Chapter 1: predisposed to joy
Bernie had guessed that Serena – tactile Serena, who sometimes seems to communicate as much with her hands as with her words – would be a snuggler. So it doesn’t surprise her that first morning to wake with Serena still in her arms, Serena’s head pillowed on her chest, Serena’s breath whispering across her skin, Serena’s arm draped across her waist.
What does surprise her is how much she likes it. No, that she likes it at all, really. That she can not only tolerate it, this physical contact, this press of flesh and skin, but finds herself tightening her grip, nuzzling into Serena, pressing a kiss to her hair and breathing her in rather than trying to extricate herself with as little disruption as possible.
Bernie has an odd relationship with sleep, can fall asleep anywhere yet sometimes lies awake for hours on end, no matter how exhausted she is. And sometimes (often) she wakes well before her alarm, well before any sensible person would. She usually passes the time reading, in summer goes for early morning runs, in recent months has tossed and turned as she worried about the mess her life had become. Frequently gave up and drove into work early, even paperwork a more welcome way of filling the time. But now? Now she finds herself perfectly content to close her eyes and just hold Serena, or to watch her sleep and then gradually awaken.
This first morning she wakes knowing she slept better than she did the entire time she was in Kyiv. Better than she has in months. Can probably count on two hands the number of nights she’s slept this well all year (and that’s including the ones when she was recovering from the IED and her surgery). Still wakes before Serena, though, watches as what little light makes it through the heavy curtains falls onto her, listens to the hiss and creak and tick of warming pipes.
I could get used to this, she finds herself thinking as Serena stirs against her. As her eyes slowly open and seek Bernie’s. As she blinks and smiles, drowsily and warmly and joyously, as if she can think of no better way to begin her day than right here, with her.
And every day since Bernie has thought of it, her mind wandering at inopportune moments. Sometimes her thoughts are less chaste; sometimes all she can think of is the feel of Serena’s lips, the taste of her, the sounds she makes when Bernie touches her. How Serena’s fingers feel inside her. Sometimes their mornings start like this, insistent and needy no matter how – how much, how many times, how enthusiastically – they touched and kissed the previous night.
But sometimes – surprisingly often – it’s these tender moments of darkness and half light, these threshold moments suspended between sleep and wakefulness, that catch her unawares. Bernie finds herself smiling more readily on these days, these days when they wake cocooned and tangled, and slowly rouse together with gentle caresses and soft kisses. Finds herself predisposed to joy because how could she not be, when the first thing she saw, felt, was conscious of, was Serena Campbell, warm and soft and heavenly in her arms?
Chapter 2: your touch grounds me
Bernie has her first performance review with Hanssen since she started at Holby.
‘You’ll be fine,’ Serena soothes, watching as Bernie paces back and forth in their office, hands twisting.
‘But what if all the stupid, unnecessary risks I took when I arrived have tainted me?’
‘Bernie,’ Serena says, stopping her with a hand on her shoulder. ‘You are a fantastic doctor, surgeon and co-lead. There’s no one I’d rather have by my side.’ She slides her hand down Bernie’s arm, laces their fingers, smiles softly.
Bernie looks at her from under her fringe, manages a half smile. ‘I’ve just got so much to lose now,’ she says quietly.
When she’s sat across from Hanssen it’s not Serena’s words that Bernie focuses on. Instead it’s the little touches that keep her grounded, that remind her how to breathe. That remind her that she belongs here, that this – Holby, AAU, the trauma unit – is her home.
The squeeze of her shoulder, the warm hand on her arm, the brush of their fingers. She can still feel them long afterwards and the memory of Serena’s skin against hers carries her through, anchors her.
Serena’s hand on her shoulder.
She has a place here, has carved one out for herself with Serena’s help.
Serena’s hand on her arm.
She’s good at what she does, is just as good at doing it here as she is in the field.
Serena’s fingers against hers.
Serena knows it, believed in her enough to share her ward, enough to gift her a trauma unit.
‘Do you believe you’ve settled in well at Holby, Ms. Wolfe?’
‘I do. It wasn’t easy, but I feel like I’ve found my place on AAU.’
‘And you find working with Ms. Campbell...?’
‘Stimulating. Challenging. Inspiring.’
‘Anything you would like to change about your current situation?’
‘No. Well, apart from more funding, of course.’
‘Naturally.’ Hanssen focuses his attention on his notes.
Bernie waits, forces herself not to fidget.
Serena’s hand on her shoulder, her arm.
‘I believe you are an asset to AAU, and to Holby City as a whole,’ he says eventually, looking up and steepling his fingers. ‘As do your colleagues. You and Ms. Campbell are a formidable team,’ he adds, almost smiling. ‘I hope you will continue to be one for the foreseeable future?’
‘I hope so too,’ Bernie smiles. Serena’s fingers against hers. ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere.’
When she returns to the ward Bernie seeks Serena out, stands close beside her so the backs of their hands brush. Smiles at the questioning raise of her eyebrows and is rewarded with an answering smile, with Serena leaning into her, with the briefest squeeze of her fingers.
I belong here, she thinks with a sigh of relief as they separate and go about the rest of the day’s work, the ghost of Serena’s touch following her, a constant companion around the ward.
Serena’s hand on her shoulder, her arm. Serena’s fingers against hers.
Chapter 3: wordless
They ground each other in theatre, calm each other when necessary, motivate and inspire each other. A word, soft or firm, a look. Buoy each other up and draw each other down. Even if Serena’s not assisting just knowing that she’s observing, knowing that if she looks across to the window their eyes will meet, is a comfort, a reassurance.
Yesterday it was Serena who needed it, Serena whose usually unwavering hand faltered until Bernie said her name, met her eye, wordlessly held her gaze.
Today it’s Bernie.
‘I can’t find the bleed,’ she says, rummaging in the open abdomen.
It’s a child.
‘More suction,’ she snaps. ‘Come on, I can’t see a thing.’
A tumble down the stairs, much like Evie Fletcher.
‘Come on, come on,’ she mutters, frantic now.
There’s too much blood and too little space. Her hands feel huge, her fingers clumsy. He’s only eight, she has to fix him. She’s saved torn apart soldiers in the back of moving trucks, why is this suddenly beyond her?
Serena’s the one opposite her, the one she’s been snapping at. She’d forgotten, somehow, too lost in – in what? Panic? Desperation?
‘I can’t find it,’ she says helplessly. ‘Why can’t I do this?’
‘You can,’ Serena says firmly.
Bernie looks up, meets eyes that always seem darker when they’re all she can see between pale mask and leopard print cap. Serena’s gaze is steady and warm and, fingers momentarily frozen amid organs, Bernie holds it.
‘We can do this, Bernie.’
There’s no doubt there, not a trace. Not a waver in her voice, not a flash of uncertainty in her eyes.
And Bernie believes her.
She takes a breath, nods ever so slightly, sees the corners of Serena’s eyes crinkle with a soft smile. Looks back down.
Her hands are steady now, as steady as Serena’s gaze.
‘Come on, Josh,’ she murmurs as she starts to look again, as Serena suctions away the blood pooling around her fingers.
They both spot it at the same time,
‘Spleen,’ they say together, eyes meeting for a split second.
We’ve got this, Serena’s eyes say.
They saved the boy but not his spleen. Stood side by side at the sink, almost touching, Bernie is awash with relief but not triumphant. Success tempered by failure.
Serena shifts, nudges her arm, presses against her all warm and steady. Bernie grips the edge of the sink, lets out a shuddering breath. Looks at Serena. There’s a small smile on her face, sad but happy – just how Bernie feels.
We did all we could, her eyes say. Being on medication is an inconvenience compared to being dead.
Because they don’t need words, it seems. Not always, anyway. That suits Bernie just fine, but she’s never found someone – colleague, friend, lover, anyone – she can converse with like this so easily.
I know, she replies silently, and knows Serena understands. But still. She sighs, and Serena gently touches her arm.
‘Drink?’ she asks quietly and Bernie nods, knowing Serena doesn’t mean Albie’s, knowing she means just the two of them, a glass of wine and a healing embrace.
Chapter 4: your hands in my pockets
I couldn’t stop my arms
Slipping around your waist.
I felt the warm breath from your lips
Against my cold, pale cheek.
You placed your hands
Deep into the down of my pockets
And you whispered that you’d take me home.
(from Edinburgh – Mark Spencer-Turner)
Serena and Morven come out of theatre, exhausted but successful. It was touch and go there, but they managed to save the teenager involved in an RTC. At the same time Bernie was battling to save her father – and Raf’s dejected expression tells Serena all she needs to know.
In the office, stuck to her keyboard, is post-it note with a single word scrawled on it: ‘ROOF’. Serena grabs her coat, pulls it on as she makes her way out.
Bernie’s standing at the bottom of the metal steps, staring across the lights of the city, the wind whipping her hair around her face. She’s still in her scrubs, but Serena’s pleased to see she did at least pull on her hoodie before coming up here.
Serena stops a step above her, takes advantage of the extra height it affords her and slides her arms around Bernie’s waist, hands slipping into her pockets and clasping Bernie’s own. She brushes a kiss to Bernie’s cold cheek then rests her chin on her shoulder, warm breath whispering across her skin. Bernie’s tense but softens a little, tilting her head against Serena’s, fists unclenching under her touch, thumb rubbing Serena’s.
Serena says nothing, and for a while they just stand in silence.
And then she whispers, ‘I’ll take you home.’
Bernie twists her head and looks at Serena from under her fringe; her eyes are filled with sorrow, remorse, guilt.
‘You couldn’t have saved him,’ Serena says softly. ‘I’ve seen the scans.’
‘I know,’ Bernie sighs.
Serena squeezes her hands inside her pockets. ‘I’ll take you home,’ she repeats, and this time Bernie nods.
Chapter 5: day's end
Of course waking up together means having fallen asleep together. And that – well, the promise of that’s always a wonderful thought but it’s a comfort on days like today. Days when everything’s just a little harder than it really needs to be, days when everything just seems to go a little bit wrong from the moment Bernie sets foot on the ward.
She walks in looking forward to sharing her shift with Serena after a night spent apart, looking forward to the closeness and flirting that has always come so naturally to them. Instead when she arrives Serena’s already in a meeting so she doesn’t even catch a glimpse of her – and doesn’t get to drink more than a sip of her coffee – before the red phone sends her diving headlong into RTC number one, a rush hour pile-up. That draws Serena back down to AAU but Bernie’s ensconced in the trauma bay with the most critical patient and Serena’s straight into theatre with the next.
And then some spat between Raf and Fletch. Bernie doesn’t know – doesn’t care – what it’s about and snaps at them. She's almost grateful when the red phone rings again, bringing them RTC number two – cyclist meets car. She takes Raf into theatre, leaves Morven to deal with the shaken but merely bruised and scratched driver, hopes the forced separation will allow tempers to subside. She could do with Serena here – it’s a vascular injury, after all (although a year ago she’d have classed it firmly as a trauma injury, and defended that classification to anyone who disagreed). But while Bernie might not be able to do this in her sleep she's perfectly capable and it would be a poor excuse to page her, so on they press.
By the time Bernie snatches a late lunch Serena’s still in her disrupted meeting. She inhales a sandwich alone in their office, staring at the empty chair opposite her. Then she remembers that tonight she gets to fall asleep next to Serena and is suffused with warmth. She’s still smiling when Fletch opens the door to tell her there’s a patient coming up from the ED, blinks away the imagining of Serena in her arms and jumps up, taking care to drop her rubbish in the bin on her way out.
And so it goes on, a never-ending stream of broken people for her to fix. A recalcitrant junkie, a vomiting child, a lacerated leg, a fractured radius and ulna. Raf and Fletch still sniping, Morven worrying over the F1s. A growing stack of paperwork she knows won’t get touched until tomorrow at the very earliest. Not enough caffeine.
And then a cup of tea and a brownie appear on the nurses station in front of her.
‘Look like you could do with some sugar.’
Bernie looks up at Serena and smiles. ‘There’s a sight for sore eyes.’
It’s better, after that. After Serena shuts her in the office for ten minutes to refuel and catch her breath. They work together but not, split the patients between them and slog their way through the rest of the afternoon. And every time Bernie hears Serena’s voice, catches sight of her, she’s reminded of how the day will end and smiles to herself.
They practically fall into bed, immediately shift closer, share a tender kiss before Serena curls up and Bernie spoons around her, pressing as close as she can get, her nose in the soft skin of Serena’s neck. Serena clasps Bernie’s hand between her own, and Bernie feels the stress of the day drop away.
‘Better?’ Serena murmurs.
‘Much,’ Bernie sighs. ‘You?’
‘Mm.’ Serena lifts their hands and ghosts a kiss across Bernie’s knuckles. ‘I like knowing my day’s going to end like this. Makes everything else more manageable.’
‘Agreed,’ Bernie says, pressing a kiss just below Serena’s ear, enjoying her little sigh of pleasure. ‘Can- can every day end like this?’ she asks hesitantly.
‘Do you want it to?’
‘Well, sometimes I’d like to ravish you first,’ she clarifies, feeling the vibration of Serena’s chuckle against her. ‘But yes. Do you?’
‘Yes, my darling,’ Serena smiles. ‘A thousand times, yes.’
Chapter 6: ignite
It’s strange, but some days the very last thing Bernie needs is for Serena to touch her. Strange because normally Serena’s touch grounds her, centres her, balances her. Strange because she craves Serena’s touch, yearns for it, their bodies inexorably drawn to each other. But some days her nerve endings seem too numerous, too close to the surface, her skin flammable – and Serena is the spark that ignites her.
Today – just a normal, unremarkable Thursday – is one of those days. A press of their arms as they stand at a patient’s bedside she can manage, several layers of fabric between them to insulate her. But Serena’s hand on her elbow makes her tense, Serena’s fingers brushing hers make her heart begin to race, blood pounding in her ears, skin tingling, a thrill rushing through her body. She pulls her hand away, jams it into her pocket, turns sharply so neither Serena nor the patient can see the flush heating her cheeks.
She doesn’t see Serena’s concerned, puzzled expression as she hurries away.
Bernie avoids Serena for as much of the day as she can, until they’re forced into theatre together later. She’s been diligently working but at the back of her mind Serena has been a constant presence, and she can’t shake the persistent low hum of arousal.
You’re a grown woman, not a teenager, she berates herself time and again, but to no avail.
Bernie enters theatre after Serena to avoid the intimacy of scrubbing in together, takes her place opposite her without a word. She can feel Serena’s gaze on her, tries to ignore it and just get on with the job in hand. But then Serena says her name, a soft question, and Bernie can’t help looking up.
Serena’s frowning slightly – at least she is until her eyes meet Bernie’s and she sees how dark they are, how dilated her pupils, how glittering her irises.
‘Oh,’ she breathes, and forces herself to look away.
They don’t meet each other’s eye again, speak only when necessary, tension filling the room as they work. By some silent agreement they linger over the sink, taking far longer than usual to scrub out.
When everyone else has gone, in the brief lull between surgeries, they finally turn to each other. Bernie hasn’t allowed her gaze to linger, the luxury too dangerous when she’s like this. Now she sees that Serena’s cheeks are as flushed as hers feel, Serena’s eyes are as dark as her own must be.
She takes a step back, away from the window and towards the theatre they just left. Another, her gaze never leaving Serena’s. Her back is against the door when Serena finds herself able to move.
Inside, hidden from prying eyes, they reach for each other and kiss, kiss until they’re breathless and Bernie’s head spins and she’s certain it’s only the pressure of Serena’s body against her front and the wall against her back keeping her upright.
‘Dinner?’ Serena murmurs when they part for air, panting.
‘My place?’ She’s almost trembling with want, with the desperate, insatiable need for Serena. If there was ever a night to stay in her flat, to make use of the almost expired lease, tonight is it – for Bernie knows she can’t guarantee she’ll be quiet. Can’t guarantee she won’t make Serena moan, scream, cry out her name. In fact aims to do just that.
‘Okay,’ Serena says against her lips, as if she’s reading her mind. Another kiss, another, one more and then she steps back, steps away, fingers slipping against each other until distance forces them to drop.
Bernie runs through the contents of her fridge and cupboards: meagre but enough possibilities for a midnight feast, for once this other hunger has been satisfied. For Serena’s clearly just as desperate and wanting as she is, just as ravenous, and it reassures her.
They don’t touch for the rest of the day but when their eyes catch Bernie feels it, a fire spreading through her veins and heating her skin, every cell thrilling with anticipation.