The doors to the NICU hissed shut behind her, the noise too quiet to wake any of the sleeping babies. The sound too low, too unobtrusive, it did little to silence the voice inside of her fighting to be heard.
She was being punished, it shouted, argued loudly inside of her head.
A part of her so powerful that Cuddy couldn't ignore it, she couldn't stop herself from thinking:
She had dared to love her own child, her baby openly and freely.
And she was being punished for it.
Damned for it by a woman who had had thirty-eight weeks to bond with the child growing inside of her and hadn't. By a woman who would have no sooner killed that same baby in order to save herself, Cuddy thought savagely.
Her pain and anger roiling inside of her own body, the emotions mingled together and easily tore down the relaxed façade she was desperately in need of donning. The potent poison infiltrating every cell of her being, it was impossible to appear calm, impossible to pretend that things were anything but horrible, unimaginably unacceptable and wrong.
So too was it impossible to stop the shaking in her hands, the teetering, tentative steps in her heels, and the choking sobs, coupled with tears, in the back of her throat. And with her normally composed features betraying her, it was likewise impossible to stop her staff from looking at her.
The moment she'd entered the NICU could feel it. Their silent questioning glances clinging to her in a way that even her clothing dared not, not even her pain could make her ignorant to that.
But she pretended not to notice, her eyes solely on the group of babies in the room.
Moving towards the rows of bassinettes, Cuddy couldn't fight the emotions quickly overtaking her body. She'd made it a rule in her life never to cry at work, but there was no denying this, no denying the poignant ache inside of her.
And part of her, the punishing masochist who always argued that House was a good employee, that being number two in her class wasn't good enough, that pushing and pushing herself beyond the normal limits was what she must do – that part of her whispered that the pain she was feeling was good. Because it meant that…
She had, with every fiber of her being, wanted this.
She had been scared, yes, afraid of what might happen, terrified that she wouldn't have been able to be the mother Joy deserved.
But God, she had wanted this baby more anything in the world.
Cuddy had no doubts about that, which frankly seemed like an accomplishment considering everything she'd heard to the contrary. From her mother to the adoption counselor to her lawyer, they'd all cautioned her in sympathetic voices that it might take time to bond. Their words constantly reminding her in almost pitiful tones that she wouldn't share DNA with her son or daughter, Cuddy couldn't help but think it was only a slightly nicer way of saying what House had been arguing all along: that an adopted baby really was a factory second, a discard.
On shaky legs, Cuddy closed the distance between her daughter and herself. A smile instinctively on her face as she peered down at the infant slowly waking, Cuddy could only believe that Joy was anything but a hand-me-down. Because, even if they had never shared any DNA, even if they'd ended up looking and acting completely different, Joy alone would have been more than enough. That truly unconditional love Cuddy had felt inside of her marrow the moment she had seen her baby come into this world would have been all she'd needed. The bond between them wound tightly together, each strand of that invisible thread inseparable from the ones nestled against it, there was nothing that Cuddy would have wanted to change about Joy.
There were no imperfections, nothing that she could point to that needed to be changed. If anything, looking at the sweetly plump infant, Cuddy could see that she couldn't have done a better job on her own; nothing from her own womb could have filled her with more love or anything else.
A traitorous voice inside of her abruptly filtered the doubt into her consciousness
If she'd shared DNA with Joy…
Cuddy couldn't finish the thought, a cry catching awkwardly on her vocal chords in the back of her throat. The choked sounds inaudible to the rest of the NICU staff, it was just loud enough for her baby less than a foot in front of her to hear.
Joy's bright blue eyes slowly opened in response. Within seconds, the little girl instinctively began to look around, and Cuddy couldn't help but give her a watery smile.
Rationally, she understood that, at this point in her development, Joy wouldn't be all that interested in the smile created just for her. Cuddy's lipstick was a pale shade of a pink, a nude color that would be anything but enticing to a newborn who was far more interested in contrast and vibrancy than muted elegance.
Of course, regardless of the color, mother and daughter were close to one another, but their faces were still more than a foot apart when it came down to it. Which meant that even if she were wearing lipstick as red as roses, Joy would only see a blurred version of it.
Realizing that, Cuddy felt the need to be closer, felt the need to give her child a better picture of what she looked like, as though in doing so, Joy would never forget her. Leaning on the waist-high partition between her body and the bassinette, Cuddy got closer, an elbow giving her leverage as she leaned forward to close the distance between them.
In truth, she realized that they could be closer; she could have just held Joy if she'd wanted. But, given that everyone in the hospital must have known what was going on by now, Cuddy didn't feel like calling any more attention to herself.
More than that though…
Cuddy couldn't do it, couldn't hold her daughter while knowing… what had to happen.
Already, she could feel her mind and heart rebel against the reality that was slowly closing in on her. Things hadn't completely changed yet; she could still get away with calling Joy her daughter and thinking it, but things would change. Holding the infant would just make accepting that impossible.
Not that by not holding the little girl made things any easier, because even from this small distance, Cuddy feel that bond tugging on her. Because, they weren't touching, but the second Joy's eyes settled on her form, Cuddy could feel her own maternal love rush through her.
In the back of her mind, she was a little more than aware that she'd fixed the game in getting Joy's attention. Compared to the muted colors of the NICU, Cuddy's bold navy suit and white top, as well as her dark hair and pale skin, made her much more fascinating. And given that Joy's sleepy eyes were lazily fixed on Cuddy's chest, where her alabaster skin, dark suit jacket, and stark white top met, Cuddy was sure this wasn't really all that personal.
Which was fine; she was used to a child staring at her breasts, and at least Joy's reasons were a lot less lascivious than House's. The comparison easing the ache inside Cuddy briefly, she instinctively thought with a smirk that House would have grown to like Joy – their interests at this point in time exactly the same.
And it was at that moment that what little protection she had created for herself crumbled. An armor made out of little more than dust, it had allowed her to escape Becca's presence, had allowed Cuddy to walk the corridors of the hospital as though her heart was not being frayed, torn, broken, by losing Joy. But her armor could not withstand anymore.
She could no longer hold off the agony she was feeling.
Because the mere mention of House never ceased to remind her of things, both good and bad, he'd said in the past. A litany of memories associated with the name, it was something she had never been able to stop herself from doing; whether she liked it or not, appreciated it or not, he'd been a part of her life for years. Why she believed those associations should have the decency to stop now, she didn't know.
The reason didn't really matter now.
All that concerned her was the fact that just thinking about him with Joy now had reminded her of something he'd said years ago – interestingly not the comments about how Becca would change her mind or how Cuddy would suck as a mother or how she was miserable. But rather it was what he'd said after Alfredo had fallen off of the roof.
House had said that she didn't see the chasm.
And only now could she see, could she admit, that he'd been right. She hadn't seen it.
But now it was so easy to see the painfully garish divide. It was the difference between the way things would have been and the way things were and were going to be. It was the difference between knowing that House could have… changed, come to appreciate another human being in his life – even if he hadn't intended to do so – and now being allowed to cling to Wilson and Cuddy without any chance of widening his world or his heart. It was the difference between having a friend who would do anything to help you and only being that kind of friend.
It was the difference between having the capacity for love and knowing that that love would now never be lavished on another human being. It was the difference between knowing in your heart that the DNA didn't matter at all and being forced to recognize now that it was all that mattered to everyone else.
It was the difference between having a daughter and having had a daughter.
It was the difference between being a mother and not.
A stubborn tear slid past the insufficient barricade of her dark eyelashes, her mind wondering why she hadn't seen the truth for what it was before. It seemed so obvious now that, in every aspect of her life, there was a Grand Canyon's worth of failed attempts and dreams, of fears and things that could never be.
The depth of the divide was miles long, literally a dark abyss that she dared not gaze into for fear of being sucked in without escape.
And yet the width of the fissure was small enough that she could gaze to the other side, what could have been dangling right in front of her enticingly. And instinctively, Cuddy reached for Joy then. Her hand easily bridging the distance, Cuddy smiled sadly as the little girl grabbed a hold of Cuddy's index finger.
Joy's palm was warm against her skin. The delicate touch tentative at best, the baby's fingers threatened to uncurl from exhaustion at any moment, but it was more than enough for Cuddy. Because any more, and frankly, she would not have had the strength to walk away.
As it was, she wasn't sure she could do that – turn around and leave, pretending that she could ever be content with her daughter being raised by someone else. By someone who hadn't even wanted her in the first place.
Knowing that, Cuddy knew that there was not a single cell – no lone atom inside of her body that wanted to walk away from this, from her daughter. Every protein and neuron, every lipid and hormone desired to keep Joy, to stay her mother by fighting this. And gently stroking the infant's hand now, Cuddy could feel her own body tensing, preparing for battle.
But rationally she knew:
Every fight she picked in this, she would lose.
If she hadn't believed it before, conversations with multiple lawyers, including Stacy, had forced her to accept:
Becca would win.
No matter what.
It didn't matter that Cuddy had money to give this child anything and everything. It didn't matter that she knew there was nothing Joy could have done that Cuddy would have hated her for, no road her daughter could have traveled that she wouldn't have willingly walked on as well.
It didn't matter that Becca would have died at home with Joy in her womb, the woman unable to see that something was medically wrong. It didn't matter that she had gone on to endanger Joy even more by putting her daughter's life second.
It didn't matter that she had said, "She's yours now" or that there had been a promise made.
Which sounded juvenile, even to Cuddy's furious mind. Because "you promised" was the kind of excuse little children made when their parents screwed up or the kind she sometimes found herself using when House wasn't holding up his end of the bargain.
"You promised" was for petty things, and signing off on parental rights hardly fell into that category. So maybe promise wasn't the right word, its definition failing to convey the potency of Becca's betrayal.
But semantics didn't matter now. Just like unconditional love and sacrifice didn't apparently.
All that mattered was the stupid DNA, which, in the eyes of the law, made Becca the only one who mattered in this.
And Cuddy could kick, scream, bite, and fight all she wanted, but it wouldn't change things. Because the law didn't care about her side of the argument at all. And that meant she would have to do the one thing she never wanted to do, the one thing Becca had failed to do:
She would have to say goodbye.
She would have to let Joy go.
And if doing that didn't kill her, Cuddy thought, she didn't know what would. Because this wasn't just about another failed opportunity at being a mother.
She was a mother.
This was her daughter.
And what Cuddy was saying goodbye to wasn't just the life in the bassinette. It wasn't just Joy Cuddy that would never really exist, save for this aberrant twenty-four hours. It was all of their lives – Joy's and Cuddy's, and everyone else's that might have intersected at some point with them. Because just as this infant wouldn't get to ever again be Joy Cuddy (the plaque on the bassinette had already been changed, Cuddy realized bitterly), Cuddy herself wouldn't live the rest of her days as "Joy's mother."
Closing her eyes immediately, she tried not to picture what any of that meant. But images, one by one, assaulted her senses. Little flashes of what being this little girl's Mommy would have been like forcing their way into her consciousness, Cuddy had to let go of Joy's hand to stop herself from keening loudly, her pain so close to the surface.
The feeling refusing to subside, she realized just how close to that dark abyss she was. Her unimaginably bottomless well of love for Joy quickly funneling itself into the black hole created from all of her failures, she was teetering on the edge. Her toes dangling off the cliff, Cuddy couldn't help but gaze down into the limitless chasm.
And in that moment, she realized…
She was afraid.
She loved Joy more than she had ever thought possible, more than she'd believed her heart capable of producing. And now… if her daughter was to no longer be her daughter…
Cuddy didn't want to think about the overwhelming grief waiting for her the moment she walked out of the NICU.
So she clasped Joy's hand in hers once more, reasoning that if she were destined to fall into that gaping canyon of heartbreak, then she might as well look into the horizon for as long as she could. She might as well enjoy what this dream that could never be hers had to offer, because she knew:
She would not be here again.
She would not be anywhere near the edge ever again in the vain hope of grasping things that might be or might have been. She wouldn't take those steps again, knowing that there was a chance she would fall.
She could not do that ever again, what little bravery she had slipping from her grasp.
And so, her gaze, though filled with tears, stayed on Joy until long after the infant had fallen back to sleep. Minutes or hours passing, Cuddy decided it didn't matter. Each second cherished and relished before being stored into some place in her mind that she never wanted to access again, there were so many things she wanted to tell Joy. So many things she would have loved to explain to Joy, had she had the chance.
But the words dying on her tongue, all that managed to escape was a strangled and hurried "I love you, goodbye."
Quickly, tearfully, Cuddy let go of Joy's hand and turned around.
Her calves trembled as she walked away; her heart pounding in her ears louder and more violently with each step she took, Cuddy could feel what little strength she had draining from her.
But she did not stop.
She did not turn around, her gaze focused on the doors in front of her. The desire to stop and go back to the bassinette burning in the back of her throat, Cuddy had to tell herself no, had to remind herself that she could not say goodbye again. Her pace quickening, she knew:
She would not be here again.