Author's Note: This is it, guys! The final chapter. I want to thank each and every one of you who has followed the story over the past couple of months. This is the longest story I've ever written and at some points, it was pretty overwhelming to look down and see the page count getting higher and higher. And what's even sadder is that I do have a small inkling for a sequel, if there's interest. :) Again, thanks so much for reading and commenting! It means a lot to me.
There's no way I can do this, there's no way I can do this. The words were repeating in Casey's head like a broken record. She had decided to get out of bed despite her horrible hangover and go down to the hospital to explain things to Maddie, against Olivia's advice. The detective, though she'd had to leave early that morning to get back to work, had wanted Casey to stay home, nurse her hangover, and take the time to rest. But Casey had had enough rest and she wanted Maddie to hear it from her that she was no longer going to be living with her mother.
Even though Olivia was against the plan, she had taken time on her lunch break to go to the hospital with Casey and offer her moral support. Also part of Olivia's decision was that the guys had been teasing her mercilessly all morning about her budding relationship with Casey; she had been happy to get away from them for a little bit. If they only knew about what happened overnight, Olivia thought wickedly as she followed Casey down the hospital corridor.
Abruptly, Casey stopped short in the middle of the hallway outside of Maddie's room and whirled around on her heels. "Liv, I can't do this," she whispered.
"Then don't," Olivia replied, comfortingly resting her hand on Casey's arm.
"But I owe it to her."
"Why is it your responsibility to explain this to her? ACS is trained for things like this--"
"Because I'm the one who got her into this mess." Casey took a deep breath and ran a shaky hand through her hair. "I have to be the one to explain it to her."
Olivia gave Casey a warm smile. "Want me to come in with you?"
"No. I think I'll be all right." After looking into Olivia's eyes, seeking comfort, she took a deep breath and walked to the door. She hesitated only a moment, then set her shoulders and entered the room, putting on a smile for the little girl. "Hi, Maddie."
Maddie looked up from the book she was reading at the sound of the ADA's voice and grinned excitedly. "Casey!"
Casey cringed; I really wish she wouldn't sound so happy to see me, she thought sadly. "Hey, kiddo. How're you feeling?"
"Better than yesterday," she answered. She closed the book and set it on her tray table, then pushed the table aside. "Mommy had to leave but she's coming back to get me later on tonight. I can't wait to get out of here and go back home!"
Sighing, Casey sat down in the visitor's chair and held her hand out to the little girl. Maddie frowned in obvious confusion but took Casey's hand anyway. "What's the matter, Casey? You look sad."
"I'm not sad, sweetie," she replied, forcing a smile. Then, she thought better of lying to the little girl right before having to tell her what she needed to tell her. "Well, okay, I am a little sad. I have to tell you something. You up for having a little talk?"
"Sure," Maddie answered with a nonchalant shrug.
"Okay. Do you remember when my friends Olivia and Elliot came to talk to you?"
"Yeah. They asked me a lot of questions about my mom."
Casey nodded. "That's right. They did that because I asked them to."
"They said that you wanted them to come talk to me. But why did you ask them to ask me all the questions about my mom?"
"Remember how I told you that we know people who can help people take care of their kids?" Maddie nodded, confusion knitting her brow. "We think your mom needs help taking care of you. She's not home a lot, honey, and that's not safe for you."
"But it's okay," Maddie argued. "I can take care of myself."
"But you shouldn't have to take care of yourself, sweetie," Casey said. "So, we told our friends about you and they think they can help. There's just one hitch, though."
"What kind of hitch?" Maddie asked, frowning at Casey's use of that word.
"You know how you used to stay with Mrs. Miller?" Maddie nodded again. "Well, this'll be like that, only you'll be staying with them all the time."
"Like, live with them?" Maddie pulled her hand out of Casey's and furrowed her brow. "I'm not going to be living with Mommy anymore?"
Casey cleared her throat and swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat. "No, sweetie. You're going to be living with someone else from now on. And this new family will love you and take care of you just like you were their own daughter. I promise you that."
"But I don't want to go live with someone else!" Maddie exclaimed. "I want to stay with Mommy!"
"I know you do, sweetheart." Casey blinked back the tears that were quickly welling in her eyes and tried to grasp the little girl's hand again. Her heart dropped into her stomach when Maddie pulled out of her reach. "You have to trust me when I tell you that this is the best thing for you. Your mom isn't taking care of you, Maddie. If she was, she would have stayed with you in the hospital. She should have been the one sitting with you after your surgery instead of me."
Maddie looked into Casey's eyes, biting her lip to keep from crying. "My mom loves me."
Casey closed her eyes and sighed quietly. If only to make Maddie understand, she wanted to tell her that what Kim Donovan had been doing over the past eight years was not loving her daughter, but she couldn't do that to the little girl on top of what she was already telling her. "I know your mom loves you," she said instead, cringing inwardly at the lie, "but she needs help looking after you."
"So you're going to make me live with someone else?" Maddie let out a muffled sob, then regained her composure. "Who am I going to be living with? Am I going to be living with you?"
Though Casey had been anticipating that question, she was still surprised by just how much it hurt to have to tell the little girl no. "Sweetie, you know I'd love nothing more than to take you home with me, but I can't. I'm not home any more than your mom is--"
"But that's okay!" Maddie cried. "I'll be good and I'll be quiet and I can make you dinner! I'm really good at macaroni and cheese! Please, Casey, if I can't live with Mommy, I want to live with you. Please." She trailed off, dissolving into sobs.
In an instant, Casey settled herself on the edge of the hospital bed and wrapped the little girl in a tight hug. "Oh, sweetie, shh." She kissed the top of Maddie's head comfortingly. "You have to believe me when I tell you that I tried to get them to let me take you, but because of my job, I can't. And that's really to help you. You shouldn't have to be the one making dinner and you shouldn't have to put yourself to bed. You deserve to have milk and cookies waiting for you when you come home from school, you deserve to have someone cook you dinner and make you something better than macaroni and cheese, and you deserve to have someone tuck you in and give you a goodnight kiss. You deserve to be an eight-year-old girl, Maddie. There's plenty of time for being an adult later."
Maddie pulled out of Casey's embrace and wiped her eyes, her sobs dwindling down to choked hiccups. "Am I ever going to go back and live with my mom?"
Casey hesitated, unsure how to answer to answer that question. She didn't want to tell Maddie that she didn't think Kim would be fighting to get custody back any time soon, but she also didn't want to promise her something she didn't believe would happen. "I think that depends on your mom, hon," she said. It was noncommittal and not really an answer, but it was the only one she could think of that would spare Maddie's feelings and not be a lie.
"What about you? What if I don't like the new people? Can I come live with you then?"
Shit, she thought. Casey had not been expecting that question and as such, she was again unsure how to answer. She decided to tell the little girl the truth. "I don't know, honey, but I'm sure you'll like the new people a lot. If you don't, I want you to give me a call, okay? I'll figure something out."
Maddie leaned into Casey's arms and allowed her to hug her tightly. "Casey?" she said after a moment, burying her face into the ADA's arm.
"I love you."
Casey smiled, touched by the little girl's admission, and planted a kiss on the top of the little girl's head. "I love you, too, sweetheart. More than you know. I'm so sorry about all this."
"Don't be sorry," Maddie said, her voice muffled by Casey's sleeve. "You were only trying to help me." She pulled out of the hug again and sniffled, wiping her eyes. "I'm going to miss my mom, though."
"And that's perfectly normal." Casey gently tugged on a lock of the little girl's hair. "This isn't going to be easy. It's going to be a hard adjustment and you're going to miss your mom for a long time. So I need you to be really strong for me, because I promise it'll all be worth it in the end. You deserve to have someone love you, Maddie, and the new family will."
"Can I still call you? If I just want to talk and stuff?"
"Will you come back here tonight when the new people come to take me?"
"If you want me to."
Maddie nodded vigorously. "I do."
"Okay, then I'll be back later tonight." Casey stood up from the bed and tousled the little girl's hair. "Get some rest, okay? I'll be back around four and then you and I can just hang out until the new family comes."
"I'm scared," Maddie said, looking up at Casey plaintively.
Casey gave the little girl a warm smile and ran her finger down her cheek. "I know you are. Truthfully, I am, too. But we both have to be very brave and everything will work out right."
Maddie nodded. "Okay."
Smiling, Casey gave Maddie one more hug. "I'll be back tonight. Bye for now, sweetie."
"Bye," Maddie said, giving her a small wave.
Casey walked out of the hospital room, looking over her shoulder only once. As she saw Olivia, her eyes started filling with tears, a result of the tension and stress of the conversation and having to break a little girl's heart. "How the hell do you guys have conversations like that with kids day in and day out?" she asked as Olivia wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"It doesn't get any easier," Olivia said apologetically. "Is she all right?"
"Yeah, I think so. I don't know. I'm coming back here at four; she wants me to be here when ACS comes with the new family."
Olivia started walking Casey down the corridor. "Are you all right?"
Casey hesitated, trying to determine how she felt. Though she still felt guilty for turning Maddie's life inside out, she also felt remarkably good, like she had done everything right. It wasn't a feeling she got to experience very often, and she felt at peace. "Yeah, I think so. I feel good, Liv."
"You did something amazing, Casey. You should feel good."
Casey looked into Olivia's dark eyes and smiled. "You think so?"
"Yes, I do." Olivia gave Casey a quick kiss on the lips as the two of them made their way to the elevators. "You're incredible, Case. You paid attention to that little girl when no one else would, and you made sure that Maddie's case was front and center. You championed her, Casey, and you deserve all kinds of credit for that."
Casey blushed and leaned her head on Olivia's shoulder. "You're no slouch yourself. There's no way in hell I would have made it through the past week and a half without you."
"Sure you would have," Olivia replied with a self-conscious shrug.
"It would have been a lot harder." The elevator doors opened and the two of them stepped into the car. As soon as the doors closed and Casey realized that she and the detective were alone, she turned to Olivia and grinned widely. "You know, there's this Aerosmith song …"
Olivia coyly raised her eyebrows at the younger woman. "Not in a hospital, Casey."
Casey snickered and turned to face forward. "Fine. Have it your way."
The detective looked the ADA over and smiled. "I always do."
Casey either didn't hear her last comment or pretended not to hear her. Instead, she sidled up next to her and sighed. She had been through so much in the past week and a half: a bad case of pneumonia, a fight for a little girl, and the start of a new relationship. And while everything was still far from settled, she felt peaceful. Maybe, just maybe, though her life was dramatically different from where it had been not even two weeks prior, things were still going to work out for the best.