ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

From the Eurostar to back in England
By Aimée


Chapter 1: On the Eurostar

Bernie rested her head on her seat, heaving a weary sigh. She had splurged on a first –class ticket, and obviously, she had travelled in much worse conditions, but the Eurostar was not the Orient-Express… She suddenly felt like all the strain of the previous months was bearing on her shoulders. Compared to army life, it should have been a breeze, but her time at Holby had been such an emotional roller coaster ride that she felt drained, and she was still reeling from the last blow, the closure of her unit. Parting from her colleagues, she reflected, had been the worst. She should have been used to it – her whole life had been made of partings. Why was this one so hard ? 

Her father had been in the army too, like her grand-father – not medics, but "real" soldiers. Indeed, her father had thought she was opting for a soft choice when she decided to become a doctor. He had died a few years before she got sent to Afghanistan, and she would always regret he'd never known his daughter had seen the reality of war. He would probably have been very derisive about her accident though – would have told her she ought to have known there would be IEDs about – like when she was a kid, and she'd got bullied at school. Two girls had pushed her about, and she had tripped and broken her wrist. Her father had been on ops, and when he'd got home a few days later, his only comment had been: "Well, you should have stood up for yourself. You brought this on yourself." The fact that she had been a slight and shy little girl, and her bullies big hefty older girls had not figured in his equation at all… She sighed again. So many trains, boats, planes, always leaving people behind, never making real friends, never bothering to, really, because every army brat knew not to get too attached. This was before the internet, and kids in those days were not really into letter-writing. 

They had moved from army base to army base, Canada, Gibraltar, Scotland, Germany … Her mother was quite gregarious, and made friends easily with other army wives, but Berenice found it difficult to make contact with the other children. She could usually be found her nose in a book, or talking with her mother's friends. Especially after THE day. Bernie shook her head slightly, as if trying not to remember – this was not the time, not after everything that had happened at Holby …But the memory, imprinted in her brain, did not want to be forgotten, and cropped up at the most unwelcome moments. She was back in their kitchen in Rheindahlen, ten years old again, wearing an apron and helping her mother to make a cake. They were laughing together as her mother was showing her how to peel and core an apple – she'd never been able to eat an apple since …One minute her mother was standing, laughing, teasing her with the apple peel, and the next, she was on the floor, clutching her arm, murmuring nonsensical words, then unconscious. Berenice had stood uncomprehendingly for what had felt like ages, but would really have been a minute or two, before running out of the flat and knocking on their neighbour's door. The lady next door had called the medical team, but it was too late – a lightning heart attack, they'd said. No warning signs, no possible resuscitation. 

When her father got back from manoeuvres, the day after, he found his daughter plunged into a mutism that lasted for several months. She had retreated into a shell which no one had ever been able to break completely. Not even her husband Marcus. Especially not her husband, in fact. She still had days of utter darkness when she felt unable to do anything other than stay curled up in the dark, and Marcus had never been able to understand. Those dark dog days never happened when she was at work or on the field – this was one of the reason why she drove herself so hard – keeping busy kept her from darkness. On those days, Charlotte and Cameron had learnt not to bother her, but Marcus had always tried to get her to "snap out of it" – wrong …Wrong choice, wrong path, wrong life. She'd always felt responsible for her mother's death, and her father had not really disabused her. In fact, she had always thought he blamed her – as if her ten-years-old self should have done more, done better. When her kids had been younger, each time she was sent out, she would pray to be safe – she did not believe in God, not really, but there must be someone, somewhere, who pulled the strings. She did not really care about herself – death was only an occupational hazard after all – but she did not want Charlotte and Cameron to hear of their mother's death. And yet she went, and she endangered her life, day after day, in order to save others. 

THAT day would not let go – this was the trouble with train travelling – you were a prisoner in your seat, not in control, just left to yourself with too much time on your hands. Her Ipod, Kindle, and the magazines she had bought from the station were not enough to block the flow of memories. There had been no one to comfort little Berenice then. Her mother's friends had been kind enough, but they had had their own kids to look after, and as she had shied away from human contact, nobody had dared cuddle her. Her father, when he'd come, had patted her awkwardly on the shoulder at the funeral, but there had been no one to break the shell she had erected around her. From this time had come her brisk manner, and her fear of human contact. This might be why she was such a great surgeon – she could detach herself from the person, and see only a broken body to be mended. But it did not make for easy relationships. Anyways, it was better to remain aloof, to be seen as "bossy Major Wolfe" than to reveal her extremely sensitive and fragile nature. Her made-up persona had served her well over the years, and only Alex had begun to crack her disguise.


Chapter 2

The coffee cart interrupted Bernie's train of thoughts : "A double expresso, please" . As she tasted the boiling coffee, she made a face – not worse than the brew they got in Holby's cafeteria, but not much better. Worse, the coffee tasted like …like Serena, like those first stolen moments among long work hours when she had begun at Holby. It was worse, because she was going to join her in the small house Serena had rented at the foot of Mount St Victoire, and she wondered if she was making another mistake. They had kept in contact during Serena's absence, but neither of them was very good on the phone, and Bernie had had no time to write long emails. And so she felt as if once again, she was going into the unknown, and of her own volition this time too… 

During all her childhood and adolescence, she had felt like a pawn being moved against her will, and now she had all the power of decision, she was afraid of making the wrong choice. She did not even know what choices had been right or wrong anymore. Obviously, she had not chosen to be airlifted to Holby after her accident, but going back to Marcus and staying there had definitely not been the right option. If she had gone back to Afghanistan, would she and Alex still be together ? But then, what about Serena ? She did love her, as much as she felt she could love, rely on, and trust another person. 

After her mother's death, she been sent off to boarding school in England – her mother had been an only child, and her father's brothers were either confirmed bachelors with no place for a child in their lives, or working at the end of the world. So it had been St Bride's for her, just a month after …She had flown as an unaccompanied minor to London, where she had been met by one of the school's mistresses. After a quick stop in Harrods', where she had been fitted with the necessary uniform, she had been taken to the place where she would spend the worst years in her life. As a shy mute newcomer of ten, she had been fair game for the school mischievous trouble-makers. Most of the girls were not particularly horrid to her, although some of them had rather nasty streaks. And yet, during the seven years she had spent at the school, she had never cried – she wouldn't give them the satisfaction. To keep the tears at bay, she only had to picture in her minds' eye her father's disapproving stare, and the tears got swallowed down. Even when she had been little, he had frowned when she cried, and she had learnt to "keep a stiff upper lip". Therefore, there were no tears, not when she had found her favorite book torn to shreds, nor when she had been scolded for not doing her maths homework when it had disappeared from her desk, nor even when she found her bed repeatedly soaked at night. 

Actually, "never" was a slight exaggeration – just once, she had allowed herself to break down. A few months before her death, her mother had taken her to visit a nearby zoo, and in the souvenir shop, Berenice had fallen in love with a teddy bear. It was just a little nondescript brownish teddy bear, with a forlorn expression in his button eyes. They had both known she was too old for teddy bears, but her mother had understood, and the bear had been with her ever since. She had very carefully hidden it in her dormitory, or so she'd thought. The day she'd found it stabbed, with shreds of kapok pouring out of its belly, and a cross drawn on it with black marker, she had skipped class, and had gone into hiding in the basement, crying her heart out. And then, she had sworn to herself that when she got out of that school, she would never ever be bullied or tolerate bullying again. And that memory sent a jolt of apprehension into her heart. Because what Serena had done to Jasmine Burrows had definitely amounted to bullying. Of course, she had had excuses – grief was certainly enough to turn anyone's mind upside down, but… If Bernie was honest with herself, she was madder at herself than at Serena – she should have done more to defend Jasmine. And if she had …well, if she had, she might not have been on her way to Serena's right now, but maybe, just maybe, she could have saved Jasmine's life. She knew it had been a freak accident, but … The fact was that Jasmine had reminded her of herself in her boarding school days, and she should have helped her against Serena's irrational behavior. Berenice had indeed been just like Jasmine in her days at St Bride's. She did not want to make trouble, did not want to draw attention to herself in case it made things worse. 

After the first year, the bullying had more or less stopped – it was no fun anymore for the bullies, as she did not react to the provocations. By then, she had built for herself a strong shield in the form of an invisibility cloak. She had learnt to disappear into silence, to surround herself with such strong emotional walls that nothing mattered anymore. She was a gifted student – brilliant, even, in the subjects she enjoyed, but she never took part in any class discussions, never answered and questions aloud – some teachers even complained they did not know the sound of her voice. She got good marks, mostly because she would not tolerate anything else for herself – her own standards were even more exacting than her father's – and she knew that he was only interested in her results. Indeed, in their correspondence, it was the only thing that ever figured. He did not ask if she was well, or happy, or if she had made friends, but he sometimes congratulated her for full marks in mathematics or chemistry. 

When she left school, she knew she never wanted to be in an all-female environment ever again. She had made no real friends during her school days – there had been one or two hangers-on who mostly wanted help for their homework, but real friendships had been effectively stopped by her shield. There had been one or two teachers who had wanted to draw her out, but she had done her best to discourage them – it would have been much too dangerous to get too attached. Medical school, and then the army, had felt like the best option to avoid the petty, gossipy, smug atmosphere she had lived in for seven years. 

In medical school, she had reinvented herself – no more Miss Invisible, no more Berenice in fact – she had become Bernie, still an aloof character, but a hard one, and who gave as good as she got. She had developed an incisive sense of humor and a talent for repartee. She still had no real friends, but she got along with most of the other students, except those who got jealous of her skills. She could not have settled for general practice, like many of the minority of women in her courses – she wanted more – she wanted to prove she was tough – surgery was the Graal of the medical field, so she had to choose that path. Even that was not hard enough – it had to be the army. 

The Eurostar was arriving at Gare du Nord. Bernie managed to extricate her bag from the suitcase rack before most of the other passengers, and got out as fast as she could. She hated waiting, hated crowds…She was in luck, the queue for the taxis was not too long, and she got one in a few minutes. She had no wish to linger in Paris, but she had to go from station to station in order to catch another train to Aix-en Provence. The driver tried to engage her in conversation, but, getting no real answers besides "oui" and "non", he gave up and cranked up the volume of the radio. "He probably thinks I'm another of those bloody English people who believe everyone should speak their language and who don't understand a word of French, let alone speak it", said Bernie to herself, amused. Actually, she had a fairly good command of the language, as it was one of the subjects she had studied for her A-Levels. Her silence was not due to her ignorance, but to more painful memories coming to the surface. 

Marcus had taken her to Paris for their honeymoon. They had spent four days in a hotel near St Germain des Prés, eating, drinking, and disagreeing with each other, although very civilly.


Chapter 3: In France

Marcus and Bernie had very different notions of what constituted a good time – indeed, they had not shared many leisure moments before their honeymoon. Marcus had been three years ahead of her in medical school, already specializing in surgery when she had still been completing her training in general medicine. Their romance would never have existed otherwise, reflected Bernie, because he had always enjoyed being better than her, being able to teach her things. He'd wanted her to remain in general practice, or maybe to specialize in a more feminine subject like ob-gyn or maybe dermatology. He'd always said he'd fallen in love with her brain as much as with her beauty, but if she showed signs of outsmarting him, he would sulk for hours. That had been one of the first points of contention during the honeymoon – Marcus couldn't speak a word of French, and he resented the fact that she was able to understand the menus, the waiters, and even the newspapers. Moreover, he had planned the trip very carefully: he had wanted to impress her, to take her shopping in the Rue Saint-Honoré where all the couturiers were, to the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, and had booked for diner at La Tour d'Argent and on the bateaux-mouches. 

She wanted to stroll casually in untouristy areas, to drink coffee and diabolos menthe in cafés, to have candlelit diners in small restaurants. She'd never liked dressing up, always felt more at ease in slacks and shirts, and she had no time for museums. Facing Marcus at their table at La Tour d'Argent, uncomfortable in a new black dress, she had looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time, and had the sense that something, once again, was "wrong". Being with someone during lectures, the occasional Sunday afternoons, and drinking in students' bars may not have been a good preparation for marriage. She had been seduced by the young doctor who was so self-assured and so evidently in love with her. She had not known how to refuse him when he'd asked for her hand in marriage, because after all, it'd seemed like the perfect match. He was clever, ambitious, handsome, his family was well-off, and he obviously cared for her. And so she had let her guard down, forgotten her decision never to trust or rely on anybody ever again, and she'd accepted his offer. 

And yet, on that evening, over foie gras and sole à la normande, she did not feel "cared for" – she felt smothered and bent out of shape, as if Marcus had been trying to fit her round shape into a square hole. She had felt panic rising – she was not sure who she was anymore – she had been so many people in her life – she was like a Russian doll, so many people in the same body – her mother's little girl, loved and protected, her Miss invisible persona from her boarding school days, her wry, can-do character from university, and now ? Marcus' project ? Marcus' Galatea ? 

Charlotte had been conceived in that hotel room – Marcus had not wanted to use protection with his bride, and she felt secure in the knowing that she'd swallowed her little white pill every morning – getting pregnant while still in medical school had not been part of her plan. However, the little white pill had not worked its magic, and as a month later she'd felt nauseous every morning, she knew that her carefully laid plans for her future would need some alterations. Marcus was working in Bristol, in his first year as a neuro-surgeon, she was in her F1 year at Gloucester Hospital, and they were living in a flat in Cheltenham, near his parents' house. She was lucky enough to be able to work till two weeks before the birth, and two more weeks later, she was back on the wards. It certainly was not ideal, but she had no choice if she wanted to graduate, and her mother-in-law was there to help with the baby. That too had hurt be told her daughter had taken her first steps with Grandma, to be the last one to hear her daughter's first words, not to be there for her first day at Nursery School. 

And then, three years later, Cameron had arrived – by then she was beginning her specialization as trauma surgeon, and once again, the timing could have been better. Marcus was earning good money, and they were able to afford a full-time au pair. He had also found a position at Cheltenham Hospital, and so was able to be home more often. The birth had been more difficult, she'd had to have a caesarean, and to stop work for three months. Bernie reflected that all this might be why Charlotte did not want to talk to her anymore, while Cameron was magnanimous enough to accept working with her. The bonding process with her son had been easier, she'd had more time with him, more oxytocin-forming days. 

"On y est – 30 euros, s'il vous plaît » 

Bernie was jolted out of her musings – she gathered her wits and her bags, paid the driver, and got out of the cab at the Gare de Lyon. She was too early for the Aix-en-Provence TGV, so she decided to have another coffee and something to eat . She stopped in one of the brasseries facing the station, and asked for breakfast – it was still only ten in the morning, even though she felt exhausted. She was just about to bite into her buttered baguette when her eyes were caught by two Romanian kids begging on the café's terrace. For just one nano-second, the little girl – she couldn't have been more than six or seven – caught Bernie's glance, and they looked straight into each other's eyes. Bernie put the bread back on her plate, untouched. A wave of nausea submerged her, and her head began throbbing painfully. Those blue eyes …she was back in Kandahar, a few weeks into her mission there. She had been on her way to a field hospital, and as she was not driving, looking idly around her – they had been approaching a village that had looked relatively unscarred, and children were playing football with what appeared to be a can. One minute they were kicking their improvised ball, cheering each other on – the next , their cries were drowned by an explosion noise. She and her colleague ran towards the children, who were lying on the ground – three of them, just little kids. One of them was already dead, half of his upper body having been torn off by the mine. Another one appeared untouched, but he had been carried several yards away by the force of the blast, and as Bernie checked for a pulse, she already knew it was no use – there was no way he could have survived the impact. The third one was breathing, although his left leg was no more than a mangle of flesh. Bernie managed to suture the leg, stopping the hemorrhage, and she thought she would at least be able to save one. It was a small boy, obviously malnourished, so his age was difficult to determine, he could have been anything between five and ten. As she was checking his pulse, he looked straight into her eyes, his own large baby-blue saucers in a sunken face, and stopped breathing. She performed CPR, desperately trying to resuscitate him, and stopped only when her colleague put a hand on her shoulder and said "It's over – he's gone". 

On that day, when she got back to camp in the evening, she went back to her room – more a cell than a room, in fact, as they were tiny spaces with only a bed and a closet, and curled up on her bed in the fetal positions, in the dark. She did not bother to get up on the next morning. She just remained there, a tight ball of misery and anger. On the next evening, someone knocked at her door, and came in, not waiting for an answer. She would have shouted at the intruder to go away, to leave her alone, but even that was impossible. It felt as if her voice, her words, her feelings, her emotions had been swallowed by the blast. The intruder came to sit on the bed, and began stroking her hair, gently, persistently, till Bernie felt herself uncurl slowly. A few moments later, she was sobbing her heart out on Alex's shoulder. Alex embraced her tightly, and Bernie clung to her desperately. She had not shed a tear since the day of the teddy bear.


Chapter 4

A group of noisy tourists settling down at the table next to hers jostled Bernie out of her trance. She forced herself to eat her breakfast, as she knew that after a sleepless night, even numerous coffees wouldn't be able to see her through the day. She needed food and especially sugar. She also took the time for a quick cigarette break – she was in two minds about that habit of hers… Obviously, as a doctor, she was all too aware of the risks, and did not really relish the thought of dying from lung cancer. Then again, cigarettes were a great comfort in times of stress, and we were all going to die anyway, weren't we? But there was also a little voice in her head telling her that she was only doing that because Marcus had wanted her to stop, and there was no way she would submit to his wishes anymore. Childish much ? Maybe …

Stubbing out her fag – it was the last one from the pack Marcus had found in his drawer and given her back, she walked towards the platform. In the middle of August, Gare de Lyon was crammed full with tourists and holiday-makers – children running everywhere, frantic parents with huge suitcases and cat baskets, and the inevitable groups of pensioners – why did they choose the middle of the school holidays to travel, for goodness' sake?! She managed to make her way through to her TGV, and settled in her seat with a newspaper. Her eyelids felt heavy – she had not slept for two nights in a row, as she had been on the night shift, and last night had been spent packing and filling out various admin papers. She tried to close her eyes, but she was just falling asleep when she was disturbed by children's cries – a family of three was fighting over the seats – they all wanted the seat near Mummy… She heard the mother soothing them, offering biscuits all round and a favorite cartoon on a tablet, and peace was restored. If only things were so simple when your children were grown-ups… Cameron seemed to enjoy himself in London, and he had always been a mummy's boy anyways, even though she'd never been mom of the year. Even as a child, he'd been pacified easily – chocolate buttons worked nearly every time. Or that's what she told herself anyways. It was easier to believe that than to dwell on what Marcus had thrown at her on THAT day at Holby …

What a bloody mess she'd made of things… In a world of rainbows and unicorns, her secret would have been well-kept, and she and Marcus would have re-kindled their marriage, and lived happily ever after for twenty-five more years. He would have lived happily ever after, anyways, and she might have been able to endure it. She could have gone back to Kabul, or to another war zone – absence made the heart grow fonder, and it was certainly what had enable them to stay together for so long. When she came back home, Bernie enjoyed being with her children and her husband, being part of a family. She and Marcus talked a lot, and he could be very tender in bed, although their love-making was never scintillating. It had taken her a long time to get used to his touch, his caresses – her outer Russian doll did not easily feel, and he had never reached her inner doll, the fragile, sensitive one. But after a few days at home, she usually began to look forward to her departure, a longing feeling mixed with guilt and despair. Marcus had accused her of being heartless, of not caring – "Did you ever think of our children, glued to the television, wondering whether you would get killed??" Yes, she did. And it hurt. It hurt a lot, even. But less than the thought that whatever she did, she would never be happy, she would never have the right to be happy. She loved them – all three of them – of course she did! After all, that was why she'd wanted to keep her affair a secret – or was it? If she was honest with herself, it was only part of it. She did not want to hurt Marcus – but she was even more afraid of hurting herself. 

When Bernie had woken up, two days after the child had died in her arms, Alex was not in the room anymore. Exhausted by crying, she had fallen asleep in the early morning hours, and she felt definitely rough – and confused – and awkward – and angry with herself. Angry with Alex too. She did not know the other medic very well, as Alex had worked on another base, and had only recently joined the team. The idea of having broken down in the arms of a stranger was unbearable. Since her mother's death, she had shied from the human touch. It had been hard for her to let Marcus in, but she'd managed it because Marcus had only reached "Bernie" – her public persona, the outwardly self-assured and confident woman. He'd never had access to her inner Berenice, the one who was able to emote and to show her vulnerability. Just by hugging her, Alex had reached Berenice – and that was terribly scary …

Therefore, when Bernie made her appearance in the mess that morning, she poured herself a big mug of coffee, and studiously avoided the table where Alex was seated, choosing to join other people of her team. When she saw Alex getting up and walking towards her, she left and walked out before the other woman could reach her. She had gained a few hours' respite, but she knew very well the situation couldn't go on forever. They had to work and live together, and she would have to be grown up about it. But the fear was overwhelming. Every time she had allowed another woman to get close, it had ended in sorrow and betrayal. The last time, she had been thirteen, but the wounds were still smarting. The other one had even had an air of Alex about her – both of them had been tall, thin, confident brunettes, with a somewhat brusque manner hiding an empathetic nature. Miss Wilson had been her chemistry teacher, and she had noticed her invisible pupil's misery. She had tried to draw Berenice out, asking her to help with tidying up the lab benches after class, thus providing them with opportunities to talk. It had worked, and Berenice, although she had not mentioned the bullying, which anyways by then had almost stopped, had let herself drawn into talking about her father, and his attitude to her. Her feeling of being a constant disappointment to him, of never being good enough. Miss Wilson had never hugged her, but she had sometimes put her hand on her shoulder, and that had made Berenice feel secure. However, it had all gone wrong, because Miss Wilson had apparently written to her father, praising Berenice, but suggesting that he could be a little more lenient, and that good marks weren't everything. The letter had arrived at a particularly bad time too, as Berenice had been in the sick bay for two days, missing lessons, and she had not been able to revise for a Latin exam, thus earning herself a very exceptional F. As bad luck would have it, the fortnightly grade report and Miss Wilson's letter had arrived at her father's posting at the same time. Berenice had been called to the school secretary's office to take a phone call from her father. He never rang, and she was completely unprepared for his violent tirade. He had accused her of being selfish, ungrateful, lazy, he had asked how she'd dared to complain about him, said her mother would have been ashamed of her behaviour, and had rang off, leaving her thunderstruck and speechless. The secretary must have told Miss Wilson about the phone call, because the latter had come to see Berenice, and apologized for the letter. It had been the last time Berenice had confided in a teacher, and in anyone, for that matter. 

Alex felt like a threat of an unknown nature, and yet she had felt safe in her arms. Both feelings fought in Bernie's head, and she hoped to avoid Alex until her mind decided on her being a friend or a foe. She managed it for a few days, but one morning, the first person she met when she came out of the shower was Alex, brushing her teeth at the sink. Alex gave her a tentative smile, and Bernie buried her head in a towel, pretending to dry her hair. She felt tongue-tied, like in her school days. The younger woman, however, was not: "Look, I don't know what I've done to you, but you've been treating me like a leper! Did you see the noticeboard? We're going to be working together today, so I hope you can at least be in the same place as me for a day?"

Bernie remained silent. Alex went on: "If you're afraid I'm going to blab about your crying, don't be. It happens to everyone one day or another. I know you've got the reputation of being a tough one, I get it! Would you really rather I'd let you blub on your own ?"

"I'm sorry", murmured Bernie. "It's not that …It's just …"


Chapter 5

And once again, she turned tails and fled. When she saw Alex again, a few hours later, it was over the body of a twenty-two-years-old soldier. Corporal Martins had just arrived on their base a fortnight before. He had been Bernie's driver once or twice, and he'd shared his life story with her. He'd been studying for a degree in Physical Education at the University of Kent, hoping to become a teacher. His twin brother was at the same university, studying Mathematics. They'd both been engaged to lovely girls, and his brother's fiancée had been expecting a child. They were planning on getting married on the same day. One night, they'd gone out for a drink, celebrating his brother's practical placement's success. The evening had been a joyous occasion – they had so much to look forward to…Their car was hit by a drunken driver – it rolled over twice, and ended up on the railings – John Martins escaped unscathed, and his brother's fiancée with only superficial injuries. John's fiancée died on the spot. John's twin died in A&E in the small hours of the morning. Two days later, John had enlisted. He had so much anger into him that he could not go back to his former life. 

Now, Corporal John Martins was lying on a makeshift operating table. His left leg had been blown off by a landmine, and he had extensive damage to his liver and kidneys. Bernie and Alex operated in silence – they both knew their job, and except for very short exchanges, they had no need to speak. They knew that the young soldier had little chance of surviving. After three hours of surgery, they managed to suture the leg wound, to remove part of the liver and one kidney. John's condition was stable, although his pulse was weak. Both women were exhausted. The strain of the operation, of course, but also the morning's unfinished episode. 

Against all odds, Corporal Martins survived. Bernie's reputation, which had already been good, became formidable. And yet, she'd never felt more unsettled. Now she and Alex both avoided each other. Avoidance must run in the family, reflected Bernie. Charlotte was doing a great job of avoiding her… She knew her daughter had been shaken by the fact that she'd cheated on Marcus. Charlotte had always been more of a daddy's girl. He'd spoilt her, of course, and she'd been in adoration before him. Painful memories came back to Bernie. She remembered coming back home – by then home was Marcus' parents' house, which he had inherited after their death. A four- bedrooms terraced house in Cheltenham's Highgrove Crescent. They'd inherited the furniture too, and most of it was definitely not to her taste, but she had had no time for interior designing, and it had not been worth quarrelling with Marcus, who liked the heavy Edwardian dining-table, chairs and dressers. He had furnished the kids' bedrooms too, a princess one for Charlotte, and a pirate one for Cameron. On that day, she'd been absent for about a month, and she'd been eager to see the children, to hug them, to love them. Charlotte must have been about nine, and Cameron six. She'd turned the key into the lock, put her case down into the hall and she'd been hanging up her coat when a small tornado had run into her arms, almost knocking her down. When she'd lifted up her eyes, still with Cameron clinging to her legs, she'd seen Marcus on the foot of the stairs. His smile had been warm, welcoming. Charlotte had been gripping his arms, making no movement towards her. When she had disengaged herself from Cameron and held her arms out to her daughter, Charlotte had buried her head in her father's arms, before shooting Bernie a fiery glance and running up the stairs. Bernie had never forgotten what she'd seen in her daughter's eyes then – hurt, reproach, anger … The same look she'd seen in Elinor's eyes, just before the accident. Of course, Elinor's rage had been directed at Serena, not at her, but all the same …

How would she find Serena? They'd had so little contact during the last months that she really did not know what to expect. Was Serena still grieving? She had not had many counseling sessions, and although Bernie was glad she'd taken a sabbatical, she worried that isolation, even in sunny Provence, might not have been a very good idea. And what if Serena was still in need of comfort – would she be able to provide that? She was tough, but death still triggered in her a self-protection reaction – she closed up. This was probably a good thing in her job – she could not afford to crumple each time she had to tell a family their relative had passed away. When she'd had to tell Serena about Elinor's critical condition, however, she'd cursed herself for her coldness, for her incapacity to show more warmth, more love. She tended to flinch at human touch, like a stray cat wary of strangers. She much preferred to lick her own wounds in private. It was easier, and it did not bother her. But she wished she could be more affectionate, more cuddly. Even putting her hand on a shoulder was hard for her, and yet she could feel it was not enough. She knew it was not enough – " 

After a few weeks operating together, they had managed to reach a status quo. Neither of them actively tried to elude the other anymore, but they still avoided being alone in each other's presence or talking. One day, however, they had been outside smoking with other medics when Alex had got a phone call. As she'd walked away from the group, Bernie had watched her, had seen her blanch and bend over, as if she'd received a blow. Then, Alex had strode away quickly. Bernie had excused herself from the group and gone in search of her colleague. She'd found her seated under a tree, her head in her hands.

"Are you all right ?

- Of course I'm not bloody all right, Major! Isn't it obvious? But then, in your world, everyone should just grin and bear it, shouldn't they? There's no place for weakness or for emotions. You're so ashamed of acting like a normal person that you ostracize anyone who's had the bad luck of seeing you behave like a real human. Because guess what: normal people feel! They yell, they cry, they have a heart! They care! What's wrong with you ??

Alex lifted her head, and Bernie saw she was crying. Although she felt like running away and hiding, she sat down beside her, and tentatively put her hand on the younger woman's knee. She was wanted to do something, to comfort her, but she didn't know how. Once again, she apologized: "I'm sorry, Alex, I…"

- Oh, bloody stop apologizing ! Just …just leave me alone !"

Bernie fought the urge to do exactly that. She somehow knew that if she did, something important would be lost forever, for both of them. So, she stayed – she retrieved her hand, and stared straight ahead of her. A few minutes later, Alex spoke again: "The phone call – that was my brother – my father had pancreatic cancer, and he was in palliative care – he died this morning…"

"I'm so sorry", began Bernie, and then stopped, her hand covering her mouth.

"That's ok. I guess that's the usual thing people say on those occasions – although I've always thought it was pretty stupid. I mean, it's not as if you were responsible for my father's death. But thanks."

"Were you close?" asked Bernie.

"Yes, we were. He was proud of my career choice, proud of me really. My mom too, but he's always supported my going into the army. She was terrified something would happen to me."

Alex laid her head on Bernie's shoulder. "I'll have to go home for the funeral. Mom will be devastated." Bernie couldn't think of anything to say, but she didn't move. Then, Alex stood up and left to see her commanding officer and ask for leave. Looking at Bernie, she added: "You'll have to do without your anesthetist for a while, Major – but I'm sure you'll cope…stiff upper lip and all that !"


Chapter 6

The train was getting nearer to its destination, and Bernie was more and more fidgety. First because the seats of the TGV had obviously been conceived either for children or for midgets – she was desperate to stretch her legs – and secondly because she would see Serena in a few hours. Hopefully, by the evening, they would be lounging in deckchair with glasses full of rosé – together at last. She had not told Serena about the closure of the Trauma Unit. She'd just sent a quick email, saying "Feeling like a few days of rest and sunshine – any room for me?" and Serena's answer had been equally brief: "Sunshine waiting for you here – do come". She supposed someone else could have told Serena about the recent events at Holby – Henrik Hanssen, maybe, or Ric, but she had not wanted to explain in a mail, or even on the phone. It seemed so final – and it seemed to jeopardize Serena's eventual return to Holby too. 

If Serena didn't know anything, it would mean she would have to tell her that the Trauma Unit did not exist anymore, that Jasmine was dead, and that she herself was going to Sudan. Rather a tall order, even for Major Wolfe … Moreover, she had no idea how she would manage to be in a relationship with Serena if she was in Africa, and Serena in Europe …She had tried that with Marcus, and even though they were on the same continent, it hadn't been ideal…

That was the trouble with love – it struck in the most unexpected places, and there were no rules – and Bernie had always tried to live by the rules – it was so much easier. Alex had been the one to transgress them, and although she had become a willing accomplice, she had definitely not been comfortable with the idea at first. When Alex came back from compassionate leave, Bernie knew that if they were to go on working together, she would have to work on herself first, to understand what the younger woman wanted from her. And that had definitely not been part of Bernie's life plan…

As much as she was used to do things by herself, and to be in control, she found herself missing Alex's presence during her leave. She missed her professional skills, of course, mostly. Somehow, a woman's take on patient care was subtly different from a man's. Bernie did not want to admit to herself that maybe, just maybe, she wanted – needed, even – a friendship. Something more than joking around with the team at mealtimes and sharing info on IED damages, sutures, and infection. Alex came back looking tense and washed out, and although she was as competent as usual with the wounded, she seemed remote and on edge. They did not always operate together. Both of them often went out to various ops sites with other members of the medical team. A few day after Alex's return, a team was called out to another base south of Kandahar, to assist on two operations there . Bernie remained on the base and Alex opted to go out – since her return, she'd been restless, and even more fearless than usual. They were supposed to be back by 4.00 p.m, but by 6.00 there were still no news from them. At 7.45, Bernie's radio beeped, and she was asked to prepare for two heavy casualties – it seemed that the two Land Rovers had been targeted by RPGs and caught in a shower of debris and shrapnel. At least two of the team members were severely wounded. Bernie's first thoughts were for Alex – what if she was … There was no time for ifs, however, and she quickly sorted out the equipment she thought she would need. One of the victims arrived five minutes later, in a critical condition, and she rushed him into theatre. She operated on him almost automatically, keenly aware that her mind wasn't 100% on the job at hand – where was Alex ? What she the other victim, being operated on by the other surgeon in the next room? She managed to stem most of the bleeding, and although she had to amputate an arm, she was fairly confident her patient would survive. He was a stout, ruddy young man – probably a rugby player, or a weight lifter, she reflected. He wouldn't be able to play again now. And as luck would have it, it was his right arm too – he would have to learn how to use his left hand before coming fully back to civi life. As she was tearing off her surgical gown, she suddenly heard his breathing getting shallower. She rushed back to him just as he went into cardiac arrest. After three attempts at resuscitation, she had to admit defeat. Sadly, she closed his eyes and went out of the room. She would never be able to accept the loss of a life easily, especially if she believed she could have done more, done better to save the patient. She slumped down outside the barrack, and put her head in her hands. 

"Barton copped it, then ? Poor guy – he was looking forward to going on leave next week" . Alex came to sit beside Bernie. Bernie was aware of a sense of relief at hearing her voice, but she didn't look up. Alex went on: "He was a goner – no one could have saved him – we were in the same vehicle, but he took the brunt of the fire. You're not a miracle worker."

Bernie lifted a wan face towards Alex: "I know I'm not – that's something this place doesn't let you believe for long. But I could have…"

"Stop being so hard on yourself, Major – it doesn't help. You know what they said during training – stay strong, do your best, don't overdo it." 

Bernie made a gesture of annoyance: "I know it doesn't. The last thing I need is a damn lecture!"

"Sorry. Do you want to go and get coffee?"

"No – I'm going to my room for a while – I need to be alone."

When Bernie felt angry, she retreated into her shell – she didn't want to talk, she didn't want to be comforted, she just wanted to be by herself. About an hour later, her door opened, and Alex came in with a steaming mug of coffee. 

"Please go away. I said I didn't want coffee," said Bernie wearily.

"I know you did- you may not want it, but I think you need it." Alex held the cup towards her. "Thanks", said Bernie grudgingly, as she took the cup and sipped: "My god, that's some coffee ! What did you pour into it, a whole whisky bottle ??" 

"Just a little medicinal draught, Bern. Good for shock."

"I'm not in shock – you were the one in the convoy. I'm just …browned-off…" The truth was that Bernie was angry – at Alex, illogically enough, for being safe – at herself, for having worried for nothing, and mostly for having failed to save the soldier. It was always easier for her to blame herself, anyways – that way, the only person you hurt was yourself. She sighed. "Can I be alone now?"

Alex didn't answer, but she sat on the floor beside her, and put her arms around Bernie's shoulder. Bernie's first reaction was to shrug her off, but somehow, her body didn't react in the usual way, and she let herself lean on Alex. And when Alex deposited a light kiss on her brow, and another one on her cheek, and caressed her face, she didn't protest either. It was like an out-of-body experience. She was there, and yet she felt detached, as if she was watching herself in the arms of the younger woman… Truth was to be told, she was feeling quite out of her depth. She had never been attracted to a woman before. She might have had a schoolgirl crush on Miss Wilson, but there had been nothing sexual in it - she had been very naïve about these things then. And then, she'd Marcus, and marrying Marcus fitted into her neat, organized view of the world as it should be. But this was … Alex's touch aroused new feelings in her. New feelings she was astonished to realize she was keen to explore…


Chapter 7: Meanwhile, in Provence

Serena was bored – bored to death, bored to tears, and she had had enough of those two lately. She knew she couldn't have stayed in Holby a moment longer – for God's sake, she had tried to strangle a colleague ! But her choice of the South of France might not have been an inspired one. She had been there several times with Edward and with Eleanor, for holidays spent basking in the sun beside the pool, tasting the rosés and generally idling about, but Provence was not quite the same alone and in the middle of the summer. Tourists had invaded the little town where she had rented a small house, and even the pool lost its appeal after a while. She had chosen St Maximin because it was close to Aix-en-Provence, smaller, but with enough shops and activities not to be totally dead. When she had arrived in April, she had spent nearly a month just pottering about her new home, watching series on Netflix, and wallowing. She had made a token visit to the basilica, admired it splendour, and never darkened its doors again. 

Yet, she had soon got tired of doing nothing. She had always been hyper-active – something her mother couldn't stand about her. "Sit still! Well- behaved little girls do not tear around like hooligans!" "Don't run about like that, it's not safe!" "Stop pestering me and go to your room and find something to do!" had been her mother's continuous complaints. At school, she had been a totally nightmare – she knew that now, although obviously, at the time, she felt like the teachers blamed her for anything and everything. But to be honest, she had mostly been in trouble for good reasons – like when a boy had tried to steal her marbles, and she'd punched him in the nose. Or when she had led a food fight in the cafeteria with rock-hard buns. Or when she had painstakingly soaked all the chalk before the history lesson… Lessons mostly bored her, because despite her wild behaviour, she had a quick mind, and she understood thing faster than the rest of the students. And when she was bored, she fidgeted, chatted with her neighbours or beset the teachers with questions. She was a little know-all too, and woe betided the teacher who made a mistake – she never hesitated to point it out! She had been close to expulsion a number of times, and her mother had finally had enough of being asked to come to see the headmaster for her troublesome daughter….

Therefore, at thirteen, Serena was sent to boarding school – it would have been an unaffordable expense for her mother, but a childless relative of her father had stepped in and offered to pay the fees. The school was not far from her home, but it was a different universe. It had been impressed upon her that being sent there was not a reward for bad behaviour, but a unique chance to make a fresh start. Finding life at home with her mother unbearable, Serena had accepted without qualms. She did not reform at once, obviously. Several girls were all too ready to be led into mischief by the newcomer. She was quieter during lessons, as the level was higher than at her previous school, and so she was less bored. Moreover, some of the teachers actually encouraged debates and she enjoyed that. Outside, however, was another story. They were taken to the nearby town at least once a week, and they were allowed to go shopping in small groups. Serena decided it would be fun to have a dormitory cocktail party …During one of the shopping trip, she managed to ditch her uniform, and to convince the shopkeeper she was buying whisky and rum for her mother, who lived down the road. She had enough money, and she looked older than her age – the cashier was a young man who thought her very attractive, and wouldn't have minded asking her for a date – he didn't take much convincing to sell her the alcohol and cans of soda. 

It seemed as if she was going to get away with it, as she got the bottles safely into the dorm, and at midnight sharp, she and her three roommates, equipped with toothmugs, began sampling odd concoctions of rum, whisky, Lucozade and Ribena. The drinks tasted vile, but the thrill of the illicit adventure was enough to cover their awfulness. Now, Serena had tasted alcohol at home, and although she had not particularly liked it, she had seen the consequences it had had on her mother; Adrienne after a few glasses became a much nicer person, alcohol softened her, made her happy. Serena was quite eager to get to that rose-tinted world herself, and so she drank glass after glass, encouraging her roommates to do the same. What she had not planned on was that it could make others maudlin – two of the other girls began crying softly, while she remained annoyingly sober. If she had not, her behaviour might have had severe consequences. As it was, when the third girl's face began swelling, and she began to pant, as if she couldn't breathe, Serena had enough wits left to run for the matron, who understood the situation quickly enough to inject the girl with epinephrine in time to prevent real anaphylaxis. Then, on the morning after, Serena's friend found herself in hospital, and Serena and the other two were sent for by the headmistress. 

The head's secretary knocked at the study door, and let the three girls in. The head was sitting behind her desk, and she gestured for them to come and stand on the carpet. Then, she looked at then in silence with an undecipherable expression for what seemed liked ages, but was probably not more than three or four minutes. However, the atmosphere in the room was so heavy that Serena thought she would scream if it lasted any longer. She did not, but she blurted out: "Please say something! Tell us off, but say something!". The other two girls looked at her aghast. The head, however, began writing on a sheet of paper, as if she had not heard anything. She remained in silence for a few minutes longer, and by then Serena felt almost hysterical – this was much worse than any lectures she had had at her previous school, or when she had been in trouble before and got dealt with by the housemistress. Then, the head spoke at last:

"If I were you, Serena Campbell, I would refrain to tell the others what to do. Especially if the "others" are older, more experienced and in charge of your education."

Serena hung her head. The head went on : "But since you obviously want to speak, maybe you could tell me who was responsible for last night's little drink party ?"

Serena gulped, but she was no coward: "I was, Miss Ferrars. I bought the drink, and brought it to the dormitory. Helen, Janet and Clare had nothing to do with it."

- Well, I beg to differ – you probably did not pour the drink down their throats by force.

- No, I didn't, of course, but …I kind of encouraged them…

- I see. I'd like you to go out right now, please, while I talk to Janet and Clare. I'll see you right after."

Serena went out to stand behind the study's door. She was feeling sick – partly from fright, partly from the nauseating concoctions of the night before. She would get expelled …what would her mother say? Where would she go – no school would take her after that! For maybe the first time in her life, she realized that actions had consequences. 

The door opened, and her two roommates walked out. Both were crying. Serena stepped back in, shutting the door carefully behind her, and stood in front of the desk as before, eyes downcast. 

"Look at me", said Miss Ferrars. Serena couldn't quite make out her tone. It was stern, obviously, but it held something else. Anger ? It sounded more like …pity…sorrow, even. 

"When I accepted you into this school, I knew you were mischievous, disobedient, wilful, but I did not think you were stupid or malicious, Serena. Was I wrong ?"

Serena did not answer – what could she say. 

"I'll take your silence for an agreement. So, if you are not stupid, how could you possibly ignore the rules in such a blatant way, betray the trust the school puts into you, and endanger a classmate in that way ?" 

- I'm sorry, Miss Ferrars." 

- I have no doubt you're sorry. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence, of common sense even, would be!"

- Am I going to be expelled?

- You should be. Your roommates have not been – I've taken away their privileges, and given them lines. You have had those before, but apparently, it was not enough. Moreover, your actions have put another girl's life into danger. What would you do if you were me, Serena? 

Nothing but honest, Serena replied: "I guess I would expel you, Miss Ferrars. I mean me." And she waited for the verdict to fall. 

There were another few minutes of silence, almost unbearable for Serena. Then Miss Ferrars spoke again: "Well ? Should I call your mother?". The tension was too much for Serena, who burst into tears. The head handed her a tissue, and waited for her to calm down. "I could expel you, Serena, but I think it would do great damage. I believe in second chances – although in your case, it is more like a tenth or eleventh chance, but I think you could be a credit to St Bride's if you applied yourself and stopped behaving like a naughty child. Do you think you can do that?"

Serena's throat was still too full of tears for her to say anything, but she nodded. 

"Very well then. We agree. I'm not going to call your mother and send you packing. However, I think you'll also agree that you have earned a punishment?"

Serena murmured an almost inaudible "yes". 

"As I've already said, it does not look as if lines, detention or loss of privileges have had any impact on you. Therefore, and although I very much regret it, I am going to do something I have not done to any of my pupils for the last ten years. I'm going to cane you." Serena looked up, eyes wide open – she knew, of course, that the head was the only member of the staff to occasionally apply corporal punishment, and stories circulated in the school of previous pupils who had been thus chastised, but it all seemed like ancient history….Miss Ferrars went on: "I hate to inflict pain on anyone, and at thirteen, you are almost too old for this, but I hope the memory will help you remember this day. Hold out your right hand, please." The cane fell twice on Serena's right palm, and twice on her left. The blows were not severe – they stung, but less than the humiliation of getting the cane. 

Three years later, Serena Campbell, Head Girl of St Bride's, passed her Higher certificate with flying colours, and was accepted at Birmingham University School of Medicine…


Chapter 8

After a month of idling and keeping herself to herself, Serena decided she just had to get out of the house, or she would go mad. She decided that despite the expresso machine in the kitchen, she could try to have coffee at the big café on Place St Jean – each time she'd walked past it on the way to the shops, it had been a hub of activity – young mothers with pushchairs waiting for the end of the schooldays – well, those had been the most painful to watch, and that might have been why she'd given the place a wide berth afterwards – but also old men playing cards, and teenagers frantically texting on their mobiles. She took a book from the well-stocked shelves of the villa – it was also time to rekindle her French, which had not been her forte at school – biology and chemistry had been her favourite subjects, but she didn't seem to have any ear for languages – or music, for that matter. The music mistress had tried her best, but… The book was, predictably enough, A year in Provence by Peter Mayle …in its French translation. Armed with her paperback shield, she strolled to the heart of the village and sat down at a table in the shade. It was 2.00 in the afternoon, a time when no native in his right mind would go out – the temperature was a cool 31°, without an ounce of mistral, and the sky cloudless. She ordered coffee, which compared favourably to its homologue at Holby's cafeteria, and settled to reading. 

After a while, she felt someone's glance on her, and lifted her eyes. "Quelle est donc la star qui se cache derrière ces lunettes ? », said a masculine voice from a nearby table. She had enough French to understand « lunettes » and « cacher » , and the tone in which it had been said could only said to be complimentary. She glanced at the owner of the voice – he was a tall silvery-haired man, suntanned to death like many of the natives. He was also undeniably attractive. 

"Est-ce que je peux vous offrir un verre ?" said the stranger. 

- Merci, mais je …

- Oh, you're English – let me rephrase that then – may I offer you a drink ? 

- Thank you, but I was just going" 

Serena stood up abruptly, and went to the bar to pay for a coffee. She had no intention of getting into anything remotely romantic – getting back with Robbie had been a big enough mistake. And yet …what if Bernie never came to Provence? What if she herself went back to Holby and Bernie decided to leave again? The months when Bernie had been in Ukraine had been hard enough – and it was before …At Eleanor's funeral, and in the days after, Bernie's presence had been a great comfort. The funeral itself had been a little awkward though – Edward's family had been there, and Edward himself, and although she didn't give a damn about what HE thought, she had not wanted any scandal on that day. Liberty would have had a field's day if she had known … So although Bernie had been there, it was in Edward's arms that she had broken down in tears when the first handfuls of earth had been thrown on the coffin.

Even now, she wondered how she'd been able to get out of bed afterwards, to get back to work – as if anything made sense anymore. Her mother's death had been hard enough, but losing one's child was something no mother should have to live through. And in each case, she'd been left with the feeling that she had failed them. That she could have done more – and that she did not know them. 

The expression "mad with grief" had certainly been true for her – Serena was deeply ashamed of the way she'd treated Jasmine Burrows. As head girl of her school, she'd had to intervene in cases of bullying, and she'd been merciless with the bullies. And yet, she had tortured that poor girl, blaming her for Eleanor's death, and she'd even tried to excuse her own behavior, using the alibi of "training". She could imagine herself back on the carpet of Miss Ferrars' study, and hear what that lady would have had to say… 

She had been back in that study on several occasions after the painful interview, but never because she'd been in trouble. The head encouraged the students to come and talk to her, and they had had several meaningful conversations. 

As she went into the newsagent's – where they most thoughtfully sold The Times, The Guardian and the FT – she saw a notice in the window "Cours de danse classique/ barre au sol pour adultes". Ballet classes for adults ? Now that was something she ought to try – it would make a change from swimming, and it could only be good for her joints. She wondered if she'd forgotten everything, or if she would still be able to do the splits after all those years …It must be …More than twenty-five years since she'd set foot in a studio ! Hopefully, as an adult, she would not have to wear a leotard – there was no way she'd go if it was compulsory ! But a few pliés could nicely counterbalance the effects of too many glasses of pastis and rosé …

Ballet had been one of the helping factors in her turning a new leaf at school. The head had suggested – well, demanded, really – that she tried the classes. She's said it would give Serena a sense of discipline. Serena had gone reluctantly, as she'd had no wish of adding another compulsory class to her already very full timetable. She'd dragged her feet to the studio at first, and had felt decidedly awkward at the barre during the first lessons – she'd put in a class with younger pupils as she was a beginner. However, she was naturally flexible, and although she grumbled, enjoyed exercising. She soon made progresses and graduated to a more advanced class. She noticed she fidgeted less in academic classes, too. And she began to enjoy the discipline too, the ritual of practicing the same exercises over and over again, till it came as close to perfection as possible. She enjoyed pushing her body to its limits too. The teacher, Miss Enderson, had not been lavish in her praise, but a slight smile from her meant more than a thousand compliments from someone else, and Serena had learnt to appreciate those little smiles. 

Yes, she would give this adult class a go – but she wouldn't tell anyone about it, especially not Bernie – she could imagine what the Major would make of ballet dancing. Serena sighed – there were many others things she would like to tell Bernie, but phone calls were usually brief, due to Bernie's punishing schedule, and neither of them was really into letter or email writing. Some things couldn't be said in writing anyway. She'd tried to write a letter of apology to Jasmine, but all her clumsy attempts had ended up in the wastepaper basket. She would just have to wait until she got back to Holby to tell her how sorry she was, face to face. And Bernie …she just wanted to take her into her arms – she could imagine that embrace …Bernie a little stiff at first – she'd never been the one for physical contact, and then …


Chapter 9

Spring segued into summer. The schools liberated their pupils, and tourists invaded the little town. Wednesdays' markets doubled in size, and cafés' tables spilt out on the pavements. Every two days or so, a festival, a concert, a dance, a car rally or a flower show was announced. 

The heat was becoming unbearable, and the best place to be was in or near the pool. Even wine and food had lost their appeal. Serena had fallen into a routine of going into the town in the morning to buy bread, other edibles, and the newspaper, spending the hottest early afternoon hours watching shows even Jason would have found asinine on television, and swimming and sunbathing. She did not want to think about the future – now she was in Provence, she couldn't see herself ending her days there. She had toyed with the idea of opening a business – maybe something to do with wine…after all, her Harvard MBA would stand her in good stead for that – but she'd quickly dismissed the idea – she couldn't see herself deserting medicine altogether. Maybe she could set up as a general practitioner? There were enough English people here to make a living from that, even if her French might not be up to consulting in that language. But this would mean having to take care of sore throats and urinary infections, measles and flus …Moreover, if the English population was numerous in the South of France, it was mostly veering on the geriatric side, and she was no good with the elderly – any older lady with degenerative health would bring her back to her mother's last months …She could not cope with Alzeihmers' and Parkinsons' and dementia. And she was after all a surgeon – she would miss the thrill of the operating theatres. 

And then there was Bernie …She couldn't see the Major wanting to spend the rest of her life idling in the sun. 

She still couldn't quite believe what had happened. Of course, at St Winifred, some of the girls had had crushes on each other, and it was well known that one of the history teachers shared a small house with the German teacher, and probably more than a house. However, she had been very much in love with Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford coming a close second. In medical school, and later on at Harvard, she'd had numerous boyfriends, and then, of course, Edward had come along. Never for one moment would she have believed anyone telling her the love of her life might well be a blonde amazon… That first kiss had come as a complete surprise, and her exhausted brain at the time had not quite processed it as quickly as it ought to have done. At least, that's what she'd tried to tell herself during the following days. And yet, if she was totally honest with herself, there had been something almost magnetic in her first encounters with Berenice Wolfe. They were destined to be best friends or arch enemies …

The kiss had thrown her completely out of kilter though – she was not "like that", of course she wasn't. And yet, if her mind had objected, her body had been in complete agreement. Her body had leant toward her colleague on its own, and her lips had parted willingly. Not so awkward after all, although it had definitely felt so later on. She tried to imagine what it would have been like if she'd shared that kiss with someone else. Henrik Hanssen, for instance, or maybe Sasha, or Ric …. Would it have felt more "right" ? Sasha was a lovely man, but she couldn't say she felt attracted to him in the least. Ric …she knew too much about his love past – he came with a huge warning sign above his head ! As for Henrik …there was undeniably some chemistry with him, but he'd never been anything other than a good friend – he was so aloof she just couldn't see him trying to kiss her… even if sometimes, she'd wondered… 

Part of her did not believe it yet, and since she'd arrived in France, she'd wondered if their relationship would be more "absence makes the heart grow fonder" or "out of sight, out of mind"…

The day she discovered the lump was like any others – sunny, hot, with just a hint of mistral. She wasn't sure at first – didn't want to be. But it was really there, under the left side of her bikini top. She'd felt her breasts becoming more tender lately, but she had attributed that to stress, and early menopause symptoms. She couldn't exactly remember the last time she'd gone to the gynecologist – she had had no use for the pill for a long time, and any non-urgent medical visit had been swallowed by day-to-day business. Of course, it could well be benign…And yet …she had a feeling…

A week later, she got an email from Bernie – even more laconic than usual, it said : "Feeling like a few days of rest and sunshine – any room for me?". Serena's answer had been equally brief: "Sunshine waiting for you here – do come". Anything else would have to be said face to face…


Chapter 10: The reunion

Bernie finally reached St Maximin, and parked the car in the main street. She took a deep breath, and heaved a long sigh – this was worse than the battlefield! She tried to imagine how she would impart all the recent ghastly news to Serena, but just couldn't think of a way to soften the blow. Maybe she should do it gradually, and wait for a while. This was probably not a situation where the band-aid method would be optimal…And yet…She sighed again, and reached for another cigarette. Then, she looked at the map, located Serena's villa and started the car again. 

Serena must have heard the car coming up on the driveway, because she was outside to greet her. The two women embraced, a little shyly, as if after being apart, they had to start their relationship all over again. 

"Let me get my case – I've got Marmite and digestives for you – a little taste of ol' blighty."

"And I've got a bottle of rosé in the fridge – I've gone quite native."

While Serena busied herself in the kitchen, putting glasses and olives on a tray, Bernie watched her anxiously. Was Serena strong enough to hear the news? She seemed better than when she'd left Holby, and she had acquired an almost bronze tan, but …there was still something that seemed "off", somehow. She couldn't exactly pinpoint it. Of course, Eleanor's death was still very recent – not even a year, but …Well, she would just have to tread carefully.

"So, you finally managed to tear yourself from Holby – you look washed out, you must have been working too hard, as usual."

"Well, thanks for the compliment! You know the NHS – never employ new staff if the others haven't worked themselves to death," replied Bernie with a smile – and immediately she wished she could retract her words. What a way to put her foot in it! 

"AAU can manage without us for a while," went on Serena. "No one's indispensable." 

"That's for sure," muttered Bernie. 

"How are the others ? I hope you told Rick I'm waiting for him to visit too."

"Of course I did – but he's got a lot on his plate at the moment."

"Really ?" But Serena didn't seem overly interested and Bernie hurriedly went on : "Everyone's fine – they thank you for the olive oil - although Fletch had a little accident with it, and the cleaning staff was NOT happy." 

"Good old Fletch…And what about Jasmine ? Is she happy about her transfer to London ?"

Bernie was trapped – she'd always been a terrible liar, and there was no way she could lie her way out of that anyways. She gathered her courage and tried to soften the blow: "Jasmine is not in London. At the beginning of July, she …well, there was an accident and…" This was awful. It felt like the day Elinor had fallen into a coma all over again. "I'm so sorry, Serena – Jasmine had a scalpel in her pocket, and she … she fell." No need to go into details, this was not the time. "She didn't survive."

Serena was stunned : "If that's your idea of a joke, it's in very poor taste." 

"I'm sorry." Repeated Bernie as Serena stared at her. "I'm so sorry – we did our best, but …we just couldn't save her. I just couldn't save her, she'd lost too much blood, and…" She watched Serena anxiously. The other woman sat stock-still and ashen-faced. Then Serena murmured: "If even the great military surgeon did not manage to save her, it must have been quite a fall."

Bernie recoiled, feeling as if she'd been struck. She bit her lips hard, trying to get her emotions back into control. She had to remember Serena was in shock. 

"And no one thought of informing me?", went on Serena. "You couldn't have told me?"

"Well, we thought that …so soon after …"

"You thought that poor Serena was already off her rocker, so that might finish her off ?"

"Come on!"

"Or is that why you're here now? You thought your presence might soften the blow? Well, guess what? It doesn't !"

Bernie had been expecting a reaction, but she hadn't prepared herself for such a backlash. She felt deeply wounded by Serena's attitude. She'd come all the way to the South of France to be with her again, and if she was honest with herself, she was also expecting comfort and support from her partner, but this was unbearable. And before she could stop herself, she lashed out: "I guess you could say that I came to be the bearer of bad news all right. Because I've got more for you – there's no more money for the trauma unit, so they've closed it down, and I'm out of a job. And in two weeks, I'll be on my way to Sudan! But that might not be such bad news for you if you don't want me with you anymore, anyways!" 

She stalked out of the room into the garden, and lit a cigarette. She felt distraught. Once again, she couldn't have handled things more badly. 

Serena made as if to follow her, but slumped back in her seat. She couldn't quite believe she'd been so nasty. Anger at having been left out of the hook had taken over, and she'd just reacted in the most hurtful way possible. She was ashamed of herself. She looked out of the window, and saw Bernie, her back rigid, staring straight ahead of her. Serena sighed. As much as she hated admitting to being in the wrong, she would have to eat humble pie if she wanted a chance to salvage their relationship. Even though she wondered what kind of relationship it really was. Was Bernie expecting her to go to Sudan? Or was she just escaping, as she had done when she was with Marcus? 

Serena went outside to join Bernie: "I shouldn't have said that. You know I didn't mean it. I love you."

"Do you?" replied Bernie bitterly. "Because right now I don't feel really welcome."

Serena extended her arms, and Bernie let herself be drawn into a hug… "You can only hurt someone you love. But I really didn't mean it. I AM sorry."

"I know you are", said Bernie. "And I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have told you like that." 

"Maybe not – but I know your bedside matter isn't the greatest." 

Bernie mock-punched Serena in the shoulder, and they embraced again.

Over wine and olives, Bernie explained the events of the previous months. Serena was horrified, but she managed to remain calm, and then they decided to shelve the topic for the time being and to enjoy their reunion. 

During the first days, Serena dragged Bernie to all the local attractions – they went to the basilica, to Aix-en-Provence, to a jumble sale, a wine tasting and even to an ostrich farm. Finally, Bernie pleaded exhaustion and they settled down to a quieter pace. The heat was torrid and the pool was the best place to be. However, they were both aware that just beside the pool was a rather big elephant that was not going to remain ignored for long. One day, Serena couldn't stand it any longer: "So …Sudan? Really?"

Bernie felt torn. Part of her wanted to stay with Serena, to go back with her to England if this was her plan. She could always find another job, but …Was she really going to pass this opportunity to go back to army life? She knew they could really use her skills down there. She could make a difference. She wouldn't go back to a war zone – her body had recovered amazingly well, but she was not as strong as she'd been before her accident. Her neck still hurt at times, and she had less endurance. But most of all, she didn't think she could face the memories that would come with a return to Afghan. Alex-shaped memories. And she couldn't put Serena through the anxiety, the waiting. Sudan was safe – well, relatively so anyways. 

Serena was waiting for her answer. "Yes, I think so. It feels like something I need to do", replied Bernie in a small voice. "I don't suppose you would consider coming with me ?"

Serena remained silent. Field hospitals were definitely not her thing, but she could have coped. She would have been with Bernie after all. Except that …she discreetly touched her breast. IT was there, ominous. Going to Sudan could be signing her death sentence. She got up and said: "Let's have a drink! I'm parched"

Bernie's stay was nearly over. She had decided to go directly to South Sudan. She would be joining the emergency department of the field hospital in Bantiu – they were nearly as well equipped as Holby, with a surgical theatre, a lab, scanners and isolation wards. 

They were lounging beside the pool when Bernie's phone beeped. She reached for it, but Serena was quickest: "Just leave it! You're still on holiday – it's not the red phone announcing an onrush of casualties! No one is waiting for you to in and get down to it !"

Bernie, her eyes half closed, answered lazily: "Maybe so, but – just have a look and see who's the message is from, will you ?" 

Serena swiped the phone open, took off her sunglasses and looked at the screen: "I can't see anything in this sun…Wait …It says "The Husband" – I thought you'd gotten rid of that, dear …"

"I just never got down to changing the name on the phone, that's all. Marcus ?" said Bernie, frowning. "What can he possibly want ? We'd agreed to communicate only through our lawyers. Can you read me the message?"

Serena looked back at the screen and blanched – immediately, Bernie sprang up and snatched the phone from her.


Chapter 11

As the online search did not yield any results, Bernie decided to drive directly to the airport in Nice, where she hoped to be able to catch a flight to London asap. She threw her clothes into her suitcase – luckily, she travelled light, and put the suitcase in the boot. 

Serena, who was hovering at the door, asked her: "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you down to the airport? You've had a shock – I don't want you to …well, remember what happened when Eleanor…"

"I'm not Eleanor; I've driven jeeps into Iraq and Afghan, I can manage a rental car on the motorway."

"Yes, I'm sure, but …"

Bernie's face was frozen stiff, had been since she'd read Marcus' message. However, she had been through too much, and been trained too well for emergency situations not to hear the panic in Serena's voice. She tried to control her own emotions, and spoke as calmly as she could: "Don't worry about me – I'll be ok. I'll call you as soon as I know which plane I can board."

"I'll close the house, give the keys back to the rental agency and follow you to London," said Serena. 

"You don't have to. Not until I know exactly what …what …"Bernie's voice faltered. Serena put her arms round her shoulders, and hugged her: "It will be all right – I'm sure she's going to be fine."

"You don't know that! You of all people should know there's nothing sure about this."

Serena's voice shook as she answered: "You're right – I shouldn't have said that – but I'll come to London anyways. I mean, I'll go back home to Holby, so I can come whenever you need me. I wasn't intending on staying here forever, you know. Not alone, with nothing to do…What are you going to do about Sudan?"

Bernie gave her a small smile: "I guess that was not on the cards – I'll have to phone the base from London. I really have to go now."

She gave Serena a quick kiss on the lips, grabbed her car keys and drove off. Her mind was working furiously – she'd tried to phone Marcus, but his phone was turned off. He must be at the hospital. Bernie didn't believe in karma, nor much in God, but it seemed like someone out there had it for her. People said bad luck happened in threes – first the Trauma unit closure, then this …what would be the next catastrophe? But maybe it had begun before, with Eleanor's death? Or when she'd been outed in front of the whole ward? Anyways, she had no time to think about this now. She just had to make sure she did not arrive too late…

She finally managed to find a seat on a non-direct Air France flight – it was far from perfect, but it meant at least that she would be able to arrive in London that evening. She was so tense she couldn't help wringing her hands, so much that the air hostess noticed and asked her if she was nervous of flying…In other circumstances, Major Wolfe would have found this funny, but she had to muster all her savoir vivre to say politely that she was not, but that it was kind of her to ask, and to thank her for her concern. 

Meanwhile, Serena was packing furiously. She could not hope to travel as lightly as Bernie, for she'd been in Provence a lot longer, so she decided to drive her rental car to Paris, and to take the Eurostar from there. She had friends in Paris who could keep part of her luggage and send it on later. While she was tidying up, her mind was focused on only one thing – Eleanor's death. While she'd been in Provence, she'd decided that she should have another go at counseling sessions. There were a few English-speaking therapists in Aix-en Provence, but she knew that if she had to take the car and drive there, she would never honor her appointments. However, she'd found one that consulted on Skype, and it suited her better. It was hard at first, especially since silences are much harder to bear on Skype than in real life, but little by little she was able to open up about her relationship with her daughter, with her own mother, and to talk openly about Eleanor's death, and the guilt she felt. She should have been there – she should have made sure her daughter was all right. She should have told her about not being deputy CEO anymore. She should have told her about Bernie. 

Christmas had been excruciating. It had begun rather well though. Eleanor had spent Christmas Eve at her father's, and Bernie's children were with Marcus, and so they'd been together, neither of them on call for once. Jason had left them alone, as he was playing WOW on his computer in his room for the whole evening. They had spent a cosy evening at her home, with plenty of shiraz, canapés and Belgian chocolate cake... Both quite exhausted from the hectic AAU schedule, they'd fallen asleep on the couch in front of Dr Who. As Bernie had remarked on the next day, they must have drunk more than they'd thought, because not even the screams of the brain-swapping aliens had kept them awake…Christmas day, however, was nightmarish. She had never been a big fan of Christmas – when she was a little girl, they had gone to her grandparents', who had all the warmth of Victorian undertakers. They could not understand that a child couldn't be expected to sit at a table for four hours, without talking – because children should be seen and not heard. The food had been stodgy, and there was no getting out of eating her sprouts – hateful things. And when she was a little older, she'd decided to become a vegetarian, and that did not go well either …She usually got useful presents, like socks or home-knit pullovers, for which she was supposed to write thank you letters.

Bernie had confided that since her mother's death, they had not celebrated Christmas at all when her father was not on external ops – it had been a day like all others, except that she was not at school but on whatever army base her father had been posted on at the time. When her father was on ops, she'd had to spend the festivities with another family on the base, or even at one of her teachers'. It did not make for very good memories… When her kids had been young, they'd spent it with Marcus' parents, who'd always managed to make her feel inadequate. If she'd contributed to the meal, Marcus' mother would say something like: "Very nice, dear, if a little over/under cooked – but of course your dear mother did not have time to teach you to cook, the poor thing." When she'd stopped contributing, her mother-in-law had changed her tune to : "I'm exhausted, but I so like to provide a nice meal for Christmas – of course I understand you didn't have time to help, but…" The kids had gorged on sweets and cake, and usually ended up the day sick. She had then spent two Christmases on mission, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and she'd felt more comfortable there ! 

And so, in spite of themselves, they had great expectations for that Christmas –they wanted to have a lovely time and to. Everything had gone well in the morning – they'd both cooked a little, and dished out ready-made food too – they had had no intention of slaving in the kitchen. The presents for the kids were waiting under the tree. They'd already exchanged their gifts to one another, as they were a little too intimate for public disclosure … At noon, Eleanor had arrived, with a book for Jason, a poinsettia for her mother "because she already had everything anyways", and nothing for Bernie. And then she'd proceeded to ignore her pointedly. She had not been pleased to know they were waiting for Bernie's children to sit down to lunch. Cameron had arrived a quarter of an hour afterwards, alone – he'd mumbled that Charlotte had drunk too much on the previous night, and that she was feeling nauseous and not up to Christmas lunch. As he'd never been a good liar, an inquisitive stern look from Bernie got him to confess that Charlotte had said there was no bloody way she would spend Christmas at her "mother's whore" house. Bernie had gulped – she'd been terribly hurt – but she'd smiled and said that this way, there would be more pudding for everyone else. Cameron had done his best to keep the conversation going over the table, but his efforts soon petered out and apart from Jason, no one was really feeling festive anymore. Eleanor had sat there, toying with her food and answering Serena and Bernie's attempts at small talk by monosyllables. The meal had been mostly silent, Serena simmering over her daughter's rudeness and Bernie feeling as if once again, she'd been the one to spoil everything. 

Right after lunch, Eleanor had jumped up and said she was going back to her father's, as she had mates to see, and Cameron had followed her soon afterwards, pretexting he had to do some studying for exams. Eleanor had accepted her mother's present – a nice cashmere jumper – but had pointedly left the bracelet Bernie had bought for her under the tree, still in its wrapping. Jason had gone back to his room and his game, and Bernie had sunk on a chair at the table, head in her hands. Not even the double scotch she and Serena had drunk could salvage the fiasco…


Chapter 12

When her plane landed at Charles-de-Gaulle, Bernie tried again to call Marcus, but his phone was still switched off. She couldn't even call the hospital, as his text hadn't mentioned which one it was. She couldn't help thinking that he had found a way to torture her and to take his revenge. He had accused her of not caring for the kids, but he knew very well what effect his text would have had on her. She strode across the airport to get on her next plane, fuming. Luckily for her, it was on time – she would be arriving in London around 8.00 pm. 

Serena had finished packing, and she was driving on the Autoroute du Sud towards Paris. Her mind was focused on Bernie – she could imagine all too well was she was going through. She'd thought her work with the therapist had helped her come to terms with Eleanor's death, but this proved she had not. She was fervently hoping this was a nasty ploy from Marcus, and that the situation was not as critical as he had implied, but she knew it was probably wishful thinking. She had forgotten all about her personal worries for the moment – she just wanted to be there for Bernie as she'd been there for her. Whatever the outcome. Were there any situations where love didn't hurt ? 

At 8.10 pm, Bernie was in the taxi queue at Heathrow. Her phone beeped – another text from Marcus : "Royal London Hospital, ICU; where are u ?" The Royal ? She frowned – why on earth ? At least she would be there in an hour or so. She felt so helpless – she couldn't stand situations where she was not in control, in action. In the taxi, she fidgeted with her phone, sent a message to Serena: "On my way to the Royal H" and another one to Marcus: "There in 1. Wait for me in reception. Hate u." She couldn't think about what awaited her, and she tried desperately to think about something else, but the only thing her exhausted mind could focus on was Eleanor's death. How telling Serena her daughter was in a critical condition had been the hardest thing she'd ever had to do in her life. What if …

Bernie alighted from the cab and strode into the hospital reception. Marcus was there, pacing up and down – she walked straight towards him, and he lifted his head, the ghost of a smile on his lips: "Well, look what the cat's brought him."

"Where is she ? What happened ?"

"She's in theatre right now – has been for the last four hours. She was brought in by an emergency ambulance. Apparently she was found in shock at a music festival, half-stoned. Her friends called the paramedics as she appeared to be in severe abdominal pain and confused. They didn't know for how long she'd been like that, because they were all under the influence of whatever they'd taken the night before. They called me, and I texted you. One of the docs came to update me an hour ago. On arrival, they performed a CT pelvic scan, followed by a transvaginal ultrasound and a pregnancy test. Ruptured ectopic pregnancy, around seven weeks after conception. She's had a major internal bleed – they had to remove the Fallopian tube, and they were trying to save the uterus…However, her heart is weak, and they're trying to stabilize her"

Bernie listened, ashen-faced, and sagged. This was not a procedure she's had to perform often, but she knew the risks. If the laparotomy was not done soon enough, the issue could be fatal. Drawing her breath, she said: "Did you know she was pregnant ?"

"I did not. And neither did she apparently – at least, she hadn't told her friends, and I can't imagine she would have smoked and drunk like that if she'd known…" Marcus tried to put his arms round Bernie's shoulders, but she shrugged him off, and went to sit down a little further. Mechanically, she took her phone from her pocket and sent a message to Serena: "At the hospital with Marcus – waiting in ICU. What about you."

Serena's reply pinged : "In Paris. Will be boarding the Eurostar tomorrow first train. How is she ?"

"Still critical. I'm worried" 

"Love u." "Me too." 

Serena was more than worried now – because if Bernie said she was worried, it meant she was frantic. Moreover, she still didn't know what exactly was wrong, and she hated to be in the dark. 

Marcus came to sit beside Bernie: "Look, I'm sorry …" She lashed out at him: "Sorry ? What's the use of being bloody sorry? And what are you sorry for anyways? I don't imagine you had anything to do with her getting pregnant in the first place. Even you couldn't be that devious."

"God! Forgive me for trying to comfort you," answered Marcus. "But if we're trying to blame someone her, maybe I should blame you – obviously, you didn't talk to her much about contraception. Or maybe you were too busy playing soldiers to take care of that altogether…"

Bernie looked at him in shock: "You …you …you bastard!"

"Nice choice of word, Bern"

"She's 27, for God's sake!" Bernie turned away in disgust. The worst thing was that of course, she felt terribly guilty. Maybe she was to blame…

And this, maybe, was the third shock – she could have become a grand-mother in a few months…


Chapter 13: Back in England

Waiting was definitely not one of Major Wolfe's forte. She was just about to get up and inquire at the front desk when a doctor came into the room and made straight for Marcus. He had just begun to talk to him when she joined in

"You must be Mrs Dunn – I was just telling your husband that …"

"Bernie Wolfe, Consultant Trauma Surgeon – and he's not my husband – how is she?"

"Well, Miss Wolfe, as your …your partner…must have told you, she was very weak when she arrived, and she'd lost a lot of blood. We had to transfuse her. She's still under sedation, but she's stable."

Bernie tssked at the word "partner": "What about internal damage?"

"I'm afraid we had to remove the uterus – it would have been impossible to stem the bleeding otherwise." 

Bernie nodded – she was devastated for Charlotte, but she understood. At least, her daughter was still alive. 

"Can we see her?"

"You can see her for a little while, yes." 

When Bernie saw her daughter lying there, in the recovery room, she was overwhelmed by emotion, and it took her every ounce of strength she had left not to let it show. There was no way she would break down in front of Marcus. She sat down beside the bed, and took her daughter's hand. Charlotte would recover – she had to, because otherwise, Bernie didn't think she could stand it . And so she sat there, and prayed – it wasn't a real prayer, because she did not really believe in God – otherwise, He (or She) wouldn't have killed her own mother, would he? And everything she had witnessed in Iraq and in Afghan would not have happened. But in case, just in case, she made a bargain with Him – she would mend her relationship with her daughter if He kept her alive. 

Meanwhile, Serena had managed to come back to England, to Holby. She'd heard nothing more from Bernie, though, and she wasn't sure what to do. Would she be welcome at the hospital? She finally decided to wait until Bernie contacted her. It felt strange being back in her house in Holby – it didn't feel like home anymore, although she'd lived there many years. She decided to go and see Jason. He was glad to see her, but not overly glad – he had never doubted she would come back to Holby, and he took her return as a matter of course. 

It seemed like ages to Bernie till Charlotte was woken up by the surgical team. When her daughter's eyes focused on her, she remembered what she had felt the first time she'd held her, after she'd given birth. It had been mostly wonder that she could have such a beautiful daughter, but wonder tinged with fear, because she'd become responsible for another human being. And she wasn't sure she was very happy about that. She was relieved when she was told she wouldn't be able to breastfeed, and she was glad to get back to work. It was easier than being a mother. Her mother-in-law had been more than happy to step in and take charge. During her daughter's first years, she'd not been at home much – and when she was, her daughter was usually asleep, having been fed, changed, and cuddled by Granny. Her mother-in-law even slept at their house sometimes and made Bernie feel like a useless spare part. Moreover, whenever she was home and tried to take care of her daughter, she never seemed to do it in the right way. There were times when she wished her mother in law would go to hell, and even whispered angry words exchanged. Of course, Marcus always took his mother's part, and it did not make things easier. 

After two days in the hospital at her daughter's bedside, without any sleep, Bernie was exhausted. Charlotte was listless and uncommunicative, but at least, she was alive. Bernie booked herself in a hotel, and sent Serena a text: "Charlotte awake and recovering." She was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open long enough to get under a hot shower, and she crashed into bed without waiting for Serena's answer. She was dimly aware that she probably should have phoned, but that would have taken too much energy – and truth to be told, she had a sneaking fear of Serena's reaction. 

Bernie's fear was not totally unfounded – when Serena got the text, she had a moment of pure rage – why Charlotte, and not Eleanor? However, it was only a fleeting moment, of which she was almost immediately deeply ashamed. She texted back, asking if Bernie wanted her to come to London. And waited for a reply. When she read that Bernie intended to come back to Holby in a few days, and that it was not necessary for her to come to London, she was disappointed. First because she wanted to help her partner through these difficult times. Secondly because she had no more excuses not to take care of her own troubles. And so she got on the phone to a clinic, and booked herself in for a mammography.


Chapter 14

A few days later, Bernie came back to Holby. She wasn't sure why, exactly – she couldn't see herself back in the hospital. As for her relationship with Serena, they hadn't really talked since France, and they'd not been in a good place then. Serena had definitely not been happy about Bernie going to the Sudan, and Bernie wasn't sure what to do anymore. Her daughter had gone back to Marcus' house to recover properly, and although Bernie knew she would have to have a good talk with her about the recent events, there had been nothing in her daughter's behavior to suggest she wanted her mother in the same country as her. No boyfriend had appeared at the hospital, and Charlotte had refused to say anything about the baby or the father. Bernie hoped she would confide in someone, if not in her. For the first time in many years, she found herself with nothing to do. She had finally decided to rent a furnished flat for four months, but she found she couldn't stand to be in there all alone, with nothing to do except think about her daughter and try to get her career back on tracks. She was worried about Charlotte, and she was worried about Serena too. Their last meeting had been awkward – they'd found nothing to say to each other, and they had dodged the essential questions. Moreover, Bernie had the definite impression Serena was hiding something from her. 

And then, the nightmares started – she woke up every morning drenched in sweat, her heart pounding. Sometimes she couldn't remember what she'd dreamt of – these were the good days. On bad days, when she opened her eyes, she remembered what had woken her up – the memory of enemy fire, of being blown up by the IED, the sight of a Taliban rifle pointed at their jeep, the sound of a grenade exploding near Camp Bastion. She couldn't stay in her flat with those images in her head, so she went running, till she couldn't breathe or think anymore. Or she went for endless walks accompanied with several packs of cigarettes. When she called Serena, she did not mention anything, and their conversations were about mundane subjects. She knew she had always found solace in work, and so she tried to find at least a locum position. But not in the NHS, not at Holby – she knew it was probably only a matter of pride and stubbornness, but she couldn't go back – not yet. She got in touch with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, which at least would get her back on familiar grounds, working with military personnel. They seemed interested, and they scheduled an interview in two weeks' time. And then Cameron invited himself for the weekend. 

They talked about his career, about his prospects, and he asked about Serena. Bernie quickly changed the subject. Later on that evening, she sensed he had something to tell her, probably something unpleasant: 

"Much as I enjoy your company, Cam, I can see you've got something on your mind. So why don't you cut to the chase and tell me?"

"Right …Spot on, mother dear. It's about Charlotte."

"Charlotte?" Bernie did not have a good feeling about that.

"Yes …She talked to me …About the …You know!"

"If you're going to be a doctor, Cameron, you'll have to learn to explain things better, and to go straight to the point. For God's sake, just say what you have to say."

"All right! There was no boyfriend – she went to a bar with friends, and she got chatted up by a bloke. She said he was very handsome, and they had a good talk – he told her he was a lawyer, specializing in family law. They all drank a lot, and she remembers going with him to a car park, as he'd told him he would take her home. That's all she remembers from the night – when she woke up, she was still in the car park – it was about 6 in the morning. Her clothes were all messed up. Two weeks after, she took a pregnancy test…"

Bernie was stone-faced – during her long sleepless nights at the hospital, it was one of the possibilities she had envisaged – but between speculating about rape and having it confirmed, there was quite a difference. She put her arms around Cameron's shoulders, hugging him. She was glad Charlotte had confided in someone, but she wished it hadn't been in Cameron – it wasn't fair to him, the burden was too heavy. They remained hugging on the sofa for a long time, until they finally separated to go to sleep. 

They did not make it through the whole night, however, as Cameron came into Bernie's room around 4 a.m. She woke up with a start, to find him shaking her: "What ??"

"You were screaming, Mom – something like "Take cover, they're here"!"

By the state of the bed, she had been having her usual nightmares: "I'm sorry, Cam, only a dream. Go back to sleep."

In the morning, he tried to make her talk about the nightmares, but she clammed up – she dismissed the matter, telling him briskly that it was nothing, it happened sometimes, and it would pass. No way would she burden her son with that as well. In any case, she thought that if she ignored them, they would go away – nothing like burying one's head in the sand…

She wasn't sure what to do about Charlotte – Cameron had told her Charlotte didn't want anyone to know, and Bernie thought she might just aggravate matters if she forced the issue. She could have killed her daughter's aggressor with her bare hands, but she knew from professional experience that rapists in cases like Charlotte's usually got off scot-free. Cameron had told her that the name he'd given Charlotte was probably a fake one, as he didn't exist on social media. 

When Cameron left, she thought she would try to distract herself by going to the cinema. She was queuing among a horde of people intent on seeing the latest Star Wars movie when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in the chest, and found herself unable to breathe. She had just enough self-control left to get out of the queue and the cinema and to flatten herself against a wall, fighting a rising nausea. She remained there for several minutes, panting and feeling close to fainting. Her medical training told her it was not a heart attack – she was in no immediate danger. However, her brain and her body were not in agreement over that… She cast her eyes around her, but no one seemed to have noticed. Good! She focused on her breathing, imagining what she would tell a patient: "Deeply and slowly – breathe in, breathe out…breathe in, breathe out …" She kept inhaling and exhaling until she could feel her heart rate coming back to normal. She thrust her hands in her pockets in search for a cigarette, but remembered she'd smoked the last one the evening before, and swore under her breath. She peeled herself from the wall and walked away. She knew what had just happened, of course – she'd been trained to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack. But she'd thought herself immune. She had coped for months after coming back from Afghan, so why should PTSD strike now? This was only a purely rhetorical question – finding herself at a loose end, plus what had happened to Charlotte, plus the other previous shocks …. Maybe she was not as tough as she'd thought she was after all.


Chapter 15

Toughness was a very relative notion. That's what she had told herself during her first days of the Professional Qualified Officer's course at Sandhurst. She had grown up among soldiers, on army bases, so she'd thought she knew the drill. There would be rules, order, and a chance to be even more useful to the patients as she would have been in civilian life. She'd thought it would not be so very different from boarding school – she'd survived seven years with petty rules and petty girls, she could survive ten weeks among future officers. The lectures were not that different from history and geography lessons, and some of them much more interesting. Learning how to use a rifle was too. The rest, however, was mostly hellish! She had been reasonably fit, and in med school, sleepless nights were not uncommon, and so she had learnt to function on little shut-eye time. But getting up at 5.15 am every morning took some getting used to. Especially since the next step was to align in the corridor, with a full bottle of water, in order to yell out the God Save the Queen… Drinking a litre of water with limited toilet facilities afterwards was definitely not something she'd done in med school…

Bernie had hated PE at school, and she did not like it any better at Sandhurst – getting muddy in the hockey field had never appealed to her, and getting in full camouflage to ramp in boggy fields did not either. Especially when she had to carry a humongous and heavy rucksack – sixty kilos, nearly her body weight... Actually, she'd been prepared for the toughness of the physical exercise, and although she shed buckets of sweat and several pounds during the course, she gritted her teeth, and if not smiled through it, at least endured it. What she hated the most was the cleaning and the orders. She had always been rather tidy at school, and at home – her father would not have tolerated a mess – but what they asked for at Sandhurst was something else. Each morning, they had to present themselves, and the room, to the inspection of the Staff Sergeant. The sheets had to be ironed every morning! She had never even thought of ironing a sheet before… For a full inspection, every belonging they had had to be displayed in a particular order in the room, every garment had to be ironed and hung up in a specific order in the wardrobe, the brass buckles and shoes had to be polished till you could see your reflection in it … The first time the Staff Sergeant – a formidable woman – pulled everything she'd just tidying on the floor, she couldn't believe her eyes. The second and third time, she was furious – and then, she began to accept it would never be perfect enough. 

Two days after her arrival, Bernie was called to the Staff Sergeant's office – she did not yet know the full routine involved in the simple task of answering a summon, but she could still remember it. You had to march to the door, stop in the doorway, perform a "check, one, two" foot stamp and stand to attention. Then, if that was done correctly, you had to ask permission to answer the summon with a "Leave to enter, Staff Sergeant, please". She would remember it till her last day, because on that day, she was sent back to the door not less than twelve time to "go back and try again, Miss Wolfe". And when she'd at last had permission to enter, she had had to stand to attention while the Staff Sergeant chastised her for "only being a civvy in uniform and not being able to do your hair properly, you pathetic excuse for a soldier." Her hair then was not nearly long enough to be tied up in the required strict bun, not even with the hairnets, hairpins, grips, slides, hair spray and hair wax she'd had to bring. Other later offences, like being caught leaning against the wall or with her hands in her pockets had brought other insults and innumerable press-ups. 

Bernie had thought of quitting several times during the course – being constantly abused in spirit and body was not her idea of a training session. The worst thing was that it was like at school or with her father – you could not answer back – that was obviously another punishable offence. She had wondered why on earth she'd chosen to submit herself to that ordeal. She was a grown woman, a surgeon, a mother, for God's sake. Why choose to be yelled at and ordered around? Probably because it was the only way she had found of proving to her father she was good enough … Up to his standards … Of course, that wasn't what she had told the Army Officer Selection Board. What she had told them was that she was very attracted to the trauma skills training course the army offered – that was true – that she thought she could perform well in a crisis situation – true enough, and that she had always been attracted to the army and wished to serve her country – not true, really, but the board had seemed to believe it anyways. She had not told them that family life hadn't proved as fulfilling as she'd hoped for, and that she was spending more and more time working at the hospital in order to avoid coming home too often. 

The training at the Royal College of Surgeon she'd had to attend before being sent to Iraq had certainly been interesting, and the subsequent course at the Army Medical Services Training Centre at Hospex, the military hospital exercise facility near York had been fascinating. It was arranged so as to mimic the geography of one of the Field Hospitals at Camp Bastion, and they'd had lectures on various topics, including trauma management, decision making, morals and ethics, along with practical exercises on pretend casualties. However, that was all after Sandhurst! 

When she stood with the other newly-trained officers in the passing-out parade, in full uniform, she had felt a mixture of relief, pride and anxiety. Marcus and the kids were there, watching her graduate. Marcus had not been over-enthusiastic over her choice – actually, at first, he'd told her she was completely mad. He'd raved and ranted, saying she was a mother, and obviously an unfit one. However, after a while, he'd admitted he could not control her and dictate her way of life, and he'd seemed to accept the idea. He might even have been a little proud of her. By the time she'd graduated from Sandhurst, her father had been too ill to travel, but he'd phoned her, and from their brief conversation, Bernie had had the feeling that maybe, just maybe, for once she'd lived up to his expectations. 

When she'd arrived in Iraq, she'd experienced a sense of freedom, even though she was living on an army base with the rest of the surgical team and many, many soldiers. She was at least free from Marcus' and his parents' expectations. Of course, her freedom was somewhat relative, and although she'd graduated from the PQO course at Sandhurst a Captain, she still had a whole hierarchy to answer to, as she'd found out during her first Iraq tour. A few days after she and her team had arrived at the British Army Hospital in Basra, she'd gone out in a convoy to a field hospital with two other medics and an escort of soldiers. She was travelling with her direct superior, Lieutenant Colonel Pastor, and two other soldiers. The other medics were in the other jeep. The convoy was attacked in the middle of nowhere, and the other vehicle was especially targeted. While the soldiers counter-attacked, Bernie jumped down and ran towards the injured members of the convoy – among the five travelling in the other jeep, two were still alive, barely. One of them died as she reached them, but she thought she could save the last one, one of the other medics. Lt Colonel Pastor shouted at her to come back, he'd called for a Casevac helicopter, but she ignored him. She managed to apply a tourniquet where the leg had been blown off, and started CPR. Although she could hear him perfectly well, she had no intention of leaving the wounded man until the arrival of the helicopter. It took fifteen agonizing minutes for the nearest one to arrive – luckily, the attack was not far from one of the base after all. During the fifteen minutes, she had been joined by the Lt Colonel, who hissed in her ears: "You can't even believe what trouble you're into, Wolfe! If we get out of this alive, I'm bloody going to kill you!"

He didn't quite kill her, but the repercussions were severe enough. She hadn't been back at the base for two hours when she was summoned by her Commanding Officer. She found him with Lt Colonel Pastor. Both of them looked at her with icy eyes:

"What happened today, Captain ?"

"Well, sir, I just did my job. You surely didn't want me to let Jones bleed to death ?"

"You disobeyed a direct order from your superior. You risked your own life unnecessarily."

"I couldn't be sure the helicopter would arrive on time, or that he wouldn't be DOA, sir."

"Look, Wolfe, I know you were a bloody civilian not long ago, but I thought you'd been trained, and that a surgeon would at least be able to understand direct orders. Or did you leave your brain behind in Blighty?"

Bernie hung her head.

"Answer me, Captain!"

"No, sir."

"You're no bloody use to us if you're dead! Can you at least keep that in that stubborn head of yours?"

"Yes, sir." After the adrenaline rush of the attack and rescue, Bernie was feeling thoroughly deflated. She knew she should have obeyed, but if the orders went against what she thought was right … 

"Do you know you could be court-martialed for this, Wolfe? And sent back to England, of course?"

"Yes, sir." If she could have crossed her fingers, she would have done so, but as she was standing to attention, it was not a possibility. She tried her toes, but her boots were not quite large enough.

"I'm prepared to be lenient, Wolfe – you'll be fined, but you're going to avoid the court-martial this time. That's only because you managed to save him and you came with an excellent record."

Bernie heaved a discreet sigh of relief: "Thank you, sir."


She saluted, and left the room. She wasn't quite sure what had happened there, but she knew she'd had a near escape. And when some time later, she was made Major, she remembered that sometimes, it was all right to temper justice with mercy.


Chapter 16

After several panic attacks, Bernie began to be seriously worried. So far, they had mostly happened when she was in crowds, not doing anything special. However, she had her meeting with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital coming up very soon, and she was terrified – what if she had an attack during her interview? Or worse, what if they accepted her among the staff, and she had one in theatre? She kept telling herself that she was strong enough to fight this, that she had learnt to keep a straight head in every circumstance, and to control her body in worst situations, but it didn't prevent the attacks from happening. 

She knew she needed to get busy again – for one thing, she needed the money. Although she'd fought Marcus as much as she could and received an almost fair settlement, she couldn't afford not to have a job. Moreover, she felt terribly alone. She couldn't understand why Serena kept her at arms' length, and her pride wouldn't let her go to her flat, cap in hand, begin for a small sign of affection. And so they both remained walled in their silence and their solitude. 

Serena had troubles of her own. She had gone private for her mammogram, because she didn't want her personal business broadcasted by the rumor mill at Holby. She was due to begin again in AAU in a week, and she'd already given the staff more than enough occasions to discuss her private life. She went alone for the test – she didn't want to burden Bernie with it, so soon after Charlotte's health scare. When she came out of the clinic, she had a moment of light-headedness. She hadn't the results yet – she was booked for the follow-up appointment two days later – but she had seen the manipulator's face as she looked at the screen – a slight twitch which would have been unnoticed by anyone, but not by a fellow health professional. 

And when she saw the consultant, he confirmed what she'd felt from the first time she'd noticed the lump: she had a tubular carcinoma in her left breast. It was not the most aggressive type of cancer, and she should be able to keep her breast, but she definitely needed surgery, followed by a sustained course of radiotherapy. She knew she had to see Henrik Hanssen – it wouldn't be fair to start back at Holby without saying anything. She phoned him, and then she kept her phone in her hand, her fingers hovering over Bernie's phone number. She should call her – or maybe she shouldn't – or maybe she should…She didn't know where she was anymore – how could she impose her cancer on what was, all in all, still a budding relationship? Bernie had told her she was tough, but she knew that even the toughest could break at some point. 

Meanwhile, Bernie was holed up at home, with a double scotch, and for once she was allowing herself to wallow in self-pity. Why couldn't she have a "normal" relationship for once? Of course, she'd known that being with Serena wouldn't be easy, even without all the trauma from Eleanor's death. But at least there was no rule forbidding work colleagues from being together – obviously, people would have talked, but that could be overcome. It had been a different story with Alex…

Alex had joined the army under the cadetship scheme, in her first year as a medical student. Therefore, she had been in the army long enough to become a Lieutenant Colonel – which made her Bernie's superior, although in the operating theatre they worked as equals. However, personal relationships between members of the same unit, and especially between to people of unequal ranks were strictly forbidden by army legislation. If they had been discovered, they would have faced heavy penalties as well as instant dismissal. Some would say that secrecy gave the relationship spice, but for Bernie it only added more discomfort. She wasn't one for wearing her heart on her sleeve, but it was hard sometimes to restrain a quick caress on the arm or a hug. They had many times thought their secret was out, but luckily for them, the men didn't see anything more than two friends bonding with each other as the only two female medical officers on the base. It was worse for Bernie than for Alex, because she had to keep the secret from Marcus and the kids as well, and she had no friend she could confide in. Alex had friends in her home town, with whom she corresponded by email, and a brother who knew about her sexual orientation and could hold his tongue. Bernie had no one to discuss her feelings or her fears. 

They had dodged many bullets together, both in the literal and in the figurative sense. They'd been warned once by their Commanding Officer, who'd said he would hate to lose two talented and dedicated medics due to "sentimental rubbish", and after that they'd taken even more precautions to keep their affair a secret. And yet Bernie had never considered leaving the army to be with Alex openly – they were living in a different world, where their love felt like a fairy-tale, an enchanted parenthesis, and she didn't know if she was entitled to the same happiness in the real, gendered-normed world. Until the accident, she had been split in two – Major Wolfe, who was discovering her real self, and Bernie, Marcus' wife, who played the loving wife and mother once a week through Skype communications. 

She could understand why Serena might have second thoughts about their relationship, but she couldn't help remembering how after the shock of the first kiss, Serena had been the passionate one. How she'd pleaded with her not to go to Ukraine in front of the whole ward, for instance. She even wondered if Serena's silence was some kind of power play. Then again, maybe she'd done something wrong – she could have kept in touch more when Charlotte was in hospital. She could have been more tactful when she'd told Serena about the Trauma Unit closure and Jasmine's death. Maybe now they were both back in Holby Serena had relapsed into depression ? What if she was drinking again? She would be too ashamed to call… Bernie hated to acknowledge, even to herself, that even though she masqueraded as an independent, self-sufficient person, she craved love and companionship.

If they'd only known, at 9.00 pm that night, they both had their hands on their mobiles, and they were both about to call each other …Neither did. And then serendipity took a hand …


Chapter 17

Serendipity took its time, however. It was about one month after that evening that it intervened. Bernie had had her interview at Queen Elisabeth, and it had gone well. Her record was still exceptional, and they were in need of surgeons with field experience to teach the future generation. Therefore, both her skills and her knowledge made her an ideal candidate. She was still waiting for admin to be completed, but she was due to start there, at first on a part-time basis, in less than two weeks. Yet, as she was driving to the bank that morning, she was distracted. She had had several panic attacks since the first, she still had nightmares, and even more worryingly, she had had vivid flashbacks. The last one had come on Bonfire Night. She had been quietly watching tv at home when she had heard the first fireworks, probably in a neighbor's garden. She'd thrown herself to the floor, as she had done countless times before in Iraq or in Afghan. Artillery fire, shrapnel flying round, the tac-tac of submachine guns. IEDs exploding, she was there, always helpless, always unable to move while the bullets rained around her – and then blood, lots of bloods, and eyes looking at her, pleading – usually the eyes of the women and children she'd treated and sometimes lost. Those flashbacks were worse than the nightmares, because she was wide awake, worse than the panic attacks, because she could see the scenes, hear the noises, smell burning flesh… 

So, in the car, she was thinking about these – at first, she'd thought she'd come out relatively unscathed from her field experience, although her neck vertebrae still gave her trouble sometimes, and her lung capacity had been greatly reduced, but the psychological scars were only emerging now, and she was afraid they would take longer to heal. She had seen the damages of PTSD on other war veterans, and she knew she ought to get help, but she didn't want to. She didn't want to show weakness, didn't want to reveal the chink in her armour. And she was afraid that if she opened up only a little, she would break down altogether. 

It was only when she hear a bumper-on-bumper noise that she fully came out of her thoughts. Somehow, her foot hadn't pressed down on the brake soon enough at the traffic lights, and she had hit – luckily, only slightly, but enough - the car in front. Someone emerged from the other car, muffled in a big scarf: "You blithering idiot! Can't you look where you're going ? There are other people on this road, you know!"

Bernie got out of her car to confront the other driver: "Okay, okay, I'm sorry – look, your car is all right …Serena ?"

"Bernie ?"

Both women were stunned, and suddenly at a loss for words. It had been several weeks, months even since they'd talked on the phone for the last time. This unexpected meeting took the wind out of their sails. There wasn't much traffic on the road, but their cars were in the middle of it, and it certainly wasn't a good place to chat. Bernie rallied: "Do you want to get coffee ? It's on me."

"Err …well, all right. Café Nero on Magdalen Street ?"

"Okay – meet you there in five."

As she drove to the café, Bernie attempted to think about what she wanted to say to Serena, but her mind drew a blank. So she gave up and took deep breaths, in order to calm her pounding heart. 

When she entered the café, Serena was already in the queue. Bernie joined her, gave her an awkward little peck on the cheek : "Just like old times, eh ?"


At the table, they both busied themselves with their drinks, holding the cups in both hands to warm them. They looked at each other in silence. 

"How have you been?" began Serena. 

"All right. You ?"

"All …" Someone bumped into Serena's chair, sending her coat to the floor. As she twisted and bent to retrieve it, she couldn't refrain a grimace of pain and a muttered expletive. 

"What is it, Serena ?"

"Nothing – it's nothing."

"Don't lie to me, will you? I can see it's not nothing. You're hurt." Now that Bernie was watching Serena carefully, she could see she was holding her left arm awkwardly. Serena didn't answer, and Bernie felt both furious and helpless. And sad. Terribly sad. Was there nothing to salvage in their relationship ? Has they become so estranged that all the ordeals they'd faced together had been forgotten? She looked at Serena with anguished eyes – she wasn't ready to give up. 

Serena held her glance defiantly, and then her shoulders sagged and she stared at her coffee cup: "I'm not hurt – not exactly. I had a carcinoma removed in my left breast, and several lymph nodes, two weeks ago. I'm not supposed to jerk my arm around too much right now. Otherwise, I'm fine."

Bernie looked at her aghast: "You have breast cancer, you had an operation, and you DIDN'T TELL ME?" 

"Why should I have told you? You're a trauma surgeon, not a bloody oncologist!" 

Bernie bit her lips, stung by the venom in Serena's words. She was close to tears – which told her she wasn't in her normal state of mind. 

"I'm sorry, Bernie. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. It's just that …it was something I had to take care on my own. If no one else knew, it was easier, somehow. I couldn't tell you – or anyone else. Well, I told Henrik, but I had to, because I couldn't resume my duties as planned."

"So you went alone to have the operation, and you came back home on your own?"

"Yes – it wasn't such a big deal – they wouldn't let me go home on the same day, because I had a bit of a bumpy ride coming out of the anesthesia, but they let me out the next day. I am not an invalid, I can take care of myself perfectly well. And apparently, even with an injured arm, I drive better than you do…"

"Don't ! Oh, Serena…" Bernie put her head in her hands. Serena reached out with her good arm and took hold of Bernie's hands, drawing them off her face, and taking them in hers. They remained like this, hands entwined, in silence, till the coffee was stone-cold.


Chapter 18

That same evening found them at Serena's, on the couch. Some things could not be said in a Café Nero – too private, too intimate. They had both shied away from discussing their relationship, and now that one of them had let her cat out of the bag, so to speak, it seemed the time had passed. Cuddles on the couch led them to the bed, and the night was very tender. 

Tender, but not restful for Bernie – she listened to Serena's breathing and tried to relax, but sleep eluded her. This had been a pattern for some time – she was so afraid to have nightmares her brain fought sleep with all its mind, until she was so exhausted she couldn't fight anymore. Serena's bombshell had shaken her, of course – but more than the cancer itself, it was Serena's behavior that troubled her. Why hadn't she told her? 

She regretted now her decision not to return to Holby. She could have been with Serena, helped her through her first days back. Instead, she would face a new workplace, where she would again have to prove herself, and to earn her stripes. She wanted to accompany Serena to her radiotherapy sessions, too, but Serena had refused adamantly – as if being a patient instead of a physician was somehow shameful, a sign of weakness. 

So, a few days later, they were both preparing for a first – Serena for her first radiotherapy appointment, Bernie for her first day at Queen Elisabeth's. 

Bernie's first few days at Queen Elisabeth's were uneventful. She enjoyed being back in a military environment, and as the hospital was a Level 1 Trauma Centre, with pioneering surgical techniques to treat ballistic and blast injuries, she was in her element. A fortnight after her first day, she was asked to go and give a lecture on trauma management at the Army Medical Services Training Centre near York, where she herself had trained. She didn't really want to leave Holby and Serena, although after their reunion, their relationship had not been completely serene. Serena had not yet been able to go back to work full-time, as she was very tired from her first radiotherapy sessions. She went to Holby a few hours a day, mostly to do admin and to catch up, but she hadn't attempted any operation yet. She was moody, tearful, and on edge, and Bernie had to tread very carefully in her presence. Serena took everything she said the wrong way, and avoided physical contact. Anyways, Major Wolfe's Commanding Officer had not really given her a choice, and Bernie packed her cases for a week in York. 

On her second day there, she retreated to her room in the evening after an exhausting day of lectures – surprisingly, it was even more tiring to teach than to perform surgery – and switched on the television. She was only half-listening to the news when she heard "Holby City Hospital is targeted by an unknown gunman. If you have an emergency, the police advise going to St James. Meanwhile, a SWAT team is on site, and the hospital staff is doing its utmost to take care of the patients." She froze and turned towards the screen. The news were broadcasted in a loop, but except from footage of the façade of the hospital, nothing new appeared. She tried frantically to call Serena, but her phone went straight to voicemail. Bernie tried to remember if Serena could possibly be there – she thought not, as Serena usually went there in the morning, but she had no way to be sure. She tried to phone AAU, but the line was down. There was nothing she could do, and she sat glued to the screen, hoping for better news. About an hour later, the BBC announced that the gunman had been apprehended and shot by the SWAT team. Then, an ashen-faced Sasha appeared on screen, to praise the staff for its courage and to announce that no patient had been hurt. This did not reassure Bernie. She reached for her phone, intent on calling Serena back when it rang. She snatched it, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she heard Serena's voice:

"You're okay; oh, God, you're okay…"

"Bernie …"

"What happened ? Tell me what happened. Were you there ?"

"I wasn't. But … I got hold of Fletch on the phone. It was Frederick – the gunman I mean."

"Frederick ? So Frederick is dead ? Poor Henrik. What a terrible, terrible mess !"

"Bernie …He …He shot people. It seems he shot Jac first – she's okay now, she's stable, but it was touch and go. And …He shot Ollie too – in the head – we don't know yet what the after-effects will be, but the bullet penetrated his temporal lobe. And …Raf …Sasha found him – he was in the lift – it was too late."

Bernie was so stunned she couldn't speak. She managed to tell Serena she would call her back before she began to hyperventilate. She was shaking all over and struggling to breath. She knew what Jac, Ollie and Raf must have felt when they'd seen the gun aimed at them. That time in Iraq …she closed her eyes, as if to dispel the memory, but it was no use. She was back there, in Shailah – she could see the rebel's eyes over his scarf – bright blue eyes burning with fanatical fire. And the barrel of his rifle. Only that little round hole, pointed at her. There was nothing else in the world – people said you saw your whole life before your eyes, but she hadn't seen anything – just the eyes and the hole. A gunshot had rung out, and she'd thought she was dead. But she wasn't, and for an instant, the rebel's attention had been distracted – just long enough for her to draw her own Sig Sauer and to shoot. It was pure survival instinct – it was also one of the worst things she'd had to do in her life – and her way to cope with it had been to shut down her emotional response, to get on auto-pilot. It was how she dealt with her most perilous operations too, and she had always been most efficient at it. Cutting off her mind from her body had worked for her for many years – however, since Alex, since Holby, since Serena, the mechanism had somehow jammed, and it didn't work as well as before – cue the panic attacks and the flashbacks. She tried to stop herself from thinking about Frederik's victims, but she couldn't help seeing them in her mind's eye. Jac – she'd never been overly fond of Jac, but that was only because she recognized in her her own wounds, her own frailty, and her own armour. Ollie – cocksure Ollie, now facing brain damage. And Raf – if she was devastated by his death, Serena must be going out of her mind with grief – she'd known him much longer. 

Bernie couldn't believe she had lost more civilian colleagues than she had military ones. Arthur, Jasmine, and now this ?


Chapter 19

When she managed to get her breathing back to normal, she called Serena back, but once again the phone was on voicemail. She sent a text "I'm so sorry – wish I could be there with u", not expecting an instant reply, but it came, sharp and short: "but u're not." Bernie felt a surge of guilt mixed with anger. It was true she had chosen to go back to a military hospital, but it wasn't as if she hadn't been pushed out of Holby. Moreover, the way Serena had been acting lately had not been particularly endearing. Bernie was ready to make allowances, considering Serena's condition, but she longed for a secure relationship, and this was definitely not what Serena was offering. "Do you think you loving me will make me feel better ? Well, guess what ? It doesn't." Bernie remembered how hurt she'd felt when Serena had thrown that at her, when she'd just said she loved her. Was Serena really ready to be in love with another woman? With anyone ? 

Bernie finally tried to knock herself out with a sleeping pill, but even then deep sleep eluded her and nightmares plagued her. She was back at Holby, fresh from Afghan, being operated on by ghost-like Jac and Ollie. She could see herself on the operating table, her chest opened, telling Jac to be kind to Jasmine – Ollie slowly slumping over, his brains exploding – she was unable to move – Serena coming into the theatre, saying "time of death, 3.10" – not Ollie's death, Bernie's own death – but she wasn't dead, she wasn't dead, she …Once again, she woke up drenched in sweat, heart beating wildly. 

Her lectures that day were painful – her head was aching, and she felt the students had never asked more stupid questions. Her answers were cutting and sarcastic to the utmost, and she was ashamed of herself afterwards. They were there to learn, and she had been horrible. She realized she had been especially nasty to a young female medic, and she thought guiltily about how she had chastised Serena for her behavior towards Jasmine. She had done exactly the same thing with the young Captain, putting her on the spot to diagnose an injury and describe the procedure, and letting her dig herself in before crucifying her in from of the other medics. While she'd torn her to shreds, she'd been totally aware of what she was doing, but she hadn't been able to stop. She was fully aware she'd transferred all her anger towards Serena and herself on Captain Fitzwilliam-Jones, but … She didn't want to go back to her room just yet, so she went in search of coffee. The first person she saw in the hospital cafeteria was Captain Fitzwilliam-Jones, at a corner table, mopping her tears and being comforted by another young doctor. Bernie went straight to the counter and asked for a triple-shot cappuccino. She'd have preferred a glass of wine, or even better, a double whisky, but these were taboo in the hospital. 

Then, she took a deep breath, and steeling herself, she walked towards the young captain's table. Seeing her approaching, the two younger medics rose and saluted. They both avoided Bernie's eyes though. 

"Captain Fitzwilliam- Jones. I wonder if I might have a word", asked Bernie rather hesitantly. 

"Major" The captain's companion pressed his friend's hand reassuringly, and left the two women alone. Bernie took her seat, and gestured to the younger woman to sit down again. For a fleeting instant, Bernie faltered – the captain reminded her a little of her own daughter, but she knew she had to do this. 

"Don't worry, Captain, I'm not going to take too much of your time. However, I am aware – I mean I realize – well, you must think …" Damn it! This was not easy. The young woman was eyeing her uncertainly. "What I want to say is that I was too harsh with you today, and I owe you an apology. I hope you will accept it."

The captain looked astonished – whatever she'd expected, it was certainly not that. Bernie went on: "We're here to make better doctors of you, and to prepare you for the field. You're going to have to be tough if you want to succeed there. There will be no time for tears." The young woman reddened. "However, you must be able to trust your COs, and to believe they're taking the right decisions. This means they in turn have to act in a rational way, with a clear head. I didn't do that today, and I'm sorry about it. Everyone make mistakes, it's the only way to learn."

"Thank you, Major – I … I'm hoping to become a trauma surgeon too, and I know I still have a long way to go, but … What I mean is we've all heard about your career and… " 

Bernie's blushes rivaled the young captain's and she stood up abruptly: "I'm sure you'll be a very good surgeon, Captain Fitzwilliam-Jones. I wish you the best of luck." 

Her coffee had gotten cold, but she drank it all the same, and went for a walk to clear her head. If only she could be as skillful in dealing with her private life as she was in the theatre…

The week dragged on until finally she was in her car on her way back to Holby. She suggested to Serena they went out for a meal, because she thought it would be easier to talk on neutral ground. She made a pit stop at her place for a change of clothes and went to pick up Serena. Bernie asked about the radiotherapy sessions, but Serena didn't want to talk about it. Instead, she told Bernie about Jac, who was still very weak but recovering, about Ollie, who was still in an artificial coma, and about Raf's funeral service. Serena told Bernie that Henrik Hanssen had flown to Sweden, presumably to see to see to his son's affairs and to his grandson. Bernie could see it was not the right time to talk about their relationship. She tried to ask Serena about Christmas – after all, the shops had been full of Christmas paraphernalia for nearly a month, and you couldn't go anywhere without hearing either "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer", but all she got was "I'm not sure I want to celebrate Christmas this year. I might just ask Jason to come and watch a movie if Allan goes back to his family for a few days." 

"Maybe we could spend it together ?" asked Bernie diffidently. 

"You have Cameron and Charlotte – don't you want to spend Christmas with your kids?"

Bernie sighed: "I have no idea what they're doing for Christmas. As you might recall, Charlotte has not been particularly forthcoming since she's gone back to live with Marcus, and for all I know, Cam has other plans."

"And so I'm your fallback solution ?" 

"Please, Serena – don't let's get into another argument- I've had a rough week."

"Oh ? And mine was a piece of cake I suppose ?"

"God, I'm sorry – I didn't mean… I'm sorry." The conversation lapsed – neither of them was in the mood for dessert, and after paying the bill, they headed out. It was a late opening night, and the streets were busy with shoppers. One of the big music and video stores was holding some kind of event, and a crowd of young people blocked the pavement, making it impossible to pass without jostling and elbowing one's way through. The two women began to make their way into the crowd when Bernie felt the now familiar signs of an oncoming panic attack. There was no way she could explain to Serena, so she just quickened her step in order to get out of the throng. The noise became overwhelming, and she felt her sight go blurry. Her heart rate soared, her breathing went shallow and her brain began to pulse. She just managed to get away from the mass of people and sit on a doorstep when she fainted. 

When she came to, she found Serena bent upon her: "So, are you going to tell me what the hell is going on with you, or do I have to take you to Holby and perform a clinical examination ?"

Bernie sighed, and bit her lip ….


Chapter 20

She got up gingerly and took a deep breath. She seemed to be back in working order. She gave Serena a little smile : "So …about Christmas ?"

Serena heaved an exasperated sigh and rolled her eyes: "You're not getting off that easily. What exactly happened just now ?"

"Please can we go back to my place first? If you're going to grill me, at least we'll be warm." 

When they got back to her flat, Bernie busied herself with making cocoa – she felt terribly cold, as if her very bones were frozen. And she was shivering, but she knew it wasn't only from the wintry weather. Her hands were trembling, and no running them under the hot tap seemed to stop it. She would have liked nothing more than to take a hot shower and go to bed, but Serena was waiting. 

Meanwhile, Serena was worried – she'd never seen Bernie go to pieces like that. Of course, as a consultant, she'd heard of PTSD – they'd even had special training sessions to deal with victims of terrorist attacks – and she strongly suspected it was Bernie's trouble, but …She knew Bernie was as stubborn as herself, and she remembered how she herself had struggled with the idea of seeing a therapist – she couldn't see Bernie agreeing to see a shrink. Serena knew how hard it was to help people who didn't want to be helped, and she was scared – and being scared usually made her brusque!

When they were both on the sofa with mugs in hands, Serena turned towards Bernie : "Well ? I'm waiting…"

Bernie averted her eyes and looked at her hands. She knew that if she told Serena, it would all make it real, somehow, and making it real would be acknowledging she had a problem. And if she had a problem … if the Army heard she had mental health issues, there was no way she would be allowed to go on with her new job. Her injuries in Afghan had somehow got her out of a full psychological debriefing session – she'd been allowed out quite easily. And anyways, she'd felt fine then, at least mentally if not physically - she wouldn't have recovered from open-heart surgery so quickly if she hadn't been in a positive frame of mind. Then, she'd seen Alex again …And there'd been the divorce … She chided herself silently – she couldn't blame Alex or Marcus, or the military for what was happening – it was more deeply rooted. 

" You know, I'm not going anywhere until you spit it out …"

Bernie could see no way out of it, and so she began: "I've had these before, nearly forty years ago – I'd forgotten the sensation – I guess memory is selective – but they were terrifying then, and they still are. When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark – of thunderstorms too, but mostly of the dark. My father forbade my mother to leave a light in my bedroom – he said it was a waste of electricity. And so I used to lie there, in my bed, wide awake, not daring to go to sleep in case…I don't know what scared me really, but …Sometimes, I was lucky, because in some of the houses we lived in I could see the moonlight, and that was better. Anyways…You remember, once I told you I had the fantasy I was Maria von Trapp ? That was my favourite film – but the truth is, it's not so much that I wanted to be Maria, as I wanted a nanny like that… Someone who would stand up for me against my Captain Von Trapp. "

She paused – she could feel Serena's eyes on her, but she kept hers strictly down: "I've already told you my mother died when I was ten, and I didn't see much of my father after that. What I haven't told you is that I was glad of it. Not to see my father I mean. I was very close to my mother, but…You see, I wasn't really a troublesome child – pretty obedient in fact – I liked rules – they made me safe. But …a child is still a child, and for instance I wasn't particularly dexterous. I broke glasses, plates … And I was a good student – mostly straight As, but not always – and anything below a B wasn't acceptable. And sometimes I had my nose in a book, and I would forget time, forget to do something I'd been told to do. When my father was away on ops, it didn't matter – Mum was a lot like me, so …But when he was home …."

Serena took her hand and squeezed it. 

"When he was home, I got punished – he whipped me with his riding crop. And then he took me to whatever little room there was – usually a boxroom or a pantry, or …And he left me there, in total darkness, for hours. At least it seemed like hours, maybe it wasn't, but I was only about seven or eight then. My mother didn't dare let me out. That's when I had my first panic attacks. I would sit hunched up on the floor in the dark, feeling like I couldn't breathe, terrified I was going to die. I didn't know it was all in my head then. Actually, now I know, it doesn't really make things better. I still can't control it. The physical pain then from the whipping was nothing compared to the mental agony. My mother would write a note to excuse me from PE, and no-one knew. Anyways, I knew that other military kids were spanked – we just didn't talk about it. And even if someone had noticed, I wouldn't have been able to tell about that terrible feeling. My way of coping with it was to bury it very deeply inside, and to lock it away…

You know the rest – Mum died, I was sent off to boarding school and … The attacks started again after Charlotte's accident. Only now, what keeps coming back in my nightmares are war scenes. And I had a few panic attacks like the one you witnessed. They're not always the same – sometimes I can't breathe, sometimes I feel like my heart is going to jump out of my chest, sometimes I feel sick…Fainting is a first, though. What's always the same is that feeling, that overwhelming sense of dread – I spiral out of control and I can't do anything about it."

Bernie put her face in her hands – saying all those things aloud had been even harder than she'd expected. She was terribly afraid Serena would judge her, despise her even. What kind of doctor was she anyways – what good was a surgeon who couldn't control her own body's reaction? Her own mind!


Chapter 21

Serena gently took Bernie's hands in hers, and Bernie buried her head on her shoulder. They remained entwined for a long time, Serena stroking Bernie's back and murmuring: "Everything will be all right – everything will be okay – I'm here for you." 

Finally, Bernie murmured: "But what if it's not all right? What if I can't get better?"

Serena put her finger on Bernie's lips "Shush"… That night, as they slept in each other's arms, Bernie did not have nightmares. The one who did not sleep, however, was Serena. Bernie's confession had shaken her – it was much worse than she'd expected. Moreover, she had no idea how to get her partner to see a therapist. As they drank their morning coffees in the kitchen, she made an attempt at levity: "About Christmas – Jason told me there would be a Dr Who Special on BBC1 – I think you're a fan too – I'm sure we can make room on the sofa for you; and I can even buy another pack of sausage rolls."

Bernie gave her a half-smile: "Yes, I'm a fan – I guess I wouldn't mind having to fight aliens sometimes – could be easier than real life…And then, Unit has this memory serum – one injection and you forget everything – that would come in really handy."

"You can always ask Santa, but I'm not sure he's got that in store."

"Probably not." Bernie had huge dark circles under her eyes, and she was feeling like death warmed over. The thought of going to work did not appeal, especially as she was expected to teach that morning. At least, if she'd been operating, she could have hidden behind her surgical mask. And she wouldn't have had to talk much. Her throat felt as if it had been rubbed with sandpaper. 

Serena said tentatively: "About last night …do you think …have you made any plans to …" 

"I don't want to talk about last night. Not now- I have to get ready for work."

"I know you don't want to talk about it, darling, but…You know you can't go on like that."

"Like what, exactly?" Bernie felt the beginning of a headache coming.

"Well …Hurting? You were the one who said I should see a therapist after Eleanor's death – and you were right. I admit I wasn't convinced at first, but – it helped, really – almost as much as Shiraz and chocolate."

"You're you, and I'm me – and the situation is totally different! Anyways, I have to get to work, and so have you. "

Serena didn't try to push the matter further. It wouldn't be any use, and if Bernie felt cornered, she would only get more defensive: "Right! See you tonight?"


Bernie took a cold shower in the hope of waking up completely, and swallowed two paracetamol tablets before driving to the hospital. The lecture she had to give was on damage control surgery in case of blast abdominal injuries and was cadaveric-based. She did not really look forward to it – she usually preferred her patients alive, but it had been part of her training, and she knew it was a good way for medical students to learn. When she arrived in the dissection/operating room, the first thing she noticed was that it was abnormally hot – not the best environment to work with corpses. One of the attendants told her there was a problem with the air-conditioning system, which ought to be resolved in a short while. 

"Let's hope it is", she snapped – and then immediately apologized: "Sorry – I know you have nothing to do with it." She went to get prepped, and before coming into the room again, she took a deep breath. The students were waiting for her – a dozen of them, who looked up expectantly as she came in.

"Right – let's get down to it." The body was covered by a white sheet, and as she pulled it back, she almost shuddered. The bodies they used were from the hospital's morgue, and usually they were young or middle-aged men. This one looked very young, a teenager almost, and he had bruises on his face and upper torso. He had a tattoo on the shoulder, one she knew all too well – "Celer et Audax" – the motto of her own regiment, the Rifles. He looked like … he looked like the one she hadn't been able to save. Of course, she hadn't been able to save all the men she'd operated upon, but he had been different. Daniel had been an army nurse who'd been attached to her unit in Afghan. Fresh out of training, he'd been eager at first- so eager that he'd had the regimental motto tattooed on his first leave… However, Bernie had seen him retreat into himself as the days passed. He'd become less and less talkative, and she'd seen him throw up several times after he'd assisted her in theatre. She'd tried to talk to him, but he'd remain uncommunicative. He'd lost his eagerness, and although he was still efficient, he did his duties mechanically, without his initial passion. And then, one day, he'd left abruptly after a particularly difficult operation on a patient who'd been disfigured in a bomb blast. Bernie had gone after him, intend on trying to talk to him again, and she'd found him staring unseeingly into the air, his service gun in hand. When she'd walked towards him, he had pointed the gun at her, yelling: "Don't come closer – I'll shoot." Alex had been there, watching the scene – Bernie remembered how Alex had put her hand on her shoulder, restraining her…

"Don't, Bern – look at him – we don't know what he's going to do!"

"He's not going to do anything! He's not going to shoot ME! I can stop this before it's too late and he's out of the army altogether." 

There was nobody else around, and Bernie hoped she could put an end to it quietly- she took a few steps further towards him. The gun was still aimed at her. 

"Major Wolfe, do not go over – stop right now – this is an order." Bernie wavered – technically, Alex was her superior and if she went ahead, it would mean defying an order. She looked into Alex's eyes – they were steely, emotionless. She took another step, and extended her arm – and then…as in slow motion, she saw Daniel turn the gun towards himself, and shoot, straight at his heart. She and Alex rushed to him, but it was too late – the nurse had been a good shot, and the bullet had reached its target. 

Bernie had felt guilty for a long time after that – he'd been so young, almost Cameron's age. Alex had raged at her, saying that it was one thing to endanger one's life in the course of duty, and another to take unnecessary risks to save bloody suicidal idiots. That night, they'd taken other risks – if they'd been discovered in bed together, they could have been court-martialled... 

Bernie forced herself to take another good look at the body – it was NOT Daniel – this man was shorter, a little stouter, and he had ginger hair. She was just beginning to explain the procedure to the students when the door opened and a woman walked in. The students stood up straighter and greeted her with respectful "Ma'am" s. 

"Good morning, Major – I'm just here to observe – end of semester evaluation routine.", said the newcomer. 

This was the last straw for Bernie – she'd recognized the woman – they'd met once before, in Iraq. Colonel Stewart was a Consultant Surgeon with an impressive reputation. Bernie had been on her first Iraq tour then, and Colonel Stewart already on her fourth. About ten years older than Bernie, she was dedicated to her work and an inspiring figure. Actually, Colonel Stewart was one of Bernie's career role model. The idea that she would be observing was nerve-racking, as Bernie was functioning on very little sleep, and a very high stress level. Moreover, the temperature of the room was intensifying the smells, always unpleasant in the presence of a corpse. 

However, she had no choice in the matter, and she began her presentation, asking the students about possible secondary fragmentation, and the reasons to perform a laparotomy in case of a penetrating gunshot injury. It seemed to go quite well at first. When they came to the treatment of the damaged bowel, resection, however, things began to turn to the worse. One of the students asked a question about resection margins, and Bernie's answer – that it was wiser to resect non-viable bowel and close the ends, leaving them in the abdomen for anastomosis at a second procedure – did not seem to satisfy Colonel Stewart entirely – her eyes seemed to switch behind the surgical mask. When it came to the usefulness of an ileostomy or a colostomy, the Colonel intervened and contested Bernie's procedure. At first, Bernie managed to remain calm, and to suggest that it was something she had done many times on the field, and that she had never lost anyone. However, it did not satisfy the Colonel, and she went on needling Bernie until the latter couldn't take it anymore. Very sedately, Bernie put her instruments back on the tray and said "With respect, Colonel, you seem to want to do it yourself – I'll leave you to it, then.", as she walked out of the room, her head held high. Her mistake was not to wait long enough to add sotto voce "you bloody stupid patronizing bitch" … When she turned to close the door, the Colonel was right behind her, and had obviously heard every word.


Chapter 22

The Colonel closed the door behind her, and they both silently went to the washbasins, where they meticulously rinsed away all traces of blood and cadaver. They hung up their surgical coats, and only then did they exchange a long stare. Bernie had been struck dumb by what she'd said, and she waited for the Colonel to start talking: "Major, I think we need to have a talk. I have to go to a meeting right now, but I would like you to come to my office tomorrow at 0800, please." Bernie nodded mutely – she didn't trust herself to speak. She had other duties at the hospital that day, mostly post-op follow up care, and she put herself on autopilot for the rest of her working day. Since she'd left the overheated operation room, she'd been cold – chilled to her very bones, and slightly shivery, but it had nothing to do with the weather outside. It was simply because she was scared. She wasn't in control of herself anymore, and that thought was terrifying, even more than the consequences of her outburst. 

Her mind was playing the scene over and over again, and still part of her refused to acknowledge what she'd said. In the civilian world, verbally abusing your boss was obviously never a very good idea. In the military, disrespect against a superior was a disciplinary offence. It was very definitely against the rules…

She drove herself mechanically, still in that dazed state. She sent a quick text to Serena : "Not tonight, sorry, xx" because there was no way she could see her. If she could have found a mouse hole and disappeared into it, she would have, but as this was not an option, she compromised with her bed and two strong sleeping pills. She just didn't want to think anymore. She wanted her brain to stop functioning for a few hours- a few hours of oblivion. 

The pills got her to sleep, but their effect soon wore off and she was wide awake at 5.30 the next morning. She reached for her phone, switched it on, and read Serena's messages "Why not tonight ? xx" "What's wrong, Bernie? xx" "Are you ok ? Call me! xx" "What is going with u ????" . And then, around midnight … "As usual …"

Once again she had antagonized Serena – and once again she felt guilty. She would have to eat humble pie later, but for now she had to see if she could salvage something from the mess she was in. She tried to imagine her imminent interview with Colonel Stewart, and she couldn't quite see how it could go well…

"Come in, Major." 


Both women seemed outwardly perfectly in control, and yet both of them deeply wished they were somewhere else. Colonel Stewart had been astonished by Bernie's outburst – she'd heard nothing but good of her, and she dimly remembered a cool and efficient practitioner from one of her Iraq tours. Moreover, her presence in the theatre the day before had had nothing to do with the Major per se – it was the students she had come to assess. It was true she'd tried to needle Bernie, but it was because she very much enjoyed sparring with a worthy opponent. And now she could destroy the woman's career. 

"Would you like to sit down ?"

"Thank you."

The Colonel watched the younger woman carefully. She had impeccable posture, and her navy suit and white shirt were ironed with precision. At first glance, all you could see was a confident, military-trained consultant surgeon. But someone looking closely enough would see the very slight tremor of the left eyelid and the right thumb nail which was repetitively scratching the left thumb. The hazel eyes were lackluster, dispirited, as if all the fight, the life force had gone out of them. They were also underlined by dark shadows visible even under the carefully applied make-up. The lips were set in a straight line, as if guarding any expression of emotion. 

Meanwhile, the silence was becoming unbearable for Bernie. She looked straight into the Colonel's eyes, and begun: "I don't quite know how to say that… I've been unforgivably rude. I was …I would like to apologize for what I said. I have no excuses, Colonel."

The Colonel looked at her thoughtfully : "I accept your apology, Berenice. I can't say I was overjoyed to hear you swear at me, but I think we can get over it. That is, only if you tell me the truth. You're supposed to train future army medics – I need to be able to trust you. You came with impeccable references, both from your previous stint in the Rifles and from Holby. Your – outburst- yesterday seems quite out of character."

Bernie lowered her eyes : "Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate that. But there is no other truth. I just …I just forgot myself."

"Just cut it out, will you ? I'm not a novice – I know when someone's bullshitting me. You look like you haven't been sleeping for weeks – and like you'd got the whole world on your shoulders."

"I don't know what you want me to say, Colonel – I'm fine."

"Listen to me, Berenice – if you don't tell me what's wrong with you, there's no way we're going to be able to work together. I would very much regret that – and I think you would too." 

Bernie was aware that the Colonel was offering her a way out of her predicament, but she couldn't see what she could say without digging herself in further. If she admitted to suffering from PTSD, they would not let her continue her work with the students. And if she said nothing, she would probably be fired. There was probably a happy medium somewhere, a half-truth which would satisfy Colonel Stewart and not too detrimental to her career, but in her state of tension and exhaustion, she couldn't put her finger on it. Moreover, the Colonel was uncomfortably astute, and Bernie a terrible liar. 

"I'm sorry, Ma'am. I don't know what to tell you."

The Colonel sighed : "Pity. Well … It seems you want to put an end to your employment with us. I will have the papers signed by the end of today, and you will only have to serve two weeks' notice."

At the Colonel's words, Bernie couldn't suppress a strangled gasp and an anguished look appeared in her eyes. Colonel Stewart was watching her closely, and she didn't miss the reaction.

"Or maybe I should give you another chance. Your eyes are more eloquent than yourself, Major. However, this is going to be on my terms. You will go and see our consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold. And this is not a suggestion, this is an order. And I hope to God you'll talk to HIM, if you don't want to talk to me."


Chapter 23

It was not until the early evening, when she drove home from the hospital, that Bernie allowed her mind to go back to the interview with Colonel Stewart. She'd managed to block it out quite successfully during her day's work, but now she didn't have to focus on the patients anymore, the session replayed in her head. All considered, she felt as she had dodged a bullet, only to be sent into a minefield. The Colonel had been unexpectedly kind and understanding, but the idea of speaking to an army psychiatrist was daunting. She had no intention of letting anyone into her mind, how muddled it might be. It had taken too much effort to build her defenses, too much pain to let people through them, to have them bulldozed by a shrink.

She had five days until the appointment, five days to think about how she could lead him down the garden path…Meanwhile, she had fences to mend with Serena. Bernie ought to be the one supporting her through her radiotherapy treatment, and lately she'd behaved more like a spineless jellyfish than like a pillar of strength. She stopped at Hotel Chocolat to buy a huge box of truffles and pralines, and headed towards Serena's. She knew a bottle of Shiraz would have made a better apology, but drinking during radiotherapy wasn't a particularly good idea since it intensified the side effects. She'd just turned into Serena's street when she heard her mobile ping: "If u were coming tonight, don't – having drinks with colleagues."

Bernie sighed – Serena was apparently more pissed off than she'd thought. She had a right to be – she'd told her over and over again that she hated to be shut out. Their different takes on "sharing" was one of the major stumbling blocks in their relationship. Bernie always tried to keep her pain inside, to handle things on her own. Telling Serena about the panic attacks had been an ordeal – instead of feeling comforted, she'd felt even more vulnerable. Silence was a shield. And Serena couldn't bear that. 

Bernie's first thought was one of relief – she could go home and try to relax in front of the tv. However, she knew that she would have to face Serena sooner or later, and that the latter would only get angrier with her with time. Moreover, she didn't trust Serena in a bar when she was mad – one drink would soon turn into two, into three, and as she hadn't told any of her colleagues about the cancer, no one would really try to stop her. She wasn't ready to face Holby staff again, but if she was lucky, the colleagues might be only Fletch and Dom – maybe Morven and Ric too. People she liked. People she trusted. She took a deep breath, and drove towards Albies'.

The night was dark, showery, but the pub gleamed welcomingly. She stood in the doorway and glanced round the room in order to locate the Holby crowd. She saw Fletch first – his height made him easy to spot. She saw Morven too – they were sitting in a nook, on armchairs. She took a step towards them, and just then, Fletch turned round, saw her and beckoned her over. It was then that she turned tails and stalked away. 

She sat in the car in the dark, trying to make sense of what she'd seen. She felt nauseous too, and she wondered briefly if she was going to have another panic attack, but this was different. This was simply searing, agonizing pain – emotional pain. How could she? 

Serena on her third glass had been approaching that cozy mellow zone that came with drink – a pleasant euphoric state where you could forget your troubles – forget reality altogether. Their new colleague was really quite handsome – and quite comfortable. When he'd put his arms around her, she hadn't tried to ward him off – it felt too good. And it had felt very natural to let her head rest on his shoulder - it helped with the fuzzy feeling. She could see that Fletcher and Morven were looking at her strangely, but it didn't matter. She nestled against George a little closer. 

An hour or so later, she shared a cab with the new consultant, George Henderson – when he dropped her home, he also dropped a kiss on her lips, and she didn't protest. 

When she arrived in AAU the next morning, clutching a triple shot double espresso, she noticed that Fletch and Morven seemed uncomfortable. She caught them looking at her wonderingly.

"What? What's wrong with you two? Have I morphed into an alien overnight?"

Before any of them could say anything, a casualty arrived, and any explanation was postponed. It wasn't until later in the day that Fletcher came into her office. Serena was by then totally sober again, and the headache she'd risen with had been dissipated by massive doses of caffeine and aspirin. 

"Serena ?"

"Yes, Fletch – I know you want to say something – your face can't lie; if it's that you don't want to dress up as Santa this year, it's too late – you're the designated volunteer."

"It's about last night…"

"Last night ? Last night was fun, wasn't it? Nothing like a few drinks to welcome new staff."

Fletcher's glance was disapproving: "Indeed …but …"

Serena thought she knew what was coming: "Oh just say whatever you're going to say, will you ? It was only a few drinks – I don't have a drinking problem!" 

"Serena – Bernie was there."

Serena blanched as the sequence of last night's events came back into her mind. Nothing had happened with George – nothing. But …. She sat back in her chair, and fixed Fletch straight in the eyes : "Thank you, Fletch – I'll deal with it. It's really none of your business."


Chapter 24

The next few days were hell for both women. Bernie alternated between phases of utter misery and intense anger. In the former, she managed to convince herself that it was all her fault. She didn't deserve to be loved anyway – it was no wonder that Serena had strayed. She was too damaged by her past, too closed up to share her life with someone else. Look at how her marriage had ended. And her relationship with Alex. She shouldn't even be trying to build something else – it was better to be alone than to inflict herself on someone else. In the anger phases, she couldn't believe Serena would treat her like that, after all they'd gone through together. But it was just like her – absence certainly didn't make Serena's heart grow fonder – look at what had happened with Robbie when she'd been in Ukraine. It was definitely out of sight, out of mind. Well, the stranger was welcome to her – maybe he had taken Bernie's place in AAU too! Wouldn't it be cosy for Serena and him ?!

Meanwhile, Serena was inflicting her guilt on the other members of AAU staff. She was snappy with Fletch and Essie, impatient with Morven, and she totally cold-shouldered George Henderson, who didn't understand what he'd done wrong. He thought Serena was a very attractive woman, and she had seemed to appreciate his advances. Fletch and Morven were all too aware of the reasons for Serena's mood, and they tried to be as accommodating as possible, but a week before the Christmas rush, as AAU was functioning at full capacity in terms of casualties arrival, but still short-staffed, tempers were simmering and close to explosion. Fletcher could see that Morven still suffered from the aftermath of the shooting too – although Ollie wasn't dead, she'd been in the theatre with him when he'd been shot, and that had taken its toll, on top on Arthur's and Jasmine's deaths earlier on. He could see that she was doing her utmost to be civil to Serena, but he didn't want a repeat of the scene with Fran. If Morven went for Serena's throat – physically or verbally , she could wreck her career. 

He had to do something – he couldn't bear to see so many close friends hurting, specially the week before Christmas. And so he hatched a plan. At first Morven was skeptical, but she agreed they had to try something. 

Bernie would have liked to cut all channels of communication – no emails, no phone calls, no texts. She managed that to some extent – the phone had rung a few times, but she'd ignored it – but she had to read her emails – any change of planning at the hospital was sent to her that way. And when she saw she had one from Fletch, she really wanted to ignore it, but she opened it eventually. 

"Hi Bernie, 

Sorry we couldn't talk last night. I know you're busy, but I need your help. It's Morven – she's not doing very well at the moment, and … she thinks the world of you, so do you think you could have a chat with her ? I'm going to get her to come for a drink with me at The Horse and Hounds tomorrow at 7.00. Do you think you could join us ? Thanks a lot, Fletch x"

Bernie sighed – poor Morven – she had been through the mill during that last year. And she had a soft spot for the brilliant young doctor. In fact, she hoped very much that one day Morven would become her daughter-in-law. At least Fletch didn't want her to go back to Albie's. She didn't think she would be able to go back there any time soon. She would rather stay holed up in her flat, but she could never resist anyone asking for help. Anyways, it would keep her mind away from her own troubles, and it was always easier to help someone else than oneself. And so she replied : "Works for me. See you then. Bernie x."

The next morning, Fletch knocked on Serena's door, and after carefully closing it behind him, he began:

"Sorry to interrupt. I know you're busy but I need to tell you something."

"Right – make it quick!"

"It's Morven. She's not coping very well. Could you have a chat with her ?"

"I don't have time for a chat, Fletch – you know as well as I that there isn't a spare bed in sight in AAU, and we don't have enough doctors!"

However, Serena felt very protective towards the young doctor, and she wanted to help her if she could. She hadn't been able to help Eleanor or Jasmine – she had to try and be there for Morven.

Fletcher stood his ground: "Yah, I know – but I was thinking …drinks tonight? At the Horse and Hounds? Morven won't want to spill her guts at Albie's – too many prying ears …"

"All right , all right …"

"Great ! Thank you, Serena. See you there at 7.15."

Morven and Fletch had already bagged a table in a quiet corner when Bernie arrived at 7.00 . They'd counted on her being punctual - she always was. After they'd hugged each other got their drinks, they engaged in small talk for a bit. Then, Fletch excused himself with a knowing smile towards Bernie, and left the two women together. Not two minutes later, he spied Serena coming in, and hailed her: "Come on ! We've got a table, and plenty of wine."

When Serena saw who was at the table, she recoiled, paled, and turned an accusing glance towards Fletch: "You utter …"

"We'll leave you to it, then – come on, Morven – let's go on to Albie's."

Morven rose and looked at Bernie appealingly: "I'm sorry, Ms Wolfe, really – we didn't want to trick you. I really need to talk to you. But I can wait – this can't." Bernie didn't answer – she seemed to find the Christmas decorations on the wall fascinating, from the way she was staring at them fixedly. 

"May I sit down?" Serena asked, almost pleadingly. Bernie went on staring at the stuffed Father Christmas which was climbing the pub's mantelpiece. She was feeling utterly betrayed – even Morven and Fletch had deceived her. She thought of just getting up and going, but suddenly it seemed to require too much energy. The emotional rollercoaster she'd been on during the last few days had been exhausting, and all the misery and anger were weighing her down, anchoring her to the armchair. And so she turned to Serena and asked icily :" So …any nice plans for Christmas with your new man ?", emphasizing the last word pointedly. 

"I don't have a new man – it's just a huge misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding ?? I saw you with my own eyes!"

"Well, it wasn't what it looked like. Please, Bernie … nothing happened, I swear. I was tired, and …out of sorts, and …drunk ; very, very drunk – and before you say anything, I know I shouldn't drink with the treatment, but …I was fed up because you hadn't come the night before, and …"

"And you thought it was fair game? You thought it would be okay to have a one night stand ?"

"Of course not ! I've just told you I was drunk …and, well, I was feeling lonely and …I just wanted someone to hold me, and you weren't there, and …"

Bernie knew she was at least partly to blame – she should have replied to Serena's messages instead of just ignoring them. And she was feeling so very, very tired… Christmas music was buzzing in her ears, and the twinkling of the fairy lights seemed to play havoc on her exhausted brain. 

"Bernie – nothing happened! Absolutely nothing happened – I'm sorry. Do you want me to beg?"

"I don't – I just want …I just need to be able to trust you." 

Serena reached out for Bernie's hands, and held them in hers. The two women stared into each other's eyes, and finally melted into each other's arms, both of them murmuring "I'm sorry – I'm sorry. I love you.", while the stuffed Father Christmas looked down benignantly …


Chapter 25

They didn't stay long at The Horse and Hounds that night – they had too much to say to each other, and neither of them liked to discuss their private lives in public. When they got back to Serena's, they settled on the sofa, intend on talking about the last few days, but …it was a very comfortable couch, and when Bernie began to stroke Serena's hands … Serena started to unbutton Bernie's shirt, tracing her breasts with her fingertips … Their lips joined, their bodies melted into one another's and the words were lost in the fusion… 

It wasn't until the next evening that Serena re-entered the fray: "So … why don't you tell me why you didn't come over that night?" 

The last thing Bernie wanted to do was to tell Serena about the scene with Colonel Stewart, but she knew Serena wouldn't let go, and she didn't want to stir up another row before Christmas. However, she really didn't want to go into details – she was still much too ashamed of her behavior. Moreover, Serena was having a hard enough time of her own at Holby – Fletch and Morven had had time to tell her that Serena missed Raf and seemed more tired and irritable than usual.

Not for the first time, Bernie wished she were a better liar. She wouldn't be able to sound convincing enough if she entirely made up a story, so she opted for a half-truth: "It was just a terrible day at work. The air conditioning was down, I wasn't feeling well, the students were more obtuse than usual and the body reminded me of someone I knew in Afghan."

"And that's all ?"


"Why do I have the feeling there's something you aren't telling me ?"

"Because you're naturally suspicious? Why don't we drop it and talk about something else instead? What do you want to do for Christmas?" 

Serena knew Bernie was hiding something, but she decided to let the matter drop – for the moment, anyhow- and the conversation turned to more mundane topics – neither of them had bought any presents, and they were both short of time and reluctant to face the shopping crowds. 

She was crawling in the desert, towards the upturned vehicle – she could see at least three casualties The rebels were coming, each second was precious and yet time seemed to move in slow motion. There was another medic with her, hidden under a helmet – someone from her team. She felt her colleague's breath on her, could sense their hearts beating in synch. Suddenly, as a burst of gunfire – her companion jerked, twisted and fell to the ground. Near the jeep, she could see the gaping wounds of the driver – he was beyond saving, his throat had been jaggedly ripped open by the blast. She wavered – she lost her bearings for a moment – where was the priority ? All she knew on triage disappeared in the awfulness of the scene. She hesitated for a quarter of a second before dropping to her knees besides her colleague – breathing uneven, uniform torn at the shoulder, blood was dripping from the eyebrow, and leg bent in an impossible shape. A groan came from the occupants of the jeep. She couldn't do it – damned if she did, damned if she didn't – she couldn't save them all. Suddenly she was sinking…

Bernie woke up shaking and drenched in sweat – she couldn't get used to those terrible recurring nightmares – they entrapped her, invaded her sleeping brain remorselessly. This one had been worse than usual, because she usually shared them with faceless companions. Last night's casualties had been Serena and Colonel Stewart…

She still had two days before her appointment with the army psychiatrist, and she still didn't know whether to go or not. Both options appeared equally unbearable. She wondered if there was a way she could share her dilemma with Serena without telling her the whole truth, but if there was, she couldn't see it. Moreover, she knew Serena would want her to go and see the shrink – this was after all the rational option. Her own sleep-starved and stressed brain, however, wasn't convinced by reason.

Serena missed Bernie. Although they'd spent the evenings and most nights together since the night at the pub, her partner felt distant. Even in their most tender embraces, something was missing. She had never felt Bernie so remote, so disconnected from her. She hadn't heard Bernie's infectious uncontrollable laugh, which she always tried to dissimulate behind her hand, for weeks. Sometimes she wanted to shake it out her, like dogs do with a squeaky toy. If she could just hear that laugh, she would know everything could be all right again. 

Besides worrying about Bernie, and working like a Trojan to cope with pre-Christmas emergencies, Serena had to face an unpleasant situation at Holby which was partly of her own making. Even though she'd been ignoring George Henderson since that ill-fated night at Albies', he didn't seem to understand, and there wasn't a day when he didn't force his attentions on her. His compliments were clumsy, his flirtation style heavy and his hands wandering. She'd told him she was in a relationship, but apparently this wasn't enough. As he was part of team, they had to see each other, and he couldn't be excluded from the hospital's various Christmas drinks parties. Serena had invited Bernie to join her for these, but the latter had refused, invoking tiredness and her own busy work schedule. Serena did not insist, as she knew Holby still held bittersweet memories. Luckily, she wouldn't be alone, as Dom, Morven and Fletch were all single at the moment, and they were good companions. 

As Serena was getting ready for the party, Bernie watched her almost hungrily. She wanted to tell her not to go. Like a child seeings her parents all dressed up to go out, Bernie wanted to plead, to beg Serena not to leave her alone. However, begging and pleading were not in her repertoire, and she had to settle with a more grown-up reaction: "You look wonderful – have a good time! I'm going to work – at least I won't miss you as much if I'm in the wards."

The party was in full swing when Serena arrived. Strobes were flashing all round, and several members of Holby Staff sported Santa hats or Rudolph antlers. She spotted Dom and Fletcher and went to join them – she bit her lip when she spotted George Henderson, but it was too late. Anyways, there was no way she would let him spoil the evening. He was the first to hail her: "Serena! Over here! All alone?"

"Yes" Serena had decided she would stick to only one glass of champagne, but the number of empty glasses on the table indicated the others had no such intentions. Her unwanted admirer, in particular, already seemed to be very much the worse for drink, and he leered at her uncomfortably. Dom bent towards her and asked: "The Major not with you ? It's been ages…"

"No – you know it's all hands on deck before Christmas" 

George Henderson butted in: "ooh – the Major! So your partner is an army guy!" At the same moment, Morven turned to greet Serena and asked: "How's Bernie? I hope she's forgiven us for the trick we pulled…"

"I think she has, dear – although she did say she would have happily wrung your neck and Fletch's."

George turned to Fletch and asked: "Who's Bernie? I thought I knew all AAU's staff members by now?"

"Major Berenice Wolfe – she used to work at Holby – Trauma Unit. She's working in Birmingham now."

You could almost see the cogs in George Henderson's brain processing the information and putting two and two together. Then he turned to Serena incredulously and ejaculated: "No way! You don't look like a bloody fucking dyke!" 

Serena eyed him contemptuously up and down: "Well, I prefer the term "lesbian" – may I say you don't look like a bloody fucking asshole?" 

Her companions burst into spontaneous applause, and their astonished and embarrassed looks turned contemptuous. Serena allowed herself a second glass of champagne, and hoped she'd at last gotten rid of the bigoted bugger.


Chapter 26: Once Upon a Christmas

"So? How was the party last night?" asked Bernie the next evening.

"Oh, it was …Okay – quite …full of surprises actually …"

Bernie sat down at the kitchen table : "Tell me ?". 

"Are you sure you don't know already ?"

"Know what ? How am I supposed to know what's going on at Holby better than you ?"

"Because it's not completely Holby-related !"

"If you stopped talking in riddles, I might be able to understand you, and we could possibly think of doing something other than playing charades tonight !"

"Very well – but don't shoot me – I'm only the messenger. Morven did have something to tell us – she wasn't happy at Holby anymore – too many memories, you know …" Serena winced. The night before, Morven had taken her aside, and explained what had prompted her decision – apparently, she regularly "saw" Arthur at work. Serena's rational brain told her this was only hallucinations brought about by overwork, although …Anyways, there were too many ghosts for them at Holby. 

"Yes, and ? She hasn't told me anything, if that's what you're thinking."

"Bernie, Morven is leaving Holby to go to Jamaica for at least six months …with Cameron …"

"With… With Cam? But he didn't say … I mean …" said Bernie in a small voice , "he could have told me."

"I'm sorry, darling. That's why I thought maybe you knew." 

"No, he didn't – actually, I got a text from him saying he wouldn't be able to come for Christmas, but that he would call me, so …Well, at least Morven is a huge improvement on his ghastly London girlfriend…." 

Serena nodded, and added tentatively: "It does seem as if uncommunicativeness runs in your family…"

Bernie gave her a wounded look: "And what exactly do you mean by that?"

"Come on… I can see you're hiding something from me."

"None of your business!" 

"Aah – so I'm right – there IS something."

Bernie got up and stalked out of the room. The appointment with the psychiatrist was in two days' time, and she was getting more and more nervous by the minute. To learn that Cameron had kept her out of his plans had only added to her current misery, and she was almost glad he wasn't coming for Christmas. For one, he was all too perceptive, and if he allied himself with Serena, she was afraid she would crack and blurt out the whole sorry story. And she in turn would probably have asked him too many questions about his future plans, and that would have angered him. She was afraid that going to Jamaica was only a way to stall – it was still medicine, shadowing local doctors and helping the population, but it was not cutting-edge trauma surgery, and Bernie hoped Cameron would follow in her own footsteps. And going with Morven …She liked Morven – she was driven, a good doctor, and a very nice girl – but what if she got pregnant? From her own experience, she knew it would considerably hinder her studies, and what had been difficult in the 1980s had become even more so. Moreover, Marcus had been able to support both of them then, thanks to family money, but Cameron had no personal income, and he wouldn't earn enough to support a wife and a baby… Oh, Gods! And Cameron was so contrary that if she said anything against Jamaica, it would only straighten his resolve to go. As for Charlotte, she had her sent a card with presents at her father's, but she hadn't heard anything in return. She would try to phone on Christmas Day, but … 

She really wasn't looking forward to the 25th of December – last year had been excruciating, but at least Eleanor had still been alive, and Cameron had come. Bernie missed her mother terribly in the yuletide. She had died just a week before Christmas. They had decorated the tree two days before, just she and her mother, as her father was on ops. They had made little gingerbread biscuits and cinnamon swirls to hang, and paper chains, and it had been the first year Berenice had been tall enough to put the fairy on the top, perched on a stepladder. The day before her mother's death, they had gone to rehearse the carols at the base's chapel. Her mother sung in the choir – she had a clear soprano which usually earned her a solo – in fact, if she closed her eyes, Bernie could still hear her mother's voice singing Heilige Nacht during that rehearsal… Since then, the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon brought a slight feeling of déjà vu and nausea….

Bernie knew Christmas would be painful for Serena too. She would grieve for her daughter all over again. Christmas was all right with children around, but when there was no one to believe in Santa, ghosts tended to sweep in and stir up the most painful memories…

The next morning, Bernie found a welcome email in her inbox. At least she thought it was welcome, but on second thoughts, it might just draw out the agony …The psychiatrist had had a personal emergency, and wouldn't be able to see her before the new year. So she decided to concentrate on Christmas, and on keeping her own troubles to herself for the time being. She didn't even tell Serena that she was disappointed about Cameron – at least she still had two lovely living children, even if one of them was incommunicado and the other not very communicative…

They'd decided to spend Christmas Eve at Bernie's – the memories from the year before would have weighted too heavily on their minds at Serena's, and neither of them wanted to spend the evening in a restaurant with happy families all around. She hadn't decorated the flat or anything, but she had popped into the supermarket and cleaned a little - at least enough for them to sit comfortably without having to clear the sofa first. 

They were just settling down with all sorts of nibbles and a bottle of red wine when the lights flickered and went off.

"Oh drat! Microwave, hairdryer and electric heater at the same time must have make the power trip out! This is the last straw!" 

The early evening had been fraught with various mishaps. The brie and cranberry tartlets had burnt to a crisp in an over-heated oven. Serena had spilt nearly half a bottle of olive oil – she'd thought she was pouring it in the bowl, but she'd been distracted by the oven alarm, and had poured it on the worktop instead. Obviously, it had then largely run all over the floor. Then Bernie, who'd been looking for a serving plate in a low cupboard, had found it at the bottom of the pile, and had tried such a complicated way of extricating the one she wanted that she'd let two other plates fall on the floor, where they'd immediately smashed into smithereens. And as of course she'd tried to rescue them, she'd forgotten the cupboard opened above her, and her forehead now sported a huge bruise… And if that wasn't enough, Serena had nearly set fire to the kitchen, leaving a tea towel on the hot oven door. As Bernie remarked, it was lucky for them CCTV didn't extend to inside the homes, otherwise no one would believe they were talented consultant surgeons …

Bernie switched on her phone to use the torch app, and went to have a look at the fuse box: "Everything seems to be ok in there. I'm no electrician, but the breaker is in the right position – I'm going to try and switch it on and off, but …"

The flat remained in darkness. Serena went to the window to have a look, and remarked: "Might be slightly more complicated than the breaker, darling…the whole street seems to be in black-out. And it's snowing, too, which may explain it."

"Oh, bother! It had to happen tonight! They'll never get enough technicians out on Christmas Eve!"

"You don't happen to have an oil lamp lying around somewhere, do you, Bernie ?"

"Afraid not; nor a generator, which is what we could really use right now. However … I think I've got candles- I got them for free at the supermarket last week."

"And one of the advantages of being smokers – at least we've got matches. I hope the electricity's still working in other parts of town, otherwise Jason's going to go berserk if he can't watch Dr Who…"

"Poor Jason! Right – here are the candles." Bernie came back into the room with two huge candles, a green one in Christmas tree shape and a red round one. 

"Hmm …I must say you've got great taste in candles," said Serena teasingly.

"Hush! Told you they were a gift! At least they're not scented."

"Small mercies, eh ?"

Bernie put them on the coffee table and produced a box of matches. She lit one, and handed the box to Serena. The match burned brightly, and suddenly Bernie found herself sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree – the tree seemed huge, and she was wearing pajamas with little red and white teddy bears. In her hands was the present she'd just opened – something she'd asked Father Christmas for, a Sindy doll in a ball gown. Also under the trees were other unwrapped presents – an Etch-a- Sketch and a Monopoly. She thought the last one wasn't a very good choice, as she didn't have any siblings to play with, but she was enchanted by the doll. She lifted her eyes and turned her head when she heard a flash. Her mother was kneeling on the floor, Polaroid camera in hand: "Smile, darling – I'll send the best ones to Daddy." She smiled obediently for the camera, and turned to the doll again. And then, she was in her mother's arms. The only light in the room came from the television, Christmas with the Stars on the screen. She nestled closer to her mother – close enough feel the scent of Chanel N 5 and vanilla cookies transfer on her own skin, close enough to feel like everything was right in the world and she was loved, she was safe…

Serena struck a match, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into a room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it were many plates, a Christmas pudding, and a big chocolate Yule log. The table was too high for the little girl, no more than two or three years old, wearing a pink fairy dress, whose seat had been raised by a pile of cushions. Her chin was nearly in her plate, and her face and her hands were covered with chocolate. She was grinning mischievously and looking at her parents out of the corner of her eyes – she knew no one would scold her on Christmas. And indeed, Serena scooped her from the chair, and smothered her with kisses, laughing: "Come on, Ellie-baby, let's get you cleaned up - otherwise Santa's reindeer will think you're a new type of biscuit and gobble you up." The little girl giggled, and Serena hugged her harder…

They both got up at the same time, and went to the window – the street was still in darkness, but the sky was lit up with stars – as they were watching, hand in hand, one fell down and formed a long trail of fire… the warmth ran through their bodies and their hearts. Bernie and Serena had tears in their eyes but a smile on their faces…

(thanks to HC Andersen)


Chapter 27

Notes: if you want to picture Colonel Stewart, think Judi Dench in Skyfall…

Christmas day itself was uneventful – Cameron called Bernie briefly, and she managed to keep her qualms to herself. He apologized for his sister, and said Charlotte sent her thanks for the gifts. This was clearly unsatisfactory, but it would have to do, as she did not answer her phone. Bernie and Serena had lunch with Jason, Fletcher and his kids and they all tried to forget the recent troubles and put on a brave face for the children. 

Both Serena and Bernie threw themselves into their work in the week following Christmas – first, because they were needed – people seemed to be even more accident-prone than usual at this time of year, and secondly because Christmas had brought them a respite from the tension of the last weeks. Bernie still had her nightmares, and she knew that Serena would one day or another ask her again what she was keeping from her, but she was hoping the Christmas truce could last a few more days. Serena was nearly at the end of her course of radiotherapy, and she was feeling better, less tired, and thus more indulgent. As she had more energy, she'd been able to resume her surgical duties, and she'd gone back to full workdays. 

She and Serena had decided they didn't want to celebrate New Year's Eve – they would probably each snatch a few moments with their teams at their respective hospitals to have a bite and a drink, but they both disliked compulsory festivities and they saw no need to party on the 31rst. 

Most of the injuries Bernie had to treat were freak accidents, ranging from the usual severed fingers from opening oysters to falls down stairs while inebriated, with a few oddities, like the man who'd slipped in the kitchen and impaled himself on knives lying upright in his dishwasher. Many RTC victims found their way to St Elisabeth's Hospital too, as it treated both military personnel and civilians. The worst were the children – she had to operate on a toddler who had apparently put a glass tree ornament in his mouth and then crushed it with her teeth and on a baby who had fallen from his changing table on the corner of a table. Each time, the parents were understandingly distraught, and their distress was often exacerbated by the alcohol they'd consumed during the evening. Some got angry and took it out on the medical staff. Some were in tears, and those were the hardest to bear for Bernie. The rhythm was intense, for which she was thankful, because she didn't have time to dwell on her upcoming shrink appointment. 

On New Year's Eve, Bernie snatched a few moments of rest in the staff room at 11.00 pm with a huge mug of coffee, since she'd chosen to work the night shift – at least, when she was awake, she couldn't have those terrible nightmares, that left her as tired as if she'd worked anyways. She'd briefly closed her eyes to escape the glaring neon light when she heard the door opening. She half-lifted her eyelids and straighten up abruptly when she saw who'd come in. Colonel Stewart was putting the kettle on and rooting in the cupboard for a cup.

"Good evening Ma'am."

"Good evening Major – I see you decided to skip the merrymaking too…" 

Bernie nodded – she focused on her coffee cup, and thought of going back to the wards, but it would look too much like the evasion it would be…

Colonel Stewart went on: "I imagine I'm not your favorite person right now, Berenice." Bernie bit her lips – how on earth was she supposed to answer that ?! Luckily, the colonel went on: "I hope one day you'll be able to understand why I ordered you to see Dr Arnold. For now …Remember what happened on the Western front on Christmas 1914 ?"

Bernie answered wonderingly: "The British and German troops sang carols and exchanged presents, I believe?"

"Exactly – for one night, there was a truce! It should be easier for us as we're members of the same army, don't you think?"

Bernie cracked a smile: "But Christmas was a week ago, Ma'am." The colonel rolled her eyes: "A mere technicality." Bernie took a big mouthful of lukewarm coffee and finally grinned frankly, while racking her brain to find a conversation topic which wouldn't involve her personal life and troubles. Luckily, the colonel took the lead: "Have you ever spent Christmas at Camp Bastion, Berenice ?"

"One, Ma'am. And one in Basra."

"I've spent wonderful Christmases in deployment. But you have children, I think."

"Yes Ma'am, two – it was definitely harder on them than it was on me." Bernie had a passing glimpse of herself in a barrack in Afghan, skyping the kids on Christmas Day. They were usually on their way to Marcus' parents, already in a sugar-hyper state, and too eager to see what Santa had brought them to spend much time talking to their mother via a computer screen. She sighed and bit her lips again. She was pretty sure the colonel was in earnest when she asked for a truce, but it didn't mean anything she said would be off the record. She glanced at the clock, and decided to go back to check on her last patient – never mind if it looked like an avoidance tactic.

She wished the colonel all the best for the new year and made her escape. Left to herself, the colonel sighed too. She genuinely felt for the younger woman, and when she'd seen her in the staff room, she'd hoped that the informal setting would help elicit confidences, but Major Wolf was obviously a tougher nut to crack. Of course, Colonel Stewart couldn't blame her – they were too similar – you couldn't be a female soldier and a wuss. When you were in charge of a mostly male unit, you couldn't show the smallest moment of weakness. You had to forget your feelings and to lead by your head only. The same was true when you were a surgeon. So if you were a soldier, a surgeon, and a woman, being a woman had to come last, if it came at all. You had to bury your emotions and your caring very deeply, otherwise you couldn't keep up the façade. And you couldn't back down – once you gave an order, it usually engaged the lives of several people. Thus, you had to be strong-willed, and even a little obstinate. But apparently the major had stubbornness down to a fine art ! 

The colonel thought back to when she'd been even younger than Major Wolfe, to her first days in the military. Her grey hair had been brown then, but her boyish crop had framed her face in the same way, and her piercing blue eyes had burned with enthusiasm. She had loved the challenge, the discipline, the feeling of being part of a big family. Obviously she'd had to earn her stripes, especially as woman medic, but she had no regrets. She'd never really wanted to get married or to have children. The army was enough. And she never felt alone in her own company – maybe she would when she retired, but she'd good friends, and she wasn't afraid of old age. She wondered about the major, though – why wasn't she spending the evening with her children? Or with her husband? What had put that hunted look in her eyes, and what had made her loose control? 

Colonel Stewart knew that even someone with seemingly absolute self-control could reach breaking point someday, but usually there was a reason. She very much hoped Andrew Arnold could get to the bottom of it, or she would have to suspend the major. She was a stickler for protocol, and she couldn't get back on her word. But if she judged the situation correctly, being dismissed could send the younger woman into total mental collapse, and she certainly didn't want to be responsible for that.


Chapter 28

"Bernie – if you've finished your shift, you might want to come to Holby. Cameron and Morven have just been admitted to AAU. They are ok – well, Cameron is fine, but I thought you should know."

When Bernie got the message, it was eight o'clock on the 1rst of January. She had just spent four hours operating on a child who'd run behind his grandfather's car while he was reversing. The cherubic blonde little girl had looked very much like Charlotte at that age, and although Bernie had managed to save her, the child would keep some scars for the rest of her life, a thought which tugged at Bernie's heartstrings. The child's face sported a red gash, and there were other wounds on her body from the surgical procedures, but at least all her internal organs were still there and mostly intact, thanks to Bernie's skills. However, it was harder to dissociate when you were operating on a child – as much as you wanted to be emotionally remote, you couldn't completely shut down. Maybe because a child's distress was usually magnified by the parents' anguish – you had to bear the burden of the whole family. In little Emma's case, the whole family had come to the hospital – the parents, the grand-parents and two siblings. Actually, the grand-father responsible for the accident had had to be admitted too, in a state of shock. The mother had ranted at Bernie, because she couldn't give her assurance that the little girl would be all right, and the father had tried to calm her down, while vituperating against his father-in-law. The night had taken its toll, and Serena's message was more than worrying, specially since now she wasn't answering her phone.

In her state of exhaustion, the last thing Bernie wanted to do was to drive to Holby. Although adrenaline had sustained her during the night's procedure, its effect had now worn off, and she felt drained. However, she couldn't ignore the message – she knew Cam and Morven's injuries were not life-threatening, as both the contents and Serena's voice would have been different, but something had happened. She texted Serena to say she was on her way, and drove to Holby. Serena was waiting for her in the hall, a Styrofoam cup in hand: "Here – triple shot ! I'm think you'll need it."

"What happened ?"

"Well, I don't know all the details, but they were admitted to AAU around midnight – I was in theatre, and by the time I was out, Morven had been transferred to the psych ward, and Cameron had been released, but I think he's with her now. It seems Morven suffered from confusion, uncontrolled body movements, chest pains, a body temp of 105, BPM 115 and tachycardia. Cameron was fine physically, although dehydrated, but his pupils were dilated, and he seemed confused. No other symptoms though."

"The psych ward? Then they think …"

Serena answered gently: "Cameron told Fletcher they'd been at a party and they each had about 200 mg of MDMA…"

Bernie groaned and buried her head in her hand: "Not again!! I'd really hoped we were past that now he's a F2…"


"Yes – when he was in his first year at med school, he got into a …festive…crowd. They partied a lot, and they experimented a lot too. After several warnings from the uni, they were going to throw him out… I think Marcus pulled some strings – I was in Afghan at the time – anyways, they allowed him to drop out – that's why he was able to get back into the program. And since then …well, I thought we were done with all that. And to think he led Morven into …that's just too much!" Bernie's blood was boiling – her anger had mounted as Serena explained. She gulped down the coffee and strode along the corridor, not even waiting for Serena: "Bernie ? Are you okay?"

"I'm FINE !! I'm bloody FINE ! But someone won't be once I've finished with him!"

"Don't you think you should calm down a little before …"

"Don't you tell me to calm down – he's MY kid, and I'll deal with this."

"Right – well, if you need me, I'll be in AAU." Serena wondered if she should go along, but she decided against it. Although Bernie would fight tooth and nails for her kids against other people, she was definitely an adept of tough parenting when it came to Cameron and issues that could endanger his career. Serena thought that Bernie would tend to be even more stringent if she had an audience. She understood her uncompromising attitude very well – she'd been the same with Eleanor. She wished – she gulped, feeling the tears well up in her eyes.

Bernie stormed into the psych ward and glanced around, her eyes quickly focusing on Morven and Cameron, who was sitting beside the bed. She walked up to the bed and mechanically rubbed her hands with the antibacterial gel before looking at Morven's file. The two young people watched her apprehensively. Bernie's eyes were stony and her face closed.

" It's all right, Mom – Morven's going to be fine. Her temperature's gone down and she's feeling much…" Cameron's voice trailed off. As Bernie maintained an icy silence, he tried again: "We …we were just celebrating before … everyone does it, you know that. But it was Morven's first time and …"

Slowly, deliberately, Bernie raised her hand and brought it down on Cameron's cheek. Hard. The sound of the slap resonated in the ward. Morven looked at her wide-eyed, and Cameron touched his cheek gingerly. It wasn't the first time he'd been the recipient of his mother's wrath, but she'd never hit him. Bernie walked out of the ward without a backward glance. Once outside the room, she leant against the wall and breathed deeply. She'd put all her anger, all her disappointment in that slap, and suddenly she felt deflated. The only anger left in her now was against herself – when she'd had children, she had sworn to herself she would never, ever raise her hand to them. She would never be her father.

Morven would be fine, and Bernie had had time to see that Cameron's pupils seemed back to normal – the effects of the drugs had apparently worn off. They would both be all right, but what about her relationship with her son? He was going nearly five thousand miles away for several months, and – well, anything could happen. She still couldn't believe the two young doctors had been stupid enough to take ecstasy – they'd gone far enough in their medical studies to know that if the drugs weren't harmful enough already, they were usually so much adulterated that there was a good chance the dose of ketamine or amphetamine inside could be fatal. And she couldn't forget that Eleanor's blood tests had revealed traces of cocaine – it might not have killed her outwardly, but it certainly contributed to her excited state at the time of the accident.

While she was still trying to gather her wits, the door of the lift opened and Serena came out. She took one glance at Bernie's face and put her arms around her shoulders: "Come on – let's have a breath of fresh air. It'll make you feel better." She could see that Bernie was on the brink of a panic attack, and she really didn't want that to happen, as the attacks seemed to grow worse each time. Bernie buried her head in Serena's neck for a minute, as she clung to her desperately. Then she straighten up: "What about a drink ? It's a little early, but I could do with one."

"Well, if you're buying…"


Chapter 29

Only when they were comfortably nursing two huge glasses of wine at Albie's did Serena ask how Morven and Cameron were. Bernie pursed her lips : "They'll be fine – all of Morven's stats are back to normal." 

"So what …what did you say to them ?"

"Ah – well …Nothing."

"Nothing ? Really?"

Knowing that Serena would never let the matter go, Bernie confessed: "I slapped Cameron, and walked away."

Serena whistled softly.

"Okay – Okay – I know what you're thinking – violence doesn't solve anything. I know that as well as you do. But …I was so angry I would have said something I'd regret afterwards."

Serena looked at knowingly. Bernie went on: "And I went and did something I regret. I know. Oh God! This is all my fault! What if he never speaks to me again?"

"How on earth is it your fault that they were off their face ?"

"I should have been there. Not yesterday, I mean, but when it happened before – I just let Marcus deal with it when I was gallivanting in Afghan, and – obviously, he didn't deal with it!"

"Gallivanting ? God, Bernie – when will you stop putting yourself down? Do I need to remind you that you went there to save lives ? That people – soldiers – would have died without you?"

"Yes, and Morven and Cameron could have died last night."

"How can you be so bloody clever and so bloody stupid at the same time ?!"

"Please, Serena, can you just…drop it ? I …"

Bernie had huge dark shadows under her eyes and her hands shook slightly – Serena hated to see her like that, almost defenseless, defeated. She also knew that it wasn't only the sleepless night or Cameron's latest misdemeanor that had put her in such a state. Something else was eating away at her. Something Bernie had kept hidden from her for weeks now. Serena knew it wasn't the right time to ask again, but she couldn't help herself – she was so sure that if Bernie could share her burden, it would solve the whole thing. And so she tried tentatively : "Bernie …You're a wonderful surgeon, and you know that. But… You can't always save everyone, be responsible for everything. Why don't you tell me what's bothering you? I might be able to help…"

"What would help me would be if you stopped bugging me! As for being a "wonderful surgeon"… Could you just STOP saying that? In two days I might just be unemp…"

"Unemp… what ?"

"Nothing – forget it – I have to go."

"Go where ?" 

Bernie scooped up her coat and got up without answering. She went back to the psych ward. Before she opened the door, she took a deep breath, and then sighed deeply – she had to do that. Like before, she walked to Morven's bed. Morven was reading a magazine, and she lifted her eyes when she saw Bernie. 

Bernie cleared her throat: "Morven …I was looking for Cameron." 

She could see Morven was uncomfortable, but then, so was she. 

"Why? Do you want to hit him again?" 

Bernie winced – she knew she'd asked for it, but she had always had a good relationship with Morven till now and it hurt. Morven's tone was also more than disrespectful, and that didn't help.

"Dr Digby!"

Morven had regretted her words as soon as she'd blurted them out, but she'd been unsettled by Bernie's reaction that morning, and her filters were awry. Bernie and Serena had supported her through Arthur's death, and Bernie had taken her under her wing after Serena's departure to Provence. She had helped her deal with Jasmine's death too. Moreover, Morven stood in awe of Bernie's surgical skills, specially of her absolute calm when she was in theatre, and of her equanimity in all circumstances. The two older surgeons were role models for her – and if she was honest with herself, they were also a little like substitute mothers. 

Therefore, Bernie's cold fury, icy behavior and utter disapproval had made her shiver inside. She very much regretted taking the drugs, partly because it had been an awful experience, but mostly because she'd disappointed her mentor. However, the slap, and its underlying meaning – that somehow she, Morven, was not responsible for her own actions, but had been led astray by Cam – had hurt her too. And when she was hurt, she lashed out . 

"Sorry, Miss Wolfe – I shouldn't have said that, but … You know, we're both adults, Cam and I, and we – we make our own choices."

"A choice that could have killed you!" snapped Bernie. Morven lowered her eyes, but she answered quietly: "Maybe. But it's still our choice – as going to Jamaica is. You need to respect Cameron's wishes. He's your son, but he doesn't need you to plan his whole life for him."

"When have I ever done that?"

"Well, he thinks you want him to be a trauma surgeon, just like you, and … It might not be what he wants."

Bernie bit her lips – she'd come with the intention of apologizing to Cameron, and now she was being lectured by his girlfriend on her mothering skills… She didn't need that – she was barely holding it together as it was, and she had her appointment with the psychiatrist in two days. Moreover, she really wanted to see Cameron, because they were leaving in two days, and …what if something happened to him? She had to see him. 

"Right…Well, Dr. Digby, if you've quite finished telling me off, maybe you could tell me where my son is ?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Wolfe – I wasn't …And I don't know where he is. He had things to arrange before our departure, and…"

"Goodbye, Dr. Digby. Try to get some rest." Bernie walked away, fishing out her phone from her pocket – she sent a text to Cameron, who didn't reply. Once out on the parking lot, she phoned him, but all she got was the answering machine, and she didn't feel like apologizing on a machine. She was so angry with herself – once again, she'd managed to antagonize the people who she loved most. Serena hadn't looked very happy when she'd stalked off, and Cameron …

She had the day off as she'd worked all night, but she didn't fancy going home. Didn't actually fancy doing anything. She ended up walking aimlessly in the streets, until she was too tired to think anymore. 

Meanwhile, Serena had been waiting for Bernie to come and see her in AAU, but as the day went on, she realized that she'd probably left Holby. She tried to send a text, but she didn't get any answer. Just before leaving to go home, Serena decided to pay a visit to the psych ward. She more than anyone knew what Morven had gone through during the last year, but she couldn't believe the young doctor had been so stupid. She hadn't been able to save her own daughter, but there was no way she would let Morven waste her potential and risk her life. Therefore, for the second time that day, Morven had to confront one of her irate mentors. 

Serena tore a strip off her for almost a quarter of an hour. Although the older woman kept her voice down, her anger suffused her every word and Morven, who was still feeling very fragile from her night's ordeal and her confrontation with Bernie, couldn't hold it together anymore and burst into tears. The words "irresponsible, thoughtless, childish" had cut deep, and Serena's furious tone even more so. When Serena saw the tears, she calmed down, and bent down to hug Morven. She knew she shouldn't have been so hard with her, and that most of her anger came from Eleanor's death. She'd thought she'd worked through that in therapy, but obviously she still had a way to go. 

As Morven went on crying in Serena's arms, and saying "I'm sorry, I'm sorry", Serena realized that if part of her anger came from her daughter's untimely death, and part from her disappointment in Morven, part of it – maybe most of it - was linked to Bernie. She just couldn't bear to see her as she'd been that morning, so painfully tired, so crushed, and blaming herself without reason. Serena knew Morven and Cameron's behavior wasn't the only cause for Bernie's misery, but they'd added to it unnecessarily.


Chapter 30

Bernie's appointment with the psychiatrist ironically coincided with the day of Cameron's departure. She'd tried to call him twice more without success. On the evening before, she finally decided to leave a message: "Cameron – me again. I know you're angry, and…I just wanted to say I'm sorry, and …I love you. Take care of yourself, and be safe, please." And she prepared herself for another sleepless night. 

On the day of her psych appointment, she wondered if she should just go directly to Colonel Stewart and hand in her notice. Her rational mind told her that a psychiatrist wasn't a mind-reader, and that there was nothing to fear – if she just managed to remain in control and to keep her thoughts to herself, everything would be all right. The trouble was to know what she could say and what she had to conceal at all costs. She dressed carefully in her black trousers suits and a white shirt – her "power" suit. She checked her phone – still no news from Cameron. Just a text from Serena asking if she was ok and wishing her a good day. For a fleeting moment Bernie wished she'd confided in Serena about the appointment. Maybe they could have discussed it together. Maybe it would have helped. 

The man who came to fetch her in the waiting room didn't fit Bernie's idea of an army shrink. He was middle-aged, with a three-day stubble and a rumpled appearance. His office was bare apart from piles of documents and books lying around and a chair on each side of the desk. He sat down and motioned for her to do the same. His grey eyes studied her in silence for a while, and this only added to Bernie's discomfort. 

"Major Wolfe. Good morning – I'm Andrew Arnold. I understand you've been referred to me by Colonel Stewart. After our meeting – or meetings – I'll file a report, but most of what you tell me here will remain confidential."

"Most…" murmured Bernie.

"Yes – I might need to include some details, of course. I'm here to help you. Now – would you like to tell me why you're here, Major?"

"Surely you know that already." It sounded bitter, and Bernie regretted her words straight away. She had to keep neutral – if she let anything out, that man would pounce on it and use it against her.

"I have an idea, but I would like you to tell me in your own words."

Seeing that Bernie remained silent, he went on: "Colonel Stewart's note stated that you had suffered an injury in active duty in Afghan, which had brought you back to England. She wishes me to assess whether you are well enough to work here."

"Well enough? I resumed work a month after my injury, and that was nearly two years ago."

"That was a very quick recovery. However, as you're a doctor yourself, you know that emotional scars can take longer to heal than physical ones. And you're also aware that traumatic events can have long-term consequences on one's mental state. Would you like to comment on that, Major?"

"Not really – I'm fine." 

"Why did you leave your previous position ?"

"The Trauma Unit I was managing was closed down due to financial reasons, and I thought my qualifications were more suited to a military hospital."

"And yet, when you got back to work after your injury, you chose a civilian one."


"Would you care to elaborate on that ?"

Bernie didn't want to talk about Marcus. She couldn't possibly admit she had yielded to his wishes. Thinking quickly, she decided on a compromise: "When I was laid up in Holby, I had time to observe and to see that I could be useful there."

"And …"

"And my family was glad to have me home." That had been true – mostly – she was the one who'd wished herself somewhere else.

"Tell me about your family ?"

"I've got two children – quite grown-up."

"Partner ?"

"My husband and I are divorced."

"I'm sorry. Do you think the divorce has had any impact on your ability to work ?"

"No – I've never let my personal life interfere with my professional one." Well, except for the fact that her personal life had been very much made public during her stint at Holby… 

"Very commendable. So, in your opinion, Colonel Stewart's note was completely unfounded, and her concerns unnecessary. She was only overzealous."

This was tricky – if Bernie said yes, she would be implicitly criticizing her superior – but if she said no, she would be in a lot of trouble too. 

"Major? Did you maybe confide in her about something? Was there anything in your behavior that could have given rise to concern?"

Bernie chewed on her lower lip – there was a chance – a good chance, in fact – that the psychiatrist already knew about her outburst, and that he was only trying to see if she would blatantly lie. A bare-faced lie would of course be a black mark against her – it could even be seen as a sign of mental illness or psychosis. She was stuck between a rock and a hard place. 


She couldn't lie: "There might have been a slight difference of opinion between Colonel Stewart and myself about a surgical procedure…"

"A slight difference of opinion? Would you say it was enough to justify this referral?"

Bernie's composure was only hanging on by a thread – she stiffened her back, trying to at least appear confident, but it was no use. She'd never been very good in one-to-one situations anyways, and although she couldn't sense any hostility from the therapist, his scrutiny and his probing were unsettling. She'd much rather be operating under enemy fire. As the silence became unbearable, she finally threw caution to the wind, and blurted it all out: 

"All right – I lost it and I swore at her. Satisfied? But you probably knew that already, didn't you? You just wanted me to admit how much I'd messed up."

As her vis-à-vis didn't say anything, she hung her head and added: "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that – you're just doing your job. I'm angry at myself and taking it out on you. And now I guess I've blown it. So much for being well enough, eh? Now, you can report back to the Colonel, and say that obviously I'm not stable enough for active duty." She stood up without looking at Andrew Arnold and was putting on her coat when he spoke again: "Major, please."

He motioned for her to sit down again, and although she wanted nothing more than to put an end to the awful interview, she felt compelled to obey. 

"Miss Wolfe – as you said, I'm just doing my job, and my job is to help you. Not to judge you. Actually, Colonel Stewart said no more than what was in the note. But now you've told me a little about what happened, do you think you could manage to tell me the whole story?"

Now Bernie had burnt her boats, she thought she might as well tell him what had happened in the theatre that day. In for a penny, in for a pound. She was terrified, though – her whole career hung in this man's hands.


Chapter 31

Bernie concluded: "So that's the whole story." 

He'd listened impassively: "Right. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me. So you "messed up", as you said. Have you ever heard the saying: everyone makes mistakes?"

She nodded: "Yes. When you're a beginner, you can make mistakes – you have to – it's how you learn – but when you're in the field – or in the theatre, when you're in charge, there's no room for mistakes. Not when people can die." 

"Swearing at someone can hardly be qualified as a life-or-death situation."

"I agree – but when the someone is your superior, you know as well as I do that it's a disciplinary offence."

"Yes, it is – but it seems Colonel Stewart is decided to find you mitigating factors, or she wouldn't have sent you here. So ? What about those mitigating factors, Major?"


"Somehow I don't believe you."

Bernie remained silent – she tried to make her face as unreadable as possible. 

"I'm afraid our time is up for today, Major. Shall we say next week at the same time?"

Bernie gave him a tired smile: "It's not like I've any say in the matter, have I?" One more week in limbo – one more week of not knowing, of wondering whether she would be dismissed. When she got out of Andrew Arnold's office, her shoulders slumped. Her whole back ached, as if she'd been carrying tons of bricks. Since the panic attacks had begun, her back and neck had been hurting again, especially in the C5-C6 region where her vertebrae had been damaged. However, it was only 10 a.m, and she had a whole day's work to go through, so she made a pit stop in the cafeteria for a triple shot espresso and soldiered on. 

During the day, she checked her phone several times to see if she had any news from Cameron, but there were no messages. Then, around 6.00 pm, she got a message from Serena telling her that Morven had texted her to say she and Cameron had landed safely at Ian Fleming International Airport, and that the weather was tropical. Bernie heaved a sigh that was part relief, part sadness – Cameron had obviously not yet forgiven her, otherwise he would have been in touch too. She answered Serena's message by a quick "Thanks. Dinner tonight? My place? xx" and went to change into her street clothes. 

As she stopped at the nearest Sainsbury's, Bernie reflected that the man who'd invented the concept of supermarket ready meals should be knighted for services to the general public… She also picked up a nice bottle of red wine, as she was intending to mend fences between Serena and herself. She still didn't want to talk about the sword of Damocles hanging over her head, but she hoped Serena would cut her some slack, especially if she had a huge glass of wine in her hand. Now she'd finished her radiotherapy treatment, she could indulge again. 

The supermarket's car park was crowded, and the shoppers were racing around with the trolleys under the pouring rain. When you looked at the way people piloted their shopping carts that wet and dark evening, you understood why there were so many car accidents in the same weather conditions… Bernie was just getting back to her car when she felt someone besides her. Turning around, she was confronted with a switchblade.

"Just gimme your handbag and I won't hurt you."

Not for the first time, she wished she'd resumed her martial arts training after the IED. However, she hadn't, and she knew the reasonable thing would be to let go of her bag. There was nothing much of value in it – her purse was in her pocket, her phone in the car, and the few pictures she kept in the bag could be replaced. So could the make-up and the Kindle. It only took her a minute to decide, but it was too long for the mugger, who wrenched the bag from her shoulder, sending her flying against her car door in the process. She staggered but managed to break her fall and to right herself, when a searing pain in her left shoulder made her gasp for breath. She reached in her pocket for her car keys and collapsed in the driver's seat. She locked the car doors and closed her eyes for a minute. The pain radiated agonizingly in her whole arm and neck. She tried to move her fingers, and was reassured to see they responded. Driving was probably not a good idea, but.... She gritted her teeth and turned the key in the ignition – another jolt of pain nearly made her faint. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she wouldn't be able to steer the wheel with only one arm, let alone maneuver the gear box. With a sigh she reached for her phone and dialed the number of the local cab company.

When she arrived home, she just managed to pop the perishables in the fridge and to swallow two pain pills before she crashed on the sofa. While waiting for the pills to work their magic, she tried to assess the situation – her left hand was beginning to tingle, so there might be some nerve bruising, but hopefully it was only from the bruises. As for her shoulder, she thought nothing was broken, but whether it was a sprain, separation of the shoulder or a torn rotator cuff she couldn't say, as one's shoulder was an awkward place to examine oneself. She was actually more worried about the pain in her neck because if there was an injury where Guy Self had repaired the herniated disc, it could be hard to mend this time. She knew she should have asked the cab driver to drop her at Holby, but … She was still lost in a haze of pain and wondering when she heard Serena's knock on the door. Getting up from the couch to go and open the door was so excruciating she cursed herself for not having taken the time to have a key cut for Serena. She had one to Serena's house, but since her current flat was not supposed to be permanent she'd never gotten to it – now was punishment time.

The last thing Bernie wanted was for Serena to make a fuss, so she managed a weak grin in greeting. If Serena hadn't had her mind elsewhere, she would immediately have noticed something was wrong, but her own day hadn't gone very smoothly, and although she noticed Bernie looked even paler than usual, she didn't see that she avoided using her left arm and held it awkwardly. It took about three quarters of an hour for the tramadol to really work on the pain, and for Bernie to really focus on what Serena was saying. 

Serena had had a surprise and disturbing encounter with Evie, Fletch's daughter – the teenager had asked her to come to the cafeteria – obviously she wanted to keep her visit from her father. Although they'd seen each other at Christmas, Serena had been struck by Evie's appearance – it was very hot in the hospital's cafeteria, and the girl was wearing only a t-shirt which underlined her emaciated shape, which on Christmas had been carefully concealed under a huge seasonal jumper. Her face was still roundish, but you could almost count her ribs and her clavicle stood out prominently. The legs were hidden in a baggy pair of jeans. She'd refused to eat or drink anything except from mineral water, and now Serena thought about it, Evie hadn't eaten anything on Christmas day either, pretexting a huge late supper the evening before. She hadn't been able to make the teenager talk, because although Evie had asked to see her, she had been mostly silent, and Serena had been paged for an emergency only fifteen minutes into their "talk". Those fifteen minutes however had been enough to ring alarm bells into Serena's mind – something was obviously very wrong with the teenager. 

Although Bernie was concerned for Evie, she was also glad for the diversion, and while she was listening to Serena and putting in appropriate answers at intervals, she was also mentally reviewing her next few days at the hospital. She might have to leave her car where it was for the time being, but she couldn't stop working – not now. She hadn't any major elective surgeries planned, and she thought that she could just try to get on with paperwork. If she managed to bind her arm and not wear it in a sling, her injury could probably remain unnoticed. 

"So what are you planning to do about Essie, then?"

"I don't know, Bernie – what do you think?"

"Er …I don't know? Wait and see ?"

Serena looked at her quizzically – "wait and see" was typically not a Bernie-style approach: "That's all?" 

"Sorry, it's all I can think of right now – I'm a little tired, I…" Bernie couldn't stifle an enormous yawn – the combination of the days' events and the pills." What Bernie actually thought was that the situation was indeed worrying, but that Serena would have to tread carefully. Evie had adopted Serena as a role model, and as Fletch couldn't be both father and mother, specially to a teenage girl, Serena's help was more than welcome, but there was a very thin line between mothering and smothering, a line which Serena tended to ignore. Telling her that would require tact, and Bernie wasn't feeling up to it right then. 

"Okay …I'll let you rest then." Serena could see Bernie wasn't in the mood to talk – or to do anything else for that matter, and she sensed that if she stayed, there was a risk things would get downhill.


Chapter 32

For two days, everything went as planned – the wards were quiet, and although Bernie guided several trainee surgeons during operations, she didn't actually have to touch the instruments herself. Her shoulder and arm were still swollen and painful, but she managed with tight bandaging and maximal amounts of painkillers. On the evening of the second day, she even managed to pick up her car, thanking her lucky stars for the fact it was an automatic. 

On the third day, she had planned to hole up in her office as she'd done the previous days, but she got paged to the scan room. She found Colonel Stewart there, with the scans of a young woman who'd apparently been involved in a three-cars RTC, and had suffered multiple injuries. There was no way Bernie could refuse to accompany the colonel in theatre. She gritted her teeth and tried to hold on– she tried to rely on her right arm as much as possible, but she couldn't avoid using her left arm altogether, and she felt it becoming more and more painful as time went on. Her fingers tingled and she could sense her gestures weren't as precise as usual. After four hours in theatre, the patient had been resuscitated twice, and Bernie was in agony. She hoped her eyes weren't betraying her pain to the colonel. Luckily, the surgical mask hid the rest of her face. The last thing she heard was the colonel asking one of the attending trainees to close up. 

When Bernie came to, she was lying on a bed in the ward, a pulse oximeter on her finger – a young nurse who'd been attending in theatre was watching her and smiled when she saw Bernie's eyelids flutter: "Good! You're awake – you gave us quite a scare!"

"Nurse Mason? What happened ?"

"You fainted. Do you feel all right now ? Any headache ? Nausea ?" 

Bernie grimaced: "A bit, I …" she tried to sit up and couldn't contain a cry of pain. 

"Here – let me help you." Bending over Bernie, the nurse spotted the bruises under the scrubs: "Blimey! You must have fallen more heavily than we thought – you've got a huge …Wait a minute – that's not new, is it? Not the right color."

"Well spotted, Nurse Mason – could you just help me up? Blood pressure's ok, and I have to …"

"Why don't let me do something for your arm, Major? You should have x-rays, at least, and…"

"I'm sure you have other patients to attend to, Nurse. I'll be just fine, thanks for your help."

The young nurse hesitated, but as she could see the only way to keep her patient would be to tie her to the bed, and it wasn't an option available on NHS equipment, she capitulated : "Very well, Major. The colonel said she wanted to see you in her office as soon as you were up."

Bernie groaned, but however sugar-coated it was, she could recognize an order. She slowly made her way to her office, where she swallowed two pain pills and went to knock on the colonel's door.

"Enter!" Colonel Stewart noted the way the major twisted to close the door with her right arm, and how her left seemed to hang awkwardly at her side. She studied the younger woman standing in front of her. As usual, she was standing ramrod straight in the navy blue scrubs the senior staff wore. Her face, however, told another story – it was ashen and etched with pain lines. Her eyes were red-rimmed and sported huge shadows under them. They also conscientiously avoided the colonel's stare. All this elicited in the colonel a mixture of deep pity and exasperation. What did she have to do to get that bloody pig-headed woman to admit something was wrong ??


Bernie obeyed silently and gladly, as her head was beginning to sway. 

"What happened in there ?"

"I… I apologize, Colonel – I don't know. I'm fine."

"Rubbish! What's wrong with your arm ?"

"My arm? Nothing, Colonel, I'm…"

"Enough – stop taking me for a fool," interrupted the colonel. "Take your top off and show me your left arm."

Bernie remained rooted to the spot.

"This is an order, Major."

Awkwardly, Bernie took off enough of her top to reveal her arm and shoulder. She could see the colonel wouldn't let go. Her shoulder was less swollen, but it was still purple, mottled with greenish patches. 

"Nothing ?" 

Bernie didn't answer – there was nothing she could possibly say. The colonel stood up and came to palpate the bruise – she was gentle, but Bernie couldn't help flinching. 

"Right – I assume you haven't had this x-rayed ?"

"I haven't, Colonel, but it's …" 

"If you say "fine" or "nothing" one more time, I'll have you court-martialed" said the colonel grimly, before getting on the phone. "You're going to the x-ray room right now, and I want to see you back here immediately afterwards. Then we'll talk."

Just as Bernie had thought, the x-rays showed there was nothing broken, which was at least something – if there had been, the colonel would probably have had her guts for garter. Back in the colonel's office, she handed over the x-rays mutely and waited. Colonel Stewart studied them and then turned to the coffee machine on the table behind her desk and made two, one of which she pushed towards Bernie. Then, coffee in hand, she begun: "Major …Can you explain why exactly you thought it was a good idea to hide your injury?"

"I didn't exactly hide it, Colonel – I just …Carried on."

"When we've finished here, I want you to go down to the orthopedics departments. Ask them to check you over and to put that arm in a sling."

Bernie made a motion of protest but the colonel ignored her: "That's an order too. And now you're going to tell me what happened to you."

Reluctantly, Bernie told her about the mugging. The colonel listened and asked bemusedly: "But why on earth did you hide it ?"

"I didn't want to worry anyone, ma'am, or …to let the side down."

"So you go on working until you faint with pain ?"

Bernie hung her head : "I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Have you ever heard the saying, If you're apologizing, it means you shouldn't have done it in the first place ?"

Bernie bit her lips – that phrase again! Once from Jac Naylor, and now… She didn't need anyone to remind her she wasn't perfect -she was all too aware of that already. 

The colonel stood up and came to sit on the other side of the desk, in the chair next to Bernie's. She put her hand on the younger woman's arm and said softly: "Berenice – tell me what's wrong. Please. I want to help."

"Berenice. Tell me what's wrong, love – please. I want to help." Another voice, another time – the exact same words her mother had used when she'd come back from school with a torn jumper and a bruise on her cheek. The bullies had been less subtle than usual that day – taunts and verbal abuse didn't leave traces, but one of the girls had tripped her in the playground, and she'd fallen on a tree stump. But no one could help – she hadn't told her mother, because to be a snitch was the very worst. What happened at school stayed at school…or else. The only thing to do was to keep one's head down and to wait until the bullies found another victim. She'd been strong then – weak at school, but strong in her resolve to stay silent and not to worry her mother. 

However, more than forty years later, she didn't feel strong anymore – maybe it was the pain. Maybe the kindness radiated by the eyes fixed upon her. Maybe the voice which had gone from commanding and irritated to empathetic and gentle. Maybe the hand on her arm – not a loving touch, just a human one – supportive, encouraging.


Chapter 33

Bernie spoke quietly, as in a trance: "If I don't work – if I lose my job, it's like …I'll lose myself. I don't know how I got where I am, exactly – I was lucky, I guess – at the right place at the right time, for once. But …if I stop, I'll lose my way, and I'll never find it again. Never find myself again. I can't mess that up – not that – it's the only thing where what I do matters. If I can't work, I'm afraid I'll disappear. Just vanish. And now I'm losing that too, and it's all my fault, and …I just don't know what to do." 

The colonel remained silent, her hand still on Bernie's arm. She could see the younger woman's eyes were wet. She handed her a tissue, and looked away to give her the time to regain her composure. Then she turned towards her again: "But no one's expecting you to succeed at everything. No one wants you to be invincible – we're all humans – and that means we're not perfect. You're not, I'm not, there's not one perfect individual in the whole bloody British army. You've got the right to be sick, you've got the right to ask for help. Self-sufficiency only goes so far. As for 'it" all being your fault …And all your fault – I've never seen anyone more self-centered than you!"

Bernie smiled a little: "A friend once called me a power-crazed megalomaniac…" 

"Nice friends you've got … From one surgeon to another, I guess that's why we chose this – because we believe it gives us the power of life and death. But you're certainly not a megalomaniac – you're determined to self-destruct and to blame yourself for everything. Could you learn to give yourself a little credit? You're a brilliant professional, Berenice – but there's no shame in admitting you can be hurt, or ill. This won't lessen your excellent abilities." 

"Thank you, ma'am."

The colonel stood up: "Right – glad we agree. Now you're going to orthopedics, and then you've got four days' sick leave – time for your arm to heal a little more, and for you to see Andrew Arnold again. Don't think I haven't noticed you haven't actually told me what's wrong with you. I've got to get back to work. Just close the door behind you, will you ?"

And the colonel left her office, not giving Bernie time to object. She wasn't really in a state to, anyways. She wondered if she should have told the colonel about the panic attacks, the nightmares, the flashbacks. Or said she didn't want to go to see the shrink again. Pleaded, even, not to have to go back…

She got up slowly and made her way to the orthopedics department. The trauma ward sent them many patients, and she had already met most of the staff. She surrendered to the attention of one of her colleagues, who berated her soundly for not having come sooner. As Bernie was still feeling somewhat shell-shocked by the scene in the colonel's office, she swallowed her dignity and endured the scolding meekly – something which usually happened once in a blue moon. 

She briefly wondered if she could get away with taking off the new bandage and the sling to drive home, but she decided it wasn't worth it. She didn't relish arriving at Serena's with it either, but she didn't see a way out of it. She nearly decided not to go at all, but some instinct made her change her mind, and she gave Serena's address to the cab driver. 

She found two empty bottles on the coffee table – scotch and gin, apparently , and Serena slumped on the couch. For a second, panic seized her, and her emotional brain nearly took over her rational one. A second only, however, before her medical training kicked in and she bent over Serena to check her breathing and pulse – both were slow and shallow, but not enough to be life-threatening. Bernie tried to wake her up without success, and she was on the brink of calling 999 – training was good, but if Serena went into a coma, she had to be in the hospital – when she spotted the box of sleeping pills which had slipped under the table. Paradoxically, it reassured her – now she had the full clinical picture, she could deal with it. The box wasn't empty, but the mixture of alcohol and drugs explained Serena's state. She rearranged Serena's body so she was lying on her side – not easy with only one arm – covered her with a throw and went to the kitchen to make herself some coffee. Then she settled in an armchair for another sleepless night. 

Bernie's mind was working furiously – she'd never seen Serena so drunk before, and when she'd gotten the pills, she had promised she would use them sparingly. Indeed, she'd always said she hated the feeling of slipping into unconsciousness they gave her. What could …she slapped herself on the forehead – How could she have forgotten? How could she have been so preoccupied by her own affairs as to forgot that a year ago …

In her nightmares she saw Afghan and Iraq, she saw blood and sand, she saw severed limbs and death, but she didn't have to be asleep to see that terrible day all other again. Trying desperately to save Jason. Finding Eleanor unconscious. And then … one of the hardest things she'd ever done in her life – telling Serena, seeing her eyes. 

She'd dealt with it by closing off her emotions entirely – if she'd allowed herself to feel, she couldn't have done it. If she'd allowed herself, even for one second, to be engulfed in Serena's pain, she would have drowned entirely. So she'd retreated behind her clinical mask, and had become entirely practical – a glass of water, organ donation, the need to call Edward. Other words would have been too raw, too exposing – if she could have suffered Serena's pain instead of her, she would have, but you can't transfer pain – you can only steal someone's grief when you adopt it as your own. 

Even now, a year later, Bernie was still feeling responsible – if she'd never gotten involved with Serena, the row between Eleanor and her mother would not have happened, and Eleanor wouldn't have taken the car in a rage, and … Her throat hurt and was tightening – her chest closed, and she fought for breath – the panic attack she'd been fearing all day had launched in full force… She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of everything – focus on breathing ! Just focus and count – in and out, in and out …She retched and only just managed to reach the bathroom before throwing up the contents of her empty stomach, acid bile that burnt its way up. But the guilt and the memories were etched deeper, and burnt even more fiercely.


Chapter 34

Bernie must have fallen asleep around 6.00 am, just after checking Serena's vitals as she'd done regularly through the night – she woke up to the sound of the coffee machine and BBC news: "The Winds of up to 90mph forecast for the UK could pose a danger to life because of flying debris, the Met Office is warning. As Storm Eleanor approaches, the threat level…". The radio was switched off abruptly. She massaged her bandaged arm, trying to rub off the pins and needles sensation: she'd fallen asleep in an awkward position and it hurt like hell. She got up gingerly and made her way to the kitchen. 

Serena was pouring herself a huge mug of black coffee with an unsteady hand. Bernie went to her and hugged her awkwardly with one arm : "Serena, I'm sorry …I'm sorry – are you …all right ?"

"Do I look like I'm all right ?" Her voice was still hoarse with the combination of alcohol and pills, and her eyes were battered. Bernie hugged her harder, silently.

"What happened to your arm ??" Serena had just noticed the sling.


Serena gave her a wry look: "So you're just making a fashion statement? I must have missed the memo saying the sling was the new it accessory."

Bernie sighed. Serena crossed her arms and waited. 

"All right, all right, Inspector – I'll talk. Someone wanted my handbag, and instead of asking for it nicely, he took it himself…"

"When ?" 

"Er…Three days ago ?"

"And you didn't think of telling me ?" 

Bernie bit her lips : "I didn't want to worry you…"

Serena gave an exasperated sigh and rolled her eyes. She wanted to rave and rant at Bernie, but she felt much too fragile. The other woman's self-sufficiency infuriated her – she felt as if she was in a corridor with locked door after locked door, and each time she managed to open one, there was another one behind. She needed Bernie to let her in – she needed to help her, otherwise it was all for nothing. She couldn't be in a relationship with someone who held back all the time. 

She washed down two aspirins with a big gulp of coffee. The two women sat in silence at the table, both apparently fascinated by the cups in their hands. Finally Bernie spoke up, hesitantly : "I have to ask …When I found you, at first,… I thought …Serena, did you intend to kill yourself ?"

Serena looked at her wryly: "I hope I'd make a better fist of it if I meant to. I wouldn't have done it with zopiclone – I'm a doctor, darling, remember ?"

"Well, right now, I'd like to throttle you for worrying me like that, so would you prefer that option, if you want ?" Bernie wasn't entirely joking – she had been worried sick, and anxiety mixed with guilt and remorse made her wild. 

"Don't change the subject – we were talking about you." 

"Not my favorite subject at the moment – how's your head feeling?"

"Like I've got a herd of elephants sleeping on it – your arm ?"

"A bit sore…"

"Right…" Serena paused, and then she added, more to herself than to Bernie: "I thought I would manage – I thought it would be ok. But the patients and the staff kept talking about the storm, and …it just went on in a loop in my head, I replayed the whole day, the whole …And then I thought of Jasmine, too, and Arthur, and … I was just trying to sleep – just forget everything and sleep - I …" 

Bernie gazed at her with a look full of compassion. She reached for Serena's hand over the table and squeezed her gently. Their eyes met, and Serena was shocked by what she saw in Bernie's. She saw empathy, she saw sadness, she saw concern and she saw fear. 

"Got to get to work" . Serena got up and winced :" Ouch"

"Are you sure you're up to it?"

"Duty calls, darling. What about you ?"

Bernie grimaced: "Sick leave – four days."

Those four days felt like purgatory – everything took twice as long with one arm out of order, tv programs were asinine and you could only spend so long reading in a day before your eyes began to flutter. Bernie spent most of her time on the computer listening to Moocs or skimming articles about the latest trauma techniques. On the morning of the fourth day she had her appointment with Dr. Arnold. She got to the hospital on time and was sitting in the waiting room when a wave of panic engulfed her – as usual, she felt herself suffocating, and her mind telling her to escape. There were no flashbacks this time – only the overwhelming sense that she couldn't go through the session. She couldn't bare her soul to that man, however empathetic he might be. She knew she was probably signing her dismissal papers if she fled, but her brain wasn't leaving her any choice. 

Hours later, sitting in a coffee shop, she took stock of her situation. She WAS a hypocrite – she'd always told Cameron and Charlotte that telling the truth was the only honorable option. She had seen how much damage she'd done by concealing her affair with Alex. She'd nearly lost Serena's friendship by not telling her the real reason for her divorce. And now she couldn't even muster the courage to own up to a condition she knew to be common to war vets. Jeopardizing her job in the process. She put her head in her hands: "Stupid, stupid, stupid…" 

She hadn't even found the courage to phone the psychiatrist's office with a fabricated excuse for her absence. So in addition to being cowardly and hypocrite, she was rude as well. Just perfect! 

Bernie had backed herself into a corner, and she couldn't see the way out of it. Well – she could see one way out – she went back to her flat, and began to draft her resignation letter.


Chapter 35

"To : Colonel Stewart 


It is with deep regret that I must inform you of my decision to resign from my current position. I have and will keep a great respect for the armed forces, I cannot go on performing adequately in this hospital. I do not want others who may depend upon me for their life to be affected by my current situation. The army has brought me a lot, and I will always be thankful for the opportunity to serve my country….."

The words were painful to write – each of them cost Bernie more than she could bear. She'd heard of writers shedding tears of blood on the pages, and that was exactly what it felt like. However, she could see no other option. Going back to see the psychiatrist, especially now she'd missed the last appointment, was unthinkable. 

She could hear her father's voice in her head: "The army has no room for cowards, Berenice – you were never good enough. A soldier must have a strong mind – you're weak". She flinched as if she'd been struck. Then she finished the letter, and went back to the hospital – she had to do it right away, before she lost her nerve. She didn't think about afterwards – what she would do – the future was blank. 

Once at the hospital, she went straight to Colonel Stewart's office – she wasn't in, but her secretary suggested she could leave her letter on the desk. She hadn't even managed to reach the end of the corridor before she began hyperventilating. The greenish walls spun around and her heart started to thump erratically. She put a hand on the wall to try and steady herself. All she could of was "Please, not here, not now". Her body remained deaf to her plea, and she felt nausea rising. She sank to the floor and put her head on her knees, curling up in a ball. Her ears buzzed, her throat closed and once again a terrible sensation of imminent death engulfed her. 

The next thing she knew, someone was stroking her back, and then holding her by the shoulders, murmuring: "Shh – it's all right. It's all right – you're safe – you're safe. You're going to be all right." In her semi-conscious state, Bernie relaxed in the arms enfolding her. She tried to focus on the voice – the words didn't quite make sense but the tone was soothing. Her breathing began to synchronize with the stranger's and the dread gradually left her. Slowly, she opened her eyes and focused on her rescuer. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she found she was in Colonel Stewart's arms…

"Better ?"

Bernie nodded – she didn't trust herself to speak. 

Both women scrambled to their feet, and the colonel eyed Bernie: "Okay – my office, I think." Bernie followed mutely. 

The colonel motioned for her to sit down, and she went to switch on the coffee machine. She caught sight of a letter on her desk and sat down to open it. Bernie blanched – she'd not intended to be there when the colonel read her resignation letter. 

The colonel lifted her eyes from the letter and watched Bernie in silence. Then she spoke: "So that's it, then? You're fleeing?" 

Seeing the other woman didn't react, she went on: "I know you didn't go to see Arnold. Would you really rather resign than open up? Trust someone? Are you really that hell-bent on destroying yourself?"

Bernie saw herself as a child, and later on as a teenager, standing in front of her father's desk, being harangued for a bad grade or a small misdemeanour. The sensation of helplessness was the same – the disapproval and disappointment in the voice too. However, ironically enough, her father's telling-offs had been impersonal – there had never been any empathy in his words, only fact-stating and reproach. The colonel's voice held something else – understanding, caring. Like the arms that had held her, kept her safe. The words, however, stung. 

Still, she said nothing – there wasn't anything she could say. She burnt her boats with the letters and the panic attack in the corridor had sealed her fate. 

"I'm not going to let you resign, you know."

Bernie lifted her eyes: "Sorry, Ma'am ?" 

"I said I wasn't going to let you resign, Berenice. I've already told you you are a gifted surgeon. You are a gifted surgeon that suffers from PTSD. You know that, don't you ?"

"Well … I think I'm a good professional, but …"

"I didn't mean the gifted part."

Bernie nodded slowly: "Yes – I didn't want to admit it even to myself, but I recognised the symptoms. I just hoped that …somehow …They would go away. But they didn't – they got worse, in fact, and … I'm sorry I let you down, Ma'am."

"The only person you're letting down is you, Berenice, by pretending everything is fine and you don't need help."

Bernie looked away. 

The colonel went on: "I'm not going to let you resign your commission, because this is not what you want to do. Once you've resigned, you're out of the army altogether. 

However, I can't let you work here – this environment will not help you get better. I think you should go back to work in a fully civilian hospital, at least until you've been in therapy for a while. If you didn't take to Arnold, that's fine, you can find another therapist, although an army one would have been more suited. Why don't you go back to Holby ?"

Bernie sighed. Of course, the colonel wasn't aware of all that had happened in Holby… Serena had told her they were short-staffed since the shooting and the departure of several consultants, but …could she work with Serena again? What would be her position – would they go back to being "equals"? It was never a very good idea to work with one's partner … And therapy …It hadn't been Arnold's fault it hadn't worked – it was hers – she just couldn't. 


"Yes Ma'am – thank you."

"You're welcome – good luck!"

Colonel Stewart slowly tore up the letter. She hoped she'd done the right thing – she couldn't force the younger woman into therapy, but she had seen too many vets go under with that syndrome to hope the major would get better without help. She strongly suspected her PTSD wasn't only war-zone related, too. She had done what she could, but…


Chapter 36

So, once again, she was out of a job. She wasn't sure what had happened in the colonel's office – had she really been offered a reprieve or if it was a punishment. Even if she got better and the panic attacks stopped, she would never be able to work under Colonel Stewart again. It had been too …Humiliating. When Serena had witnessed one of her melt-downs, it had been embarrassing, but what had happened in the corridor at the hospital was excruciating. A military surgeon who fainted…that was ridiculous. As for going to therapy again …That was NEVER going to happen. 

Bernie briefly thought of going away altogether – to London, maybe, or even abroad – why not the Sudan, finally. Charlotte still didn't want to talk to her, Cameron was hundred of miles away, and incommunicado too – and this was her own fault. There was Serena, of course, but…

Bernie didn't think the colonel would stop her applying for a military humanitarian position, but she couldn't be sure. And if she tried another hospital, she would probably have to face a whole lot of questions about her previous jobs, and why she'd left, and …No, the easiest way out was probably to go back to Holby, tail between her legs, and admit she wanted another go there. Certainly not in orthopaedics as Hanssen had suggested, but maybe in ICU or AAU. Along Serena – under Serena? That was the sore point.

She wasn't sure she could handle working with Serena again. That was also one of the reason they'd chosen not to live together yet. They'd made a good team in the trauma unit, and they operated well together. And yet …they were both strong and stubborn, with a hint of dictatorship tendencies. There had been conflictual times – and Bernie didn't do conflict – she could cope with war zones, but not emotional personal wars. Sooner or later they would disagree on a procedure or on a case, one of them would fly off the handle, and it would jeopardise their whole relationship. And that was in the best case – if Bernie went back with an equal status. She didn't think she could be Serena's subordinate. s

And what if she had panic attacks at Holby too? That would wreck her reputation for sure. At least she'd left through no fault of her own, but if she showed the slightest vulnerability, she knew too well how the rumour mill worked – it would be all over the hospital in no time. She'd already given the staff too many reasons to gossip. And that was another thing – workplace relationships were usually not a good idea even if they were "normal" relationships. Serena hadn't been really comfortable with being out – what if she still wasn't? 

Should she go directly to see Hanssen, or was it better to check with Serena first? See if SHE wanted her there. Bernie didn't want Serena to think she'd gone behind her back. She finally decided to see which one was available to talk to. When she arrived at Holby, Serena wasn't anywhere to be seen, and neither was Hanssen. She could have made small talk with Fletch, Essie, and the others, but she knew too well no one had time for that, and she didn't want to be a bother, so she decided to wait for Serena in her office. 

The stress of the last few days combined with the pain relief pills she was still taking must have taken its toll, because she fell asleep in her chair, and was woken by Serena's voice: 

"What the hell are you doing here ?"

"Hello to you too. I was waiting for you, as a matter of fact." Bernie quailed inwardly. What now? Serena looked absolutely furious. She mentally reviewed the last times they'd spoken, and couldn't find any reason for the freeze in her partner's eyes. Serena couldn't still be mad about her not having told her about the mugging. Could she have heard about what had happened with the colonel? 

As Serena sunk into her own chair silently, Bernie tried to think of a way to discover what hid behind Serena's dark mood. Was she angry because she'd been waiting in the office they'd once shared? It didn't make sense. 

"So? What do you want? Tired of your fancy army hospital?"

"Serena …please – I'm sorry – I thought …I thought you might be pleased to see me, but …I can see now isn't a good time."

"Damn right it isn't!"

"Can you at least tell me what I've done ?" Bernie's eyes were pleading – she didn't think she could handle much more hostility. She had been working up the courage to tell Serena about what had happened with the colonel, and now she felt as if she been doused with cold water. 

Serena looked Bernie straight in the eyes: "What YOU have done! You! Always you!" Then she bowed her head and went on: "She was seven! Just seven years old. Brought in unconscious by the police – vaginal lacerations, perineal fissures, perforated bowel, internal haemorrhage…"

Bernie looked at Serena with mounting horror.

"Anal fissure …shall I go on? She's in ICU now, having a colostomy bag fixed – and even so, I can't be sure she'll …survive. What kind of life will she have after that anyways??" Serena's ranting ended in a burst of tears. She finished in a whisper: "So, no, it was not about you." 

Bernie got up and took Serena in her arms. For one moment she thought Serena would push her away, but the other woman finally let herself be hugged. "I'm sorry…Oh God, Serena, I'm so sorry …that is …"

"It's fucking monstrous! And I haven't even told you the best part" Serena's voice was almost hysterical: "You know who did it ?? Only her bloody father!!"

There was nothing to say – they remained in each other's arms, both of them hating themselves and the rest of the world. Bernie hated the world for allowing children to suffer such atrocities, and herself for not being able to comfort Serena adequately. Serena hated the world for letting criminal parents harm their precious children, and herself for showing weakness in front of Bernie. Also for having lashed out at her. She knew Bernie wasn't her usual resilient self these days, and she hated to hurt her.


Chapter 37

Serena couldn't afford the luxury of spending too much time crying for her patient – too many casualties, too few members of staff. However, Bernie did want to make it "all about her" right then – it would have been awfully bad timing. She skipped out, and tried Henrik Hanssen's office again – this time he was in.

"Ms Wolfe – what brings you here ?" The tone was welcoming, but Bernie was struck by Hanssen's appearance. Never a demonstrative or boisterous character, Holby's CEO looked like a ghost. The touch of humour which had been present in his half-smile and his eyes had disappeared, and Bernie's heart went out to him. She knew only too well what the loss of a child could do to a person, and the circumstances of Frederick must have made mourning almost impossible. At his invitation, she sat down and waited, but obviously she would have to be the one to do the talking.

"Henrik – may I …may I offer you my condolences ? Serena told me about …what happened."

Hanssen acknowledged her words by a little nod. Bernie went on: "She also told me that…AAU was quite short-staffed at the moment, and I was wondering whether I…could be of assistance."

"I thought you'd found a position in a military hospital. Why would you want to leave ?"

Bernie bit her lips – she'd known it wouldn't be an easy interview, but she didn't think she would go as far as beg. If he didn't want her, well…That was it . As for Henrik Hanssen, he was watching her attentively – he was well aware she'd been shocked by the closure of the trauma unit, but the woman he had in front of him only bore a passing resemblance to the warrior who'd headed the department. He noted the deep circles under her eyes and the pallor of her skin that made her look like a shadow of herself. He had been deeply distressed by her departure – it had not been fair, not with all that had happened to Serena. Both women were very dear to him, and he was prepared to do what he could to help. He did not, however, want to make that too obvious …. He didn't enjoy seeing Bernie strive to find the right words, but he knew that she did not want a "charity" job, and he could not make it too easy for her. 

"Well …let's just say the opportunities were more limited than I thought, and there is still work to do at Holby ?"

"Hmm – right – and what does Ms Campbell think about that?"

Bernie hesitated: "I haven't had a chance to talk to her about it yet."

Hanssen's eyebrows rose – he would have to tread carefully. He'd assumed the two consultants were still good friends, but if that wasn't the case …It could cause friction in the wards, and that was the last thing Holby needed ! 

"She's been really busy, and …I thought I'd come and see if you'd have me before talking to her."

Hanssen made a spur of the moment decision. After all, Bernie Wolfe was an excellent surgeon, and if there had been some difficulties when she'd first arrived, they'd soon been ironed out, and she'd proved to be a team player and a real asset to the staff. She was popular with most of them, a good teacher and a tireless worker. He would be a fool not to accept her request. He began: "Well, Miss Wolfe, I think we can come to an agreement – there is no reason why you can't…"

Bernie interrupted him. Afterwards, she would wonder why she'd done it. Maybe because she'd always respected Hanssen for his calm demeanour and uncompromising attitude. Maybe she'd always found in him a kindred spirit – someone who struggled with emotions as much as she did. Maybe because contrary to the others, he hadn't pried – the only questions he'd asked had been strictly professional. 

She took a deep breath, and the words came out in a rush: "Actually, I have to tell you something – I want to be honest with you. I haven't left Queen Elisabeth of my own volition – well, not entirely. I've been suffering from panic attacks for some months now, because I have PTSD. One of them happened in the presence of my commanding officer, and she thought I shouldn't work in a military environment right now. So that's it. Now you hold all the cards, and you can reconsider your decision. I'll understand if you choose not to have me." 

Although her tone held a defiant tone, the eyes that stared at Hanssen were pleading. He knew how hard it must have been for the major to admit to being ill. Even when she'd been admitted after the IED accident, she'd insisted she was fine. And he knew that for a soldier – and for a medical professional - suffering from a psychological condition was something that had to stay hidden at all costs. He himself had battled hard to keep his depression a secret. He couldn't hold Ms Wolfe's condition against her – that wouldn't be fair – if he was able to work, then so was she. And he admired her courage and her honesty. 

He cleared his throat, and began again: "As I was saying, Ms Wolfe, there is no reason why you cannot come back to work at Holby. Your status, of course, will have to be discussed with the board, and Ms Campbell will have to be told – I think it would sound better coming from you."

Bernie realised she'd been holding her breath only when she let it escape. She gave Hanssen a tentative smile : "Thank you – thank you so much – that …that means a lot."

He smiled at her in return, with a half-smile that nearly made him look like his old self, and added quietly: "You're very welcome, Ms Wolfe – and remember – if you want to talk, my door is always open. And if you'd rather it was off the record …we can find a way too."

When Bernie left his office, Hanssen had a brief moment of wondering what he'd let himself into. He remembered how Serena had reacted when Bernie had briefly taken over the department after the leak affair, and he really hoped she wouldn't mind Bernie coming back. He asked himself if he should give Serena a heads-up, but he decided against it – better leave the two women deal with the situation alone. 

When she left Hanssen's office, Bernie went back to AAU, but Serena was still in theatre, so she left her a note on her desk, inviting her to spend the evening with her at her flat. She thought it would be easier to tell her about the new development in a non-Holby setting. She had another reason to want to spend the evening with her too. She'd had no word from either of her children, nor from Marcus – not that she'd expected any from him – but it was her birthday. She'd never made much of it – in the last years she'd usually been on tour – but she didn't feel like spending the evening alone.


Chapter 38

She bought food and wine and went back to her flat. At 8pm, she still hadn't heard from Serena, but it wasn't until 10 pm that she reluctantly put the food away and sat on the couch with the bottle of Bordeaux. She was feeling utterly miserable. When her mobile rang at a quarter to midnight, she nearly didn't answer, but wearily picked up the phone – an unlisted number.

"Bern ? Can you hear me?"

The line was awful, but there was only one person who called her Bern – apart from her ex-husband…s

"Alex ?"

That was a voice Bernie had thought she would never hear again. Not after …not after the way Alex had left. "I want all of you, Bern – you know what you don't want, and it's not the same…" All of her – but there had still been Marcus then – and she'd been afraid – terrified, even, to acknowledge she was in love with Alex. Afraid of judgement, of course, but also a little afraid of Alex. All of her – that was too much – that wasn't love, that was possession – and Bernie had lived too long according to other people's expectations of her to commit to that kind of relationship. She needed to find herself first, to live for herself. So yes, at the time, she'd known she didn't want to be married to Marcus anymore, but she didn't want to belong to anyone else either. And she had used the very same words when she'd left for Ukraine – when Serena had asked her – begged her – to stay – she'd told her she didn't know what she wanted, she knew what she didn't want…She'd been scared then too – Alex, Serena, they'd wanted from her something she couldn't give.

"Sorry, it's so late, but – happy birthday, Bern!"

"Thank you". Bernie's tone was curt. 

"So …did you have a nice day ?" 

Bernie really didn't feel like making conversation, but she knew she'd hurt the other woman too, and she couldn't just hang up on her now – hang up on the only person, after all, who'd remembered her birthday. Her mind went back to her last birthday before the IED – she'd spent it with Alex on the base in Afghan. Marcus and the kids had sent her a care package with her favourite kind of biscuits - digestives - a huge box of chocolates – and a few other things, and she and Alex had had pizza, beer, and chocolate. A huge amount of chocolate, in fact – they'd finished the box in one go, till they both felt slightly sick, to drown themselves in sweetness, smoothness, gooeyness and decadence. It helped to forget the casualties, the blood, the bombs and the incongruity of their situation. 

"It was okay. Nothing special." Nothing special indeed. Last year, the Holby staff had ambushed her during her shift with balloons and a birthday cake in the staff room, and Ric Griffiths had paid for drinks at Albies' afterwards. Dom had confessed he'd snooped around in the records to know the birth dates of each member of AAU. Bernie forced herself to ask : "How are you ?"

"I'm good, Bern…I'm – I'm in the Sudan, actually – doing a shift of humanitarian work for a change. Thought I could leave the army, but finally … You know what I mean."

"Yes" The conversation was definitely bringing back unpleasant memories. Bernie didn't regret not having gone to the Sudan – she'd been there for her daughter, and that was the most important, even though Charlotte wasn't very grateful to her. Would she have gotten PTSD if she'd gone? Maybe, maybe not. It was not use wondering about what might have been …And her relationship with Serena would be – she'd no idea what it would be , actually, because right now she didn't really know where they were either. She was sure they both loved each other very deeply, and yet …here she was, alone, on her birthday. Talking on the phone to her ex-lover. And kind of dreading telling Serena she was coming back to Holby. Not exactly Mills & Boons stuff, right? It wasn't Bernie's style to have a pity party, but a great gush of misery and loneliness suddenly engulfed her. 

"Bern? Are you okay?"

Bernie's pride wouldn't allow her to confide in Alex – there was no way she would tell her what a mess her life was right now: "I'm fine – work is good, the kids are well – Cameron is in Jamaica, actually – he had a great opportunity for a semester there , and Charlotte is in London. It was nice talking to you, Alex, but – it's late, and I've got an early shift tomorrow morning and …" She could hear how her lie sounded – totally fake – but the phone line was so bad she hoped Alex wouldn't notice.

"All right, Bern – I'll let you go to bed then…love you, bye."

"Bye" Love you …Alex probably didn't mean that – it was just a friendly way of parting. As for going to bed …Suddenly she felt too tired to face the empty bed waiting for her. She curled up on the sofa and closed her eyes, hoping sleep would overcome her. 

When she woke up the next morning, the bitter taste of wine and unpleasant memories lingered in her mouth. She knew she had to face Serena, but she didn't know what to say to her. She was still angry and couldn't understand why she hadn't at least sent her a text to say she wouldn't be coming. And when Bernie was angry, she lashed out, and she was well aware it wouldn't be a great beginning for a new work relationship, specially on Serena's turf. 

In the car, she turned over what she could say, how she could tell Serena about her return to Holby. She could just walk in and pitch in straight away, like she did when she first came to Holby, but that was probably the surest way to antagonise Serena. When she pushed the door of the hospital coffee shop, she still hadn't found the right words, and it was only when she heard Serena's voice ordering a triple shot espresso that she saw her in the queue. Before she had time to decide whether to fight or flight, she heard Jason behind her: "Auntie Bernie! Happy birthday! I'm sorry I didn't say that yesterday, as it was the proper date, but I didn't see you. I got you a card too. Did Auntie Serena give you a nice gift?" 

You could always count on Jason for saying the most awkward things with the worst timing. Serena's head whipped round and she blushed, while Bernie blanched. There was no ignoring Jason, so Bernie answered she had not seen his Auntie Serena on the day before either. That was a blatant lie, but the only thing she could think of on the spur of the moment. 

The two women faced each other self-consciously. By the time Bernie had ordered her own coffee, they had not even greeted each other, and they were both looking at the floor. They left the coffee shop together and went mechanically to the lift. Serena made for her office, and Bernie followed her. Serena slumped into her chair, but Bernie remained standing, her back against the filing cabinet – this could be a turning point in their relationship – and in her career, because now she'd asked – begged – Hanssen for a job, she couldn't very well change her mind. She felt guilty for not having told Serena, but the guilt was assuaged by the anger and the sadness she felt about the previous day. Finally Serena spoke up: "Bernie …I'm so, so sorry I forgot your birthday. It's …I… I had a lot on my mind, and …I know that's no excuse, but…"

"Yes, I know – it's okay – I mean – you weren't the only one to forget and it's not like I wanted candles and party blowouts …but why didn't you at least send a text to say you weren't coming ?"

"Was I supposed to come ?"

"I left you a note, Serena – right there, on your desk." 

"A note? I didn't see a note." Serena rummaged among the files on her desk, and contritely produced the note from under a pile of paper : "I'm sorry – I just dumped a load of documents yesterday, and I never saw it. I …"

Just then, Fletch put his head round the door : "Hey, Bernie – saw your name on the planning – just wanted to say hello. Glad you've come back – we're in need of old hands around here." Then, realising what he'd just say, he smile sheepishly : "Sorry, Major, no slight intended – and happy birthday, by the way – I heard Jason say it was yesterday." 

"Thanks, Fletch." Bernie gulped – the cat was well out of the bag !


Chapter 39

When Bernie turned back to Serena, she was staring at her incredulously: "What was that ?"

Bernie cleared her throat – she should have known news at Holby travelled fast – but once again she'd been caught out: "That was what I wanted to tell you yesterday…"

"Oh, so you're going to make it my fault you haven't had the courtesy to tell me you were coming to work in my department?" 

Bernie was getting angry all over again, but she knew it would go better if she managed to hold her tongue, so she bit back her angry retort and tried a softer approach: "I haven't said that – we've both been busy, and I tried to tell you, but it was never the right time. Anyway, I only discussed that with Henrik yesterday and…"

"So you went to Henrik and bypassed me – nice, Bernie! Did he maybe appoint you head of AAU in my place too ?"

That was definitely not the way Bernie had thought the discussion would go – at least, she hadn't expected so much hostility from Serena. 

"Of course not! Serena, please! I thought …I thought you might be happy" said Bernie in a small voice. 

"Happy ? You thought I might be happy? So that's why you didn't tell me, obviously – because you thought it would make me happy! Don't be such a bloody hypocrite! Not when you've done it before. Remember? When you thought you could lord it over me, just because I'd had my laptop stolen. You didn't think of telling me then either, and now you want me to believe you didn't tell me for MY sake?" 

Bernie lowered her head and stared at her hands. A little voice in her said that she didn't have to take that kind of abuse from the other woman – they were both adults, and Serena had no right – no right- to lash into her like that. She ought to just walk out of that office. But Serena mattered. What Serena thought mattered and that was what made her words so hurtful. That was also why Bernie stayed. Because she was used to people she loved abusing her. And that made her think that maybe Serena was right – maybe she was guilty – maybe she should apologise – she didn't know for what exactly, but she would do it if it made things better. 

As for Serena, she was totally blindsided by the news, and she hated to be caught unawares. The truth was that she would love to work with Bernie again, but... Her own return to Holby had been hard enough – everyone knew why she had left, the AAU staff had seen her with Jasmine, and she felt as if she had to win her spurs all over again. They were both excellent surgeons, but somehow Serena was under the impression that her skills were under the shadow of her past behaviour. People were walking on eggshells around her, as if she was a piece of fragile china that could break at the least emotional moment. As for herself, the memories came in rushes, usually unwanted. She sat at her desk, and suddenly she saw Raf besides her, Shiraz in hand, comforting her after her mother's death. Or Bernie …Their first drink "in the office". Not all memories entailed Shiraz, though…It was Bernie holding her after Eleanor's death… Or herself lecturing Arthur after he'd stolen the drugs…

That was another thing – after that first night before Christmas, Bernie had never wanted to talk to her again about her panic attacks, but Serena didn't think they had stopped – nor the nightmares. If Bernie came back, well … SHE had only shown her strong, tough side – nobody at Holby knew about Bernie's panic attacks, like they did about Serena's breakdown after Elinor's death. So Bernie would be seen as the leader, and … Serena was afraid. And ashamed of herself – because she felt threatened by her partner, who'd been through many trials too, and who deserved to be made feel welcome. And safe. And the only thing she could do was snarl at her like a rabid dog … She didn't feel Henrik would appoint Bernie over her, but could they go back to co-leading ? And if Henrik chose to put Bernie under Serena …She didn't give much for their relationship. Sooner or later they would disagree, there would be sparks…Serena didn't think she could give orders to her partner anyway, no more than she could accept orders from her. 

And apart from all those considerations, she was not only afraid for herself – she was afraid for Bernie too. What if she had an attack in theatre? She would never survive the shame. And obviously it could be dangerous for the patients too. 

All in all, a real catch-22 situation – part of her was jumping for joy, and the other part shaking with fear and anger. Seeing that Bernie remained silent, Serena stood up and walked out, slamming the door behind her. She didn't know exactly where she was going, but her feet led her to Hanssen's office. When she walked in, he raised his eyes from his screen and silently motioned her to a seat. 

"Serena …Would you like some green tea ?"

"No, thank you, Henrik – not strong enough for what I have to say."

Henrik Hanssen cleared his throat: "Ah …Yes, I had a feeling I would see you today. I gather Ms Wolfe has told you about her return among us."

"SHE hasn't …well, never mind. It seems that neither of you thought I might want to be consulted on the matter."

Hanssen made a gesture of protest.

"All right – I know what you're going to say – you're the CEO, you make the choices. Can you at least tell me in what capacity you've hired her?"

"That has not been yet decided – it's a matter for the board. But she will be working with you in AAU. Do you object to that? It went quite well before …"

"Yes, but that was …before." Serena bit her lips…

Hanssen raised his eyebrows : "Before ?"

After, when she thought about it, she couldn't fathom what had made her do it. She wasn't usually petty – nor did she resort to kindergarten tactics – if it was even a tactic. But she'd just blurted it out: "Before Ms Wolfe suffered from PTSD – I don't think she told you about that, did she? She's not fit to work in AAU – I don't know how she managed during the last few months, but she's not up to the hustle and bustle of AAU anymore. Just imagine, Henrik, if anything happened …if she made a mistake! Don't you think we've been in the media enough already? Do we really need that kind of publicity?" 

She didn't even notice Hanssen's lips getting thinner and thinner, and his frown bigger and bigger. She was on a roll. She went on: "There is nothing personal in what I say, Henrik – I'm just thinking of the hospital's best interests here."

Meanwhile, Bernie was still in the office when Fletch had come to fetch her for a trauma patient. The injury was severe, and she sent in directly to theatre. She forced herself to stop thinking while she scrubbed in – she had to focus on the patient – if she let her mind go to Serena's reaction, she would collapse, and that was not an option. After the surgery, she wondered whether to go back to Serena's office, but she didn't think she could face her just yet. She switched her pager back on, in case she was needed urgently and went out in the garden. The cold did not bother her – somehow she was as cold inside as it was outside. She'd often felt unwanted in her life, but this felt as if she'd reached rock-bottom. 

Bernie had felt herself beginning to unravel when she'd confided in Hanssen. That had been her first mistake – well, not her first, she'd made so many, but in the first in this new instalment of her life story. She thought of the vets who survived the hardest tours, the most awful scenes, came back home, and killed themselves. Now, she understood.


Chapter 40

When Serena stopped talking, she found she'd been so passionate she'd gotten up and been pacing around Hanssen's office. She looked at him, expecting his usual attentive look, maybe even an understanding smile. Instead, he was staring at her coldly – icily, even. It had been ages since he hadn't glared at her like that. Winded, she abruptly sat down, and waited for him to speak.

Henrik Hanssen was disappointed – in the many years they'd worked together, he'd come to like – even respect – Serena very much. He admired the way she'd weathered the many tragedies that had come in her way, and he knew her to be a very competent surgeon. He had not pegged her as small-minded, and although he knew the world of consultants could be cut-throat, he wasn't expecting Serena to undermine Ms Wolfe behind her back and to infer she'd been hired under false pretences. He was usually very perceptive, but his own personal troubles had taken their toll, and his radar was off. He didn't hear Serena's fears, or her concern for Bernie – which was, to be honest, very deeply disguised. He only saw a woman who felt threatened and who would do anything to keep her job and her power position. And that was an ugly sight. 

Therefore, he couldn't muster a lot of empathy for her, and his displeasure radiated in his voice: "Thank you for your concern for Holby, Ms Campbell. However, you have told me nothing I didn't know already, and I will ask you to trust my judgement in the matter. If you have anything more to say, I suggest you talk to Ms Wolfe. Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do. Good day."

Serena rose and went out of the office, dimly aware she'd made a bad situation even worse. And now she'd backed herself into a corner and had no idea how she would get out. Moreover, if what she'd said to Henrik got back to Bernie …Well, that didn't bear thinking about. 

What was she to do now? Strangely enough, saying all that to Henrik had somehow relieved her – she'd had to get it off her chest, and now she had – to the wrong person, of course, but… She steeled herself for a confrontation with Bernie, but when she got back to AAU, Bernie was nowhere in sight. She had no idea what to do – she didn't want to send a text – they needed to have a real conversation. Luckily for her, AAU was busy, and she went from operation to operation without much time to think. In the evening, she wondered whether to go to Bernie's, but she finally decided against it, afraid of making it worse. She thought she would see her in the next days, but AAU was manically busy, and although she saw Bernie at a distance, she didn't manage to talk to her. 

Bernie was kept busy with operations too – she was also called to help out in ICU, and so they kept missing each other. Bernie had no wish to talk to Serena anyway – she just couldn't process her reaction at the news of her return. She managed to operate with her usual talent, but she found it hard to talk the team through the steps. Silence seemed safer, somehow. Fletch commented to Essie that Bernie looked worse than when she'd just had her operation. For three days, she operated, went home, and slept – she barely ate or talk, and even taking a shower or washing her hair appeared insuperable. 

She was just finishing her shift when a whole family was brought in – mother, father, a little boy and a baby. The police said that a lorry had veered across the road and crashed into their car. The baby was nearly dead on arrival, and he survived only a few hours. She fought to save the mother while other colleagues operated on the rest of the family. After six hours in surgery, she had managed to stabilise the mother, and she left one of the more junior surgeons to close the patient up. She was feeling hopeful and optimistic for the first time in days – the surgery had been gruelling, and she'd had to remove the patient's spleen and part of her liver, but the woman was still alive. She would need skin grafts, too, after horrendous burns, but she would be alive. Bernie asked after the husband, but he hadn't survived the operations. The little boy, probably about eight or nine, was in the family room, being comforted by two nurses. Except for some superficial cuts and bruises, he was unhurt. He reminded of Cameron, and she thought that maybe she could bring him a little glimmer of hope. It wasn't her job, but she went and told him she'd operated on his mother, and that he would soon be able to see her. 

He looked at her and gave her a tentative grin : "My mum will be all right ?" 

Somehow, the big blue eyes turned upon her made her say: "Yes, she will."

"Do you swear?" 

"Yes – I swear." He hugged her. Bernie knew there were no certainties – she'd always told the trainees never to make false promises. That was part of why she didn't like to deal with the patients' families – they wanted hope, and you could only offer them facts, "in the moment" facts. 

She went for a walk to clear her head and get rid of the rush of emotions the little boy had created in her. She found three messages from Serena on her phone, asking to talk to her. She deleted them. 

She was lighting her first cigarette of the day when she got paged – sighing, she took one long drag, stubbed it out and strode back to AAU. The woman involved in the RTC had gone into cardiac arrest. When Bernie arrived, the team had managed to get her back once, but had had lost her again. She ordered three more sequences of shocking with no results. In a broken voice, she had to admit: "Time of death: 18.37." She scrubbed out slowly, deliberately, in total silence. 

Later that evening, she sat alone in her flat, staring vacantly in front of her. That was what happened when you broke the rules. The universe punished you. She'd made a promise that wasn't hers to make, and this was the result. Maybe she wasn't fit to work after all. The other thing you learnt during training was that you would lose patients – it was unavoidable, some patients just couldn't be fixed. You didn't dwell on it, but you learnt from your mistakes, and carried on. The little boy's mother wasn't the first patient she'd lost, of course – not in more than twenty years in theatre. But this time she'd be sure – she'd allowed herself to think she was in charge. She'd forgotten the rules. 

She still had her army Sig Sauer. It was locked in a safe, and unloaded, but she had a few cartridges. And she was a good shot – she only needed one. Would that work? Probably. But if she missed…if her hand shook… Living with brain damage was hell on earth. Pills were safer – slower, too, but she didn't deserve a quick death. She went to her medicine cabinet and prepared a cocktail of tablets. . She found a piece of paper, and scribbled : "I'm so sorry." Then she sat back on her sofa with a bottle of scotch and began.


Chapter 41

Where was she? Her vision was blurry, her head ached, her throat felt raw and dry. She couldn't focus and blinked several times. She tried to sit up, but found she couldn't. A rushing sound filled her ears, and she retched. Someone handled her a basin, but she had nothing to throw up – only a trickle of bile. She realised someone was holding her hand – crushing it, more exactly. Someone who was talking, but she couldn't make out the words. She tried to open her eyes properly but the harsh glare of the neon lights hurt. So she tried to move her fingers into the other person's hand. This must have worked, because that other person burst into tears. And Bernie began to make out the words interspersed by sobs : "You're okay…thank God …You're going to be okay…"

At first she thought it was a dream – she was at work, but somehow she'd ended up in the bed instead of over it… As she surfaced slowly, she remembered what she'd done. Or tried to do, because apparently, she'd failed. It would have been too easy otherwise. 

When Serena saw Bernie's eyelashes flutter and felt her fingers move, she just couldn't hold it together anymore. She broke down in tears – the last twenty-four hours had been horrendous – all the more since flashbacks from Elinor's death kept inviting themselves in her brain. Sitting by a hospital bed, waiting, not knowing whether the person would wake up. This had the bitter taste of dejà vu …Her mother …Fletcher…Elinor …And now …

Bernie hadn't answered any of the four texts she had sent, and she'd been worried. It wasn't the first time Bernie had ignored her messages, but somehow something felt different. People speak of a sixth sense, of ESP, of premonitions, of intuition, and maybe some of it did make sense after all. Anyway, around 10pm, Serena had felt compelled to drive to Bernie's. Maybe she was guided by guilt….

She'd rung and rung, but had gotten no answer. She still didn't have the keys, and of course it was possible Bernie was simply not in, but … 

That feeling had made Serena ring the caretaker's bell. Luckily, he hadn't been asleep, and although he didn't have a key either, he had seen Bernie come in that evening, and he hadn't seen her go out again. Serena would have called a locksmith, but she'd remembered a trick she'd learnt when she was in med school. She'd lived in students' halls, and as she'd been in a permanent state of stress and exhaustion, she'd kept locking herself out of her own room. One of her friend, tired of being disturbed to let Serena in, had shown her how if the door had just been slammed and wasn't locked, you could open it with a stiff piece of cardboard or a credit card. She'd tried her AmEx on Bernie's door, and it had worked. The flat was in darkness, but when she'd switched on the lights, she'd seen... 

Serena'd stifled a scream - she'd had not idea of what Bernie had taken, or for how long she'd been unconscious – her skin was clammy, her breathing shallow and her pulse very weak. She'd called 999. While Serena was waiting for the paramedics, she heard a laboured sound coming from Bernie's throat, and knew she had to perform CPR – she couldn't wait.. The ambulance took ages to arrive – at least in Serena's mind. Once at the hospital, she'd directed the paramedics to an individual room in AAU, making sure no one noticed who was on the stretcher. Then she'd paged Essie, who luckily was on duty that night – Essie would understand the need for discretion. 

Then, in breach of all hospitals rules, she'd taken a chance on the type of pills Bernie could have taken, and after a stomach pumping, she'd administered activated charcoal and Natran. After she and Essie had done the necessary ECG and installed an IV and a heart monitor, she'd sat down and waited for Bernie to wake up – if she did. There was no given in those situations – any organ could fail at any time. 

When she saw Bernie open her eyes, Serena was both relieved and furiously angry – she wanted to take Bernie by the shoulders and shake her till her teeth rattled. Instead, she just about managed to hiss through her tears: "Don't ever do that again! Ever! Swear it!" She knew Bernie was not yet able to answer, but she had to say it. 

Bernie blinked as the room came into focus – she cast an anguished look around her – not only had she failed, but everyone in Holby would know she'd tried to end it. Serena understood the desperation in the eyes: "Don't worry – no one knows you're why you're here – only Essie, and she won't say anything. If anyone else inquires, you had a bad bout of food poisoning." Then she held a beaker of water to Bernie and the latter sipped gratefully. 

Serena ached for her, and she knew it wasn't the time for questions, but she couldn't help herself: "Why did you do it, Bernie? Why? Was it my fault? Was it because of me?" Bernie tried to roll on her side to turn towards the wall, but the IV tubes prevented any movement, so she closed her eyes again instead. She couldn't answer that. She didn't know how to. She didn't know anymore why she'd taken the pills. The one thing she wanted right then was to be left alone. 

Serena sighed – she glanced at the screen to check Bernie's vitals, and reluctantly got up – if she didn't go to work as usual, people would wonder. Having one's partner in hospital when one's a consultant was not a good enough reason to skip surgery. Explanations would have to wait. 

Left alone, Bernie tried to understand what had happened. She remembered the evening – sort of, deciding to take the pills, preparing them …Serena must have arrived less than an hour after, for otherwise she would be dead. Her body didn't really feel alive – the drugs made her feel weak and limp – she would have welcome numbness, but this just felt uncomfortable, like if she was in limbo. Once again, she'd chosen the coward's way – and now the universe was teaching her a lesson – giving her a life of eternal guilt. Because if she'd succeeded, what about Cameron? Charlotte? Serena? What would it have done to them? She'd wanted a way out, she'd wanted to stop hurting, but she hadn't given a thought to her nearest and dearest. Suicide was selfish. What kind of person was she?


Chapter 42

"If she had died, it would have been my fault." Bernie hadn't answered – she probably would never answer, but the thought went round and round Serena's head. Serena didn't know if Bernie had heard about her talk with Hanssen, but even if she hadn't …Well, she hadn't exactly been very welcoming, had she? She knew her friend was riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, and she'd done nothing to alleviate them. She tried to focus on the job at hand – a splenectomy on a forty-years-old woman – but thoughts of Bernie kept intruding. Serena couldn't wait to break scrub, to leave theatre, but she had a woman's life in her hands – and even if another woman was waiting for her, she had to save the one she was responsible for – her patient. 

When she was able to go back to Bernie's room, it was already early evening, and she found the room empty. Serena swore under her breath and went in search of Essie, who told her Bernie had discharged herself about an hour before: "Damn! Did you at least take a blood test before she left?"

Essie answered worriedly: "Yes, I did …She wasn't very happy about it – she nearly bit my head off. But I got ALT, AST, ALP, creatinine and BUN."

"Show me." 

Essie handed Serena her tablet. Serena scanned the screen rapidly and sighed. The antidote she'd administered was consistent with the drugs found in Bernie's blood, thank goodness. And her bloods at the time of her discharge didn't show any trace of acute liver or kidney failure, although they were not totally satisfactory. Damn the woman! Couldn't she just have stayed quietly in bed for one or two more days? Why did she automatically associated illness with weakness? Others could be sick – but Bernie couldn't bear to be a patient. She always had to be in charge, to be in control. Why did she always have to put on this tough guy act? Serena got it, actually – she'd hated being helpless during her cancer treatment. But she hadn't tried to run before she could walk. 

She handed the tablet back to Essie, who was looking at her apprehensively.

"It's all right – I know it's not your fault. I don't need to remind you to keep mum about this, do I?"

"Ms Campbell …Please ! …But …I think …she shouldn't be alone. She looked … I mean, I took her to the hospital entrance, and …she wasn't very steady on her feet."

"Of course she shouldn't be alone ! She should be right here!" Serena swore again. 

She ought to have known! But what could she had done? She couldn't well have handcuffed her to the bed! What she should have done – the correct procedure, actually, would have been to transfer her to the psychiatric ward, where she would have been kept under observation for a few days. But that would have been a betrayal, and she'd already done enough of that when she'd been to see Hanssen. Bernie would never have forgiven her. 

Like the day before, Serena drove to Bernie's flat – she jumped several red lights, putting her own life in danger, but she was driven by fear. What if she'd done it again? What if she'd succeeded? What if this time, she wasn't even home and Serena couldn't find her? She parked the car half on the road, half on the pavement and rushed upstairs to the flat. She rang the bell and pounded on the door. After a few minutes that felt like hours, Bernie opened. 

She looked like death, but she was alive… Unheeding of the forbidding expression on Bernie's face, Serena embraced her and held her fiercely, although Bernie's stiff body refused to hug her back. Serena gently propelled her towards the sofa and manoeuvred her on it before going to make a cup of tea. When she came back with two steaming mugs and a packet of biscuits, Bernie hadn't moved. Her matted hair hung stiffly around her face, and her whole demeanour screamed defeat. Serena felt guilty about bullying her, but she had no choice – she couldn't leave her alone – it wasn't safe. She forced one of the mugs into Bernie's hands.

Bernie took a sip and made a face: "Did you drop the whole sugar box in it, by any chance ?"

"I'm glad to see you've still got your sense of humour. Drink up – you need sugar."

Serena waited a little to see if Bernie was going to talk, but as the latter remained silent, she began hesitantly: "Please, Bernie – please don't push me away. I'm here for you. You know I want us to be together."

"Do you? Do you really? Except when I want to work with you apparently." Bernie's tone was bitter. 

"I'm sorry – I didn't mean what I said …It's just…"

"Just what? You'd had a rough day? You were tired? Well guess what, so did I! A lot of bloody rough days actually – but you've got no idea – no idea at all!"

Serena felt her anger rising all over again: "No, I had no bloody idea, because you don't talk! You keep shutting people out! You shut ME out! And I'm not a mind-reader! You never say anything to me – you HAVE to let me in, otherwise this will never work!" By then she was yelling, and she saw Bernie wince and put her face in her hands. Immediately, she stopped shouting and put her arms round Bernie's shoulders. This time, Bernie let her, and reclined in her arms. She spoke so softly than Serena hardly heard her: "Please don't yell at me …please – not now – I can't … I can't take it. I'm sorry – I'm so sorry. But …could you just leave me alone? Please, I just need to be alone."

"No can do, darling …You know the rules. You should be in hospital, and there's no way I'm going to leave you alone tonight. Just go to bed, and I can stay here on the sofa."

Bernie didn't answer, but got up wearily, and went to her bedroom, closing the door behind her. She stumbled into bed, rested her head wearily on the pillow and closed her eyes. She was tired – so tired that every muscle, every bone, every inch of skin screamed from pain. Her head was pounding, her ears were ringing, she still had a vile taste in her throat despite the tea, and she felt light-headed. Somehow it seemed fitting – she almost welcomed the pain – it reminded her of the hurt she'd caused, and for which she needed to atone. Pain was her penance.


Chapter 43

In the morning, Serena checked once more on Bernie, as she'd done several times during the night, and saw she was still asleep – not in a peaceful slumber, since the bed sheets and covers had been thrown all over the floor, but at least unconscious to the outside word. She tried to cover the sleeping woman as best as she could, and slipped quietly out of the flat, leaving a little "I love you" note on the kitchen table. She would have liked to stay, to make sure Bernie wouldn't attempt on her own life again, but it was just not possible. She had to go and see Henrik again – she couldn't tell him about Bernie, of course she couldn't …But she had to repair the damages she'd caused.

When she arrived in Henrik Hanssen's office, he didn't seem surprised : "Ms Campbell. Please sit down – I gather you got my message."

"Your message? Err…No I didn't – I just needed to talk to you."

"Can it wait? There's something I'd like to tell you first."

"Go on ?"

"I've decided to take a leave of absence from Holby. This will leave the position of CEO vacant – I would like you to take it. What do you say? "

Serena stared at him speechlessly – of all the things she'd expected him to say, this was not something she'd considered. After their last conversation, if anything, she'd thought he would ask her to step down for Bernie, or even to seek a position elsewhere. She tried to envisage what it would entail for her and Bernie, but she couldn't. She'd stepped in before, she knew what would be expected of her, but this was so sudden, so …However, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn't refuse – and anyway, she didn't want to. As much as she liked to be in theatre and to be hands-on, she also relished having power and being in control …

"Ms Campbell ?"

"This is quite a surprise …But of course – I'll do it." 

She would do it – but how would she tell Bernie that she would be her boss ?

Bernie woke up with a start, bathed in sweat, disorientated. Nightmares had once again invaded her sleep, and she had fought several battles in the night. 

She tried to get up, but her head spun and she sat back down again on the bed. Her phone was at its usual place near the bed, and she decided she'd better call in sick. Praying that Serena's explanation of food poisoning was still standing, she phoned AAU and told Fletch she wouldn't be in – from his reaction, she surmised that her cover hadn't been blown. He wasn't at all surprised to hear Bernie wasn't feeling great – apparently, Serena had told him to reschedule her surgeries. Bernie experienced a brief moment of anger at this – how dare she decide for her if she was up to it or not ! – but she was too tired to muster up enough energy to really care. 

She'd always been the solid, reliable, dependable one, especially at work, and now she didn't know who she was anymore. However, she had to find something salvageable in this whole mess! But not right then – she buried her head under the sheets, curled into a ball and tried to empty her mind of everything. 

Serena came back again in the evening, but Bernie refused to talk, and Serena chose not to stay the night. She still hadn't found a way of telling Bernie about Hanssen's proposal anyways. So when a wan-faced Bernie arrived in AAU the next day and didn't see Serena for the whole day, she just assumed she was in theatre. It was only when she went into Serena's office and saw it had been emptied of most of its contents that she went to see Fletch and asked where Serena was. 

"Well, she's in Mr. Hanssen's old office, I guess – I mean I haven't been there yet, but…"

Bernie was flabbergasted: "In Henrik's old office? What do you mean, Fletcher?"

Fletcher realised he'd put his foot in. He looked at her pityingly – like most health professionals, he'd lots of practice at concealing his feelings, but he'd been shocked by Bernie's appearance. Her make-up, although carefully applied, couldn't conceal the huge dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes, nor a haunted look he'd never seen on her. He suspected there had been more to it than simple food poisoning, but he couldn't possibly ask her. He could, however, try to impart the news as gently as possible : "Mr. Hanssen left yesterday, and asked Serena to be the new CEO. She told us yesterday evening. As if she wasn't already bossy enough! Now she's the big cheese around here…"

As Bernie reeled and became even paler, he realised he probably hadn't been gentle enough. The wounded look in her eyes made Fletch bite his lips – he couldn't quite believe Serena hadn't said anything to Bernie. 

So this was it then – they wouldn't be working together in AAU, because Serena would be the boss. Bernie couldn't see that working for long. She would try her best, because she needed the job, but…She also wondered what exactly was in her file – she hoped Henrik Hanssen had not put anything she'd told him in it, but that might well be a vain hope – and now the file was in Serena's hands… She decided against going to find Serena – let her come instead! 

And so she did – she didn't exactly come to AAU, but they bumped into each other in the cafeteria. They faced each other in silence. Words were superfluous – the look Bernie gave Serena told her the former knew all about her new job, and resented the way she'd learnt about it. Serena couldn't blame her – she remembered how she'd felt when Bernie had been outed in the ward – the feeling of betrayal. She could understand how Bernie felt. She hoped to be forgiven in time, as she'd forgiven Bernie. She hoped that meanwhile, Bernie wouldn't be too much of a maverick, because she didn't want to have to chastise her…

Bernie realised she was shaking after the encounter – she took a big gulp of coffee to steady herself, swore under her breath as the boiling liquid made its way down her throat and closed her eyes to recover her wits. Was this all her fault? Serena had accused her of shutting her out – and yes, that was true, she did shut people out – because when she opened up, people got hurt. Maybe it was as simple as that – if she just apologised to Serena, it may solve the situation. However, her pride wouldn't let her. She didn't think she had any left, after everything that had happened, but it seemed she did after all. 

Sighing, she went back to the ward. She had a blinding headache, but she didn't want to take any pills for it – didn't want to be tempted …Wearily, she made her rounds, and when she clocked of at 08.00 pm, she hadn't seen Serena again, nor had she decided what to do.


Chapter 44

For a week or so, Bernie and Serena managed to avoid each other – Serena had so much admin to do she stayed mainly in her office, or attended meetings, and Bernie busied herself in the wards. She hadn't had any panic attacks at Holby yet, for which she was thankful to whoever there was up there, but she hadn't had a nightmare-free night either. The only time they actually saw each other was at a staff meeting. Serena had summoned all the consultants to emphasize the need for a strict application of all the regulations, as the board had stressed Holby was under scrutiny from the NHS. Too many things had happened, and the board was concerned.

Bernie and Serena had nodded to each other in passing, but it had not the time for explanations. They were treading on eggshells, and neither of them knew exactly what to say to the other

Luckily for her, as the only trauma surgeon currently working in AAU, Bernie was kept busy. As it kept her from thinking too much, she performed one operation after another, without much rest time. Someone she didn't even go home to sleep, but snatched a few hours in one of the rooms at the hospital. She could have delegated some of the work – there were several residents and interns, but she only trusted herself. Moreover, she could see that some of her younger colleagues were also suffering from overwork, and she was loth to give them even more to do – she could remember her own training days, when sleep had been a luxury and food bites snatched standing up. 

She had already been in theatre four times that day when nemesis struck. She'd pulled an all-nighter as several trauma patients needing urgent care had arrived in the evening of the day before, and she'd treated a sixtyish woman with stab wounds in the abdomen and shoulder. 

When the woman had been brought in, she'd been conscious, but not long enough to explain how she'd been wounded. To Bernie's questions, she'd only had time to answer: "Occupational hazard" before losing consciousness. Bernie thought she would be all right, but the intervention had taken more than four hours – the victim had been stabbed several times with brute force, and the knife had perforated the spleen and the colon. Another stab wound had narrowly missed the heart and the spinal cord, but had penetrated the left lung …All in all, the victim had been quite lucky, but it had still been a long and complicated procedure. 

Bernie had been scrubbing out when she was paged for another arrival, who also needed her expertise, and she didn't hesitate to scrub in again. The right call would have been to page another surgeon from another department- she'd already been in theatre for more than twenty hours without a real break. Fletcher, Essie and Dom had tried to make her rest, but she'd ignored them. So she scrubbed in and went to operate on a teenager, who'd had a bad fall from some gym apparatus – there were obvious multiple fractures, but also probable internal injuries. She had a resident with her in theatre, and two F2, all new to Holby. They performed the laparotomy, and the internal lesions soon became apparent. She estimated in her head that she would be in theatre for at least another three hours, and sighed at the prospect. She had to admit to herself that she was tired. Not tired – exhausted…But she didn't have a choice, and she proceeded to talk through the surgery for the trainees. 

They'd been in theatre for more than two hours, and were beginning to see the end when a sixth sense alerted her to a presence behind the window. When she heard: "Please step out, Ms Wolfe", she had a strong sense of déjà vu. This didn't prevent her from giving the same answer as before: "But I haven't finished." And she got the same answer: "Step out now – Dr Schneider will finish the surgery – your work here is done." 

Only it wasn't the same voice, and when she stalked out of theatre, tearing off her mask, cap and gown, it wasn't Hanssen waiting for her, but Serena, and an irate Serena at that. 

Bernie was so furious she didn't wait for her to speak: "What the hell do you think you're playing at, Serena?"

Serena's anger was just as strong, but she'd kept a firmer rein on it: "Will you come with me, Ms Wolfe? We can talk in my office." She couldn't afford a public scene, not now she was the CEO. Bernie seethed but followed her. Once in the office, the two women faced each other, both folding their arms as if to prevent themselves from launching themselves at each other's throats. 

Bernie glared at Serena: "Well? I'm waiting!" 

"How long have you been working for without a break?"

"No idea!" Well, she had, but she wasn't going to admit that…

"Twenty-three hours! Bloody twenty-three hours! Do you remember me saying something about regulations?? EWTD? You've been working almost double the time you should have! And I know for a fact this isn't the first time! Do you have any idea the trouble you're in? Or what would happen if this got back to the board? Do you want to make things difficult for me? Is that it? How can you be so fucking irresponsible !"

Bernie kept her head held high, but her hands and her eyelids were beginning to tremble from sheer exhaustion and tension. She knew she was in the wrong, but being scolded like a child by Serena was unbearable. Serena seemed to be waiting for an answer, a reaction, but she couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't aggravate matters. So she just left, slamming the door behind her. 

She had no idea whether Serena would sanction her, but frankly, she didn't give a damn! 

As for Serena, once alone in her office, she put her head in her hands and tried to calm down – the tension of the scene had brought her close to tears, and she couldn't afford the luxury of breaking down, as she had a management meeting less than fifteen minutes afterwards. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what she was doing at Holby. Maybe she should have stayed in the South of France after all. She had no idea how to deal with Bernie. She just couldn't bear her Ice Queen stance – all the more since she knew ice could melt at any moment. She knew exactly why Bernie was pushing herself so hard – after all, she'd done the same thing after Elinor's death. And she was terribly afraid for Bernie – she'd saved her life once, but what if it happened again? Or what if she broke done from sheer exhaustion? Bloody stubborn woman!


Chapter 45

When Bernie arrived in AAU the next day, she overheard two of the F2 that had been in several of her previous day surgeries talking. The two young women had arrived at Holby recently, and both were eager to please and enthusiastic. However, that morning, it was obvious that something was wrong. One of them was wiping her eyes, and the other one seemed very close to tears. Bernie really didn't want to interfere. She was still reeling from her encounter with Serena, and had spent a sleepless night turning the matter in her head. However, one of the two young woman saw her and hailed her:

"Ms Wolfe…"

"Dr Armstrong?" 

"It's just …Jerry Bawling, you know ?"

Jerry Bawling was a toddler who'd been brought in the day before, suffering from serious burns. The medical team had been able to make him more comfortable, but there was nothing much they could do, his injuries were severe. 


"He died two hours ago, Ms Wolfe … I mean …He was so young, and …We were all hoping …We …I even told the parents everything would be okay…"

Eyes blazing with fury, Bernie turned on the young doctor. Trying to keep her voice down so she wouldn't disturb the patients, she hissed: "And that's why you're crying ? Get a grip, Dr Armstrong! Haven't you learnt anything at med school?? You should have known he wasn't going to make it. And haven't you been told you must never, ever get close emotionally to a patient? You're reckless, immature, and you're putting every other patient in danger by your attitude. As for telling the parents something which was obviously a lie …well …That's another stupid mistake – you never promise something you have no control over! Never! Do you think you're God? Do you think you have the power of life or death? Well – guess what? You don't! None of us do! Now …oh, just get out of this ward, both of you, and get yourselves together! Quickly!" 

The young doctors had been watching her with huge eyes, and they all but turned tails and ran. As for Bernie, she took a deep breath to steady herself, and went on with the rounds. She was ashamed of her outburst – she was usually able to keep her emotions inside, and it wasn't like her to take her anger on someone else. Moreover, she had to admit that her own words didn't really ring true. 

She had repeated what she had been taught at medical school, and during her own training, usually none too gently. She'd accepted it at the time – after all, it fitted so well with her own defence mechanisms… She'd built herself an armour to survive in her personal life, to shield her from her father, from the bullies at school, and from the external world. It might not have been a comfortable armour – too rough in some places, too unwieldy in some circumstances, but it had served her well – why should it be different in her work place? 

However, life had taught her hard lessons, and among them that it could hurt too when you didn't let people in, when you kept everything inside. Life was still teaching her not to confuse reserve with aloofness, resilience with hardness, sympathy with sentimentality. Those lessons were the ones she ought to pass on, not hand-me-downs from the old days. However, the incident had been such a strong echo of her own recent mistake that she just wasn't able to restrain herself… 

She was just finishing checking the file of the woman with stab wounds who she'd operated on the previous days when she felt the first signs of a panic attack coming. Cornered, she tried to assess her options – she knew from experience she had only a few seconds before going into full meltdown. The patient was in a private room, and Bernie didn't think she would have time to make it through the ward and to her office. It was a no-win situation, and she decided to take a gamble on the patient: she asked her if she could sit down beside her. The woman motioned to the chair with a smile and Bernie sank into it gratefully. Seeing her patient close her eyes, Bernie was relieved – maybe her attack would remain unnoticed. She closed her eyes too, hoping she wouldn't throw up, and tried to breathe. Her head was spinning, and she could hear her heart pounding wildly. 

Bernie must have fainted, because when she opened her eyes, the patient had taken her hand into hers and was talking to her, reassuring her, in fact, that everything would be all right, that it was the fear talking, but that she was safe. When she saw Bernie open her eyes, she stopped talking. 

Bernie was still feeling very shaky, and she had a blinding headache, but the awkwardness of the moment was the most excruciating. She was being comforted by her own patient! 

"Feeling better?" asked the woman with a smile. Bernie searched her face for contempt or judgement, but she couldn't detect any in the woman's azure eyes. Only concern and empathy. 

"I'm fine, thank you, Mrs…" For a moment Bernie couldn't remember the woman's name, although she'd read her file just minutes before. 

"Heather, please."

"Heather, I – I'm so, so sorry; I don't know what came over me. I hope I didn't frightened you too much."

"Frighten me? No, you didn't, Ms …Sorry, I can't remember your name – I was a little out of it yesterday."

"Wolfe – Bernie Wolfe."

"Very pleased to meet you, Ms Wolfe – and, by the way, thank you for saving my life yesterday – one of the nurses told me you'd done a great job."

"All in a day's work…I …I'd like to apologize again for what just happen – I know it doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but…"

"No apologies needed. As for confidence …good thing I've already had the operation, then!" said Heather with a laugh. "And that the nurse was full of praise for you and your skills…." She paused and went on : "My son's in the army, you know – the Yorshire's – his father and I used to be pacifists …Antimilitarists, even, but he's always been one to stick to his guns – pardon the pun. Anyways, he's told me a lot about …army life. And he's always been full of praise for the medics…One of them stitched him up once – he … he'd had a lively encounter with a drunken local. In Afghanistan. He's still there"

Bernie promised herself she would find which nurse had been attending to Heather and kill her with her bare hands …Why couldn't people stay out of her business! For one moment she thought of playing dumb, but it probably wouldn't work. 

"I guess you know I used to be in the army …"

"Yes – a little bird told me …Anyways – I don't want to make you uncomfortable, Ms Wolfe, but – like I said, you didn't frighten me. What frightens me, though, is you saying you don't know what happened…"

Bernie bit her lips – could she just dodge the issue? Probably not – the woman seemed remarkably astute. She tried to mask her discomfort, to smile, to make light of the matter, but her answer came out sharply, almost rudely: 

"That was more a turn of phrase – I do know. Thanks for your concern though – I'll be fine. But it's none of your business, actually. You also seem to be recovering very well, Heather! I'll leave you in the hands of the nurses then, and I'll…"

Bernie stood up and made to go, but Heather put a restraining hand on her arm. 

"Ms Wolfe – I don't want to pry, but …These things don't go away on their own – I hope you have the help and support you need and deserve. Good luck."

Bernie beat a hasty retreat, not bothering to answer.


Chapter 46

As the day went on, Bernie's mind remained on her tête-à-tête with Heather. She was usually able to compartmentalize and to forget a patient to go on to the next one, but for some reason that particular patient did not want to be forgotten. Maybe it was because she was a soldier's mother. But Bernie didn't think so. There was something compelling about the woman – almost magnetic. Bernie also realized that there had been no one at Heather's bedside, no family member, no friend. She wondered whether they'd even been contacted, as her admission to AAU had happened at a hectic time. She promised herself she would go back later and ask. 

Meanwhile, she had other patients to see to. Serena hadn't been in touch, so Bernie didn't know whether she'd taken measures against her, but she guessed she hadn't been suspended, or someone would have told her. 

After a full day of surgery, she went back to check on Heather. When she entered the room, she found the woman ashen, shivering and struggling to breath. She'd left a patient fully conscious and healthy enough, and now the woman looked even worse than when's she'd been brought to Holby on a stretcher! The heart monitor indicated a rate of 100 bpm and her temperature had soared to 104 F. Bernie sprang into action, and rang the alarm to call one of the ward nurses. 

When Donna arrived, Bernie barked at her: "Who's responsible for this room? And when was this patient's last check?"

Donna took one look at Bernie's and quaked … " Well …I'm in charge, and I checked her – like, one hour ago or so – she was fine "

"Well, if you spent less time gossiping about my personal life, and more taking care of your patients, she might still be fine! As it is …bloods, now! and an IV of tazobactam/ levofloxacin/micafungin/ ! Quickly, Nurse Jackson!"

As she was talking, she exposed the patient's abdomen, and discovered that one of the abdomen suture was oozing pus. At least she'd found the source of the infection, but if what Donna had said was true – if Heather had been fine an hour before – it meant sepsis had progressed frighteningly quickly. 

Bernie arranged for Heather to be taken to a sterile room where she could re-open, clean, and close back the suture, and only when she was back into the private room in the ward, with new antibiotics adjusted after the results of the blood tests and oxygen to help her breath did Bernie allow herself to think about what had gone wrong. Was this her fault? Had she been too tired to operate properly? Had she endangered her patient's life by overstretching herself, by thinking herself invincible? 

She replayed the whole op in her mind, not finding anything amiss, but what she really needed was to go over the whole thing again with someone who would understand – and the one person she could think of was the one she definitely couldn't go to. She was in no mood for "I told you so"s and reprimands. But the only person she could think of telling was Serena, and right now, she was also the one she couldn't talk to. Shouldn't talk to.

Realistically, she knew it probably had nothing to do with the procedure itself. The paramedics that had brought Heather had said the wounds had been inflicted with a large kitchen knife, and that the victim had probably been unable to reach her phone for some time. Assuming the aggressor had not been a neat freak who'd sterilized the knife before use … It was likely that the infection had already settled in Heather's body before her arrival in hospital. But even then, she was to blame, because if the patient had been given the correct antibiotics, maybe … Sepsis was a lethal condition if it wasn't noticed and treated soon enough. 

She was supposed to clock off for the day, but there was no way she would leave her patient in that condition. She couldn't do much more than what she'd already done, and she knew there was no point in hanging around – the antibiotics had to do their job – but she wanted to be there in case Heather's condition worsened. So she sat back in the chair she'd vacated that morning, and waited. Through the night, she adjusted the IV fluids several times, and added corticosteroids to the perfusion. The fever peaked in the night, and she had to administer a mild sedative, as the patient was restless and agitated, despite being unconscious.

She remained awake, eyes fixed on the dark-haired woman lying in front of her. A woman with a son – maybe a husband, a family – a woman who'd tried to help her, and with whom she'd been less than professional. She hadn't told her to get off her case, but she hadn't exactly been very polite either. All because Heather had shown concern, had wanted to help her… For God sake's ! What was wrong with her? If Heather died, she wouldn't be able to …

In the morning, Heather's condition had taken a turn for the better. The fever was abating, and her pulse was less frantic and steadier. Her breathing was less labored, and sweat no longer drenched her brow. 

Donna had tried to redeem herself by bringing Bernie several cups of coffee during the night, but she'd managed to blot her copybook again by remarking in an undertone: "She's not really cooperating, is she? We don't want her dying on us!". Nothing enraged Bernie so much as that type of comment. Only people who had never been patients themselves could think of blaming the patient for his own symptoms… She was too tired to tell her off, and she didn't want to in front of the patient, so she just asked her curtly to be quiet, and refused the coffee. 

Talk of cutting one's nose to spite one's face …when morning came, Bernie was dying for caffeine! When she was satisfied Heather was past the crisis, she left the room, and went straight to the cafeteria for a triple shot black coffee. Of course, that was when she ran into Serena. That she hadn't slept was etched all other her face, her hair hung limply and she'd intended a shower and a change of scrubs before meeting anyone. 

When she saw Bernie, Serena frowned. She hadn't taken any action against her partner, as she'd hoped to nip the issue in the bud by talking to her. However, she'd decided to keep an eye on Bernie's schedule to avoid any further trouble. So Serena knew perfectly well that Bernie should have been home in bed, and not in the hospital cafeteria that morning. Even if she hadn't known, the huge shadows under Bernie's eyes, the red streaks in them, and her dishevelled appearance would have revealed the all-nighter. Both women eyed each other warily. Neither of them wanted to make a scene in public, but there was no escape. Serena nodded towards the door leading to the parking lot, and they went outside.


Chapter 47

"What are you doing here?" Serena wanted to remain calm, but her tone was more than confrontational.

"Working – same as you."

"You're not on call this morning."

"Oh, so you're spying on me now? Lovely …"

"I'm not spying on you, Bernie! I'm just doing my job and trying to protect my staff and my patients!"

"Go and protect someone else, then! I'm sure someone has a use for a knight in shining armour!"

"Stop it! Just stop it! You're behaving like a two-years-old! Look at you – you look as if you haven't slept or eaten in days! Do you remember you nearly killed yourself not a month ago? Are you trying to do it again?"

"What if I am? None of your business!"

Serena was so tense she was near tears: "How can you be so selfish? Can't you think of anyone else but yourself? What about your kids? Do you want them to be the children of a suicidal mother? Of a mother who wanted to die? What about me ?? Did you think of me at all?"

Bernie had known they would have had that conversation sooner or later, but she still flinched as if Serena had struck her. She shivered violently, as the exhaustion of the stressful sleepless night took its toll. Serena had her coat on, and underneath it a thick jumper – Henrik had favoured north-pole like climatization for his office, and she still hadn't had time to ask the technical staff to adjust the thermostat. Bernie had thrown on her hoodie over her scrubs, but it was no protection against the icy February weather. The steaming cups of coffee, now lukewarm, laid there abandoned. Bernie tried to control her shivers, but to no avail, and her teeth began chattering too, from tension as much as from cold. 

Serena ripped off her coat and threw it around Bernie's shoulders. Bernie wanted to refuse – her pride tried to, but her brain didn't let her. She accepted it with a muttered "thank you." Serena fastened the coat and lifted her eyes to look straight into Bernie's: "I want you to listen to me very carefully. I am not going to let you kill yourself. I need you! "

Bernie tried to speak, but she was too cold – the words couldn't come out, her mouth wouldn't cooperate. Then she finally managed to murmur: "But that's exactly the problem, isn't it?"

"Sorry, what?"

"I said – that's exactly the problem. Needing is not loving. I can't be responsible for your happiness – it's too much. It's like …I'm not my own person anymore because you have rights on me – and that's not fair. Loving someone is about exchange and equality – not ownership or dependency."

They were both near breaking point. Serena could feel the tears rising in her throat. Why couldn't she find the words she wanted? She was usually articulate enough in theatre or in a boardroom, but when it came to her own feelings, everything she said sounded wrong. She almost envied Jason – it might be easier sometimes to have no filters. And then, just before the tears came, she managed in a small voice: "I was so scared…"

Bernie stiffened – everything Serena said sounded like a reproach. She unbuttoned the coat, struggled out of it and gave it back to Serena. Then, throwing the undrunk cup of coffee in the nearest bin, she strode back inside. Serena accepted the coat mechanically and watched her go. Without putting it on, she foraged in her coat pocket for a tissue – she found an old paper napkin, which would have to do, because she couldn't swallow back her tears anymore. 

The day only got worse for both of them. When Serena managed to calm down and to go back inside, she was side-tracked by various people, all wanting her to do several tedious things at the same time, and preferably at once. Then, one of her electives had complications, and a nurse slipped on the icy pavement in the parking lot, which meant that they would be short-handed in the maternity ward, and she would have to complete massive amounts of paperwork, because as it had happened in the hospital car park, it was considered an occupational accident. 

As for Bernie, she finally managed to go back home and have a shower, but although she tried to rest for a while, sleep eluded her. She finally went back to Holby with clean hair, clean clothes, huge shadows under her eyes and a full-blown migraine. She wanted to check on Heather, but she was waylaid by one of the new F2s. Allie Lynn had been one of the F2s she'd ordered out of the ward two days before, and Bernie still felt guilty about her outburst, so she stifled her impatience and put an empathetic expression on her face. What the young doctor had to say worried her and needed more than an understanding face, however. She frowned and followed Dr Lynn to one of the on-call rooms, where she had left her friend in a very disturbed state. Allie Lynn explained to Bernie that the other F2, Chloe Armstrong, had been crying on and off for several weeks and complaining that she felt overwhelmed by her workload. She apparently had a very low level of self-confidence, and she'd confided to her friend she wanted to quit. Allie had also seen her throw up twice, and both time Chloe had said she must have eaten too quickly or something bad, but she really didn't believe her. 

When Bernie and Allie arrived in the on-call room, they found Chloe lying down on the bed buried under the duvet. Bernie motioned for Allie to leave her with Chloe, and went to sit on the edge of the bed : 

"Dr Armstrong? Chloe?" 

When she recognised Bernie's voice, Chloe burrowed even further under the duvet. Bernie gently pulled on it to expose the young woman's face. 

"Chloe, I want to talk to you – can you please sit up?" 

Chloe looked at her with frightened eyes, and closed them again. This time Bernie decided to be a little firmer, and she reached for the duvet and pulled it back completely, exposing the young woman's body. Chloe's eyes burst open and she tried to cover herself up again, but it was too late – Bernie's face told her she had seen. The young doctor's abdomen and forearms were covered with angry red lines – some of them already scars, some of them just faint traces, and a few of them still raw and bleeding.


Chapter 48

Bernie hid her distress under her professional poker face. Underneath, she was frantically trying to convince herself that it wasn't her fault, that the young doctor's psychological problems had obviously begun long ago, and didn't have anything to do with what she'd said to her recently, but her guilty conscience wouldn't let her. Some of the cuts were still fresh, and evidently her harsh words had been at the root of some of them. 

"Right – let's get you cleaned up – please get dressed and come with me."

Under Bernie's steely glare, Chloe didn't dare refuse. The young doctor got up and threw on a hoodie over her t-shirt. Bernie took her to a small consulting room and told her to sit on the bed while she rooted out the necessary items to clean the wounds. Once she'd found what she wanted, she handed the swabs and disinfectant to Chloe and sat down in an armchair. Bernie wasn't sure how to begin – she'd been told a little about self-harm during her medical studies, but not much, and it was not something she'd encountered on the battlefields. She was also aware that the new hospital policies demanded she report any case of violence, and it would mean seeing Serena again…

They both sat in silence while Chloe cleaned her fresh cuts. Finally, Bernie asked: "Is there anything you want to talk to me about, Dr Armstrong?" 

Chloe stared at the floor. Bernie waited. Finally, the young doctor murmured: "It's too much …I never thought …I never thought it would be like this. My boyfriend – he said I wouldn't be up to it. He says he doesn't know why I wanted to be a doctor – he doesn't get it. He …he always complains I don't make time for him, but I can't – you know how it is?"

Bernie nodded and Chloe went on: "And when we're together, I'm so tired I just want to sleep, and …And then yesterday, he sent me this." She extracted her phone from her pocket and showed a text to Bernie. "Can't do it anymore – sorry, have a nice life. Mark." 

Chloe smiled ruefully: "He's always been a cheap sod – I expect he didn't want to buy me anything for Valentine's Day …Bastard!" and she began to cry again. Bernie wanted to comfort her – the young doctor was Cameron's age, and she had to remind herself that she wasn't Chloe's mother – she was her boss. And as her boss, she was concerned about Chloe's mental health. She was somewhat relieved to hear that the young woman's distress was probably due more to boyfriend trouble than to work-related stress, but she couldn't possibly ignore the self-harm issue. And she had to disengage herself from it – the girl was a F2, and she was her superior – she had to remain distant – no emotional involvement.

She remembered telling Ric Griffiths that one of the capital rules of parenting was "do as I say and not as I do" … this was a case where it applied to hierarchical relationships too: she would refer Dr Armstrong to one of the hospital psychiatrist – she needed professional help. Bernie briefly considered asking Chloe to go and see Serena, but concluded reluctantly that she would have to do that herself. 

Before that, she wanted to check on Heather. She told Dr. Armstrong to take the rest of the day off, and to come and see her the next morning. Then Bernie made her way to Heather's room. For the first time she noticed the decorations in the hallways …red balloons, and hearts garlands. Her heart sank – of course! Chloe had said her boyfriend had left her just before Valentine's Day – which was tomorrow. 

Bernie hated Valentine's Day – when she had been in England, Marcus had always wanted to go out and dine in a fancy restaurant, and he'd bought her extravagant gifts, mostly jewellery she would never wear or intricate underwear to his own taste. When she'd been on ops, he used to phone her on the 14th of February, and complain if she wasn't able to answer. He'd even had two dozen roses delivered to the army camp in Kandaar, and she'd thought she'd never be able to live it down. She had no use for that kind of grand gestures. Her opinion on Valentine's Day was that it was a great date for florists and confectioners, not so much for lovers… Last year Serena had still been suffering from the aftermath of Elinor's death, and her mind had been far from pink hearts and rose petals. And this year … This year, it was all her fault…

Bernie found Heather asleep, and noted the woman was looking much better – or at least less sallow and agitated than before. She checked her file and saw her vitals were better too. She was going to slip out again unnoticed when the patient opened her eyes. 

"Ms Wolfe …it seems you saved my life again …"

Bernie gave her a small smile – she couldn't shake the feeling that she might be responsible for the sepsis in the first place. 

"Are you comfortable? Do you feel any pain?"

Heather made a face: " I would probably be more comfortable at home in my own bed?" 

There was something very unsettling about Heather's gaze – Bernie felt as if the woman could read into her soul. She wanted to get away, to avoid being drawn into a conversation she had a feeling would turn out to be too personal for her taste, but something made her ask: "When you were brought in …you said your injuries were an "occupational hazard" – do you remember what happened?"

Heather briefly closed her eyes, and opened them again, focusing on Bernie: "Perfectly well. My brain appears to be 100% functional, thank goodness! A woman came in, asked if I was Heather Leighton, and when I said I was, she attacked me with a kitchen knife and stabbed me several times." 

"Did you know the woman? Did she say anything?"

"No, I didn't know her – I knew of her – I know her partner."

Bernie's brow furrowed – her eyes must have held an interrogative look, because Heather went on : "Before you ask, this was not a crime of passion – at least not in the sense you might think. My attacker's partner had been coming to see me for some months. She was concerned about the state of her relationship, and she had told me about several instances of violence from her partner. We had been discussing the issue of her leaving, and how she could do it without endangering her life. Apparently, my attacker thought I was the one who'd told her partner to leave her …and she wasn't happy about it."

"So you're a …"

"I'm a psychologist, Ms. Wolfe. Luckily, these things don't happen every day, but they are certainly occupational hazards."

Bernie left Heather's room abruptly, murmuring something about her pager and an emergency.


Chapter 49

Now Bernie understood why Heather had not seemed particularly fazed by her panic attacks, and had known how to react. She also understood her ambiguous reaction to this particular patient… she was afraid of her. Afraid that she would somehow feel compelled to tell Heather things. Things that she'd buried deeply inside, hidden well away under her armour of distance and detachment. Bernie was well aware that avoidance was her coping mechanism, just as self-harming was Chloe Armstrong's. But avoidance had always served her well, and the fear of the unknown, of the emotions that might emerged, raw and unprocessed, if she opened a breach in her wall of silence, was too strong to be ignored. 

Avoidance, however, would not work with Serena. Sooner or later, she would have to face her- they would have to talk. Right now, she had to talk to her about Dr Armstrong. Bernie made her way slowly to Serena's office, knocked and went in. Serena lifted her head from her computer screen and looked at her wonderingly. Bernie noticed she wore more make-up than during their morning encounter – her cheeks were a little too pink, and her lips a little too red. Bernie faltered. Serena's make-up was her war paint – she only exaggerated when she was or would be facing a hard day, or when she wanted to conceal signs of distress. Bernie knew she was responsible for the harsh lipstick and the overstated rouge, and she was about to add another rock to Serena's mental burden. Seeing no way out of it, she outlined Chloe Armstrong's situation as briefly as possible and hurried out of the office before Serena could react. Once she'd closed the door, she walked a few steps and leant against the wall – she felt short of breath, and thought for a moment she would have another panic attack, but she managed to steady her respiration before the crisis happened. Seeing Serena in Henrik's old office had awaken old memories, happy ones that now had a bitter taste …"we are equals after all"…There was nothing much left of that equality by now. 

Meanwhile, Serena sighed deeply and looked at the picture of herself and Bernie which sat on her desk – it was hard to believe they had been so happy and carefree. When Bernie had come into the office, Serena had experienced a brief moment of hope, and her heart had quickened. Maybe she'd got through to Bernie after all. Maybe she'd understood how much she meant to her. Maybe …Maybe nothing! Just one more trouble to add to the already very long list. She tried to focus again on her screen, knowing she would have to deal with the F2, but wanting to postpone the task as much as she could, but she just couldn't get interested in the occupancy rate of the various wards and theatres. Deciding a cup of coffee and fresh air would clear her mind, she went down to the cafeteria. Noticing the heart-shaped cupcakes and the red balloons, she checked her calendar, and realised that the 14th of February was the next day. 

Serena had always rather liked Valentine's Day – she liked the idea of expressing her feelings through Hallmark cards and sayings, bunches of flowers and teddy bears. Choosing the perfect present was often easier than choosing the right words. Could she find the perfect present for Bernie? The present that would make everything right again between them? 

The next morning, she still hadn't found an idea – she supposed she could always book a table in a restaurant, but truth to be told, she was still a little afraid of what people might think… Holby was a small town after all. Anyway, it wouldn't be that special. Maybe Bernie would plan something? Serena rather liked surprises. 

The day brought surprises all right, but not the one she'd been hoping for. She knew that Jason had a new girlfriend, but she still hadn't been able to meet her. She hadn't known that she also had Asperger's syndrome, or that she was pregnant…It took her a while to process that information, and she wished she could talk to Bernie about it, but the way things were …they probably had more pressing issues to discuss. She would have to tell her, though, before Bernie heard about it from someone else. 

As for Bernie, she was looking for a way to make amends. She had to try and save the relationship – she couldn't bear the thought of failing again. She had let Marcus down, let Alex down, she couldn't let Serena down. She might think Serena loved her wrong, but who was she to give lessons? At least Serena had found something in her to love – something she hadn't found herself. When they had been in France together, they'd discovered a little patisserie where one could have coffee and cakes – one of those cakes had been called a "puits d'amour" – a love well – a cylinder of puff pastry filled with crème patissiere. That was exactly how she pictured love – there was a deep reserve of it in every individual, but it was hard to access. When you dipped into it with your bucket, sometimes you brought too much of it up, and it spilt over. Sometimes the bucket was too heavy, and you had to pour some back into the well, bringing only a little to the surface – a little which might be just enough, or too little. And it gave life when you offered it, and death when there was no more. 

She hated the mercantile aspect of Valentine's Day, but it was at least as good a day as any to build bridges and to dip into that well. She took her phone out of her pocket and sent a text "Diner? Tonight? My place?". She sent it before realising she'd omitted to add kisses at the end …not a very good start. For a few seconds, she wondered if she could send some in another text, but that would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? And why did it suddenly matter so much? 

When Serena saw the text, the first thing she noticed was the missing "xx" at the end…But all the same, it was a start. Maybe Bernie was ready to talk, to open up. She sent a brief reply: "Clock off at 8.00; see u then xx." before going back to her pile of admin. She had till then to find a meaningful present and to buy it …


Chapter 50

By the end of the morning, Serena hadn't been able to set aside Jason's news completely. It had taken her totally unaware, and she hated not being prepared. She also couldn't help thinking it would be all so different if it was Elinor's …No! She couldn't go there – she had to stay strong for the sake of the hospital. She wondered what role she would be expected to have. Right now the young couple did not really seem to want her at all. And the girl must have parents… Maybe there wouldn't be a place for her in that child's life – and did she even want one? 

She had to try and focus on something else, so she put her mind to finding the perfect Valentine's day present for Bernie. Finally, she had the ghost of an idea…She just had to nip out for a moment, to a toy shop. When she got back, she stopped by the hospital shop, where she'd spotted red and white usb keys earlier, and purchased one. Then she went on the internet and downloaded what she wanted. Hopefully she'd found the right words.

Now Bernie had sent the text, she wished she hadn't – she wasn't ready. She racked her brains for a gift idea. A bottle of Shiraz? Too lambda. Same went for roses or cupcakes, or jewellery. And then, while she was in theatre, she got a brainwave. Once back in her office, she bought what she needed on line, and stopped by the hospital shop to buy a usb key – they were all red and white, it would have to do…

Luckily, she finished a little earlier than Serena, and she had time to go to the supermarket, where she bought French food, as a reminder of their happy sunny days in Provence. Armed with scallops à la crème, fish soup and macaroons, she detoured by the wine shop for shiraz and champagne and went home to wait for Serena. 

Serena slipped her gift into her handbag and shut off her computer. Then she took a deep breath, put her coat on and walked to her car – now or never …She nipped into the supermarket to buy white wine – she knew Bernie preferred white to red – and champagne, and macaroons – she remembered how many they'd both eaten in the south of France …

When Serena rang the bell, Bernie started. She felt ridiculous – both expectant and terrified, as if were their first date, and could be their last…

They grinned at each other tentatively and exchanged awkward kisses. Once they'd settled on the couch, they both took out small parcels from their pockets and exchanged gifts. At the same time, they discovered a red and white usb key… With Bernie's key was a tiny old-fashioned black Singer sewing machine, doll-house size. While Bernie was fingering the small object in puzzlement, Serena took out her tablet and plugged her key in. When she saw what was on it, she grinned and looked at Bernie. The latter returned the grin, and said: "I know, I know – not my fault if you've got naff taste in music and in movies…but at least now you can bring your favourite movie with you wherever you go." And she showed Serena two movie tickets: "I hope you realise what a sacrifice I'll be making for you – to sit through two hours of this mushy nonsense…" 

"It's not mushy! It's …Classic! You know you secretly like disco too…"

"Me? Never!" Bernie handed Serena the two tickets for "Mamma Mia 2", with a folded A4 sheet and went to fetch her own tablet. When she saw the title of the film on the key, she felt a lump in her throat and understood the gift. Serena silently pushed another sheet of paper towards her. Bernie unfolded it and read silently: 

"How do you solve a problem like Bernie?/ How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? /How do you find a word that means Bernie? /

Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her / Many a thing she ought to understand/ But how do you make her stay/ And listen to all you say / How do you keep a wave upon the sand/ Oh, how do you solve a problem like Bernie? /How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

When I'm with her I'm confused / Out of focus and bemused / And I never know exactly where I am/ Unpredictable as weather / She's a darling! She's a demon! She's a lamb!

She'd outpester any pest / Drive a hornet from its nest / She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl / She is gentle! She is wild! /She's a riddle! She's a child! / She's a headache! She's an angel!/ She's a girl!

She's my girl …"

Then she lifted her eyes towards Serena: "You remembered…"

"Yes …Your favourite movie…I still can't see you as Maria von Trapp, though, but…"

"Thank you – that is …the most thoughtful gift I've ever had. Thank you. ..Will you …Will you read yours? And ..You can listen at the same time – 49 minutes from the beginning of the soundtrack…"

Serena looked at the sheet of paper in her hand: "I don't wanna talk/ About the things we've gone through/ Though it's hurting me/ Now it's history/ I've played all my cards/ And that's what you've done too/ Nothing more to say/ No more ace to play/ 

I was in your arms/ Thinking I belonged there/ I figured it made sense/ Building me a fence/ Building me a home/ Thinking I'd be strong there/ But I was a fool /Playing by the rules/The gods may throw a dice/Their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear/ The winner takes it all/ The loser has to fall/ It's simple and it's plain/ Why should I complain? / Somewhere deep inside/You must know I miss you/But what can I say/ /The judges will decide/ The likes of me abide/ The game is on again/ A lover or a friend /A big thing or a small /The winner takes it all/I don't wanna talk / Cos it makes me feel sad

I apologize / If it makes you feel bad/ Seeing me so tense/ No self-confidence /But you see/ /The game is on again/ A lover or a friend/ A big thing or a small/ The winner takes it all

I want to break the rules – I want US to take it all…"

When she finished reading, Serena had tears in her eyes. She held her arms towards Bernie, and Bernie sank into them. This was not a night for talking – this was a night for love and tenderness. Anything else could wait till morning.


Chapter 51

When Bernie arrived at the hospital the next morning, she had before her a full day in theatre, as well as a meeting with Chloe Armstrong. She still hadn't talked to Serena about …about anything, really, and she would also have to see Heather to sign her discharge papers if all was well. 

She had just finished her second surgery and was having a quick cup of much needed coffee with biscuits in her office when Chloe Armstrong knocked at the door. The first thing Bernie noticed were her red-rimmed eyes and her defeated appearance.

"Dr Armstrong – come in, please. Sit down. How are you feeling this morning?" 

"I'm fine, thank you." The young doctor's voice utterly belied her words. It held a slightly belligerent undertone which surprised Bernie. 

"Are you sure? I need another pair of hand for a splenectomy in two hours – care to assist me?"

The younger woman hesitated and finally answered shortly: "That would have been nice, but I can't."

Bernie looked at her inquiringly: "Can't?"

"Ms Campbell called me in this morning. She said you'd been to see her…She suspended me."

Bernie breathed in audibly: "She suspended you? For how long?"

"She said – she said I had to see a therapist for at least ten sessions, and that after that I would be evaluated by the occupational health department, to see if – if I could come back to work."

"I see …" Bernie was furious firstly with herself, and secondly with Serena. Or maybe mostly with Serena. She understood now why the young doctor sounded bitter. After all, if she hadn't said anything to Serena, nothing would have happened. But she'd wanted to follow protocol, to follow the new rules – and in doing so, she'd betrayed Chloe. She wondered whether she should apologise. But before she could say anything, the young doctor went on angrily.

"Do you? Do you really see? I don't think you do, actually- I've worked my ass off to be here! I've got students' loans till I'm a billion years old, and I've lost my boyfriend. And now because of you, I can't even work and I have to see a bloody shrink! So no, I don't think you DO see!" 

Bernie went white at the outburst and took a deep breath, fearing a panic attack on the spot. Since the beginning of her symptoms, she didn't deal with aggression very well. She had never been comfortable with conflictual situations, but it had gotten worse, specially because her brain didn't seem to control her body anymore, and she couldn't predict how the latter would react. Then she answered sharply: "Dr Armstrong – please get a hold of yourself and remember who you're talking to." 

Chloe Armstrong lowered her eyes, and all the fight seemed to leave her. Bernie went on more gently: "Ranting and raving is hardly the best way to convince me you're fit to work, is it?" 

The younger woman chewed on her lower lip: "I'm sorry, Ms Wolfe – I shouldn't have said that – I was just …"

"Apology accepted. And I'm sorry too – you know I had to report you, but I never thought you would be suspended. Otherwise, I would …Well, I apologise."

Chloe gave her a rueful grin: "No, I don't suppose you did, or you wouldn't have asked if I was ready to scrub in for this afternoon. But I really am sorry for what I said – I shouldn't take it out on you."

"Probably not – it's never a good idea to piss off your seniors– especially because as a doctor, I'm no stranger to long hours and students' debt…" Bernie nearly added: "And it's not as if my marriage has been a walk in the park either." but she stopped herself just in time. She was supposed to help the younger doctor, not to dump on her. Finding herself devoid of motivational ideas, she raked her brain, and finally suggested to Chloe that as she had a few days to herself, she might like to help at the homeless shelter where Morven and Cameron had volunteered. She also told her that she would see what she could do and steeled herself to go and see Serena. When they parted, Chloe looked a little less down despondent than at the beginning of their talk, and Bernie felt a little better, but she didn't relish the idea of another confrontation with Serena.

However, before that, she had to check on Heather. Bernie found her patient lying on her bed, fully dressed and apparently waiting to be discharged. Despite not wanting to be drawn into conversation, she had to be at least civil: "You're looking much better, Heather. Is there someone we can call for you? Partner, friend, family member maybe, who could go home with you?"

"Thank you, Ms Wolfe – it's very kind of you to worry about me. I'll do just fine on my own, dear."

Bernie frowned – the woman had been seriously ill, and she would be very tired for several days. But there was as always a shortage of beds, and she couldn't stay any longer. "Are you sure? Will you be able to manage alone at home?" 

"Of course! I'm not an invalid" replied Heather, a touch of asperity in her voice.

"Well…Actually, that's debatable…" Bernie really didn't want to butt heads with Heather. She recognised in her the fiercely independent streak she suffered from herself, and as she had had no success curbing her own stubbornness and excessive self-sufficiency, she wasn't best placed to pontificate. However, she found it sad that Heather had no one to take care of her, no one to wait for her at home. But AAU had no cures for loneliness – they patched up patients as best as they could and sent them on their way. Their family circumstances were really none of her business. So she signed the necessary papers and wished Heather a good full recovery. She was leaving the room when the woman called her back:

"Ms Wolfe?" 

The rules of civility forced Bernie to turn back and listen to what Heather wanted to say – Heather's magnetic eyes and personality also compelled her to…

"Ms Wolfe – I know you don't want my help – or any help. But please listen to me – you cannot deal with whatever is ailing you alone – nobody could. By delaying seeking help, not only you're making yourself suffer needlessly, but you're making the problem worse. You wouldn't expect someone to operate on himself, would you? This is the same – except that mental pain is far more intense and far more deeply-rooted than physical pain."

Bernie looked at Heather silently –Heather's eyes bore into Bernie's before the latter turned away – she didn't answer, because after all, there was nothing to say. She was a hypocrite, through and through, and a coward to boost. After Elinor's death, she'd told Serena she needed to see a professional. She'd referred Chloe Armstrong to a psychiatrist. And she was unable to take her own advice.


Chapter 52

It wasn't until the end of the afternoon that Bernie found time to go and see Serena. She'd performed two elective surgeries and an emergency appendectomy in the meantime. And even in theatre, Heather's words kept running round her head…

She found Serena in her office, apparently riveted by her computer screen. When Serena saw Bernie enter, she lifted her head and smiled – a smile which soon faded when she took in the expression on Bernie's face.

"What now?" 

Bernie stared at her stonily: "You suspended Chloe Armstrong."

"I did – and?" 

"And I told you to go easy on her! I cannot believe you suspended her. She needs help, not a sanction." 

"This is not a sanction- I just think that right now she is not able to give the best possible care to the patients. You of all people should understand that." As soon as she'd said the words, Serena regretted them. Of course Bernie would take that as a personal attack. She didn't know why Bernie had left the military hospital, but she strongly suspected something had happened, and as CEO, she was responsible for her staff's level of care. She – or rather Holby- couldn't afford a malpractice lawsuit. If Bernie went on doing excessive overtime, or if she had a panic attack in surgery …What had happened to Ric should be a cautionary tale. 

"Oh …so that's it? You can't suspend me, so you suspended her instead? Because you've always been Little Miss Perfect..."

"What's that supposed to mean, exactly?"

"Come on, Serena – don't make me spell it out for you …"

By then Serena was white with anger – she knew all too well what Bernie was referring to, and she couldn't believe how unfair her partner was: "Are we playing "who suffered the most"? Yes, you've been in war zones– yes, you've had an abusive father – yes, your daughter doesn't want to see you. But do I need to remind you that my only daughter DIED?!"

As Bernie remained silent, Serena went on: "So yes, maybe I drank too much, and maybe I was a cow to Jasmine Barrow, but you don't have exclusive rights on grief. And you certainly don't have the right to lecture me, nor to make me feel guilty!"

She got up and went out of the office, slamming the door behind her. She just made it to the toilet before she burst into tears. Knowing she had – even unintentionally – started the argument didn't make her feel any better. They had had such a good time the night before, and now they were at each other's throats again. Not for the first time, she wished she'd never come back to Holby. Or that she had said no to Henrik. Her relationship with Bernie had never been easy, but they both seemed to throw so many spanners in the works that it was a miracle they were still together. Serena sighed – was this really what love was? Taking the spanners and not throwing them back? 

Bernie remained rooted to the spot. The argument had escalated so quickly that she'd been taken totally unawares. She had thrown the first stone, but she hadn't been prepared for the backlash. When the door slammed behind Serena, she sank down on the sofa and put her head in her hands, trying to stop the frantic pounding in her temples. Why did they always end up causing each other so much pain? She had always thought sticks and stones would never hurt as much as words, and the cruellest words were usually spoken by those she loved the most. It took intelligence and percipience to find the chink in the armour, to send the poisoned darts at the most painful place. But it also took intimacy and trust, and maybe love, to reach the deepest fears, the deepest sorrows of the victim.

Serena always hit at the sorest spots. And so had she when she'd alluded to Elinor's death. But there were so many things she hadn't told Serena yet…Serena knew nothing of what had happened at Queen Elisabeth's Hospital. Nor of the other thing …the one thing she would never be able to tell anyone about. And yet she was already able to wound her so much… Bernie remembered something she'd studied at school, in French class – one of Racine's heroine exclaiming: "I've loved him too much not to hate". Because love and hate were after all, so very similar. Once you gave your heart to someone, there was no middle ground anymore – no lukewarm feelings. And this was what Bernie feared the most - if she finally confided in someone, let herself trust someone utterly, wholeheartedly, then that someone would have all the weapons in hand, all the means to inflict blows she would not able to survive. 

She felt the now familiar sensation of her lungs constricting, of her heart pounding wildly, of her body getting heavier and her head lighter. The more she fought against it the more it engulfed her, but she couldn't help wanting to resist, wanting to keep control. Nausea rose, and she bolted to the toilets, nearly knocking down Serena in the process. Bernie bent over the basin and retched. The two chocolate digestive from the morning were a distant memory and her stomach only produced a thin trickle of acid bile, but the spasms went on and on, racking her whole body, ripping it apart and tearing at her heart. She wanted to push away the hand that held her hair back and handed her a tissue, but she didn't have the strength. She finally straightened up, gargled with clean water and wiped her mouth. 

Only then did she turn and look at Serena. As she struggled to find her words, apologies and resentment fighting in her acid-burnt throat, Serena's pager went off. For a second Serena hesitated and habit won – she looked at the screen, swore under her breath and strode hurriedly out of the toilets. Bernie's shoulders sagged – once more things had been left unsaid.

Bernie wondered if she should try to go home for the night, despite the migraine hammering at her head. She contemplated the thought of staying in one of the on-call rooms instead, but the idea of fresh clothes and her own bed won. She was about halfway home when her phone beeped. She tried to glance at the screen at the red light, but her overtired brain couldn't handle the two simultaneous actions, and her foot left the brake pedal for a second – just long enough for her car to ram into the car in front. She swore and pulled the handbrake. Luckily, neither of the car was damaged, but having to apologise to an irate driver was just the perfect ending to her already horrendous day…


Chapter 53

Serena made a bee-line for the curtained-off bed in AAU. Fletcher was waiting for her, hovering over his daughter. He explained Evie had collapsed at school during a PE lesson. She had only been unconscious for a few seconds, apparently, but since she'd been brought to Holby she'd refused to talk to him. Serena motioned for him to leave her alone with Evie and sat down on the edge of the bed. The teenager watched her warily, with a sullen expression. Serena sighed inwardly. She seemed to be surrounded by tight-lipped stubborn women… Hopefully, though, with a little coercion, Evie could be made to talk….

"So …what's up with you, young lady?"

Evie remained silent. 

"Right … Well, let's order some bloods, then." Serena signalled to one of the nurses. Evie grimaced – like all teenagers and most adults, she had a healthy fear of needles. 

"You don't have to do that! I'm fine!"

"Aah – she talks! I'm afraid I have to do that – it's my job. We have to make sure nothing's wrong with you."

"I tell you I'm fine – I just fainted for like, a second, and they brought me here."

"No one faints for no reason – we have to get to the bottom of this." Although her expression was stern, Serena was worried. Evie looked even more emaciated than she had the month before, and although the ward was quite warm, she was shivering. 

"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" 

"I don't eat breakfast – I'm not hungry when I wake up."

Serena gave her a dubious look: "And at lunch?" 

"Dunno – don't remember."

"You can't remember what you ate six hours ago?" 

Evie relapsed into mutism. Serena frowned. The teenager looked as if she hadn't eaten in a month. She took her blood pressure and checked the heart monitor – both pressure and pulse were low. 

"Is there something or someone bothering you ?"

Still no answer. For a minute, Serena thought of changing tactics and switching from good cop to bad cop, but from her experience with Elinor, she knew it was unlikely to work. She could see Fletcher hovering nearby, so she told Evie she would be back later and went to update her father. He wasn't particularly reassured to hear Serena's opinion – of course he was relieved she didn't think it was meningitis or a neurological problem, but what she suspected – anorexia – wasn't a very favourable perspective either. 

Serena already had too much on her plate, and this was a most unwelcome addition to her current list of troubles – list which was of course headed by Bernie's attitude. And then Ric's situation, Jason and Greta's announcement, Ollie's condition, Chloe Armstrong's burn-out … it was endless! She tried to find Bernie, to see if she could talk some sense into her, but one of the nurses told her she'd already left. For a moment, she thought about going to Bernie's, but she decided against it. Better let her sleep on it. 

To say that Bernie did not sleep well would be an understatement. For months now she'd been plagued by nightmares, some more vivid than others. Sometimes she was back in Afghanistan, trying to save RPG or IED victims that in her dreams appeared as bloody parts of headless humans. Sometimes she was back in her childhood, in those dark enclosed spaces her father locked her in. Sometimes she was in a maze, chased by ghostly presences, sometimes she fell down endless stairs, sometimes she drowned in black, heavy water. And regularly, she relived that moment, in Iraq, when…The one thing she had told no one about, or no civilian anyway. 

The only way for her to escape the nightmares was to take sleeping pills, but she hated the way they made her feel in the morning, as if she had to wade through a vat of molasses just to take a step. And so she usually avoided them, and felt terrible in the morning, because she hadn't slept properly – a lose-lose situation. For a few days, she did not see Serena – she did not actively avoid her, but Serena had managerial issues to deal with and was off-site. Chloe Armstrong was still suspended, but Bernie couldn't see a way to change the status quo. 

One day, as Bernie was just scrubbing out after a particularly delicate abdominal surgery, one of the nurses told her someone was waiting for her in her office. Time and time again she'd told the new nurses not to let unknown people in there, and to ask their name, but they wouldn't seem to remember. She was thus not in the best of mood when she arrived in her office. Her mood did not lighten a lot when she set eyes on the person waiting for her, but her eyebrows shot up: "Morven! What are you doing here? Is Cam with you?"

"Cam is still in Jamaica, Ms Wolfe – he's decided to stay a little longer. But I …I had enough – I wanted to come home."

"I see – is it so bad there?"

"It's lovely, actually – or …I mean, the country is lovely, the health service is …Challenging – we were not in one of the big cities and the facilities did not quite compare to what we have in England. People have to queue for hours, and the drugs … And you wouldn't believe the mosquitoes!" 

Bernie could see Morven was stalling, and she braced herself for the big news – she tried to reassure herself that it couldn't be that something had happened to Cameron, because she would have been warned – by Marcus, at least. She really couldn't see why Morven was looking so ill at ease. True, they had not parted on the best of terms, but surely Morven had got over it by now? Distractedly, she noticed Morven had put on a little weight. It wasn't until the young woman stood up and put a hand in the small of her back with a little grimace that Bernie got a good look at her and understood: "Morven! Are you – are you pregnant?"

Morven chewed on her bottom lip and nodded. Bernie had known that becoming a grand-mother was of course a possibility, but she hadn't envisaged it quite so soon. She'd hoped Cameron would have finished medical school before he became a father, and she thought it was a little sudden – after all, Morven and Cam hadn't been reunited that long. Moreover, it didn't make sense – she could understand why Morven would prefer to be in England for her pregnancy, but why had Cameron stayed behind? 

Bernie fashioned a smile on her face: "Congratulations! When are you due?" 

Morven hesitated: "Around the middle of July." 

Bernie really wanted to probe further, but right then a nurse popped her head in the door to say she was wanted urgently for an RTA victim, and she jumped up. She figured she would see Morven again soon anyway. And she really needed a conversation with Cam too.


Chapter 54

Serena tried to focus on the financial report she was reading, but her attention kept wandering. She would rather be up and pacing, but she wasn't alone in the waiting room, and she couldn't possibly indulge. The other women were acting sensibly, and as a surgeon herself, she should be doing the same. Only …it didn't work like that – when you knew what went on behind the curtains, it was even more stressful. While her brain was telling her that it was just a normal routine check-up, her guts were not convinced. As discreetly as possible, she got up for the second time in half an hour and went to the toilets. Fear always had an adverse effect on her bladder. She wished she had someone with her to hold her hand, metaphorically speaking of course. And not any someone – she wished Bernie was there. Even though she was a mess at the moment, Serena had seen time and time again how she could Bernie's mere presence in a room could be comforting, and how she could infuse people with calm with her air of confidence…

Only problem was …Serena had not told her about that check-up. The one-year check-up. The one where the oncologist would tell her everything was all right, that the cancer had not returned. She had already had the MRI scan, but no amount of pressure on the radiologist had convinced him to show her the result, and now she was waiting for the mammogram, followed by the consultant appointment. Just a routine check…there was no reason why the cancer should have returned. Only…it had happened once. 

She had tried to follow the guidelines as much as possible, but she knew that she'd slipped up quite often. She was drinking less, and she tried to eat more healthily – although with her schedule and the hospital cafeteria offerings, this had proven quite challenging. When a Danish pastry or a chocolate slice beckoned after a six-hour surgery, it was impossible not to succumb. And although she smoked less than Bernie, she had not been able to give up cigarettes completely. As for changes in her lifestyle…exercising more, relaxing more – this was not compatible with her position. She had stopped dying her hair, though, and took calcium and some herbal supplements to counteract the effect of the hormone therapy. She had been due for a check-up a lot earlier than this – only she'd been very busy then, and she had favoured an ostrich-like approach…She had ignored several calls from the oncologist's secretary and she had waited. Even though her arm hurt. And looked swollen. Not much, but…

The consultant was late, and the more she waited, the more scared she was. She thought of calling Bernie, just to hear her voice, but she would likely be in surgery. Or if she answered, she might not in the best of moods, considering how they'd parted a few days before. Serena felt so stupid – she ranted and raved about Bernie's exaggerated independence, and her unwillingness to be helped and to lean on others, but her she was, behaving exactly like her. Actually, Bernie was probably part of the reason she had not honoured her previous appointments. Most of the time, Bernie infuriated her by not taking enough care of herself, and by defying the rules of the hospital, but mostly she made Serena nearly mad with worry. It was much easier to be worried about someone else's health than about one's own, and Serena could see there was something seriously wrong with Bernie. 

God! Couldn't that bloody oncologist be on time? Making patients wait was a power game she knew well – many of her fellow consultants used it often enough, to convince themselves of their own importance, but it was not a game she'd ever played. Not in her work ethics. Having just taken the Lord's name in vain, she wondered if she could also send him a quick prayer, even though she and Him were not in the best of terms… It couldn't hurt …

Finally, the door opened and the consultant beckoned her in. Immediately, Serena's eyes focused on the scans aligned on the desk. She took a deep breath. Luckily, even though the oncologist liked to make patients linger in the waiting room, once they were inside, he went straight to the point. Not in the most gentle or tactful way, but Serena did not mind too much, as he had mostly good news to give her – one year after her surgery, the cancer had not returned. The swelling was not a recurrence. That had been her greatest fear – she couldn't' have gone through it all over again. However, he also told her bluntly that she'd been a fool to ignore the swelling in her arm, because it was nearly stage 2 lymphedema, and therefore there it might not be totally reversible. There were slight traces of fibrosis, and those would probably not clear. He then outlined the various treatment possibilities and urged her to take her health seriously…

Serena knew he was right – if she waited any longer to take care of the lymphedema, her arm might get even sorer and more swollen, and it would handicap her in theatre. In a car, she exhaled deeply, as if she'd been holding her breath all that time. Then she lit a cigarette and took a long drag. She thought of the first time she'd met Bernie, in the car park. What had she said about her fag? A symbol of freedom…It really was – freedom from cancer – at least for now. She could focus on something else – she had to. She had not told the oncologist that apart from her arm, she was not feeling well. Episodes of brain fog, hot flushes, terrible joint pain and other symptoms had plagued her since the end of the radiotherapy. She knew those were common side effects of the hormonotherapy, and she didn't want to complain. Moreover, she'd seen how some of her male colleagues could react to "women's problems", and she didn't feel comfortable talking about intimate issues with her oncologist. It wasn't exactly as if her partner made her feel wanted at the moment, either…But she ought to begin mending fences with Bernie. She still hadn't told her about Jason's girlfriend and the baby… 

As luck would have it, the first person Serena saw once she got out of the car in the hospital's car park was Bernie, pacing, her phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The weather had gone from freezing to almost balmy, and other people were sitting on the benches, turning their faces towards the March sun, but Bernie was puffing nervously on her fag, eyes focused on the screen.


Chapter 55

Serena walked towards Bernie and put a hand on her shoulder, which made Bernie jump and almost drop her phone.

"Serena! You startled me!"

"Sorry – didn't mean to…"

Serena could see Bernie had her "don't talk to me" face on, but she decided to ignore it: "So …Do you …I mean have you heard about Jason?"

Bernie frowned, but she lifted her face from her phone screen and looked at Serena interrogatively. Serena went on: "So you haven't heard – I thought you might …Well, Jason's having a baby…" 

Bernie looking at her as if she'd turned into a Zygon made Serena realise what she'd said: "Right – that came out wrong. Greta – Jason's new girlfriend – or at least that I didn't know about – is pregnant."

"Oh …Ok, good."

"Oh, ok, good ??! That's all you have to say? And could you stop playing with your phone for just one second?"

"What do you want me to say? Congratulations! You must be thrilled – nothing like a new baby in the family."

It was Serena's turn to look at Bernie as if she'd become a big ugly orange reptile: "You're joking, right? Or you absolutely don't care."

With a sigh, Bernie thrusted her phone in her pocket and focused on Serena: "Honestly, I don't know what you want me to say – I don't know anything about this Greta either, but Jason is a great kid, and I'm sure he'll be very good with the baby. And they'll have you to help them. So what's the problem? Believe me, things could be worse!"

"Oh – things could be worse – as in, Greta is autistic too, and she doesn't seem to like me very much, and they're both so obsessed with risks and illnesses that they're calling me ten times a day, and …oh, forget it! You're not interested. Go back to your phone." And Serena started to walk away. 

Bernie stared at her retreating back and followed her a few seconds later, managing to catch up with Serena just before she went into the hospital. She tugged on her sleeve and drew her away from the entrance. 

"Look, Serena – I'm sorry. I wasn't listening properly. But for all it's worth, I really thing Jason can be a good father. I know it must be difficult for you though."

"You have no idea…"

"Well, actually, I have. I've been trying to get in touch with Cameron all day – Morven is back, and she's pregnant."

"My turn to say congratulations, then…"

Bernie exhaled loudly: "Thanks, I guess. Now I just have to understand why my son chose to remain thousands miles away while his girlfriend is having his baby."

Before Serena could answer, a nurse came to call Bernie in for an emergency arrival. As she hurried towards AAU, she reflected that if she wanted to patch things up with Serena, she might have to make an appointment with her – otherwise they would never manage a full conversation without being interrupted. 

The emergency arrival was a man in anaphylactic shock- after further probing, the cause of the shock revealed itself as quite unexpected – he was a lab technician at the nearby university, and he'd been bitten by a mouse …The moral of the story was, if you're allergic to mouse's spit, don't work without gloves…And that small mouse had once again ruined an opportunity for real conversation between Serena and Bernie. 

The next few days were manic, and they had no chance to talk again. Serena had asked Evie to come and see her after her release from Holby, but the teenager had other ideas, and she hadn't gotten in touch. Serena considered going through Fletch, but decided against it. She knew he could be a little overbearing at times, and she didn't want to make the situation worse. So she tried to keep her worries to herself for the time being. Anyway, she had plenty to occupy her mind, between the running of the hospital and Jason taking her for his own private obstetrician…

As for Bernie, she still hadn't managed to get in touch with Cameron, and as Morven was working in another ward, she hadn't seen her again either. She had a hard time adjusting to the fact that she was going to be a grandmother in a few months' time. The part of her which refused to settle down, refused to be tied to someone or somewhere strongly opposed that idea. And there was always that niggling voice, in a corner of her brain, that told her that she didn't deserve it, that she wasn't good enough to have grand-children, that they might inherit her insecurities and fears. And what if what had happened to Charlotte happened to Morven? The idea didn't bear thinking about. 

Chloe Armstrong was back at work – apparently they were too short-staffed to allow her to stay away for too long – but Bernie could see she wasn't coping very well. In the operating theatre, the young doctor was quick and efficient, but she usually disappeared right after scrub out and Bernie had seen her in the loo shaking and dabbing at her red eyes. She had asked if Chloe was still seeing a therapist, but Chloe had just nodded and Bernie had not wanted to probe further. She would have let the matter go, but for one incident. They'd just performed a long and demanding Whipple surgery and were scrubbing out together. After several hours in theatre, the head coverings and the gloves became uncomfortable, as they stuck to the skin and enclosed the clamminess in a plastic sheath. They were the first things surgeons usually whipped out after an operation. Chloe lingered, and Bernie, washing her hands, remarked teasingly: "You might want to take these off before they become permanently attached to you…not exactly great every day wear…" Under Bernie's scrutiny, Chloe had no other option than to begin taking off the gloves. She did that gingerly, grimacing as she peeled them off, revealing open bleeding wounds on her hands and wrists. Some of the cuts had slashed her wrists diagonally, leaving a red raw trail, and others, on the palm of her hands had obviously been inflicted with a blade and scratched open with nails. The gloves on them must have been unbearable. Bernie's eyes widened and darkened: "Clean those up. I'll see you in my office in fifteen minutes." 

As Chloe Armstrong remained frozen, Bernie added sharply: "Now, Dr Armstrong!" and she left the scrub room. She strode into her office, slammed the door behind her, sank down into her chair, closed her eyes and tried to breathe deeply. Not again! She wasn't as naïve as to think that all of the young doctor's issues would have been solved by a few therapy séances, but she'd hoped that the self-harm, at least, was under control. When Chloe knocked at the door a few minutes later, Bernie was still trying to calm herself down. She stood up and faced the younger woman, her eyes boring into hers: "Well? Have you got anything to say for yourself?"

Chloe didn't answer, so Bernie went on: "Do you realize how irresponsible that is? What if there had been a tear in the gloves? Have you heard of Aids?" Bernie's anger was mounting. She had defended the F2 against Serena, had argued for her ability to work, and now this? What she felt was a sense of …disappointment? No, more of betrayal, as illogical as it might seem. And seeing the young doctor flinching under her tongue-lashing, but not trying to defend herself, seeing her resigned attitude enraged Bernie even further. Something in her snapped, and she grabbed the younger woman by the shoulders and shook her violently before pushing her into a chair. Then, coming to her senses, she fled out of her office and out of the hospital, finally coming to a stop in the peace garden where she sat down heavily on a bench. 

Now she'd done it – the unforgivable. The younger woman would probably, eventually, forgive and maybe even forget, but Bernie would never forgive herself – assaulting a colleague – a subordinate. Attacking anyone, for that matter – she had never done anything like that before. Not in all her years in the army – she had never succumbed to her emotions, never let her anger get the better of her. Even that one time…the one time she would never forget …it hadn't been anger. She buried her head into her hands, pressing on her eyelids as if she could erase the images of the last hour.


Chapter 56

Bernie must have remained outside for some time, because when she heard footsteps, the sun was already setting and the temperature had gone down. She shivered violently, from tension and exhaustion as much as from cold. She raised her eyes to look at the newcomer. Serena was watching her with an indecipherable expression. Bernie looked down, preparing herself for the confrontation. Serena sat down beside her on the bench, and her fingers sought Bernie's. Bernie glanced at her and lowered her eyes again – she hated what she saw in Serena's – concern, pity, and a trace of anger. They remained there silently for several minutes, hands entwined, just staring in the distance. Eventually, Serena spoke up: "Donna came to fetch me – she was…Worried – you've missed two electives this afternoon."

Bernie answered wearily: "That's all she told you?" 

Serena hesitated: "She said she'd seen you leave the ward, and that you looked upset."

Bernie sighed: "Upset – yes, that's one way of describing it."

Serena squeezed Bernie's fingers: "Would you like to tell me what happened?"

"Not really – but I have to – you might as well hear it from me." When she'd finished telling Serena about the events of the afternoon, Bernie sighed again, and added: "I'll resign, if it makes things easier for you – that way, you won't have to fire me. Save you a lot of paperwork." Instead of answering, Serena pulled Bernie in her arms: "I'm so sorry, love – so sorry this happened." Bernie clung to her and they embraced. Then Bernie pulled out: "You've got nothing to be sorry for – I brought it all unto myself. You'll have my resignation letter tomorrow."

Serena stared at her incredulously: "You don't really think I'm going to let you resign, do you? You know we're kind of short-staffed at the moment…"

Bernie bit her lip: "Serena…I shook her – I could have hurt her, for goodness' sake! I'm not safe!" 

"I'll be the judge of that – remember, I've been through that myself – and technically speaking, I'm your boss, so I'm the one taking the decisions."

"Serena – listen to me! If Chloe Armstrong submits a complaint against me, you won't have any choice! And she has every reason to." 

"Not if I have anything to do with it – let me take care of it. But – Bernie, please …please – you know you need help."

"Yes – I know. I thought I could do it – I thought I could get better on my own. But it's getting worse – the nightmares, the flashbacks, the anger …Oh God!" Bernie buried her head in her hands again: "I could really have hurt her – I could have hit her …I could have…"

"No, you couldn't have – it was not you. It was your anger speaking, it wasn't you."

Bernie looked at Serena straight in the eyes: "Of course it was me – and you have no idea what I can or cannot do. I could have hurt her."

"Let me take you home, darling – you're exhausted."

"I…I need to be on my own tonight." Reading the expression on Serena's face, Bernie added: "I promise I won't harm myself – I just need to be alone. Please?"

"All right. I'll call you tomorrow morning – do you want to take the day off?" 

Bernie smiled at her wryly: "If you're giving me a choice …no, I don't. I'll behave, I swear."

"I know you will."

Bernie didn't even bother to go to bed – she just sat down on the couch, staring unseeingly at the television. She had no idea what was on, but it was a presence, something that would keep sleep away. She couldn't have that nightmare again – not in the state she was already in – she couldn't have borne it. During the night, she went online and looked for a phone number. The next morning, she called from Holby's parking lot: "Mrs Gibson? Bernie Wolfe. You were right. Can we make an appointment?" Then she walked into the hospital, trying to muster up the courage to face her work day. Before she went to scrub in for her first surgery, her phone rang. Serena told her she had summoned Chloe Armstrong at 10.00, and asked her to call in after her surgery. 

When Bernie walked into Serena's office at lunchtime, she realised she was holding her breath – although she was ready to keep her word and resign if she had to, she was aware that if she did, she would lose everything. At first she couldn't read Serena's face, and that didn't reassure her. 

"Well ?"

The touch of belligerence in Bernie's voice didn't escape Serena, but she couldn't help teasing a little: "Well what?" She stopped immediately, however, when she saw her partner's face and the haunted look that had become a permanent expression on it lately. "I'm sorry, darling. It's going to be all right – Dr Armstrong has no intention of making a complaint – she's worried about you, actually, but she certainly doesn't want to make trouble for you." 

Bernie let out a sigh of relief: "Okay – good …And …you're prepared to let it go as well?" Serena nodded: "Yes, but …on the condition that …"

"Yeah, yeah, I know – that I get help. I phoned this morning and I have an appointment next Friday."

"Good! Right …let's get back to business then." 

Bernie went behind the desk to give Serena a quick hug and left the office. She had to find Chloe Armstrong – she wasn't looking forward to it, but it had to be done. She spotted the young doctor at a patient's bedside, and decided to wait until she'd finished – if she interrupted her, it would probably be even more awkward for them both. Anyway, she could do with a few more minutes to prepare what she wanted to say. When Chloe came back to the central desk, Bernie asked her if she could step into her office for a minute. The young doctor blanched, and Bernie flinched at her reaction. However, she led the way into the office and closed the door behind them. 

Bernie leant against the filing cabinet, finding herself in need of support. She sought the younger woman's eyes, but Chloe was looking everywhere but at her. Damn! She'd never been very good with admitting she was wrong, and although she should be used to apologising by now – after all, she seemed to get a lot of things wrong lately – well, it didn't get any easier. She began hesitantly: "Dr Armstrong – I understand from Ms Campbell that you want what has happened to be forgotten. However, I have to tell you how sorry I am for my behaviour towards you. What I did was inexcusable, and I hope in time you'll forgive me."

Chloe mumbled something which sounded like: "You were probably tired…"

"We're all tired, Dr Armstrong – I am, you are – there is never any good reason for physical violence. I …for one moment I lost control of myself, and I thoroughly regret it. I could really have hurt you, and…I owed you an apology." Once again, Bernie left the office hurriedly, overcome by shame. She couldn't await Chloe's response. Admitting she had let her emotions take over was terribly painful. That night, the nightmare came again – the details varied, but the main event was always the same one – the one she would never be able to forget, not as long as she lived. The one she'd thought she would never be able to live with, actually. That day was engraved in her memory, in her conscience, and apparently even in her subconscious. In the early morning hours, when she'd given up trying to go back to sleep after having been woken up by the sound of the gun, drenched in sweat, she thought about her coming therapy appointment. She had very low expectations…. But if it didn't help, she might not be able to go on.


Chapter 57

After several unsuccessful tries to reach Cameron, Bernie finally decided to send him an email. In a few short lines, she expressed her disappointment at his behaviour – he was going to be a father, and he had chosen to be on another continent. For a while, when he'd taken up medicine again, she had been proud of her son, but once again she felt like he was letting her down. She had not seen Morven again, but she was getting used to the idea of becoming a grand-mother. Maybe that way she would get another chance …She wondered what Jason's baby would do to Serena – would she be able to find the right distance? 

Finally, on Friday morning, she found herself in the therapist's waiting-room. When the office door opened, Bernie stood up and realised her hands were shaking. She tried to tell herself that this wouldn't be like the previous times, that she had chosen to be there, but the thought offered slight comfort. She managed a smile in answer to the woman's welcoming one and stepped into the consulting room. 

"I'm very pleased to see you, Ms Wolfe. This is – unexpected."

Bernie bit her lip: "Yes …I didn't think I would …but you were right. I need help." 

"That's what I'm here for. Would you like to tell me a little about yourself? I don't really know much – apart from the fact that you're a consultant surgeon, and a terrific one …"

Bernie gave a wry smile: "Thank you – I try to do a good job…." Although she had made the appointment and had come of her own free will, Bernie just couldn't get more words out. Actually, she had no idea where to begin. Was she supposed to tell the therapist about her childhood? Would that help her solve her current predicament? Silence had always been her shield – when she'd become mute after her mother's death, it had not been a choice – she had really found herself unable to speak. However, there had been something comforting in silence – especially since after a while, people had stopped asking her questions and had let her alone. Silence was a good hiding place. 

After a few minutes, the therapist tried to help her: "What would you like to talk about? Has anything special happened?"

"Special? You mean apart from the fact that I can't sleep, I'm having flashbacks, my son is behaving totally irresponsibly and…" Bernie stopped, faltered, and went on: "Yes, something happened, Mrs Gibson."

"You can still call me Heather."

"Right." Bernie took a deep breath and told Heather all about the incident with Chloe Armstrong. When she'd finished, she waited for the older woman's reaction. As the therapist didn't say anything, Bernie felt compelled to look into her eyes. She couldn't decipher the expression in them, but silence now sat uncomfortably between them. When she couldn't stand it anymore, Bernie added almost aggressively: "Well??"

"This must have been difficult for you…"

Bernie smiled bitterly: "For me? For her, you mean – I wanted to hurt her – I could have hurt her."

"But you didn't, really – and I really meant "for you" – first because you're here, not this young doctor, and secondly because it must have been terrifying for you to lose control."

Bernie lowered her eyes. Heather was right – she hadn't been able to stop herself, just like in her nightmares where she was powerless to act. She must have remained silent for some time, because Heather had to prod her gently: "Ms Wolfe? Are you all right?"

"Yes … sorry, I …" No one had ever encouraged her to talk about her emotions or her feelings. 

"Thank you for having shared that with me. What else would you like to talk about today?" Bernie took a few seconds to think – would she be able to tell Heather? Would the woman understand? Maybe …she had to try – but not today.

"I need to tell you about the nightmares – and the panic attacks – well, you know about those already, but …"

"We'll work on that together – I'm glad you decided to reach out, Ms Wolfe."

"Bernie, please."

"Bernie. Shall we make another appointment then?"

"Yes …please."

As Bernie was standing down to leave, she turned towards the therapist and added softly: "Thank you for listening."

During the drive back to the hospital, with another appointment for the next week, she thought that it could have been worse. But then, they'd just skimmed the surface, really. The hardest part was yet to come. 

That night, the nightmares were worse than ever. It was almost a relief when her phone rang at 6.30 am, dragging her out of a bloodied, fear-filled sleep. She was needed at the hospital for an emergency surgery. At least in theatre, she would be in control. 

For a few weeks, she saw Heather regularly. She saw Serena, too, they had dinner together, they shared coffee breaks, they even went for a walk in the local park, and they avoided talking about their relationship or their issues. Bernie would have liked to talk to Serena about Cameron, who still hadn't got back to her, but she was too afraid of being judged. She didn't want to hear that her son was an adult and therefore free to choose the life he wanted. She didn't want Serena to throw in her face the fact that as a mother, Bernie had been an absent one, and that it was the pot calling the kettle black. More than not wanting to hear, she didn't want to risk answering back, because she had already used Serena's way of dealing with Elinor in their arguments, and it had never gone well. For the time being, she needed her relationship to be peaceful, because therapy used all her energy. 

Heather had suggested a consultation with a psychiatrist, as she thought medication could help, but Bernie had refused categorically. She didn't want a chemical crutch – as hard as the process of therapy was, she didn't want any shortcuts. Her feeling of being responsible for her own condition, compounded by the guilt of imposing it on others and the sensation that she had failed would not let her accept a prescription of magic pills. 

The therapist had suggested various meditation or mindfulness techniques too, but Bernie couldn't get into it. During one session, they had tried EMDR. Bernie had been very unwilling, because although she knew it had proven an effective solution for PTSD, it implied a loss of control she was reluctant to accept. She also found the idea slightly ludicrous – as if a few hand movements could get rid of all her symptoms! However, she couldn't refuse everything Heather suggested, and it seemed more innocuous than anti-depressants. For once, she wouldn't have to talk, and that sounded even more appealing.


Chapter 58

When Heather sat down right in front of her, Bernie felt invaded – it was too close for comfort, too much in her personal space. She clutched the arms of her seat, steeling herself against the rising feeling of suffocation. She had already been tense at the beginning of the session, but she sensed her every muscles tightening. Exactly the opposite of what she needed to do, in fact – her body refused to let go – would her mind comply? She listened to Heather explaining once more what they were going to do. Bernie would have to concentrate on the most painful trauma-related memory, to see the scene again, to feel what she had felt then, all the while focusing on Heather's hands, following them with her eyes as they moved horizontally to and fro. 

At first it didn't work. She wanted to close her eyes – she thought it would help her focus – but she couldn't, because Heather's hands drew her into the present. Her mind couldn't obey, couldn't be there and now, couldn't process that dissonance. Her brain resisted the exercise wholeheartedly. And then she was there again.

It was so much more painful that she'd expected… She thought she had gone back several times already, in her nightmares, but this state of semi-trance brought back so many emotions and sensations, so many feelings she hadn't even experienced consciously at the time that she drowned under the wave of remembrance. 

In a mist of anguish and pain, she dimly heard Heather say in a soft voice: "Stay with it. Let the emotions build and then let them go."

She had no choice – she had to stay – there was no escape. No escape from that day in Chineh – no escape from the ditch she and the other medic had had to dive into, dragging the wounded soldier with them. No escape from the tell-tale snap of bullets above her head, from the smell of sweat and heat and dirt and blood. Her colleague's scream, his flak jacket soaked with the blood gushing out of the bullet hole in his forehead. The Taliban approaching, his rifle pointed at her. The way he clutched at his heart and fell, slowly, to the ground, dropping his weapon. Realising that her survival instinct had kicked in, that she had shot him. 

She had been praised for her marksmanship and her reflexes during the debrief. The only thought in her mind was that she was responsible for someone's death – someone who may have been a husband, a father. Someone who was a Taliban, but also a mother's son. 

Even in the MERT Chinook evacuating her and the casualty, she had kept her head and kept the wounded soldier alive. He'd been very lucky, the bullet had entered his abdomen below the body armour, but it had missed all major organs. When she had chosen to join the Army, she had known that she might have to use a weapon, had been trained for that. But she had never really realised that it would be impossible to ally Hippocratic Oath and military requirements. Primum non nocere indeed …

Three months into her deployment, she had coped during the next three months as well. She had been her usual hyper-efficient self. But something had died inside. 

The screams, the strafing sounds, the single shot, the ringing in her ears – no escape, no escape, no… Suddenly she became aware that the hands moving in front of her had stopped, and that one of them was pressing gently on her forearm.

"Bernie – can you hear me? Where are you? Remember your safe place!" 

She tried, but all the preparation she'd done with Heather had vanished – her mind was blank, but she was unable to move from the memories. She was supposed to be in control, to retreat to a safe place if the experience became too intense, but it wasn't working. She wasn't in control, she was terrified – overwhelmed. And then her body let go, she realised she was shaking and crying uncontrollably. 

The session should have lasted one hour, it went on for nearly two. Once the tears had started, they had drowned her and all possibility of conversation for some time. Even Heather had been distressed, blaming herself for the failure of her "safe place" techniques. When Bernie had recovered enough to talk, she tried to follow the process and to put words on how she felt. She couldn't – but the tears had released some of the guilt, some of the tension. And she had found the words to tell Heather what she had just experienced again. The words she'd thought she would never be able to get out. When she had finally looked into Heather's eyes, she had found compassion and understanding, not condemnation. And the therapist had helped her realise that even though she had pulled the trigger, she had been as much a victim as her target. The culprit was war, not herself. 

After the session, she went home, and for the first time in weeks, she crashed on the bed and fell asleep almost immediately. Not until she woke up at 1.00 in the afternoon the next day did she realise that she had forgotten to set the alarm and had slept for thirteen hours straight. She groped for her phone, and the first thing she did was to send a text to Serena: "We need to talk; tonight, my place? Xx". Then she phoned Holby, and apologised profusely for missing her morning elective. 

Bernie's text blew Serena's concentration for the rest of the day. The first four words usually heralded bad news, the kisses at the end belied the beginning. In the end, it wasn't as bad as she had feared. It wasn't a "Dear John" text – just a real "we need to talk." In Bernie's living-room, that night, words that had been left unsaid emerged. Bernie faltered, stumbled, and cried, but she managed to get them out. Once again she apologised for having been a coward, for having hidden so much of herself, as if she could have avoided falling to pieces. In return, Serena offered her fears about her cancer, Jason's baby, and people's judgment. The morning found them entwined on the couch, traces of mascara and tears on the cheeks and hearts a great deal lighter.


Chapter 59: Epilogue 1

Notes: This story can now go two ways …in both of them there will be happy endings, but … So if you don't like the first epilogue, you can go to Epilogue 2 (The next chapter)

Slowly but surely, Bernie began to feel herself again. One session was not enough, of course, but after several more months of therapy, the nightmares and the flashbacks subsided. She could see the end of the tunnel, she could envisage a happier ending. When Morven gave birth in July to a beautiful baby boy, it brought her both disappointment and relief. Bernie had got used to the idea of becoming a grandmother, and to learn that little Enzo was not Cameron's child after all but the result of a brief relation hurt a little, but it also gave her back her confidence in her own son. He had not abandoned his pregnant girlfriend after all. He was even back in England, after a year in Jamaica, and although he'd chosen to be in London, they were patching their relationship. 

A habit was always hard to break a habit, and after nearly a year of fortnightly therapy sessions, Bernie wondered how to tell Heather she wanted to stop coming. She was feeling better, of course, much, much better. That in itself was a good reason to interrupt the therapy, but she found it as hard to take the decision to stop as she had found it to begin. She had grown used to the sessions – she now found them comfortable, and opening up was now almost natural. The exchanges between her and Heather flowed easily, they warmed her up or cooled her down, and deciding to put an end to it was strangely heart-breaking. There was no real need to put an end to the sessions – many people stayed in therapy for years – decades, even. And yet, Bernie simply couldn't go on going, because at least she admitted to herself that this wasn't only therapy anymore. When she saw Heather, she felt strangely flustered, and the butterflies in her stomach were too frisky to be ignored. She knew about transference, but it went beyond that. And once again, she prepared to run. 

Her relationship with Serena wasn't the problem, as it had slowly crumbled – they were still friends, but nothing remotely romantic remained between them. They had been through a lot together, and they would always be there for each other, but the silences and the rifts had grown bigger, and although they had tried, the flame had died. Serena had begun to see someone recently, a colleague she had met at a medical conference, and Bernie was happy for her. He was a lovely man, a widower, and he would take good care of Serena. 

Once again, however, Bernie behaved like a coward, because although she had revealed a lot about herself in therapy, although she had opened up, she found herself unable to tell Heather that she didn't want to be her patient anymore, because she had feelings for her. Moreover, there had been no signs that the attraction was mutual, Heather had always been a total professional. These relationships didn't work anyway – they were also unethical. Finally, because she couldn't stand it anymore, she just went AWOL. One day, she didn't go to her appointment, and she didn't answer Heather's two subsequent phone calls. She hated herself for behaving so rudely and so stupidly, but she couldn't see another way. 

Two years later, Bernie went into a new café that had opened in town. In two years, she had slowed down on her hectic operating schedule, and she was trying to spend less time working and more time living. She had finally bought a small ground-floor flat – she had her eyes set for an attic one, but the injuries she'd sustained in the IED accident made it impractical to have to climb several flights of stairs daily – her back didn't approve …It was sparsely furnished, but it was messy, warm and cosy. She had begun to write about her time in the army, and she liked to take her computer to various coffee shops – it helped her concentrate. As she bumped into a table and apologised, the woman sitting there lifted her head from the book she was reading and their eyes met. The other woman gestured invitingly to the chair across the table, and Bernie hesitated a little before sitting down. 

"Heather … I'm so sorry – I should have …I should have explained."

"You don't need to apologise – although I was worried."

Bernie hung her head: "I know – I'm sorry – it was just too difficult." Then, she swallowed hard and went on: "You're going to find this completely ridiculous, but …I felt something, and I couldn't tell you, and …Of course you don't …Oh hell! I'm making a mess of this! Right – I fell in love with you, and I couldn't face you anymore!"

Heather put her hand on Bernie's forearm: "Bernie …I'm glad you told me. It did occur to me that it could be something like that, but I didn't dare hope …and then, you were my patient, I couldn't."

Bernie thought she'd heard wrong – did Heather really say "hope"? "I'm not your patient anymore", she murmured. 

"You're not…" As they stared intently in each other's eyes, their hands entwined …

(As far as I know, they are still together…)


Chapter 60: Epilogue 2

Summary: alternative ending ...tell me your favourite ?

Slowly but surely, Bernie began to feel herself again. One session was not enough, of course, but after several more months of therapy, the nightmares and the flashbacks subsided. She could see the end of the tunnel, she could envisage a happier ending. When Morven gave birth in July to a beautiful baby boy, it brought her both disappointment and relief. Bernie had got used to the idea of becoming a grandmother, and to learn that little Enzo was not Cameron's child after all but the result of a brief relation hurt a little, but it also gave her back her confidence in her own son. He had not abandoned his pregnant girlfriend after all. He was even back in England, after a year in Jamaica, and although he'd chosen to be in London, they were patching their relationship. 

She and Serena were …getting there. They had been through a lot together in a comparatively short time, death, trauma, illness, but it had cemented their relationship. At one time, they'd thought of moving together, but it wouldn't have been practical. They had very different ideas of what they needed from a home. Bernie favoured utilitarian furniture and décor, and wasn't bothered by a little mess. Serena liked old English furniture, cosy cushions, and order. Moreover, they already worked together, and they both felt like they needed a space of their own – it only made the moments they spent together sweeter. Bernie had finally bought a small ground-floor flat – she had her eyes set for an attic one, but the injuries she'd sustained in the IED accident made it impractical to have to climb several flights of stairs daily – her back didn't approve … Serena had thought of selling her house, now that Jason had moved out and settled with his girlfriend and his daughter, but an unexpected occurrence had prevented it. Evie had asked to move in with her. She felt too much pressure at home, and although she was now in therapy for her anorexia, she was not improving as quickly as she could. Fletch understood that it could do her good to be apart from her family from a while, and this time, Serena had agreed she could move in for a while. In two years, Evie would be off to university anyway, but meanwhile, she was enjoying the new sensation of being an only child, and Serena tried very hard not to smother her. 

Finally, Bernie felt she could settle and enjoy her life. It would never be plain sailing with Serena – their strong characters would always collide, but if love made fools of us all, it also smoothed the bumpiest roads. There was hope for a happily ever after…

The End

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