DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Everything up to the spa episodes; after that, it's all mine.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

An Absence of Apathy
By Doubleyoo


Part 1

The whispered graces echoed loudly in the shadows of the dark-lit room, a little girl's nightly prayers made holier and haunting by the almost reverent atmosphere of her dim bedroom. "And please, God, next time, could you make the extra food on my plate go to the hungry children in Africa, because they really need food, and I really don't like green beans…" Her hair draped like a dark silk cloud over her face, masking her tightly shut eyes, the brow crinkled in childish concentration. The night light ran fingers of yellow illumination through the strands, catching ribbons of golden highlights in her sunkissed locks. She muttered her wishes for God's ears into her tightly folded hands, fingers interlaced and white with an earnest grip.

The light from the hall threatened to impose itself upon the tableau, harsh and fluorescent, but was held back by the black outline of a tall woman leaning against the door jamb in mindful observance of the nightly ritual. Green eyes glittered in a sharp gaze, sparkling disapproval in their verdant depths. The shadows seemed to take pity on the young one, wrapping their grey-black hands around sharp cheekbones and under a strong brow, muting the effect of the perceived failure in the overseen prayers. Arms crossed, a flash of light as a wristwatch was checked, then an interruption. "Just finish up; God doesn't have the time to waste on all of this." Left unspoken: God has no time to waste on you.

Wide eyes glanced up, used to this kind of tone from the shadowed one; there was a darkness that seemed to follow her, even in the brightest sunshine. Her older sister called it "Mommy's Angry Side," which seemed silly to the little girl; calling it that implied that Mommy had a Not Angry Side, and if that was so, she'd clearly misplaced it in the last nine years, put away for safe-keeping with the rest of the unmatched socks and toothpaste caps that nobody ever saw again. Her big sister also said that it was because Mommy had not had an easy life, and that she really loved them both but just had trouble showing it. "You'll understand when you're a little bit older," she'd say, in her eleven-year-old wisdom, and that would be the end of the conversation.

A second dark outline detached itself from where it had come to rest behind the first, waiting for the rushed "Amen" to escape prayerful lips. Kind hands reached out from the softer shadow and helped the giggling girl into bed, tucking the covers tightly below her neck and brushing persistent bangs back from laughing eyes. "Goodnight, my little Jellybean! I'll see my favorite baby girl in the morning!" The familiar phrase, reliable as the sunrise, was followed by a gentle kiss on the forehead and then the shifting of the mattress as the heavier body lifted itself off of the bed and walked back to the door to join the first outline.

"Goodnight, Daddy!" A long pause as identical green eyes finally met across the Symplegades divide of the bedroom floor. "Goodnight, Mommy."

The outline turned, tugging the door shut as she did so, waiting until the light from the hallway was nothing more than a sliver between the jamb and what remained visible of her own body. Her eyes caught the light, reflecting hard, emerald anger. "Goodnight, Olivia." The door clicked shut.

Olivia gasped, sitting straight up in bed and placing a hand over her pounding heart. She looked around frantically, not recognizing her surroundings at first, unsure of what woke her until she saw the dark outline standing in the doorway of the bedroom, half-turned as if trying to leave. "I- I'm sorry! I didn't mean to wake you, I just- I…"

"Had a nightmare?" Olivia supplied?

"Yes. How did you know?" The voice was tremulous and weak, not at all as it had been earlier that day, when it had been filled with steel and instructions for the movers as they carried boxes out of one temporary home and into the moving van that would take them to their permanent residence in the morning.

"I was having one myself." Olivia chuckled, her laughter mirthless and hollow. "It was a memory, actually, which makes it that much more terrible." The amusement truly made it to her laugh this time, though not quite all the way to her eyes. She threw the covers off and slid her knees up to her chest, glancing down at her feet and noting absently how her nail polish stood out glaringly against the solid white of the sheets. Beautiful dream, indeed. Sarcasm, always her loyal companion, provided an aside to her still fuzzy mind while she oriented herself better to an upright position. "Did you want to talk about it?"

The figure at the door wavered for a moment, then slim shoulders lifted and dropped again so quickly that had Olivia not been paying attention, she would have missed it. An eyebrow arched. "So, what… you were checking on me in case I was having a nightmare, too? How did you know? Tell me I wasn't crying like a little kid in a wax museum. Or, worse, was I snoring? Because even if I was, and you heard it, it didn't happen and you can't prove a damn thing!" The shoulders were shaking with the laughter that was filling the room now, and Olivia allowed herself a contented smile. She may not have much to offer in the way of comfort as a rule, but when it came to humorous distractions, she had that down.

"No, I wasn't checking on you!" came out between peals of relieved laughter, the kind that escapes because, if it didn't, tears would be making their way out, and laughter feels better. "I just- I was sad, and lonely, and I thought maybe…" Olivia's head canted to the side, eyes widening as she recognized that stance, knew those shuffling feet and the request that wanted to follow, so easily identified because of its similarity to her youngest daughter's actions after a frightening dream disrupted her sleep.

"Did you want to come lie down with me, Ava?" Olivia let the question escape her lips without thought of holding it back. She missed her every chance to be that comfort for her eldest daughter when she was growing up, and though she perhaps cherishes those moments with Emma more now because of it, she also can never experience a truly happy moment with her baby girl without the intense pang of loss over what she missed with Ava. Not that it would have changed much, if we're going to be honest about who I've been, Olivia's conscience with its irksomely newfound strength added. Not that I had a chance to be any other way! Olivia's Id had always been there to help her when she needed some self-justification, but its assurances had been feeling so…empty as of late.

Bitterness threatened to leave a tang of unwashed guilt in her mouth, so she swallowed it down quickly, knowing that it would only sit in her stomach and force its way out later, but not caring at the moment. Her offer gleaned an immediate response from Ava, who nodded jerkily as soon as it was made and had already shut the bedroom door back behind her, trotting across the carpeted floor, guided by the glow of the nightlight without which Olivia could not sleep.

Olivia pondered her coltish gait for a moment, seeing in her for the first time remnants of her father. She allowed herself a brief second to wonder at the fact that she had never seen Jeffrey in her daughter before, in spite of the dark complexion, and the way Ava's hair fell across her brow… no, Ava was always Ava to her, and then she was Olivia's daughter. Olivia never saw Jeffrey in the young woman because she had no need of it, so to suddenly see Ava's stride match his was jarring and served to finish her return to the land of the waking. She made a mental note to tell Jeffrey about this when she returned to Springfield. Their reconciliation and eventual friendship had been an incredibly difficult road, but he was now someone she truly cherished. Natalia said that when you cared for people, you liked to make them happy, and Olivia knew this would make him happy. Natalia

She snapped back into focus as Ava slid into the bed next to her. "Thanks. I just don't know what came over me. I was scared, and I wanted my momm-" She cut herself off before she could finish the sentence.

"Your mommy?" Olivia smiled, keeping her eyes soft so Ava would know she wasn't mocking.

"Yeah." Ava sighed. "Which is silly, really, because even my mother, my adoptive mother, she didn't let me come hang out in bed with her when I was scared." Left unsaid was the fact that Ava had wanted to, but had not been welcome to this filial act of love and protection, not with her angry step-father and his children-must-be-seen-and-not-heard mentality.

"Well!" Olivia flopped back against the pillows, hooking the covers with her feet and pulling them back up to cover them both. "This mommy is very glad to share the covers with you when you have a nightmare." Teary green eyes in a face turned toward her on the pillows betrayed the intensity of the casual statement, and Ava reached out to hold her mother's hand.

"I'm so glad I found you." Ava squeezed her mother's fingers, trying to convey through touch what she did not have the words to say.

"Technically, I found you, you know." Olivia's sarcastic humor was back to chase the vulnerability away. "I mean, I'm the one who figured it out and all."

"Oh, shut up and go to sleep, show off!" Ava's smile tempered the caustic entreaty. She closed her eyes, knowing that Olivia would do the same. She listened for long minutes as the older woman's breathing evened, deepening into pre-slumber cadences. Suddenly, a memory flashed, something she'd noticed and had meant to mention before her nightmare-induced quaking had reduced her to childish incoherence. "Hey, Mom?"

"Yeah?" Olivia's voice was raspy and vaguely perturbed. She had almost been back to sleep.

"You said Natalia's watching Emma for you for a few days, right? Natalia, not Janet, or whatever-the-hell that nanny's name is?"

"Yes, and her name is Jane. Honestly, you can't remember that name? It's the name they give to unidentified corpses and coma patients, that's why I picked her over the other applicants!" Olivia's eyes remained closed, but her lips were turned up in the corners, trying to hide an exasperated smile. Truthfully, Jane had been the most qualified of the glorified child-oriented gofers who'd applied for the job, but her easily remembered name had not hurt when Olivia selected her.

"Well, you left your phone in the living room, and I noticed on my way in here that Natalia had called. Her name was still flashing on the screen." Ava released her mother's hand and rolled over, soothed by the already pervasive scent of Olivia's perfume and shampoo in the pillow.

"Oh, ok." Olivia sighed, ready to follow Ava into dreamland. Suddenly, her eyes slammed open. "Wait, what?!"


Part 2

Dark hair fanned across a silk designer throw pillow, draping beyond the edges and falling beyond into the shadows of the floor beneath the couch. Ink black strands caught and absorbed the muted moonlight and beamed back its radiance in subdued blue-indigo glimmers. Shoulders arose from below the depths of the dusky tendrils, rising and falling in time with the hushed whispers of deep sleep breathing. The light of a lamp traced loving golden strokes down the plateau slopes of a back, the valley of the spine curving gently through to bisect the area like a snake winding its way through the grass.

And so, Natalia slept, exhausted and unaware on the couch that had still somehow smelled of Olivia's hair, transported by scent and memories to tender dreams of long, dark nights spent huddled together there, giggling and talking, sharing stories and a blanket, curled so closely together that they sat upon the same cushion. There had been laughter and love, conviction and anger, longing and more longing.

That couch had seen them joined at the hip, the heart, the soul, and had watched them rip themselves apart again in their haste to deny what had already happened. If it could speak, the couch would have told them, would have scolded them for their petty fears. Together with the coffee table and the gently glowing lamp, it had borne witness to the kiss that had changed everything, had well and truly ended denial for one and begun a river of molten confusion for the other.

If the couch could speak, it would tell them that the cross had smiled from its place on the wall, that the lamp had glowed brighter with happiness for them both, that the coffee table had braced itself, should its support suddenly be needed. It would tell them of its regret when, at the kiss' end, no warm bodies had collapsed upon it, ready to warm the fabric skin and cushion heart with their love and passion. The couch would say that it missed them, that they all missed them, for without the two women who had breathed life and love into this home, they were nothing more than furniture, there for the seating, decoration and light.

And, as it is with all sentient things, once the life is there, once it has known love, it cannot bring itself to not miss it. The couch would say all of this, and more, if it could only speak, but it could not, and so it remained silent when a phone danced across the coffee table, whirling like a blue-green neon ballerina as it vibrated unnoticed by the dark-haired sleeper cradled in the couch's soothing embrace.

Natalia sighed in her sleep, burrowing her face farther into the back of the couch. It welcomed her, cushions soft and giving in her time of despair. If it could have spoken, it would have told her to wake, that her one true comfort was calling. Sadly, it could not.

"Jesus-Mary-Joseph-fucking-Peter-CHRIST, Natalia, answer the damn phone!" Olivia hissed into the receiver, not caring that the traitorous voicemail was recording her rant, securing her future donations to the swear jar and a very disapproving look from one set of chocolate eyes. Her maligned phone beeped mournfully as she jabbed the off-button, protesting her rough treatment in the only way it could. Olivia dropped the blackberry back down to the tabletop, allowing her elbows to rest on either side and her head to fall down to her hands, eyes never wavering from the screen, waiting, waiting, waiting for the light and movement to tell her Natalia was not out of reach completely.

Her first message had been polite, solicitous, stating her sorrow at Natalia's troubles, and her sadness at being so far apart. Twenty minutes later, her second message had been near frantic, begging Natalia to call her back, to tell her all was not lost at the hands of whatever horror the younger woman had been forced to endure alone in Olivia's absence. The third and fourth messages had been equally as frantic, though the edge had been building, growing sharper in her tone and the expulsion of breath she allowed to carry over the speaker. Olivia knew that her sighs would tell of her frustration like an audio Braille to Natalia's ears.

"Damn her." It had been an hour now, and Olivia knew, somewhere in the deep, rational part of her lizard brain that she was being unreasonable, that Natalia was not answering because she was most likely (hopefully) asleep. However, for a woman such as herself, insecurity did not show itself in tears or shame, but rather in self-righteous anger. It's not like we didn't know going into this what a bitch I can be, Olivia's helpful inner voice supplied. Yes, but it's also not like you didn't promise to try to be better, too, said a voice not unlike Natalia's, so mired was she in Olivia's thoughts and mind.

Shoulders slumped and sleep-hungry, bruised eyes closed. No. She would not allow herself to destroy this, out of fear, out of doubt. Natalia's message was not good, did not bode well, but she simply would not allow herself to take it as the death knell it once would have been, in another time, in that place she had lived before Natalia, before love, before loving.

Her fingers had dialed the number, her hand holding the phone to her ear before she even knew that she was going to do it. The ring-tone jarred against her eardrum, loud in the unspeaking quiet of a strange kitchen in a strange city. Her eyes strayed to the white cabinets, knowing that behind their veneered façade stood an empty space, vacant, bared by the owner and awaiting their next tenant.

The polite tones of the voice mail prompter stirred Olivia from her reverie. A beep signaled it was time for her to speak. Her mouth opened and shut once, twice, and then a sigh escaped, a breath of sorrow and remorse. Her words came after, as if they had been dammed in by the regret that had just escaped.

"Natalia. I- I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong, and I'm so worried because you sounded-" Olivia's voice hitched, a sob barely contained. "You sounded like something awful has happened, and I'm sorry I wasn't there, sorry I wasn't here when you called. I'm just sorry." She pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand, eyes squeezed shut against the tears that so wanted to escape. "I love you. I love you so much. Please call me back when you get this."

Gentler than the last time, she again pressed the end button on the phone, laying it softly on the kitchen table with a barely audible clack. She sat back, hands in her lap. She watched the phone. She would wait. When it came to Natalia, Olivia had gotten very good at waiting; this time would be no exception.

Olivia's head lolled back, her mouth open, soft snores filling the air around her. Her arms hung down by her sides, and her opulent green velveteen robe had fallen open, exposing her silk button up pajama shirt, unbuttoned just enough to show several inches of the slender pink braid of flesh that Ava knew wound its way down to the base of her sternum. She had awoken alone in bed after falling asleep next to her mother, and she'd experienced a moment of sheer terror that she'd done something wrong, had driven Olivia to go running away into the night. When she had stepped out of the guest bedroom where they both began the night and saw Olivia sprawled in the uncomfortable kitchen chair, she had simply been unable to walk any farther than the seat opposite, sinking in to it and drinking in the sight of her mother in the most unguarded pose she had ever seen the woman inhabit.

Her mother. Her mother, who was once lost, but now was found, on so many levels. Ava knew Olivia was no saint, knew that the woman who bore her had used that same body that carried her daughters to seduce countless men, had bartered her flesh and her attention in exchange for gifts and rewards that never lasted, and were never worth the price they'd all ended up paying in the end. Ava's hand strayed to her own belly, flat once more, but if she allowed it, she could still feel the flutter of little feet within, could still lose herself in the memories of what it had been like when she was mother to a living child, before she'd had to bury her own baby.

Strangely, it was that final loss that had taken with it any lingering anger she'd had with Olivia. They had both lost their babies. Olivia, through the grace of God and the fickle fates, had lost her baby girl, and gotten her back, a grown, angry, emotionally scarred young woman. Ava would never get her son back, would never see Max go into the world and make the exact same mistakes she had made. And, when Ava was terribly honest with herself, something she, like her mother, preferred to not often be, she would acknowledge somewhere back in the dark, secret recesses of her mind that she had actually been the lucky one. Max had not suffered, had known no fear, no hurt, no isolation. He had been born; he had been beautiful, and he died. He would not come to her twenty years later, reappearing on her doorstep with a different last name and a chip on his shoulder to go with it, anger in his eyes and hatred in his words. Max was always going to be her angel, waiting in heaven for her to earn her way in. And Ava was terribly, privately, shamefully glad of that. She did not think she could be as strong as her mother. She knew she could not be.

She studied the sleeping woman across the small kitchen table, wondering what had been so important that she'd fallen asleep in such a pose. The last she remembered, they'd been in bed, and she'd mentioned that Natalia had called. Ah, that must be it. Emma must have missed her mommy, and needed to talk to her. Ava didn't try to stop the wistful smile that washed over her visage. Seeing Olivia with Emma was simply all the confirmation she ever needed in the world that Olivia would have been a good mother to her, would have loved her, would have…

Well, that line of thinking was dangerous. Ava knew from conversations with Sam that Olivia had been raised in virtual hell. Gregory Spencer had adored his youngest daughter, showering her with affection and love. Unfortunately, that affection had replaced the love he once felt for his wife, and Rebecca Spencer had never let Olivia off the hook for her father's failings. When Sam had been born, a boy at last, Olivia, too, had been replaced in her father's eyes, but instead of finding comfort in her company, Rebecca had relished making Olivia that much more miserable. And then Ava had happened, and Rebecca died. Ava smiled. She wasn't sorry for that little part of her story. Not at all. And still… Ava knew that Sam kept a backstock of nightlights for whenever Olivia came to visit; she never questioned why, simply purchased her own supply when she'd been guided to do so. Some questions, she didn't want answered.

Her eyes focused again on her mother, tracing the scar that stood as a virtual X-marks-the-spot testament to the mortality of the great Olivia Spencer, the woman so strong, so ruthless (though Olivia would have termed it resourceful) and cunning, so invincible that, literally, she could only be felled by her own heart. Ava trace the twisted ribbon with her eyes, following it in her mind down past the buttoned up shirt, picturing the broken bones, the damaged sternum. Her eyes grew misty as she realized, truly realized, how lucky she was to have this opportunity now. There was so much she still didn't know about her mother, so many secrets left to share, memories to make.

Ava looked around her kitchen, seeing the same empty cabinets her mother had seen in the wee hours of the night before, and made the same vow that Olivia had, to not remain empty and unfulfilled. Starting today, she was going to stay closer to her mother, her little sister. There would be visits, trips, letters, emails, video chats, and phone calls, phone calls every day, phone calls to hear her mother's voice, so much like her own, to hear her sister's laughter, innocent as she hoped it always would be. She would call and speak to this Natalia as well, her mother's best friend, her sister's other mother, the woman who, Olivia had quietly confided to her last Christmas, against all odds had done what no other could even begin to approach: she had bent the mighty Olivia to her will, had forced her to live when Olivia wanted anything but. Ava wanted to know a woman like that, hell, wanted to know a person like that.

Suddenly, the phone buzzed. A glance up showed no sign of stirring from Olivia's camp, and Ava glanced down at the blackberry screen. Natalia Calling. "Well, then," Ava muttered to herself, "no time like the present!"

She scooped the phone up off the table and padded silently back into the bedroom, hitting the send button as she shut the door behind her. "Hello?" Her voice, still raspy from sleep, seemed to echo loudly in the large room, and she cleared her throat to smooth it before identifying herself. She never got the chance.

"Olivia." It was a breath, an exhalation, a benediction and a plea, all packed into four heartrending syllables.

"Ahm, I-"

"No, I need to say this and I- I really need to say it now, be-before I lose my nerve, so just be quiet and let me speak for a minute, ok?" Natalia paused, and Ava's jaw clicked shut. This was wrong. It was wrong, and she knew she would probably end up regretting it, but hell, she was Olivia Freakin' Spencer's daughter, after all! She waited.

"I love you." Ava's eyebrow arched clear up to her hairline. "I love you, Olivia, and, what's more? I'm in love with you. Completely and totally." The second eyebrow joined its mate. "And- and I know that it's going to be hard, but you know what? Yesterday was hard. Yesterday was hard, and it was awful, and I felt like everywhere I went people were judging me, thinking and- and s-saying awful things about me, and it nearly drove me out of my mind."

Ava stared unseeing at the wall in front of her, her knees having long since given out and leaving her collapsed haphazardly on the edge of the bed. "And I called you l-last night feeling like I really need- needed to hear your voice, like I really needed you to be strong for me. I worked myself up until I was crazy over it, and then I passed out on the couch wearing your tee-shirt, a-and…"

"And?" Ava whispered. She had a feeling that whatever came after 'and' was going to be the good part.

"And I dreamed of you, o-of you and Emma, back here where you belong. I dreamed of you curled up with me on the couch, and I dreamed of you i-in-" Her voice stopped and there was an audible swallow though the phone line. "I dreamed of us together, in our bed, with no guilt, no regrets to stop us, and it was wonderful. I want that. I want that with you. I'm so sorry I scared you last night. I didn't mean to." That explained Olivia's pose at the kitchen table then, Ava thought. "I'm sorry for everything." Ava had a feeling that 'everything' was a whole lot more than just the previous night. "And when you come home… I'm going to make it up to you. I have plans for you…"

Well, damn. Ava had well and truly fucked the duck with this one. She'd thought she was going to hear some funny story, not this, not this, which had shocked her completely, and not because it came from a woman. She'd simply not known that words, simple words like the ones Natalia had used, could promise so much, so much love, so much wonder, so much, yeah and ok, eew! Of course! Of course she'd finally tune back in just as Natalia decided to go all husky-voiced and seductive on who she thought was Olivia, not her seriously embarrassed daughter!

"Natalia, stop!" Ava knew she had a tendency to be a little shrill when she was alarmed, but even for her, the yelp was particularly high-pitched.

"Olivia?" Natalia sounded crushed, uncertain. Ava knew what she had to do.

"Um, not quite." Pause.

"Oh my God. Oh, sweet Jesus, help me, no. Ava?" Ava grinned; she couldn't help herself! Even in the throes of what surely must be one of the most embarrassing episodes of her life, Natalia would not curse. Olivia had mentioned the day before that Natalia kept a swear jar for when Olivia slipped, and that so far it had paid for three movie nights, complete with popcorn and candy, and about ten boxes of girl scout cookies.

"Got it in one!" she replied, hoping her own embarrassment was not translating as well through the receiver. She had a reputation to maintain after all, and a long shadow to stand under; stoic and shameless were genetic traits in her family.

"I…I-I-" Ava decided to put an end to Natalia's suffering.

"Natalia." Silence. " I should have spoken up sooner, but in a way I'm glad I didn't. I'm not sure how long it would've taken Mom to get around to talking to me about this. I'm glad- so glad!- that you two have found each other! Ever since you came into her life, she's been a different person, lighter, gentler, more open, and I know you're to thank for that."

She could still hear Natalia breathing, so that was a good sign. She hoped. "Now, Mom is going to want to hear all of that, and God knows, she deserves to hear it from you and not me. BUT, if I may recommend something?" Ava chose to interpret the faint squeak on the other end as permission. "Wait to tell her in person. She's going to want to take you up on that offer you were just mentioning to me." Ava grinned a shark's smile.

"Ok." Natalia's voice was still faint, and sounded miles away from the confidence she'd displayed just a few minutes ago.

"And Natalia?" Ava waited for her 'yes' then pounced. "You know I'm never going to let you live this down, right? Thanksgiving, Christmas, every family event we have, I'm so going to give you hell!"

Pause. "Well." Clearing her throat, Natalia threaded strength back into her voice. "That's all good and fine, but you owe a dollar to the swear jar for that last word when you get here. And tell Olivia she's in debt again, too!" *click*

Ava fell back onto the bed laughing so hard she had tears running down her face. "Oh, man. Oh, man!" She couldn't stop laughing. Natalia, little quiet, pious Natalia, the woman with the warm cookies and the dark eyes about whom she knew more in stories than in personal experience, little Natalia was so going to put her mom in her place!

"What's so funny? And why do you have my phone? I'm expecting a call." Ava bolted upright in bed with a shriek. She'd been laughing so hard that she hadn't even heard Olivia walk in.

"No, it's ok, I took your call for you." There. Now she saw it. Olivia's face dropped all expression, all except her eyes, which glittered dangerously.

"Oh? Which call was that? And what, pray tell, did you discuss?" Ava's smile got even bigger.

"So, Mom. Two questions: first, when were you gonna tell me about Natalia?"

Olivia kept her cool. Her expression didn't even change. "And your second question?"

Ava leaned forward, her smile showing sharp, white teeth. "I hear that Spanish women are the most passionate creatures alive. Care to comment?" And with that, the color drained from Olivia's face, her eyes rolled back into her head and she crumpled to the floor.


Part 3

Emma dropped her bag on the tile floor just inside the kitchen as she rounded the corner from the living room, twirling on one foot to the muted strains of Dion's "The Wanderer" coming from the radio by the stove. And then she promptly stopped. "Natalia?"

The dark-haired woman stood at the other end of the kitchen, only her torso and lower body visible beneath the open door of the freezer. The tee-shirt she wore, one that Emma recognized as her mother's, and one for which Olivia had been looking, was thin and worn, and the little girl knew that it could not be offering much protection against the cold. Emma canted her head, her blue-green eyes narrowing in confusion. She walked closer, circling around the kitchen table so as to approach her second Mommy from behind. From this vantage point, she could see that Natalia's entire body from mid-chest up was actually inside the icy box, her arms crossed and resting on the shelf, her forehead centered neatly atop them. "Natalia?" Emma was close enough now to touch her, but held back, not sure exactly why the older woman was doing what she was doing, and not quite sure she wanted any part of it if this was going to be what they did instead of eating breakfast. Natalia gave no response, no indication that she'd heard Emma speak her name.

The wide eyes narrowed, losing the curious look and echoing an annoyance that Natalia would have recognized from an older set of eyes, had she been looking into them to see it. What would Rafe do, Emma wondered. He always seemed to know just what to say when Natalia had been upset and on the phone with him, or the few times Natalia had taken her along for visiting hours at the jail. Suddenly, she knew just what to do.


Natalia's head came up off her arms so fast that it seemed to have been blown off by a bomb. The back of her skull collided with the top of the freezer, sounding a solid smack, and her arms flailed out in front of her, knocking bags of frozen leftover spaghetti sauce, green peas and packets of brittle icy meat out of the freezer and into the floor.

"Oh, whatta- ow! Dammit!" Emma's giggles, which had begun at the first jerk of Natalia's awareness, screeched to a crashing halt when the obscenity left the Latina's usually stringently curse-free lips. Natalia whirled around, one hand clasped tightly over her mouth, eyes wide and panicked as they beheld her young charge's expression.

Emma's shock faded into a thundercloud of retribution, and one arm raised up from her side, extended outward and pointed to the large glass container on the far counter. "Swear jar," she said. "And that's a two-dollar word." Wordlessly, Natalia dropped her hand from her mouth, pursing her lips and taking a deep breath through her nose. She regarded the youngest Spencer for a moment, her own eyes narrowing in silent challenge.

"I don't suppose you have anything to say about why I was scared into hitting my head there, do you?" Natalia's racing heart began to slow for the first time since she'd hung up the phone earlier that morning, finding comfort in the normalcy of parenting this precious child.

"That depends. Why were you hanging out in the freezer?" Emma's head tilted to the side again, and Natalia's heart clenched at the familiarity of the move, so much like her mother. She looked to the kitchen table, at the innocuous-seeming blackberry phone resting serenely next to a cup of cold coffee, Olivia's favorite flavor, made strong, just as she liked it, left forgotten in the heat of a full-body blush.

Natalia looked back into Emma's clear, far too observant eyes, eyes that had not left her face since she turned around from the freezer, eyes that looked so much like her mother's, and set in a face that could have been stolen from one of Olivia's childhood photo albums. She wondered briefly if Ava had also looked so much like her mother when she was younger, before age had given length to her slender limbs, narrowed the baby fat from her cheeks. Ava, Olivia's eldest, who now knew more about her feelings for Olivia than did Olivia herself. Natalia could feel the blood rushing back to her face, up her chest and neck, and she realized with a start that Emma could see it, too. The little girl was giving her the most devilish little grin. Well, that just wouldn't do.

"Ok, you! Go get the cereal, silverware and bowls! I'll get the milk, just as soon as I put this stuff back up. C'mon, now, we don't want to be late for school." Properly motivated, Emma headed over to the cabinets. Natalia put her hands on her hips, blew her cheeks out with an exhaled sigh, and briefly surveyed the mess around her. She cast her eyes upward. You trying to tell me something here, God, or did you just need a laugh like the rest of us?

After a quick clean up and a cereal breakfast, Natalia and Emma gathered up their things for the day and made their way to the door. "Wait!" Emma stopped and whirled around, her backpack threatening to counterbalance her right back onto her butt as she swayed dangerously from her swift about-face.

"What is it, honey?" Natalia reached out and cupped a soft cheek, chocolate orbs filled with concern at Emma's stricken expression.

"You forgot to put the money in the swear jar!"

Natalia remained speechless for all of thirty seconds, then nodded and reached into her purse, retrieving her wallet and pulling out two crisp one-dollar bills. "Right you are," she said, dropping the bills into the jar, hoping against hope that Olivia would not notice the contrast of her neatly maintained bills in amongst the ones and fives pulled from careless pockets and purse-bottoms, dropped into the pot as haphazardly as they had been stored by their cuss-prone keeper.

Taking Emma's hand, she led her little girl from the kitchen and out into the world, dimming the lights on her way out and shutting the door behind her. The kitchen was silent then, muffled voices fading down the path to the driveway. The air began to settle, dust motes swirling in the early morning sunlight, seeking a gentle landing in the absence of this home's beloved inhabitants. Suddenly, a jingle of keys heralded the intrusion of a body, sending the lazy specks swirling back up into the air frantically. Natalia walked back in to the kitchen, purposeful strides carrying her to the counter on which sat the swear jar, next to the miniature statue of the Virgin Mary.

A tan hand reached out, hovered over the glass lips of the money-filled former jam-holder. Slender fingers opened, and two crisply folded twenties dropped in to join the other notes within. Dark eyes glanced at the Virgin's face. "That's for what I said when I hung up the phone." A pause. "Sorry." And then she was gone again, leaving the kitchen to its silent laughter, and if it seemed that the Virgin Mother rolled her eyes, just a little bit, then it was only an optical illusion, as was the peaceful smile that seemed to widen on her lips.


Part 4

Four brawny young men climbed from the cab of a large, white truck, the side of which was decorated with smiling faces and cardboard boxes, a jaunty logo declaring the company's capacity to move whatever needed moving without damaging even the most delicate of the fragile breakables. It was a very certain statement. They had the cartoon illustrations to prove it.

They joked and jostled one another in the early morning chill as they headed up the hill to the apartment complex where their job was located. As they reached the door, the foremost reached out the push the button located next to the nametag, Peralta, Ava. In the distance, sirens sounded, and the men turned to look toward them, watching to see what was coming, curiosity taking hold as the warbling grew closer, and flashing lights appeared on the horizon.

One man turned, looking up at the building, directly at the window to the domicile he and his comrades had helped to pack up the day before. The curtain was open, a tall, dark-haired young woman gazing outward, past his companions and their truck, down the street, her expression unreadable. He followed her gaze, looking back over his shoulder, and watched as an ambulance crested the hill.

Natalia gazed through the double paned window. Her eyes did not see the slow thaw taking place outside; she did not register the green buds dotting the branches that tapped against the glass when the breeze tickled them, nor did she notice the forthright reds and yellows adorning the hardy blossoms that pushed themselves obstinately from beneath the frozen tundra in the flowerbeds beyond the lake. Her gaze drifted, unfocused, floating out across the waters of Springfield and flowing, undammed, into the raging currents of her mind. Natalia was adrift, body left vacant and wanting in the chair that normally cradled a taller, longer form, though one just as prone to pontification when left alone in the early morning mist of loneliness.

Olivia had not called. Natalia knew that there was a significant time difference, that San Francisco sat on the opposite side of one very large chunk of the former Pangaea, but this was Olivia. Olivia, who had once called her from the bathroom in her suite, just to tell her that the Mexican buffet had been a bad idea and to fire whichever chef had provided lukewarm ground beef for the taco salads. Natalia had been torn between laughter at the abject horror she knew Olivia was going to experience later (when her head cleared and she realized the writing between the lines of calling her PA from the bathroom) and exquisite adoration for the woman who would think that eating healthy, as a heart transplant recipient such that she was, would include any kind of meat whatsoever, so long as it was prepared and served on a bed of greens. In the end, she'd had no chance to choose either; Olivia's wherewithal had returned with a tigress' ferocity, and her ears had been met with a growled, half-assed threat of retribution should Natalia repeat this to anyone, then the dial tone of a disconnected line.

Olivia should have called her back by now.

The office phone chirped behind her. Natalia swiveled in the chair, the expensive leather creaking as she tilted forward to grasp the receiver. "Olivia Spencer's office, Natalia speaking." Inwardly, she marveled at the cool, professional tones emerging from her parched throat. A year ago, she would have stared mutely at the phone, hands helpless and wasted in her lap.

Now, though, on one hand, sure fingers gripped the smooth black column of the earpiece while the other drummed perfectly manicured nails against the chrome-plated laptop sitting closed on the desk. It had been a gift, given when she accepted her position as Olivia's personal assistant. "Something shiny for my shiny new worker bee," she'd said, lop-sided smile firmly in place. Mahogany eyes fluttered closed, sealing in the shadows of pain and longing.

The voice on the other end droned on, buzzing in her ear like a gnat on a hot, summer's day. Suddenly, like a cable stretched too taught over too many years, made weary and brittle by hard use and too little care, Natalia Rivera snapped. "I don't care, Adam!" Silence. "If the maids want to go on strike because they're tired of the concierge staff sending them to the wrong rooms at the wrong times, then fucking let them! It's no skin off my ass. MY goddamn job is running just fine, thank you, and I've got bookings coming out my ears. YOU are the fucking staff manager, so why don't you grow some balls and handle your shit, you piss-poor excuse for a leader!"

The voice on the other end sounded confused. "Uhm…Natalia? Are you-"

"Am I what? What?! Am I well? Do I sound fucking well to you, Adam?"

"Uh… no?"

"No! Exactly! So, knowing that I'm not well, acknowledging that, why, why are you still trying to foist your fucking management failures on me?! You are a manager. Manage, goddammit!"

The resounding crash of the receiver slamming back down into the cradle echoed throughout the whole office.

Natalia fell back into the chair that was the closest thing she had to Olivia's embrace at the moment, a tactile memento of something she had been so afraid to want, more afraid to need. Fear. Fear had cost her so much in life. Fear was a waste. Fear was a weakness, and Natalia vowed, she would be weak no more.

"Sometimes, what's right isn't what's right away, m'love. You've got to be strong. You gotta fight for what's right in yer life, lassie!" The lilting voice sounded in her memory as clearly as the bells ringing in the clock, chiming the hours, one, two… Natalia's eyes slipped closed again, and she drifted in a haze back to the first time she'd heard that statement, back to the woman who'd made it, back to the first time she'd been afraid…and the first time she'd been brave.

Shannon O'Tooley-Garcia was an institution at Chicago's St. Mary's School for Girls. At 5'2" and with typically Irish attributes barely restrained by her nun's attire of tan sweaters and long skirts, hair in braids down her back, curly red tendrils always escaping, waving in the air like Medusa's serpents, and clever green eyes that never missed a thing, she was the walking epitome of Irish-Catholic. Father Ramon had led her in to the classroom one day on the first morning of class, waiting by the door in case she needed his help on this, her first day. Jade eyes surveying her domain, the befreckled woman had tilted back her head and hollered her presence to the assembled children. "Ya all may call me Sister Ignacious!"

One rambunctious little boy, Esteban, well-known for his troublemaking, had raised his hand, not waiting for her acknowledgement to call out his cheeky question. "You don't look Spanish; how come you gotta Spanish name?"

Sister Ignacious pursed her lips, then walked to the doorway. With a calm smile directed at Father Ramon, she had pushed the door to. Esteban had gone on to become a star student, eventually rising from his working class roots to become a successful businessman and Alderman for the neighborhood. No one had ever spoken of what happened that day behind the closed door, but, from that point on, everyone knew, Sister Ignacious walked with God… and she carried a mighty big stick, too.

Sister Ignacious had taken a shine to a young Natalia Rivera. She called on her in class, even when Natalia was the only one whose hand was not raised. "Miss Rivera! What's yer answer to that one, lass?" She signed Natalia's name to the communion volunteer list, even when Natalia had no intention of giving away her Saturdays to work in a soup kitchen. All in all, she made Natalia's life a living hell, and didn't stop once the girl had graduated beyond her year in the red-headed nun's classroom.

The other teachers saw it, and did nothing. Rather, they did nothing to stop Sister Ignacious. Instead, they kept a close eye on little Natalia Rivera. Sister Ignacious possessed the most wondrous, rare ability to see greatness where others saw only mediocrity, and had paired that gift with the grit and determination of a God-loving dedicate to bring that greatness to the surface whenever she found it lurking.

Years went by, and Natalia grew taller and more beautiful with each day. She was still shy, but she found herself buoyed by Sister Ignacious' confidence in her, by the way the nun always seemed to think that Natalia would know how to do something, would have the answer. And, one day, Natalia realized that she didn't hate the wild-haired woman at all. That she respected her. That she'd learned from her. That she admired her. She trusted her, would turn to the older woman when she needed advice, counsel or just a friendly ear. She'd come to rely on Sister Ignacious just as much as, if not more so than, her parents. And then, God pulled the carpet out from under Natalia and Sister Ignacious both, and did so in the shape of a man. His name was David Alonso Garcia, and he was a sinner.

David was a gambler, a smoker, a womanizer and a drinker. He had the charm to keep him pretty and unscarred, and the intelligence to keep his apartment well-furnished and in the nicer part of town. His mother's religion had never left him, even as he failed to live up to its ideals, and, come rain or shine, he found himself in church every Sunday. David owned, among other things, a small diner on the corner of 4th and Lasher, and in that diner, less than two blocks from her home, a ten-year-old Natalia Rivera would witness a nun, a wife of God, get herself a holy divorce with the first touch of David Garcia's lips upon her own.

Natalia had stood outside the plate glass window, had watched as Sister Ignacious allowed this man, this earthly creature, to step between her and God. Natalia had burned with righteous fury, had burst in through the squeaky doors, the bright afternoon sun casting angry shadows across her young face.

"How dare you?!" She had cried, looking at the dark-eyed man with his hands still holding the hips that had been promised to God for longer than Natalia had been on this earth, glaring into his wide eyes, but really speaking to his companion.

"Natalia." Sister Ignacious had spoken her given name for the first time in Natalia's memory that day. "David didn't do anythin' that God didn't want him ta do."

Natalia's face had expressed her confusion, her hurt, it must have, because Sister Ignacious had crossed the floor to her before she even registered that the woman had moved. "Natalia," she said, the rolling green hills of her homeland so prominent still in her voice, "I don't expect ya ta really understand, but…" She looked back over her shoulder at the dark man smiling softy, watching their conversation intently but peering up sideways so as not to appear nosy.

Grass-colored eyes met amber pools of hurt again. "God has seen fit ta send him ta me, to send us down a new path now." She smiled, tremulously and, Natalia could now realize, fearfully. "I know it seems strange, that ya don't know why I'm doin' what I'm doin', but I'm happy, m'love."

She'd reached out then, grasping Natalia's shoulders and bending down so that they shared an eye-level gaze. "Remember this, m'gel. Sometimes, what's right isn't what's right away, m'love. You've got to be strong. You gotta fight for what's right in yer life, lassie!" She smiled then, and Natalia realized she'd never seen the older woman look so happy. And so, she'd been happy, too, happy with her, and for her.

Of course, it had been a huge scandal in the neighborhood. Nobody approved. Everyone secretly expressed the opinion that it would be best if Shannon O'Tooley quietly leave, now that she no longer wore her nun's impunity, but she ignored them. She had become Mrs. David Alonso Garcia, and she had eventually given him four children to run his many businesses. And, when she went to church with her bustling brood, Natalia would join them, sitting quietly with the Garcia clan in the pew they always chose, braving her parents' and peers' disapproval without a care in the world. Yes, Natalia had rebelled, even if it was still in church, and with her head bowed in prayer.

Six years later, newly orphaned by cold-hearted parents, Natalia had turned again to the only other person she could trust. Now with grey curls running through the red, the former nun hadn't hesitated to push the door open when she saw Natalia's tear-streaked face through the peephole. She had housed Natalia, had loved her, had held Rafe with Natalia watching in the hospital. She'd been the one to teach Natalia how to hold a baby so it would feed properly, and she'd shown her the best way to change a diaper. She'd co-signed on Natalia's first apartment, protesting all the while that Natalia shouldn't feel like she couldn't stay right where she was, with them, but knowing that the young woman had a point to prove, to herself, and to the world.

And, when Natalia was twenty, and a tumble on an icy sidewalk outside that old soup kitchen had sent the former teacher tumbling down the cement stairs of the walkway, 'til she came to rest with eyes unblinking skyward, toward heaven, toward the God with whom she'd trusted her life, she exhaled her last breath and her soul together, setting them both free to flutter in the winds of the city.

Natalia had always felt that Shannon, as she'd come to know her, was watching over her, guiding her still. Now, as she sat in the chair that was not half as nice as the arms in which she wanted to reside, she knew that Shannon would not have been very happy with her actions as of late.

"God's given me a gift, hasn't he, Shannon? And I- I've been too afraid to take it." Her eyes opened, dark chocolate gone flinty with determination. "Well, that ends now."

The chrome computer was up and running with just a few touches, and the travel website was still sending the confirmation email as Natalia walked out of the office, purpose in her stride and strength in her voice. "Hi, Jane? It's Natalia. Look, I know this is last minute, but-"

The click of the door latching as it shut behind her ended whatever else Natalia may have been saying. The chair creaked happily of its own accord.


Part 5

Ava, fully dressed now in jeans and a tee-shirt, watched as the ambulance wailed past the apartment complex, swerving around the moving truck that would hold the rest of her belongings in just a few hours. She let the curtain fall back across the window, and turned to walk into the main room so she could buzz in her hired help. Stepping over her mother's prone body on the way, she stopped at the doorjamb and looked back. "You gonna stay there all day? Cuz I'm pretty sure these guys are gonna be a little weirded out by that."

Olivia's left eye popped open, followed by her right, and she swiveled her head to look at her daughter, the pout on her face showcasing the direct root of Emma's similar expression. "Not even a moment's concern for your dear, sweet mother, who came all the way across the country to help you move?!" She pushed her shoulders up, leaning back on her elbows, forearms flat on the floor and flowing down to tapered fingers spread wide on the hardwood slats. "What if my heart had given out? How would you feel then, huh?" Honey-wheat eyebrows arched across a porcelain brow.

"Please, Mom. You forget, I was there when you were doing all that genuine fainting. I know what the real McCoy looks like. Besides, you went down like a bad soap opera actress. Seriously, if I wanted to see that kind of bad acting, I'd go turn on All My Children." She left the room, calling back through the door as she did, "Hey, you might wanna put some clothes on, too. These guys are pros, but that doesn't mean they're robots."

Olivia glared darkly at the doorway for a minute, then cast an assessing glance down at her attire. Dammit. Ava did have a point about the clothes thing, but really?! A bad soap actress? To whom did she think she was speaking?! And then, another thought. "Hey!" she yelled, still reclining on the floor. "You watch soaps?!"

Olivia opened the door to the bedroom and stepped out, only to immediately jump back to dodge the stocky man trekking to the door with a kitchen table on his back. He stopped to apologize, but ended up stumbling, mouth open, when his eyes found themselves speared by her glare. He made what resembled a croaking sound, though any toad worth his warts would have been appalled to claim it as such.

"Mom, play nice." Olivia detoured her gaze across the room to meet Ava's, noting absently that the young woman was standing amongst several barrels of what looked to be paint, with folded white sheets around them.

What the hell. He hadn't actually damaged her in any way. Olivia turned back to the still paralyzed moving boy, allowing her eyes to go misty green and drawing a seductive smile across her full lips. "My bad," she purred, then dragged her eyes down his chest, biting her lower lip as she went. "Do be careful with that," she said. "I'd hate to see such pretty wood damaged." She snapped her eyes back up to his, observing his dilated pupils and raspy, harsh breathing. She winked, then stepped around him and sauntered across the room to stand next to her daughter, who was watching her with a bemused expression.

"I thought I told you to play nice?"

"What?" Olivia smirked. "That was nice. I just made his fucking day!" Ava rolled her eyes. Olivia grinned at her, then propped her hands on her hips as she looked around the almost empty apartment.

"Wow, just about done, huh? Have you had them get the kitchen sink yet?"

"It's not going to work, you know." Olivia's brow furrowed and she turned to meet her daughter's unwavering stare.

"What's not going to work?" Was that a flash of nerves in the mighty Olivia Spencer's expression? Did her voice flutter ever so slightly?

"You. Trying to distract me from talking about Natalia. You and Natalia, more specifically. Now, come on, Mom. She thought I was you on the phone, ok? She. Thought. I. Was. You." Ava paused, regarding Olivia's carefully molded blank face. One heartbeat. Another. Then…

"What did she say?" And in that instant, Ava saw her mother for the little girl she had once been, saw the broken young woman, saw the soft heart hiding behind the façade of a cold, hard shell. The world around them seemed to dim and vanish entirely as Ava Peralta beheld her mother in all her glory for the first time in her life.

"Oh, Mom." Ava stepped forward, her arms wrapping protectively and fiercely around quaking shoulders. Her cheek pressed into hair the color of pale almonds left out in the sun, and she spoke softly into the ear beneath the sweet-smelling strands. "She needs to tell you that herself. Don't worry, though; you're really going to like hearing it."

Olivia's arms circled Ava's waist, tightening at her words. "Thank you. For understanding… for not asking me to explain myself-"

"Explain yourself?!" Ava pulled back, grinned widely, and winked roguishly. "Mom, come on; it's me?! If anyone would understand what it's like to simply want that thing that makes you happy, no matter what, or who it is, well… I get it. Natalia is lovely. I'm looking forward to getting to know her much, much better now that she and I both are going to be around so much more."

Olivia's eyes began to fill with tears, and Ava knew that if she didn't act fast, she was going to have one sobbing lost-and-found mother on her hands. She thought quickly, then, "And you know what else? I am going to really enjoy teasing her about the fact that she said it to me first for years to come!" There, that did the trick. Olivia's eyes widened briefly, then narrowed, sly intelligence shining through the emerald hue.

"Oh, really? Well. How soon are your boys going to be done? I want to call Natalia back, but I don't want all this noise in the background to distract me." Nor do I want to have an audience in case it doesn't go well. "Emma should be at school by now, and she's probably in my office, wondering why I haven't called yet." The normally stoic woman worried the ring on her hand, her eyes flitting about the room, refusing to make contact with Ava's.

"Why haven't you called her back?" Ava asked.

"I-" Olivia gulped, then continued in a near whisper. "I was afraid of what she might say. This is so new, and nothing is sure yet. I just don't know where I stand with her, and every time she calls, or texts, or stops by to see me, I'm so afraid that she's about to end it, to say she can't do it and walk right back out of my life." She stared vacantly at the wall, her eyes not seeing the blue lacquer coating its surface.

"Mom." Olivia gave no indication of having heard her. "Mom, look at me." She did. "Go call her back, Mom. Trust me." Olivia looked panic-stricken for a moment, but then her face melted into a beaming smile. Without another word, she turned and walked into the bedroom.


Part 6

Natalia sprawled naked across the bed in Olivia's old room, the covers heaved to the floor in a random moment of pique. Too hot, it was too hot. The open windows and slowly rotating fan did nothing to cool the blush of fire that ran through her veins. Her skin sizzled as she ran tracing fingertips down her chest, across her belly, circling her naval, then rising up again, fingernails lightly scratching as she reached her sternum and veered right. She closed her eyes, blocking amber gone obsidian from the moon's curious gaze. One finger circled the heavy globe of her breast, the fine hairs of her body standing on end as it neared the center. Once, twice, three times she allowed her nail to flicker over her nipple, the puckered bud straining, rising higher, desperate for more contact.

This is how Olivia would tease me, she told herself. This is how she would drive me crazy. Tan fingers pinched, twisted, and Natalia cried out in agony, in ecstasy, a harsh gasp riding a whimper's back pushing its way from her throat. Her other hand fisted in the pillow under her head, bunching the material as she turned her face into the soft down, mouth open, inhaling deeply of Olivia's scent, rubbing her cheek across fabric so soft and fine that it may as well have been silk. Just like Olivia's skin, an errant thought stated.

The fingers at her breast abandoned their delicious torture, spreading outward from the areola until her palm flattened itself across the soft flesh. She squeezed, pushing herself into her own hand, murmuring, "Oh, God. Olivia. Olivia!"

"You rang?" And then she was there, hovering over Natalia in the silver moonlight, her hair hanging down to hide her face as she lowered her body onto the Latina's waiting form. Natalia could only watch her, eyes wide and dark, completely lost in the sensation of Olivia's gloriously naked skin sliding so sweetly down her own, the sweat from her arousal causing their bodies to cling, creating delicious tension and friction. Their breasts met, kissed and settled against one another, and Natalia felt her arms slide up and around Olivia's back of their own accord.

"Oh, God! How did you- when?"

"Shhh." Olivia's breath was warm against her lips, and she tilted her head, allowing the light to reach her face, eyes twinkling merrily as the light revealed her infamous lop-sided come-hither smile. "No more talking, baby."

Lips collided, mouths opening hungrily against each other, tongues reaching out, meeting, stroking, caressing. Natalia felt a groan rise through her chest and leave her, disappearing into Olivia's fiery kiss. She was undone. She was in love. She was at peace, and she had never been more in need. "Olivia, please."

"Please what, Natalia?" She drawled her name, dragging her tongue across the dark woman's jaw. "Tell me what you want," she whispered as she suckled the tender spot just below a delicate ear. "Tell me what you need," as sharp teeth nipped a tantalizing earlobe. "Tell me how to please you." Her lips blazed heatedly down a tan neck, teeth alternating with a skilled tongue to nip then soothe their way down the slender column. "Tell me what you like." She propped herself up on one elbow, running her hand over Natalia's breast, caressing and squeezing it as Natalia had been doing before she arrived. "Tell me how you like to be touched, love." She lowered her head, hot breath heralding her mouth's destination seconds before silken lips closed over a painfully erect nipple, cheeks hollowing as she sucked, hard, then laved gently with her tongue. "I need you to tell me, Natalia." Her free hand traveled to Natalia's other breast, closing over it as her tongue flickered over its current target, hardening and puckering the nipple unimaginably more.

"God, Liv! Just-I don't know! I-" Natalia's breath caught in her throat, escaping abrasively, the air around her too thick with desire to be any good for breathing.

"Do you trust me then?" Natalia looked down, her desire-blackened eyes meeting verdant ice chips, glowing emerald with desire and barely pent-up passion. "Will you trust me to have you? To show you what you want? What your body tells me you need, even if you don't- if you can't see it yourself?" The gaze softened, rapturous currents of warmth and love flooding both her voice and her expression. "Will you let me love you, Natalia?"

"Yesss." The answer escaped her as a sibilant hiss, want and need and love and lust making anything other than that one single word impossible. Their eyes held, and Olivia grinned, teeth flashing in the moonlight.

"Good." Olivia lowered her head, eyes never leaving Natalia's as her lips began to trace down Natalia's stomach, tongue flicking out to-


Natalia's eyes jerked open, her chest heaving. Peripherally, she registered the captain's voice on the intercom, announcing their final approach to the airport. She glanced around, blushing furiously as she recalled what she'd been dreaming just before the intercom bell had woken her. Absently, she wondered if she had been moaning in her sleep as she had been in her dream, and she blushed harder at the thought of anyone hearing her. Noting that no one was looking at her, she blew her cheeks out, fanning herself gently by fluttering her blouse against her chest. She looked out the window, watching as the plane descended through the clouds and offered her the very first view she'd ever had of the city by the bay.

San Francisco was beautiful; Ava had done well in choosing such a lovely home, she thought with a smile. A smile which faded after she recalled what else Ava had done well. Little brat. Pretending to be her mother on the damn phone! Natalia was sure she had meant it when Ava'd promised to torture her forever about that. She was her mother's daughter. But that wasn't going to stop Natalia from doing what she'd come to do: bring Olivia home. And, hopefully, seduce her along the way.

She grimaced. That was going to be easier said than done. As her dream, hot though it was, had so amply demonstrated, she had no idea at all what she was supposed to do once they both got naked together, she only knew that she wanted said nakedness to happen. Soon. Or she was probably going to explode, and there would be little sizzling Natalialets littering the surrounding area. Oh, people would really talk then, wouldn't they? "Hey did you hear about Natalia Rivera? No? Well, let me tell you, that girl sure knows how to go out with a bang!..." Naked Olivia. Yeah. Natalia wanted that a lot. She just didn't quite know what to do with her should she ever get her wish.

She'd never known what to do with Nicky, either. Mostly, she'd just been happy to please him, to feel close to him. Once, when she'd been tipsy after a whole lot of wine, and Nicky had been in a particularly affectionate mood, he had spent time touching her, down there, with his hands, telling her that he loved her, that she was his pure, sweet girl, and that he wanted to give her more babies, more everything. She had been feeling something, something wonderful, like a swarm of tingling bees expanding in her abdomen, but then he'd stopped and climbed atop her, pushing inside and jerking back and forth with grunts and moans. No, she'd never known what to do with Nicky, but she was beginning to suspect that he'd never known what to do with her either.

Olivia made her feel more in a single hug than either Nicky or Frank had been able to make her feel after a whole night of being inside her. Natalia pursed her lips. Well, that was it, then. She was going to follow her subconscious' advice, and trust Olivia to know exactly what she needed. She leaned her head back against the headrest, a decidedly wicked smile spreading across her lips. Oh, yesss, indeed!

"What do you mean, she's not in the state, Adam? And why didn't you mention that twenty minutes ago, instead of just saying she might or might not be reachable by phone? What are you trying to do, GET yourself fired?!" Olivia's voice reminded Adam of the smooth, mirrored surface of the water at his Grandfather's lakeside cabin. It had always been so still that you could see the sky above and the green forest all around reflected back in the pure, clean liquid mirror. It was, however, a lie.

Adam knew this from watching his grandfather cast line after baited line into the mirrored nadir, from watching the man pull fierce, razor-finned, gaping-mouthed fish from its depths, their maws gasping, sucking greedily as they cast about angrily for their denied prey. The lake waters had run deep, and had been filled with predators and other dark inhabitants. And though their beauty belied it, he knew those waters held deep, dangerous secrets.

Adam suspected that Olivia's mind was not all that different, and, in spite of how she had treated him that morning, he was loathe to betray Natalia to that loathsome marauder. Natalia was human, and was often the buffer between not only himself, but the other staff, hell, the whole friggin' world and the force of nature best known to friends and enemies alike as Olivia Freakin' Spencer. Plus, he'd admitted to himself in retrospect, she had been right, if slightly harsh about it. But hey, working directly under Olivia Spencer would stress anyone out, right?

So, he had evaded the hotelier's questions. He had hemmed. He had sidestepped direct queries with vagaries and hazy return inquiries, all until now, until just now, when the unthinkable had happened. Olivia Spencer had cracked.

"Adam, please. I don't- I don't know where she is. I need to find her. I need to at least know that she's alright! Whatever she's done, whatever you're trying to hide, to cover up for her, I don't fucking care! I need to at least know that nothing's wrong. Please? Please, just tell me she's ok?" Adam held the phone away from his face, staring at it as if he'd never seen such a device before, as if it were the tangible representation of life as he knew it coming to an abrupt and cataclysmic end. "Adam? Are you there?" It was barely a whisper, and, if he hadn't known better, if her name wasn't right there on the Caller ID screen, Adam would have sworn that the voice on the other end sounded choked with tears. His jaw snapped shut with a click, and he blinked, suddenly flashing backward in his mind, remembering a week ago, when he'd ridden in the elevator with Olivia and Natalia up to the top floor, he going to his office, the two women to Olivia's suite after a late-night working dinner. Only, in retrospect… he'd only assumed it was a working dinner, that Olivia would callously require Natalia to give up her evenings and precious time with her loved ones to work, to slave, even after she'd cast the indomitable Spencer women out of her home.

But… they hadn't been holding any files, hadn't been arguing about any prices or pitches for the following day. They had been standing in the back of the car, shoulder to shoulder, leaning toward each other with their heads tilted inward, creating a triangle of privacy that he had been unwilling and unable to disturb. They had murmured softly, indistinguishably to each other, Natalia's giddy giggles rolling out at one point to something Olivia had said.

"Oh my GOD," he said into the phone. "You two are together!" Silence.

Then, "Adam, I don't know what you-"

"Oh, hold up just one deggum second here!" Adam slapped the hold button, yelled across the lobby for Marvin to watch the front desk, and darted into the concierge's office, ignoring Marvin's complaints that, one, he was a bartender, and two, an off-duty bartender at that, in addition to which, he was not a goddamn bellhop. Adam slammed the office floor and rounded the desk, sliding into the chair. He grabbed the receiver, put it to his ear, took a deep, calming breath, and then pressed Line 1. "You still there?"

"Yes." Well, God-BE-damned. Olivia Spencer had held on the line, had waited for him, a lowly peon, and had NOT pounced on him and eviscerated him for unholy lack of respect just as soon as she'd been able. Well, now he knew it was serious.

"I'm sorry for that. I just figured, you know- it'd be best if people couldn't overhear this conversation, so I came into the office."

"I am not about to waste my time gossiping about my private life or the personal events therein to you, of all people, Adam!" The steel was back. "I am only speaking to you now because Natalia's phone went straight to voicemail, as did Jane's, and Natalia's voicemail has directed me to you. I can tell that you know more than you're saying, and I need you to tell me where she fucking is or so help me God I will find a way to reach through this fucking phone and tear your eyes from your goddamned mealy face and shove them up your ass just so you can watch from the best vantage point possible as I shove your head in after!" She was shrieking now, and Adam knew three things: One, she was serious. Two, if anyone could find a way to make good on that promise, it would be her. And three, she was head over heels in love with Natalia Rivera.

"No, no, calm down! I'm not gossiping, I just didn't want to tell you where she is where others could hear." He paused, waiting for some confirmation that Olivia's angry haze had cleared somewhat and that she was listening to him again.

"Go on."

He smiled. Big bad hardasses in love; he just adored how the mighty could fall so hard and so quickly. "She's on a plane. She didn't want to tell me where she was going at first, but I threatened to call you, and she confessed that she was already heading your way. She lands in about two hours. She gave me her flight number, if you want to meet her there."

There was an almighty pause, and Adam was about to start worrying when at last she spoke. "She's coming here?" It occurred to Adam then that the Olivia Spencer the world knew must be a very different Olivia Spencer indeed to those lucky enough to see that part of her. She sounded soft, tender and slightly lost, and he found himself swept up with a strange surge of protectiveness, even as he told himself it was insane to feel this way about this particular person.

"Yes. She's coming there. To see you, Olivia." Ok, that last bit was a guess, but it didn't take a fairy gay-mother to divine that something bad had gone down, and that Natalia was headed out to Olivia to fix it. More silence. "Olivia?" He never called her by her first name, and here he'd done it twice in one sitting. Adam was living life on the edge.


"We all love Natalia here. And, we all love our jobs, even if you are a bit… demanding at times." A mirthless chuckle rang through the phone connection. "But, you know? Things have never been better than when you two are at your best, and everyone here knows it. So… I guess what I'm saying is that, whenever you two decide to let the rest of the world know? This place? We'll be behind you."

Again, silence, and then Olivia whispered a muted thank you, and Adam knew he heard tears in her voice that time. He smiled, holding the phone with one hand and resting his face in other as he leaned on the arm of the chair. "So… you want the flight number, or what?"

"Yes, I want the damn flight number, Adam. But then I have a few other things I need you to take care of for me." Once again, Olivia had pulled herself together, and Adam marveled at her ability to just snap into focus like that. He'd have to remember that in case he ever got the idiotic idea to try sentimental advantages with that woman; he sincerely doubted they'd work.

As he relayed the pertinent information, then listened with a growing smile to the other woman's instructions, Adam felt his heart clench with genuine affection for his boss and her chosen love. When they disconnected (and not before Adam had been sworn to secrecy, twice, at the threat of yet two more particularly inventive threats), he set about his tasks with a renewed vigor. Things were going to be very different around here soon, and he was going to do everything in his power to make those changes as positive as possible. Plus, he grinned to himself: gigantic brownie points for helping the boss-lady bag a major hottie! He picked up the phone and dialed, pulling up the credit account as the voice on the other end answered, "Thank you for calling Hotel Nikko, this is Samuel speaking, how can I assist you?"

Natalia fumbled with the shoulder strap of her bag as she stepped off the escalator that had brought her down to the baggage claim area. The woman at the desk (who had been straight out of the sixties with that weird neckerchief part of her airline personnel outfit) had told her that the taxis were just beyond the baggage claim, outside in the yellow area. "Yellow area. What does that even mean?!" The dark-haired woman muttered to herself as she stepped out of the walkway to reach into her bag and retrieve her phone.

This was just great. She pressed the power switch and watched the screen light up. What was she even going to say? "Hi, Olivia. Yeah, I just happened to be in the general geographic locale and thought I'd swing by and say hi. So… hi! Mind if I come over, hang out for a bit, then steal you away for some naked time together?" Well, Natalia smiled. On second thought, Olivia would probably respond very well to that last part, if her past with other lovers was any indicator.

And then the smile abruptly left her face, melting away as she realized that, not only did she not want to think of all the interlopers who'd trod on the holy ground she hoped to personally desecrate so soon, she also seriously did not want to consider how much experience said holy ground had with desecration. Because really? Natalia was a good catholic girl. Not the kind they made dirty movies about, but the honest to goodness Good Catholic Girl. What the hell did she know about the kinds of lovemaking, the kinds of sex, that Olivia would know and enjoy? Oh, this was all a mistake. She fought back tears as she hefted her bag, ready to turn around and walk right back into the belly of the airport, buy a ticket, and go home to bury her head in the sand of her personal, shameful failings.

BZZZ! Natalia glanced down at the phone in her hand, surprised to see a text flashing on the screen.

From: Adam

Oh, shit. Olivia knew. Which meant that Olivia was probably pretty mad, considering she'd not called back before Natalia was already coating across the airways toward California- BEEP, BEEP!

What now? The voicemail emblem was flashing. Oh, boy. Olivia had called back after all… she'd just missed her. Natalia closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned back around, casting her eyes about for the pick up area. She saw several young men and women clustered together who were all wearing differing variations on the traditional chauffeur's uniform. "Well, here we go," she said.

As she got closer, she could see one in particular holding a sign with the name Rivera printed neatly across it in gold lettering. She walked up to him. "Hi! I think you're waiting on me-"

"Of course, Ms. Rivera!" He smiled, his teeth blindingly white, and had removed her bag from her shoulder before she could even register that he was reaching for it. "Right this way, please." He gestured for her to follow him, then managed to walk ahead of her at just her pace, serving the double function of leading her out into the muggy heat, so different from her weather back home (thank God she'd foregone the jacket inside!), and of clearing a path for the smaller Latina through the stifling press of hurried bodies. He led her to a gleaming black limo, pausing only to place her bag gently into the trunk, then swept back around the side and pulled open the door for her. Natalia stepped up to get in, then gasped at what was sitting there in the car, clearly placed there just so in order to meet her approval. "Oh, my…" she said.

Olivia threw her purse onto her shoulder as she sped out of the bedroom, hanging up the phone as she went. She wore a skin tight dress, colored a deep wine red to match her lipstick and shoes, and cut to highlight her considerable assets with great aplomb. "I'll call you later, Ava, the car is here, and I have to go get everything ready to meet Natalia."

Ava looked away from her supervisory vantage point, from which she was watching the moving men cum house painters repaint her walls to their original white. Originally, she and Olivia were going to do that particular task, but when Olivia had been given that news, delivered between bouts of overheard screaming and ranting into the phone as she'd tried, unsuccessfully, to reach Natalia, Jane, or any other living soul in Springfield apparently, she'd taken a break from the emotional breakdown to declare war on menial labor.

"Not a chance in hell," she'd exclaimed. "Just have the moving boys do it!"

"They're moving men, not painters; they won't paint for me!"

"How much you wanna bet?" Olivia'd had that gleam in her eye that Ava recognized from her own reflection when she was about to pull off something big, but she'd been unable to resist the bait.

"Whatcha got?" And Olivia had smiled dangerously.

Now, Ava acknowledged that she much preferred having the painting done by a bunch of men who were too sadly and easily influenced by a pretty face, batting eyelashes and a low cut shirt, but she would be lying if she tried to pretend that she wasn't a little miffed, considering what the bet had ended up costing her. Oh, well. "What time are you meeting her, Mom?"

"As soon as possible." Olivia flashed Ava a smile that she'd never seen before on her mother's face; it fairly radiated warmth and happiness, glowing as it was from her eyes, her skin, her whole body. She embodied bliss in that moment, was a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood personification of joyous love. Ava felt her stomach clench with the beauty of it, and something in her expression must have worried the older woman because she stopped at the door, smile fading, looking at Ava with concern. "What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"Nothing, Mom." Ava smiled, feeling, for the first time in as long as she cared to remember, a true, unvarnished hope for herself and her future. "Nothing at all. I'll see you two tomorrow, right?"

"Unless things take a turn for the worst, yes." Olivia hesitated, clearly torn between what lay beyond the door in which she stood, framed by the late-morning sun, and what remained behind.

"Go, Mom," Ava gently chided. "You don't want to keep her waiting. I'll see you tomorrow." She walked to the older woman, throwing her arms around Olivia's neck and whispering into her hair. "I love you. I'm so glad you came. We will have more time together, I promise, but if you don't get your ass in gear right now, I will lose all respect for you entirely." She pulled back and grinned at her mother.

"Impertinent brat." Olivia's smile belied the harsh statement. "Love you, too, kiddo. See you tomorrow." She rested her palm briefly on Ava's cheek, thumb stroking the soft skin, then collected herself with a shake, turning and walking out the door.

Ava's grin sharpened, looking for all the world like the shark who'd swallowed the diver. "Oh, you are so about to meet your match, Mom."

Natalia's eyes widened as she watched the long legs slowly uncross, bare skin caressed by the edges of shimmering red fabric, tapering down into elegant calves and delicate ankles, ending in perfectly manicured feet encased in matching high heels. She thumped down into the seat, not even caring that she herself was wearing old blue jeans and a soft t-shirt, so taken was she with the vision before her eyes.

"Hi there." Olivia smiled, then ducked her head, shyness, such a new sensation for her, overcoming the bravado she'd felt when she'd chosen this outfit. "You surprised me, so I thought maybe you wouldn't mind if I surprised you back a little." She peeked up through her lashes, cucumber green eyes meeting dark chocolate, and Natalia vaguely recognized the sensation of a door shutting at her back.

Olivia nervously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, undone completely by the raw, voracious way that Natalia was ogling her, eyes gone obsidian with lust trailing down her body, then back up again, finally coming to rest on her lips, where they sharpened, focused. "I arranged for us to have a room at the Nikko. Actually, I had Adam arrange it. He knows by the way, the little shit." Olivia was in full-tilt ramble now, the hunger pouring from Natalia's gaze having effectively rendered her smooth-o-meter absolutely useless. "Anyway, I got us a private suite, which has more than one room, in case you-"

And then hot lips were fastened to her own, stopping whatever else she'd been about to say. A velvet tongue swiped against her lower lip, then her upper, and Olivia's mouth opened on a groan, granting entrance to Natalia's quest. Olivia entertained a brief coherent thought, God, she tastes so good, and then greedy hands wound their way into sun-kissed golden hair and gripped into fists, officially short-circuiting Olivia's mind into pure sensation. Natalia threw her leg over Olivia's to straddle her lap, jean-clad knees sinking into the plush leather of the car seat. Olivia ran her hands up the Latina's back, down again, slipping them under the hem of her shirt and caressing the skin they found there, leaving hot, tingling trails in their wake. Natalia's spine arched into the sensation, and she tore her lips away to cry, "Olivia!"

"Yes, baby?" Olivia tilted her head forward, resting her brow against Natalia's. Their eyes met, locked. Olivia licked her lips, trying to slow her racing heart.

"I missed you," Natalia said.

"I missed you, too, love." Olivia melted at the admission, and could no more prevent her response than stop the earth from turning.

"Good." Natalia grinned. "Take me back to this hotel of yours and show me how much?"

Nonplussed, it was a full thirty seconds before Olivia could reply. "Driver!" she shouted at the partition. It lowered, barely an inch, and the young man spoke through the gap without looking back.

"Yes, Ms. Spencer?"

"How long til we're there?" Green eyes stared wantonly into caramel orbs, making silent promises of what was to come, telling tales of love, whispering assurances of trust and issuing entreaties of need, love, lust, hunger…

"No more than ten minutes, Ma'am." With a start, the women looked out the windows next to them and realized that they'd been driving since before Natalia crawled onto Olivia's lap.

"Well, slap my ass and call me Spanky," Olivia muttered. Natalia grinned and tightened her hold around Olivia's neck, leaning down to whisper in her ear. Olivia shuddered as the other woman's warm breath tickled the fine hairs of her ear and neck, but then burst into a hearty laugh at what Natalia said.

"Alright, if you're into that sort of thing. I kinda figured your kink would be a little bit more in the direction of lingerie and handcuffs, but who am I to say no to the woman I love?" Olivia's arms tightened even more, bringing Natalia's hips to cradle against her abdomen, the embrace more about affection and love than lust.

They sat like that for a few moments, then Natalia sat up just a bit and turned her head to the front of the car. "Are we there, yet?!"

Natalia sat on the edge of the bed and looked around the bedroom. It was light and airy, the modern styling suiting Olivia to a tee. Olivia, who was at the moment speaking with the overly assiduous bellhop. He was simply intent on showing them all of the room's many amenities, and, while she normally would have been more than happy to accommodate his eagerness, today Natalia was envisioning the many ways in which he might die a slow and painful death, all of them happening outside their suite. She wasn't even entirely convinced that she was going to feel guilty about it later, either.

She realized the murmur of voices had stopped some time ago, and Natalia looked away from the view of San Francisco's downtown skyline, her eyes colliding with Olivia's. The older woman stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, and the younger woman realized with a jolt she felt deep in her belly that Olivia had been watching her. As if to confirm her realization, Olivia entered the room, strolling forward until she stood directly in front of Natalia. She reached out a trembling hand, extended a single finger, and traced the digit across Natalia's forehead, causing Natalia's eyes to flutter shut. She continued the feather light touch down the bridge of her nose, along the seam of her lips. "Beautiful," she whispered. "You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen."

Natalia's eyes opened then, gone obsidian again, and her lips parted, encircling the still tracing finger, sucking it into her mouth and laving the pad with her tongue, her cheeks hollowing as she sucked harder, pressing the digit against the roof of her mouth. The sensation of having a piece of Olivia inside her mouth was enough to ball a fist of desire deep in Natalia's belly, but it was the look in Olivia's jade green eyes, smoky with love and lust, that was currently soaking her panties, her jeans, and the bedspread beneath her.

Olivia pulled her hand away, securing her finger's release with a wet pop, replacing it in a heartbeat with her own lips, her tongue sweeping inside to fill the void left inside Natalia's mouth. Hands grasped and pulled at clothes, until suddenly Natalia pushed Olivia away, holding her at arm's length. "No," she said, and Olivia felt her heart stop.

"No," she repeated, softer this time, her hand coming up to caress Olivia's face, cupping her strong jaw. "We'll have all the time in the world for rushing later. And I will want that, Olivia." She smiled, her beatific expression belying the words escaping her lips as she said, "There will be times when I will want nothing more than for you to fuck me, hard, fast, and repeatedly." Olivia wavered on her feet, her eyes having gone unseeing. She wondered briefly what those symptoms of strokes were again.

"But today?" Natalia continued. "Today I want you to make love to me, all day. I want it to be slow and sweet, and I want to worship you, to make you scream my name, and I want you to do the same for me." Her hand trailed down Olivia's cheek, stroked down the column of her neck, flattened over the double arches of her collarbones. "I want to undress for you, for you to undress for me. I want to see you in all your glory, and I want you to see me, as I am, completely undone for you."

Her eyes, which had been watching her hand just above Olivia's breasts, snapped back up to meet the somehow still standing woman's green orbs. "I may not be able to marry you in a church, or with the blessing of our government, but I will declare myself yours today, body and soul. I want our actions to reflect that. I love you so much, Olivia. It's so much more than I could have ever hoped, and I want the world to know, want our children, our family to know, but I want to make you my wife first. Can you handle that?"

Olivia had no words. For the first time in her long, often godforsaken life, she had no words. She felt the tears gathering in her eyes, and willed them away. Now was not the time for them. Natalia waited patiently, looking up at her, waiting for her to say something. Instead, she chose to let her actions speak for her. Her mouth had a nasty habit of mucking things up anyway. Well, when it was talking that was… Focus! Those thoughts could come later. She reached up, her fingers slowly tracing up her body, her right hand covering Natalia's at her chest as her left moved to her side and pulled down the hidden zipper under her arm.

Natalia stood, her fingers trembling as she eased the straps off of porcelain shoulders, watched the silk flow like water down an exquisite, voluptuous landscape, revealing a barely there bra and lacey panties. Stepping forward again, she brought her shorter body flush with Olivia's, and reached around her, finding the bra's clasp behind her back and releasing it, tugging the straps off from behind so that the only thing holding Olivia's bra to her chest was the pressure of Natalia's own breasts against it. She smiled, and Olivia matched the grin; she stepped back, and watched the lace flutter to the floor.

Olivia's breasts were large and round, tipped by rosy pink nipples that were, at this moment, as hard and peaked as Olivia could ever recall them being. Between them, like a child's crayon marking on a white bathroom wall, ran the scar that reminded all who saw it of the time that Olivia Spencer had literally needed a heart, and had gotten one. Natalia pressed forward, her lips finding and tracing this most sacred blemish, whispering words of love and adoration into the puckered skin.

She slowly slid to her knees, trailing kisses all the way, her hands sliding down Olivia's sides and hooking the scrap of underwear on the way. She trailed kisses over a left hip, scenting arousal, and kept going, until she sat on her haunches at Olivia's feet. There, she drew Olivia's hands to her shoulders, placing them there so the older woman could keep her balance as she lifted each leg one at a time to remove Olivia's shoes. Once she had accomplished that, she stood back up, trailing kisses up the other leg, licking the curve of a hip, latching onto a nipple when she made it all the way back up.

"Ah, God! Please, Natalia- Fuck, God, yesss!" Olivia's hands were in her hair, holding her mouth to her breast, the older woman filling the air around them with curses and praise. Natalia found that, when heard in this context, those words that normally offended her horribly had just the opposite effect. In fact, if she weren't still clothed, she was sure that she would actually be dripping onto the floor beneath her. Speaking of…

She pulled her mouth away, replacing it with sure fingers, bringing her other hand up to treat the other breast to the same exhilarating sensations. "Olivia, you're naked."

"I'm aware of that." Green eyes were shut tight, unwilling to open lest the effect of Natalia's hands at her nipples be lessened in the slightest.

"But I'm not." Eyelids snapped back, unshading glowing verdant eyes. "Can you help me with that?" Natalia gave Olivia her most innocent, winsome smile, an expression that was completely ruined by the still active hands at her breasts.

Olivia smiled, her eyes sharpening hungrily. "Of course, love." And suddenly, Natalia knew what dinner must feel like.


Part 7

Olivia's hands hovered just above Natalia's shoulders. The heat from her palms seeped through the shorter woman's shirt, soaking into her skin. Her dark eyes fluttered, overwhelmed at the sensation on her body and in her heart from the look on the hotelier's face. It was raw want, lust, pure need. And dear God, she hadn't even touched her yet. "Madre de Dios, Olivia," she gasped. "What in all hell are you waiting on?"

"That," Olivia whispered, and her hands descended, running down Natalia's arms, fingers wrapping around her wrists. Natalia felt her arms pulled away from her sides, hands being drawn up over head. "Don't move." Olivia's voice was a throaty rumble, pure sonic sex in Natalia's ears. She held her arms where they were, suspended above her head, as Olivia traced the tips of her fingers back down from their raised position, following the lines of muscles hardened to rigid tension by arousal and self-restraint. She continued, down Natalia's torso, coming to rest at her hips, simultaneously toying with the seam at the bottom of the soft shirt and Natalia's self-control.

Green eyes, which had never left dark brown ones, dropped to those talented hands, a smirk forming on the lips just below a perfect, aquiline nose. The hands fisted, crumpling the jersey material in their tight grasp, and slowly, achingly began to draw upward, molten mossy gaze tracking their progress across newly unveiled, pale mocha skin. "Beautiful." The word fell from Olivia's lips, unbidden, followed by more blessings of her beloved, like dewdrops trickling down the petals of morning glories at the sun's first light. "So lovely, so soft…"

The shirt was above Natalia's breasts now, her pale violet bra cupping and presenting the globes like rounded gifts to Olivia's voracious appetite. Then it was over her head, above her elbows, fluttering from Olivia's open hands to land on the floor next to wrinkled red silk, and Olivia's strong fingers were once again wrapped around slender wrists, tugging arms weak as Jello back down to her sides. Olivia tilted her head, leaned down, her breath ghosting her intent seconds before hot silken lips trailed across feverish skin, a pink tongue barely peeking between them to dart quick licks beneath the edges of the fabric.

"Oh, sweet heaven. Please, Olivia. Please!" Hands around her back, a tugging at her bra, then long fingers curled up her shoulder blades, drawing the straps down, burning heated swaths down the skin from her spine to her fingertips as rosy tipped breasts broke free of their confinement and strained toward their new chosen captor, full, heavy, wanting. A muffled thud sounded as the bra struck the floor, but Natalia did not hear it over the rushing thunder filling her head as Olivia's full lips closed around her aching nipple. "Oh, dear Lord in heaven, thank you, God, thank you," she sobbed, and if she felt Olivia's lips thin just a bit in a tiny smile, she gave no indication.

Olivia lightly bit, then suckled, swirled her tongue, flattened it in long strokes, torturing the tight bud at the center of Natalia's breast. Tan hands circled her head, fingers weaving into golden locks, holding her mouth securely in place. She hummed, an audible exhalation of joy and contentment, and then she released her prize, drawing her mouth across skin going salty with excited sweat via a chain of open-mouthed kisses, heading toward the other neglected peak.

Oh, this. This, thought Natalia, is what I was born for. I was born for you, to be with you, to love you, to be loved by you… She didn't realize she'd spoken the thought aloud until Olivia raised her head, her mouth crashing into Natalia's with bruising intensity, lips connecting almost before the words could escape. "I was born to love you, too, Natalia."

Somehow, Olivia's hands had lost none of their dexterity, and nimble fingers quickly unbuttoned the fastening just below her naval, drawing the zipper down slowly, the ratcheting vibrations rattling against Natalia's clit and sending her arousal even further into the red zone. Hot hands slid beneath her underwear, over the globes of her backside, squeezing and pulling the flesh apart, then pushing it back together. Natalia's knees buckled ominously.

"Olivia!" She gasped, her head tilted back to allow the older woman better access to the neck she was currently worshipping. ""Liv, baby-" Her breath caught as the tendon in her neck was nipped, then soothed with gentle lips and a velvet tongue, wet, warm, loving… She wanted that tongue, that mouth, all over her body.

"Yes, baby?" Olivia all but growled, the pointer finger of her right hand tracing the seam of Natalia's ass from its place, still inside her pants and underwear.

"I need- Oh!- I need-" Natalia bit her lip, eyes closing, knowing she'd be embarrassed tomorrow over what she was about to say now, but too enraptured with the havoc Olivia was wreaking on her libido to care now. "I need you to get me naked. I need to be on my back, beneath you. I need you to make love to me, to be inside me… please!"

Olivia's mouth drew near to her ear, suckling the sweet spot just below it before raising to whisper, "Well, that sounds like a good start." And Natalia's legs gave out.

Later, Natalia would marvel at the strength in her soon-to-be lover's arms as she held her up, embracing her and seating the overwhelmed Latino at the edge of the bed. Much later, she would wonder at the special awareness that had Olivia knowing just how to shift her so her pants would slide right down her legs, panties along for the ride. Much, much later, she would be amused at the way Olivia's nose had crinkled at her mischievous smile, flashed up at her when the older woman jerked jeans, panties, socks and shoes off of Natalia's feet all at once.

Never, ever, would she forget the look in emerald eyes as her body had been eased back into silk sheets, pillows supporting her back and neck. Not if she lived forever would she ever lose the memory of Olivia's face, Olivia's voice, as she looked up from her position between Natalia's spread legs (when had that even happened?) and said, "Watch me." Her face had lowered, nose nuzzling ebony curls, nostrils flaring as she inhaled the scent of Natalia's arousal. Her eyes never left Natalia's.

And then… and then… a tongue slid into the folds between her legs, lapping and stroking. Soft lips suckled, straying to the insides of her thighs, thirstily consuming the arousal that had spread there during earlier ministrations, but always returned to the scene of the crime to milk more wetness, more sweetness from the dark woman's center. Natalia had never felt so alive, so worshipped.

Her stomach filled with a tightened coil, a spring-loaded reaction just waiting on the right moment to detonate, to go nuclear. When one finger slipped inside, green eyes still boring into her own, Natalia knew what it was to have a lover inside her, heart, body and soul. When more fingers followed, she knew what it was to be filled completely with the sensation of lovemaking, of loving, of being loved. When an idle hand slipped up her torso to caress lonely breasts, pinching fingers tweaking and twisting her aching nipples, Natalia Rivera knew what God had intended when he had created the woman's body. When full lips closed around her swollen clit and sucked, pulling it into the vacuum of Olivia Spencer's mouth, green eyes finally fluttering shut as a groan of pleasure vibrated from the older woman directly into Natalia's center, the dark-haired woman's head snapped back, eyes screwing shut, and her world exploded in supernova, the air around her echoing, "Olivia! Olivia! Olivia!..." And then there was darkness.

Olivia had never known such beauty. She looked down again at the sleeping woman whose head was resting on her chest. She smiled. It was not an innocent smile. Heh. Five times wasn't bad for a lady of her age, nosirreebob! And, she mentally buffed her nails against her chest, she'd actually made Natalia pass out from her very first orgasm. Literally. She had passed. The fuck. Out. That was some good lovin' right there.

Natalia murmured in her sleep, shifting slightly, her arms tightening their grip around Olivia's mid-section. The hotelier quickly pressed her lips to the younger woman's forehead, making soothing sounds and lulling her back to sleep. Olivia herself had not slept one wink, not even for a second, even after Natalia had finally drifted off late into the witching hour. Now, the first hints of sunlight were playing across the early morning sky, and Olivia knew that the sunshine would soon beam in through windows they'd not taken the time to block with drawn curtains, and that when they did that, her dark-haired angel would arise.

Olivia stretched the leg not currently entwined with both of Natalia's, feeling both the internal pull of long neglected muscles that had finally, finally gotten their long-overdue work-out in with Natalia, the woman who would, from that point on, always be the personal trainer devoted to their care and upkeep, and the sting of the scratches along her back. The first sensation made her smile dreamily; the second caused a heated wetness to begin pooling between her legs.

Natalia had not been kidding when she'd made that crack about kink and fucking. She had made sweet, tender love to Olivia when she'd awoken from her unexpected nap after her first orgasm, kissing Olivia's body from head to toe, then back again before finally relenting and putting her mouth where the green-eyed goddess of her heart had needed it most. Olivia groaned, her thoughts only making her wetter. Natalia had nothing to worry about in the lover department; truly, she was the most extraordinary lover Olivia had ever had. She was attentive, gentle, perceptive… and she was dominant, rough, powerful and skilled at straddling that line just between pain and pleasure when she needed to.

Olivia's eyes drifted shut as she remembered, on her knees, holding for dear life to the headboard as Natalia's nails scratched down her back, dragging red lines down along her spine and over the rounded globes of her ass. She had begged, pleaded, "God, Natalia, please! Fuck me, please!" and Natalia had, her fingers slipping into Olivia from behind, her hips bracing her hand as she thrust into the hotelier, hard, fast, so good, so good, so good…

"Ah!" Olivia cried out. Fingers swirled through the wetness between her legs, and she looked down to meet burnt umber eyes, which twinkled merrily at her. Natalia grinned sleepily, her dimples flashing as she watched Olivia's face.

"What were you thinking of just then, Olivia? Where were you? Her eyes challenged Olivia to tell the truth.

"I was with you, in this bed. You were fucking me- Ah!" Long fingers slipped inside her moist entrance, twisting gently as they slowly slid in and out.

"Like this?" Natalia asked?

"No," Olivia gasped. "Not quite like that, not that time, but God, they'll be doing that the next time I think about you inside of me!" Right answer. Natalia smiled, picking up the pace. Olivia sent up silent praise to a God she wasn't sure she believed in anymore, but whom she wanted to thank just in case. Thank you for this woman, God. Thank you for my heart. And with that, Olivia Spencer, former Tin Man of San Cristobal, resident evil Grinch Bitch of Springfield, shattered in her lover's arms, trusting Natalia to do what all the King's men and all the King's horses had failed to do; to gather the pieces, and put her back together again.

Natalia gathered her in, holding her until the shaking stopped, pressing random kisses to her brow, her lips, her neck. Olivia gasped. She was whole again, only this time? This time, those missing pieces that had been missing since a little girl watched her mother look at her with spite in her eyes, those shards were there, too. She was an incomplete puzzle no more, and at last, at long last, she slept, peaceful under the watchful gaze of her beloved. It made sense, really. Natalia Rivera was a superhero, after all.

Olivia woke up much later that morning to the sound of a phone ringing. Looking to her right, she noticed three things. First, at some point, Natalia had gotten up and drawn the curtains. Second, the dark-haired beauty had still been tired, too, because she was asleep in the bed beside her. Third, Natalia had apparently decided to let Olivia wake without a numbed arm, because she no longer rested on the hotelier's shoulder. Instead, she held tightly to Olivia's hand, their fingers intertwined.

Olivia smiled, then started as the phone chirped again. Frowning, she disengaged from Natalia's grip, rolling over and leaning off the bed, casting about for the offending phone. Seeing the screen glow blue in the darkened room, she snatched it up and pressed the send button without a second thought. It was only when she heard the voice on the other end that her sleep-and-sex-addled brain cleared of all remaining mist, and she remembered that she and Natalia had the exact same kind of phone, the color being the only difference between the two, and the color had been indistinguishable in the darkened light. She jerked straight up in bed, the sheets pooling at her waist. Oh, shit.

"Hi, Rafe," she said, trying to keep her voice as light and airy and as no-I-haven't-just-spent-nearly-twenty-four-gloriously-naked-hours-in-bed-with-your-mother as possible. "Hang on, let me go to her room and see if-"

"Olivia, why are you awake?" Natalia's sleep-roughened voice spoke out. "You're pulling the covers down and I'm going to get cold and have to put clothes on if you don't settle back down and warm me up." There was no mistaking the playful intent behind those words, even if Natalia's eyes were still closed and she couldn't see the horrified look on Olivia's face.

"Olivia. That was my mom, wasn't it?"

Olivia gulped. "Uh-huh?" she squeaked.

"She's not in her own room, is she?"

"Uh-uh?" Well, fuck. Obviously, she had reverted back into being a monosyllabic cavewoman. Jesus. Next to her, Natalia's eyes opened, watching Olivia warily as it dawned on her that something was not right.

"She, uh…" Rafe cleared his throat. "Did she just tell you to come back to bed and warm her up, or she's going to put clothes on?"

Well, goddammit! Who the fuck designed these phones to be so fucking receptive to ambient sounds, anyway?! "I- uhm. Yes?"

Rafe was silent for just a moment, and then the most miraculous thing happened. Olivia heard him laughing, full-on laughing, like he'd just heard the most wonderful story and couldn't help but laugh with the joy of it. "Oh, my God," he gasped. "You two finally figured it out, didn't you?"

Olivia's jaw clicked shut. Really? REALLY?! Rafe had known? He had known all along, and they'd spent so much freakin' time worrying about what he'd say and he KNEW?!


"Look, don't answer, ok? Just- just tell her I love her, and to call me later. Be good to her. And congratulations! Oh, and Olivia?"

"Mmmhmm?" There, that was better. She hadn't even squeaked.

"You know I love you, really, but I'll kill you if you hurt her, right?"

Olivia grinned, then laughed, a full, hearty belly laugh, the kind Rafe had only heard from her once he had gotten to know her as his mother's best friend, when she and Emma had moved in with Natalia, and would come to visit him with his mother. "Thank you for your blessing. And I will never give you the opportunity to prove that." She looked down at Natalia, the darker woman still half-asleep, adorable in her bleary concern over Olivia's conversation with the unknown caller. Olivia stroked her hair, and she fairly arched into the touch.

"I love you, too, you know," Olivia murmured into the phone, smiling as she listened to the reply. Must be Ava, Natalia thought. "Ok, I will. Thank you again, for understanding, for giving me a chance."

"We all deserve second chances, Olivia. See you when you get home. Be good…ish." Rafe chuckled.

"You, too, buster!" Olivia smiled. "Ok, bye bye." She hung up.

"Who was that?" Natalia mumbled.

"Your son. He heard you, and guessed what was going on. He gave us his blessing, threatened me if I hurt you, then told me he loves me, just as I love him." Olivia wasn't going to beat around the bush with this.

"That's sweet," Natalia slurred, words thick with sleep. Then, she sat straight up in bed. "WHAT?!"


Part 8: Epilogue

Word had a way of traveling quickly in Springfield. News was never kept under wraps for too long, and secrets inevitably became scandals in the same amount of time that gravity required to pull heads from clouds when walking inattentively on an icy sidewalk. Springfield was a gossipmonger's ideal home, big city money living fabulous moral-free lifestyles in a small town setting, mixed carefully into generous enough helpings of rural ethics and love-thy-neighbor mentality so as to off-set the debauchery that might drag a lesser place under.

Thus, it came as an inconceivable shock when one morning, six months after returning from her impromptu San Francisco foray, five months and three weeks after moving herself and her daughter back into the farmhouse they'd so recently left, four months and thirteen days after welcoming home Natalia Rivera's beloved prodigal son, Olivia Spencer, who'd become a downright bore to the titillatiously concerned nosy parkers, promptly sent jaws across the county dropping violently to the floor. How did she do it? Well, she did it by doing what she always did; she won an argument.

Mrs. Fred Jameson, Myrna to her friends, who lived on on 5th Street, and hosted weekly gab sessions at her home, started the discussion by relating that she had heard that it all started when Natalia, who was better known to her staffers as Saint Natalia ever since she'd taken the post of General Manager and minimized the need for the volatile hotelier to be as involved with day to day mundanity, had not been happy with the decision to acquire a certain Brooklyn property as part of the Beacon Franchise. In fact, she had been mad about from the moment she got the news in the staff meeting, and, according to the waiter who'd served both the attending members and the old woman's appetite for gossip later, had seemed most upset not that the property had been purchased, but that she had not been consulted. The argument that had begun across the boardroom table quickly erupted beyond the polished lacquered doors, pushing staffers and managers ahead of the explosion like ash preceding the red-hot lava of a volcano.

Birdie Jenkins knew the front desk clerk, and he'd told her that it wasn't uncommon to see the two women argue, though it didn't happen nearly as much these days as it had used to. Ever since they'd gone back to living together, the two best friends had been practically inseparable, raising their children together and sharing a home, their lives, their jobs. They had often reminded staffers and townsfolk alike of two well-matched yet distinct sides of a coin, both complementing the others' style perfectly. Certainly, their partnership had benefitted the growing Beacon chain; with Olivia's business sense and Natalia's people skills, the two hotels already joined into the franchise had been only too happy to recruit more through their own business contacts. The Beacon name was fast becoming a household commodity in the Northeast, and the Brooklyn purchase had made perfect sense.

Or, it should have. According to Marvin, however (who, as it had turned out, was a lousy bartender, but a fantastic bellhop), Natalia was absolutely livid by the time the tempestuous quarrel had spilled off of the elevator and into the main lobby, cumulating in Natalia pronouncing loudly that if Olivia was so bound and determined to do things on her own, then she could damn well do as she pleased, but she could do so without the benefit of the Latina's partnership in the future.

Esme Rodriguez, another of the current "luncheon" members, had been at her hairdresser's getting her monthly trim and blowout when Ben's phone had chirped an incoming call. Adam, his boyfriend, was the staff manager at the Springfield Beacon, and he'd been hinting to Ben for months now that he was privy to some big secret between Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera. Of course, he'd been sworn to secrecy, and, for some reason whose logic defied every bit of sense Esme possessed, he'd actually kept mum on what that was, deigning only to say that it. Was. BIG.

Through the phone, which Ben had thoughtfully put on speaker for the benefit of his patrons, Esme heard Adam whisper hoarsely that this was it, he was sure of it. She heard Natalia's pronouncement, and Adam's cry of dismay as he exclaimed, "That's it?! She's leaving? And Olivia's just gonna let her go- Oh, here we go!"

The huddled group hunched over the phone, no one daring to utter a peep as the throaty voice of one Olivia Spencer carried over the line, tinny because of the medium, but radiant in the emotion it contained. She yelled at Natalia that it was to be a surprise, that she'd wanted to fix it up and give it to the darker woman to run as she saw fit. It was to be their one-year anniversary present, given one year to the day that Natalia had clasped Olivia's hand and called her friend, beginning a friendship that would alter them both so drastically. "Oh my GOD!!" Ben had exclaimed, snatching up the phone from its spot on the counter. "They're lesbians?! Holy SHIT! Adam, why didn't you tell me?" Adam had been unable to answer, unfortunately; Ben had forgotten to charge his phone, and as it beeped the dead battery signal at him, he found himself faced with a closing half-circle of very angry gossips.

Ben's fate tossed aside for the moment, it was Nancy Smith's turn to speak. Nancy was chair of the Floral Arrangement Group, and had been waiting for her turn in the tale with a ridiculously superior smile. You see, Nancy had been standing at the front desk when this all happened, having just met with Adam about hosting an event at the Beacon. She told her rapt audience that Olivia had indeed said those things, to a frozen Natalia's back. Natalia had turned, and Olivia had stepped closer, still speaking clearly, stating that she'd hoped to give the hotel to Natalia along with a ring, that she wanted to give Natalia the world, and that it was no longer enough for them to quietly care for one another and hope the world would figure it out. No, Olivia Spencer wanted the world to know the details, specifically that she was in love with Natalia Rivera, and wanted to spend the rest of her life with her.

Nancy paused at this point to clear her throat and take a sip of her mimosa, pretending that the catch in her voice had more to do with thirst than the lump that had formed in her throat at the words Olivia had spoken. She then continued, telling the others how Natalia had turned, her eyes shining, a smile stretched across her face and dimples firmly pressed into her cheeks.

"Was that a marriage proposal?" she had asked, and Olivia replied that it could be, if she wanted it to be, but if she'd prefer, Olivia would be glad to do it properly with candles, music, and a much smaller audience.

"What happened then?" cried Greta Hauser.

"Well, Natalia shouted yes, and then they kissed each other, right there in the middle of the lobby, in front of God and all of us alike." She paused, waited a beat. "Then they went upstairs, supposedly to discuss their vows or something…" Nancy shrugged. She hadn't quite understood what Olivia had meant when she'd called out to Adam that they were going to go rehearse the vows they'd taken in San Francisco; Nancy thought Olivia had only just proposed. When did they get married in California?

Myrna sat back, enjoying the sated feeling truly good gossip always provided. Yes, Olivia Spencer had been downright boring for a while, but she'd apparently been busy, and this? This was good. Myrna made a mental note to have Fred send some flowers. After all, she should thank them for making her week!

The sound of running water in the kitchen couldn't drown out the laughter filtering in from the room beyond. Natalia smiled to herself, wiping the last droplets from a serving bowl and putting it away, admiring the way her blue diamond ring sparkled when it caught the light. Next to her, Olivia rinsed the last dish, putting it into the drying rack before turning to catch her eye, winking when she did.

"You keep looking at that ring, baby, and you're gonna look the shine right off it." Olivia turned the knobs, shutting off the water as her body shifted to face the smaller woman.

"Not possible," Natalia replied. "The shine never wears off anything from you, Olivia." The smile on her face and in her eyes did not lessen the meaning or the impact of her words to Olivia, and the green-eyed woman's face transformed, soft happiness edging into stark planes as love and lust overcame her. A hand reached out for Natalia's cheek, caressing.

"Maybe we should go practice those vows some more…"

"No, Ma'am, Miss Spencer!" Natalia danced away, stopping at the doorway to the living room to reach her hand back to the older woman. "Come on, baby. Let's go spend Thanksgiving with our family and friends."

Olivia pouted, arms crossing under her breasts into that position that always drove Natalia crazy (and she knew it). "They're all just watching football in there anyway."

"I know, but it'll be good for you. You can cuddle with me and nap, get your strength up." She glanced through her eyelashes. "You'll need it tomorrow morning when they all go out Christmas shopping, and we're all alone, here, by ourselves…" Olivia gulped, remembering the last time they'd had the farmhouse all to themselves, two days ago.

Natalia looked pointedly down at the floor, her eyes drifting to the spot where they'd collapsed that fateful night, shortly after somehow managing to get inside. Olivia had put the ring on Natalia's finger after that first frenzied bout, reclined there on the kitchen floor, their naked bodies sweaty and sticky, cooling on the stone tiles. They'd made it as far as the table after that, then the fireplace mantle, and then the staircase… They hadn't actually made it to a bedroom for hours, truthfully.

"Ok." It was all Olivia could force her mouth to say. She mutely followed Natalia into the short hallway, stepping up to rest flush against her back when the Latina halted abruptly. Resting her chin on a slender shoulder, Olivia wrapped her arms around Natalia's waist, following her gaze to see what had stalled her so suddenly, and then it hit her, too.

Ava and Emma were sprawled across a bed of pillows together on the floor, playing merrily with Colin O'Neill, who was every bit as spirited as his blue-eyed mother. Reva and Jeffrey were watching the two girls, sharing the armchair, somehow managing to still look like two highschool lovebirds. Sam, her sweet Sam, who had shocked them all by arriving unannounced the day before, was standing at the far end of the room, measuring the height of the ceiling while Rafe looked on in amusement, teasing him over how goofy he was being about needing the measurements so he could find the perfect Christmas tree. Dinah and Shayne were pretending that nobody could see them necking under the mistletoe Natalia had insisted Olivia hang up, and Doris Wolfe sat at one end of the couch, eyes intently focused on the television, Her angry cries when her team failed to score drew Rafe and Dinah's attention, and they both joined her in lamenting the lack of a good running back. Whatever that was. Olivia mentally shrugged.

"Our family," Natalia whispered, tears in her eyes as she tilted her head to look at Olivia. A blinding smile erupted across her features, matching the one Olivia was already sporting.

"Come on, lady. Let's go pop a squat. I needs a nap!" Natalia's bawdy laugh drew the eyes of the room, and as Olivia pushed past Natalia, directing someone to clear a spot on the couch for her and her fine lady love, much to the jeers of those already seated on the furniture, the room seemed to fill with love, the apathy that once soaked inanimate objects chased away by the life of affection, of home, of family.

Part 9: Epilogue's Addendum

Buzz Cooper was a man of many regrets. He'd made many mistakes in his life, some worse than others. He was, he knew, perceived by many in this town as being something of a saint, but he knew the fallacy of that statement.

He'd known, of course, that Olivia loved Natalia, that she was in love with her. He'd known since the party Olivia had thrown for his son and his would-be bride, had seen the look on Olivia's beautiful face when Frank had wrapped his arms around the frail woman. He had never, never seen her look so wounded, which had shocked him.

After all, he'd seen her lose so much, time and time again. Olivia Spencer had always lost all that she dared to love in the end, every time, no matter what. Perhaps it had been a sort of karmic penance for the crimes she'd committed to gain said beloveds. It had seemed set in stone, a given. The sun would rise. Summer would bring sun and flowers, picnics and thunderstorms. Winter would bring snow and ice and death for months on end. Olivia Spencer would not prosper in matters of the heart. He hadn't even thought for a second that it could change.

What's more, he had relied upon that surety to keep Olivia in line, to aid him in helping Natalia to join herself to Frank, to the Coopers, and to divest herself of her entanglements with anything and anyone Spencer. He had counted on Olivia's anger and hurt to show themselves, to manifest as a wall intended to drive Natalia away from Olivia's aching, broken heart. He had already planned what he would say to a concerned newlywed couple left reeling by her volatile actions, had foreseen the tears the Latina woman would shed as she woefully accepted that their friendship could no longer continue.

When Natalia had run from the wedding, had left his son standing broken at the altar, Buzz had not thought for a second that Olivia might be the cause. He remained confident that she would return with the tan woman in tow, having corralled her and eliminated whatever momentary fears she'd had, allaying them with the assurances that Frank was good, that he loved her, that the Coopers loved her, that they were a family to which Natalia, and, by extension, Rafe, could belong. He had never considered that Natalia might have another family she could join; had never postulated that she might see the three women in the farmhouse as having already become a family.

When Buzz had heard from Frank that Natalia had ended things, that there would be no wedding, no marriage, he hadn't even considered that Natalia might have chosen another over his son, much less the woman whose heart he'd so callously disregarded where she was concerned. He watched his son suffer, his kind son, who really was a good man. He watched Frank remain in Natalia's life, watching out for her son, seeing Rafe through his troubles after his release. He couldn't force Frank not to help her, couldn't make him view Natalia as the enemy, but he certainly could make sure Natalia knew what she'd abandoned.

He no longer had kind words for the dark-haired woman when they passed on the street. He ignored her, and pretended not to see the stab wounds in her eyes when he did so. He no longer made special shakes for Emma, her would-be daughter. He no longer called to invite her to family –only events at Company. He sent a box of her things, left behind from the room she'd vacated, over to the farmhouse. He'd not included a note. What was there to say?

He had watched them, had seen them all together when Olivia and Natalia returned from California. They had been crossing the street in front of the hospital, and he'd been on his way to visit with Reva, and he'd seen them, standing there, just outside the doors. Their heads had been bowed close together, and they had been speaking quietly. Natalia had reached out, taking one of Olivia's hands into both of her own, drawing it up to her mouth and kissing each knuckle one by one. He had gaped, standing under the shade of a tree, looking around to see who else would notice this, this, this abomination, this disgrace. No one had looked; no one had cared.

He had rushed home to tell Frank, to break it to him as gently as possible, but Frank had already known. He'd smiled, shrugged, and said that he wished them well, that they both deserved happiness just as much as anyone else. Buzz had been livid. He had gone to Olivia's office the next day, lain in wait for her. When she arrived, a bemused smile on her face, he'd taken great pleasure I wiping it from her face, using every cheap shot and sore spot in the book to hurt her, to wound her pride, her heart, to make her see what she was doing, how she was destroying a good person with her taint, her wickedness. It wouldn't last, he'd warned. It would end, and she'd be heartbroken again, just like all the other times. He told her she wasn't good enough to be loved. He had meant it. She had done nothing, just watched him from behind sad eyes, a single tear escaping when he told her how worthless she was. And he knew, then that she agreed, and had felt his job was done. He left, sure that he'd gotten his wish, that he'd gotten the revenge for which Frank would thank him one day.

He had not counted on Natalia. It had not ended. And Frank had not spoken to him for months after that, had accused him of being worse than Alan Spaulding for what he'd said. Frank had not yet, and never would fully forgive him for that. Frank was a good man, and what Buzz had said about Olivia was a lie.

He knew that others had pulled away from him after that, had watched Marina become loathe to leave little Henry in his care. Remy had stopped coming to him for advice, and Shayne and Dinah no longer came over to play with little Henry when he was home. In fact, even Emma no longer spoke to him, glaring at him whenever they crossed paths with a miniature version of the patented Spencer glare, and he had thought to himself, whenever he saw that expression on her face, directed at him, that seed begat seed, and that no matter what, Emma was her parents' child. Better to lose all affection for her now than wait until she grew into her deceit and betrayed him herself. She was a Spaulding and a Spencer, doubly cursed. He would waste no remorse on their issue, he told himself.

He had nursed his anger, his hatred and his self-righteousness for months, letting them smolder inside his heart. Everything tasted bitter now. He wondered occasionally if this is what it felt like to be Alan Spaulding.

Then, two days prior, his world had changed. The world had discovered Olivia and Natalia, via an impromptu but heartfelt proposal, and he'd watched his granddaughter yelp for joy when she'd heard the news, saw his son embrace both women the following day, having spotted them across the street and jogged over to congratulate them. He'd seen them, standing all alone together after Frank returned, and he'd felt something pop in his chest.

Oh, God. What had he done?

His anger and rage had cost them a family, a network of people who loved and cared for them. He'd destroyed their family, had cut them out of his. Or, so he had thought.

Now he stood outside in the dark, gazing into a big bay window, watching the illuminated bodies glow from within. A tall blond man measured the ceiling and walls while Rafe watched, saying something unintelligible to the blond. Beyond them, Emma and a dark-haired young woman, Ava, Olivia's daughter, he remembered now, played on the floor with a baby. Jeffrey and Reva O'Neill cuddled in a recliner, joking with Ava, Jeffrey smiling a mirrored version of the grin Ava wore. He saw Doris Wolfe yell at the TV, watched Dinah and Rafe join her.

And then he saw them, Olivia and Natalia. Olivia was wrapped around Natalia from behind, and, for the first time, Buzz really allowed himself to look at them, so see them, and he wanted to die. They fit. They fucking fit, and he had tried to destroy that. He had been willing to condemn Olivia to a life of heartbroken hell, Natalia to a half-life of obedient respect and care. He looked away, unable to take it, and his eyes fell again to Emma.

Emma, who was an innocent little girl, who loved her mommies, and who had suffered at his anger, too. Emma, who would always remember him as Uncle Buzz, who had hurt her mommies. He winced.

"It's lovely, isn't it?" The smooth voice beside him had not been heralded by any approaching footsteps, and Buzz jumped when Phillip spoke. "This home they've created, the love with which they've filled it; I envy their good fortune." The slender man did not look away from the panorama tableau presented in the window, smirking as Olivia walked into the room, clearly directing someone off the couch.

"I know why I'm here. Why are you?" Sharp blue eyes cut through him as Buzz met Phillip's gaze.

"I came- I… I came to apologize. To say I'm sorry, and beg forgiveness for how I've acted. To invite Natalia to spend more time with my family again. To be the man she looked to as a father again." He broke off. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted to see if maybe not everything was broken, if maybe Olivia hasn't completely turned her against me."

"Olivia?" Phillip chuckled. "Dear Buzz, from what I hear, it's Natalia you should fear. It took her weeks to put Olivia back together again after your little whizzbang lecture. Quite frankly, I'm amazed you can still walk, she was so mad." Buzz gaped at him in surprise.

Phillip was looking into the window again, eyes on Olivia, who was now seated in the vee of Natalia's legs, her head lolling back onto the other woman's shoulder as tanned fingers ran through her hair. "You know what I've always secretly thought of Olivia?" He didn't wait for an answer.

"Olivia is like an orchid. They look strong and tall, and they're beautiful, but they're incredibly delicate. It's almost impossible to cultivate them properly." He pursed his lips. "Because they're so much work, orchids are called difficult, are undesirable in your average garden. They need the light that other flowers are already using, and they drink up all the water." He was smiling now. "They take over a flowerbed, not because they are so dominant, but because they need so much care, so much attention, that it only makes sense that they'd want to eliminate any and all of the competition."

Phillip stopped, and stayed quiet for so long that Buzz wondered if he was done. Then, he spoke again, his voice muted and strangled with emotion. "Olivia was a wounded orchid, and we, we all wanted to possess her. We wanted to showcase her in our flower gardens, but none of us were qualified to care for her. We blamed her, because we couldn't see that we were the problem. We labeled her a whore, and refused to acknowledge that she, like the rest of us, just wanted to be loved." Here, he looked directly into Buzz's eyes, his expression both hauntingly vacant and bitterly savage. "We were not good enough for her, Buzz. We failed. We let her down."

Buzz finally looked down, unable to hold Phillip's gaze any longer. "Natalia, though…" Phillip started. "That Natalia is a gardener. Livvy finally found one good enough for her." Phillip frowned. "And really, Buzz, you've already filled the role of Natalia's father quite well. You abandoned her when she needed you most because she had somehow disappointed you."

Buzz cleared his throat. "Well. Ok then. Tonight's obviously not a good time, so I… I guess I'll think this through a little better next time." He turned to leave, then looked back. "Buy you a drink?" If he was going to wallow in misery, he sure wouldn't mind the company.

"No, thanks." Phillip was already walking toward the house. "I've been invited to spend a holiday evening with my daughter's family." He stopped at the door before knocking. "Do be safe, Buzz. The roads are treacherous."

And then he knocked, and was let into the light, the warmth, leaving Buzz alone in the cold he'd chosen. And it occurred to him then that Olivia and Natalia weren't the ones without a family. He was.

The End

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