Author's Note: Assume most of episode S02x06 happens as written. This picks up after her tests at the hospital, before Sister Bernadette arrives at the sanitorium.
After x-rays and blood tests and a full examination, after shivering in the cold, sterile rooms, Sister Bernadette knew for certain: she had TB.
She was in the early stages. The lesions were small and her symptoms were very mild. The doctors spoke gravely, but with great pride and hope for the newest treatments available to her.
It was the one doctor – he was older, with thinning grey hair and round spectacles – who had spoken to her after the day of tests. His voice was deep, like it kept getting caught in his throat, and his tone never modulated – never got excited, never got upset, never expressed sympathy. He explained to her the severity of her disease, the general course the disease progressed. When she interrupted him to say she was a nurse and had seen enough TB cases to know what lay in store for her, he said, "With all due respect, we don't think about illness the same way when it's someone else. I want to ensure you understand what you – and not your previous patients – are in for."
She supposed he had a good point and she supposed he wasn't dismissing her years of experience just because he was a doctor and she was no one to him. But Sister Bernadette knew exactly what lie ahead of her. She knew exactly what her death would look like, if the triple treatment proved ineffective.
With her father, it had started as a bit of breathlessness. With her brother gone in the war, he was working twice as hard around the farm and then, one day, he was struggling to walk his full circuit – a walk he had made every day since he was a boy. Then the cough started two weeks before V-E day and he never shook it. By the end, it was so awful to listen to him – to hear the wet, aching cough; to see the pain reflected on his face with every movement he made.
By the end, she had become so restless. She felt – if she kept moving, then time would move faster. And if time moved faster, her father's suffering would come to an ended sooner. It was so horrible to see him in the full consumption of it that she prayed for his death.
"I'm sorry, I've been rambling," she heard Dr Turner say and suddenly she realized that he had been talking for their entire drive back to Poplar. She wasn't sure what he had been saying, but she was sure it was for his own peace of mind, more than hers.
She didn't say anything in response. Just offered him a tight, forced smile and returned her eyes to the London landscape.
She knew she should stay positive and optimistic. The world was a different place now than it was in 1946. Now, all her tests and her medicine and her stay at the sanitorium would be free of charge. And the new medicines had had tremendous success. In this brave new world, she was unlikely to die.
But she still could. People still died in Poplar of TB all the time. They died terrible, painful deaths.
The thought seized her, like a hand passing straight into one's chest and yanking on one's diaphragm: 'I don't want to die without ever having lived. I don't want to die before I accomplish all my dreams for life.'
Sister Bernadette looked over at Dr Turner. He was talking again, but her ears seemed like they weren't working anymore and she couldn't make out a single word in his breathless stretch. So, she spoke over him, "I don't want to go back to Nonnatus House. Not just yet."
He went silent and sober and looked over at her. As they entered Poplar, he turned off the main road early and took them through the familiar streets to his surgery.
Patrick took her into his office and closed the door behind them. She stood just inside his office, like she was waiting for an invitation to sit down, but Patrick's hands were so fidgety he didn't think he could bare to sit just yet. He looked around, desperate for something to do with them. He had some whiskey and glasses in his desk, but then he thought, in her condition, in her habit, it was probably best not to offer. Instead, while his mind searched for an answer, his hands reached into his jacket packet and retrieved his cigarette case and lighter.
It wasn't until Patrick had placed a fag between his lips that he realized what he was doing. He took a second from his case, placed it between his lips besides the first, and lit them both.
Sister Bernadette need only be shaken from her thoughts before she accepted the cigarette without comment. They stood for a moment, inhaling greedily, exhaling reluctantly.
At some point, Sister Bernadette set herself down in the chair usually reserved for the doctor's patients. She looked down at the half-smoked cigarette and let out a humorless laugh. "After the fete, I promised myself I would take a month in prayer and reflection. And that meant taking time…"
She paused and looked up at him. The way her shoulders slumped and a little blush formed on her cheeks made her seem guilty of something.
"I said I wouldn't see you for the month. No more secret…" She trailed off and looked at the fag. "Indulgences."
He had noticed that she was avoiding him. Tuesday clinics had lost all their mirth. The weeks had begun to bleed together without memories of her to break up the days.
"I wasn't mad at you," she said quickly. He came around to sit on the edge of his desk. He wanted to see her face; he wanted her to look up at him and she did. "I just needed some space to think. I knew that, if I choose to leave the Order, I needed to do it entirely for me."
"I've missed you," he said quietly and covered his nervousness by taking a quick puff. "I won't lie about that. But I entirely respect why you were avoiding me."
She hadn't taken another drag since she sat down and, even now, held it in her hand, careful not to let the ashes fall on her clothes. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice," she admitted.
He wanted to laugh at that. Him, not notice that he had gone weeks hardly speaking to her? Him, not notice that no tea had been prepared by the time he arrived at clinic, that no Sister Bernadette handed him a cup and blessed him with her lovely greeting? Him, not notice that his days felt steadily less joyful, like happiness had been blanched from the world? He noticed the day after the fete that her presence had become sparse.
All he said: "I noticed."
She nodded, pursed her lips, and, after a pause, took a long, hard drag on her dying cigarette. "My father died of TB. Before National Health."
He hadn't known that – there was so much he didn't know about her.
"I'm afraid." Her voice was just a whisper. She was looking at him, but, as soon as she spoke, she looked away.
He stubbed out his cigarette and knelt down in front of her. "The triple treatment has had amazing results. So much has changed since the war. And we found your diagnosis so early – you needn't be afraid."
She smiled, a sad but genuine smile. Then she reached up and ran her hand over cheek. He closed his briefly, enjoying the sensation of her cool fingers against his rough skin.
"I'm afraid of leaving this world with regrets. I'm afraid of missing out on a lifetime of dreams."
Past the fear, he heard a new resolve in her voice. He opened his eyes and saw the same mix of emotions reflected her grey orbs.
"If the treatment works," she began slowly and her hand slipped away from his cheek, "I don't think I'll be coming back to Poplar as Sister Bernadette."
Too many emotions gripped him at once. Fear knotted his stomach, while hope plucked at his diaphragm. He wasn't sure which had formed a fist around his lungs – perhaps each had taken one – but he knew he struggled to find the air to speak. "But you will come back?"
She looked away from him, perhaps down at the cigarette that had burnt out between her knuckles, but Patrick kept his gaze steadily on her.
Finally, she nodded and looked at him and said, "If someone is here waiting for me."
They said nothing else after that, but sat in a comfortable silence until darkness bleed into the summer sky. Patrick dropped her off at Nonnatus House, with a promise to pick her up the next morning. Their drive to the sanitorium was silent; the tension and fear and things unsaid made the drive claustrophobic. He thought he should say something inspiring, something comforting, something meaningful, but there was too much pressure to say something perfect. In the end, he just reminded her how good the treatment was, an unspoken encouragement that she would, in fact, recover.
Every Tuesday, he carved out an hour lunch break for himself. Instead of eating, he sat at his desk and penned a letter to her. He imagined her face – beaming up at him as he entered clinic; or relieved when he arrived at a patient's bedside to give aid; or biting back a laugh at some goofy expression he had sent her way in the presence of the other nuns; or eyes alight, delighting at whatever new thing Timothy was up to. He imagined all the brilliant moments of light she had brought to his life and he wrote pages every Tuesday.
He sent a letter every week. Sometimes twice a week. Once, three times. He sent letters even when she sent no reply, because he would be waiting for her. He would wait for years, if that's what it took.
Author's Note: And that's the end! This slight change here probably means changes what Sister Bernadette says to Sister Julienne in the sanitorium a little, but overall S02x07 and S02x08 should fit right into the end here.
If you're not ready for the story to end! Check out my story "An Imagined Affair". It can be a standalone, but it inspired a lot of scenes for this story, so it certainly fits into the series.
I will also be posting a new story "A Holiday From Being a Nun: Alternate Ending". I struggled while writing Chapter 9 to decide if it should be chaste or mature. Ultimately, chaste seemed more in character for Sister Bernadette and for the story as a whole, but I still had the mature content in mind and partly written. So, I think I'll finish that out and give you a little alternative to Chapter 9.