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now I need someone to hold, be my fire in the cold

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Serena slaps her phone face down on her desk with a huff, loud enough that Bernie looks up sharply, brow furrowed.

"Everything all right?"

"I was just confirming Christmas plans with Elinor." Her mouth twists. "Apparently her father and his child bride invited her to spend the holiday with them, skiing in Switzerland, and holiday dinner with her mother doesn't exactly compete."

She blinks hard up at the ceiling, refusing to let the tears she can feel prickling behind her eyelids fall.

"I'm sorry,” Bernie says softly. “And here I thought I was the only one whose children were avoiding her at Christmas."

Her voice is light, but Serena can hear the hurt beneath the words, smiles understandingly.

"They still haven't come round then?"

"No." Bernie leans back in her chair, eyes trained on her hands. "I can't exactly blame them. My one bedroom is hardly the most festive place to pass the holiday." She glances up, fringe falling across her eyes, with a sad little smile that makes Serena's heart stutter a bit.

That's been happening more and more, recently. A thin lipped smile, or a glance from those big brown eyes, and Serena's heart hammers in her chest, her stomach churning with butterflies. She doesn't quite know what to make of it all, and for the hundredth time she pushes the feelings firmly down. 

She scrolls through her phone, taking a moment to get some distance; sees a thread from the previous evening, sighs heavily.

"I suppose I'll just end up going to Sian's." Bernie raises an inquisitive eyebrow. "My friend hosts for all the misfits every year. Rents a cottage somewhere, stocks it with too much booze and lonely adults."

Bernie hums a bit with a soft smile. 

"Sounds nice, being with friends like that." She sounds so wistful, Serena finds herself wanting more than anything to ease Bernie's apparent loneliness.

"You could come with." Bernie's eyes widen in surprise, and Serena feels heat creeping up the back of her neck. "Sian always has plenty of space, and it, well. It would be nice to have you-, to have a friend there."

She holds her breath a moment, unaccountably afraid that she's stepped over some invisible line, asked too much of their friendship.

"I'd like that." 

The butterflies return with Bernie's small, genuine smile.

 

❄ ❄ ❄

 

The cottage Sian rented is a few hours outside Holby, though traffic makes it longer. They leave straight after a shift that’s longer than some, but thankfully not as bad as it could’ve been, and they walk out into the too early dark with sandwiches, and fresh cups of coffee steaming in their hands. Serena insists on driving, refuses to fold herself into Bernie's car for that long.

Luckily the weather is dry, and Serena finds herself humming along to the radio as she drives, fingers tapping out the beats against the steering wheel, finds it helps keep her alert. Bernie starts to guess who's singing, each suggestion more outrageous than the last, until Serena's cheeks ache with laughter.

She knows Bernie is winding her up; even she can't possibly think that David Bowie is Engelbert Humperdinck, but she doesn't care. Can't be anything but grateful to spend this time with her friend.

It’s late by the time they pull up to the house, only a few other cars on the road. Bernie doesn't even stir when Serena puts the car in park and turns off the engine, keeps dozing away in the passenger's seat. 

She looks different asleep, Serena thinks. Not different, exactly, just so much more peaceful. Bernie is a woman of action, always in motion, fully engaged even when sitting still. Sleep smooths the lines of her face, makes her look younger, and Serena wonders what it would've been like to know a young Bernie Wolfe.

Serena reaches across the console, gently jostling Bernie's knee.

"Bernie," she says softly. "We're here."

Bernie's brow beetles a bit, eyes blinking open a little blearily. She rolls her head toward Serena, a sleepy smile tugging at her lips.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to fall asleep." Her voice is a little gravelly, and Serena's stomach does a funny flip.

"I know how many shifts you've been working," Serena says. "It's a miracle you stayed awake as long as you did."

Bernie just hums, shifting a bit in her seat. With a start, Serena realizes her hand is still resting on Bernie's thigh, can feel the warmth of her through the denim. She jerks her hand back, unaccountably flustered, fumbles a bit with the door handle.

"We'd better get inside."

It's cooler here, air crisp and close enough to the sea to carry a faint tang of salt, and Serena shivers a bit as she steps out of the car. She grabs her carryall from the back, walks around the car just as Bernie stretches her arms straight above her head, back arched, shoulders popping and cracking. Her jumper rides up a bit, a sliver of pale skin visible above the waist of her jeans. 

Serena flushes, turns away quickly to pull their luggage from the boot.

She’s barely finished knocking when the door swings open, spilling warm light out into the darkness.

“Rena, darling!” Sian pulls her into a tight hug, and Serena squeezes back just as strong. They may not get to spend much time together, between the demands of both their careers, but Sian has been one of the few constants in Serena’s life, there for her in good times and bad.

She pulls back with a grin, hands still firm on Serena’s shoulders, when her gaze slides away, registering the extra guest with an interested quirk of the eyebrow. 

“Well! If this isn’t the most attractive Bernie I’ve ever seen.” Sian reaches past Serena, takes Bernie’s hand in both of hers. “You know, when Serena started talking about you, I thought you were some bloke she was hoping to shag.”

Sian laughs like she’s said the funniest thing in the world, hands still holding Bernie’s, who’s shifting awkwardly, bright spots of pink showing high on her cheeks. Something unpleasant swirls in Serena’s stomach, makes her want to bat Sian’s hands away, to step between her and Bernie, though she doesn’t know why. 

“Come inside, you two.” They’re bustled through the door, into a spacious entryway. “Bernie, you’ll be upstairs. And Serena, I have you on the ground floor.” Mischief sparkles in Sian’s eyes, elevating Serena’s dread. “Now, wait right here. I have someone I want you to meet.”

And just like that, she disappears down the long hall, in through one of the doorways. Serena glances Bernie’s direction, shoots her a wan smile. 

“Sorry about her,” she says. “Sian can be a little full on, but she’s harmless enough.”

“Must keep things interesting, though,” Bernie says, lifting a shoulder in an awkward sort of shrug. 

She still looks uncomfortable, out of place, and the desire to soothe her in some way rises strong in Serena, has her reaching out to lightly grip Bernie’s elbow without thinking, thumb rubbing softly against the fine wool of her jumper. 

Before she can say anything, they hear voices from down the long hall, followed by a distinctive, wheezing sort of man’s laugh. It all Serena can do not to groan aloud as dread washes over her. 

It must show on her face, because Bernie’s brow furrows in concern.

“What’s wrong?”

“That laugh,” Serena hisses under her breath. “That’s Mark Lewis. He was a friend of Edward’s. It couldn’t have been ten minutes after I filed for divorce that he offered his ‘services’. Said it would be a shame for a woman like me to be all alone.” She shudders at the memory of his oily smile and distasteful implications. 

Bernie’s eyes harden, her posture pulling up a little straighter as she looks toward the approaching voices.

“He’s been trying to get me into bed anytime we’ve been at the same conference for years,” Serena says. “And now I get to spend the holiday dodging his grubby hands? Oh, I could kill Sian.

Serena’s mind races, trying to think of a way out. She knows Sian would never let her hear the end of it if she just left, but it might be worth the trouble to avoid bloody Mark Lewis’s wandering hands. If only she’d known in advance, she’d have concocted a significant other. Some handsome gentleman with a busy schedule that Sian had never heard of, but it’s far too late for that now

She drops her head back in frustration, weighing which would be the lesser of two evils, when her eyes fall on a sprig of green hanging from the light, dotted with white berries. Like a bolt from the blue, a mad idea crystallizes in her mind.

“Bernie,” she whispers, gripping tight with the hand she hadn’t even realized was still at Bernie’s elbow. “Do you trust me?”

“Always.” Bernie’s eyes show confusion, but her answer is certain, buoys Serena with a flush of warmth.

Just as Sian and Mark turn the corner, Serena curls a hand behind Bernie’s neck and pulls her down into a kiss, muffles her surprised mmpf with her own lips. 

There’s a moment of hesitation, Bernie rigid and unmoving, and then she’s kissing her back. 

It was meant to be just a little thing, just for show; that intention gets lost somewhat, as the kiss deepens. Bernie’s thin lips are so inviting, soft and warm, and Serena finds herself chasing the lingering taste of coffee there.

In fact, everything about Bernie is soft; the curves of her body fit against Serena like they were made for one another. She’s vaguely aware of the strong slender arm that’s curled around her waist, holding her close. Her fingers slip into the silky blonde curls at the nape of Bernie’s neck and oh , it feels even better than Serena imagined (not that she’s imagined it, of course). 

She feels what might be a moan vibrate from her lips right down to her toes.

A throat clears loudly behind them, and they spring apart, both wide eyed and breathless. Bernie’s flushs red right to the roots of her hair, and Serena can feel her own face burning. Swallowing hard, she glances back over her shoulder.

“Serena Campbell, you dark horse.” Sian’s voice is light, but Serena can see the sharp calculation in her friend’s gaze, thinks she hasn’t entirely pulled the wool over her eyes. Beside her, Mark glowers sullenly, like a little boy whose toys have been taken away.

With a start, Serena realizes that she and Bernie are still pressed together from hip to knee. She goes to take a step back, but Bernie’s arm tightens keeping her in place. Serena glances up, a question in her eyes, and Bernie drops a quick conspiratorial wink. 

“Sorry.” Serena’s voice is unexpectedly rough. She clears her throat a bit. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you.”

Sian just hums in response, and a tendril of worry curls through Serena. Maybe she’s gotten in a bit over her head. 

“This does simplify things. I was going to have Mark take the pullout, but now he can have Bernie’s room and you two can share,” Sian says smoothly, raising an eyebrow in Serena’s direction. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Of- of course not,” Serena replies, hopes her smile doesn’t look too strained. 

The room Sian directs them to is tucked away at the back of the house. She points out the ensuite, where the towels are kept, but Serena’s gaze keeps sliding back to the cozy looking bed that dominates the center of the room, stomach flipping and rolling each time she thinks of sliding under the fluffy duvet with Bernie. 

“Help yourself to anything you like in the kitchen,” Sian says, hand resting on the door handle. “My house is your house. Sleep well.”

And just like that she’s gone.

The atmosphere in the room is almost suffocating, now it’s just the two of them, alone. Thesudden realization of what she’s gotten Bernie into washes over Serena, guilt following fast in its wake.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, not quite able to meet Bernie’s eyes. “For dragging you into all this. For, for kissing you. I didn’t mean- I mean, I thought-” She huffs in annoyance at herself, hands flapping a bit aimlessly. ”I just wanted you to have a nice holiday.”

“Never abandons fellow soldier in the field.” Bernie shrugs, hands shoved deep into her pockets. “We’re a team, aren’t we?” She peers at Serena from under her messy fringe, with that hint of a smile that always takes Serena’s breath away. ”I’ve got your back.”

Serena just smiles, doesn’t trust herself to speak past the sudden lump of emotion in her throat. 

They don’t talk much as they get organized. Serena puts her carefully folded clothes in drawers and on hangers, as Bernie rummages in her duffle, tugging out night clothes and a toiletry bag before disappearing into the bathroom. When she returns, she’s changed into a vest top and pair of scrub bottoms it appears she’s nicked from Keller. The color sets off all the pale skin on show, draws Serena’s eyes to the smattering of moles and freckles, the defined muscles in Bernie’s arms. 

Unaccountably flustered, she grabs her pajamas and her toothbrush, ducks into the ensuite before she can do something else foolish.

She braces her arms on the edge of the counter, stares at herself in the mirror. Her eyes look a little wild, pupils wide, heart hammering in her chest. She doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. It was just a meaningless kiss, a bit of theater. And this is hardly the first time she’s shared a bed with a female friend.

That doesn’t keep her hands from trembling a bit as she changes into her silky pajamas, her mind wandering to the feel of Bernie’s mouth against hers as she takes off her makeup and brushes her teeth. She even finds herself fluffing her hair in the mirror, making sure it looks just right, has to force her hand away.

“Stop being ridiculous,” she mutters at her own reflection, before turning out the light.

Bernie already tucked up on the far side of the bed, covers pulled up to her chest, blonde hair fanned across the pillow; Serena’s heart does that flutter again, wonders if she should stop up to Darwin when they get back.

“I didn’t know what side you preferred,” Bernie says when Serena’s stood there too long, moving to sit up. “We can switch, if you like.”

Serena throws a hand out to stop her. “No, Bernie. Stay. This is perfect.”

She lifts the duvet as Bernie settles back, slipping into the bed. The sheets are already a bit warm from Bernie’s body, and the thought makes Serena flush. She quickly reaches over to click off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness, and settles as close as she can manage to the edge of the bed. 

“Serena?” Bernie sounds halfway to sleep all ready. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“Sleep well.”

Serena can feel the bed shift as Bernie rolls onto her side, finds herself straining to hear her soft, rhythmic breathing. 

Sleep is a long time coming.

 

❄ ❄ ❄

 

It feels like too few hours have passed when Serena slowly wakes. She can tell instinctively that it’s still early, even by her own standards, doesn’t know what disturbed her when the bed is cozy and she’s so deliciously warm. She wills her mind to sink back into sleep without opening her eyes, snuggles a little deeper into the downy pillow. 

Something brushes against her nose.

Serena twitches, frowning, thinks she’s probably just imagined it in her half awake state.

And then it happens again.

It feels like a feather, or fur. Maybe there’s a cat? she thinks as she tries to pull back, only to find she can’t move far. Her mind wakes the last little bit, and it all clicks into place. 

She freezes, heart pounding

Because she and Bernie migrated to the center of the bed, limbs tangling together during the night, and there’s hardly a whisper of space between them: Serena pressed tight against Bernie’s back, an arm settled in the dip of her waist, a foot wedged between her calves. She can feel soft bare skin against her ankle, thinks the leg of Bernie’s scrubs must’ve ridden up in the night. 

What she’d taken for a cat turns out to be a particularly sprightly lock of Bernie’s hair, waving with each puff of Serena’s breath against the nape of Bernie’s neck. 

Nervous adrenaline floods her system, and Serena just barely stops herself from bolting. Holding her breath, she sets about carefully extricating herself from the mortifying position, desperate to not disturb Bernie or touch anything else she shouldn’t. 

Bernie murmurs, snuffling a little, but doesn’t wake; just snuggles deeper into the bed as Serena finally eases her arm free.

Heart beating like a frightened sparrow, Serena grabs her dressing gown and flees. 

 

Chapter Text

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.

“Careful!”

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.

“What is?”

“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.

Chapter Text

This time, when Serena wakes, there are no golden strands tickling her nose. Just a steady warmth at her back and a weight across her waist as she blinks the sleep from her eyes.

Bernie’s breath is even and soft against her neck, each exhale ruffling the fine hair at her nape.

She knows she should pull away, that Bernie would be horrified if she knew she’d curled so tightly around Serena in her sleep. But being wrapped in Bernie’s strong, slender arms feels so nice, so safe.

The last thing she wants to do is leave.

Instead she lets herself drift, eyes half closed, unconsciously matching Bernie’s breathing with her own. It’s easy to imagine a morning like this in her own comfortable bed, Bernie’s warm body making it hard to bear the thought of leaving, and she’s distantly amazed at how very right it feels.

Behind her, Bernie stirs, mutters something unintelligible and splays her hand flat across Serena’s stomach, pulling her in that much closer. Serena holds her breath, holds her limbs still, desperate not to wake Bernie.

Another snuffle comes near her ear, Bernie’s lips glancing against her skin, making her shiver. Then Bernie’s hand moves again, comes up to softly cover Serena’s breast.

Desire floods Serena, thick and hot. It’s all she can do to keep herself from grinding back into Bernie, encouraging her touch.

The feeling is quickly chased by a stab of confused guilt. Bernie is her friend, has no idea what she’s doing in her sleep; Serena’s throat tightens at the thought of taking advantage, the idea that she might want to.

She reaches down, gently curls her fingers around Bernie’s wrist. Moves the wandering hand to rest on the bed. Bernie jerks a bit, snuffles some more, and Serena shuffles forward, putting some space between them.

Bernie rolls away, onto her back, and Serena can’t help sighing with relief.

“Morning,” Bernie says, soon enough, her voice low and rough with sleep.

It plucks at the lingering thread of arousal in Serena’s veins, and she pushes the feeling away as she rolls to face Bernie, smiles fondly at her sleepy eyes, the bird’s nest of hair.

“Happy Christmas,” she says softly.

Bernie’s face slips into an unguarded grin that makes Serena’s heart stutter a bit.

“Happy Christmas,” she replies, before a massive yawn stretches her jaw wide. She buries her face back into her pillow. Asks, words muffled, “What exactly was in that hot cocoa last night?”

“Whiskey for sure, and some Kahlua.” She chuckles a bit at Bernie’s groan. “Though I think Sian was getting a little creative with the recipe towards the end.”

“That woman is evil.” Bernie turns her head just enough to peer at Serena, furrowing her brow like a disgruntled golden retriever. “I don’t suppose we could just have a lie in today?”

“I’m afraid not, darling.” It feels so natural, Serena doesn’t even realize what she’s said. Nor does she stop herself from brushing a strand of hair from across Bernie’s pillow creased face, tucking it back behind her ear. “If we stay in bed much longer, we’ll never hear the end of it.”

Something suspiciously close to a pout crosses Bernie’s face, and she tugs her pillow over her head with a “hmpf.”

Serena chuckles softly as she slips from the bed, surveys the recalcitrant lump for a moment, a mischievous grin tugging at her lips as she reaches down to grip the duvet. Pulls, hard, whipping the fabric from the bed, baring Bernie to the chill air of the bedroom.

She rushes away, laughing all the way to the shower, Bernie’s indignant curses echoing in her wake.

Things change when they join the others. Serena’s not sure why, exactly, but it’s suddenly so easy to grasp Bernie’s hand, to lean against her, to telegraph to the world that they’re together, for all that it’s a pretense.

They spend most of the day in a tight orbit to one another, working in tandem as they help prepare supper. Even when Bernie isn’t by her side, Serena’s eyes invariably seek her out, lingering on the lines of her body as she leans over the table, setting out the serving dishes.

“You really have got it bad.” Serena startles at Sian’s words, glares at her friend. “Not that I can blame you.”

“Oh shush,” Serena says, cheeks warm. She glances up again, catches Bernie looking back her way with a crooked little smile. It’s only when Sian’s hip bumps hers that she realizes they’ve both been staring.

Her blush deepens and she forces her focus back on the potatoes she’s slicing.

They settle in the sitting room after supper. It’s a tight fit with everyone and their bellies fair groaning with rich food and too much wine. Serena snags a corner of the couch, tucked up beside Sian and as far from Mark as she can manage. Bernie sits on the floor at her feet, waving off Serena’s concerns as she leans back against padded arm, her soft hair just brushing against Serena’s finger tips.

Sian passes out the small gifts she’d asked everyone to bring. Serena pulled a few things out of her re-gift closet before they left, enough for both her and Bernie, didn’t want to put the extra pressure of gift shopping on her with it being so last minute. Bernie cranes her head back with an incredulous look when Hillary coos over a garish multi-colored scarf she’s pulled from a package with Bernie’s name on it.

“Don’t tell Ric,” Serena whispers, lips close to Bernie’s ear. “When he asked why I never wear it, I told him Elinor took it.” She grins at Bernie’s startled honk of a laugh, squeezes her shoulder a bit.

Gift opening turns to carol singing, Bernie’s reedy voice blending with Serena’s lusty alto. There’s a seemingly unending amount of mulled wine courtesy of their host, and before long they’re all changing the words, ad libbing far from family friendly versions and laughing themselves to tears.

Someone pulls out a case of crackers, everyone gleefully pairing off to break them open. Serena gives the other end of hers to Bernie, and they pull hard on the count of three, wincing a bit at the loud pop. The red paper crown flutters into her lap, and Serena carefully unfolds it, places it on Bernie’s head with all the inebriated pomp she can muster.

It promptly slips down over one of Bernie’s eyes, and Serena dissolves into giggles.

She leans down to straighten it, pushing it back out of Bernie’s eyes, along with her unruly fringe. The laughter dies on her lips when she realizes how close Bernie is, close enough to see those wide dark eyes flick downward, lingering on her lips.

It’s the most natural thing in the world, to lean in the last few inches, to slant her mouth across Bernie’s and chase the lingering spice of the mulled wine with the tip of her tongue.

A chorus of obnoxious throat clearing pierces the bubble around them. Serena jerks away, heart hammering unevenly in her chest, desperate not to look at Bernie’s kiss swollen lips.

She can’t help thinking she crossed a line, fake relationship or not, but Bernie doesn’t pull away. Just looks up at Serena with those fathomless eyes, and it feels like the earth tilts beneath her.

“I think I’d better turn in,” she manages weakly, tuning out the ribald explanations for her exhaustion hollered from across the room.

Serena presses a kiss to Sian’s cheek, levers herself up with a hand on Bernie’s shoulder, and makes her way to the bedroom. She’s already in her pajamas when Bernie comes in, and slides between the sheets to the sounds of Bernie puttering in the ensuite.

A part of her wants to go to sleep, to avoid talking to Bernie, seeing the emotions she fears on her friend’s face. But the room spins each time she closes her eyes, stomach churning queasily with worry and too much wine.

So, she stares at the ceiling instead.

The bed dips with Bernie’s weight, the duvet rustling as she settles. Serena can feel her gaze like a tangible thing, the only sounds Bernie’s soft breathing and her own unsteady heartbeat.

“Serena?” Bernie’s voice sounds so small, so worried, Serena’s helpless to ignore it.

Rolling onto her side, she faces Bernie, her vision adjusted enough to the dark to make out the concerned furrow of Bernie’s brow, the tension in her lips.

“I’m sorry.” The words are thick in Serena’s throat, and Bernie’s frown deepens. “That I made you uncomfortable. That, that I forced you into all this, and made a mess of your holiday.”

Hot tears prick at her eyelids, and Serena blinks them back furiously.

Gentle fingers slide against the back of her hand where it rests between them, hesitate a moment, then curl around her own fingers.

“Serena, no.” She expects to see disapproval when she meets Bernie’s eyes, but all she finds there is warmth. “I’m not uncomfortable, and you didn’t force me to do anything. In fact,“ Bernie clears her throat, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “This is actually the nicest Christmas I’ve had in years.”

Serena just nods, afraid of what will come out if she opens her mouth. Carefully she turns her hand, slotting their fingers together and giving Bernie’s hand a soft squeeze.

Bernie returns the gesture, uses her grip to pull Serena a little closer, near enough that she can feel Bernie’s warmth, their bare toes bumping.

Serena’s breathing slows with the weight of too much wine, confusing emotions ebbing enough to let her eyes flutter shut. She thinks she feels a gentle kiss pressed to her hairline, but sleep takes her before she’s sure, and she sinks into slumber.

❄ ❄ ❄

A distant ping penetrates Serena's mind, pulling her from sleep, followed by another. And another. Blinking in the pre-dawn dark, she dimly registers that she and Bernie are just as they fell asleep, face to face, hands intertwined.

Carefully sliding her hand free, she rolls onto her back with a groan, fumbling on the nightstand for her phone. She peers at the too bright screen, at the list of notifications.

happy crstmas!!!!! love u mum xxxxx wish u wer here

The last is just a string of incomprehensible emojis and a selfie of a clearly inebriated Elinor, squashed between Edward and his child bride in no better state.

Angry tears fill her eyes, blurring the screen, the grammatically dubious texts serving as yet another reminder of her daughter’s desire to be with anyone but her.

She slaps the phone back on the table with a huff, willing herself not to cry.

"S'rena?" The sheets rustle beside her, Bernie blinking up at her owlishly. "What time is it?"

"It's early," Serena says, praying Bernie will take the roughness of her voice for tiredness. "Go back to sleep."

"What's wrong?"

No such luck, then, she thinks, cursing Bernie's ability to see right through to the heart of her.

"It's nothing. Apparently Elinor just noticed that it's Christmas. Well, was Christmas."

She can't keep the note of bitterness from her voice, the hurt that seeps through. Fingers slide against her own, curling around her hand and tugging slightly. Serena sighs, burrowing back under the warmth of the duvet.

"I'm sorry," Bernie says softly, her thumb rubbing gentle circles against Serena's knuckles. "It's hard, being without your kids."

Her voice hitches a little, tugs at something in Serena's chest. She squeezes Bernie's hand tight, shifts a little closer.

"I suppose we just need to remember they're adults. They can make their own decisions."

Bernie hums in response. "Doesn't it make it any easier." Her hand slides up over Serena's wrist, fingers brushing the inside of her forearm, triggering a spate of goosebumps. "I'm sorry about Ellie. And I'm sorry you had to spend your Christmas snogging me instead of being with her."

It’s clearly meant to be a joke, a bit of humor to lighten the mood. But Bernie looks at her with those soft, caring eyes, and Serena speaks before her mind has a chance to process.

"I'm not."

Bernie’s eyes go wide, and Serena realizes what she’s said. It would be easy to walk it back, say she meant something else, but at that moment she knows with absolute certainty that she doesn’t want to. That whatever this is, she doesn’t want to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t happening.

The spark of hope she sees in Bernie’s dark eyes buoys her courage.

“I’m not sorry at all,” she reaffirms, despite the tremor in her voice. “If I’m honest, being with you, kissing you has been the only thing that made this holiday bearable.”

Bernie inhales a sharp breath, staring at Serena intently, as if she holds all the secrets to the universe, but doesn’t speak. The silence filling the space between them is deafening, and Serena’s confidence flags. She tries to pull away, to put some more space between them, but Bernie’s hand tightens, holding her fast.

“I, uh, I thought it was all pretend.” There’s a question in Bernie’s voice, and it occurs to Serena that maybe she’s not the only one who’s frightened.

“It was supposed to be,” Serena admits, twining her fingers more securely with Bernie’s, a lifeline between them. “But I’m not sure it ever really was.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, I think some of that is rather up to you.” Serena carefully lifts Bernie’s hand to her lips, brushes a soft kiss against her knuckle. “But I know that I don’t want to pretend anymore.”

Her heart hammers wildly in her chest, a mix of elation and pure terror flooding her system with adrenaline. Thoughts careen through her head, screaming that she’s ruined everything, that she’s going to lose her best friend.

Then Bernie kisses her.

Serena’s surprised whimper is swallowed by Bernie’s mouth, fingers jerking slightly in Bernie’s grip. This is nothing like the kisses they’ve shared since this all started, Bernie’s restraint and uncertainty evaporating, leaving nothing but aching desire in their wake.

This kiss is focused and intense, and Serena moans as Bernie’s tongue teases between her lips, her hands finding a home in the silken curls of Bernie’s hair.

When they part they’re both breathing hard, lips only millimeters apart.

“Serena.” Bernie’s voice is a full octave lower, and the husk of it travels right between Serena’s legs. “Are you sure?”

“Very,” Serena whispers, brushing her lips against Bernie’s. “Extremely,” she says with another kiss. “Absolutely certain.”

Bernie crushes Serena against her with a groan, slanting her mouth hard across Serena’s.

They can’t seem to stop kissing now they’ve started, can’t get close enough. Serena’s hands eagerly map the length of Bernie’s back, clutching her close as she trails hot open mouthed kisses along Serena’s neck and jaw. She can’t resist slipping lower, cupping that glorious arse with a firm squeeze, delights at the way the action has Bernie surging upward, kissing her until she can’t breathe.

They move together across the bed, Serena ending up on her back with Bernie between her legs, every inch of them pressed flush. The feel of Bernie’s curves, the softness of her, the lean strength, is overwhelming.

Serena gasps as nimble fingers find the warm skin of her stomach, stroking along the waist of her pajama bottoms. Bernie pulls back, lips kiss swollen, and eyes questioning.

The last thing Serena wants is questions. She reaches between their bodies and flicks open the first button of her shirt, Bernie’s eyes immediately tracking the movement. The second opens quickly after, revealing more of the pale skin beneath.

Her fingers only manage to brush the third button before Bernie pushes them away, determined to finish the task herself. It impossible to feel anything but glorious when Bernie Wolfe is looming over you, looking at you like you’re one of the wonders of the world. Still Serena’s breath catches a bit as the last button slips free, a thread of nervousness slithering through her.

God,” Bernie whispers, looking like all her Christmases have come at once as her hands slide higher up Serena’s trembling abdomen, parting the polka dotted silk until it falls away from her chest. The naked awe in her gaze leaves no room for self-consciousness, spreads a delicious warm through Serena’s entire body.

Bernie gently cups her breasts, fingers circling her peaked nipples, and Serena gasps when the soft touch is replaced by the hot wetness of Bernie’s tongue.

She quickly finds that the single minded focus Bernie brings to theater is just as effective in other arenas, reduced to a babbling mess by the coordinated assault of Bernie’s hands and mouth.

Every nerve ending is hypersensitive, responding to Bernie’s barest touch, and before long Serena’s hips are rolling mindlessly against Bernie’s stomach, seeking friction. Leaving another in a series of rapidly reddening love bites across Serena’s torso, Bernie finally moves lower, dropping a line of kisses over the swell of her stomach as her fingers catch beneath the waistband of Serena’s pajamas.

It’s a bit awkward, but between the two of them they manage to discard the last pieces of Serena’s clothing.

Then Bernie gets comfortable, and the sight of that blonde mop of hair resting between her thighs, those dark eyes staring up at her, has Serena on the edge, hips squirming against the mattress.

Bernie chuckles softly, noses lightly against the thatch of dark curls, before detouring to nip lightly at Serena’s inner thigh, soothing the sting with a swipe of her tongue, repeating the action on the other thigh.

Long fingers part her carefully, the musky scent of her arousal filling the air, and Serena moans, all ready half desperate for anything, everything Bernie wants to do.

The first tentative touch of her tongue has Serena’s seeing stars, fingers threaded through Bernie’s hair, desperate for purchase. She bites down on her lip to stop herself from crying out, bucking up into Bernie’s mouth.

Gripping Serena’s hips to keep her still, Bernie explores at her leisure; finds every place that makes Serena twitch and gasp, every sensitive spot. Tastes and teases, again and again, until Serena is trembling, desperate for release.

Bernie’s lips gently surround her clit, tongue flickering and teasing, and Serena’s orgasm hits her with all the elegance of a freight train. Stars flash behind her eyes, a dull roar of blood in her ears.

She doesn’t know how long it takes to come back to herself, but when her senses finally unscramble, Serena realizes that Bernie is still there, mouth pressed lightly against her, a challenge sparkling in her eyes.

This time there’s no hope of being quiet. Bernie’s mouth is relentless, builds Serena up, has her cursing into the early morning dim of their room. All thought of the others in the house disappears, washed away by a tidal wave of pleasure as two fingers fill her, followed quickly by a third, curling and stretching, till Serena comes with a shout, back arching off the sheets, every muscle taut.

She collapses back, panting, eyes blurry. Pats vaguely at Bernie’s tousled hair, fingers slipping against her shoulder. Bernie chuckles, retraces her earlier path with her mouth until she settles atop Serena, elbows braced on either side of her head.

“Good lord,” Serena manages, voice hoarse. Bernie grins smugly, nuzzles against Serena’s sweat damp hairline.

“I’ll say. I could do that all day.”

Serena clenches at the thought, whimpers.

“Careful. I may make you prove that.”

“Name the time and place, Ms. Campbell,” Bernie replies. “I’m happy to serve.”

They’re both laughing a bit as they kiss, teeth bumping before they settle into it. Serena thrills at the taste of herself on Bernie’s lips, the memory of what she’d just done.

Serena maps the line of Bernie’s spine with her hands, rucks her vest up enough to find the warm skin underneath, and she feels the vibration of Bernie’s moan against her lips, the twitch of stomach muscles beneath her fingers. Between Bernie’s warm weight and the tight fabric, Serena’s blocked from exploring further, and she tugs a bit at the offending garment.

“Take this off,” she mutters against Bernie’s mouth.

Bernie catches Serena’s bottom lip between her teeth, releases it with a pop as she sits back on her heels, straddling Serena’s thighs. With a careless flourish, she tugs the vest over her head and tosses it across the room, the static turning her hair into a floating halo of gold.

“Better?” she asks with a teasing quirk of an eyebrow, and Serena thinks that smug shouldn’t be nearly as sexy as it is on a half naked Bernie Wolfe.

“Much.” Bernie makes to duck down for another kiss, but Serena stops her. “Wait, I just-, I’d like to look at you. If that’s all right.”

Bernie nods and settles back again, still and calm. But Serena can see the tension in Bernie’s body, the fluttering pulse point at the base of her neck and the faint pink staining her cheekbones. The thought that Bernie has ever been made to feel anything less than incredible pangs in Serena’s chest.

“You are so beautiful,” Serena whispers, thumbs scribing soft circles against the sharp bones of Bernie’s hips. Slowly she lets her touch drift higher, learning the landscape of Bernie’s body, marking the landmarks as she passes. From the faded cesarean scar just above the waist of her scrub bottoms, to the still pink welt bisecting her sternum, the marks are like a timeline of Bernie’s life, one Serena wants to know as well as her own history.

But those are questions for another day. For now, Serena’s sole focus is learning how to give Bernie all the pleasure that she can manage.

Bernie’s breasts are a warm weight in Serena’s hands, her skin intoxicatingly soft. Her head falls back as Serena’s fingers circle her nipples, a slow breath hissed between her teeth, holding her body still as Serena explores.

It's one thing to have Bernie driving her insane, stoking this new fire between them, but it's quite another to be the catalyst, to push things forward. Not that she doesn't want to, not that she's not brave enough. Just that she wants to be as good as Bernie deserves.

Pushing up to sit, Serena replaces her fingers with her mouth, flicking and swirling her tongue against the hard nub, hears Bernie gasp a curse above her.

It’s all so different from what she’s used to; silky skin and curves where she’s used to coarse hair and hard angles. For a moment she hesitates, overwhelmed but the newness of it all, feels like she has no idea what she’s doing. But Serena has never been ashamed to admit she loves sex. Prides herself on being quite good at it, thank you very much. And while there is so much that’s different, she quickly finds the things that are the same.

For all her usual reticence, Bernie is incredibly responsive, and Serena seeks out each gasp, each hitch of breath with the same rigor she applies to diagnosing an illness. Before long, Bernie is practically panting, hips grinding against Serena’s belly, nails scratching softly at her scalp.

A gentle application of teeth makes her yelp, and Serena can’t help but do it again, glancing up with a grin, the sight of Bernie’s flushed face and blown pupils making her throb.

The fingers in her hair tighten, and Bernie pulls her up into a bruising kiss.

Serena drags her blunt nails lightly down Bernie’s back, tugs the tie of the scrubs loose and slides her hands beneath, cupping her backside, and tugging Bernie that much closer.

Bernie pushes her back against the pillow with an honest to god growl, and they both fumble with the thin fabric, working it down her long legs.

The last barrier between them discarded, a renewed nervousness flutters in Serena’s chest. She covers by kissing Bernie slow and deep, rolling them until she plastered along Bernie’s side, a leg slung over her thighs.

Or she thinks she covers.

Bernie’s hands stroke soothingly against Serena’s back, the kiss trailing off to a series of gentle pecks.

“You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” she says softly. With anyone else, the suggestion would prick at Serena’s pride. But there’s no judgement in Bernie’s eyes, just caring and acceptance, and a depth of feeling that makes her breath catch.

“I do know that.” Serena bumps her nose against Bernie’s, tilting her head just so to kiss her, sweet and lingering. “All I want is to make you feel good, darling.” Slowly, she takes Bernie’s hand, drags their tangled fingers over the soft swell of Bernie’s abdomen, until wiry hairs tickles their fingertips. “Show me how?”

Bernie’s eyelids flutter, and she swallows hard. Nods.

Serena keeps her eyes on Bernie’s as her hand is guided lower, into slick heat, and it takes everything in her to stop from grinding against Bernie’s thigh.

“You’re so wet,” she whispers, marveling at the feel against her fingers, so alike to touching herself, yet utterly foreign.

Bernie laughs, nods, the sound trailing off into a moan that awakes something almost feral in Serena, the overwhelming need to take Bernie over the edge, to make her fall apart and put her back together again.

She’s always been a fast study, and she quickly learns the pace that Bernie prefers, the places she likes to be touched. They find a rhythm together, and Bernie’s hand falls away, her back arching helplessly as Serena works her ever higher.

Shifting her wrist, Serena sinks a finger into her, then another, the sensation setting off fireworks in her brain. Keeping gentle pressure against Bernie’s clit with her thumb, she curls her fingers experimentally, the way Bernie had, the way she’s done to herself countless times before.

It may not be elegant, and it’s certainly not comfortable, but Serena knows she never wants to do anything but this for the rest of her life. Each of Bernie’s whimpers, pleas, movements, are etched into Serena’s mind, every sensation utterly unforgettable.

Bernie goes still when she comes: body taut, mouth open in a silent gasp, muscles fluttering and gripping around Serena’s fingers. And then she relaxes with a sigh, sinks back against the sheets, boneless and sated.

Serena eases her fingers free, wiggling some of the sensation back into them. Can’t resist bringing them to her mouth for a taste, smiles at Bernie’s pained groan.

“How, uh, how was it? Was I?” Serena fumbles a bit, rolling her eyes at her own ridiculousness.

“You were amazing.” Bernie brings Serena’s hand to her lips, presses a kiss to her palm, a teasing glint in her eye. “Are you sure there wasn’t some sapphic dalliance in your past?”

Serena’s eyes narrow. “Cheeky,” she grouses, playfully resisting as Bernie tries to pull her down, before finally relenting, sinking into the kiss.

When they part, Bernie is looking up at her intently, something that Serena doesn’t know how to define in her gaze. She smoothes her thumb across Bernie’s brow.

“What is it?”

Bernie’s mouth opens, closes, as if she’s trying to hold back whatever it is. “I just never thought that this-, that we would...” She gestures a bit helplessly, huffing out a sigh. “Just promise me this isn’t a dream.”

The words are light, but Serena reads the seriousness behind them. Neither of them are children, and Serena knows in her bones that this is so much more than a shag between friends. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, and all Serena wants is to show Bernie that she’s not going anywhere. That they’ll figure it out together.

She kisses Bernie, slow and sweet, tries to pour everything she doesn’t know how to say into it.

“It’s not a dream,” she whispers. “This is very real. And I would be more than happy to prove that to you again.” She catches Bernie’s moan with her mouth. “But first, I need coffee.”

Bernie barks a laugh, one of those full-throated honks that fills Serena with joy. She slips from the bed and grabs her robe, knotting it tight against the winter chill, and makes toward the door.

“Serena?”

In years to come, this is the moment that Serena remembers most, an indelible image seared into her mind; long pale limbs among tangled sheets, a bird’s nest of hair, and a blinding smile.

“Yes?”

“Hurry back,” Bernie says, her teeth catching her bottom lip.

It takes all of Serena’s willpower to turn away from the sight.

It’s early, the sun not quite up, and the house is still and quiet as Serena pads down the hall toward the kitchen, already itching to climb back into the warm bed she just left and learn Bernie’s body all over again.

The persistent thrum of desire heating her blood is probably why she doesn’t notice the kitchen’s other occupant until it’s too late.

“Well, well, what have we here?”

Serena freezes, knows she must look like a deer in headlights, pinned in place by Sian’s shrewd glare.

“Uh, good morning,” Serena manages, hoping against hope she doesn’t look as shagged to tatters as she feels. “You’re up early.”

“I’m surprised anyone was able to sleep through that racket.” She looks at Serena pointedly over the rim of her coffee cup. “Seems like you had a very merry Christmas indeed.”

Heat climbs the back of Serena’s neck at Sian’s implication, the realization that what she and Bernie just shared wasn’t as private as they might have hoped. She pulls herself straighter, and glares right back; far too many years have passed between them for her to allow herself to be caught out by Sian Kors.

“You’re just jealous,” she says as she brushes past Sian, pulling two mugs down from the cabinet. “Last I checked, it is a fairly normal thing for couples to do.”

“Oh, Serena!” Sian sighs dramatically. “You can’t possibly think that I believe that nonsense.”

Serena’s heart hammers unevenly in her chest. Too little sleep and a surplus of endorphins are making her head a little fuzzy. She stammers, trying to grasp anything plausible, anything to throw Sian off the scent, but the lies that have come so easily to her all weekend disappear into the ether.

A firm hand on her arm pulls her from her racing thoughts.

“Rena, it’s fine. More than fine! I saw the way you looked at her, the way you looked at each other. That’s why I didn’t call you on all this dating palaver.” There’s no teasing in Sian’s words, only the kind of support that their friendship was founded on; all of a sudden Serena feels a bit silly about it all. “Darling, it’s just nice to see you so happy.”

Serena has to swallow a bit against the sudden lump in her throat.

“It’s nice to be this happy.” She covers Sian’s hand with her own, gives it a soft squeeze of thanks, before turning to fill their cups. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a rather gorgeous blonde in my bed.”

“Lucky,” Sian grumbles good-naturedly, as Serena walks toward the doorway. “Can you at least try to keep it down this time?”

Serena looks back over her shoulder with a grin and a wink. “I’m not promising anything.”

Sian’s delighted laugh follows her upstairs as she takes the two steaming mugs of coffee back to the cozy bedroom. She knows Bernie will be waiting.