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the night is not as it would seem

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the night is not as it would seem

“Oh bloody hell” she swore loud enough to attract the attention of the elderly man holding the door of Holby City hospital open for his equally elderly wife.

Serena Campbell had spent a long and unusually difficult night shift in the AAU. By all rights she should not have had to be the one handling incoming patients at 2am. That’s what F2s and C1s were for. But there was another round of this year’s never ending winter health crisis coursing through the staff of Holby and someone who was apparently immune to this year’s strain had to put a shoulder to that grindstone. She’d soldiered on. Emergency surgery at 3am to remove a burst appendix and finally two hours of quiet as the dawn rose somewhere outside the building.

She watched that sun rise from the stairwell window. She’d been tempted to nap then, grab a few moments on the cot in the on-call room. But she had other work to do. She might be a doctor, but she was also a deputy CEO and there were numbers to be analyzed, staffing plans to be massaged in hopes of eeking out a few more hours of funding for a nursing staff already under immense pressure. The previous week she’d stayed late in her office several nights, then later fallen asleep on the sofa, scraping for ways to contain expenses, to reduce the deficit enough to ward off the redundancies Guy Self seemed so eager to impose.

Instead of sleep, she showered and changed. Long ago she’d learned to keep a full set of professional attire in a garment bag in her office. It made double shifts that much easier to bear if she could pretend that she’d been home the night before. Aqua blouse over black shell, a combination she enjoyed because it brought out the auburn highlights in her hair and reminded her of summer. She called Elinor at 7:30 letting the phone ring until the voice mail picked up then quickly hung up and called again. On the 13th ring a groggy and quite angry voice had answered.

“Fine, I’m awake. I’m not a child, mother”.

“You may not be a child, but you are going to be late for class if you’re still in bed. Really Elinor, you need to take some responsibility…” The line went dead, and Serena just sighed.

The wine-a-day desk calendar Ellie had given her for Christmas caught her eye. Thursday the 6th. No, that was gone. And onward to Friday, the 7th. The day had snuck up on her again.

She went in search of Guy, that weasel, to follow up on her proposal. Maybe she could start the day with some half decent news for a change. She first spied the man himself, black business suit instead of scrubs, head in his Blackberry, speeding out of Keller Ward.

“Guy, I just wanted…” she began before he interrupted.

“Any chance this can wait, Serena?” He hadn’t looked up, hadn’t stopped walking or typing.

“I just wanted to know what you thought of my deficit reduction proposal.” She kept her voice as upbeat, and professionally sweet as possible when she just wanted to stop him and make him look her in the eye for once.

He waved her off, “It’s on the top of a very large pile on my desk. I have a meeting now, Serena. I’ll get to it when I get to it.” They’d arrived at the conference room door. Through the window Serena could see the rest of the hospital senior staff conferring – in a meeting that she had not been invited to.

“Ah the usual suspects,” she noted. ‘Well all but one. I do hope you’re not keeping your deputy out of a heads of strategy meeting.” He waved her off, “no, no, nothing like that” then quickly slipped into the room closing the door behind him before she could slip her foot over the threshold.

Five hours later she was leaving the hospital, bundled against the cold having treated three RTA patients and two pensioners with suspected head injuries and broken limbs incurred when they’d tried to remove a Christmas tree from their second floor flat by themselves.  The indomitable independence of rationing generation. She was tired. She was hungry. She was cold. And it was god damn January 7th.

______________________________________________________________________

“Oh bloody hell” she said again. She’d barely left the building when she heard a car door slam. Looking up she saw Edward Campbell, in a sharply pressed suit, striped shirt and matching tie jogging across the carpark. From behind his back he produced a cellophane wrapped bundle of red roses. ““Happy Anniversary, darling.”

It was – as she said – “Unbelievable.”

“I haven’t had a drink in seven days. I’ve been waiting for you.” He tried to hand her the flowers, but she pressed her hands deep into her coat pockets.

“Aren’t you clever? Desperate and creepy. What woman could resist?”

As usual Edward seemed not to hear what she was saying. “Twenty six years ago today we ran away to the registry office. Nothing has changed for me, darling.” Serena could barely believe his gall. Nothing apart from a string of broken promises, multiple affairs, a divorce, and humiliation after humiliation. After everything he had put her through, only his massive ego could delude him into thinking sweet talk would work today.

“You vomited into my bouquet and got me banned from an entire hotel chain, Edward. It was hardly a propitious start. Being shot down in flames with you has lost whatever charm it might once have had.”

Edward was unfazed. “If you’re giving up on the one thing, the one thing that makes you happy to get back into the trust’s good graces, well – my heart breaks for you. You know it won’t work. They'll be happy to use me as an excuse to get rid of the woman in the boardroom who makes them uncomfortable.” She wasn’t softening so he switched tactics. “Tell them to stick their job and come start living an amazing life with me.”

The man’s delusions were never ending. After every complete cockup he had promised her the world. But she had spent too many years listening to his voice and his words to not recognize how easily he could wear away at her. She’d never go back to him, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t leave her smaller and more fragile than he’d found her.

She tried to push past him, but he deftly jockeyed to stay ahead of her.  Then across the carpark, she spied a possible escape. “As it happens, Edward, I already have a date.”

Ric Griffin was just opening the car door as she came up quickly behind him. “Kiss me,” she said quietly. His startled look was returned by a much more directed, teeth gritted, “kiss me.” He obliged a peck on the cheek, still utterly bewildered by her request, yet trusting that whatever was going on Serena would have the situation under control. “Oh get in,” she added with a note of urgent frustration, as climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door closed.

“Just drive out of here.” Ric looked at her confusedly, as if he was going to insist on an explanation. “You don’t have to go far, Ric. I just need to get away from that man.” Ric made a decision. As she buckled herself in, he took a long swing, brushing closely by a stunned Edward Campbell standing gape mouthed, roses hanging at his side. “Would it have killed you to have shown a little more joie de vive, Ric?” she asked as they emerged on the other side of the hospital.

“Serena, I reserve joie de vive for moments when I’m rescuing a girlfriend. Not a colleague from her boorish ex-husband. Why were you even talking to him? Did he think that outfit was doing him any favors?” Serena resisted the urge to rant. Ric didn’t need to hear everything she was feeling about Edward right now and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop if she started. Then as if it had just occurred to him, he added “What does it matter what Edward thinks anyway?” A good question. But one she wasn’t about to answer right now. Not without a large glass of wine at least.

At the next light he said matter of factly, “I can bring a plus one, you know.”

The non-sequitur shook Serena from her angry silence. It was only then that she realized that Ric Griffin was wearing a tuxedo at 1 in the afternoon.

“It’s a University reunion.” The absurdity of the situation made her laugh. She was sitting in Ric’s car, scampering away from her disaster of an ex-husband on what would have been her 26th wedding anniversary, and Ric was inviting her to his class reunion.

“Ric, you graduated from Cambridge. That’s a three hour drive for god’s sake.”

“I am aware, Serena, but why not? I’d enjoy some company. And at least you’ll know you’re well away from Edward for the night.”

Serena weighed the options for a moment. “Well, when you put it that way, why not? It’s a free meal after all and, if I remember my Cambridge traditions correctly, an open bar." Then she continued with brio, "Let’s go. Cinderella will need to get her glad rags on, so take a left at the corner.”

Ric laughed, and the sound reminded her that she did have a few friends in this world, no matter what Edward Campbell might think.

______________________________________________________________________

The Fitzherbert Gate was open inward, and there were already couples in tuxes and evening dress crossing the lawn towards the main building. Fitzherbert counted as one of the newer and more radical colleges at Cambridge. She wasn’t surprised that Ric would have found it home in the 1970s. He’d mellowed over the years, but on occasion, if you caught him in the right mood with the right alcoholic lubrication, he would begin a tirade against Thatcherism that would make a pirate blush.

“Serena, I’m really not sure who will be here tonight,” Ric began. “And I am not sure I really want to stay very long. But I’ve invited you, and I think you should make yourself at home. Don’t feel obligated…”

Serena interrupted “To hang on your every word like arm candy? Don’t be silly, Ric. I wouldn’t dream of letting you navigate the social niceties on your own. How else will I gather the most embarrassing stories?”

“Would you like a drink?” a young waiter asked just as they approached the registration desk. “No, thank you” said Ric “I’m driving.”

“I’m driving,” insisted Serena, handing Ric a champagne flute from the waiter’s tray and asking the waiter for something fruity. “You’ve got third party insurance, and pharmacy privileges to deal with the hangover. What’s the worst that could happen? You might have a good time?”

“Ah Mr. Griffin,” began the volunteer as they stepped up to the front. Tall and thin, the woman standing before them was wearing the most striking military uniform Serena had ever seen. Black jacket with red lapels and cuffs. The deep cut front, revealing a starched bright white dress shirt. Eight gold buttons shone in the flickering light.

“We have your materials right here. We’ll just have to print up a name badge for your wife.”

Ric looked a little confused. “Oh, no no no,” shaking his head. “She’s definitely not my wife.” Serena considered being offended at how quick he was to disavow her.

“Partner then.” The woman smiled disarmingly, making full eye contact with Serena. “You would think I’d be a better feminist than that. You’ll have to report me to the authorities.”

“No, no, not that either.” Ric’s increasingly adamant denial was definitely becoming insulting. Serena laughed. “I’m neither wife nor partner. Just a hired escort for the evening.” She gripped Ric’s arm possessively. And then for some reason she winked at the blond who smiled broadly.

“Serena!” Ric snapped, shrugging her off and sounding slightly more annoyed than he should have. “These are my friends.”

“Yes, yes, a reputation to project and protect.” She reached out her hand to the woman. “I’m sorry. I’m a last minute plus one. Serena Campbell – colleague and friend. Nothing more.”

The woman took her hand in strong but soft fingers. “Oh very much more than that, I suspect. Even if not to Mr. Griffin.” She scrunched her eyes in a small but charming wink of her own. “You are a doctor as well, I believe. Would you like that on your badge?”

A moment later, she handed Serena her name tag. “You go right in and enjoy our hospitality, Ms Campbell. I’ll have a fruity pop sent your way.“ As their hands brushed again, Serena thought she felt a tinge of electricity, the fingers lingered just a extra millisecond. What was it about this woman and eye contact? she thought.

 ______________________________________________________________________

 “How unusual to have the military at FitzHerbert. Weren’t you the pacifists of Cambridge?” Serena and Ric were crossing the large front hall towards the brighter lights and Air Supply sound of the cocktail party.

“They let in all sorts nowadays, Serena, even the doctors.” Ric chuckled.

“Why do you think she is a physician, Ric? Just because a woman is good looking in a serious sort of way doesn’t mean she’s automatically your type, does it?” Serena had always enjoyed teasing Ric about his serial monogamy, and he did seem to have a thing for medical professionals.

“The buttons, Serena, the buttons.”

“What are you talking about?” They’d reached the buffet table in a room full of middle aged men and women dressed strikingly well for a college reunion. There were some with fewer gray hairs, but only a small handful who might be under forty. Even they were dressed to the nines. Scanning the room, Serena decided that she’d chosen well. Her black gown was covered at the shoulder by a gold brocade shawl. The shawl kept her arms close to her body and emphasized a decolletage slightly more revealing than she would normally wear. But she had decided as she changed earlier, she might as well take some risks this anniversary.

“The buttons, Serena, the buttons.”

“Yes, I heard that. You seem to be repeating yourself.”  She placed a few cubes of cheese and crackers on a plate and followed Ric to a large round high-topped table nearby. Ric was scanning the room, pretending he wasn’t doing just that. She wondered idly if he was looking for someone in particular.

“Caducei, on the gold buttons. And now that I think of it, the lapels as well.”

To be honest, Serena had no real idea what the woman’s buttons looked like. She remembered a taut white shirt, black woolen fabric and blood red at the cuffs. But she hadn’t really noticed the finer details of the woman’s buttons beyond their flash. She’d been too busy looking into her eyes.

Now she was certain Ric was looking for someone in particular.  “The black and red of the Royal Army Medical Corps.” he continued in a distracted sort of way.  “Fairly high ranking I’d say. Can’t imagine why she’d be volunteering for this sort of thing though. Seems beneath her – I guess alumni esprit de corps can take some funny turns.”

“Speaking of funny turns” a man boomed from behind Serena. “Eric the Red! As I live and breathe. It’s about time you got here. This party has been far too sedate.” Ric seemed inordinately happy to see him, clapping him into a long bear hug with many back slaps and even some rocking.

“Ric, you old dog, who is this ravishing woman? Not wife number six, I hope. She’s clearly too good for you.” The slightly pudgy and balding man reached out for Serena’s hand and raised it to his lips.

“Serena Campbell, William Tudor Bass. Will is an old friend and an even older goat. A lawyer of dubious distinction. Serena is a good friend and colleague. You’ll forgive her. She’s a Harvard grad.” Serena laughed. Every time she thought she knew Ric Griffin, she’d turn a corner and there was another version.

The three spent the next half hour in friendly banter. University rivalry aside, Serena found Will Bass charming and funny. They’d been joined after a few minutes by another classmate, Kathy, the sight of whom had settled Ric’s crowd scanning.  She seemed to occupy Ric’s full attention even while they both continued to participate in the conversation. It did not take much to see that something important had happened between the two.

“Excuse me, can I offer you another drink?”  a voice from over Serena’s shoulder startled her.. She turned and found herself looking directly into suddenly familiar golden brown eyes. “I noticed your glass was empty.”

Serena smiled broadly. “Why, yes, thank you,” taking the glass handed to her. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name earlier.”

“Berenice Wolfe, but you can call me Bern…” Before she could finish, Serena interrupted. “Buttons” she said with a giggle. “Buttons. I’m going to call you Buttons.” Where that had come from Serena had no idea. She hadn’t had a thing to drink, but suddenly she felt flirty and playful. The light danced in the woman’s eyes. Serena raised the glass to her lips, never breaking eye contact.

“I promise, it’s completely virgin,” Buttons said.

Serena swallowed then licked her lip. Cranberry and orange. “Ah… a Madras. One of my favorites. How did you know? And you are a Major, doctor?”

“Correct on both counts. Major Bernie Wolfe, Royal Army Medical Corps, at your service, Ms Campbell.” She didn’t bow, but she did dip her head a little.  It pleased Serena that the woman remembered her name. “And a Madras is the most Harvard drink I could think of. I thought we might have similar tastes.” Tastes hung in the air between them. It was seconds before Serena swallowed again and found her voice.

“Serena, please, call me Serena.” She reached a hand out for what she suddenly realized was a third time. Just as they made contact, a voice boomed from the dance floor.

“Serena, get out here!” She turned quickly and saw Ric, Kathy and Will happily bouncing to the beat of Tainted Love. Three waving arms beckoned her. She smiled and returned the wave. When she turned back, the Major had already slipped off, heading back towards the bar, her long determined strides, marking a sharp contrast to the partying crowd around her.

______________________________________________________________________

The music changed to soft jazz as the party was called into the adjoining dining room. Ric and Kathy walked ahead, Ric’s arm around her waist and their heads bent in laughing conversation. Will extended his arm. “Shall we? If I am right, there should be some wonderful beef and a lovely fish choice. Fitzherbert prides itself on its culinary excellence even if the children these days seem to prefer cardboard.”

“Ah, well, I do like a few vegetables with a meal, but red meat sounds delightful tonight,” Serena said as she took his arm and walked ahead.

Dinner was both delicious and raucous. They sat at a table for ten with six other members of Ric’s class of 1976. It had been a long time since she’d felt younger than her dinner companions. The difference in their age shouldn’t have seemed like such a gulf. But when the talk was of long ago school politics, drugs and rock & roll, Serena suddenly felt like the younger sister she had never been.

And Ric, Ric had somehow lost so much of his usual world weariness. Smiling and laughing, even his voice and syntax had subtly changed. She could see now the scrappy kid, the son of immigrants, set among the privileged, protesting every injustice he came across. Eric the Red, Will had called him. She wished she’d known him in his radical years.

Though, if she had, Serena had no doubt that Ric would have found her far too wedded to social expectations and caution. She married Edward in her 20s after all. There was no more incriminating evidence of her emotional cowardice in those years than marrying Edward Campbell, respectable son of a good family with good prospects. She’d hidden her own intellect, denied her own independence, and convinced herself that she was doing the right thing. She’d briefly considered keeping her own name at marriage. It was the late 80s after all and hardly something radical. But even that she’d given up. She’d merged virtuoso young surgeon Dr. Serena W. McKinnie into Ms Campbell, general surgeon and mother, lover of order, predictability and a well-structured theatre schedule.

“Serena, I’m trying to convince Ric that we should all head to the river tonight for a midnight swim,” Kathy was sitting directly across the table. “But he says you’re due back for an early meeting. Can that really be true? Are you heading home so soon?” Kathy looked at her half pleading. Behind Kathy’s back Ric was making a face that looked all the world to her like panic. But it was a decidedly amusing form of panic and given how engrossed Ric had been in Kathy for the last few hours, she very much doubted he really wanted to get out of the midnight fun.

In a split second Serena made her decision. The waiter had just placed a freshly opened bottle of red wine on the table. She reached for her previously unused wine glass and filled it. Then she thought better of the idea and raised the bottle itself to her lips. She quickly gulped down half as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Oh Ric,” she half sang across the table. “I’m so sorry. I forgot I was the designated driver. It looks as if we’ll have to stay the night.” Kathy roared with laughter, clapping her hands, before reaching over the table for a high five. “That’s the kind of quick thinking that will get a woman far in this world,” Kathy said with clear admiration.

______________________________________________________________________

 Only after the dessert had been cleared, and Serena had finished the equivalent of a fouth glass of wine did she realize she’d put herself in a difficult situation. She was a plus one. Ric may or may not have had a room for the night; she wasn’t sure what arrangements he’d originally made before she’d joined him. But she didn’t. And there was no way in the world she was going to share a room – even platonically - with Ric Griffin.

She was standing now at the edge of the dance floor as she pondered her predicament. She heard the whine of guitar and thump of familiar drums. The Clash. She found her foot tapping and then the drum beat started heating up and she found herself dancing. Mouthing the words as she danced, she lost herself a little in the music and the moment. “Should I stay or should I go now.” She was singing along, moving further unconsciously into the crowd. “If I go, there could be trouble and if I stay it could be double.” She danced with her eyes closed, shimmying really. Enjoying the beat and the sounds. Transported.

She felt the heat of someone dancing right behind her. She turned and opened her eyes. There before her was Buttons. Her bow tie hung loosely around her neck, the top of her white shirt unbuttoned. Buttons was singing at the top of her lungs “should I cool it or should I blow?” They were dancing together now. Completely in the moment matching each other beat for beat, the music pounding in her ears and her blood. The music transitioned from one song to the next, and they kept dancing. Sweaty, joyous, slightly drunken, singing half to each other and half to the moon. Serena closed her eyes and simply stopped thinking and just felt.

Sometime later the tempo changed. William’s voice boomed, “And now welcome for a special performance, Eric the Red.” At the far end of the hall, on the makeshift stage with a disc jockey stood Ric Griffin in sun shades, microphone in hand. The unmistakable first notes began and Ric sang “Hey where did we go…” She’d stopped dancing, and turned to watch him. From behind her she heard Buttons take up the song only loud enough for her to hear, “our hearts a thumpin’ and you, my brown eyed girl.” Her heart skipped a beat and she felt sudden heat rise in her cheeks. Serena turned and said “I think I need some air” already moving toward the doorway before Buttons could answer.

______________________________________________________________________

It was nearly twelve by then. The heat on the dance floor and the length of the day had begun to catch up with her. She slipped out one of the French doors on the side of the common room. There were a few chairs on the wide patio but they were already occupied by small groups of people engaged in animated conversations. Most looked vaguely drunk, but then again she wasn’t completely sober herself. Not quite yet.

A short set of stone stairs worn unevenly smooth by generations of students led down to the sidewalk and the green beyond. Serena swept her hand behind her to smooth her dress and sat on the top step. She would need to take it to the dry cleaners in any case and a little dust wouldn’t hurt. The stone was cool in the night air. The music and the chill reminded her of a night in her own University days. She’d dated only occasionally then, her pre-medical course work occupying far more of her attention than had probably been healthy. But she had often sat outside her dorm in the fresh night air watching the more socially enthusiastic cross to and fro across the campus. She didn’t envy them so much as wonder what it felt like to just let go. She wondered what that would feel like now, these many years later.

“Eric’s having a grand time. It’s like the summer of love all over again in there I’d imagine.” Button’s now familiar voice disrupted her reverie. Strains of Chimes of Freedom were wafting from the building. “The chimes of freedom flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight.” It was as if the woman had her own entrance music.

“Surely you realize I was only a child in the 1960s.” Serena could hear the flirtatious tone in her own voice. Sometimes she surprised herself when it came out without a thought. But she’d hardly ever been wrong when it did.

“Oh absolutely. You missed the sixties by a long shot - we both did. We were both barely toddlers.” Buttons sat down next to her. Right next to her. Close enough that Serena could see the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, could see the glint from the gold buttons down her front. Buttons bit her lip as if she were thinking through her next words carefully. “But I think… you have that same rebellious spirit.” With a wicked grin and a charming tilt to her head, Buttons winked.

Serena leaned in even closer, mere inches now. “I can’t help but wonder, Major, if you are coming on to me.” It was almost a challenge.

Buttons’ expression changed suddenly. Gone was soft and charming replaced by mortification. Her back straightened. “I’m so sorry I’ve made you feel uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to do that.” She shook her head slightly, eyes apologetic.

Serena was suddenly crestfallen. Clearly she’d misinterpreted every move this woman had made this evening. Imagined an interest and attraction that was not there.

Buttons took a deep breath, sputtered a second then re-started quickly, suddenly full of life again. “It’s just that… well, your latest article in the Annals of Vascular Surgery just blew me away. And that article you wrote about vein grafting techniques when you were a C1? I was so amazed at how forward looking it was. You were just the same age as I was, yet so advanced. I’ve kind of followed your career through the years. I even read your Harvard dissertation on the 80/20 paradigm, though that didn’t apply much to my trauma work. I’m afraid we don’t count the cost in the RAMC.”  She slowed now, quieter.  “I guess you’d say I’m kind of a fan.  I hope you don’t think that’s too weird.”

The impromptu speech had taken her by surprise. Suddenly the handsome Major Buttons was a strikingly beautiful trauma surgeon.

“Not weird at all. It’s really quite flattering. I’ve never had a fan before.” Her coquettish voice was back. “You should have written, I’d have signed a copy for you.” She felt the flutter in her stomach again and heard her own flirtatious laugh.

But Bernie was still all wide eyed and earnest. “Would you? I’ve been eager all night to pick your brain, but I thought you must be sick of work talk.”

“Oh I’m never sick of work talk.” Her tiny giggle surprised even Serena. She actually did love to talk about work. Especially about surgical techniques. And most especially, if the person talking to her about them was so enthusiastic and so magnetic. For a long few seconds, Serena Campbell got lost in now familiar eyes the color of oak aged scotch.

All of a sudden, sitting on stone steps flirting with a RAMC major seemed like the one thing she really wanted out of life. She made a decision.

Serena reached out and ran a finger slowly over the Major’s lapel, circling the small caduceus emblem over her left breast. “Why don’t you run in and grab us a couple more whiskeys. And we’ll sit all night and maybe develop some new techniques.” Buttons laughed an adorable distinct honk. Serena laughed as well, from somewhere happy deep inside.

Buttons took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as if to calm herself. “My pleasure.” She leaned in close. “Oh and by the way. Besides being so accomplished, you are definitely smokin’ hot.” She jumped up and quickly slipped back into the hall before Serena could respond.

Serena’s eyes followed her lithe form. That uniform does fit her impeccably, Serena thought.

______________________________________________________________________

A moment later, the sound of approaching feet on gravel drew her gaze back towards the road.

“Oh for goodness sake, what is the matter with you?” she muttered as she descended the stairs. Edward Campbell, in a lavender shirt and black suit, approached carrying an even larger bouquet of roses than he’d had that morning. She really could not believe he was there, in Cambridge.

“It’s our anniversary,” he began. “I want to spend it with you.”

“Oh just put them away,” Serena said in disgust. She glanced back to make sure Buttons was nowhere to be seen.

“I tracked you down and have driven three hours to be with you on our anniversary. You’re making a mistake. I mucked up at work. You’re mixing that up with us.” He was pleading with her now.

“If I can’t trust you with one, I can’t trust you with the other.” Her anger rose. She hadn’t been able to trust him for years. Maybe, she now realized, she’d never been able to trust him.

“I’ll change.” Edward was trying to turn on his charm. How often had he said those same words? How often had she been willing to believe him? Not tonight. Not ever again.

“You won’t. You never do. You’ll start destroying the things I care about. You always ruin it. It’s not just the drink, Edward. You chip away at me. You make me feel so unworthy. And so undesirable.” She didn’t like the way her own voice sounded. Weak. Beaten.

But then in a flash, she realized. “And I’m not. I’m not unworthy and I am definitely not undesirable.” She pointed vaguely to the open doorway. “Buttons, there, has just made me feel better about myself in 10 seconds than you did in 26 years.”

Edward tried once more. “I love you.”

“No, you love yourself reflected in my eyes, Edward. But my eyes aren’t going to be watching you ever again. I deserve better.” Serena gathered her gown in dramatic fashion, turned and triumphantly climbed the stairs.

As she reached the top, Buttons was just emerging through the door, a glass in each hand. Serena looked directly in her eyes and smiled. She took one of the glasses and took a bracing gulp. Then she reached out and took the woman’s now empty hand. She pulled her along.

“Come on, Bernie, I think we have some talking to do. Oh, and Brown Eyed Girl? I think maybe we should dance some more as well.”

______________________________________________________________________

The music continued until nearly 2am. They’d danced and danced for more than an hour without talking much, just intently watching each other, matching movement and rhythm. Serena had never danced so intensely nor so freely. Energy passed back and forth between them as if their bodies and their minds were in conversation without saying a word.

As the music wound down, they walked out onto the patio. The breeze was refreshing but the evening had turned chilly. Serena felt a slight shiver run through her. Buttons shrugged out of her jacket and swung it around Serena’s shoulders. “I should walk you to your room, Serena. We’ve outlasted both ends of the age spectrum, but it might be wise to get some sleep.” Serena wasn’t sure she was ready for this evening to end, but she allowed Buttons to steer her back indoors toward the grand staircase.

“Your room is on the second floor. I have a key for you. It’s a little smaller than some of the others, I’m afraid, but it’s comfortable, I promise.” Buttons had slipped out momentarily while they were dancing earlier and conferred with one of the other volunteers. She’d come back smiling reassuring Serena she wouldn’t have to bunk with Ric Griffin.

But now they stood silently in the hall for what felt like minutes before the blonde reached out and unlocked the door. Serena took a step forward across the threshold but Buttons did not follow. “Would you … like to come in?” Serena asked tentatively. The silence at the threshold had made her suddenly shy.

“I should go.” Bernie was looking around, anywhere but her eyes. “You’ll need your sleep. It’s late.”

Serena felt a pang of regret. “Goodnight, Major.” She reached out a hand. Bernie took her hand and held it for a second before Serena felt strong arms gather her into a hug. A deliciously warm but somehow still delicate hug. Bernie turned her head and the whisper of her warm breath on Serena’s cheek sent a small shiver down her back. She leaned toward the source and felt Bernie leave a brief kiss where her breath had been. Serena held tighter, as if she could express something she didn’t even understand herself but was desperate for Bernie to know.

“Good night, Ms Campbell. I don’t think I’ll ever forget tonight.” She took a long step backwards and turned now. Serena closed the door slowly as she heard Bernie’s footsteps retreat down the hall.

With a heavy sigh she made her way to the bathroom. There was a toothbrush in plastic, and a small tube of toothpaste. A yellow post-it note on the sink: I hope this is okay. I didn’t know what brand you might prefer. B. That Bernie who had spent the evening attending to her every need, who had found her a room of her own for the night, also managed to find her a toothbrush and toothpaste brought a smile to her face. The woman was something of a marvel.

A knock at the door startled her. It was the middle of the night after all and no one knew she was here. Through the peephole she saw the now familiar sandy blond hair of a woman looking down at her feet. She took a settling breath and opened the door.

“I… I do want…” Bernie began.

This time it was Serena who reached out and pulled the woman across the threshold and into her arms. Their lips met. Nothing tentative. Wanting, open, hungry. They broke only when their breathing became ragged. Foreheads touching, Serena smiled sweetly, almost incredulously, as they breathed the same air.

“I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” Bernie said as she leaned in, claiming Serena’s lips. This time she was more intent, teasing with her tongue, urging Serena to open herself again. They stood there like that, hands moving from waist to shoulders to necks. Serena’s hand on the back of Bernie’s neck tickled the soft hair there and Bernie let out a small shudder and leaned into the touch.

Without fully breaking contact, they moved together into the room, half stumbling until Serena’s legs pressed against the bed. Bernie took a step backwards, holding Serena at arm's length. A whimper escaped from Serena as they parted and brought a low chuckle from Bernie. Serena allowed herself to be turned slowly and leaned backwards into Bernie’s arms. She could see herself in the mirror across the room. See Bernie’s arms around her stomach, face nuzzled in her neck. “This dress is stunning by the way. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you all night. Jumbled up my thoughts. Especially this part.” Bernie ran a finger lightly trailing along the deep V at her breasts.

Serena looked down, suddenly self-conscious.

“No. Please. Look up. I want to see your eyes when I tell you that… that you are…a vision. But more than that. An amazing mind wrapped in…” She hesitated as if choosing between thoughts and words and actions. “Wrapped in perfection” she finished. Serena blushed.

“As beautiful as this dress is, I think I would very much like to see what lies beneath. Would you let me undress you?” Serena whimpered her consent. Bernie in the mirror moved her right hand to the back of Serena’s neck, and slowly lowered the zipper, down the length of her back to the base of her spine. Serena arched into the pressure, pulling her shoulders back, slightly raising her chest. “So very beautiful.” Bernie’s left hand raised to her breast, spreading across and then lowering the dress front, slowly revealing a very sensible black bra. Both hands cupped her covered breasts now, splayed fingers gently kneading the nipples which stiffened below the cotton. “Turn around, Serena” Bernie whispered huskily in her ear. Serena turned and stepped out of the black dress now gathered in a heap on the floor.

Serena felt the bed against her legs again but this time she leaned back gently pulling Bernie with her. Bernie maddeningly remained standing. Bernie reached down, and ran a finger slowly down her stomach and hooked it under the waistband of black underwear. Serena lifted herself as the underwear slipped from her body. The woman above her breathed in deeply and exhaled in pleasure. She lowered herself to her knees, pulling Serena closer to the edge of the bed. “May I?” she breathed against her thigh. “Please” came a soft plea as Serena arched backwards again.

For what seemed like hours, Bernie kissed, nuzzled, breath teasing Serena’s ache. Her hands held legs apart even as Serena squirmed, struggling against the exquisite teasing. Finally, Serena’s hands tangled in blond hair, struggling to increase the pressure against her clit. Bernie’s tongue found the fold of skin that brought her the greatest pleasure. Her stomach tightened and her breathing quickened. Her hands left Bernie’s head and clutched at the sheets by her side. “Oh, so good, so very good,” she panted. “Come for me, Serena, beautiful, brilliant Serena” the words blew hot air caressing her swollen clit. Suddenly her back arched. “Oh god, Bernie” Serena moaned out as she climaxed harder than she ever remembered.

Bernie scooted up the bed, pulled her up and cradled her tenderly. Her right hand covered Serena’s mons lightly, holding her together as the aftershocks rippled through her and she fell back to earth.

After a few minutes, Serena giggled.

“What’s so funny, there? I thought for sure you’d drift off to sleep after that…”

Serena laughed harder. “You are still fully dressed in that extraordinary military getup, Buttons. Your vest is tickling my nose. I'm laying here still in my bra and I am completely and utterly undone.”

“Well I can fix the first part of that but I refuse to apologize for the rest.” Bernie removed her hand and Serena whimpered at the loss. She stood, back turned.

“No, please. Turn around. I want... I want to watch you.”

Bernie turned towards her eager audience. She began to unbutton those gold buttons. “Beautiful yourself,” Serena sighed. She removed her jacket and then vest, hanging them from the back of the valet stand. Her shirt she unbuttoned slowly, the starched stiff pique cotton having been only slightly wrinkled by all the evening’s exertions. Serena could make out a lipstick stain at the collar, and felt the slightest tinge of possessive pride. When Bernie first unzipped and then released her slacks, the possessiveness became more primal. But Serena was so very cozy. So very sated.

By the time Bernie slipped back into bed and pulled her close, Serena was nearly asleep. Serena’s head on her shoulder and her arm across her chest possessively, Bernie began to hum quietly. Serena slipped into the deepest of sweetest dreams.

______________________________________________________________________

The awful blaring noise was her phone. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to be awake. She was warm and languid. The arms around her were smooth and muscular. She wriggled backwards, burrowing deeper into the embrace. She did not want this night to end. Not with a ringing telephone that could only be someone who needed something from her, some emergency, some demand.

The ringing wouldn’t stop, and now Bernie was stirring. “Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that’s yours,” the groggy voice behind her said. “Mine plays “Here's a Health unto His Majesty.”

“Oh God, why?” She couldn’t keep herself from sitting up and turning to look at Bernie in astonishment.

“It was a joke to start with. But it is distinct. Usually helps me to sleep through everyone else’s phone when necessary. Except of course this morning when would have happily kept dreaming of the woman in my arms.” Serena beamed then leaned over Bernie’s naked form, brushing breast to breast, enjoying the shiver she felt in the body below hers. She answered her phone.

“Serena, thank god you picked up.” It wasn’t Ric, but it was Ric’s phone number. “William Tudor Bass, here. Kathy has collapsed. Ric is with her, but it doesn’t look good. He asked me to call you. I think you should come down to the boat launch in case there’s something you can do.”

“I heard that,” Bernie said. She was already moving to get up.

“Wait, no, stop. Don’t move. I may have to go. But you don’t need to get up. Please. Just stay in bed. I’ll go find out what’s going on. And then maybe..” finally getting control of her voice and lowering her register “maybe I can express my appreciation for last night.” She was delighted to see the color rise in her companion’s cheeks. She kissed her then, a sweet kiss, more delight and promise than anything else.

Serena rolled off the bed, and stood, eyes sweeping the floor looking for her dress. “I hung it up, in the closet, while you were sleeping,” Bernie said. Three minutes later she was dressed again in the black gown and matching shoes. Incongruous as they were at this hour of the morning, it was all the clothing she had.

Bernie had arisen despite her protests and held out her own black and red jacket. “It’s cold out there. You should have something to keep you a bit warmer.”

“You do realize, Major, that your jacket is hardly inconspicuous.” Serena easily slid into the outstretched coat. A still naked Bernie closed her arms around her from behind and kissed her neck.

“It’s possible that was part of my thinking, ma’am. Don’t forget to take the key with you. You might need it.”

______________________________________________________________________

The trouble at the river took significantly longer than Serena might have hoped. When she arrived, the ambulance was just pulling away. Kathy had collapsed. A heart attack, it appeared. The midnight boat ride had turned into an all-night conversation between Kathy and Ric, nestled like teenagers on the bank of the river. At dawn they’d gone back out onto the water, and it was there Kathy had collapsed. Ric was taking the whole thing surprisingly well. But Serena had insisted on making arrangements for her own rental car so that he could stay in Cambridge as long as he needed.

It was close to nine am before she let herself quietly into the room she had shared with Bernie the night before. The bed was made. Expectantly she ducked her head around the corner but found the bathroom empty as well. Perhaps it had been a little too much to hope that Bernie would still be lounging there waiting for her.

Then she noticed the folded white note on top of a neat pile of clothing on the dresser. The paper was lovely. Surprisingly heavy and crisp. At the top were printed the initials BGW just like the stationary mothers bought for their daughters’ University graduation.

Dear Serena –

I did not tell you last night, but I am off to Helmand Province by transport this evening. I need to return to base as soon as possible. I hoped you’d be back in time for one last kiss.

I can not tell you how much this meant to me. I’ve admired your mind for so long, and then to have danced with you and held you in my arms seems like the most beautiful of dreams.

Below please find the best clothes I could arrange at short notice. I thought perhaps you might not want to spend the entire day in that beautiful gown of yours. Use my jacket until you get home. Then perhaps you can send it on to me at Camp Bastion. When you do, would it be too much to ask for a copy of your articles and maybe a letter to tell me how you are doing?

Thank you, beautiful Serena, for making a poor soldier’s final day at home one of the best of her life.

Your Buttons

Serena did not know whether to laugh or cry. So she did both.

She thought ruefully, if only her grandmother were alive today. She’d be delighted to know Serena had provided a soldier going to war sweet memories of England to keep her warm.

______________________________________________________________________

Serena had not worn sweatpants in decades, she thought, if then. She’d not bought a pair since University for sure. They were comfortable enough, and new. They would do for the long drive home. But she loved the RAMC tee-shirt Bernie had left her. It was maroon, with the corps emblem over the left breast, a green wreath surrounding a caduceus and the corps motto - In arduis fidelis. Faithful in adversity. It was worn, and soft, and it smelled of Bernie. As she slipped it on she’d remembered what it felt like to hold and be held. She knew that her drive and likely many evenings to come would be consumed by thoughts of the strong, charming and delightful Major Wolfe.

As she walked to the parking lot carrying a garment bag with her dress and Bernie’s jacket, a blue convertible pulled up beside her. “Hey there, good looking.” Bernie, grinning from ear to ear, looked up at her. She wore standard-issue olive drab camouflage shirt and pants, a red cross on her bicep. On Bernie Wolfe, standard issue was neither standard nor drab. Behind the wheel of a convertible, she looked like a dream.

“Hey yourself soldier. I thought you were long gone.” What started as teasing came out a little more plaintive than she had planned. “I missed you.’  She swung the garment bag around to hide her blush as she reached in for the jacket.

“I couldn’t help waiting for you. Just to see you again” Bernie had that earnest tone again. The words and the sound went directly to Serena’s heart.

“I’ve got your jacket here. Take it with you. It was lovely and warm.” She held the black and red jacket toward Bernie.

“I’ll only take it if you promise you’ll still send me everything else I asked for.” Serena unsuccessfully tried to hold back a tear as she nodded. “Of course, I will,” she said quietly.

Bernie took the proffered jacket. She was looking directly in Serena’s eyes. She closed her hand around one of the buttons and pulled sharply, then she dropped the jacket on the passenger seat. Bernie reached for Serena’s hand. “Someday soon the British will pull out of Helmand. Maybe you could hold this for me until I come back?” In Serena’s open palm she placed a gold button.

Serena leaned down now and kissed her. A kiss full of longing and promise.

And she held the button as Bernie drove away.

______________________________________________________________________

  Epilogue

On Monday morning, Serena Campbell walked through the door of Holby City Hospital. Standing in line at Pulses, stood Guy Self, head once more buried in his Blackberry. He jumped a little as she spoke.

“Guy, we need to talk.” He looked up.  Her tone was serious and direct. “I am a highly skilled surgeon with a Harvard MBA. I am the Deputy CEO of this hospital. If you ever treat me as you did last week. If you ever keep me out of a strategy meeting again.  I will…” She paused for effect: ”take my talents elsewhere.”

Guy was genuinely taken aback. “I’ll take that under advisement. Oh and I read your cost savings proposal. Great work.” He turned and escaped quickly towards the elevator.

He missed seeing Serena’s broad smile and the button held tight in her right hand.