Especially with the way you treat other people.”

 

“You were just saying she was cold to you.” Serena furrows her brow a little, not only was John Hampton handsome, but he was a great conversationalist. It all causes her to feel a bit flustered. You’re a married woman and he’s a married man, technically your son-in-law. Knock it off. Serena licks her lips, adjusting her position on the sofa before picking up one of the books she kept out of her packed box that were sitting on the table to fan herself with.

 

“To me, yes, but not to others. Not really.” John smirks a little, “she would be stern with her clients, but...also offer a shoulder for them to cry on and the only reason I know about that is because of her assistant telling me.” His smile grows a bit, “I’ve always thought of her as an enigma. Sometimes...most times, I just never know what to expect.”

 

“I have...three bottles of shiraz left.” Serena nods, “I say we should have a toast...to the women we love.”

 

“I can agree to that.” John nods, watching as the woman stands. He continues talking as she disappears into the kitchen area, “I’ve been meaning to ask, why such a...mediocre wine?”

 

“Oh, John, we’ve been getting along so well.” Serena raises an eyebrow, her voice lowering with mock distrust, “don’t force me to view you with contempt now.”