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.
Josephine stood stock still for a long moment then stumbled back into the wall, clutching her heart. Natalia was by her side in an instant, steadying her.
"Mom," she gasped, anger and concern warring for dominance in her voice. Josephine waved her off.
"Like you care if my heart is breaking," she snapped. "You didn't care the last time you did it."
Natalia stepped back. "You have a very strange recollection of who hurt who," she said tightly.
Rafe glanced back and forth between them like a spectator at a tennis match. "Ma," he mumbled. "What are you talking about?"
Natalia's chin jutted forward. "Ask her," she ground out. "Ask her what she and my father had planned for me when they found out I was pregnant with you."
Josephine's head whipped up. "What?" She shook her head in confusion. "Plans? We had no plans."
For a long moment Natalia was speechless, but then she laughed - a long, bitter, humourless laugh. "Now who's lying?" she demanded, then stepped forward and slapped the wall dividing her room from Josephine's. "Thin walls, remember? I heard you."
Rafe sank down onto his mother's thin single bed, feeling like he'd just been dropped into a very surreal play. He looked at his mother, standing with her back straight and her head held high, fire in her eyes, and felt a little afraid. He'd never seen her like this. His mom didn't get angry. She just sighed resignedly at whatever life had thrown at her and got on with it. This new side to her was, if he was honest, a tiny bit scary.
"Heard what?" Josephine spat.
Natalia shook her head. "I heard you," she said, slowly and deliberately, "planning to make me have an abortion."
Rafe's head shot up. His grandmother had gone deathly white and was leaning against the wall even more heavily. "Grandma?" he mumbled, but she didn't look at him. Her eyes were locked on her daughter's flushed face.
"It wasn't like that-" she began, but Natalia cut her off with a hollow laugh.
"How dare you talk to me about sin?" she demanded. "How dare you tell me that my love is wrong when you and dad wanted me to murder my child?"
"It wasn't like that!" Josephine screamed, holding her hands to her ears as if to block out the words. Or the past.
Natalia wasn't about to let her off that easily. "Oh no you don't," she muttered, stalking over to her mother and forcing her hands away from her head. "You're going to listen to me for once."
Josephine stared into the face of her only child and narrowed her eyes. "Okay, Natalia. You tell me what you think you heard, hmm?"
"I know what I heard," Natalia replied firmly.
"Do you?" Josephine said in a low whisper and something in her tone made Natalia hesitate.
"I..." she said, then coughed to clear her throat. "I heard you and dad talking."
"You mentioned the part where you were eavesdropping on an adult conversation," Josephine remarked acidly. Natalia flushed.
"Dad was talking about making an appointment at a clinic," she said, a little more strength in her voice. "He asked you what you'd do if I refused to go through with it."
Josephine raised one eyebrow. "And?" she prompted.
"And you said 'then she'll find out that actions have consequences.'"
Rafe looked up at his mother, a frown deepening on his brow. "That's it?" Natalia's head snapped round.
"Keep out of this, Rafe," she snapped.
"You're talking about when you were pregnant with me, remember?" he said, then did a double take when two sets of identical eyes rolled exaggeratedly.
"How did you raise such a stupid child?" Josephine muttered. Natalia rounded on her at once.
"Leave him out of this," she growled. "This is about you and me."
Josephine tilted her head. "So talk to me," she said. "Tell me what you thought I meant by that, hmm?"
Natalia took a step back, her confidence faltering again. "I don't know," she admitted. "I just know it was nothing good." Josephine threw her hands in the air.
"You stupid girl," she hissed. "Don't you know you destroyed your father? Don't you know you broke his heart?" Natalia turned away, her jaw clenched.
"Yeah, yeah, sixteen, pregnant, unmarried-" she began, reciting the usual litany, but Josephine cut her off.
"No!" she exclaimed, shaking her head. "Idiotic child. Because you left!"
Rafe sat back a little on the bed, watching his mother and grandmother squaring off against each other. He realised suddenly that his mother had never talked about the circumstances surrounding her leaving home. He supposed he'd always assumed that his grandparents had kicked her out. She'd never talked about them, never tried to get in touch, never attempted to ask them for help, even when they'd been so poor that she hadn't been able to feed them both and had so gone hungry.
Natalia set her jaw. "I didn't have a choice."
Josephine's face was flushed, but her eyes were watery and her lips were trembling. "You left," she whispered. "You didn't talk to us. You didn't give us a chance to explain. You didn't give us the benefit of the doubt. After everything we'd done for you. You know, coming to this country wasn't easy for us. We did it for you - so you'd have a better life. And how did you repay us?"
Natalia took one step forward. "I couldn't let you hurt my child," she insisted, but she didn't seem as sure as she had been. Josephine waved her hand dismissively.
"We just wanted what was best for you," she said. A single tear escaped her eye and trailed down her cheek. "Especially your father. You were...you were his whole world. He loved you so much, Natalia. He only wanted you to have an easier life. He didn't want you to have to grow up so fast." She shrugged. "He wanted you to stay his little girl."
Natalia paled, her face stricken. "But...what about the clinic?"
"It was an option," Josephine replied. "Just an option. He hated it. My God, Natalia, he'd changed his mind by morning. I doubt he could have gone through with it, but you never gave us the chance to talk to you about it. Because you'd gone by the time we woke up." Silent tears were flowing freely now, but Josephine's voice was calm. "No note. No call. No explanation. Just a few clothes and some money missing." She closed her eyes. "Do you realise that we didn't know if you were alive or dead for six months? Not until your cousin Maria finally admitted to seeing you. And even then she wouldn't tell us where you were."
Natalia took a step forward, her hand flying to her mouth. "I didn't think-" she began, but her mother cut her off.
"No, you didn't," she said. "Look around, Natalia. Look around at the shrine to you that your father erected." She opened her eyes. "He always hoped you'd come back."
Natalia's eyes spun wildly about the room, taking in the pastel pink walls, the anachronistic posters, the carefully maintained furniture. "I wondered why you'd kept the room like this..." she whispered.
Josephine looked away. Silence stretched between them like a taut rubber band.
"But what about those consequences," Natalia demanded, when the tension finally became unbearable. "What did you mean by that?"
"What do you think?" Josephine exclaimed. "Having a baby at sixteen is a consequence, isn't it? Losing your childhood is a consequence. Not being able to go to college. Having to work your fingers to the bone. Spending your nights worrying about money instead of having fun, like a teenager is supposed to."
Rafe squirmed uncomfortably on the bed, but went ignored by both women. "It was my choice," Natalia said defensively.
"But you didn't have to do it alone!" Josephine clenched her fists. "Stupid girl, we would have helped you!"
Natalia took a step back, her eyes stricken. "But..." she spluttered. "But...I thought-"
"You thought what?" Josephine demanded. "That we'd disown you? Throw you out on the streets? Condemn you to hell?" She barked out a brief, humourless laugh. "You really think your father would have done that?"
"Not him," Natalia said without thinking, then flushed, clamping her mouth shut. Josephine's eyes narrowed.
"Oh, of course not. But you could believe that I would do it, yes? That's what you're saying."
Natalia shook her head. "Mom-" she said, but Josephine wouldn't let her continue.
"How typical. You and your father, so alike, so close. You had him wrapped round your little finger from the moment you were born. And I was always the bad guy, wasn't I? Always the one who had to make you go to bed, or brush your teeth or do your homework."
Natalia took a step forward, but Josephine waved her away. "Everything I did was for your own good. Because I wanted you to be healthy and happy and successful. Is that so terrible? Does that make me a monster?"
Natalia shook her head. "I thought..." she said, then seemed to lose the words.
"I know what you thought," Josephine said bitterly. "I know how you see me. But you know something? Just because you never loved me it doesn't mean I never loved you."
Natalia stepped back, tears filling her eyes and spilling over onto her cheeks. She cast her eyes around the room, taking in all the detritus of her broken childhood before finally settling her gaze on the unwitting cause of it all - her very confused looking son. "I have to go," she whispered, gathering up her jacket and purse, making sure to slip the letter she'd been reading inside.
"Where are you going?" Josephine demanded, reaching for her. Natalia ducked from her grasp.
"I don't know," Natalia admitted. "I just...I need to think. I need to think."
Josephine surged forward, but didn't manage to stop Natalia before she made it out the door. "Running away again?" she yelled to her daughter's departing back before slamming the door hard and collapsing against it. Rafe watched her for a long moment before he realised that she was crying, deep silent sobs.
"Grandma," he murmured, reaching out for her. She flinched away from his touch.
"You have Olivia's number?" she asked shortly. Her eyes were dark and unreadable.
Rafe nodded, frowning. "Yeah..."
Josephine closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Give it to me," she said.
Natalia had no idea where she was going. It was all she could do to keep one foot moving in front of the other. The streets were a blur of sights and sounds and people's faces and she couldn't take it in. All she could do was replay that night nearly nineteen years ago over and over in her mind.
"I can make her an appointment at a...at a clinic." Her father's voice was low and gravelly. Had he been crying? "That's what people do, isn't it? When they need to take care of...something like this."
There was a long pause. "Some people do," her mother allowed, with no expression in her voice to give a clue of what she was thinking. Natalia curled into a foetal position in her bed, hugging her pillow and frowning.
"We need to do something," her father continued. "We can't just let her make her own mistakes - she's only a child."
"She'll be a child to you for the rest of her life," Josephine murmured.
"What do you mean?" Her father's voice was sharp.
"Just that you might not be seeing things clearly," Josephine replied. "You should rest. Think about it in the morning."
Natalia heard a sigh, and then the creak of bedsprings as her parents lay down. "You're right," her father sighed. "It has been a very long day."
"It has," her mother agreed softly.
There was a very long silence, so long that Natalia thought they'd gone to sleep. But then her father's voice cut through the night one last time. "If we do send her to one of these clinics," he said hesitantly. "What do we do if she refuses? What do we say?"
"Don't worry about that now," her mother muttered. "Sleep."
"But what if-"
"If she refuses," Josephine interrupted, "then she'll find out that actions have consequences."
Natalia lay in the darkness next door, eyes wide, heart thumping. She strained her ears as hard as she could, but there was no more. After a few minutes her father began to snore.
He'd gone to sleep. She could hardly believe it. How could he sleep so easily? Natalia knew that rest would not come so quickly to her. She rested her hand over her stomach, slipping it under her thin tank top and splaying her fingers across it. She could almost feel the child growing inside her. She'd looked up a book in the library - it was the size of an apple seed right now. So small and vulnerable and delicate. It needed her to protect it. She'd even started thinking of names. How could her father even think of asking her to...to kill it?
But was he going to ask? Her blood ran cold at the thought. Her mother had said something about consequences. What consequences? Would they take the choice away from her? Drag her to a clinic kicking and screaming? Maybe they'd take her to one of the women she'd heard school friends whispering about who could 'take care' of little problems like this in their back bedrooms? Would they hold her down themselves or pay someone else to do it?
Her stomach lurched and she had to force herself to calm down. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to dispel the dreadful images from her mind. Her father would never do that, she thought. Surely...surely he wouldn't.
Her eyes flickered open as she remembered the look of pain and shame that had coloured his features when she'd finally told her parents everything, that afternoon. He'd looked at her like he didn't know who she was anymore. She barely knew herself. Maybe she didn't know him either? Maybe nothing was as it seemed.
And then there was her mother. Cold eyes. Her lips in a thin, hard line. Consequences. What did she mean by that?
Natalia's jaw hardened. She couldn't take a chance on finding out. She knew what she had to do.
Natalia swam back into the present through a veil of unshed tears, blinking hard. Her thoughtless steps had brought her three blocks from her mother's house, to St Paul's church. Worshippers were streaming out from morning mass and the priest was on the steps, greeting each parishioner as they stepped out into the light. It was Father Joe.
"Natalia!" he called cheerily, waving to her. She blinked twice before she finally walked over to him, shaking her head as if trying to wake herself from a dream.
"Father," she said softly. "Good morning."
The priest looked her up and down, a small smile on his lips. "You look terrible, my dear," he remarked conversationally. Natalia flushed.
"I didn't sleep well," she admitted. Or at all. "And I...had words with my mother and son this morning."
"Ah." Father Joe nodded. "Unpleasant words, I assume?"
Natalia almost laughed. "You could say that," she replied, then sighed. "I'm sorry Father, I don't really know why I'm here..."
Father Joe shrugged. "That's fine. We don't have to talk. Have you had breakfast? Our housekeeper always makes too much..." He trailed off, holding his hands apart invitingly. Natalia shook her head.
"No...thank you, Father. I think I know now where I should be going." She fished through her bag, pulling out the well thumbed letter she'd stayed up all night to read. "This helped," she said, holding it out to him. "Thank you."
Father Joe shook his head. "Keep it," he said. "I think you'll get more use out of it now than I will." He smiled gently, glancing over her shoulder to the street. "And I think there's someone here to see you."
Natalia turned slowly, expecting to see Rafe or her mother spoiling for a fight, but it wasn't either of them. It was the person she should have gone to in the first place, the only one who could help her make sense of her shattered thoughts, the woman who was her home, her life, her world, her love. "Olivia," she breathed, and left Father Joe without a backwards glance, trotting down the steps and practically throwing herself into the other woman's arms.
"Hey," Olivia soothed, running her hands through Natalia's hair and down her back. "What's wrong?" Natalia shook her head tightly and breathed in deeply through her nose, drinking in the smell of Olivia's soap and shampoo along with that quintessential something that no-one could ever replicate, that scent which wrapped her up like a child in a blanket and whispered: "You're home."
"Nothing, now that you're here," she whispered against Olivia's neck. She felt rather than heard Olivia's answering sigh, shuddered at the sensation of warm lips pressing against her shoulder.
"Your mother called me," Olivia said at last, her voice a little trembly. "She seemed to think you'd be coming to see me."
"I was," Natalia replied instantly. "I was confused and I got a little side-tracked. But I was coming to you."
Olivia's breath caught and she had to blink back tears. "Thank you," she whispered.
Natalia squeezed Olivia a little tighter, then pulled back. "Where's Emma?" she asked. Her eyes raked over Olivia's face as if she was trying to memorise her features.
"The hotel has day care," Olivia replied. "I was on my way to see you. We're supposed to look at a building for the Beacon franchising project today, remember?"
Natalia blinked, then nodded slowly. "I remember," she said at last. "Can we do something else first?" She closed her eyes and sighed, leaning into Olivia's slightly trembling hand which had come up to caress her cheek.
"Anything you want," Olivia said. "Anything." Natalia smiled tremulously.
"Thank you," she said. There was a pause, during which the rest of the world seemed to melt away like a pavement chalk drawing in a sudden downpour. "Olivia..." she breathed, struck with a sudden compulsion to say the one thing above all others of which she was completely certain. "I love you."
Olivia swallowed hard and then smiled, that smile of hers which said 'If I don't smile I'm going to cry and it's stupid to cry when I'm so happy.' "I love you too," she replied. "So...so much."
Natalia smiled and took the other woman into her arms again, holding her so close that she was sure she could feel her heartbeat. Olivia clung to her tightly, burying her face into the ebony river of her hair and breathing deeply. "What did you want to do?" she asked at last, her voice watery. Natalia pulled back a little and pushed a stray strand of her hair behind Olivia's ear.
"Can you take me to see my dad?"
Olivia slid into the driver's seat of her rented Nissan with a sigh. It had been...well, quite a morning to put it mildly. And it was barely ten am.
She'd woken at eight with a headache and a tangle of tension rolling around in her gut. Sleep had come the night before only after three shots of whisky from the horrendously overpriced mini bar. She'd needed them after her conversation with Selina, which had left her more than a little disturbed. The knowledge that Natalia had always felt ashamed or dirty after sex - and that she, Olivia, had done nothing to break the cycle - was nothing short of heartbreaking. She'd spent at least half an hour after Selina had hung up berating herself for her selfishness and weakness at giving in to Natalia's advances. Because she'd known it wasn't right. She'd known it wasn't what either of them wanted their first time to be - rushed and heated and angry. She'd had her fair share of sex like that and she was tired of it. She'd never wanted to taint Natalia, or their delicate, fledgeling love, with that side of her.
When sleep had finally come it had been filled with the faces of all the men that had meandered through her life...Jeffrey, Richard, Josh, Alan, Phillip, Bill, Buzz, Frank...their faces merging together into one homogenous mass, circling round her head as she wallowed in a deep, dark hole. And then, suddenly, from above, there was Natalia. Sweet, beautiful, pure Natalia; dark hair, dark eyes, surrounded by soft, white light. Her salvation. Her salvation, that is, if she had the strength to pull Olivia up into that light with her instead of allowing Olivia to drag her into the dark pit she'd been living in for half her life. In her dream she'd reached out to take her hand, trusting both their fates to the strength in her arms, the determination in her eyes. She'd woken up just as their hands clasped together. She'd tried desperately to go back to sleep, to cling to the dream for as long as possible. She needed to know. Was Natalia strong enough? Could she save her?
The incessant pounding in her head had prevented her from finding out. With a groan she'd finally opened her eyes, with no more insight than she'd fallen asleep with, and a bad feeling that the day was only going to get worse.
Which of course it had, when her phone had rung at 9.15am. An unknown number. She'd answered, and had immediately been assaulted with a high pitched screech that had forced her to pull the phone several inches away from her ear.
"Where is my daughter?" the voice had eventually demanded. At least, those were the first words Olivia had understood out of the barrage of half formed Spanish and English phrases that the other woman was spitting down the phone like bullets.
"Mrs Rivera," she'd said, rolling her eyes. "How delightful to hear from you again. I'm just on my way to pick up Natalia now, as it happens. We have some business together today."
"I know what kind of business you do together."
Her eyebrow had raised of its own accord. "Hotel business?"
"Ha! You think I'm stupid? You think I was born yesterday?"
"No-one could ever accuse you of that," Olivia had remarked acidly, smiling to herself when Josephine took in a deep breath.
"When you see her, tell Natalia to come home," she had ordered, and then hung up.
Olivia looked up, startled out of her internal replay of the morning's events by the sound of the passenger door thudding shut. Natalia looked over at her and smiled. "Thanks," she said. "I just wanted to say goodbye to Father Joe. He's been...extremely helpful."
Olivia nodded, casting her eyes over Natalia's shoulder to glance at the priest, who was heading back into the church. "Helpful 'reminding you about the fire and brimstone' helpful or...?" Olivia trailed off as a warm hand came to rest on top of hers and threaded their fingers together.
"The other kind of helpful," Natalia said softly.
Olivia felt one of the knots in her stomach untangle and she closed her eyes in relief. The feeling of safety, warmth, security and love she'd experienced in Natalia's arms had gone a long way to improving her mood. But this? Holding hands in the car, just the two of them, no onlookers, no disapproving mothers, no curious children, no passers by, just them, like it was always supposed to be? This was almost better. She smiled, and regretfully pulled her hand away so she could put the car into drive. "Where am I going?" she asked, her voice slightly husky.
"Mount Olivet cemetery," Natalia replied. "Just get on the I-94 heading east, I'll direct you from there."
Olivia nodded. "Okie dokie," she said as she pulled out into traffic. Natalia laughed softly as she reached out to take her hand again.
"You're being whimsical," she said, love seeping into every syllable.
"Part of my charm, remember?" Olivia replied, feeling her heart sprout some tiny, experimental wings.
"I do," Natalia said, squeezing her hand. "I do."
Olivia swallowed, trying to concentrate on the road. Natalia didn't let go of her hand the whole way, and Olivia thanked her long discarded God for Natalia Rivera, Chicago traffic, and automatic transmission.
Natalia was quiet when they finally reached the graveyard. Olivia turned the engine off and they sat silently together for long minutes, listening to the leftover ticks from the engine and the faded bustle of everyday life on the street. Eventually Olivia coughed, drawing Natalia's attention. "Do you want me to wait for you here?" she asked softly, caressing Natalia's knuckles with her thumb. Natalia looked away, gazing out of the window and into space.
"I want you with me," she said at last. Always was left unsaid, but it hung in the space between them nonetheless, like a living thing.
"Okay," Olivia replied, trying not to let too much happiness leak into her voice. They were at a graveyard after all. "Whenever you're ready."
They lapsed into silence again and Natalia closed her eyes. She was still for so long that Olivia almost began to believe she'd fallen asleep and was on the point of whispering her name, when she felt her hand being squeezed. Natalia opened her eyes slowly. "Okay, let's go," she said, finally releasing Olivia's hand as she reached for the door handle.
The moment they walked through the gates the noise of the rest of the world seemed to melt away. Natalia began to walk among the headstones, seemingly at random, occasionally stopping to read one or make some comment.
"I thought we were going to visit your father's grave," Olivia said gently, when Natalia paused at yet another stranger's headstone. Natalia shrugged.
"I like graveyards," she murmured. "All these headstones...layers and layers of people's lives, generation upon generation." She pointed at one stone. "Look," she said. "That woman there. She was born, she lived, she died. She was married. She left behind children who loved her." She pointed again, this time at a man's headstone. "And him," she said. "Someone's son; someone's husband." Olivia smiled, but it was a confused smile.
"I don't understand," she admitted. Natalia reached out and took her hand, knotting their fingers together as they continued to walk.
"Haven't you ever thought about how wonderful it is?" she asked. "What gets written on headstones isn't flashy or boastful. It isn't how much money we made or how high up the corporate ladder we climbed. It's how much we were loved." They stopped at another headstone and Natalia smiled. "Like this lady for example," she said, nodding towards the inscription. Olivia turned her head, and gasped.
Natalia Rosa Rivera
born 25th December 1928
died 10th July 1990
Beloved wife, mother and grandmother
He has redeemed my soul from going to the pit,
And my life shall see the light.
"Sorry," Natalia said, wincing a little at the way Olivia had paled. "She's my abuela. I was named after her."
Olivia nodded feebly. "It's okay," she said. "Just...I never want to look at a headstone with your name on it, okay?"
"All right," Natalia replied gently. She smiled and pressed herself against Olivia's side, wrapping her arm round her waist and resting her head on her shoulder. Olivia curled her own arm round Natalia's shoulders automatically, pulling her closer and sighing softly.
"Your grandmother was born on Christmas day," she said. Natalia nodded.
"That's what our name means," she explained.
"I know," Olivia replied. "I wondered a few times you know...why you were called Natalia when your birthday's in October."
They lapsed into silence again, holding onto each other as they stood before the grave. Eventually Olivia noticed that Natalia was mumbling a prayer in Spanish under her breath. "Amen," she said softly as Natalia finished, and was rewarded with a dazzling smile.
"You are so wonderful," Natalia breathed, a mixture of surprised and delighted. She cupped her face between her hands and pulled her down for the lightest and chastest of kisses before continuing to walk. Olivia stood still for a long moment, her lips tingling and heart racing, and then followed her as far as the next grave. This one was fresh and had no headstone yet. Olivia knew immediately that they had arrived at their destination.
Natalia sank the ground, kneeling before the grave and resting her hands on her thighs. Olivia stood behind her. Her fingers ran slowly through the waves of her hair, then came to a stop on her shoulders.
"This is it, huh?" she said quietly. Natalia nodded.
"Yes," she replied. "This is where my father is buried." Olivia squeezed her shoulders but said nothing, and after a moment Natalia continued. "I was always a daddy's girl," she said, a small smile dusting over her lips. "I used to ride up on his shoulders everywhere we went. I always thought he was so strong and tall and perfect. Like he could do no wrong." Her eyes fluttered closed as her mind went back again to that night; the night her illusions had been shattered and she'd realised that her father was just a man after all. A fallible human being capable of making mistakes just like anyone else.
Olivia sighed and gracefully dropped down to Natalia's side. "I guess he did do something wrong eventually though, right?" she said. Natalia shrugged.
"Maybe," she allowed. "Or maybe I...maybe it was me."
Olivia frowned. "You? What do you mean?"
Natalia looked away, hot tears glittering in her eyes. "I've been so afraid all my life," she gasped. "Afraid of being a disappointment. Afraid of letting my family down after they gave up so much to come to this country so I could have a better life. Afraid of doing or saying something to make everyone realise that I'm not worthy of all that love." She covered her face with her hands, then felt herself being wrapped up in strong arms.
"You are," Olivia whispered fiercely. "You deserve so much. You deserve everything good in this world." Natalia shook her head and tried to pull away, but Olivia stopped her. "No!" she cried, holding her tighter. "It's true, Natalia. You're good. You're warm. You're decent. You're beautiful." She broke off, pulling back slightly to run her trembling fingers over the lovely face she so adored. "And I'm not just talking about this," she whispered. "Natalia...I love you more than anyone I've ever known. You saved my life."
Natalia looked away. Tears hung suspended on her eyelashes. Olivia longed to lean close and kiss them away, but she held back, waiting to hear what Natalia would say. "I gave you Nicky's heart," she whispered. Olivia shook her head.
"That's not what I meant," she said earnestly. "You did save me that way. But you also saved me...with your smile. With your eyes. With your stubbornness and your single-mindedness and your loyalty." She blinked away a few stray tears, then leaned forward to press her lips to Natalia's forehead and, after only a brief hesitation, Natalia crumpled against her, wrapping her arms round her waist and resting her head above her thundering heartbeat.
"I am stubborn," Natalia murmured. "You've said it before and I probably tried to deny it, but it's true. I make decisions and I stick to them, whether they're right or not. Because I have this idea in my head that perception is reality. So I do stupid things sometimes. Like agreeing to marry Frank. Like raising Rafe alone instead of trying to get help. And I...I'm proud."
Olivia nuzzled her hair. "You have a lot to be proud of," she said, but Natalia shook her head.
"Stubbornness and pride and fear have stopped me doing a lot of things I should have done," she said. "Calling my mother and father years ago, for one. Letting Rafe know his grandparents. Looking for Nicky when Rafe was still young enough to really be shaped by his father." She looked up, a tremble entering her voice. "And loving you," she whispered. "Most importantly...loving you the way you deserve to be loved."
Olivia swallowed hard, tears prickling at her eyes. "Natalia," she began, but the other woman cut her off.
"I've been so afraid," she murmured, stroking her fingers rhythmically through Olivia's hair. "Of you, of the future, of what Rafe would think or what people might say. But I think I've realised...what I've really been afraid of is me. Of what this means for who I am."
"And who are you?" The question left Olivia's lips on a breath, barely audible. Natalia managed a small smile.
"I only know one way to answer that," she said, turning her head to look at the warm brown earth of her father's fresh grave. "I'm Natalia Rivera. I'm Emilio and Josephine's daughter. I'm Rafe's mother. And I'm Olivia Spencer's..." she trailed off, biting her lip. Olivia took in a quick breath, realising suddenly that she had forgotten to breathe for what felt like minutes.
"Olivia Spencer's what?" she whispered, her heart in her mouth. Natalia closed her eyes.
"Anything and everything she wants me to be," she breathed, then looked away, suddenly shy. "That is...if she still wants me."
Time seemed to stop. Olivia was frozen, listening to the breeze rustling through the trees, the chirp of bird song, the distant hum of traffic. She was suddenly struck with the awful realisation that she was about to cry. She swallowed against the lump in her throat, but nothing could stop the inevitable. She barked out a short, almost hysterical laugh, her hand flying to her mouth as the tears finally spilled onto her cheeks. "She still wants you," she gasped. "God, Natalia..."
Anything else she might have said was smothered by Natalia's lips as she surged forward and kissed her; hungrily, desperately, like she'd been waiting all her life to kiss her like this instead of just two days. But there was no anger this time, no jealousy, no fire. This kiss was about none of those things. It was about love, devotion, tenderness, homecoming. When it ended Olivia collapsed against the other woman, weeping like a lost child as she clung to her. Natalia clutched her as close as she could, like a drowning woman clinging on to the last piece of driftwood. "I love you," she whispered, over and over, almost as if she wasn't fully aware she was saying it. "I love you so much and I'm so, so sorry." Her lips roamed over every piece of skin she could reach; her forehead, her cheeks, her eyelids, the bridge of her nose.
"Don't be sorry," Olivia breathed. "You don't ever have to be sorry." Natalia shook her head.
"I do," she insisted. "I hurt you. I hid from you and I used you and I let you believe that my fears were your fault. You've done nothing but love me, and I haven't lived up to that love. But I promise you...I promise you...I'm going be better. From now on, I'm going to give you everything you deserve."
"But I don't deserve you," Olivia whispered through the last of her tears, reaching up to wipe at her raw eyes. Natalia grabbed her hands.
"You deserve the best," she said fiercely. "You know why? Because you're good. You're warm. You're decent. You're beautiful. And you saved me too." She nodded at Olivia's incredulous look. "You gave me a home. A family. You gave me your love. And you showed me I don't have to be scared all the time."
Olivia's mind flashed back suddenly to a picnic table what felt like lifetimes ago, and Natalia saying: "I'm so scared; I'm always scared." She'd held her then, not for the first time, but the first time she'd done it with genuine affection. There was more than affection between them now. There was family, and love, and a beautiful shared dream of an intertwined life. She opened her arms and pulled Natalia close again, wishing there was some way she could just crawl inside her and never come out.
"I love you," she whispered into her ear. "I don't think I can ever tell you how much." Natalia let out a small noise that Olivia couldn't quite identify - pleasure, or delight. Maybe even surrender. Whatever it was, it made her heart clench. "But listen," she continued, pulling back a little so she could look into her eyes. "What you said before...about being someone's daughter, or someone's mother...there's more to you than that. You're not just an adjunct to other people. You're your own person, Natalia." She trailed her fingers through soft dark hair, her heart lifting when the other woman smiled.
"I know that," she said. "I think I know that now for the first time in my life. You know...being a daughter or a mother...those aren't things I chose for myself. Most of my life I've been content just to accept whatever roles I was given, because it was easy and it was safe. But being yours..." she trailed off, her eyes shining. "Your partner, your...your lover." Her eyes slid closed. Olivia found herself transfixed by the thundering pulse visibly fluttering in her throat. "That's something I choose for myself," Natalia whispered at last. "I choose you."
Olivia swallowed hard. "I choose you too." Natalia opened her eyes and smiled, that rare, beautiful, beatific smile that always made Olivia's stomach drop through the floor. She leaned forward, sealing the promise with a soft, tender kiss.
They held each other for long moments, silent save for the occasional soft sigh. "There's just one problem," Olivia said eventually. Natalia pulled back, frowning.
Olivia grimaced. "Oh God, I can't believe I'm saying this," she muttered, rubbing her forehead as if against a sudden headache. "We're in a bubble here, Natalia." She shrugged helplessly. "Just you and me and the headstones. No one looking or judging or whispering." Her voice softened. "If I can have your love, and our home, and our family...I can accept anything." She took Natalia's hands. "But I need something from you."
"Anything," Natalia replied firmly. "Anything."
Olivia's eyes misted over. "I need you to say all of this again, just one more time," she said softly. "Not in Chicago. In Springfield. I need you to mean all this, when we're back in our everyday world, with nosy neighbours and gossips and people watching our every move. I need..." She trailed off, looking down at their joined hands.
"You need the grand gesture," Natalia finished for her, with a small smile. Gently she reached up and nudged Olivia's chin until their eyes met. "I can do that."
Hope and fear fought frantically for dominance in Olivia's eyes. Natalia tried not to think of all the times she'd allowed Olivia to hope before, only to disappoint her. This would be different. She'd make sure of it. "I'd really like to kiss you now," Natalia whispered. "But I think I'll save it for when we go home. When I can have all of you and you can have all of me."
Olivia nodded. "Okay," she said.
A car honked loudly somewhere in the distance, making them both jump. They looked around blearily, as if surprised to discover that there was still a world around them and that it was going on about its business. "Wow," Natalia murmured, then laughed a little. "What is it with us and intense graveside conversations?"
Olivia barked with laughter. "Don't ask me," she replied. Natalia smiled, showing her teeth and her dimples.
"Take me back to my mom's, would you?" she said. "I'm going to get my suitcase and my son and go home."
Olivia nodded. "All right." She struggled to her feet with a little groan. "Ow...my foot's asleep. Ugh, I'm getting old."
Natalia giggled a little as she watched the other woman hop around, trying to regain sensation. Then her eyes turned to the fresh grave before her and the smile faded from her lips. She reached out a hand and laid it on the cool, damp earth.
"Goodbye daddy," she whispered. "I'm sorry we lost each other. I'm sorry you didn't talk to me and I'm sorry I didn't believe in you. I'm sorry you never knew your grandson. I love you. And I'm sorry I let fear stand in the way of that love for so many years." She clenched her eyes shut. "I will never make that mistake again," she vowed, and then felt a warm hand closing on her shoulder. She looked up into Olivia's gently smiling face and felt her whole being flood with love.
"You ready?" Olivia said softly.
Natalia smiled and held out her hand. Olivia took it and pulled her up onto her feet and into a loose, one armed hug. They stood together looking down at the grave for long minutes before Natalia nodded.
"Yes," she said. "I'm ready. I'm finally ready."
Olivia pulled up outside Natalia's mother's building and let out a breath she'd been holding since they turned onto the street. "Want me to come up with you?" she asked softly. Natalia shook her head.
"I'll be okay," she replied. "You should go and look at that building you were talking about."
Olivia shifted in her seat. "Are you sure? Your mother sounded a little...angry on the phone earlier."
Natalia let out a small, rueful laugh. "I bet," she said darkly.
"How's she going to react to you leaving?"
Natalia turned in her seat and reached out to take Olivia's hand. "She can't stop me," she said firmly. "I'm coming home and we're going to be together. She probably won't like it, but that's my decision."
For a moment Olivia said nothing, choosing instead to concentrate on running her thumb lightly over Natalia's knuckles. "You're pretty sexy when you're determined," she said at last, and grinned when a dark flush spread up from the other woman's chest.
"I thought I was sexy when I'm mad?"
"That too." She leaned over and kissed her gently, inordinately pleased when Natalia kissed back. "So I'll see you in Springfield?"
Natalia nodded. "Yes," she said with conviction.
When Natalia finally managed to drag herself onto the sidewalk, she watched Olivia's car until it rounded the corner. She closed her eyes, easily calling to mind Olivia's face, her eyes, her smile. Despite the situation she was about to stroll back into upstairs, she felt her heart give a little leap. This was worth it. She was worth it. That thought added a little spring to her steps as she climbed the stairs.
"I'm back," she called cheerily as she opened the door. Two pairs of feet answered her call, and then she found herself pinned by two pairs of brown eyes - one sullen; the other angry.
"Where have you been?" her mother demanded, stepping forward and grabbing her arm. Natalia gently shook herself free.
"Church," she said calmly. "And then I went to daddy's grave."
Natalia turned to face the disapproving glare of her son. "Yes," she said, in a clear, steady voice. "With Olivia." He turned away from her with a sneer and made to stalk back to the living room. "You! Stop!" she snapped, with a note of steel in her voice he hadn't heard since he was a small child. He responded to it instinctively, stopping in his tracks. "Pack your things," she said. "We're going home today."
Josephine took a step back but Natalia's attention was focused on Rafe. "I'm not going anywhere with you," he said belligerently. Natalia stood up a little straighter.
"You'll come home with me today," she replied, a harsh note lacing her voice. "Or so help me I will call the cops and have them drag you back to that halfway house in handcuffs." Rafe's head snapped up.
"Ma!" he whined, but she cut him off with a look.
"Do you understand me, Raphael?" she demanded. He hesitated for a moment, his jaw clenching and unclenching rhythmically, his eyes narrowed. Finally, he nodded.
"Yes," he ground out. Natalia raised an eyebrow when he made no attempt to move.
"Well?" she said. "Don't you have something to do?"
For a second he looked like he was going to say something else, but in the end he just turned away from her and stomped into the living room. Natalia sighed, allowing her mask to crack for just a second as she rubbed her forehead. Then she went into her own bedroom to pack, leaving her mother alone in the hallway.
She stood for a moment, looking around the baby pink room with its posters and its single bed and its memories. This was where she'd sat and scribbled her adolescent thoughts into her diary. This was where she'd had all those sleepovers with Selina, ignoring any and all uncomfortable feelings. This was where she'd lain, curled into a ball, as she listened to her father and mother talking, the night she'd decided to run away.
"Running away again?" her mother's voice demanded, as if reading her thoughts.
Natalia turned sharply, her hand flying to her heart. "You scared me," she said. Her mother pushed off the door frame and entered the small room.
"Well?" she said, as if Natalia hadn't spoken. "Are you running away again?"
Natalia crossed over to her chest of drawers and began to remove her clothes from it, packing them - a little haphazardly - into her suitcase. "No," she replied firmly. "Just going home."
Josephine sat on the edge of the bed. "Going to her, you mean," she said, bitterness dripping from every syllable. Natalia closed her eyes.
"Yes," she said softly, her back still to her mother. "I'm going home, to her." For a moment she allowed herself to fill with the peace and freedom that simple declaration created. She breathed deeply and smiled, thinking of all the joy her life with Olivia promised - simple pleasures like holding hands in the car, watching movies cuddled under one blanket, falling asleep in each other's arms. It wasn't until the harsh wrench of a sob rang out in the silence of the room that her smile faltered, and she turned back to her mother with a stricken look on her face. "Mom," she said, but Josephine held up her palm to keep her at bay.
"Such an ungrateful child," Josephine managed to grind out through her tears. Natalia nearly rolled her eyes. This again.
"Ungrateful? Because I love someone? Because I can't be the person you want me to be?" She turned back to her packing, throwing her clothes in now with unnecessary force. "I am who I am," she continued, as her anger began building up a head of steam. "I can't change that, and I wouldn't want to even if I could. Not for you, not for anyone."
"I'm your mother!" Josephine exclaimed, wrapping her arms round her torso.
"That doesn't mean you own me!" Natalia snapped back. She scraped her fingers through her hair, eyes flashing. "I've spent my whole life trying so hard to be who people wanted me to be. A good daughter. A perfect mother. An obedient wife." She closed her eyes, thinking of the suffocating life she'd come so close to getting stuck in, remembering the church and the white dress, Frank's earnest face, Olivia's heartbreaking eyes. She shook her head to clear it. She was stronger than that now. So much stronger. "It's about time I got to be me," she finished, a little of the anger melting away as she looked at her mother, small and silent on the bed.
"And who are you?" Josephine asked. Natalia smiled slightly, remembering the answer she'd given to Olivia when she'd asked that same question.
"All I know," she said softly, "is that for the first time I'm not afraid to find out."
Josephine seemed to sink even deeper down into herself, her face stricken, and Natalia sighed. She sat down next to her, not quite touching. For a long time there was silence, punctuated occasionally by a muffled bump from the living room where Rafe was packing, or a car whizzing by on the street below.
"I didn't even speak English when we came to this country," Josephine said at last, her voice a little husky from tears and silence. "Did you know that?" Natalia shifted a little, confused at the sudden change in the conversation.
"That must have been hard," she said, a frown creasing her forehead.
"It was," Josephine allowed. "But we wanted you to grow up with both languages, so we learned. We went to classes at the community college." She rubbed her hand across her stomach, splaying her fingers open and sighing. "Your father used to practise his English by talking to you," she said. "Before you were born. He used to pretend you were saying things back."
Natalia blinked against sudden tears and looked away. "Okay," she said, not knowing what else to say.
"I would take in other people's laundry," Josephine continued, as if Natalia hadn't spoken. "Your father worked nights. We worked all the time. Sometimes we had to go hungry so you could eat."
Natalia shifted uncomfortably. "I know what that's like," she said softly. Josephine looked up.
"I never wanted you to have that life," she murmured, reaching out to her daughter but stopping before she could touch her. Her hand hung in the air for a moment, and then Natalia reached up and took it.
"I know that, mom," she said.
"I wanted you to have all things that we never had," Josephine continued. She squeezed Natalia's hand almost painfully, looking up at her with serious, earnest eyes.
Josephine reached up and cupped Natalia's face, combing her fingers desperately through her hair. "I never wanted you to be afraid, mi cariño."
"I know." Natalia sighed deeply, and closed her eyes. Her mother's fingers continued to move rhythmically through her hair. "But I was. I was afraid all the time. For as long as I can remember."
For a moment Josephine made no reply, and then a dam seemed to burst somewhere inside and she melted against her daughter's side, leaning her head on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered through the sob rising up in her throat. "I'm so sorry..."
Natalia made a decision then, a decision to stamp down on the bitterness and bile still choking up into her throat and demanding to be let out. A decision to let go of one or two of her preconceptions. Or misconceptions. A decision to forgive. "It's not your fault," she said. She wrapped her arm round her mother's shoulders. They began to shake as she squeezed tighter. "I'm sorry I never gave you the benefit of the doubt. I'm sorry I always assumed the worst."
Josephine burrowed closer, like she was the child and Natalia was the mother. She shuddered softly in her daughter's arms and cried, for her husband, for Natalia, for the years they'd all lost. "I do love you, Natalia," she whispered fiercely. "I don't know why I could never seem to say it." Natalia shook her head.
"It doesn't matter," she soothed. "It doesn't matter now." She leaned her cheek against the top of her mother's head. "I love you too, mom," she whispered
They held each other then, for only the second time in nineteen years, but there was no pain edging into the embrace this time. Natalia stroked her mother's hair as she let the last of the tears come, her eyes closed. After several long minutes Josephine pulled back, wiping at her eyes.
"Are you really going to go and live in sin with that woman?" she asked, sounding a little like her old self, but the edge had gone from her voice. Natalia managed to smile.
"There won't be any sinning involved," she gently corrected. "But yes. We're going to be together. We're going to be a family."
Josephine looked away, her eyes resting in the direction of the living room where Rafe could still be heard, throwing his things into his suitcase. "I don't think your son will accept that," she said.
"I'll give him time," Natalia replied. "He'll come around." She sounded utterly convinced, so convinced that Josephine paused.
"I don't know if I can accept it," she said at last. A note of shame crept into her voice, but it was hard to tell whether it was directed at her daughter or herself.
Natalia took a slow, deep breath, bit her lip. "That's a pity," she said carefully. "I would like you to be a part of my life. Part of my family. But that family includes Olivia and Emma. You have to accept them if you want to know me."
Natalia waited for an endless moment, watching nineteen years worth of emotions pass across her mother's face. Josephine looked at her and seemed to read the determination in her face. "I'll try," she whispered eventually. "I...I don't want to lose you again."
Natalia smiled softly. It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement. But it was a start.
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