No touching, Serena has to keep reminding herself.
And it’s hard because a hand on the arm, a nudge of the elbow, a brush of the shoulders in passing is part of how she is. Certainly how she is with Bernie.
She slips, forgets. Bernie flinches, a sharp intake of breath, and Serena snatches her hand away as if burned. Her skin tingles where her fingers brushed Bernie’s forearm.
* * *
She doesn’t trust herself. Her body betrays her, yearns towards Bernie.
She has to take precautions. Always at least a foot of space between them now. It’s safer that way.
Except in theatre. There they have a body between them but their hands are so close.
Stepping into theatre is like stepping into another world, where they can be who they’ve always been. Who Serena wishes they could be. They flirt over blood and damaged organs, eyes catching over the table, flashing and sparking.
And she would give anything to stay in that world forever.
But over the threshold everything shifts again.
A foot of space between them.
Hands to herself.
Ignores what she wants – because she respects Bernie, respects her decision. Even if her heart doesn’t.
* * *
She stops touching other people too, withdraws into her own space. If touching people is no longer a habit, then there’s less danger of her automatically reaching for Bernie.
Handshakes and examinations become her only physical contact with other people.
Except Jason, who doesn’t understand but somehow knows something is wrong. A goodnight hug becomes part of their routine. He might infuriate her at times, but she is inordinately glad of his presence in her life, her house.
Even if he does keep asking how Dr. Bernie is, why she doesn’t talk about Dr. Bernie any more. If they aren’t friends any more.
She doesn’t like to lie to him. He doesn’t understand why people lie; she doesn’t want to be like that to him. Doesn’t want to lose his trust. Because who would she have left then?
‘We’ve had a bit of a-’
A what, Campbell? How on earth do I describe this?
‘A disagreement,’ she settles on eventually.
‘Is it because she kisses girls?’
‘No,’ she replies firmly, wondering which part of the rumour mill he picked that up from. ‘She can kiss whoever she wants, it’s none of my business.’
Her heart twists as she says it. It’s not fair, she wants to scream. It’s not bloody fair.
* * *
She still watches, though.
What harm can it do? she reasons, eyes seeking Bernie out at every opportunity: across the ward, the office, a table at Albie’s.
Watches surreptitiously when they’re both completing paperwork, gaze ostensibly fixed on her computer screen but actually slipping just past it to the woman beyond.
Watches her in her element in the trauma bay, her calm spreading through the rest of the staff even in the most chaotic situations.
Watches skilled fingers examine, inject, intubate.
Has no idea Bernie is watching her too. The flicker of annoyance at another mid-shift call from Jason. The steady, no-nonsense but kind bedside manner she herself has never managed to cultivate. Strong, slender fingers curled around the stem of a wine glass.
What harm can it do? she reasons, even though every glimpse makes her fall further.
Bernie notices that Serena’s hands no longer reach for her. She isn’t usually tactile but it feels so natural with Serena – has done, since they met. And now she finds she misses her casual touches, craves Serena’s skin against hers, Serena’s lips against hers.
No, she thinks sternly. She doesn’t want me. I have to stop thinking of her like this.
Which, quite frankly, turns out to be bloody impossible.
So when Hanssen offers her a secondment in Ukraine, she jumps at the chance. She doesn’t want to leave Holby, AAU, Serena – but she can’t go on like this either.
Time away, she reasons. If I don’t see her every day it’ll be easier. I can train myself not to think of her as anything other than a friend. Forget it ever happened. Then I can come back, and everything can be like it was.
She had thought Serena would be grateful. Much as they’re both trying it’s not the same as before.
How could it be? We haven’t had chance to rebalance.
The desperation in Serena’s voice almost breaks her resolve.
‘Ukraine?’ she stutters.
‘They’ve set up a trauma unit, want some help ensuring it’s efficient and cost-effective.’
‘I see.’ Serena forces a smile, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. ‘Well, they couldn’t find anyone better than you.’
‘It’s a good opportunity to collaborate, share expertise. Bring back something useful.’
‘Yes, of course.’ And then, dreading the answer: ‘How long?’
Serena lets out a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. It could be worse, she reasons, fighting to stay calm. It could be worse.
‘I’ve never been to Ukraine. I could come and see you. Or we could meet halfway,’ she suggests, unable to stop herself reaching for Bernie.
‘Stop. Please,’ Bernie says harshly, pulling her hand from Serena’s grasp, turning to hide the tears gathering in her eyes and striding away.
‘You don’t want to see me?’ Serena asks, confused.
‘I thought you’d be glad of some time apart.’
‘How would you know what I want?’ she calls after her, not caring that everyone on AAU is staring at them. ‘You never even bothered to bloody ask.’
Bernie hesitates, then continues out of the ward. She dashes up the stairs two at a time, relishing the burn in her lungs, her legs, pushes her way out onto the roof. The cold breeze shocks the remaining breath from her body, chills the tear tracks down her cheeks. She focuses on breathing.
In. Out. In. Out.
She fumbles in her bag for a cigarette, lighter.
In. Out. In. Out.
The smoke is whipped away from her as soon as it leaves her lips.
In. Out. In. Out.
The look on Serena’s face, in her eyes. The way her voice broke. The tremble in her usually sure fingers.
‘Fuck,’ she says to the empty sky.
* * *
Serena flees to their office, leans heavily against the desk. Waits for her brain to start working again, for the rush of blood in her ears to quiet, for the panic to subside.
By the time the door opens behind her she can hear the usual hum of noise from the ward. Can think beyond Bernie. Leaving.
‘I’m sorry,’ Bernie says quietly. ‘What do you want?’
‘Not you in another country for three months, for a start,’ Serena replies, fighting to keep her voice steady. Don’t cry, she begs herself. Please don’t cry.
‘I rather think it might be you,’ she confesses, turning to face her.
And Bernie feels the breath pulled from her lungs again.
‘You assumed, didn’t you, that I was uncomfortable because I didn’t want you, wasn’t interested?’
Bernie inclines her head slightly, not daring to speak.
‘I am scared,’ she says frankly. ‘Turns out I’m not who I thought I was. And when you’re the wrong side of fifty, that’s pretty terrifying.’
Bernie’s eyes widen, and Serena smiles.
‘How long did it take you to accept that you were attracted to another woman?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ she stammers. ‘A while.’
‘Well I’m a little behind you. You’ve woken something new in me, Bernie. And it’s not unwelcome, just rather a surprise.’
‘But you didn’t say. You’ve stopped-’. She hesitates, flushes. ‘You’ve stopped touching me,’ she murmurs.
‘Yes, and bloody hard it’s been too.’
‘Because that’s what you said you wanted,’ Serena says simply. ‘And I respect that.’
‘But you don’t want it?’
‘I don’t think I do, no.’
‘But you’re not sure?’
‘Like I said, I’m rather behind you in my Sapphic awakening.’
‘I need you to be sure, Serena. I can’t go any further if you aren’t, it would hurt too much.’
‘I understand, darling.’
‘So I’m going to go,’ she makes herself say. Seeing Serena’s face fall Bernie reaches for her hand, laces their fingers. ‘I’m going to go, and give you the space you need to become sure. And while I’m gone,’ she adds, almost fiercely, ‘you’re going to explore, and experiment. No hiding away pining for me, hm?’
Serena swats her arm playfully.
‘I’m serious, Serena. You can’t do that while I’m here, while I’m-’
‘Clouding my judgement?’ Serena suggests.
‘Yes,’ Bernie sighs gratefully. ‘Exactly. It’s like being caught in a bubble here, working so closely. I’ve done that once,’ she says sadly, thinking of Alex and the mess she made. ‘I don’t think I could survive it again, not if it meant losing you.’
‘So what, I’m to run a research project on my sexuality?’
‘Exactly,’ Bernie grins. ‘Test your hypothesis, analyse your results, draw your conclusions.’
‘And then report back?’
‘Well, someone has to oversee such important research.’
Serena smiles, but then her face falls. ‘You’re really going?’
Bernie nods. ‘But I’m coming back.’
‘How am I going to keep this place under control without you?’
‘You managed before.’
‘Yes, but then I didn’t have a trauma unit to run.’
‘You’re brilliant, Serena,’ Bernie says, squeezing her hand, blinking back the tears gathering in her eyes. ‘You don’t need me for that.’
Serena’s gaze falls on Bernie’s lips. The thought of being without her is suddenly overwhelming and, powerless to stop herself, she leans closer. Bernie waits, allows her to lead, to press their lips together.
But then she slips an arm around Serena’s waist, brings their bodies flush against each other. Kisses back with all her might, with all the love she feels.
Tears spill down their cheeks, mingle where their lips meet, slip, slide.
‘Don’t go,’ Serena pleads when they part for breath, foreheads pressed together.
‘I have to. But I’m coming back,’ she repeats.
‘I promise you, Serena,’ she murmurs, raising a hand to cup her cheek. ‘I promise.’
Serena smiles weakly then kisses her again, not stopping until there’s a cautious knock on the door.
‘Just a minute,’ she calls, not caring that her voice wavers.
They draw apart, both swiping away tears.
‘Remember,’ Bernie says, holding her gaze. ‘Observe, analyse, conclude.’
Serena nods, clenching her fists tightly to keep herself from reaching for Bernie again.
‘You’ll let me know how Fletch is doing?’
Bernie nods, hesitates. Reaches to squeeze her hand, brushes a kiss to her forehead then leaves, closing the door behind her.
Serena sinks into the chair behind Bernie’s desk, tears spilling over again.
‘Pull yourself together, Campbell,’ she mutters, trying to wipe them away with shaking fingers.
But they won’t stop, and for a moment she allows herself to cry.
Then a deep breath, and another.
In. Out. In. Out.
She pulls a tissue from her pocket, dries her eyes, dabs away the mascara stains.
In. Out. In. Out.
‘Right,’ she says unsteadily, forcing herself to stand. Again, more firmly: ‘Right.’
Tucks her pain away, behind her professional mask.
No longer Serena but Ms. Campbell. Doctor, consultant, surgeon.
I can do this, she thinks forcefully.
And then her hand is on the cold metal of the door handle.
The noise of AAU washes over her. No time for heartbreak in the midst of all this.
Colleagues to assist. Patients to examine. Relatives to reassure.
Three months without Bernie beside her.
I can do this.
When Robbie turns up and says he’s missed her, has been thinking about it and would like to get to know Jason better, to try again, she remembers Bernie’s words, forces herself to smile. They go out for dinner, the two of them, the three of them. He’s a nice guy really, and he is making an effort, albeit a small one, with Jason. When she finds herself comparing him to how effortlessly Bernie interacts with her nephew she reprimands herself sternly.
But when he pulls her closer it all feels wrong. When he goes to kiss her all she can think of – all she wants – is Bernie’s lips.
Her head says that perhaps this is just what she needs.
Her heart cries for Bernie, over and over again.
Her heart wins.
‘I’m sorry, Robbie,’ she says, stepping away from him.
‘Playing hard to get, Serena?’
‘No. This isn’t what I want.’
Jason is staying with Alan tonight. She picks up some cheap wine on her way home, drinks her way through it alone in front of the TV. Glass after glass, until she sobs herself to sleep on the sofa.
Bloody woman. What have you done to me?
* * *
Serena has always been a shameless flirt. Now, in the spirit of investigation, she turns her charm on women as well as men. Lets her eyes trace the curves of hips, waists, breasts. Imagines how those curves would feel pressed against her own. With the liquid courage of Shiraz, kisses the soft lips of the woman making eyes at her across the bar.
It doesn’t feel like kissing Bernie but she can’t deny that it’s pleasant, that she feels the same rush of arousal as when she kisses an attractive man.
Not just Bernie then.
* * *
She devours Sarah Waters.
Tries to watch The L Word but finds it laughably unrelatable.
Races through Last Tango in Halifax. Finds herself daydreaming about domestic life with Bernie. Wonders if her mother would have behaved like Celia. Sobs at Kate’s death and Caroline’s grief. We would have saved her, she thinks fiercely. Bernie and I would have saved her for you.
Catches The Fall and marvels that she’s never realised how bloody gorgeous Gillian Anderson is before.
Starts seeing the potential for romance between two women everywhere, in everything she watches, every interaction she sees.
Notes with amusement that it’s always blondes who catch her eye.
* * *
And then, when Jason is out at chess club one evening, she watches Carol. Sees herself in Therese, Bernie in Carol. Smirks at the comparison between herself and this young, naïve woman just finding out who she is and what she wants. Wonders what might have been if she’d met someone like Bernie at medical school, at Harvard, after her divorce.
And then that scene – oh, that scene. No denying how she feels now, when they finally tumble into bed together, all bare skin and tenderness and desire and aching need.
No denying, and no ignoring.
She is Therese, wide-eyed and inexperienced, and so full of wanting.
And above her Carol, hands and lips all over her body, savouring, worshipping.
Then suddenly not Carol any more, but Bernie.
Bernie’s skin against hers. Bernie’s lips. Bernie’s fingers – oh, those skilled, dexterous fingers – teasing, stroking, twisting inside her, until she trembles and shudders and arches, her whole body alight, singing.
The rush of blood in her ears. The sparking lights behind her eyelids. The ragged, broken cry that escapes her throat.
In the morning she flushes with embarrassment and shame and guilt at having fantasised about her, for the first time is glad Bernie’s away so she doesn’t have to face her.
But god, it felt so good.
A fresh wave of arousal at the memory, at what the imagining of Bernie made her feel. At the knowledge that the real thing – Bernie’s arms around her, the press of Bernie’s body against hers, oh how hot and wet and silky Bernie would feel around her fingers – can only be better, stronger, more.
It’s like a dormant infection is suddenly flooding her veins.
Every part of her yearns for Bernie. Not just in her bed (although yes there, definitely there, oh the thought makes her shiver) but on the ward, in their office, in theatre. Post-shift drinks at Albie’s. At dinner with Jason. Curled on the sofa watching World’s Strongest Man. Lazy Sunday mornings, with tea and toast and tender, languid kisses.
Colleague. Best friend. Lover.
The fear is still there, yes: it’s still all new, and she doesn’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to relationships. But the doubt? The doubt is gone. She doesn’t know if this is who she’s always been, deep down, but it doesn’t matter. This is who she is now, in this moment, with Bernie.
‘My project is going well,’ she adds to her latest email update on Fletch’s progress. ‘So far all results point in the same direction. I can’t wait to see you. ’
* * *
She starts touching people again. A steadying hand on Raf’s arm. A squeeze of Morven’s shoulder when they lose a patient. A hug for Evie when she visits her father.
There is a Bernie-shaped hole in AAU, but Serena’s world has opened up again.
I like women. And men.
She feels light, like she’s found herself at last.
I’m in love with Bernie Wolfe.
She smiles to herself, only realises Raf has asked her a question when he stares at her, waiting for an answer.
Pull yourself together, Campbell. You’re not a lovesick F1.
She slips the mask back on. Ms. Campbell, not Serena; capable surgeon, not woman in love.
With Bernie Wolfe.
* * *
‘I’ll be back on Wednesday,’ Bernie emails her. ‘I have to go and see Hanssen but I thought I’d drop into AAU first. Is that ok?’
Serena’s reply is just one word: ‘Yes’.
And then, a minute later: ‘If you don’t, there’ll be trouble’.
And then: ‘I need to see you more than Hanssen does. I have some very important results to share with you’.
Thank you so much for all the comments so far - you've really made me smile, and blown me away with your loveliness! I hope the ending doesn't disappoint. Looking forward to sharing the rest of the Sapphic angst filled journey ahead with you all...
Tense with nerves, Bernie steps back onto AAU. She scans the ward for Serena, finds her examining a patient with Morven and stops, stares, her feet suddenly rooted to the floor.
And then Serena glances around, almost as if she feels Bernie’s presence. And she smiles, the first genuine smile any of them has seen since Bernie left.
Bernie takes a cautious step. Serena is already crossing the ward, meets her halfway.
‘I’m sure,’ she says, searching Bernie’s eyes.
Bernie forgets how to breathe. Knows it’s impossible but is certain her heart skips a beat. She feels Serena’s fingers catch at her own. Sees her smile begin to fade at Bernie’s lack of response, feels her pull her hand away. Tightens her grip. Forces herself to take a shuddering breath.
Serena nods, and Bernie smiles at last.
‘It’s been torture, you know.’
‘I know,’ Serena replies. ‘Believe me, I know.’ She reaches to wipe the tears from Bernie’s cheek. ‘No more,’ she murmurs.
Bernie expects her to step away but Serena draws her closer, gaze flicking between eyes and lips.
And then she can taste the salt on Serena’s lips, can feel her smiling. Slips an arm around her waist and pulls their bodies flush.
When the world floods back in they can hear the rest of the staff cheering. Bernie blushes, but Serena just grins.
‘Alright everyone, back to work. Ms. Wolfe and I have some catching up to do.’
Raf wolf whistles.
Serena glares at him but doesn’t stop smiling. ‘Out of the gutter please, Mr. di Lucca.’
‘Good to have you back, Bernie,’ he calls.
‘It’s good to be back,’ Bernie replies, eyes never leaving Serena. ‘I’ve missed you all.’