DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Follows canon up to Rafe confronting Olivia on the bridge after Natalia's return, or the 19th August episode.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Diamonds Are For The Weak
The water swirled around the rocks, eddies and foam gurgling around the larger masses, stubbornly standing up to the sheer enormity of the never-ending assault. Olivia watched them, her eyes tracing their rounded, silent and grey bulks. "Stupid," she muttered. Stupid, to think that one little rock, no matter how dense, how obstinate, could stand up to the current surrounding it. She squinted her eyes as she turned her head to look around the once more deserted bridge.
Harsh words echoed in her ears, the angry tones of a little boy in a man's body, hurting her the only way he knew how, by making her sorry for the crimes she did not commit. Gus had not died at her hands. His actions had been foolish, and his motivations murky, but, in the end, he had been as much running away from the life to which he'd felt obligated as he had been running to the woman who represented his way out, no matter how brief that escape might have been. But, to Rafe, Olivia was nothing more than a thief, a tainted liar, the scoundrel who made a habit of stealing parents from his life.
She walked to the edge of the scaffolding, leaning against the rail and looking over the water. She extended her arm out beyond the safety of the wooden and metal frame, suspending her clenched fist above the cooler air stirred by the fast paced water beneath it. A tear fought to escape her suddenly watery eyes, but she huffed a great sigh, swallowed, and willed it back. "To every thing there is a season," she whispered softly, her closed fist wavering in the vision of the memories her eyes beheld. "A time to heal," and she was in her bed at the hotel, gasping words of need into a shiny black cell phone that only warmed to her ear when a honeyed voice spoke words of comfort from the other end of the connection, promising to come over, swearing to help. "A time to laugh," and they were dancing in the kitchen, watching heart-shaped pancakes brown in a flat skillet while the small hand on the clock inched ever closer to the they'd all have to run around in an organized chaos to get Emma out the door on time.
"A time to love," and there was a warm blanket over her lap, her sides warmed by slender bodies breathing deeply in sleep, surrounding her and blanketing her further with the unerring sense that she belonged. "A time to embrace," and she was unwrapping a tiny box, barely larger than the ones she had opened in the past to find marriage proposals riding the backs of sharp, glittering diamonds, the keys inside this velvet interior glowing far more lustrously than ever had the cold jewels and metal bands.
Her fist opened, and from her palm a flash of something tiny dropped like a silver teardrop into the water below. She curled her fingers back into an empty fist, and brought the appendage back toward herself, pressing her knuckles to her quivering mouth, telling herself that she was just imagining the tanged scent of sweaty nickel still lingering on her skin, whisping its way into her nostrils and bringing more moisture to her eyes. Around delicate bones trembling with too much pain, too much loss, she spoke. "A time to cast away stones " She choked back a sob. "A time to rend." She pried her hand away from her mouth and swallowed again, willing her misery back into the hard, tight ball it had become, deep in her belly.
She took another deep breath, in through her nose, and out her mouth, blowing out her cheeks and fluttering her lips as she did. She looked up then, glancing one last time down the road she'd walked to get to the watery overpass. She tilted her head up, green eyes catching the light of the afternoon sun and casting grassy shadows in her soul. "Let's burn another bridge, shall we?" She spoke to the sky, staring upward just a moment more, as if waiting on an answer. When none came, she pursed her lips and nodded. "Right."
She shook her head, as if trying to clear a daze, and walked briskly away from the old structure, footsteps pointed toward her hotel, her precious daughter, and the future she intended to build for them both. Behind her, in the water, small bits of gravel and sand began to settle over the key that had opened more locks than the one in the door to the farmhouse, rays of light breaking through the water's surface and flashing darts of fire, like flares, like the dying gasps of a desperate refugee begging for someone, anyone, to please see, to please help
The rushing water gurgled happily. The river rocks watched silently. The sun looked away as the day began to wane, and the love that had glittered so brightly only moments before found itself buried alive in the rushing stream of a force it was too small to withstand alone.
Frank sipped at his coffee and squinted out into the morning. The dawn was grey, and muggy, and the liquid heat in the air promised a sweltering day in a few hours when the sun would make its way high into the sky. He had been surprised to get the call asking him to meet here, and more surprised when he heard the time he was expected to arrive. He looked back over his shoulder, his eyes tracking up to the bell-tower, devoid of any real chime after the last winter's freeze had proved more deadly than a bunch of drunken fraternity rushes, cracking the bell on Christmas Day.
"Frankie." His head whipped back around, and he met green eyes that had never looked so dead to him before.
"Olivia." He stood, making his way down the stone steps to stand in front of her, noticing for the first time in a long time just how fragile she really looked. "What's so important that the almighty Olivia Spencer had to meet me at six a.m. in front of a church?"
Olivia's expression didn't waver, her face as immovable as the stone he once thought her heart to be. "I wanted to talk to you before I left, and this place was on the way out of town." His face must have registered his confusion, because she held her hand up to forestall his questions. "No, I'm not running away on some mysterious getaway." Her lips quirked, and the half-smile that barely fluttered across her visage was almost grotesque in its lack of actual humor. "I'm going on a business trip to New York. It's been arranged for quite a while now. Sam's meeting us there, and we're going to spend some time taking in a few shows, doing some sightseeing, a little shopping."
"We?" Frank knew he must sound as stupid as he felt at that moment, and he looked past Olivia into her car, trying to see if anyone else was in it. "But I thought you said that you weren't going to pick things back up with Nat-"
"I'm not." Her voice was the audible personification of ice, and Frank flinched, his eyes darting back to her face. "Emma and I will be going to New York to meet my brother." He glanced at the car again, this time looking into the back seat and glimpsing the slumbering lump that was the youngest Spencer asleep, curled over the console in the middle of the seat.
"Well, have fun, I guess?" He shrugged, not sure why she needed to see him to tell him all of this. "Did you just want me to know you'd be out of town for a while so I'd have time to be around Natalia without you interfering?" He spoke before he thought about what he was saying, and as soon as it was out, he took a quick step back, expecting the eruption of Mount Olivius at his thoughtless words. Instead, his frightened eyes fell onto a pale, unmoving visage, so smooth it could be a marble statue carved by the sure hand of Michaelangelo himself, marred only by the single tear that all the willpower in the world could not hold back.
"No, Frank. I came to say goodbye." His mouth opened and closed like a fish. "I'm not coming back to Springfield from New York. The franchising deals are taking off. I was going to make this place my headquarters, but " she looked around, her eyes tracing the chapel behind him as if she'd never before noticed it. "But plans change." She shrugged, canting her eyes back to him.
"I'm trusting you to take care of her, Frank, to love her and give her everything she ever wanted from life, do you understand me?" He could only nod. "I'm keeping this phone for a while, but after about a month or so, I'm going to get a new one, with a new number, and I'm going to get very, very difficult to reach, do you understand me?"
He didn't. "But- but what if Natalia wants to call you, or Emma, or-"
"Natalia will have you, and Rafe, and the new baby to worry about, Frank. Soon, she'll forget all about me and my secondhand daughters." The bitterness in her voice left a raw scrape in his gut, and he tasted his own guilt like rotten onions running across his tongue. She looked down at her wristwatch. "I have to get going. I just wanted to see you this last time, to make sure you understand that I'm counting on you to make her happy." She stared down her nose at him, and he wondered if she'd ever looked at Natalia like that, remembered that she had, and marveled at the fact that the dark woman had not been as completely undone by it as he was in this moment.
"You will need my help at first, to learn what to say to her, how to earn her trust and her love. Use me as a resource, Frank; I know her better than anyone, and what's more, I know how to use my knowledge better than anyone. I will guide you, I will help you, and I will disappear once I'm sure that you have things under control." She looked at the car holding her sleeping daughter, her eyes softening ever so slightly. "I can't stay here and watch it happen and have anything left to offer Emma. I just can't. So, after you've won her back, forget all about me, Frank." Her eyes swung back to his, boring in and burning like dry ice, so cold that they seared him.
"Olivia, this isn't-"
"Isn't what, Frank? Isn't what you wanted?" She laughed once, a sharp, humorless bark. "No, this is exactly what you wanted, Frankie. You just wanted it without the guilt." She turned and strode toward her car, her high heels clicking on the pavement as she called back to him over her shoulder. "Call me after eleven tonight. I'll give you some pointers on how to talk her into going to dinner with you."
The car door shut behind her, and the motor cranked on. He watched as the white sedan faded into the murky morning light, until even the bright red tail lights were no longer visible in the distance, and he sank down to sit on the steps of the church. "Dear God," he said. "What have we done?"
Ashlee kicked another rock on the path leading up to her mother's house. She was stalling, she knew, but she had a lot on her mind at the moment; her mother's imperious dinner summons couldn't have come at a worse time. It had been nice to take the call that pulled her away from Rafe's sulky, beer-fueled tableau, but she didn't exactly thrill to the idea of another uncomfortable dinner with the woman who she suspected would always be a very dear stranger to her. But Doris had insisted, and had even sounded a touch hysterical. Which, for Doris, meant that she sounded a little winded. Ashlee sighed. She could only imagine what was so important. She sighed again.
Rafe's words from earlier hadn't stopped vibrating around her head. His mother, Saint Natalia, a lesbian. Well, if that didn't just beat all. It sure went a long way toward explaining why she hadn't been able to go through with marrying Frank, though her pregnancy now didn't indicate that she'd been completely unwilling to at least mime the part. She thought back to the way Rafe's voice had dripped with such disdain as he spoke of his own mother, guzzling beer and belching like the all-grown-up juvenile delinquent he'd become. She remembered, even if he didn't, when he'd gotten Daisy pregnant, and she remembered Natalia's horror when they'd sought out and gotten an abortion. She also remembered Rafe bitching nonstop then about how his mother needed to pull her head out of the Bible and take a good long look at the real world.
Ashlee snorted, her lips quirking up into an involuntary smile. Stupid Rafe. Natalia had clearly done exactly that, but now he was bitching because she wasn't the Virgin Mother anymore. She shook her head. "Whatever," she muttered to herself.
She had invited Daisy to come to dinner with her, but the other girl had been busy trying to spy on her grandmother via becoming the world's most dedicated babysitter. Asking Rafe to join her had been out of the question exactly two seconds into his vicious little diatribe against the evils of homosexuality and the need for children to have strong fathers. "Yeah," she grumbled, "because you were just falling apart until you met your strong Daddy." Another pebble bounced away from the path. It was ironic, of course. Daisy had once confided in her that Rafe had been a straight A student in Chicago, prone to a little rabble-rousing, but well on his way up in the world before they'd come to Springfield. It was only after meeting his father that the young man had hoisted his now worn and bedraggled chip up onto his shoulder. Daisy blamed it on the Spaulding in him. Ashlee blamed it on all the adults who continued to allow him to run around like some half-crazed wolf-child. Honestly! It didn't take a genius to figure that Natalia had raised him better than that.
Ashlee kicked another rock, glancing up at the looming mansion. Her mother's mansion. The home her mother had always promised her they'd one day live in, the home she spoken of when she whispered her dreams into the small ears after tucking stray blond hairs behind them. Ashlee looked across the manicured lawn, tracing over the roses planted round the edges of the green grass, smiling as she saw her mother's favorite garden gnome hidden beneath a canopy of Queen Anne's Lace by the koi pond. And then her brow furrowed.
She pulled her phone out, dialing as she hustled back the way she'd come, away from her mother's hard-earned haven, and toward a park filled with screaming children and a sullen man-child. "Mom? Hey, I'm going to be a little late. Yeah, I know, but I have to do something first." She slid into her car and cranked the engine, pinching the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she grabbed the shifter, sliding it into gear. "No, it's not an emergency. It just won't sit well with me if I don't take care of it right away. Ok? I'll be by later. Save me some Chinese." She listened to an outraged squawk from the other end of the line. "Oh, sorry. Save me a slice, then." She laughed and hung up the phone, her smile fading as she glimpsed her turn up ahead. No more Miss Nice Ashlee.
Rafe took a long pull of his second to last beer, wishing he'd thought to grab the other six pack from Frank's fridge. It was bothering him. He'd never admit it to anyone, but he'd been spoiling for a fight with Olivia earlier that afternoon. He'd had it all planned out; he was going to tell her off, call her out on her deviousness, and send her away, her bitch-tail tucked between her legs. He had been so looking forward to finally making her cry, to telling her that God and his mother both were finally in agreement, that Natalia needed to be with Frank. He'd wanted to watch that smug look vanish from her face, to be replaced by the broken, shattered thing he'd glimpsed in the mirror when his father died. He'd wanted to be the one to do that to her.
Instead, she'd been completely cool, aloof. She'd deflected his words with calm anger, and when she'd told him how she had been the one, her, to tell Natalia no, it had taken the wind right out of his sails. What the hell? She was supposed to be the demon. He was supposed to be able to go in and get his revenge on her for all she'd done to him and his family, but instead of the quietly seething manipulator he'd expected, he'd been confronted with a woman who, for all intents and purposes, looked as if her world had simply ended.
The only spark he even glimpsed in her was when she'd called him out for wanting her to be alone, to be miserable, but even then, she'd simply sat back and looked at him, looked through him, when he told her being alone was all someone like her deserved. And, that little voice inside him, the one that sounded alarmingly like his mother, that little voice had crowed with laughter at his anger over the anti-climactic confrontation. What did you expect, it had said. What could you have possibly done to her that your own mother didn't already do?
And there, that was the crux of things. Because, even as he reminded himself of all the reasons he hated Olivia Spencer, he couldn't help but see little reminders of everything she'd done to help him and his mother everywhere he looked. She'd gotten Gus' house back. She saved his ass in prison, literally, by getting him moved before things could get any worse. She'd given his mother the financial security and the confidence to buy the house the dark woman had turned into a home. She'd borne his disdain and criticism with a straight back and a stiff upper lip, and he knew it was all because she loved his mother. Olivia Spencer was capable of many things, but if he examined it properly, she'd been nothing but good to him and his mother for a long time now, and they'd both collectively shit all over her. He had done it with his anger and his blaming her for every little thing, and Natalia had done it with her lack of backbone, and her unwillingness to be strong in the face of his fury.
The Olivia he'd found on the bridge hadn't been the vibrant woman who'd stolen his dad's attention away from his mom, nor had she been the laughing mother in the New Year's picture his mother kept on prominent display in her home. She'd been a shell, a hollowed husk vaguely resembling that person. And now, now he couldn't even seem to keep hating her, no matter what he said. It was pissing him off.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't hear the heavy footsteps behind him, but he certainly felt the open palm that smacked him in the back of his head. He jerked upright, whirling around and exclaiming, "OW! What the-?!"
"Shut it, Rafe!" Ashlee stood behind the fence, her blue eyes blazing, both hands on her hips and her lips curled up in a sneer. Rafe briefly wondered who it reminded him of more; Olivia, or Doris. And then he found himself unable to think at all as sweet Ashlee Wolfe flayed him open with her next words.
"How dare you, Rafael Rivera? How dare you! Just who the hell do you think you are, to come here and complain about the life your mother gave you. I'm sick of it! Over the years, I have watched that woman sacrifice herself again and again and again for you. She eschewed every last one of her morals when she stole your dad away from Harley, just so you could have a dad, and how do you thank her? You ignore her, get a girl pregnant, and scoff at your mother when she cries over what you did with that baby! You wrapped yourself up in your dad, always going on about how life was so amazing now that you had him, and how do you think that made her feel, Rafael? To hear the boy around whom she built her entire fucking life tell everyone he met how worthless his life and everything in it was until he met his dad? The same dad who got his mom pregnant and cut town on her! That's who your dad was, Rafe!"
"Hey, now, that's-"
"Be quiet!" Her eyes blazed icy fury at him, and his teeth clicked as he shut his mouth. Daisy had once told him that he would do well to never meet an angry Ashlee Wolfe. He could see now what she'd meant. "Gus was just some guy, Rafe, some guy who happened to get a girl pregnant when they were both sixteen. Your mother, she was the one who took on the world for you, who went hungry so you could eat, who worked all the time so you could have a roof over your head. Your dad just provided the genetic material. And, you know what? She gave up her life for you. I'm sure she'd say it was all worth it if she were here now, and she'd be angry with me for saying this, but, Rafe? You ruined her life. And she's never complained, never asked you for anything, until now, until she asked you to please love her, even if she isn't the person you thought she was anymore." She stopped, glaring down her nose at him, her eyes blue ice-chips fueling her wintry gaze.
"And you, you fucking prince of a man, you couldn't even do that, could you? You come here, leave her all alone, probably hurt and crying, and you drink your beer, and you bitch and moan because your mom is gay? Who the fuck cares, Rafe? She's your fucking mom! And if she can love you, even after you fucked up right and left, over and over again, if she can still defend you, why is it that she's not good enough for you to do the same in return for her, huh?"
She stopped, breathing heavily, and he watched as her chest seemed to deflate somewhat. "Do you know how lucky you are, Rafe? Your mom wants to share herself with you, to let you see who she really is. My mom? She has worked her whole life to build this amazing perfect world for me, and I wouldn't even know her handwriting from another's. And you know what? I don't care, because I ruined her life, too, but I'll be damned if I let it stay that way. I tell her I love her, Rafe. I go spend time with her, even when I haven't got the faintest clue what she's doing, or why. When she tells me I should lose weight, or find a nice husband, I smile, because I know that's how she tells me she loves me. And when I see her watching a woman across the street, I pretend I don't see the look in her eyes, because I know it would kill her to think that I've always known why she never brought anyone home to meet me."
Rafe felt his jaw drop open. "Are you- are you saying that your mom is "
"Gay. My mom is a lesbian, Rafe. And it's idiots like you that have always kept her from telling me, because she's afraid that she'll lose everything, and my love along with it. So, please. Don't waste my time complaining about how your mom is gay. You're still the luckiest fuck-up I know, Rafe." She wiped a stray tear from her cheek, looking out across the field in the darkening haze of nightfall. "Your mom is the bravest person I have ever met."
Rafe watched her turn and walk away from him. Her head was down, and her shoulders stooped. Her normally clumsy gait was smooth and steady, though, and he realized for the first time that Ashlee wasn't just a klutz because she lacked grace; rather, her normal state of being was so energized, so lost in her own imagination, that she was all too often simply unable to make her body work at the same time. "Ashlee!" He called out to her, and she stopped, not turning around.
He jogged around the fence, moving toward her, his last beer sitting forgotten on the bench where he'd left it. He came around to her front, shoving his hands into his pockets and hanging his head. "You're right about my mom, you know. And me." He shrugged. "And that sucks, because it's a really shitty thing to realize that I've turned into such an asshole." She snorted, and, though her eyes remained glued to the ground, her lips turned upwards at the edges. "Look, I- I'm not sure how I feel about everything still, and I'm still not sure I can be happy for my mom and Olivia, but " He shook his head and grinned at her. "You know, the least I can do is try, right? And if Olivia makes my mom happy, then maybe it's time that she gets to be happy, even if it's not the way I wanted her to be."
Ashlee looked up then, smiling. "I think that sounds like a good plan. And I'm here if you ever need to talk to anyone, ok?" He bit his bottom lip and smiled, nodding, looking back down at the ground. Ashlee pursed her lips. "Hey, Rafe?" He looked up. "You wanna come to dinner with me at my mom's?"
He laughed. "Sure, why not? What'd she order? Thai?"
"Oh, yumm!" He bounced on the balls of his feet, wagging his eyebrows at her. "Think she got pepperoni?"
"Let's go find out." They walked toward her car, bumping shoulders as they went. Once there, they slid into their seats, and Ashlee cranked the engine, backing out of the parking space and pointing the car in the direction of the exit. Suddenly she slammed on the brakes, tires squealing as the car jerked to a stop. She twisted in her seat, her eyes wide and mouth open. "Olivia?! Olivia Spencer and your mom?!"
Rafe grimaced. "Oh. You didn't know about that, huh?"
Outside the car, the sounds of an open palm connecting with a solid shoulder were followed by exclamations of pain and yelps of disbelief, as Ashlee Wolfe, gossip extraordinaire, found the juiciest bit of news she'd encountered all year dropped right into her lap.
The ducks never seemed as excited to see her when she came alone. Natalia watched them picking over the bread chunks she'd thrown into the water. A few of them ate several of the floating pieces, but most swam around the bobbing bits of soggy yeast, eyeing them as if they were untrustworthy, thrown from the hands of this woman who hadn't been out to see them in far too long. Briefly, she wondered if Olivia had brought Emma by to feed them while she'd been away, but dismissed the thought as soon as it came to her. Olivia hadn't even been able to look her in the eyes long enough to complete a sentence. No doubt, she wouldn't have been able to bring her daughter here, for fear of breaking down in front of her.
Olivia had left town a week ago. A few calls to some old friends at the Beacon had given Natalia the news that Olivia's planned franchising had moved ahead while she was away, and that Olivia was in New York to finalize a few deals. She had taken Emma with her as a sort of end-of-Summer vacation. No one seemed to know when she was coming home, though, and Natalia was getting antsy. She felt a strange urgency, as if she needed to hurry, as if time was running out to fix things with Olivia.
Natalia blinked against suddenly blurry vision, and felt the hot slide of fresh tears slip down her cheeks. Really, she was surprised she had any tears left to cry. It didn't seem fair. She shouldn't be crying right now, alone on this bench built for three at the edge of a pond filled with the ducks her little girl loved. She should be in her home, at her stove, cooking dinner for her family, her son and daughter arguing at the table behind her while her lover supervised the whole ensemble from behind her laptop. She'd been so close to that dream, so close she could taste it. She had planned it all out.
She would come home, find Olivia, explain everything to her. Olivia would fall into her arms, would say that she understood, that all was forgiven. They would move back home that day, and put Emma to bed together, would stay up late into the night, talking, catching up, laughing. Olivia would fill her in on all the gossip she'd missed, and would hold her, wrap her up in her arms, tell her she loved her. Natalia would cry briefly, over the hardships of the past month. They would both cry as they talked about raising their baby together. Maybe they would argue about a few names. Rafe would come up in the conversation, and Olivia would hold her tighter, and promise that eventually he'd come around. They would kiss, would move up to the bedroom that had once been Natalia's, but would now be theirs, and they would finally give reign to the feelings they'd fought for so long. This was the plan Natalia had made on her way home from her retreat.
But then, Natalia had been banking on returning home to the woman she'd left waiting on her at the barbeque, the woman who had sworn to be patient, to wait for her. She hadn't foreseen the broken shell of a creature she'd confronted on the lawn in the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park. It had honestly not occurred to her that the Olivia Spencer who loved Natalia Rivera could ever become the Olivia Spencer who hated her, but it seemed she had. It wasn't fair.
She sniffled. Why had God given her something so wonderful, only to take it away? Was He punishing her for doubting Him, for doubting His plan for her? What was the purpose of finally finding such love, such a wonderful sense of rightness, if she was merely destined to lose it in less time than it had taken her to finally accept she'd found it? She put her hand on her chest, over her heart, and pressed down, as if the pressure might ease the pain that seemed to blossom ever greater within, a giant, blooming pain, blood red and spreading, a blob of desolate ink dropped into a clear glass of water, oozing and spiraling, writhing, eventually to taint the entire thing, staining it, turning it black.
The crunch of footsteps on the gravel behind her heralded the presence of another, and she quickly wiped her eyes, not able to stop the small fissure of hope that shot through her at the sound.
"Olivia?" She turned, calling the other woman's name as she did, and found, instead of her intended, the sad blue eyes of her ex-fiance, the accidental father of her unborn child. He held a small bouquet in his hands, Gerber daisies. Her eyes fell to the pristine white petals, caressed them biefly. "Oh my favorites." And then she burst into tears.
"Oh, no, Nat, I-" Frank rushed to her side, dropping the flowers to the ground in front of her. "No, it's ok, sweetie! Please don't cry!" He sat beside her, reached his hands out to pull her to him, and she swatted them away. She didn't want comfort, not his. Her shoulders shook, and her voice called out in random barks, sobs exploding from her like volcanic eruptions. She was a geyser of grief, and there was no stopping the eruption. It simply had to play out, and she saw Frank drop his hands into his lap as he realized this.
After what seemed like an eternity, she slowly stuttered to a stop, her sobs gentling to gentle hitches of breath, her eyes swollen and red, but no longer leaking liquid grief down her cheeks. She closed them and inhaled deeply though her nose, trying to take in the fresh air and calm her angry heart. Frank spoke again. "I- I'm really sorry, Natalia. I just wanted to come by and check on you, to see how you were doing " He trailed off, unsure, turning his head to watch the ducks still paddling aimlessly in the water before them.
"It's not that," Natalia finally said. "It's not that I'm upset to see you, Frank." She leaned down, picked up the flowers that had been dropped at her feet. She held the stems in one hand, the other gently stroking the blossoms with her fingertips. "You brought me my favorite flowers."
"Well, yeah. I thought you might like them. Do you? Like them, I mean." He paused, his mouth open like he was going to speak again, eyebrows arched on his head, and Natalia finally turned to look at him head on.
"The whole time we were engaged, Frank, you brought me roses. Red roses. And I hate roses. But I never said anything to you about it, not once. In fact, the only time I did say anything was when Olivia and I were sitting outside one night, having coffee." She paused, her mouth twisting at the sudden stab of misery in her gut, then pushed on, speaking through gritted teeth. "And she complimented me on the bouquet you'd sent that day. I told her I hated roses, that I wished you would take the time to ask me what flower I really like. She looked shocked, and then she asked me what flower that was, and I told her, Gerber daisies." Natalia looked back to the bouquet now resting in her lap. "The next day, you sent me more roses, and Olivia brought me daisies for the kitchen, because she said maybe you'd see them and figure it out on your own. But you never did. You always brought me roses."
She looked out across the pond, and spoke again. This time her voice was flat, numb. "But now you've brought me daisies, which means that she told you to bring them to me." Her fist unconsciously clenched, and she inadvertently crushed the blossoms she'd been stroking so gently. She looked at her closed hand, at the petals sticking out from between her bloodless fingers. She slowly opened her fist, watched at the shredded flowers trickled from her palm down to her thighs, fluttering beyond to land lifelessly on the bench, the ground. "And I have never hated a gift in such a fashion as I hate this one."
Frank watched her face, saw the flesh turn to cool marble before his eyes. It was as if all the emotion had fled her being, and taken her humanity with it. Now, this formerly vibrant woman sat next to him, a monument to grief and regret. He huffed a sigh. It had been stupid, really, this thought he'd had of actually trying Olivia's advice. He had called her, as she'd instructed, and she'd given him a detailed laundry list of things he could and should do to win back Natalia's heart. But sitting here, seeing her listless and alone, it occurred to him that the only heart in the nearby vicinity was Olivia's; she had left it with the younger woman, and had obviously taken Natalia's with her in trade. There was no love to be won over here; there was only a wound to be healed.
And Frank was many things. He was judgmental, and capable of dishonesty. He was prone to anger and short-sightedness, and he wasn't very good at imagining a world that existed beyond his own understanding. That said, he was not a bad man. Not a wholly good one, but not a bad one, either. And he was ok with that. He could meet his own eyes in the mirror knowing that. But, for the past week, he had shaved in the dark, averting his gaze whenever a reflective surface had dared to show him an image of himself. And it didn't take a genius to figure out why.
Natalia's voice broke him from his self-recriminating reverie. "She's gone, isn't she? And she sent you here to make sure I live through it." She turned her head, her eyes meeting his again, and where her face was blank, lifeless, her eyes were ablaze with anger and condemnation. "And what did you say to this, Frank? Did you encourage her? And before? Did you use my time away to tell her how bad she is for me, to make her hurt even more than my leaving her without a word was already doing?" She was leaning toward him now, her finger poking him in the chest with every fresh allegation. "Did you encourage my son when he spoke about how wicked she is? Did you, Frank? Did you ever challenge his words, ever remind him of how much she did to help him, to help us, or did you just let him go on hating her?"
"Natalia, it wasn't my place-"
"No, it wasn't!" She stood, bending over him, her voice shrill and her body taut with rage. "It wasn't your place to tell her that what we felt was wrong! It wasn't your place to blame her when all she did was try to help you make me fall in love with a man who was too stupid and blind to even realize that he was a stand-in for the one I really wanted, but was too afraid, too cowardly to even-" Her voice broke, and she stumbled away from him, taking two steps before falling to her knees on the hard ground. "I couldn't even tell her the truth, not even then. I am such a coward. And she deserves so much better than that, so much better than me." She looked back up at him. "She deserved so much better than us, Frank."
He sat, stunned. He realized then that he had always known that Olivia loved Natalia. It had been so obvious. She had bent over backwards, turned herself inside out, abandoned her old dreams and ideals over and over again, all for Natalia. She had walked away from riches for the dark woman. She had obeyed the pious woman's pleas for good behavior, and had turned her back on her ways of old. And, when she had been faced with the reality of her presence in Natalia's life being in any way harmful to the other woman, she had given her to Frank, to be treasured, to be adored, as she had secretly longed to do. No, Olivia's love had never been in doubt, but, as he watched Natalia cry in front of him, Frank finally saw that Natalia's love for Olivia had not been real to him until that moment. He had honestly believed that she would eventually leave the older woman, would return to him and the normal life he could give her instead. "I am such an idiot," he breathed.
Natalia looked up at him, a question in her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Natalia." He fell to his knees before her, capturing her hands in his own. "I get it now, I do. And I'm sorry! I know I didn't make any of this easy. And I know that I should've seen it, seen you. I just wanted what I wanted so badly, and I didn't want to let myself see that you might love her, that you might really be meant for her, and not me. This is just as much my fault as it is anyone's."
"No, Frank, I-"
"No, just stop, ok? Yes, you were wrong. You were a coward, that much is true." Frank met her eyes unflinchingly. "But, so was I, and so was Olivia. We all let our fears and our egos get in the way, but now we can fix it." He squeezed her hands tightly. "But we have to start now, and I do mean now. So, go pack a bag, Natalia. We're headed to the Big Apple."
To Be Continued
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