DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
TIMELINE: Begins immediately after the episode on the 12th of May and goes off into its own little world at that point.
DEDICATION: This is dedicated to the memory of badtyler, a great writer and an even better friend.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Natalia was glad Olivia loved her for her nurturing qualities and not her strength, because she didn't feel strong. She'd never felt weaker than she did sitting in her kitchen alone, ingredients for an abandoned cake strewn around her while she begged Olivia's voicemail to abandon her eldest child and come home. Because she needed her. Promises made in their little spa bubble, sealed with...well, not a kiss, but with hand holding which for them was practically the same thing, were suddenly much harder to keep.
She'd promised they wouldn't take a step back. She'd also said she wasn't afraid, and that was turning into a big lie. But what was she really afraid of?
Buzz's disapproval and anger were only to be expected - she'd jilted his son for crying out loud. His reaction to that would be the same whether she was in a relationship with Olivia or not. Buzz hadn't cast her into this sea of weakness and doubt.
Coming out, she'd said. Coming out? Coming out of what? What would she be coming into? And what the hell did Doris Wolfe know about it anyway? The woman was so far back in the closet she was practically in Narnia.
She banged her fist on the table, glad of the pain that shot up her arm. Anything to distract her from these questions and thoughts and fears swirling through her mind like a tornado. How could she possibly talk about these doubts with Olivia? She'd break her heart, or at least push her away. Olivia had made it pretty clear before they left for their weekend - if you can't handle this then you need to let me know. Now. That had been her chance. She could have said No, I can't handle it, let's just go back to being friends and let this love turn bitter and slowly kill us from the inside out. What kind of answer would that have been? Maybe a truthful one.
But it was too late for that. She'd gone away with Olivia, she'd held her hand, she'd made promises, she'd seen the light of hope dawn in those beautiful eyes she so adored. And she couldn't bear the thought of the pain in those eyes if she told her how shaky the foundations of her promises really were.
What do you think you are? Doris had asked. For the first time in her life she didn't know. How could she possibly promise Olivia anything when she didn't even recognise herself in the mirror anymore? How could she seek to share her life, her heart, her soul with another person when she didn't know what her life would be like, or the true desires of her heart, or the secrets that swirled through her soul like marble?
She was sure only of one thing. What she'd said to Olivia was true. They were intertwined. Linked, by Emma, by their history, by their friendship. And by love. But right now she felt like a diseased root grafted onto a healthy one. Wouldn't it be better to tear them apart for the healthy one's sake? Even if the operation wrenched pieces of it away?
Damaged was better than destroyed, right?
Her cellphone started to vibrate a second before it rang. She jumped and blinked hard, her eyes watering. She didn't know how long she'd been staring into space but her eyes were itching and her skin was crawling. She glanced at the display. Olivia.
She actually hesitated for a brief moment before she answered, her heart in her mouth. "H-hi," she said shakily, her eyes fluttering closed as the rich contralto of Olivia's voice washed over her and soothed places she hadn't even realised were broken. "It's really good to hear your voice," she admitted softly, trying hard not to cry. She could hear the worry in the other woman's tone as clear as a bell, despite the technology and the miles and the time zones separating them. "I'm okay," she lied, pressing her nails sharply into her palm. "I just...I just had a little moment of weakness back there. I saw Buzz...well, it didn't go too well." She didn't mention Doris. She couldn't explain why that visit had upset her, not yet. "No," she continued. "No, I didn't tell him about...us. He was just mad about Frank and about, you know, how I betrayed the family." She managed a tight, humourless laugh. "Maybe I'll wake up with a horse's head in my bed."
She stood, leaving the detritus of her ingredients behind, and wandered into the living room. She flopped down onto the sofa with a deep sigh. "How's Ava?" she asked, and floated away on the waves of Olivia's reply for long moments. "Hmm?" she said at last, when she realised that Olivia had said her name. At least twice. "Sorry," she said shyly. "I'm just...I've got a lot on my mind." She pulled a sofa cushion to her chest and curled round it. "No," she sighed. "You should stay with Ava. I just...I just miss you, that's all. And I wish..." She felt tears springing to her eyes, and she blinked them away, hoping her voice didn't betray her. "I wish it could be just you and me," she said. "I wish we didn't have to worry about anything else but loving each other."
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. "Olivia?" she said at last. "I love you." Relief blossomed in her chest as she heard the soft reply. "I'll see you in a few days, okay?" she said. "Give my love to Ava." They exchanged the usual meaningless words of farewell and Natalia ended the call.
Olivia had offered to come home and every atom of Natalia's being had been screaming at her to say yes. But she couldn't. If Olivia was there, sure, things would be easier. Maybe the world would still be terrifying, maybe everyone she knew would still be mad at her, but she'd have a refuge. A way to escape the maelstrom of confusion and doubt that had taken her over since she'd returned to Springfield.
But Olivia deserved better. And she couldn't talk to her about how she was feeling. Her best friend, her rock, the one person she could count on whatever happened...and she couldn't share this with her. She needed to deal with this alone.
So it was lucky then, she supposed, that she'd never felt more alone in her life.
Nearly two thousand miles away Olivia Spencer flicked her phone closed with a pensive look on her face. The cafe was busy and conversation buzzed all around her, but she didn't hear it. A cloud passed over the sun and she shivered, a sudden chill creeping up her spine. She saw Ava picking her way through the tables, but couldn't manage to respond to the wave and bright smile on her face.
"You okay?" Ava asked as a waiter placed a martini in front of her. They hadn't skimped on the olives, Olivia noticed. Just the way she liked it.
"Yeah," she replied distractedly. She stirred her drink slowly. "It's just...I was talking to Natalia."
Ava rolled her eyes. "What now? You know you haven't stopped talking about her since you got here."
Olivia turned a deadly expression on her daughter. "I've talked about other things." Then she smiled quickly - too quickly for it be genuine. "Like your fabulous new apartment. Which I can't believe you can afford, by the way."
Ava raised an eyebrow but chose not to say anything. If her mother wanted to be in denial about her obvious obsession with one Natalia Rivera...well, who was she to argue?
The return of the waiter saved them from further conversation. "Are you ready to order, ladies?"
Olivia shook herself and returned her attention to the menu. Natalia was fine, she told herself. She just had a nasty shock when she got back to Springfield and discovered that things weren't going to be all puppies and rainbows. She'd get over it.
Olivia told herself all that and much more, trying to ignore the cold creep of dread edging into the corners of her heart. Everything would be fine.
It had to be.
Ava's apartment was large, bright, and airy with high ceilings and a view (if you stood on tiptoes and squinted a bit) of the bay in the distance. It was a lovely apartment. It was clean, and quiet, and in a good neighbourhood. And she was getting on with Ava. She should have been having a good time. But after two days Olivia had just about finished helping her daughter unpack her things and deal with hooking up water, power and internet and she was, quite frankly, champing at the bit to get home. She'd had a couple more conversations with Natalia but, far from soothing her lingering doubts, she'd just become more and more concerned. The other woman had seemed distant. It worried her.
"I wonder where your mind's wandered off to," Ava muttered, sitting down beside her mother on the couch.
"Huh?" Olivia glanced at her. It was clear that she hadn't actually heard what she'd said. "Say again?"
Ava rolled her eyes. "So, when were you planning to tell me?"
Olivia sat for a moment, perfectly still and quiet. Then she looked away. "How about now?"
A smirk twitched Ava's lips upwards. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"
Olivia blushed, then felt angry with herself for blushing and so blushed harder. "Apparently so," she said, standing and walking over to the window.
Ava got up and crossed the room quietly. She stood behind and a little to the side of her mother, placing a steadying hand between her shoulder blades. She felt tense and rigid. "What are you worried about?" she asked. "I live in San Fran-frickin'-sisco. I have plenty of gay friends."
A little of the tension seemed to drain out of Olivia's body as she chuckled softly. "Yeah, but it's not quite the same is it? I'm your mother," she said.
Ava shrugged. "So long as you're happy I really don't care what you do," she said. "Or who you do."
Olivia shot her a sharp sidelong look before she went back to staring out the window. "We're nowhere near that stage yet," she admitted, a frown ghosting across her face.
Ava saw it and mirrored her expression. "What's wrong?"
Olivia crossed her arms across her chest and walked away from the window. She paced restlessly for a few moments, Ava watching her with growing concern. "We went away together," she said at last, scraping her hands through her hair. "It was...really nice. Really nice, once we got over being so scared of being around each other." She stopped pacing. "I thought she was going to be okay with everything. You know, with us being together and people knowing and stuff?" She sat heavily back down on the sofa, pulling a cushion to her chest and resting her chin on it. "I told her...I told her...if she couldn't handle it she needed to tell me. I can't let myself go deeper into this if she's going to yank it all away again. I can't..."
Ava crossed the room in three strides and kneeled in front of her mother. "And do you think that's what she's going to do?"
Olivia's eyes were open and vulnerable as she glanced at her daughter and when she spoke dread dripped from every syllable.
"I think she's getting cold feet."
Natalia woke slowly that morning and for a moment wasn't sure where she was. The light was coming through the window at an unusual angle. The colour of the walls was wrong. Even the bed felt different.
When she finally remembered that she'd fallen asleep the night before in Olivia's room she flushed crimson and quickly sat up. Her clothes were wrinkled and she felt vaguely grimy, like there was a layer of invisible dirt coating her skin. She hadn't meant to fall asleep there. She'd just wanted to feel close to the other woman, to curl up round one of her pillows and breathe in her scent.
Everywhere she went in Springfield she felt like people were staring at her. In the grocery store, in the bank, at Emma's school, eyes stuck to her like tics. She'd never caught anyone at it. Other things always seemed to be utterly fascinating to them when she spun round, anger painting her cheeks. But she knew they were doing it. She could feel their glances, their whispers, their disapproval like they were living things following her around and coiling round her ankles, trying to make her stumble.
And stumbling she was, with no Olivia there to hold her up. But she was due back that afternoon - thank God. All Natalia wanted to do was sink into her arms, feel those powerful yet gentle hands in her hair, those soft lips on her forehead. She longed to simply melt into the other woman and pretend nothing else existed. For a while, at least.
But no. She knew she couldn't do that. She couldn't use Olivia to calm her fears while still keeping those fears a secret. Her heart already burned with all that she was keeping from the other woman - she wouldn't add to that guilt.
With a deep sigh Natalia glanced at the clock, then sat up so fast that all the blood rushed to her head and she felt dizzy. Seven thirty-five. Shit. Emma was going to be late.
She was suddenly glad she was already dressed as she dashed into Emma's room to rouse the slumbering girl. After picking out some clothes, making sure she brushed her teeth and throwing together the least healthy lunch the girl had ever received from her, Natalia quickly made a peanut butter and banana sandwich and thrust it into Emma's hands. "Eat this in the car," she instructed, grabbing the girl's hand and dragging her out the door. Seven fifty-five. Double shit.
She broke at least five speed limits on the way to the school. Emma didn't speak once throughout the journey but Natalia was too distracted to notice. She was far too busy castigating herself for being a poor caretaker, for giving in to her selfish weakness the night before and falling asleep in the wrong room, for the chips and cookies she'd sent in Emma's lunch rather than her usual healthy choices.
When they pulled up outside the school - fifteen minutes late - Emma was almost on the point of tears. "Are you mad at me?" she asked in a small, trembling voice. Natalia turned to her in surprise.
"What? Oh sweetie, no," she replied, leaning over to hug the girl awkwardly.
"You seem mad," Emma insisted, her voice watery.
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut, another layer of guilt settling round her shoulders like a familiar blanket. "I'm mad at me," she admitted. "Not you baby. Not you."
They sat in the car clinging to each other for long minutes as the morning ticked away. Finally Natalia squeezed the little girl one last time and pulled away, a smile pasted onto her face. "Come on," she said. "I'll come in with you and explain to your teacher why you're late, okay?"
Emma nodded. Her eyes were sad, but Natalia didn't want to think about why.
"Could I talk to you for a moment Miss Rivera?"
Natalia turned, a frown creasing her brow. Miss Jennings gently closed the classroom door and turned to her, a concerned smile on her face. "Look, I'm sorry again that Emma was late," she began, but the teacher held up her hands.
"Please, everyone's a little late sometimes," she said. "I actually wanted to talk to you about some...concerns...I have about Emma."
Natalia paled. "What's the matter? Is she okay?"
Miss Jennings nodded. "I don't think it's too much to worry about. I've just been hearing her talk recently...about her living arrangements."
Natalia suddenly felt a headache coming on. "Maybe you should be talking to Emma's mother," she began, but the teacher shook her head.
"It mostly concerns you," she said.
Natalia sighed. "Okay," she said. "What can I do for you?"
Miss Jennings led her down the hall and opened the door to the teacher's lounge. "Please have a seat," she said. Natalia sank into a chair gratefully. Miss Jennings remained standing, leaning her hip against a table, her arms crossed. "I understand that Emma isn't living with you anymore," she began.
Natalia pinched the bridge of her nose. "No," she said. "I'm looking after her for a few days while her mom's away."
There was a pause and Natalia got the sense that the teacher was choosing her words carefully. "I understand that the breakdown of a relationship - any kind of relationship - is especially difficult when a child is involved-"
"Breakdown?" Natalia interrupted, glaring at the teacher. "Who said anything about a breakdown?"
Miss Jennings paled. "I just assumed...I mean, since Emma and her mom have moved out-"
"You assumed what? That we'd broken up?" Natalia stood. "I thought I'd made myself pretty clear about this before."
"Yes," the other woman replied. "Yes you did. I do apologise Miss Rivera. Perhaps I should be speaking to Miss Spencer after all."
Natalia pressed her face into her palms. "No, wait," she said. She sat down again. "I'm sorry. My relationship with Olivia is...complicated at the moment." That's the understatement of the century, her mind remarked acidly. "What did you want to say about Emma?"
Miss Jennings moved away from the table and sat opposite her. "She's been unsettled," she explained gently. "And I think the last few days have confused her quite a bit. She doesn't understand why she and her mom aren't living with you anymore."
Natalia closed her eyes. "It's...the thing is...Olivia and I-"
"You don't owe me any explanations," Miss Jennings interrupted gently. "Whatever's happening in your private life is exactly that. I just thought you should know...Emma is quite confused right now."
Natalia opened tired eyes. "She's not the only one," she admitted. Miss Jennings smiled.
"I have to get back to my class," she said. "Please feel free to stay as long as you like."
Natalia sat back in the chair when she was gone, covering her face with her hands. She'd done it again. Given in to a gut reaction of anger in the face of an assumption that she and Olivia were in a relationship. Except this time the assumption was accurate and she wasn't sure what was worse - the dread that had rushed over her like a wave when she realised what the teacher was implying, or the shame flooding through her now as she thought of how easily the denial had sprung to her lips.
"Oh, Olivia," she murmured. "You were right. I'm not ready for this."
The realisation sat heavily in her stomach for a long moment before her cellphone rang, breaking into her thoughts. She frowned as she looked at the display. It was a Chicago number...she thought she vaguely recognised it but couldn't remember from where.
"Hello?" she said. The voice on the other end was familiar...a woman, with a slight accent. It took Natalia a moment to place it but when she did the blood drained from her face.
The gnawing feeling in the pit of Olivia's stomach was not in any way appeased by the text she received as soon as she was able to turn her phone back on after getting off the plane. Can you get a cab home? Will explain when you get here.
Natalia had been scheduled to pick her up. She'd even said she'd been looking forward to it. "I can't wait to see you," she'd said, just the previous night. Obviously she'd developed some patience since then. It was a shame Olivia hadn't.
With a deep sigh she shouldered her bag and headed for the waiting rank of taxis. She gave the address then leaned back in the seat, closing her eyes., "I'll tip you an extra ten bucks if you don't talk to me," she muttered. Forty minutes later the cab pulled up outside the farmhouse and Olivia paid the extortionate fare - including inflated tip.
"Natalia?" Olivia tried to keep the anticipation from her voice, but she had a feeling it crept in anyway. She tightened her jaw. She didn't want Natalia to know just how much she'd missed her. Especially as it seemed like the feeling wasn't exactly mutual.
"Oh hi, you're back." Natalia's voice was distracted as she came in from the kitchen carrying a sandwich wrapped in plastic. She didn't seem pleased to see her. The smile that had leapt to Olivia's lips at the sight of her dropped slowly from her face.
"Yeah, sure am," she said.
Natalia nodded absently, sitting on the couch and grabbing her purse. She placed the sandwich inside it carefully. Olivia suddenly noticed the suitcases by the door.
"You're going somewhere?"
Natalia closed her eyes wearily. "I have to go to Chicago for a little while," she said. "I wanted to ask you for a favour."
Olivia sat on the arm of the sofa. "Okay."
Natalia opened her eyes. "Can you stay here while I'm gone?" she asked. "I don't know how long I'll be gone and I don't like the idea of the house being empty."
Right, Olivia thought. Housesitting for a friend. That's all she wants from me. "Okay," she said aloud.
Natalia stood, smoothing down her clothes. "Great," she said. "One less thing to worry about..."
Olivia watched her packing up last minute things for a few minutes, waiting for her to say something else and getting more and more frustrated with the other woman. "Aren't you going to tell me why you're going?" she said at last, when no explanation was forthcoming.
Natalia stilled. She didn't look at Olivia as she replied. "My dad died," she said simply.
Olivia was on her feet and by Natalia's side in an instant, her earlier annoyance forgotten. Her hand came to rest on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry," she breathed. Natalia nodded and shrugged. Olivia's hand fell away.
"Thanks," Natalia said.
"Do...do you know what happened?" Olivia's voice was gentle.
Natalia shook her head and resumed her last minute packing. "I just know it was sudden. My mom called this morning."
Olivia hesitated before she said what was on her mind. "I, uh, haven't ever heard you talk about your parents," she said softly.
Natalia shook her head. "We...parted ways...before Rafe was born," she replied. "I haven't seen or heard from them in eighteen years."
Olivia was still and quiet for a moment while she processed that. "And you're still going to come running when she calls?" she said at last, unable to hide all her incredulity from her voice.
Natalia pinned her with a steady gaze. "She's my mom," she said simply, as if that said it all. And for Natalia, Olivia supposed, it probably did. She managed a tight smile.
"You're a better person than I am," she said. "But I've always known that."
Ordinarily Natalia would have argued with that but today she simply didn't have the energy. She settled for simply patting Olivia's hand as she grabbed her bags and headed for the door.
"Wait!" Natalia paused at the door and looked back. Olivia smiled almost shyly. "Aren't you going to say goodbye?"
Natalia seemed to hesitate briefly, then set her bags down. She crossed back to Olivia in two strides and ran her fingers through a lock of her hair, tucking it behind her ear. "Goodbye," she said softly, and pressed her lips to Olivia's cheek. Only the protraction of the kiss and the trembling of her hands betrayed that the gesture could be anything other than friendly.
"You're coming back, right?"
The question was out before Olivia had a chance to think about it and as soon as she spoke she wanted to claw the words back into her mouth. What an absurd question. Of course she was coming back.
"Of course I'm coming back," Natalia said softly. She tilted Olivia's chin up, forcing her to meet her eyes. After another brief hesitation she leaned forward again, and this time the kiss was for her lips. It was a peck, over almost before it began, but Olivia felt her heart clench almost painfully at the simple touch. Natalia's fingers traced the planes of her face. "Can't get rid of me, remember?" she whispered.
Olivia released a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding. "Right," she agreed.
Natalia watched Olivia for a moment, an unreadable expression on her face. Then she pulled away, leaning down to retrieve her suitcases. "I'll call you when things have settled down a bit," she said.
"Okay." Olivia nodded. She resisted the urge to reach out to Natalia again, to pull her back into her arms and never let her go. "Text me when you get there though, okay? So I know when to stop worrying."
Natalia nodded as she left, her mind already in Chicago and what was waiting for her there.
Olivia watched her go. She had a feeling that, despite what she'd said, she probably wasn't going to be able to stop worrying about her the whole time she was gone.
Emma was delighted to see Olivia picking her up from school, but she was even more delighted to discover that they were both going back to the farmhouse. "Do we get to stay forever?" she asked, her breath coming quickly in her excitement. "Have you and Natalia stopped arguing?"
Olivia frowned. "We're not arguing, baby," she said. "Why would you think that?"
Emma shrugged. "You must be," she said simply. "You're acting weird. We're living at the hotel. If you weren't arguing we'd have moved back already."
Olivia closed her eyes briefly. She didn't think she was ready for this conversation. But she didn't want Emma to go on believing that she and Natalia were mad at each other. "We haven't been arguing, baby," she explained.
Emma frowned. "Then why did we have to move out?" she asked.
Olivia took a deep breath. "Emma..." she began. "You know Natalia and I both love you very much right?" The child nodded. Olivia stroked her hair and managed a smile. "Well...Natalia and I also love each other very much."
Emma shrugged. "I know," she said.
Emma looked at her mother as if she were slightly slow. "You're family," she said.
Olivia nodded. "Yes," she agreed. "We are a family. And we're friends." Another deep breath. "But we also love each other in a different way."
There. It was out now. Surprisingly, Olivia felt a little better. A little lighter maybe.
"What different way?"
Olivia smiled gently. "Well...in one of those weird, grown-up ways that even we don't understand," she explained. "And that's what we've been trying to do for the last little while."
Emma shrugged. "Okay," she said. "Can we have spaghetti for dinner?"
Olivia reeled slightly at the sudden change of topic. Adaptable little people indeed, she thought, and smiled. "I love you Jellybean," she said.
"Love you too mommy."
Olivia kissed her daughter's forehead. "Spaghetti it is," she said.
They went to Towers where, thankfully, there were no children and their video games or new cats to entice Emma away from her mom's table. Olivia's cellphone buzzed just as they finished their meal. Have arrived safely, the message said.
OK. I love you, Olivia sent back.
She checked her phone repeatedly throughout the rest of the evening, but she didn't receive a reply.
Natalia had been living in a small town too long. How else could she explain the sheer claustrophobia that was sneaking up on her the closer she got to the place that for so many years she'd considered home? The traffic made her nervous. She spent the first hour of the drive through the metropolitan area getting cut up and honked at almost every five minutes. It was like she'd forgotten how to drive in a city - and maybe she had. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had to deal with traffic of more than ten or twenty cars.
Her nerves built with every mile that disappeared under her wheels. With every passing moment the traffic grew denser, the buildings grew taller, the crowds grew thicker, and she could feel her palms starting to sweat. She wiped them on the leg of her jeans when her hands started to slip on the steering wheel.
She hated this, she realised suddenly. The cars and the noise and the people and the thunder of the El above her head. Her head was thumping and she longed to be back at her farmhouse. Her safe, comfortable and above all quiet farmhouse. With Olivia.
She lost concentration for a fraction of a second as the memory of kissing Olivia goodbye washed over her, and had to brake hard to avoid rear ending the car in front of her as it stopped at a red light. It had been such a simple kiss really - and yet the mere thought of it was enough to draw all the air from her lungs. Olivia's soft, full lips fluttering so briefly under hers...
A honk from behind her alerted her to the fact that her light had turned green and she flushed darkly, holding a hand up in front of her rear view mirror to apologise. "Sorry!" she called, even though she knew the other driver couldn't hear her.
She consciously pushed Olivia from her mind for the rest of the drive and when she pulled up outside a very familiar apartment building on the Lower West side she sent a quick text then switched her phone off. She couldn't have any distractions right now.
Her hands shook alarmingly as she gathered her things from the trunk and slowly climbed the stairs to the fifth floor. Before she was really ready for it she found herself at the door. She hesitated for a moment. Should she knock? Or just go in? She knew the door was never locked when someone was home - she could just walk in as if the last eighteen years of separation had never happened. As if there was no bad blood between them at all.
The door opened almost instantly and Natalia had the impression that her mother had probably been watching her through the peephole. She blushed. How long had she been standing there dithering on the doorstep?
"You took your time."
Natalia took a step back. She should have expected this, she realised. When had she ever been able to do anything right after all? It was foolish to imagine anything but a criticism could drop from this woman's lips. It's good to see you. Over her dead body. I missed you Maybe when hell froze over. I'm sorry. Not if she waited for eternity.
"I had some things to take care of at home," Natalia said.
Her mother flicked back her long dark hair - greying at the roots, Natalia noticed. That was new. "Well, are you going to stand in the hallway all day?" She stepped back and disappeared into the apartment, not waiting to see if her daughter followed. Natalia sighed as she gathered her things and stepped over the threshold.
Birds flew, fish swam, and Josephine Rivera was rude. Natalia had long ago accepted that she couldn't help it. There were some things that would just never change.
She had arrived at her childhood home over an hour ago and Natalia had so far managed to avoid speaking to her mother completely - a feat of which she was almost proud. It took real dedication to avoid another person in a tiny two bedroom apartment with walls as thin as paper but she had managed it. Her mother had gone to the living room and Natalia had retreated to where she felt the most comfortable - the kitchen.
The pantry was well stocked, as were the fridge and freezer. She could easily whip up a simple, quick meal for them both. But that would mean she'd have to go and speak to her mother sooner rather than later, and she knew she'd rather pull her own fingernails out with rusty pliers.
She found an apron hanging on a hook behind the door, tied it round her waist and then gathered ingredients and utensils for a lasagne. She vaguely recalled that her mother liked lasagne, and it would take her a little while, which was a big plus.
It was so hard to believe that just that morning she'd been in her own home, in her own kitchen, throwing an unhealthy lunch together for Emma and quietly looking forward to Olivia coming back - even if she wasn't quite sure what that meant for her, or for them.
She knew she loved Olivia. She knew it in the same way she knew that the sky was blue or that grass was green. What was uncertain was just exactly what she was willing to do to keep storm clouds from turning that sky grey, or a drought from turning the grass dead and brown. Could she walk down the street with Olivia without caring if people looked at them twice? Could she take her hand in public without trembling? Could she handle people thinking she was a...a-
Lesbian! a voice - a familiar voice, a voice a lot like Olivia's - in her mind snapped. It's not a dirty word.
Maybe not, but it wasn't a word she could apply to herself. And she couldn't help the defensiveness that crept into her heart when she thought of people assuming that she did. Why wasn't just loving Olivia enough? Why did it have to come with all this extra confusion?
Because we can't live under a rock, her mind supplied. No-matter how much you'd like to. Consequences are a fact of life. You've known that since you were sixteen years old.
With a quick shake of her head she returned her attention to cooking.
"I made you some dinner," she said a little while later, placing a portion of lasagne carefully on the table next to her mother's armchair. Josephine glanced at it.
"Too much cheese," she muttered, and returned her attention to the TV.
Natalia sighed as she sank onto the couch. "Please don't start with this mom," she said, covering her face with her hands.
"Start with what?"
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut. "Just eat the food I put so much time and effort into making for you, would you? Please?"
There was no reply, but when Natalia heard the scrape of cutlery against the plate she managed a small smile. That was a start.
"But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real."
Olivia finished the last sentence and closed the book softly. She looked down at her daughter who was already fast asleep and smiled. She never got to sleep so easily in the hotel. She always needed at least three stories and even then she wouldn't sleep unless Olivia was actually in the bed with her. She'd become a master of the art of sneaking out from under a slumbering nine year old without waking her in the last week.
But now Emma was back in the farmhouse, in her element, and it couldn't be more obvious just how at home she felt. Olivia sighed. It was going to be a wrench, yet again. Leaving this place had been hard enough on Emma the first time. How was she going to explain to her that they had to leave again when Natalia came back from Chicago?
And how was she going to cope with it herself?
She had to face it - leaving this place had been just as hard, if not harder, on her than on Emma. This was the only place she'd ever felt at home. The only place she'd ever felt at peace. She knew it was because of Natalia, but the feeling lingered even when she wasn't there. She'd spent the evening consciously reminding herself I don't live here, I don't live here, I don't live here. It wasn't helping.
She could feel Natalia in every brick of the house. Her presence surrounded and enveloped her like a warm blanket, floating into her subconscious so subtly that it undid all her efforts to distance herself from this place.
Olivia sighed deeply as she slipped between the sheets. She rolled onto her side, pulling one of the pillows to her chest. She thought she could smell Natalia's perfume, but shook herself to clear the notion. Ridiculous.
She was on the edge of sleep when her cellphone rang. She reached for it blearily in the darkness. "Hello," she mumbled, her eyes squinting open.
"Oh...sorry. Were you asleep?"
Olivia sat up, suddenly completely alert. "Natalia!" Her heart leapt. "No, it's okay, I'm awake."
"Okay..." There was a pause. Olivia listened to the slight crackle of the phone line and Natalia's breathing.
"How's your mom?" she asked after a moment. Natalia sighed.
"She's...herself," she said, then laughed humourlessly. "I don't know why I expected anything else."
Olivia smiled. "And you? Are you okay?"
"I- I'm fine," Natalia said. "I feel like I lost my dad a long time ago." The admission was quiet, but Olivia heard the pain in her voice and frowned. But before she could say anything Natalia brightened and spoke again. "This is completely surreal," she said. "I'm sitting in my old bedroom right now - and it's exactly the same as when I left it." She laughed. "There's even a poster of Joey McIntyre on the wall."
Olivia smiled. "You were a fan?"
"Oh come on, everyone was a fan in the early 90s, weren't they?"
Olivia's smile widened. "I wasn't," she said.
"Yeah, but you're old," Natalia said and chuckled at Olivia's offended gasp. Suddenly she broke into song. "Hey girl in your eyes I see a picture of me all the time. And girl when you smile, you got to know that you drive me wild..."
Olivia laughed and lay back, pressing her ear into the pillow to block out background noise. She closed her eyes and pretended that Natalia was there, lying next to her. "I didn't know you could sing," she said softly. She could almost see Natalia's smile.
"There are a lot of things you don't know about me," she said.
"I want to know everything," Olivia replied, without thinking. There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone.
"I...I'd like that," Natalia said at last, and Olivia thought her heart might just burst with love. "I'm sorry," Natalia continued. "That I didn't reply to your text before. I switched off my phone. I just...just needed a little space."
Olivia opened her eyes. "You can have as much space as you need," she said softly. "You know that. But...I'm here for you. Whenever you want."
There was another long pause. "I know," Natalia said at last. "I know you are. I-" she broke off, and took a deep breath. "I do love you, Olivia," she said earnestly. "You know that, right?"
Olivia frowned. "Yes," she said hesitantly. "I'm just not sure why..."
"Because you're everything to me," Natalia replied instantly. "Because you're the one person who sees me for who I am...good and bad. Because you've given me so much and never asked for anything in return."
Olivia took a breath. "I could say exactly the same about you," she said softly. "I love you."
"I know," Natalia breathed.
Olivia lay there for a long moment, a feeling of peace and contentment creeping through her limbs. Maybe everything was going to be all right after all. Maybe Natalia was coming to terms with things. Maybe she'd just been being paranoid. "You should get some sleep," she said at last. Natalia sighed.
"I guess so. If I can manage it with Joey's eyes boring into me all night."
Olivia laughed. "Goodnight," she said softly.
Olivia set the phone on the nightstand, a small smile playing on her lips, and sank back into the pillows. For the first time since they'd left the spa, sleep came easily.
Natalia ended the call with a frown creasing her forehead. She bit her lip. "Oh, you deserve so much better than me," she whispered. Guilt flooded through her, which strangely comforted her. It had been such a constant companion most of her life, she almost didn't feel right unless she was feeling guilty about something.
Sleep was difficult to come by, and not just because of her surroundings. The bed felt strange and deeply uncomfortable. Olivia had insisted she get a decent mattress when they were furnishing the farmhouse and she hadn't realised just how used to that she'd got. This mattress was lumpy and hard in all the wrong places. And it was a single bed - she worried she'd end up on the floor by morning.
When sleep finally came it brought with it dreams, and not the pleasant kind. She saw her father's face, his eyes full of tears, shame radiating from every pore as he looked down at his only child. She saw her mother turning her back on her. She saw Olivia and Emma walking away, their shoulders hunched. Wait! her dream self shouted, though to whom she couldn't say. I'm sorry! And then there was nothing but the sound of gentle sobbing, though she wasn't sure who it was coming from.
She woke up suddenly, her eyes snapping open. The sobbing remained, and she had to touch her own face before she realised that it wasn't coming from her.
"Mom..." she whispered, and slipped out of bed.
Her parents' bedroom was just next door and the walls were paper thin. She'd always been able to hear everything that went on in that room - much to her deep, deep embarrassment when she was old enough to figure out what some of those noises meant.
She pushed the door open slowly. If she was in her own house she'd have to wait a moment to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She'd never known darkness and peace as complete as that she'd found at her farmhouse in the night. It was her little bubble, her refuge, a place where the rest of the world didn't exist. But here the amber light of countless street lamps lit the room in a dim glow and she could see her mother, curled up in a foetal position, hugging something to her body and sobbing as if her heart had broken.
And it had, Natalia suddenly realised in a rush. Her mother was cold, she was distant, she was rude, she'd never appreciated anything Natalia had ever done...but she'd just lost her husband. Natalia knew exactly what that felt like.
"Oh, mommy," she murmured as she crossed the room in two strides, sliding into bed beside her. Josephine didn't even look at her, but she opened her arms and pulled Natalia to her in a crushing embrace. Natalia found her face pressed up against the piece of fabric her mother had been holding. One of her father's shirts. She breathed deeply through her nose.
Her father's scent - shaving foam and Old Spice and cigarettes - still clung to the material. Unexpected tears sprung to her eyes. She was cast suddenly back into memory...sitting on her father's lap gazing into his eyes as if he were the most fascinating creature she'd ever seen...riding on his shoulders as he walked the ten blocks from school to home...clinging to his legs as he tried to leave the apartment to start his night shift at the factory.
"Daddy," she whispered. "Oh God, daddy..."
Her mother clung to her, her hands clutching at her back, nails scratching against her skin. Natalia returned the embrace, and if there was some pain in its strength and intensity...well, that was okay.
Where her mother was concerned, Natalia knew, pain was only to be expected.
Natalia woke the next morning to the sound of a loud argument and honking barging in the open window and an unfamiliar warm body at her back. "Olivia?" she murmured sleepily, then flushed deeply as she remembered where she was was. Not Olivia. Her mother.
She turned quickly, wide awake, heart thumping. Her mother was still asleep. She hadn't heard her little slip. Thank God. Relief made her heart flutter, and she slipped out of bed before her mother could wake.
She stumbled through to the kitchen to start breakfast. It had been a strange night, to say the least. She didn't know why she'd been so surprised to find her mother distraught. Her husband had died. Surely even someone as emotionally distant as her mother couldn't fail to feel that kind of loss. And obviously she did feel it. Even if she hadn't seemed to feel anything at the loss of her only child, all those years ago.
Natalia shook herself. No point thinking of that now. A curl of embarrassment crept up on her as she thought of how she'd regressed the night before. Mommy. Dear God, you haven't called her that since you were twelve, her mind remarked. And daddy? Really, daddy? After what he did?
"What are you making?"
Natalia turned to see her mother come into the kitchen, wrapped in an old greying robe. She'd washed her face and put on a little makeup. Natalia shook her head. How typical. Just make sure everything appears okay on the surface - it could have been her mother's motto.
"Pancakes," Natalia replied. She didn't plan on making them heart shaped.
Josephine grunted, which meant she couldn't think of anything vicious to say. "Remember the-"
"-maple syrup," Natalia interrupted. "I know." She looked over at her mother and caught her eye. Something indefinable clouded over her face and then was gone, locked down by a tightening lip and narrowing eyes. Natalia sighed. So they were going to pretend last night hadn't happened. They were actually going to pretend that they hadn't fallen asleep sobbing in each other's arms.
No. No, Natalia decided firmly. That wasn't going to happen.
"How did he die?" she asked softly.
Her mother didn't answer for several long moments. "It was sudden," she said at last. "They're going to do an autopsy you know." Natalia nodded slowly and her mother took a breath. "He had been feeling weak and breathless for a while. I wanted him to give up smoking...I thought that might help..."
Natalia nodded again, suddenly recalling a long abandoned fear. She remembered lying awake, listening to her father coughing and spluttering in the room next door, and vowing never to touch a cigarette. "And did he?"
Josephine's lip curled in a sneer. "What do you think?" she said, but there was no venom in her voice. She was too tired for that.
Natalia nodded. "Okay..." she breathed.
"That last day," her mother continued in a far away voice, "he couldn't even get out of bed. I found him...just lying there, in our bed. His eyes were open..."
Natalia felt her heart clench in sympathy. She held out her hand instinctively, then slowly lowered it to her side. "I'm sorry," she said. "I...I know how that must have felt..."
"How could you possibly know?" her mother snapped.
Sympathy turned to anger as quick as a flash, but Natalia damped it down hard. She clenched her fist behind her back. "You don't know anything about my life," she said, her voice calm and steady. "I'm a widow too, mom."
Her mind travelled back just over a year to that room in Cedars hospital, to the beep of machines keeping her husband's body alive, to the decision she'd agonsied over in those seemingly infinite moments of despair. New life had come of that death, and not just for Olivia. Something had woken up inside her too as the weeks and months passed and her life became intertwined with Olivia's in ways she'd never have imagined. And suddenly she knew - she knew - that Olivia's life had been worth everything. That if she had a choice now, today, between Gus's life and Olivia's that she wouldn't even hesitate. That there would be no choice to make at all.
Josephine was watching her, an unreadable expression on her face. "You...you had a husband?" she said softly.
Natalia snapped back to the present like a broken rubber band. "Yes," she said. "I was married to the father of my child."
There. She'd said it. The issue of Rafe had been sitting unvoiced between them since she'd arrived and now it was out. Where they went now was up to her mother.
"You...you didn't bring him," she said. "Your son."
Natalia shook her head. "I didn't think there'd be room for him here," she said. She hoped her mother knew she meant more than just physical space in this tiny apartment. From the closed expression that flitted over her face she guessed she did.
"No, there probably isn't," she said, and then turned her back and left the kitchen.
Natalia released a long breath through her mouth and then drew in an even longer one through her nose. She frowned. Shit. The stupid pancakes were burning.
Work at The Beacon had always been quietly satisfying to Olivia but now, without Natalia, it was tiring and tedious. She had to drag herself to the hotel every morning, and when she got there she resented everything - her appointments, her staff, and above all the ticking of the clock counting off the seconds, minutes, hours and days of Natalia's absence.
"Yes, what?" she snarled into the phone an instant after it rang. She could practically see the poor desk clerk shaking. "Who? Well what does she want?" Olivia sighed. "Fine, send her up."
She slammed the phone back into its cradle. A few minutes later a knock sounded at the door. "Come in," she growled, bracing herself.
Doris breezed in, a predatory smile on her face. "So, is it true?" she asked without preamble, sitting in the chair opposite Olivia's without waiting for an invitation.
"Is what true?" Olivia leaned back in her chair.
Doris's lips twitched. "That your little girlfriend ran off to Chicago the moment you got back," she said. "What's wrong, did you try to jump her or something?"
Olivia fixed her with a disdainful look. "Her father died," she replied, her voice dripping with contempt.
Doris returned Olivia's glare with one of her own. "How convenient."
Anger rose up in Olivia's chest, greeting her like a familiar friend. "My God, you really are a piece of work," she began, but Doris held up her hands.
"Sorry," she said, sounding about as far from sorry as it was possible to be. "I just think she might be a little relieved to get out of town for a while. She certainly seemed uncomfortable the last time I saw her."
Olivia frowned, anger departing and leaving confusion in its wake. "You...you saw Natalia? When?"
A slow smile spread over Doris's face. "Oh, she didn't tell you?" She sounded positively gleeful. "I stopped by the day you guys left your little spa vacation."
Doris's smile widened. "Official mayoral business," she said cryptically, then leaned forward. "I'm afraid I interrupted some baking." She said the word like she might have said roach-spraying.
Olivia flushed, remembering Natalia's almost desperate sounding message that day, and the distance that had crept into her conversations since. "Did you say something to her?" she began, leaning forward. "Because if you did-"
"Whoah, cowgirl," Doris raised her hands. "Not guilty."
Olivia looked for a moment as if she wasn't going to accept that answer, but finally she sighed, flopping back into her chair. "Fine," she said weakly. "What did you want, Doris?"
"Well, I did really want to see how you're getting on without your little wife," Doris replied, a gleam in her eye.
"She's not my wife!"
"Oh, but you so wish she was," Doris replied smoothly, and grinned when Olivia didn't dispute it. "But I also came here to discuss a fundraiser I'd like to hold at The Beacon next month."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "The election's not until next year," she muttered.
"Never too early to drum up support," Doris replied. "Unless you don't want my business..."
"No," Olivia said, holding up her hands. "No, let me just take the details..."
Doris smiled gleefully as she watched Olivia hunting in her desk drawer for a pen. No Natalia around, and the opportunity for lots of private business meetings with one Ms Spencer. Did life get any better than this?
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