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But I'm Strong

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“So, I had them put in a half bath downstairs and a full bath upstairs, instead of the glorified outhouse that was here before. I know I wouldn’t want to fumble my way in the dark to a different floor while half asleep.” John explains, letting a squirming Tala down from his arm as he slowly walks his wife and mothers-in-law through the extra house on the property, “the washer and dryer is also in the upstairs bath, just to make things easier...and because it doesn’t make sense to be in the kitchen.”


“He goes on and on about the washing machine.” Charlie shakes her head, “all I heard when we moved to the other flat was about the washing machine in the kitchen.”


“Americans.” Bernie mumbles in jest, only needing to use the cuffed cane for stability and taking her time if she needs to catch her breath. It’s frustrating to her, the amount of fluctuations her own health has taken lately. However, Bernie wasn’t about to stop pushing herself. “The exterior doesn’t appear as modern as the interior.”


“No, I wanted to maintain the structural integrity of the external stone siding.” John explains, excitement in his voice, “It’s been there since the early eighteen hundreds.”


“Nerd.” Charlie smirks, looking around. She motions to an outlet in the upper middle of one of the walls, “what’s this about?”


“TV mount. No wires shown, especially with the rise of streaming services. I’ll get things set up for you both when you’re ready to move over.” John smiles cleverly, “new appliances in the kitchen, plenty of other outlets for electronics, as well as access to our Wi-Fi.”


“At least you have your priorities straight.” Serena gives him a pat on his upper arm, a smirk on her face.


“You say that, but I haven’t heard any complaints about the living room.” John responds proudly, knowing the women are just teasing him for fun. “I want this place to be perfect for you guys. So, whenever you’re ready to move in, whenever it might be...again, no rush whatsoever, I want you to have the best of the best.”


“The best of the best, Campbell.” Bernie mutters to her wife, waving her eyebrows. She glances down when she feels Tala take hold of a couple of her fingers, trying to pull her around to show her things even though it was the girl’s first time here as well.


“Tala, let Granny have a better look. Can you show me?” Charlie offers her hand to the toddler, watching as Tala considers the offer for a moment before letting go of Bernie’s hand to teeter over.


“Don’t push yourself, please.” Serena replies out of instinct.


“Serena, that’s the fourth time you’ve said that today and it’s only half past noon.” Charlotte shakes her head, amused. Serena had been on edge since joining Charlotte for her obstetrics appointment a couple of days prior. “How about this, if I start to feel poorly, I’ll yell for you personally?”


Serena rolls her eyes with a sigh, folding her arms over her chest as she mumbles, “you’re making jokes.” She lifts her gaze toward her stepdaughter, speaking with confidence, “yes, I’d appreciate that. Thank you.”


“Glad to see you finally catching on.” Charlie cheekily smirks at Serena, the same smirk that Serena is all too familiar seeing on her wife’s face when the blond has gotten her way. Charlie lets Tala pull her to the stairs, causing her to shake her head, “we’ll go see that in a moment. Be patient, please.”


Tala folds her arms, stamping her foot on the ground with a scowl toward her aunt. 


An amused smirk starts to form in the corner of Bernie’s mouth “plans to beat you at your own game, Charlie.”


“I don’t huff and stomp, mother.” Charlotte rolls her eyes, hearing her mother’s gasping chortle after. “I get even.”


“Creepy.” John says playfully before leaning over to her to give her a kiss, “almost the season for it.”


“It is the season for it. We need pumpkins and gourds.” Charlie nods, “he carves one every year...on his own...without children...and as an old man.” She honks a quick laugh, earning another kiss from her partner.


“Incredible.” Serena shakes her head, folding her arms over her chest. Glancing down when she feels the gentle tap of Bernie’s walking stick against her leg, she realizes her partner is attempting to discreetly get her attention. “You’re getting a bit too comfortable with that.”


Bernie raises an eyebrow, not about to comment on her need to use the cane at the moment, “Shall we check upstairs?” 


Tala rushes over at the sound of venturing to the floor above, already starting to climb the stairs.


“In the end, she usually gets what she wants.” Charlie folds her arms, watching as her parents follow the girl. She decides to stay on the lower level, not wanting to climb more stairs if it isn’t required.


“I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere before.” Serena raises an eyebrow, earning a glance from her wife, causing her to mutter, “fine, yes, we’ve both said it.” 


Bernie watches as her granddaughter toddles over to an alcove, able to look out over the back garden. She turns her head, holding a hand out to Serena. “Well...I kind of love this place.”


“As do I.” Serena holds her wife’s hand, “gives us the opportunity to...stay home.” She glances over to Bernie, “are you prepared to settle?”


“Yeah, I think I am.” Bernie glances around the room, “with you.” Her eyes then fall on her wife, gently squeezing the woman’s hand a little tighter. “We’ll have this and we’ll be able to travel from time to time once everyone...settles in and Charlie has the baby and...” Bernie shakes her head a little, “I know you probably would rather be closer to Jason.”


“If I were to move house closer to Jason, he would begin relying on me too much again. At least we can visit weekly if we wish.” Serena smiles softly at the thought, “have them over from time to time. Holiday together.”


“We can have Guinevere over for a playdate with Tala.” Bernie offers, “I know she’s a tad older, but...I’d like for them all to know one another. Have a bit of fun.” She shrugs, noticing Serena fall silence, “I know we had a great life in Nairobi and-”


“But it stopped when I lost you.” Serena shakes her head a little, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears, “and Alex gave me that...diary you kept of your travels and while you were in Mogadishu. As I read it, I...I ached for the life we lost. The...domesticity of it all. Something I never thought I ever wanted,” Serena finally turns to face Bernie better, “but I wanted it with you.” 


“Home is wherever you are to me.” Bernie genuinely smiles, “I don’t care where we are as long as we’re together.” She captures Serena’s lips, her hand gently caressing Serena’s hip then lower back, absently pulling her closer.


“If the pair of you want to have a snog, at least wait until we leave.” Charlotte stands at the top of the stairs, amused her mother and stepmother didn’t hear her walk up the stairs, “bad enough we heard the pair of you the other night.” She gives a quick glance to Tala before looking back to her parents, “at least someone is getting action in that house.”


Serena gives an amused grin when she notices her wife’s blush and sheepish smirk, pivoting on her foot in order to look over at her stepdaughter, “you did not.”


“You’ll never know.” Charlotte raises an eyebrow, amused by her mother’s blush. “Tala, Uncle John is heading back to the house to make dinner. Do you want to go and help?” Seeing the girl’s negative headshake, Charlie continues, “he might be making biscuits as well, but if you don’t-” The girl begrudgingly climbs from the alcove, teetering to her aunt before carefully climbing to the stairs, “take your time, please.”


“No.” Tala replies loudly, taking her time to carefully go down each step.


“Okay, well, that’s good. Thanks.” Charlie mumbles, knowing it’s her niece’s new favorite word.


“Tank.” Tala already halfway down the stairway, says after.


“At least she has manners.” Bernie offers, slowly letting go of her wife’s waist as the space around them becomes relatively silent, “Charlie, I can’t thank you and John enough for-”


“No, I don’t want you thanking me at all.” Charlotte shakes her head, “it’s a new dawn for this family. We’ve been given another lease on...having the relationships we should have had a long time ago.” She answers honestly, sliding her hands into her jeans pockets, “you have the love of your life and grandchildren now. Things are different than they were even a few years ago.” Charlie licks her lips, her eyes starting to grow glassy, “and I’ve found...your presence and Serena’s presence essential through all of this.”


Bernie feels her daughter’s warmth, giving a tight lipped, soft smile, “you’d have made do without us.”


“Yes, probably, but I wouldn’t want to.” Charlie continues, finally moving closer to the women when Serena outstretches her arm for an embrace, “not everyday your mother comes back from the dead and you gain an amazing stepmother out of the deal.” She rests her head on Serena’s shoulder, but looks to her mother, “and suddenly, you have the family you truly always wanted.”


Serena lifts her eyeline to meet her wife’s, smiling softly. There’s a sadness behind her own eyes though. The family she has always wanted would include Elinor, alive and well. However, if she couldn’t have that, Serena knows Elinor would have wanted her to be happy at the very least, which she could honestly say she currently is now. A part of her will always feel guilty about her close relationship with Charlotte and how she wishes she could have had the same with Elinor, but she doesn’t know if it would have ever happened in the way she wishes it could.


It might not have be exactly what Bernie wanted, but it was pretty close. Reaching a hand out to place on her daughter’s upper arm, Bernie nods, “agreed.” Standing in their near huddle, the women share a sense of belonging. This is their family.