For lack of a better option, Serena pours her nervous energy into making breakfast, rooting through the well stocked refrigerator and cabinets in the early morning quiet of the house.
When Elinor was young, Serena would always start the holidays like this; the two of them lingering over an extravagant meal in their pajamas, then cuddling up on the sofa to watch Christmas movies and nap.
That stopped as Elinor got older, as she had less and less interest in spending time with her mother, when she could be spending it with friends. They may not have the closest relationship, tension between them born of being far too alike for their own good, but it’s hard not to miss her daughter on days like this.
By the time the rest of the house stirs, the table is spread with all manner of food, a large pot of coffee steaming on the bench. Serena greets Sian’s other friends, people she’s become acquainted with over the years.
She’s careful to keep some distance between herself and Mark; the way he looks at her makes her wish she had on more than just a dressing gown over her silk pajamas.
Serena’s just sat down to tuck in when Bernie emerges, still looking a bit rumpled, her Holby City hoodie zipped up tight over her sleepwear. She looks like she’s just stepped out of the on-call room during a long shift, but the knowledge that she came from a bed they shared hits Serena square in the chest.
The memory of the warmth of Bernie’s slender body and the way they fitted together perfectly springs, unbidden, to the forefront of Serena’s mind; she has to look away, hides her flushed cheeks behind her coffee cup.
“Morning,” Bernie says softly, pulling out the chair beside Serena. It’s a tight fit around the table, Bernie’s thigh pressed close against her own. Butterflies fill her stomach and she instinctively makes to shift her seat, to move further away.
From the corner of her eye, she sees Sian watching them with a shrewd sort of consideration, and Serena remembers the ruse they’ve committed to.
“Good morning, darling,” she says, pushing down her nerves to slide her hand onto Bernie’s knee, leaning in to press a quick peck to her lips before pulling back to safety.
Bernie smiles a little awkwardly and quickly looks back to her breakfast, twin pink spots coloring her high cheekbones.
The chitchat moves on around them, Serena endeavoring to act like this is a perfectly normal day. But she’s hyper aware of Bernie pressed close, and Sian’s sharp eyes on them both.
Finally, she starts to relax as the conversation continues. Thinks maybe it all came off more natural than it felt, that maybe Sian hasn’t actually noticed anything odd and it’s all in Serena’s head.
And maybe Father Christmas is real.
“So, Serena.” Sian turns to her smoothly; her voice may be mild, but Serena knows Sian too well. “It’s been so long since we had a proper catch up. How did the two of you meet?”
The rest of the table falls silent, and she suddenly feels like a witness on the stand; takes a sip of coffee to buy herself a little time, to shift the dryness in her throat.
“Well, ah, it’s a funny story, actually.” She forces a wan smile. “You remember that terrible production of Les Mis Elinor was in? My car broke down at the hospital the day I was supposed to drive up, and I couldn’t get a tow. Next thing I know, this beautiful woman turns up with a fag hanging from her mouth and starts diagnosing the problem.” She risks a glance Bernie’s way, heart thrumming a bit at the soft smile she gets in return. “After that, I just had to get to know her.”
It’s the truth, though Serena’s never had the courage to say it so plainly.
She knows she’s been fascinated with Bernie from the start, felt an immediate pull that made her want to know everything about the other woman. Spending time with her, becoming her friend, has been like peeling back an onion layer by layer. Everything she’s found beneath Bernie’s stoic military exterior has only served to cement her place in Serena’s life, to strengthen the undefinable pull Serena feels toward her.
She can only hope that Bernie feels the same.
“Never thought I’d see the day that Serena Campbell tried it on with a woman,” Sian says, studying them over the rim of her cup. “I’ll admit, I’m surprised you had the gumption to make a move.”
“That was me, I’m afraid.” Bernie cuts in before Serena has a chance to formulate a response. “We had a hard day. One of our colleagues was injured, and I was feeling sorry for myself. Serena was so kind and so beautiful. Couldn’t help myself, I just had to kiss her.”
Serena swallows hard, blushing to the roots of her hair. She remembers vividly sitting on the theater floor, sad and exhausted and desperate to make Bernie feel better. A part of her wonders what would’ve happened if Bernie kissed her then, if she’d wanted to, and a nervous sort of thrill runs through her, makes her stomach tight.
Serena pulls herself from her reverie to find the conversation has moved on to some bawdy anecdote about a swingers’ cruise Sian went on.
She pokes at her food, pretends to laugh, but all she can focus on is every single millimeter that’s in contact with Bernie.The intensity of it all is a little overwhelming, makes her jittery and unsure.
As soon as the last plate is empty she jumps up to help clear, to gain a little distance.
The rest of the morning is quiet, everyone milling about the house, chatting in small groups, reading by the fire. Serena ducks away to take a shower, spends more time than normal under the almost too hot water, face turned up into the spray. She tries to compartmentalize all the thoughts swirling in her head, the memory of this morning. Thinks that maybe, if she pushes it down far enough, she can survive this weekend, deal with it all - whatever it is - when she gets back home.
But Bernie is there in the room when she gets out of the shower and all of Serena’s careful reserve dissipates like the cloud of steam surrounding her.
Bernie stands frozen, a shirt clutched in her hand, a bit poleaxed, as their eyes meet.
Serena can’t help but notice the way those dark eyes keep flicking down over her; she holds the fluffy towel wrapped around her chest a little tighter. Hopes the residual warmth from the shower masks the flush she feels rising on her skin.
“It’s, ah, it’s all yours,” she finally manages. The words seem to shock Bernie into movement, and she mutters something like an apology as she gathers the rest of her things.
Serena sucks in her breath a bit as they cross paths for Bernie to get to the ensuite, tries to shrink herself and make sure they don’t accidentally touch with only a bit of terrycloth between them.
The moment the door closes, she drops her towel and dresses as quickly as possible. Knows she can’t stay there listening to Bernie shower, imagining what’s on the other side of that door, and flees.
The kitchen is blessedly empty as she sets to making a cup of tea, clicking on the kettle as she grabs an oversized mug from the cupboard. She’s half bent over, retrieving the milk from where it’s been shoved to the back of the refrigerator, when she hears a low whistle behind her, one that raises her hackles.
She straightens slowly.
“Well, hello there.” She forces herself not to acknowledge Mark, doesn’t even glance his way, just goes back to her tea preparations. “Aw, don’t be like that, I didn’t mean any harm. Think you could make me a cuppa while you’re at it?”
Serena’s instinct is to tell Mark exactly where he can shove his cuppa, but she holds back, doesn’t want to make a fuss during Sian’s party. So instead she pulls down a second mug, taps a finger on the marble countertop as she waits for the water to boil.
“So I have to ask,’ Mark starts, leaning against the sink, placing her within arms reach, now. “Was Eddie really that bad?”
She blinks a bit, not quite sure what he means. “Excuse me?”
“You know,” Mark drawls, leaning in close enough that Serena can smell his horrid cologne. “Edward. I know he can be a right git, but I can’t believe that he’s so bad in the sack he turned the missus to the other team.”
Embarrassment climbs up the back of Serena’s neck, hot and sickening. She turns to face Mark, eyes narrowed.
“I assure you, Edward has absolutely no bearing on my life, or my decisions,” she says. “And my love life is none of your business.”
Mark raises his hands defensively, smirk still firmly in place. “All right, all right. We’re all friends here. Besides, it’s easy to see why you chose her.”
“Is it?” Serena’s voice is a little high, the thought that even bloody Mark Lewis can see right through her a new depth of mortification.
“‘Course. I mean, Bernie’s right fit, but she’s not traditionally pretty, is she? Must make it easier for you to pretend she’s the man in the relationship.”
Indignant fury boils in her chest. She slams the mug down on the counter with a sharp crack.
Mark’s eyes go wide.
“Is that what you think? One of has to be ‘the man’ to get the other off, that neither of us can be satisfied without one?” she sneers, silky and dangerous. Mark’s eyes dart around the room, desperate for an escape. “Well let me assure you, Mark. Bernie Wolfe is all woman, and a gorgeous one at that.” She takes a step into his personal space, forcing him back, feels a little thrill of satisfaction at the way cowers. “And even if she weren’t, she’d still be twice the man you are.”
She spins sharply on her heel and almost runs head first into Bernie, lingering in the doorway. Her hair is still damp, framing her face, her eyes wide with every word she just heard.
Anxiety claws at Serena, trapped between Bernie’s dark, all too knowing eyes, and Mark’s salacious intimations.
“I-, I need some air,” she manages hoarsely. Pushing past Bernie before she can reply, Serena rushes out the back door.
The cold is a welcome respite, a shock to her overheated system. She clutches her cardigan across her body, shivers as she steps further out onto the patio.
A slow deep breath, then another, and the uneven hammering of her heart finally starts to slow. She feels out of control, her emotions running rampant without apparent cause.
Bernie’s her friend, she reminds herself firmly. She’s objectively a beautiful woman. Serena has never been shy about complimenting her friends, prides herself on her reputation as an incorrigible flirt. Saying it to Bernie, even pretending to be in a relationship with her, should be as easy for Serena as breathing.
Then why does this feel so much more dangerous?
The door creaks open behind her, soft steps padding across the patio, and Serena knows it’s Bernie, always somehow attuned to her presence. She smiles as her red woolen coat is draped carefully across her shoulders, and even through the thick fabric she feels Bernie’s hands rest there for just a moment.
“Are you ok?”
Serena just hums, settles the coat a little more closely around her, thinks she catches a hint of Bernie’s perfume on the collar.
“I could go back in and beat the tar out of him, if you like.” She feels Bernie shuffle closer, jostling her a bit with her shoulder. “One of my commanders taught me a joint lock that would have him crying for his mother.”
Serena barks out a laugh, instinctively settles herself a little nearer, their arms pressed flush.
“As enjoyable as that would be to watch, I can promise you that man isn’t worth your trouble.”
She thinks she hears Bernie mutter something that sounds suspiciously like “wanker” as she taps a cigarette out of the pack. A click and the acrid tang of smoke blooms, quickly whipped away. Serena glances over, watches as Bernie’s lips purse around the end of the filter, the stream of smoke she blows out, careful to tilt her head away from Serena
She tears her eyes away before she can get too lost in the strong, elegant lines of Bernie’s profile, but it’s still all she can see as she stares out at the forest behind the house, like an afterimage from looking too long at the sun.
“It’s been a long time since someone defended me like that.” Bernie’s words are soft, almost as if she doesn’t realize she’s spoken them out loud. “Or called me ‘gorgeous’ for that matter.”
She shoots a furtive glance Serena’s way, a hint of a smile playing about her thin lips; Serena catches it in the corner of her eye, shoots one right back.
“I said I’d have your back, didn’t I?”
Bernie gives her one of those soft, tiny smiles, the ones that Serena secretly thinks of as just for her. They stand in companionable silence, shoulders touching, and it’s easy to imagine that they’re the only people in the world.
“You are, you know,” Serena says, turning to face Bernie at last.
A breeze snakes between them, whipping strands of cornsilk hair across Bernie’s face, and she reaches up without thinking. Brushes them back into place, tucks them securely behind Bernie’s ear, fingers resting lightly against the thrumming pulse point of Bernie’s jaw.
“Are what?” Bernie asks softly, her voice tight and strange.
Serena’s eyes drop to Bernie’s lips, the pink flash of tongue making her shiver.
“Gorgeous,” she says softly, thumb brushing absently against Bernie’s cheek, finally looking up again, into Bernie’s eyes.
The intensity she finds there rips right through her.
"There you are!" They practically leap apart as the door bangs open, Sian poking her head out. "We have to get going or we'll be late. You two can snog later."
Serena's heart hammers against her ribs like she's just run a mile. She smiles wanly at Bernie, feels a prick of shame when she won't meet Serena's eyes.
"Come on," she says, trying to muster some sense of normalcy. "Sian takes a schedule even more seriously than I do, and believe me, you don't want to get on her bad side."
Back in the house, everyone is packed into the front hall, a jumble of conversation and laughter as the wrap themselves in coats and mufflers. Serena weaves through the throng, manages to snag her fluffy fur hat on the way out the door.
Sian's booked a car for today's outing, a giant people carrier large enough for them all. Serena hangs back in an attempt to avoid sitting next to Mark, finds when she pokes her head in the only space left is next to Bernie.
It's a close fit with all of Sian's guests, and there's no way to avoid being plastered to Bernie's side, every inch of their bodies in contact from shoulder to calf. There's enough conversation swirling around them that Serena is able to just look out the window, to try and order the tangle of her thoughts.
Why did you tell her she's 'gorgeous'? she thinks irritably, a fresh wave of embarrassment pinking her cheeks. She's just lonely, she argues to herself. It's been too long since she had someone in her life, and her hormones are mistaking friendship and kindness for something else.
She needs to put a pin in it. Bad enough that Bernie's been shanghied into this pretend relationship, the last thing she needs is Serena making more of this than there is.
She’s just a friend, she reminds herself firmly. Besides, Bernie would never be interested in me like that. It’s enough to push back the other little voice, the one that's telling her to hold onto Bernie and never let go.
They come to a stop and everyone piles out, the crisp air a welcome relief after the stuffy interior of the car. Sian chivvies them all down the path toward a quaint little building.
"Dare I ask what exactly we're doing?"
Serena starts at the words, finds Bernie right beside her, shoulders brushing lightly like they were in the halls of AAU.
"Sian always likes to do an outing at these things. Says it's part of 'getting into the holiday spirit.'" She rolls her eyes dramatically, smiles a little at Bernie's dry chuckle. "This year she chose this."
The hill they crest drops away into a basin of ice, the sun sparkling and flashing off the surface of the frozen pond like diamonds. A few people are out on the ice, gliding over the surface in ones and twos, and as they watch they start to clear. Apparently Sian was able to reserve a private session for their group.
The building is manned by a bored looking teenager, taking sizes and handing back identical pairs of ice skates to each person. When Serena reaches the head of the queue, she requests her size, fingers tapping on the wooden counter as she waits, and she realizes that Bernie is no longer beside her.
Looking over her shoulder with a frown, she finds Bernie tucked off to the side away from the building, puffing a cigarette and seemingly hoping to blend into the scenery.
"Do you want me to get a pair for you?" she asks, stepping away from the counter for a moment. Bernie's eyes widen a bit, and she develops a sudden intense interest in something somewhere beyond Serena's left shoulder.
"Oh, no, ah. No, thank you." She forces a smile that only makes her look ill. "You go on ahead. I'll just watch."
She's clearly trying to act casual, but it comes off as so patently false that Serena nearly laughs.
"Not much for skating, I take it?"
Twin spots of pink brighten Bernie's cheeks, her eyes dropping to her feet where they scuff a bit in the dirt. She says something, the wind whipping the words away before Serena can make them out.
"What was that?"
"I don't know how to ice skate." Bernie's voice is tight, embarrassment writ large on her features as she glances to Serena, then away again. "I never learned how."
"Really?" Serena can't keep the incredulity from her voice, feels bad when Bernie's shoulders hunch even higher toward her ears. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that," she cajoles, reaching out a bit. "I'm just surprised."
Bernie shrugs, takes another long drag off her cigarette. "I have two older brothers," she says, as if that explains it all. "Plus we were always moving when my father got transferred to different bases. It just never came up."
It strikes Serena that for all of their closeness, there's so much she still doesn't know about Bernie. About her life before Holby, before Afghanistan. Feels a twinge of guilt that she hasn't pressed for more, tempered by the realization of how much even this small peak into Bernie's past means.
She resolves, then and there, to be the person that Bernie can open up to, if she wants. It’s the least she can do, after all the support Bernie's given her.
"Well then. No time like the present." She tucks her arm in the crook of Bernie's elbow, pulling her forward even as she starts to stammer a protest. "Oh come now, Major. It's just a little ice, nothing to be afraid of. I'll hold your hand the whole time."
Bernie finally relents with a huff, gives her shoe size to the clerk. "If I break something, it's on you," she grouses, eyeing the skates suspiciously.
"I won't let you fall," Serena says. "I promise."
Most of the others in the group are already out on the ice by the time they get their skates sorted, street shoes tucked beneath one of the benches that line the smooth pond. Serena pushes out onto the ice while Bernie struggles with her laces, reacquaints herself with the grip and slide of the ice beneath her blades, the breeze fluttering through the fur of her hat.
Ice skating was her favorite part of the holiday season as a child, after presents, of course. As soon as the weather turned cold, Adrienne would bundle Serena up in warm clothes, her beloved red wool coat with its fur-lined hood. They’d walk as a family down to the rink put up by the village every year, Serena in the middle between her parents, holding both their hands.
Once there, Serena would stay on the ice all day if she could, carving figure eights into the surface of the ice, finding a wild sort of freedom in the speed, the flow of it. Adrienne preferred to sit to the side, sipping at a steaming cup of mulled wine, but inevitably George would coax her out onto the ice, the two of them skating slow circles hand in hand. After a few laps, they’d catch up to Serena, catching her between them, and as a family they would glide across the ice until the sun was long since set.
Adrienne stopped going to the skating rink after Serena’s father died, said she never really liked it anyway, though the haunted sorrow in her eyes told a different story. That first year Serena walked to the rink by herself, laced up her skates and made her way onto the ice. There was no freedom to be found, no soothing gained from the rhythmic shh shh of her skates. Just an empty ache in her heart, and tears that froze on her cheeks.
Serena hasn’t skated on her own since that Christmas, hasn’t worn a pair at all since Elinor was young, and she’s pleasantly surprised at how quickly it comes back to her, long dormant muscle memory taking over.
She skids to a stop in front of Bernie, digging her toe pick into the ice so she doesn’t tumble into Bernie’s lap. Something like pride bubbles up in her chest at the way Bernie is looking at her, eyes wide with evident surprise and respect, warms her right through.
“Ready?” she asks, holding out a gloved hand. Bernie eyes it sceptically for a moment, then slides her hand against Serena’s, her grip firm, their palms a perfect fit.
Serena pushes back slightly, just enough to pull Bernie to standing, has to bite back a laugh at the way Bernie throws an arm out to catch her balance, grips even tighter at Serena’s hand. She looks like a newborn colt, more legs than coordination, and the contrast to her normal self-assured elegance borders on the absurd. Once her feet are settled on the ice, a modicum of balance achieved, Serena takes her other hand, ducks her head a bit to catch her eye.
“Now, we’re going to go slow. Just slide one foot in front of the other, and I’ll do the rest, ok?” Bernie nods jerkily, eyes dropping back to her skates as she wobbles. “Keep your eyes on me,” Serena warns.
With a reassuring squeeze of the hand, she glances over her shoulder, then glides backward out onto the ice.
The make their way to a sparsely populated end of the pond, away from where Mark is loudly telling stories about his time as an ice hockey player and showing off for the ladies. Serena keeps her movements smooth, her grip firm, as she guides Bernie, encouraging her to push off with her feet, praising when she keeps her balance.
For all her doubt, Bernie picks it up rather easily. Before long Serena picks up speed, leans a bit more into the turns, and Bernie matches Serena’s movements cleanly, the two of them as in sync in this as they are in theater.
“Ready to try a bit on your own?” Serena asks as they turn the corner, smiles at the flash of panic in Bernie’s eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right here. I’ve got your back, remember?”
Slowly, Serena releases one of Bernie’s hands, changing direction to skate beside her, the fingers of their other hands still tangled together. Bernie wobbles a moment, thrown off by the shift in momentum, but she doesn’t fall. Instead she finds her balance, pushes with those long legs, and is off like a shot, Serena laughing with effort of keeping up.
Round and round they circumnavigate the little pond, the cold air pinking their cheeks, whipping away the clouds of their breath as they pick up speed. Bernie’s golden hair unfurls behind her like a pennant, and she looks like Nike incarnate, delight sparkling in her eyes and tugging at her lips.
She’s never seen Bernie this happy, this free. She’s so beautiful that Serena can’t look away, wishes she could see Bernie like this every day for the rest of her life.
Bernie glances Serena’s way and their eyes catch and hold. Her expression softens into a tenderness that makes Serena’s heart leap into her throat. She feels Bernie’s fingers squeeze a bit against her own, the tether between them thrumming as if plucked.
Serena hears the shout just in time, whips her head around, finds them on a collision course with one of the other couples. Instinctively, she changes direction, twists her body to the side, pulling hard at Bernie’s hand to drag her out of harm’s way, and they manage to just miss the startled pair.
But the sudden movement is too much for Bernie’s fledgling skills. Her arm windmills in the air, skates skidding out from beneath her. Serena’s mind fills with images of broken bones, the sickening crack of a skull impacting on unforgiving ice.
With a grunt of effort, Serena counterbalances Bernie’s sprawl, and instead of crashing into the ice, they fall into a blessedly soft bank of snow in a tangle of limbs. The impact drives the air from Serena’s lungs, icy snow stinging at her eyes as she struggled to refill her aching chest.
“Serena? Are you all right?”
She manages to blink the water away, vision clearing. Blushes right to her perfectly dyed roots when she realizes the weight on her chest is Bernie. She tries to shift, freezes when she realizes Bernie’s slim hips are practically cradled between her thighs, pelvises pressed together.
“Serena!” The edge of panic in Bernie’s voice cuts through the fog around Serena’s brain.
“I’m fine.” Bernie ignores her, using gentle fingers to open her eyelids, peering at her for signs of head injury. Serena tries to pull away, hands pushing lightly at Bernie’s shoulders. “I’m fine!”
Bernie slumps, sighing with relief, but doesn’t pull her hands away. Her thumbs brush lightly against the wind chapped skin of Serena’s cheek, eyes flitting all over, as if trying to reassure herself that Serena’s really ok. They pause on Serena’s mouth, and Serena finds herself doing the same. Heat blossoms inside her at the realization of just of how close Bernie is. She can feel Bernie’s warm breath buffet her lips, is painfully aware of the oh so feminine curves that fit against her like they were made to be there. Knows that if she were to incline her head just a bit…
“You just couldn’t wait until we got back, could you?”
Over Bernie’s shoulder, Serena can Sian’s bright blonde hair, her quirked eyebrow. She feels Bernie go rigid against her, then shift back, cold air rushing to chase away the warmth between their bodies.
It’s a bit of a trick in skates, but after a few false starts, they both make it to standing, shoulders brushing a bit as they follow the other back to the entrance. Bernie’s quiet as they take off their skates, keeps her silence as they walk back toward the hired car. At the edge of her vision, Serena thinks she sees Bernie glancing her way; furtive, always looking the other way by the time Serena can turn her head. Anxiety knots her stomach, her mind spinning out worst case scenarios, fears that Bernie somehow knows the thoughts that have been plaguing Serena, that wanting too much will drive Bernie away.
Tucked away once again in the back of the car, Serena’s thoughts are a dark miasma around her, muffling the laughter and chatter.
“Must be serious.”
Serena blinks, finds Bernie looking intently at her.
“Whatever it is you’re thinking about.” Her tone is light, but Serena can see the genuine concern in Bernie’s dark eyes. “You’ve got those little lines.” She reaches up carefully, brushes a fingertip against the creases between Serena’s brows, light as a butterfly wing.
Serena’s pulse thrums loud in her ears.
“It’s nothing, just the holidays make me a bit mauldin,” she says, forcing a smile. It’s close enough to the truth, anyway.
Bernie hums soft understanding. A moment later, Serena feels the brush of a finger against her hand. Another, more purposeful, tracing a line from her knuckle to her fingertip. Eyes still trained on the landscape, Serena swallows hard and summons her courage. Slowly turns her hand over, palm up and open, empty. The space of a few heartbeats passes, and long, slender fingers slot between her own.
Bernie’s hand is a warm, solid weight in hers the whole way home.