DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Easy Life
By Doubleyoo


Part 11

Natalia held the stained shirt to her chest, sobbing silently, uncontrollably, when Doris rounded the corner. Doris stopped, held captive for a moment as she beheld the utter wasteland of bereavement in the younger woman's stance, felt the loss and grief Natalia was enduring as her very own. And, in that moment, for the very first time in her life, Doris Wolfe allowed herself to stop being her father's daughter, to shut off the constant chatter in her head that never stopped reminding her of the pros and cons of each of her actions, that never allowed her to be comfortable, even when she was holding her own daughter, looking down into eyes of blue under hair of spun gold, and knowing that finally, finally she was loved unconditionally.

Mayor Doris Wolfe melted away, leaving a scared, lonely woman, who wasn't too uptight to cry, who didn't care if her clothes got wrinkled. The world fell away, and Doris dissolved with it, collapsing to her knees and reaching out to the only person, the only woman, who could possibly understand her loss. She and Natalia tumbled into each other's embrace, and hot tears poured down her face.

"I don't know how to lose her, Doris. I don't know how!" Natalia sobbed into the older woman's shoulder.

"You haven't lost her, Natalia. You haven't lost anything! Look," she pulled back, reaching up and framing Natalia's face with her hands. "She's ok. She's there, she still loves you, and she's alive. There is nothing else that matters."

Natalia stared at Doris for a moment, dark eyes moist with tears, shadowed with loss and suffering. "I need you to do me a favor, Doris."

"What's that? Is it a 'What exactly do two ladies do in the bedroom together?' talk, because I am just so not up to that talk right now…" She said it with a smirk, and was rewarded as Natalia's eyes widened and then she laughed a great, deep belly laugh, pulling away from their embrace to lean her back against the stove. Her laughter continued, and Doris joined in, the peals of raucousness serving as the release they needed for all the pent up emotion roiling throughout them both at the recent turns of events.

Finally they both wound down, and Natalia wiped her eyes, chuckling again as she caught Doris doing the same. "Oh, that was so wrong, Doris!" Doris grinned wickedly. "Ok, seriously, I do need you to do something for me. I need to go see Olivia, and don't interrupt me!" Doris closed her mouth again and arched her eyebrows, waiting for the other woman to continue.

Natalia sighed. "I have to see her, Doris. I have to see with my own eyes that she's alive and well, that she's still whole, still the Olivia I kissed when she left last night, and still the Olivia I had planned to kiss tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day." Her eyes traveled to and rested on the picture she'd taken at the christening, tracing the lines of Olivia's face.

"You two are kissing now? Wow. I thought you'd be the kind to wait on that sort of thing." Doris huffed, mildly impressed.

"Well, no- I kissed her on the cheek. We were going to wait for our first real date to, wait, why am I telling you this?!" Natalia furrowed her brows in exasperation, turning to look back at Doris and laughing as the grin she found on the Mayor's face gave her the insight to know that the other woman was teasing her. "Oh, shut it, Doris."

Doris laughed. "Yeah, I was already going to stay here, and I don't think it's a bad idea, you going to see Olivia." She shrugged. "Olivia wanted to save you pain by keeping you away. Clearly, she didn't think that one through so well. Can I suggest something first, though?" Natalia nodded. "Go spend some time with your daughter first. Enjoy the movie with us. Put her to bed and hold her hand as she falls to sleep. Then go see Olivia."

"But what about visiting hours, Doris?"

"Don't you worry about that. I'm going to have that taken care of by the time you get there." Natalia regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, truly looking at her for the first time since she'd walked into the kitchen.

"How are you doing with all of this, Doris? Are you ok?" She felt a twinge of guilt for not having thought to ask the question before. Doris smiled, a soft, open smile, and Natalia suddenly had the feeling that Doris, once upon a time, had been the most wonderful, sweet little girl.

"I'm better in this moment than I can remember being in a very long time. Thank you… friend."

Natalia stood, and offered her hand to the older woman still seated on the floor. "You're welcome, but you're not my friend." Doris looked stricken. "Didn't you hear Emma? You're Aunt Doris. That makes you family." The mayor regarded Natalia silently through eyes wet with unshed tears, and then she smiled, tremulously at first, but the grin widened when she found a similar expression on the latina's face. Natalia clapped her hands together. "Now, let's go see about a movie and my daughter."

"You go first." Doris gestured behind her. "She's waiting on me to fix you. It probably wouldn't hurt to go spend a few minutes in there just with her to tell her what this-" she gestured around the kitchen- "was all about. Just tell her you were scared, be honest with her, and hold her." Natalia nodded, and walked into the next room.

"Hey, baby girl…" Doris heard her softly say, and then she tuned out, wanting to give mother and daughter the privacy they deserved. Reaching for her phone, she dialed a familiar number.

"Hi, John, it's me. Yes, the mayor." The familiar joking banter with her assistant soothed the rest of her frazzled nerves, and she continued. "Yeah, I heard about it. I'm actually out at the farmhouse now. Look, I need you to send a Uni out here to drive Natalia into town and see that she gets to see Olivia tonight. No, I don't want her driving herself, she's too upset. Yes, I agree, this would definitely look good to the voters, if I had any intentions at all on letting them know about it. Look this isn't political, ok? I'm trying to help my friends. Well, I don't care if you think it's a bad idea, you work for me, so just do it! Ok, thank you. Yes, please, request him, I think that would be best. You too, John. Goodnight." She closed the phone.

Doris Wolfe was many things, but the number one thing she was? She was a good friend to have in a crisis.


Part 12

It was almost 9 p.m. by the time Natalia had finished soothing Emma, holding the little girl as they cried together over Olivia's situation. Natalia had suggested Emma get ready for bed, and had accompanied her, never leaving her side throughout all of her nighttime ablutions. They had read another chapter in the book they were reading together, and then Natalia had talked softly with her heart's daughter, using her own voice as a relaxing metronome to put the girl to sleep. Dark mother and fair daughter had cuddled together on the small bed, Emma's head on Natalia's chest, strong hands stroking the little head and back, soothing inner hurts through outer comfort.

"When is Mommy coming home?" The small voice, so unsure, asking such a simple question, and yet Natalia felt the Earth shift beneath her back. Home would not be a suite at the Beacon. Home would not be some other domicile, cold and uncaring, strange and new. Home was here, in this house, with this family. Olivia would be coming here, and Natalia knew that she must not allow any argument about it on the part of the other woman. Olivia was such a romantic at heart, and she would want to wait, to come home when she was hale and hearty again, after she'd had all the time she'd needed to wine and dine Natalia, to sweep her off of her feet and fully capture what little ounces of the beautiful soul she did not yet possess.

Had this all not happened, had it gone differently, Natalia knew what would have happened. Olivia would have taken her to glorious restaurants, and bought her beautiful clothes and jewelry. She would have protested, and Olivia would have insisted. They would have fought about it, at least once, and then Olivia would have said something heartbreakingly sweet, like that she only behaved so outrageously because Natalia deserved it, deserved everything, and then her eyes would be so open and soft, and Natalia would melt into them, forgetting that she'd ever been angry at all. She would have stepped closer, and perhaps that would have been their first kiss. The next time Olivia brought home something outlandish and expensive and just for her paramour, Natalia would have remembered those sad eyes and greeted the gift with a kiss instead of a frown.

Olivia would have eventually taken her away, somewhere beautiful and exclusive, where she would have romanced her even more with luxury and excess. She would have showered her with tantalizing caresses, designed to inflame and seduce, and she would have melted Natalia's fears away, ensconcing her surely in a web of desire so hazy that the only way to escape it would have been to physically burn it off. They would have devoured each other, ravaging body and heart senseless, until they would have collapsed, spent and undone.

Then, with the edge of fear burned off in salacious hunger, Olivia would have turned to her again, and made love to her slowly, surely, gently, until they both wept tears of love and joy. And Natalia would have given her soul then, rapturously handing it off, only to have the void filled moments later when Olivia would have given hers in return, the ecstasy of the body facilitating the transferrals.

The return from the trip would have found them unable to stay away from each other, Olivia and Emma spending nearly every night at the farmhouse, only staying at the Beacon periodically, so the general populace might have proof that they had not immediately jumped back into their old patterns. Olivia would have made it clear that Natalia was her love, their family a priority, and would have run around bashing down barriers so that Natalia, Emma and Rafe would never see them, would never feel the pall of judgment. Only when all of this had passed would Olivia have allowed herself and Emma to officially move back into the home she had built with the younger woman, and, once there, she would never have left again.

Yes, Natalia knew what would have happened, had seen it lain out in front of her as clear as day just that morning, and it had been such a beautiful dream. Life was no dream, though, and if anyone knew that, it was her. Life dealt you blows, and had done a real job on them all this time. Natalia gritted her teeth. Well, there was nothing to do now but to get through it.

Two things were certain. One, the timetable had been moved up. Olivia and Emma were coming home, and home to stay at that. She'd let them leave once before; never again would she allow that to happen. Second- and this was going to be the really hard one for Natalia- Olivia was no longer going to be the bulldozer. That job had fallen to slender shoulders most often covered in long, dark hair and an eagerness to please.

Now though, they would need the strength of conviction that they'd only borne three times before in their history. The first, when they were sixteen years old, and stood high, straight and proud above a growing belly. The next, when they stood strong and sure against multiple rivals, refusing to give way and lose the husband's hands upon them. Last, they had supported a weak and unwilling woman, carrying her body and spirit through the morasses of anger and despair until the burden decided to walk on its own again. If she were honest with herself, the last had never felt heavy, like a burden, but rather like a cantankerous gift, glorious when it worked, but too temperamental to be considered the favorite toy.

And yet, Natalia had carried it, this unfavored toy, and through her support, it had become her beloved velveteen rabbit, worn, exhausted and used, but still capable of beauty and life and love and loving unparalleled by any other in the world. Rebuilt and infused with fresh life, finally a real, living creature and a toy no longer, it had returned to its mistress, having found its home in her, and she had come to rely on its strength, and had forgotten her own all over again.

Yes, her Olivia had been her strength, as she had been when Olivia had none, but she had never thought to see the day again when she would need to visit her beloved velveteen creation in the hospital where first she'd shown signs to Natalia's eyes of existing at all. She would be strong enough. She would have to be. Her darling dream come true needed her to be, so she would find it in herself again. Natalia was an untapped well of force, a truth before known only to the eyes of her son and Olivia. It was time for the world to see it, too.

"I'm not sure exactly when she's going to be released from the hospital, sweetie- I'm going to try to find out tonight, or tomorrow at the latest."

"You aren't coming back tonight?" Small hands tightened in Natalia's shirt, bunching the material up in delicate fists.

"Probably not, sweetie, but I'm going to send Rafe home, and Aunt Doris will be here. She'll take good care of you."

Emma nodded sleepily against Natalia's chest. "I know she will- she's a lot nicer when there's no adults around to see her. She always tickles me when she sees me in the courthouse."

"Really?" Natalia wondered if Olivia even knew of Doris's hidden tenderness toward Emma.

"Yeah. I like her a lot. I'm glad Mommy sent her." And there was her answer. Yes, Olivia knew. The infuriating woman had a habit of knowing the impossible-to-know things. Natalia smiled.

A few moments passed, and Emma's breathing was evening out, falling into the patterns of sleep, when suddenly, "We need to throw a party for Mommy when she's better. Let's invite everyone, so they can all see how much we love her, and maybe then she won't get sick or get hurt anymore."

The earnestness was too much, and Natalia's smile widened. "Deal."

"How's the little monster?" Natalia smiled to herself as she walked from the laundry room and put the last of the items she was packing into her overnight bag, then setting it down next to the door.

"Can it, Doris. I know you adore her." And, the thing was, now that she was looking for it, she really could hear the affection in the strident woman's voice, and she wondered what else she'd missed about the lawyer cum politician. "When's the ride you insisted on calling for me getting here?"

Doris gestured generally at the front of the house before turning back to the bowl of grapes she was slowly working through. Natalia had the best food around here, she really did... "Oh, he's been sitting outside for about half an hour now. I told him you were putting Emma to bed, and that he would need to wait."

"You left Remy sitting outside for a half an hour, Doris?! Why didn't you invite him in?" Natalia was appalled.

Doris shrugged. "Last season, he campaigned for the other guy." She popped another grape into her mouth, and raised her eyes to Natalia's face, banking on the wide, blue-hued stare to give the desired impression of innocence.

"Oh, don't even bother," Natalia scoffed. "You're amateur hour next to who I live with." Doris shrugged, conceding the point. Maybe she could get Emma to give her lessons tomorrow before school… She walked with the shorter woman through the living room and to the front door, holding it open for her so she could cross the threshold with her bag more easily. In the darkened yard, Officer Boudreaux stepped from his cruiser and advanced toward them, taking the bag from Natalia with a gentle smile and quiet murmur and turning to put it in the backseat for her.

"Thank you, Remy," Natalia said, and turned back to the woman standing framed in the light of the doorway to her house. "Be good…ish." Doris smiled wolfishly. On an impulse, Natalia walked back to her and wrapped her arms around the other woman's neck. She felt long arms return the embrace around her middle, and she took brief comfort in their strength. Emma would be safe and cared for her with these arms to shelter her. "You're family now, remember that, ok?" Natalia's voice was choked with emotion, but fervent in conviction. The arms around her tightened, then hands at her waist pushed her away.

"Yeah, well, I've never been an Aunt before, so this should be fun." Doris's flippant tone could not hide the suspicious moisture in her eyes, and Natalia smiled as she walked to the cruiser in which Remy was waiting. These big, tough women; softies, the lot of 'em.

She got into the car and Remy backed out, starting down the road to the city. A few moments passed in silence, and then he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Uh, Natalia?"

"Yes, Remy?"

"That was Doris Wolfe back there, right?"

"Yes, Remy."

"Ok." A few more beats passed. "Like the mayor, right?"

"Yes, Remy."

Silence. "Did you replace her with a pod person or something, because I have never seen her hug anybody, not even her own daughter!"

"We're all full of surprises, Remy." Natalia's eyes stayed glued to the road ahead as she spoke, but she could see Remy glance at her apprehensively, swallowing nervously at her eerily calm tone. He didn't ask her anymore questions. Natalia smiled.


Part 13

Rafe shifted in the hospital chair, making it squeak loudly. He looked to his right, examining Olivia's face to see if the noise had awoken her, grinning to himself when she showed no signs of consciousness. They had her on some pretty good painkillers, much to her chagrin. The nurse had administered them earlier through the IV, and the hotelier had protested loudly… well, with big words. Literally. She had written her dissent in very large, all capital letters on her little dry erase board, but by the time she'd finished detailing her list of why she didn't need them, the nurse had already injected the opiates into her line. The look Olivia had given her when she realized this had sent the poor woman scrambling for the door.

She had almost immediately become somewhat loopy, and had written a detailed summary of the new hair color she intended to get when she "escaped" the hospital. Apparently, she was tired of the blond highlights, and felt they'd begun to wash her out. Rafe had stared at her blankly when she'd scrawled a message asking his opinion on the matter. "Mom, you're beautiful." He'd shrugged haplessly, and she'd smiled, the bruises and swelling on her face doing nothing to diminish her joy at his praise.

She had scribbled again, asking him if he really meant that, and he'd been nonplussed. Didn't she know how beautiful she was? Couldn't she see it, in the faces of the strangers on the street who would stop and stare, just to behold her visage for even one second more? He had looked into her eyes, and realized that, no- she couldn't see it at all. "Mom. You are one of the most beautiful women I've ever known. You try to hide it, with make-up and sarcasm and sneers, but God outdid himself when he made you. The closest he's gotten to it since was my mom… and then your daughters."

Olivia had reached out and taken his hand then, pulling it to her bruised lips and pressing the most tender kiss against the back of it, curling her fingers around his own. Tears had fallen from her blackened eyes, and he'd been appalled at the fact that seeing those droplets made his vision go misty as well. She'd held him like that for a moment, his hand against her damaged mouth, then released him, and scrawled another note across the board in her lap.

"Hallejulla, Mom? I think that medicine's working pretty good, yeah?" He'd looked back up into scowling eyes, holding the intense gaze for a second before they both cracked up into laughter, Rafe's loud and hearty, Olivia's silent, muted by the damage which would not be soon healed.

He glanced down at his lap, where the marker splotched tablet now resided after Olivia had thrown it at the unlucky nurse when she'd come back in to administer more meds. He'd taken it away from her as a punishment, a reverse silent treatment, and no amount of glowering had broken his resolve. When she'd started to speak, thinking to force him into giving it back lest she talk anyway and injure her vocal chords, he'd recited Bible verses until she flopped back into her pillows, defeated momentarily by the upper hand his uninjured state afforded him. He was no fool, though. He knew that one day, just when he'd forgotten all about it, he was going to wake up with his hand in a bowl of warm water. Or maybe he was going to put sweetener in his coffee, take a big swig, only to discover that Olivia had switched the powder out for salt the night before. Oh, yes, Olivia Spencer would have her revenge. He couldn't wait.

He heard a noise at the door and turned to see who was intruding on his mother's rest. The figure in the doorway brought him instantly to his feet. "What are you doing here?"

The door shut softly behind this new visitor, and Rafe watched apprehensively as Jeffrey O'Neill walked to the other side of Olivia's bed, never once raising his eyes from her slumbering form. "I just- I had to come make sure she's ok." There was a shadow in his eyes, and in a rare moment of insight uncommon to young men of his age, Rafe knew that the darkness was not about what had happened that day, but rather, it was a haunting remembrance.

"She will be." Rafe folded his arms over his chest. "She's gonna need time to be at full speed again, but we'll take care of her. She's got a good family." Jeffrey looked up at that, hearing the pride in the other speaker's voice. Involuntarily, he felt a twinge in his side, where the bullet had entered his body, when last he'd met Rafe's defiant gaze with his own.

"I know that," he murmured softly, reaching out to stroke a loose wisp of hair away from an unmarred space on Olivia's forehead. He was brought up short, however, when a lightly haired tan hand caught his wrist in a powerful grip. His eyes jerked up.

Without letting go, Rafe spoke again. "I know that you're Ava's dad. I also know that Ava got drunk one night when I was spending the evening at the Spaulding mansion, and confessed to me that she felt evil sometimes, because she was given up for adoption." Rafe's dark eyes bored into Jeffrey's pale blue ones. "She didn't know who her mother was at the time, but she did know why she'd been given up. She had been the result of her mother's rape."

Jeffrey flinched at the last word, his eyes falling to Olivia's peaceful face, clouding up in misery as they beheld what another man's cruel hand had done to God's great creation. Rafe continued. "I know that you and my Mom have found some peace over the years, and that she's even forgiven you for what you took from her, but you should know this," and his grip tightened. "I have faced you once before when you failed to do the right thing concerning a parent of mine. I will do it again if you ever, ever try to touch her again when she's not able to stop you herself, and this time, there will be no second chances."

Jeffrey seemed to cave in on himself, turning away from the bed and pulling his arm with him, walking to stand by the hideous painting on the lime green wall. "I didn't mean any harm," he said, his voice breaking on his sorrow. "I just needed to see that she's alright, that it won't… won't do to her again what I did to her all those years ago." Tears slipped down his face.

Rafe regarded him for a long time, and then looked down at Olivia. He bent over her and gently swept the errant hair back himself, letting his fingers trail softly over her cheekbone just in front of her ear, and Olivia's face turned into his palm, nestling a tender cheek in his cupped hand though she showed no signs of waking. Without pulling away, Rafe looked back up at Jeffrey. "She knows where she's safe. She won't lose that feeling again like she did before." He straightened back up, reaching down to tuck Olivia's hands under the linens and pulling the sheets securely up over her chest, making sure to keep her much abused chest covered and warm.

"Now you need to leave, Jeffrey." Rafe's voice was hard, edged with flint and steel. "You don't get to make yourself feel better, not now, not ever. You will go to your grave knowing that the world never knew the Olivia you stole from it, but if it helps, you can tell yourself it was all for the best anyway." He sneered. "Maybe someday you'll even believe it."

Jeffrey left without another word, and behind him a boy was replaced with a man.

The night had grown long by the time Rafe heard another scuffle of feet as the door opened.

He stood from the reclining chair they'd brought in to serve as his bed. "Ma?! What are you doing here?" In his surprise, he forgot to temper the volume of his voice, and he was at Olivia's side instantly as she began to moan, her broken glass voice scraping bloodily along his eardrums. "Shh, Mom, it's ok…" He tried to place his hands over hers where she was fighting to get them out from under the covers, but before he could do so, he was gently pushed aside by his mother as she inserted her smaller frame between his body and the bed.

She took Olivia's hands and pulled them to her mouth, grazing her lips over strong fingers gone weak in their current state. "It's alright, Love. I'm here now. Hush and go back to sleep. I'll watch over you."

Olivia stopped fighting, slipping back into her drugged sleep, a bruised smile making its way to her lips as a soft whisper escaped them. "Natalia…" and then she slept.

Without looking up or releasing her grip on those precious hands, Natalia spoke to her son. "Thank you for being here, Rafe. Please go home now. I need you to tend to your sister while I stay her with Olivia." He could hear the tears in her voice, and knew that she wouldn't look at him for fear that she might fall apart, and she couldn't afford that luxury now. He stepped up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders and rubbing gently, feeling her tension ease slightly at his touch.

"You mean, you need to stay here with my Mom, Ma." He heard her brief intake of air, felt it in her frame. "Yeah, I knew you'd be here eventually. Can I borrow your car to get home? I'll get someone to drop it off for you tomorrow."

"Remy drove me. He's waiting to take you home." Natalia's voice was small, but Rafe heard the underlying steel, and he knew that all would be well.

"Ok, Ma." He kissed the back of her head, his peck almost lost in the waves of dark silk cascading down her back. He chuckled as he stepped away. "Be sure to ask Olivia about her hair when she wakes up, ok, Ma? She needs opinions on new colors." He saw Natalia's head tilt, and knew that she'd have a puzzled expression on her face. He grabbed his jacket and started for the door.

"Raphael." He stopped without turning. "Thank you for taking care of her today." Natalia was next to him now, her dark, doe eyes filled with tears they could not let themselves shed. "I will never be able to convey to you what that means to me."

He turned to look back at the small form on the mattress, a form that only seemed small in sleep or injury, because it housed a personality so huge that normal physics could not contain it in waking, healthful hours. "Ma- she's my Mom. What else was I gonna do?" He shrugged, letting his eyes travel back to the face of the mother who'd birthed him. Natalia stepped forward and wrapped him in a strong hug.

"I'll come by to see you both tomorrow, ok, Ma?"

"Ok, Rafe." He smiled, hugged her again, then left to go find Remy. Natalia turned back to the bed, sweeping her eyes over the ruins of Olivia's beautiful face. "Oh, Olivia. My sweet love. What have they done to you?"


Part 14

The morning sun slanted in across the expanse of the hospital room, broken by the blinds into individual rays of darting light. Motes of dust drifted through the air, catching the luminescence and sparkling like daystars in the muted atmosphere of the quietude that permeated the room. Olivia gazed across this space at the vision that filled her eyes.

Natalia slept in the chair she'd liberated from Rafe the night before. Her head was tilted at an odd angle, and the older woman knew she should wake her, should rouse her before too much damage befell the tender ligaments and tendons that lined the graceful column of the mocha neck, but she could not bring herself to disturb such a welcome vision of beauty and mercy. Her heart ached with tenderness, and she felt the tide of emotion swell up and outward, leaking from her eyes in the form of hot tears, burning paths down the abused tissue of her cheeks. She closed her lids over verdant green, sending a fresh flood down her face, and when she opened them again, they met the aching toffee melt of Natalia's stare.

"Morning," she mouthed, ever mindful of the doctor's instructions that she should not tax her punished vocal chords. She didn't care so much about the doctor's instructions as she did the opinion of the woman whose eyes regarded her so lovingly, knowing as she did that Natalia would have already spoken to the doctors and nurses, quizzing them mercilessly on her beloved's condition until she knew the full extent of what she'd need to do to see her promised one's body returned to its previous state of healthful and loved vitality. She'd be pushing her limits soon enough; there was no need to worry Natalia with her carelessness just yet.

"Morning, Olivia." And with that, Natalia crumpled, her body slumping forward, elbows on her knees, as she gazed despairingly at the love she'd come so close to losing before she'd ever really had her just the day before. Her muffled sobs destroyed Olivia's carefully maintained calm façade, and she was reaching out blindly before she even registered that her arms had moved, fingers outstretched, needing to hold her heart close once again to make sure it was real, it was hers, and that this tragedy had not harmed the miracle that had been in the making between them. Natalia flowed across the expanse that divided them, crossing the chasm of hospital floor in seconds, to sit on the bed next to Olivia's hips, hands sliding beneath the other woman's back to pull her up and into love's healing embrace.

"My sweet Olivia, oh, my sweet, sweet…" she cooed into Olivia's hair, dropping kisses like raindrops into the tangled mane. Olivia's arms closed around her, and they both sighed as they felt the world right itself again. Later, if pressed, neither would be able to say how long they remained in that position before the bustling footsteps of a frightened young nurse entered the room. Olivia glared at her over Natalia's slim shoulder, daring her to say something, anything, about the tableau she was witnessing.

Natalia noticed her distraction and leaned back, looking over her shoulder to see what had torn her lover's attention from their connection. "Um… It's time for her meds..." the young woman trailed off, sensing before she received it the reception her words would find. Olivia shook her head slowly, her neck screaming at the movement, but unwilling to lessen the pain for a second by stopping should the bearing of stupefying opiates inject them once again, leaving her helpless and unable to bask in Natalia's radiant glow.

Natalia looked back at Olivia once, and knew what she was trying to say. "She doesn't want them. Is there anything you can give her that won't put her back to sleep?" Olivia's gaze, dagger sharp when directed at her medical nemesis, melted as her eyes fell back to her defender, and she silently thanked whatever gods might be listening again for the gift they had given her in this woman.

"Of-of c-course, ma'am, let me just go get the doctor." And with that, the scrubs-clad woman escaped the room containing the two women with faces like the angels above, but whose eyes promised tempers and passions from far lower places.

Natalia frowned, then turned back to the woman still loosely wrapped in her arms. "Olivia. What did you do to her before I got here?" She was met with a pure, Who? Me? look, and wasn't fooled for even a second. She chuckled. "What am I going to do with you, huh?" Olivia's tender eyes told her everything she needed to know in reply. "Yeah." She leaned forward again, and brushed a melting kiss across a blackened cheekbone. "You're right; I'll have to keep you."


Part 15

Olivia grimaced as the doctor poked and prodded her still swollen neck. It hurt like a bitch, but she was trying not to show it because she knew that her ever watchful guardian would object to the necessary evil if she knew it was hurting so badly. A cool touch slid across the back of her hand where it lay at her side, and she turned it over, twining her fingers with slender digits, feeling the pain in her neck dissolve as a buzzing rush of love filled her entire being. The doctor stopped his manhandling of her injuries and glanced down at their connection over the tops of his black-rimmed glasses.

"What's the verdict, Doctor?" Natalia spoke, her chin rising ever so slightly and a tinge of defiance in her voice. Olivia glanced at her, and caught a warning in those dark eyes, a promise of pain should the observant physician make any comments not directly related to Olivia's medical predicament. She tried not to smile, she really did, but when her eyes went back to her doctor's face, she knew they held a mischievous twinkle. What she didn't expect was the answering sparkle in the other man's eyes.

"Can I presume that you'll be the one to ensure Ms. Spencer here takes care of her injuries, and allows them the proper time to heal?" He spoke directly to Natalia, and Olivia felt a minor glower coming on. She couldn't help it. She hated be talked about as if she weren't in the room.

Natalia stood from the bedside chair where she'd been watching the inspection and seated herself next to Olivia's hip, pulling their joined hands onto her thigh. Side by side, they now both faced the doctor on an even level. "We'll be taking care of her together, Doctor. I'll just be doing more of the manual labor side of things for the time being." Olivia wanted to curl up in the Latina's lap. She'd never known anyone more in tune with her needs, had never before experienced the joy of being so loved, so readable, that another person could simply know how to please her, how to accommodate her, without any instructions or directions from her side of the court. Natalia had, in a single statement, directly informed the physician that they were a partnership, and that he should address them as such. In addition to that, she'd spoken to him in that "mom" voice, the one that subtly chastised him for making a statement that presumed one of them to be any less functional than the other. Olivia made no attempt to hide her smile this time, and though she felt the bruised and broken flesh of her mouth and cheeks protest, her grin was full-blown and radiant.

"Of course," he replied, apology inherent in his tone. "My daughter and her partner are just the same- except neither one of them likes the manual labor part." He glanced down at his chart and peeked back up at them over his glasses. "They like to call in dear old Dad for that stuff." He flashed a quick smile, then snapped the folder shut, clearing his throat and pulling the glasses off his face, tucking them into his breast pocket. Absently, Olivia wondered if he ever forgot to take them out before undressing for the night, losing them into the dirty clothes pile, because she knew she would. And then Natalia would find them there as she pulled the clothes out of the hamper, and she would leave them at Olivia's place setting on the kitchen table, waiting for later in the day when Olivia would return home from some business meeting or the other, waiting for her to see them and feel silly about having lost them, and she would have to call Greg at the Beacon and apologize to him about her accusations of spectacle-thievery…

Olivia blinked. Wow. She didn't even wear glasses. She glanced at Natalia to see if the other woman had noticed her deviation into a mental tangent, and found her gaze captured by knowing, toffee colored eyes, twinkling at her in amusement. She shrugged. What? Natalia grinned, and turned back to the doctor. "Please continue, Doctor."

"Ok. Well, I'm willing to release you today, Ms. Spencer, but only if you're going to be able to watch her around the clock, Ms.-" He glanced at his file. "I'm sorry, is it Mrs. Spencer?" He looked at Natalia. "They don't have it noted here in the file."

"It's Ms. Rivera. Natalia Rivera," the dark-haired woman supplied, and Olivia squeezed her hand where it rested joined with hers in the younger woman's lap. It's Rivera, Olivia thought, but someday, if I'm lucky, there's going to be a Spencer attached to it somewhere. She stopped herself before she could lapse into another domestic ideation. Damn painkillers. They were like reverse Ritalin; she couldn't stay focused on shit.

"Right. Ms. Natalia Rivera." If it wouldn't have hurt so badly, Olivia would have smiled again. She liked this doctor. He was nice, very professional, had been as gentle as possible with her, and, most importantly, wasn't best friends with her on-the crazy-train-again, off-the-crazy-train-again ex. "That's a very lovely name you've got there." He flashed a charming grin at Natalia. Olivia felt her goodwill melt away. Who was this guy? He was a hack. She contemplated requesting a new doctor, a woman this time. Then she wouldn't have to worry about them flirting with Natalia. No, wait… that might not work, either. She of all people should know that by now. She settled for scowling.

"Ok, Ms. Rivera. If you are able, I can release Ms. Spencer here into your care, but you'll have to either hire someone to help you, or you'll need someone strong enough to help you lift her." He looked at Olivia. "You sprained your left ankle very badly, and I suspect you may have a small tear in your Gastrocnemius muscle where it connects to your Achilles tendon." He met two blank stares. "That's the big muscle in your calf."

"Ohh," murmured Natalia. "Why didn't you just say so?"

She met the man's eyes with a sweet, innocent smile. That's it, Olivia thought. I can never leave her and Emma alone together ever again. The doctor continued. "Yes, well, if it is torn, as I suspect, then it's going to need time to heal. That means any walking for the time being, even on crutches, is out. You'll need to be in a wheelchair for at least two weeks, and then we'll see what it looks like once the swelling has gone down." Olivia nodded, her expression grave. Head injuries, heart problems, recommendations to drink less, these were all health issues she took with a grain of salt. This particular health issue, though, was serious. If she couldn't walk, she couldn't wear her beautiful shoes, and Olivia Spencer had more in common with Imelda Marcos than the average bear. She would follow these directions in the interest of regaining her high-heeled strut, without question.

"In addition to that, it's going to be about a week at least before I want you trying to talk much at all. Your attack did a real number on your throat there, and I don't want you to rupture a vocal chord. They're very swollen right now, and that's just going to take time to heal. The good news is that you'll know when they're doing better; it won't hurt to talk." He peered at her. "Try not to be impatient with that, alright?" Olivia arched her undamaged brow. She made no promises.

"Olivia." Oh. Well, that was persuasive. Her name, on those lips… Olivia sighed, and nodded her assent once again. The things she did for this woman. She saw Natalia flash her dimples out of the corner of her eye, and it was all she could do to not reach over and kiss them. Oh! An idea blossomed in her chest. She was going to be on pain killers for at least another week! She smirked inwardly. Natalia was so gonna get her fill of inappropriate comments and touches when they were alone. It could all be blamed on the medicines, right? Plus, she loved to make the other woman blush, and she was gonna need some entertainment if she was gonna be cooped up in traction for awhile.

Natalia leaned over and whispered into her ear. "Don't even think about it, Ms. Spencer." She leaned back with a triumphant grin. Olivia's eyes snapped to Natalia's in shock. How did you know? "I just know you, sweetie." Her smile held no malice, and Olivia decided she'd never get tired of being unable to surprise this woman.

"You've also got three cracked ribs, and severe contusions on your face. Luckily, your cheekbones and jaw were not broken- you can legitimately tell people that you're very hardheaded, Ms. Spencer."

"Trust me, they know," said Natalia. Olivia wore her most innocent expression and her gaze did not waver from the physician's face.

"Your left lip and cheek were badly cut, and I had our plastic surgeon stitch up the cuts on the inside of your mouth with dissolving thread. It's very small and fine, to reduce scarring, but this will also make it much less unpleasant in your mouth. That should heal up much faster; your mucal membranes are the fastest healing areas of your body. The splits on your lips are glued up, and they'll heal just like really bad fever blisters- slowly, obnoxiously, and not without tearing open and bleeding all over your napkin at dinner at least once, so don't be alarmed about that."

Natalia ran her eyes over Olivia's lips, her gaze catching like snagged fabric of the dark red lines where the flesh had been cut open by force, the dried blood scabs curling outward from the inside of Olivia's mouth like rust-colored lip rings. She would kiss those blemishes away, she absently decided, then continued to listen to the doctor.

"You have a burst blood vessel in your left eye there, which is going to take some time to heal as well. You'll need to see an ophthalmologist about that if you notice your vision getting blurry in that eye. That would indicate internal bleeding, and that's very serious, so don't wait for it to get worse if you start to notice that, ok?"

Olivia nodded. Anything that risked taking away her ability to see her beloved Natalia was a serious risk as well. "Luckily, it doesn't appear that you sustained any damage to your heart, though I am a little concerned that your sternum might have been cracked at well. Once it's been opened for surgery, the cartilage there is never as strong again, but the care you give your ribs will allow that to heal. Just no heavy lifting, not that you were allowed to do that before."

He looked down at her chart one last time. "Ok, that's about it for right now. Of course, you're aware that your anti-rejection medications are going to slow your healing process no matter what, as well as keeping you at increased risk of infection. You'll need to watch for symptoms like increased temperature, lightheadedness, racing heartbeat, etcetera." Yes. Olivia and Natalia both were aware of just how much longer it took to heal from the most minor cuts and bruises while on those anti-rejection medications. Olivia silently cursed Buzz once again, then cast him out of her mind when she felt her hand squeezed gently.

Natalia was looking at her with such love, and the doctor was asking if they had any questions for him before he left to start her discharge paperwork, and all she could think about was wanting to kiss the woman sitting so close to her, yet so far away. I love you. So much. Natalia smiled and brushed her unbruised cheek with her free hand. "I know. I love you, too."

"Well," said the doctor, "I'll leave you two ladies to talk to each other. I'll start processing your release. We should have you out of here by mid-afternoon. Will you have someone able to carry her into the house, Ms. Rivera, or will you be needing to use the orderly service?"

"Our son will help me with her," Natalia said. The doctor nodded, smiled at them both, and left. Natalia shifted her body, standing and turning 180 degrees before sitting back down, facing Olivia. She smiled at the other woman, her heart swelling and filling her to overflowing with love. "My sweet, wonderful Olivia. How he hurt you…" Olivia shook her head, ignoring again the pain in her neck. No. I don't want to talk about him. "Alright, love." Natalia's eyes fell to her lips. "You're right," she said as she leaned forward, drawn irresistibly to the beautiful, damaged mouth, "we don't need to talk at all."

And then their lips met, gently, brushing against each other softly, each aware of the necessity for control. Natalia's tongue flicked out, curling under Olivia's upper lip, grazing the tip of Olivia's tongue in the process. Olivia felt as if a fireworks factory had gone off between her legs, and she opened her eyes, wondering absently when they'd closed, and found her gaze consumed by the inferno raging in chocolate irises. "I love you so much," Natalia said.

"Well, dammit." Both women turned to the doorway, startled at having been observed without their knowledge, and absolutely shocked at what they saw there. Sam and Ava stood side by side just inside the room, the door clicking shut behind them. Ava wore a smug expression and her mother's elegance, standing with her hand out to Sam, palm up, as if waiting for a high five.

Sam scraped his messy blond hair out of his face, winking at Olivia before reaching into his tattered jeans pocket and pulling out a twenty, which he handed to Ava. "You were right," he grinned at the two women on the bed, though he spoke to Ava. He stepped toward the twosome across the room. "Olivia," he said, "never bet against your daughter. She's way smarter than she looks."

"Hey!" Ava smacked him at the shoulder, then grinned at her mother. "Hi, Mom. We're home."

And, just like that, the last piece of Olivia Spencer clicked into place, and she fell headlong into the black oblivion of peace and unconsciousness.


Part 16

Rafe stirred the pancake batter blearily. Beside him, Emma chirped instructions on exactly what shapes he should create with the pancakes, and he tuned it out just a bit until: "And then I want you to make a pancake that looks like a mayor's hat."

"A what?!" Surely he'd misheard the little girl's words. He was incredibly tired, having gotten home late the previous evening from the hospital. Remy had driven him, for which he'd been grateful, and he'd fallen asleep in the cruiser on the way home. When he'd walked in the door, he'd been jolted with instant awareness as his eyes had locked onto pale blue ones across the room.

Doris had been reading on the couch, and when he'd walked in, she'd looked up, putting the book down on the coffee table. "C'mon," she'd said, rising as she spoke and walking toward him. "I made you a little something to eat before bed. I knew your mom would be sending you home."

Rafe had followed her into the kitchen wordlessly, and had been shocked to encounter the beguiling smell of simmering tomato soup on the stove. "I remembered that you're diabetic, so I made the soup from the tomatoes I found in the fridge, no sugar added. Instead, I put in a little extra Vidalia onion to make it sweeter for you." She had pointed him to the table, and ladled a large helping into a waiting bowl before setting it in front of him. "Eat."

He had stared at the bowl in shock, then carefully picked up the spoon, swirling it in the viscous fluid to see if it would dissolve. It hadn't. Instead, it had wafted a delicious odor up to his nostrils, and he'd found himself with a spoonful of the broth in his mouth before he consciously knew what he was doing.

"Mmmm! This is good!" He looked up in her, eyes wide in shock. "You can cook?!" She'd smiled sardonically at him from where she leaned against the counter.

"I was a single mom from day one, Rafe, just like your mom. I can fix my own car, too. It's just easier to let someone else do it usually." She'd stood up, and motioned to the stovetop. "Clean this up when you're done. I'm going to go check in on Emma, then go to bed myself. Don't stay up too late. You've had a rough day." She had walked over to where he sat at the table and brushed her hand through his hair, leaning down to brush a kiss against his forehead. As she'd walked out of the kitchen, she'd called back over her shoulder, "Don't wake me before nine unless it's an emergency or Iran throws out the election results."

He had finished his soup, which had been perfect, considering he'd not eaten that whole day after hearing about Olivia's attack, then cleaned up, heading to bed with a full, warm belly and a hopeful heart. A peek into his little sister's room had revealed a sleeping angel, breathing deeply, her head resting on the chest of Springfield's former Ice Queen mayor. Obviously, Emma had awoken when Doris went in to check on her, and had requested the woman join her in the bed. He had tiptoed into the room and pulled the heels off of the erstwhile politician, gently pulling a blanket up to cover her. When he'd gotten to his own bed, it was not the love he'd seen in his mother's eyes at the hospital, nor the feeling of belonging he'd gotten when he held Olivia's hand as the nurses kept her asleep with their needle-pointed visits, that had nursed his wearied and bruised psyche into a dreamless sleep. It was that image of the extended family he'd never expected, his little sister and her doting Aunt, who had carried him away to the sands of undisturbed slumber.

Now he stared uncomprehendingly at said little sister, trying to determine what exactly a "mayor hat" really was. "You know," Emma said, "I don't know what it is either. I just heard Mommy talking to Mama about Aunt Doris's hat one time, and she said it looked stupid, so I figured it must be a mayor hat. People only wear stupid hats when they have to for their jobs or to graduate high school." Wide green eyes peered up at him guilelessly, and Rafe put down the whisk and leaned down, wrapping Emma into a fierce hug.

"I love you, little sister," he said, realizing with a feeling like a punch to his gut that he meant it, and that his new purpose in life, aside from being the son his mother had always wanted him to be, aside from being the man he felt like when Olivia trusted him to stand next to her as the doctors and detectives had made her relive her vicious attack, aside from being the strong, faithful person God wanted him to become, was to be this little girl's big brother, to be someone she admired, loved, and looked up to in all things. As slender arms wrapped around his neck and a giggling voice told him he was loved in return, Raphael Rivera forgot what it was like to want something more.

"Coffee, please, and dial down the sapfest, wouldja?" Doris stumbled into the kitchen, eyes squinting at the unrelenting sunlight, creases from Emma's pillow still imprinted on her cheek. Her clothes were wrinkled and her hair was a mess. Rafe released Emma, grinning and winking at her as he held the already made cup out to the strawberry-blond woman.

"Here ya go, Aunt Doris." He grinned toothily, daring her to make a comment about her new moniker. When she faltered, looking into his eyes with an unexpected breakability, hand halting in mid-reach for the coffee mug, he understood that the title was no joke for her, that she would not grimace above Emma's head when she heard it, and that, unless he took swift action to reassure her, she was about to have some seriously hurt feelings. He softened his smile, extending his arm out so the mug met her frozen hand. "Go on, me and Emma made it special for our fearless Aunt. We're making pancakes now. How hungry are you?"

Slowly, her fingers closed around the ceramic cup. She took it from him and held his gaze as she took her first sip. When his raised eyebrows asked her the silent question as to the taste, she smiled and said, "Perfect," even though she hated cream, hated sugar, and hated hazelnut flavored coffee. She had never had coffee so delicious. She sat down at the kitchen table, a hesitant smile resting on her lips like the tremulous serenade of birdsong after a storm.

"We were thinking you could invite Ashlee over to hang out with us today, Aunt Doris," Emma said as she bounced around the table, dipping under Doris's arm where it rested on the table, hand next to her coffee, and crawling into the other woman's lap. "If you're going to be a part of this family, then she is, too, and she should come over and play Wii with her cousins." She gave Doris a solemn gaze. "That's me an' Rafe. Her cousins." She smiled the smile that always got her what she wanted from everyone except her mother, with whom it worked sporadically, and Natalia, with whom it had worked once, at Christmas, when she'd wanted a third cookie.

"I'll call her after breakfast, sweetheart." If Doris wondered at the ease with which the term of endearment slipped from her mouth, her bemusement was short-lived due to the sudden pounding at the front door. Lifting Emma off her lap, she placed her on her feet near her brother, saying, "You two stay here. I'm going to go see who that is at this ungodly early hour." The pointed look she gave Rafe was a silent instruction: It's too early to be anything good. Do not let her leave this kitchen. Rafe nodded his head in understanding, and as she walked through the passageway into the living room, Doris heard him begin to distract the little girl by asking her to help him pour the pancake batter into the right shapes.

She walked to the front door, smoothing her clothes and hair as best she could, and feeling the mantle of the indomitable Doris Wolfe slipping over her shoulders like a favorite sweater, warm and comforting in its weight and familiarity. By the time she pulled open the door, the only indication that Mayor Doris Wolfe was not completely a stone cold, inhuman automaton was her rumpled outfit. "What the hell do you want?"

"I came to get my granddaughter." Alan Spaulding brushed past her into the Farmhouse, and Doris just knew her day was about to go to shit.


Part 17

"Hold on there, Tonto!" Doris was spitting mad. There she'd been, sitting quietly in the kitchen, enjoying her morning with the youngest members of her newly expanded family, and then this blast from the past, her shithead ex (who was never much good for anything but ruining any and all good he encountered) had just fucked it all beyond all get out. Alan stopped in his tracks, in the middle of the living room, and turned to her with a smirk. Before he could speak, she hissed, "What the fuck are you doing here, Alan? And don't give me that bullshit about being here for Emma. What's your angle? What's the con?" She advanced on him as she spoke, her skin flushing with anger and heated outrage.

Her eyes sparked white-lightninged vicious thunderstorms, and Alan remembered why he'd once feared this woman.

"I've come to take my son's daughter to be with her family while her mother is away." Doris grinned wickedly.

"She's already with her family. We've been taking very good care of her. Please feel free to get the fuck out now."

Alan regarded her archly, his pride overcoming any semblance of common sense he'd once possessed, in the days before insanity and narcissism drove it screaming from his mind. "You, Doris, are no family to Emma. You are nothing more than a passing blip in her life. Emma is a Spaulding, and I'd say it's about damn time she came to understand what that means. Now where is she?" Doris mentally calculated how old Ashlee would be if she committed murder now, pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, and got out early on good behavior…

"I'm a Spencer-Rivera." The little girl spoke from behind Alan, having entered the room without either adult knowing she was there. Moving quickly, and giving Alan a wide berth, she walked to Doris, sliding her arm around the woman's hips and resting her cheek against a soft torso. "Doris is my Aunt, and Rafe is my brother, and Natalia is my Mama. You can't make that not true just because you don't like it." She glowered at Alan, her eyes dark and her expression once again cold, flinty. Alan found himself suddenly fearing the daughter as he had feared the mother when she had regarded him so.

"Emma, you can't just pick and choose your family like that-" Alan tried to speak, but was cut off once again.

"Why not?" Rafe entered the room, having followed his curious cat sister's footsteps. "You certainly seem to. Gus was just some guy, until he was a Spaulding, and then he was your golden boy, until he wasn't. I was your chosen Grandson, until I tried to fight an enemy I didn't understand with my father's death, and you weren't there for me then, talking about family or trying to listen to my problems. You were too busy with the next project. You're evil, Alan. For chrissakes, you fucking shot your own son!" Alan remained mute, eyes flickering between the three combatants before him. They were united, and stood strong against him. He was left with the sinking feeling that he would not see his ends met this day. Rafe stepped forward, moving to stand between Alan and his coveted grandchild. "You should leave now. You're not wanted here."

Well. This boy, this puny little miscreant, he thought he'd won? Alan allowed his arrogant smirk to return to his weathered face. "I'll leave, Rafael. But, I will be back soon enough, and at that time, I will be coming to collect what is rightfully mine." He eyed Emma meaningfully. "You are a Spaulding, Emma. You will be raised like one. Never doubt that."

Emma laughed. Alan felt his ground give way again. She just laughed. "I'm no Spaulding, Grandpa! Even Daddy knows that! He says I'm the best of all his kids because I'm the only one who isn't a Spaulding!" She paused, stepping forward and holding out her arms to take in the farmhouse, to represent and encompass the family to which she belonged. "I'm a Spencer-Rivera. And so is Doris," she added, tossing a reassuring smile over her shoulder at the icy-eyed woman, "even though she doesn't live here, too. And you can't make me be a Spaulding." Emma smiled. "Daddy won't let you. I heard him promise Mommy that when she first started letting him see me again. So, you should leave now. We were having a family breakfast, and you weren't invited." Eyes that had laughed moments before now glittered emerald hard, and Alan felt them cut him like razors.

Doris sneered. "Get out, Alan. You lose." And so he left. But no one there doubted for a single moment that he was done with them yet.


Part 18

Sam walked toward his sister's room, his arms loaded down with flowers, teddy bears, cards and other various well wishes from people he'd never heard of or met. The nurse had asked him to carry the sundry items to Olivia's room for her, as, for some reason, none of the nurses had wanted to make the short trip from the nurse's station to room 666, as they called it. He couldn't begin to imagine why.

Pushing the door open with his shoulder, he was met by joined peals of laughter, Natalia and Ava sharing amusement over some story about Emma's recent antics. Apparently, the little girl with whom he'd spoken on the phone was no longer the midget with dimples he'd left behind; she had come into her own right as a little person, a fact to which he'd been brutally awakened when she coldly dismissed him on the phone the day before. Now, one red eye and several thousand miles later, he found himself almost dreading the face to face encounter that was to come later that afternoon when they took Olivia home. He'd let her down, both he and Ava, and he had the feeling that she was going to be a hard sell to win back over. He'd do it, though. He had no intention of going anywhere again until he'd firmly rebuilt the home he'd been too stupid to cherish before. He dropped the gifts onto the small table by the door and looked toward the three women in the room.

Olivia was sitting up, braced by pillows behind her and two beautiful brunettes on either side. Natalia sat to her right, one arm draped over the stuffed cotton back supports, the other wrapped around her middle, a tan hand rubbing soft, unconscious circles over her belly. Sam smiled, doubting Natalia was even aware of what she was doing. Both Olivia and her dark love were looking at Ava, matching smiles in their eyes as the young woman held her hands out in front of her, pantomiming her story as she told it, her back to him and the rest of the world, fully focused on reclaiming what had been lost with her mother in her time away.

Olivia's eyes danced as the next punchline struck, and the unswollen side of her face danced upward in a smile. The bruises coating the skin of her neck and left side prevented the belly-rolling laughter she had always been known for in the past, but Natalia's warm giggles seemed to somehow complement and make up for the sounds her damaged body could not at that moment produce. Her green eyes suddenly snapped to his matching set, and he stood frozen by the seething storm he found there. She was happy, she was hopeful, and yet, she was completely adrift. It occurred to him then that he had seen that look in her eyes before, when she had been sixteen, and he barely six years old, when she had come home from a party to which she'd not been permitted to go, her beautiful dress that she'd worked so hard to make by hand wrinkled and torn, her soul bleeding out of her eyes with the tears that hadn't stopped for two days.

Sam felt as though he'd been stabbed in the gut. He understood, then, truly understood, what had happened to the sister who'd been more mother to him than sibling, both then, when all he'd had to offer were boyish hugs and fearful nearness, and now, when his grown man's comprehension of the world tempted him to offer her the solace of his vengeance on her behalf. Then, in that heart-shattering slice of time, Samuel Spencer knew what it was to wish a man dead by his own hands. And yet, she held out her hand to him, a silent plea in her eyes, begging him to come to her, and he felt another puzzle piece click into place. Olivia, his great, big, strong sister, the woman who knew no fear or obstacle, needed those boyish hugs and shy tearful grins a thousand times more than she needed his anger. He felt it melt away, like a burning shiver leaving his body, and long strides carried him to his sister's bed, coming to a stop at her feet.

"Ready to go home, Gorgeous?" She inclined her head, ever so slightly, both an affirmation and a question. "Come on, let's get you out of here." He grinned. "Natalia's promised us all this thing called a Tuna Casserole tonight, and I'm tempted to see how it fares when compared to my gourmet chef sister's typical fare." He winked, and then found himself watching the most curious thing happen. Her eyes widened and darted guiltily to meet Natalia's.

The dark woman turned her face to meet jade eyes. "Gourmet chef?" Chocolate irises faded from view as eyelids narrowed over them. "And just when were you going to tell me that little tidbit, Ms. Spencer?" Olivia sighed, looked heavenward, and reached for her message board.

Would 'never' be an inappropriate response?

Natalia's brows drew together and her lips hardened into a straight line. Olivia observed this, then swiped the board clean and wrote another message.

I was going to surprise you with it for one of our dates. I was going to cook for you.

She looked up at Natalia with wide eyes, her face so open and hopeful, and Sam watched the younger woman melt into the regard. "Oh, Olivia," and then she flowed forward, her lips softly meeting his sister's bruised ones, gently caressing as one hand delicately cupped the tender jaw. One kiss became two, and as their eyes shut, soft sighs escaping them both, Sam turned his back to the display, leaning up against the footboard.

"So, Ava, how 'bout them Braves?" His sister, who was now standing next to him, her back likewise turned to the tender intimacy behind them, shrugged.

"Who are the Braves?" He laughed and threw an arm around her shoulder. It was good to be home.

Several hours later, a large white van pulled up outside the farmhouse, followed by a dark SUV, the symbol of the Beacon emblazoned on the side. Doris, who had been awaiting the arrival, walked out onto the porch, quickly passed by a squealing tornado of hairpins and baking flour. "Mommy, Mommy, Mama, we made cookies!" Emma hopped up and down, peering inside the open doors of the van, stepping aside to allow Natalia to step out.

"Did you really, sweet girl?" Doris noted that Natalia never missed a chance to let Emma know just how much she was adored, wrapping her arms around the little ragamuffin, entirely uncaring of the white powdery mess that coated her, and she filed the observation away for later. Was that how you raised happy, confident children? She wished she'd known that sooner. A tall blond man stepped out of the SUV, accompanied by a tall, slender brunette woman with short cropped hair. She recognized them both from pictures Olivia kept on her desk at work, her daughter and brother, both lost to the world at large. Rafe walked past her to join the growing throng milling about the van doors, sticking his head inside to say something to the only remaining occupant of the vehicle, the two orderlies who'd been sent to help having been relegated to standing aside and waiting for the greetings to finish before they could move their charge inside.

Doris was struck by just how good looking the assorted people standing before her really were, and she felt a sudden pang. She suddenly wondered why she was still there, what she would do with herself now that the real, beautiful family was back together, now that she was no longer needed to run interference, and she almost missed the sensation of a warm hand sliding into hers. "Come on, Aunt Doris. Come say hi to Mommy."

And Emma tugged her along after, bringing her to the doors to stand with the others, and Natalia threw her arms around the fair woman, mumbling her gratitude into a time-neglected shoulder. Emma chattered happily at her mother about all the fun they'd had, and how Aunt Doris had showed them how to make cheesecake and banana sundaes. Doris met green eyes shaded black at the edges by cruel hands, and she smiled. "Welcome home, Olivia. We've all been very worried about you."


Part 19

Olivia sat in Natalia's bed, propped up by pillows that smelled of the other woman and covered to the waist in a sheet that settled around her legs like a gentle silken caress, put onto the mattress, she knew, specifically for her. The orderlies who had carried her in had managed to get her up the stairs with little to no pain, but when she'd pointed them to her old room, Natalia had quickly interjected, and redirected them here, to the master bedroom, the room in which she'd only been once before, when she helped Natalia get dressed for her engagement party. Olivia looked around. She liked the room much better now, seeing it in all of its sunlit glory, the bright colors and pretty patterns no longer weighing in her vision as symbols of a life she'd never know herself. She smiled as she remembered the scene that had taken place not even a whole hour before.

Natalia followed the two men and their precious burden into the room, and pulled the sheets back, helping to settle the older woman on the bed. She shut the door behind her, effectively trapping the rest of their ever-expanding brood outside. The lack of protests told Olivia that the phone call Natalia had made earlier had been about more than instructions to put new sheets on the bed. The two orderlies then exited themselves, leaving the women alone together for the first time since their kiss that morning. Olivia looked at Natalia as she leaned against the door she'd just shut after the hospital's gofers, and felt her heart swell to the point of pain as she regarded the shy smile being cast her way.

"We need to get you out of those ridiculous hospital pajamas and into something more suited to your delicate sensibilities." Olivia was tempted to laugh at Natalia's reference to her snobbery, but then the impact of the other woman's words hit her, and her eyes widened in shock and not a little bit of fear. She grabbed her noteboard and scrawled, You want to redress me?

Natalia laughed. "No, truthfully, I'd like to undress you and keep you that way, but I have to keep our children in mind right now. It'd be awkward for them to come in here to sit with you while you're naked." Olivia blinked. "Weren't expecting that from me, now were you?" Olivia blinked again, and Natalia came to the bed, sitting on it and leaning forward to brush hair out of the older woman's face. "You are so beautiful. And I love you, so very much." Olivia caught her hand, bringing it to her chest and holding it there against her pounding heart.

"I know. And I know that you're such a perfectionist, and such a romantic, and that you probably had this massive seduction scene all planned out in your mind, but…" Olivia felt herself blush, and she looked down at her legs stretched out before her, encased in cheap cotton pants, the best the hospital had to offer. Natalia tipped her chin back up with her other hand, redirecting downcast eyes to her own. "I still want that, Olivia. I still want those scenes, and that romance, and all that goes along with it." Olivia felt her heart go into warp speed overdrive, and she briefly entertained the thought that her first time with Natalia also might be her last, if the reaction she was feeling now was any indicator. She might just expire from the joy of it all. "And we will have that," Natalia continued, "but first, we've got to get you well again, and doing that means that we won't get to have those times to get comfortable together. I'm going to help you, and I'm going to be there for you, and you're going to have to let me, because I'll be damned if some little nurse is going to come in here and get to see you in your underwear or in a bath before I do!"

Olivia regarded the fierce eyes in front of her. She reached for her board. I don't want you to see me like this. I want to be beautiful for you, not weak and damaged. She looked at Natalia, willing the other woman to understand.

"Oh, honey." And then another feather soft kiss brushed against her lips, soft hands framing her bruised face, and her eyes could not, would not stay open. "Don't you see?" A whisper tickled her lips, followed by another kiss, this one accompanied by a soft tongue just barely tracing her lower lip. "You are beautiful, all the time, to me, and to anyone else who gets to see you." She leaned back, and misty jade eyes opened to meet dark chocolate. "But this version of you? This soft, needy version? She's mine, Olivia, and I won't share her. I won't have some little nothing coming in here and seeing you like this and not appreciating, really appreciating, how lucky he or she is to see you so unguarded, and I absolutely will not have you putting up your walls in this room, because you don't want them to see you like this. Am I clear?"

Olivia nodded, tears clouding her vision. Never, not ever, had she ever been so sure of the fact that someone loved her, completely and utterly. "Good. Now, let's get you changed." Strong, gentle hands had helped her to sit up and swing her legs over the side of the bed. Deft fingers quickly unbuttoned the itchy shirt she wore, and warm hand slid the fabric off her shoulders. Beneath the shirt, her ribs were bound, wrapped tightly in ace bandages for the move. The doctor had instructed that they be removed once the transfer was complete, stating that they were more to prevent the cracks from turning into breaks rather than helping the fissures to heal. Above the bandages, her breasts were bare, her nipples hard and peaked under both the freshly cool air to which they'd been exposed and the frank perusal from the dark-haired woman who'd uncovered them. Olivia felt her breath hitch in her chest as Natalia seemed unable to look away from them. "So beautiful," she whispered, then looked back into Olivia's eyes. "I never imagined how beautiful you could be, not like this." Olivia swallowed.

"Ok, sorry, I was distracted." Natalia stepped closer, reaching under Olivia's left breast to release the clasp on the ace bandage. As she did so, the backs of her hands unintentionally brushed the underside of her breast, and Olivia couldn't contain the needy whimper, or the slight arch of her back, at the sensation. The end of the bandage came loose, and slithered around her torso to her back as the tension recoiled. Natalia's hands didn't move. Her eyes met Olivia's, and the older woman was shocked at the smoldering passion they contained. And then her mind blanked entirely, as hands closed over both her breasts, warm palms cupping and lifting the flesh as long, tapered fingers splayed across the expanse, trapping the nipples of both peaks between middle and pointer fingers, and squeezing ever so slightly.

Olivia's eyes slid shut again, her tongue coming out to wet her lips. She felt the barest brush of breath across her mouth before Natalia's lips closed over hers, suction pulling her tongue into the cavern of the other woman's mouth, suckling, stroking, teasing. Hands squeezed tighter at her breasts, and Olivia's arms came up to hook around the other woman's neck. And then the hands released, and the kiss ended, and Natalia's forehead was pressed against her own as she gently unwound the rest of the ace bandage from Olivia's torso. "See?" she said, her voice breathy. "This is why I won't let anyone else see you like this. You're mine, Olivia, mine to protect and to love, mine to cherish, and mine to keep." Olivia nodded, eyes still closed. She did not disagree.

The rest of the change had been much more business-like. Natalia had put the purple silk night shirt on in place of the itchy white cotton, and had buttoned it up with only one more quick kiss to still swollen lips. She'd carefully laid Olivia down on her back and slid the pants off Olivia's hips, pausing only briefly at the discovery that Olivia was not wearing any underwear, thanks to the removal of her old pair during the precautionary pelvic exam at the hospital, and the subsequent lack of their replacement. Drawing a shuddering breath, Natalia had quickly finished removing the pants, and then grabbed a pair of her own underwear, sliding them up long, toned legs and doing her best not to fall face first into the newly revealed patch of carefully trimmed curls at the juncture of Olivia's legs. She'd never imagined that she might have such a visceral response at the sight, had never foreseen her urge to touch, to taste, but there it was, and she couldn't make herself feel shame for it. The matching silk pants had followed soon after, and she'd then carefully resituated the woman she was fast coming to regard as the center of her world.

Olivia had kept her eyes closed ever since Natalia's hands had found her breasts, and Natalia had allowed it, thinking it was due to embarrassment. Now though, as she settled the woman back against the pillows, she noticed a tear slide from under one bruised lid. "Olivia, baby, what's wrong? Look at me. What's wrong, baby?" A smile broke across damaged lips, and bright emerald eyes opened to meet hers, shining love and happiness even as tears fell down swollen cheeks. And Natalia understood.

Olivia had never been cared for like this, had never been cherished or worshipped, only coveted, possessed and used. "Oh, baby. You are my greatest gift, you and our children." Olivia had opened her mouth, had wanted to say the same words back, but Natalia had stopped her with a kiss, and a soft whisper afterwards. "I know, baby. I know you feel the same. No talking. Doctor's orders." A sweet smile and a kiss had taken the sting out of the directive, and Olivia had settled happily back into the pillows, contentedly watching as Natalia puttered about the room for a minute before opening the door and letting in the mob who had been waiting patiently outside. "Ok, visiting hours have begun!"

Now, though, the mob had moved downstairs, Natalia to cook, Emma and Ava to the pond to see the ducks, Sam and Rafe to his room to play video games, and Doris had gone downstairs to make a few phone calls. Olivia was alone, and she didn't like it. Logically, she knew she'd sent everyone away, claiming exhaustion, but now that they were gone, and she couldn't yell for anyone, she felt the silence and emptiness of the room pressing in on her.

She looked around, catching sight of herself in the mirror. God. She looked awful. Black eyes, busted lips, the left side of her face swollen… She made a mental note to thank Doris and Rafe again for explaining to Emma exactly what to expect when she'd seen her for the first time. Emma hadn't been scared of her appearance, only angry and sad that a man they'd always regarded as a friend and a good person had done this to her.

Olivia closed her eyes. She still didn't get it. What had caused this? Sure, Buzz had seemed on edge lately, even before Coop's death, but she'd never, not in a million years, imagined that he would be capable of- of… of raping me, her mind supplied. For that had been what he intended to do. He had been about to rape her, to take from her the commodity she'd forgotten to value after her rape at sixteen, and whose worth she had only remembered under Natalia's tender gaze: her body, her permission, her choice.

After her rape, she'd given away free passes to the Olivia ride like she'd been a circus attraction, and had found her pleasure in always being the one who was in control, in knowing that she could stop it at any moment. In doing that, she'd never had to feel so powerless again… until yesterday morning. Until Buzz, Buzz, who had always been the gentle compatriot, the man who had come the closest before Natalia to loving the Olivia behind the mask, until that man had turned on her so completely, and had left her cowering in the forgotten tatters of her youthful innocence torn asunder. Olivia stifled a sob. Why? Why had he done this? And why was she alone right now, with no one to distract her from her thoughts?! Please, someone, anyone? I'm so alone…


Part 20

Please, someone, anyone? I'm so alone…

As if having been called, footsteps sounded outside her door, and by the sound of the heels alone, Olivia knew who it was. Doris Wolfe entered the room, looking around, seeming surprised that Olivia was unattended. She'd been on the phone with Ashlee, and had invited her daughter to join them all for dinner later at both Natalia's and Emma's urging. She'd expected everyone to still be in the bedroom when she returned. "Where'd everyone get off to?" She paused at the door, as if unsure of her welcome. Then she looked at Olivia, meeting her eyes, and a click of recognition fired off in her mind. She knew that lost look. She'd seen it in the mirror, after… No, she wouldn't think about that now.

She crossed the room quickly, grabbing the chair that had been at the vanity and dragging it over to the side of the bed. She flopped down into it, stretching her legs out in front of her and wishing again that she'd thought to bring other shoes when she noticed how strange her Prada heels looked with her Levi jeans. She flashed a snarky grin at Olivia, sure that she had her attention now. "So. Wanna hear about how your daughter told Alan Spaulding to go fuck himself?" At Olivia's emphatically arched brow, she began. "Well, we were in the kitchen…"

Natalia shut the oven door on the tuna casserole, setting the timer to go off when it would be finished cooking. She gave one last look around the kitchen, then turned to run up and check in on Olivia for a few minutes. She intended to send Rafe down to watch the food, in case something were to start burning while she was up there, so she was surprised to walk into his chest as she rounded the corner to the little hallway leading into the rest of the house.


"Sorry, Ma!" He grabbed her shoulders, settling her on her feet again.

"Rafe, what are you doing down here?" Natalia had her bearings back, but she was still confused.

"I was going to grab some drinks for me and Sam; we're playing the Wii. Why, did you need help setting the table?" He looked beyond her, smelling the tuna casserole beginning to bake, and mentally tried to compute where exactly everyone was going to sit.

"No, I don't need you to set the table. I need to know who's with Olivia if you and Sam are hanging out in your room, and Ava and Emma are out talking to the ducks. Is Doris with her?" Natalia had an edge to her voice that Rafe recognized as the sound right before his mother had a seriously explosive temper fit.

"Doris had to take a phone call, so she went to do that, and Mom told me and Sam to leave her alone for awhile because she was tired, and…" He trailed off, watching the storm clouds gather in his mother's eyes.

"You left her alone?!" His eyes widened as he realized just how bad being alone could be for Olivia, as he remembered the desperation with which she'd held to his hand the day before, and the way she'd been unable to sleep until the medication, and unwilling to succumb to its power without his assurances that he would not leave her side.

He swallowed, panic breaking out across his face. As if by mutual decision, mother and son turned as one and raced for the stairs, Natalia going up just ahead of Rafe, her heart pounding as visions of a destroyed Olivia raced in her head. She came to a screeching stop outside the bedroom door, though, and Rafe had to brace his hands on either side of the doorjamb to keep himself from running into her.

Inside, Olivia Spencer slept, a small smile on her face, as Doris Wolfe one handedly flipped through the pages of the Good Housekeeping she'd found on Natalia's bedside table. Her other hand rested on the bed, atop Olivia's. The mayor chuckled, reading out loud, "Ten Ways to Redecorate Your Bathroom on a Budget. Pfft. Yeah, right, and also to have it look like a country farmhouse." She glanced around. "Which could work here, actually…" She went back to reading, and Natalia silently backed away from the room, pulling Rafe with her. Olivia was being well-looked-after.

After dinner, after the kids had been sent to bed, and Doris to her house, after the dishes had all been washed and put away, and the next day's clothes laid out, Natalia entered her bedroom. Ava sat quietly in the chair Doris had pulled over earlier, reading softly from a book, her voice a low murmur. Olivia's eyes sat at half-mast, and Natalia knew she'd be asleep soon. She walked to Ava's side and rested her hand on the slender shoulder. "I think it's time for bed, sweetie. Why don't you head say goodnight to your mom and head on to bed?"

Ava cast a contented look over her shoulder at the smaller woman. "Ok, Natalia." She stood, leaning over the bed to kiss her mother's forehead. "Goodnight, Mom." She turned, regarded Natalia for a moment, then leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Thank you for my mother," she whispered against Natalia's smooth skin, then she was gone before the other woman could reply.

"That daughter of yours, Olivia," Natalia shook her head as she seated herself of the edge of the bed. "She's a handful, you know?" Olivia looked at the door, then back at Natalia. She pointed to the portal through which Ava had just walked, and then in the opposite direction, where Emma's room was, and raised her eyebrows. "Which one?" Natalia laughed. "Good point."

Natalia stood up, and grabbed her pajamas from the drawer. She quickly changed in the bathroom, and went through her nightly ablutions. She had already helped Olivia with hers earlier, and then given the older woman her meds. She knew they'd be kicking in pretty heavily by now, and she wanted to make sure she was in the other woman's sight before Olivia fell asleep, so her dreams would be peaceful.

She hurried back out, and encountered a seriously pouty Olivia. "What's wrong, honey?" She crossed to the bed, pulling back the covers on her side before walking to the other side to remove some of the pillows from behind the hotelier's back so she could lay down to sleep. She read the board Olivia held up. "No fair? What's no fair?" Olivia wiped the words away and wrote more. "I didn't change clothes in front of you?" And then Natalia got it. "Oh. Oh! You wanted to see me, too."

Olivia nodded. "Oh, baby. You just had to ask." And with that, Natalia pulled her top off over her head, feeling the cool air harden her nipples. Had it been anyone else, anytime else, she would have been too shy to ever do this, too afraid of the consequences. Now? Now she had almost lost Olivia. She could not deny the other woman such a simple request. And as Olivia's hand reached out toward her, Natalia realized with a heartbeat's thud that she would never regret this decision.

Part 21

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