DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL/SERIES: Follows Whatever It Takes.
FEEDBACK: To snuffnyc[at]gmail.com
The room was quiet. Feet shuffled beneath the seats. A young man cleared his throat. Olivia looked out at the faces in front of her. To the left of the dais there was a woman holding a soda. Olivia waited, and blinked, stone-still and unmoving, until she could hear the fizzy carbonation popping inside the can. The sound reminded her of a bowl of the cereal Emma liked to eat, snapping and crackling. Emma. Her daughter. She needed to find the strength to do this, to take the next step, for her. Sliding her hands together, Olivia found an unfamiliar clamminess there. She breathed a laugh.
"Well, um... you all know me. Been here... two months now? Little longer. Some of you, I've gotten to talk to you, and become, ah, pretty close with. Some of you, maybe not so much. But most of you know that I haven't actually gotten up here to speak yet. In all that time."
Olivia's eyes moved off the small stage, to a woman standing in the wings. Her hands were clasped together in front of her, hopeful. Encouraging. Expectant. It was that last one that Olivia feared the most. Expectation meant the potential for disappointment, for letting someone down. And Olivia didn't know if she trusted herself not to fail. Maybe she needed more time.
"Maybe," Olivia continued, picking up out loud where her thoughts had left off. "'Maybe tomorrow,' I kept telling myself. 'Maybe I'll find the words next time.'" She exhaled, long and overdue. "I'm starting to think, you know, that maybe is what got me into this whole mess in the first place. Maybe another drink and I won't feel this way anymore. Maybe this pill will make me numb enough to carry on another day."
No one in the audience moved. To Olivia it looked as though no one was even breathing, even though she knew that couldn't be true. She thought for sure the sound of her own rapidly beating heart would knife through the silence at any moment.
"Well I'm done with maybe. Tonight... tonight I'm gonna share with you guys my story, and it starts the same as it does for everyone in this room," Olivia swallowed hard, squeezing back tears already. "My name is Olivia, and I'm an addict."
"Emma!" Olivia shouted up the stairs. "Seriously now, if you're not awake in five minutes, I'm sending you to school in your pajamas!"
Truth be told, they had plenty of time to get ready. Olivia had been forcing herself to get up early these last few days, now that Natalia was needing more and more sleep, and in fact she was finding it suited her quite well. She could get up, turn on CNN and watch the morning news, catch up on the e-mails that had inevitably flooded her Blackberry inbox overnight. Plus it did Olivia good to practice getting by on less sleep; in a month or so they'd have a crying baby to contend with, and she was no longer a spring chicken herself. She'd need a little conditioning if she was going to shoulder the load equally with Natalia.
When she heard the shower turn on upstairs, she figured her shouting had woken Natalia. Just as well, because they had a morning appointment with a contractor who had previously done some remodeling work at the Beacon. Olivia had given in to Natalia's desire to stay "simple" with nursery furniture and things for the baby, but the guest room itself needed some major TLC before it was fit for a child. The heat never quite reached back there, the windows were drafty and the paint was more woodsy hunting cabin than carefree childlike whimsy. So they'd struck a compromise: no pretentious, high-end cribs or celebrity strollers, but a facelift for their new child's room was still acceptable.
Knowing she'd have to race off to the office after the meeting, Olivia took the stairs two at a time, and went into the old guest room to arrange the paint swatches she and Natalia had already agreed on, and went over in her head a few other details she wanted to remember to ask the contractor. A crib and a rocking chair were already in place in the otherwise barren room, and Olivia pulled a sheath of plastic over them so they wouldn't get covered in sawdust or paint. A chill ran through her, and she lamented the ill-fitting windows.
She heard Natalia call her name from the bathroom, and thoughts of the warm, steamy room filled her head. Smiling as she went, Olivia padded down the hall, through their bedroom and to the bathroom door.
"If I come in, you're not going to get very clean in there," Olivia teased through the wooden door.
There was a beat of silence, and then Olivia heard it. Natalia's voice trembled with fear. "Olivia, please. Something's not right."
When she opened the door, steam clouded her vision like a fog rolling in off the sea. Natalia pushed back the shower curtain and Olivia blinked as her body took shape. She was gripping the slick tile wall with unsure hands, wet, naked, and white as a ghost.
"What's..." Olivia stepped closer and saw angry splashes of red in the tub.
Natalia tried unsuccessfully to moderate the terror in her voice. "I'm bleeding."
The very core of Olivia's body shook. As if she'd been submerged in ice water for hours and abandoned, her lips were blue and her organs quivered inside of her. Her suit pants were still wet from pulling a trembling Natalia out of the shower, wrapping her in towels and guiding her to the floor. She didn't remember hurriedly putting clothes on her partner's paralyzed body, one limb at a time, while Natalia's head hung over her shoulder, cold, sopping ribbons of hair matted to her face. She didn't remember Emma's frightened eyes, still heavy with sleep, standing in the hallway. There had been no thought of waiting for an ambulance; instead Olivia had literally dragged Natalia and her shuffling, unsteady feet into the car, rushed Emma still in her pajamas into the backseat and drove off, the morning sun not quite yet risen. And when Natalia began to have contractions on the way, the street lights illuminated her pained face, and a deep red appearing on her clothes.
Now slumped in a hospital chair, she could still feel the weight of Natalia on her shoulder, cradling her as best she could, stumbling through the ER doors. Olivia had immediately begun shouting, out of urgency but also out of fear. If she tried to speak calmly she knew her voice would fail, and she needed to remain in control. Lillian had appeared a few minutes later, and she graciously swept Emma away to the cafeteria, promising in words Olivia could only barely make out that she'd watch over her. The ER doctors rushed Natalia back through swinging doors, and a doctor she didn't know said he would bring her in to be at Natalia's side just as soon as possible.
She couldn't stop the shaking. Over and over in her head, she heard Natalia's words. "Something's not right." In her mind Olivia knew the baby was far enough along that it could survive an early birth, but something else told her this was much, much worse. Olivia sat in stillness for what felt like hours, until a familiar figure rushed toward her.
Rick grabbed her shoulders as she stood and nearly fell into him. "What's going on, Rick? What the hell is going on?"
With his hold still on her, Rick guided Olivia back into her seat. "Just try and--"
"Don't even fucking bother, Rick! Don't you fucking tell me to calm down. Just tell me if Natalia and the baby are alright." Olivia's shouts drew looks from other patients and staff, but she paid them no mind. She searched the doctor's face for some kind of sign.
"They're thinking it's placental abruption," he spoke directly and firmly, clearly heeding Olivia's warning. "It's when the placenta separates from the uterine wall. It deprives the fetus of oxygen and causes--"
"Natalia. Is she--"
Rick secured both of Olivia's hands with his own, and placed them in her lap. "The bleeding is moderate, and her prognosis is good. Natalia is very strong. Very healthy."
"I know," Olivia felt the hot sting of tears behind her eyes, but they never fell. Instead, she felt a choking sensation in her throat as she tried her voice again. "The baby?"
Dr. Bauer lowered his eyes. Panic rose in Olivia before he even spoke. "The ultrasound... the fetal heart rate monitor..." He shook his head, sympathy in his eyes. "They indicate that the baby will be stillborn."
She simply stared at the man in front of her. He was murmuring something, but she couldn't hear him. It sounded like he was talking to her from very far away, inside a wind tunnel or on an airfield. Olivia held her breath, hoping it would help her hear him better. "Is she... is she in labor? Is she going to ...?"
"She's stabilized, and we'd prefer to see her deliver the baby vaginally, yes. She's strong and it would be a quicker physical recovery if we didn't perform a C-section."
Olivia shot up, and looked around her, wild-eyed. "I need to be with her. I need to--"
"Of course, Olivia," Rick assured her. "But you need to... it would be better if you..."
She simply nodded her head, drawing her lips into a tight line. "I know, Rick. Can you do me a favor?"
"Frank is my next call," he said, guiding her through the ER doors. "It should be quick, Olivia," he offered as she neared Natalia's curtain. "The delivery, I mean. She's nearly there."
When he disappeared around the corner, Olivia stepped through the curtain where she found Natalia, surrounded by doctors and nurses, going in and out of alternating states of intense pain and near unconsciousness. A nurse handed her a gown and Olivia numbly slid her arms through the front of it. She crouched down onto a stool next to the bedside, and stroked Natalia's damp hair.
"Hey beautiful," she whispered.
Natalia opened her eyes, red and watery, and reached for Olivia's free hand with her own, which was marred by IV tubes and tape. "The baby's coming," she croaked. "I'm so glad you're here."
Olivia smiled and hoped her eyes did not betray her. "I know, sweetheart. I came as soon as they let me. You're doing great."
Just as she said that, another contraction seized Natalia's body, and she wailed like any mother would during childbirth. Minutes passed, and closer and closer they came, and it was all Olivia could do to breathe gently against Natalia's face, gripping her hand tightly. She encouraged her, but she made no promises that everything would be okay. Those phrases she carefully avoided, biting back tears whenever they threatened.
"I know," Natalia said suddenly, her voice twisted in the throes of a contraction. "I know that something isn't right."
The older woman sat frozen, meeting the soft brown gaze of Natalia's eyes, brilliant even under the strain of her condition. Olivia simply nodded, and Natalia knew.
Natalia groaned, a horrifying mix of physical pain and deep anguish. Tiny cries to a god asking why, mournful wails that threatened to fracture every bone in Olivia's body. She was certain if she moved, she would vomit.
"Just a little further," one of the doctors announced, a nurse coming to Natalia's side to talk her through the final pushes. Doctors murmured, machines beeped and whirred, and Natalia strained to complete a mother's most instinctive mission. Until finally, there was no sound at all.
Natalia had almost instantly passed out upon delivery, a cocktail of pure exhaustion and some medical assistance. Rick had pulled a shell-shocked Olivia away to talk to Frank, who stood pacing in the ER waiting room.
"Olivia," he breathed. "What the hell... my god, what's going on?"
She stared at Frank, expressionless, then after a moment summoned the courage. "There was a complication, Frank... and the baby," she trailed off. Instead she just reached for his hand.
"No," he cried. "No."
He fell into her embrace, and she held him there, while he sobbed and wept and cursed. She breathed heavily, slowly, almost against her will. When he finally recovered enough to stand on his own, his voice was fragile.
"Is Natalia alright?"
Olivia nodded. "She's asleep. I think they put her under a little bit to keep her stabilized."
Frank looked around the ER, helpless. "Can we... see the baby?"
"Whenever you're ready," she said flatly. "Rick said to find him, he'd take you."
"And you?" Frank looked concerned.
"I'm going to wait," she averted his stare, finding his sorrowful glare unnerving. "I'm going to wait to do it with Natalia."
She watched Frank Cooper drag himself to the nurses' station, where a young attending doctor pointed him presumably in the direction of Dr. Bauer. Looking down at her feet, Olivia found the odd juxtaposition of tennis shoes and a pair of her finest wool slacks. It wasn't until then that she could even remember the events of the morning before they'd rushed to the hospital. It felt like a lifetime ago.
A gentle hand at her back snapped Olivia from her daze. It was Lillian.
"Olivia," the woman pulled her into an embrace. "I heard. I'm so sorry."
When Olivia said nothing in reply, Lillian continued. "Emma's in the cafeteria still. With Phillip."
Still Olivia simply stared.
"I called him, I hope that's alright? I figured at a time like this, family... you know."
Finally, Olivia creased a limp half-smile at the older woman. "Of course, Lillian. Thank you. Thank you for looking after her."
Olivia turned to find her daughter when Lillian reached for her once more. "We have a grief counselor, Olivia. She'll be coming to see you and Natalia shortly..."
"That's very... helpful, Lillian. Thank you." Luckily, years of practice allowed Olivia a certain amount of diplomacy even though her insides were, at present, torn apart. She knew better than to tell Lillian, or anyone for that matter, what she was really thinking and feeling. It was best to just let their platitudes lie, and be done with it.
On her way to the cafeteria, Olivia bumped into a young man, mostly likely in his twenties, carrying an armful of flowers and a bouquet of helium balloons that read "It's a Boy!" He was so excited that he probably didn't even see her there as he spun around, shouting to someone else down the hallway.
"Oh gosh, I'm sorry," the man smiled, reaching out his free hand to steady her. Olivia's jaw clenched and there was an awkward moment as she stared at him blankly.
Without feeling or expression, she replied, "Congratulations."
He bounded the rest of the way down the hall, and Olivia had to steal away into the nearest bathroom to recover.
A violent burst spewed forth just as she reached the toilet, the frothy yellow bile repugnant. A few dry heaves followed, and eventually Olivia stood, hands pressed against her knees, slow and aching. In the bathroom mirror she splashed water on her face, not recognizing the face that peered back at her. Just like the sickness from her stomach, anger rose within her, dangerously close to erupting. But with steel fortitude she tamped it down. Her daughter was waiting for her.
Phillip saw her first, and rose to his feet. Without speaking he threw his arms around her in a hug, which she coldly accepted. He whispered more sympathies in her ear, and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She thanked him, and took Emma's hand.
"Hey sweetie," she tried to lighten her tone. "Why don't we go somewhere and talk?"
Emma nodded solemnly, and Olivia asked Phillip if he would wait while they talked, so he could ferry Emma out of the hospital as soon as possible. He agreed, and mother and daughter walked hand in hand out of the cafeteria.
Just outside the hospital chapel, Olivia found a quiet bank of chairs where traffic was light. Emma quietly refused the seat next to her mother, choosing instead to climb into her lap, and drape both arms around her neck.
"I love you, sweetheart," Olivia felt her body soften at the contact from her daughter. She kissed her on the top of her head, her hair unruly as it had been the moment she had awoken with a start.
Emma's words were muffled against Olivia's chest. "Something bad happened, didn't it? Daddy said... the baby got sick."
"Yeah, that's what happened, Emma," Olivia sighed. "The baby... it got sick while it was in Natalia's belly."
She could hear her daughter crying into her blouse. "Did it... die?"
That was the first time all morning Olivia had heard anyone refer to the baby's fate that way. Before that it had been this clinical diagnosis, a stillborn, or a trailed off phrase that never really finished. But it was what it was. The baby had died before it had a chance to live.
"Yes, it did," Olivia squeezed her eyes shut tight, needing to remain strong for her daughter.
Sobs wracked the little girl's body, and she held on tighter to Olivia. "What about Natalia?"
At last able to open her eyes, Olivia pulled Emma away so she could look into the girl's eyes. "She's going to be okay, sweetie. Natalia was soooo strong, the sickness couldn't get to her."
For several minutes they sat there, holding each other, until Emma sat up to wipe her runny nose. "I really wanted to be a big sister."
Emma's words nearly crushed Olivia, so much so that the world went black around her until everything in front of her was as tiny as a pinpoint, but she crawled back from the precipice, and bounced Emma once on her knee. "I know, Jellybean, I know."
After meeting back up with Phillip, they agreed that he would look after Emma at least until Natalia was released from the hospital, which both relieved and worried Olivia. She made her way back to the nurses' station, where the same polite young doctor directed her to the room where Natalia had been admitted. Her heart sank as she pulled open the door.
Natalia was asleep, still attached to IV's and being monitored, but she seemed at peace. Olivia took the moment alone with her wife to trace the outline of her face with her fingers, her light touch never wavering. Every time she tried to speak, the words simply would not come out, so she settled on sitting in silence, watching Natalia's chest rise and fall with each breath.
She must've fallen asleep, her hand covering Natalia's and her head resting on the edge of the bed, because when she opened her eyes Natalia was awake, watching her.
"Hey," Olivia managed.
"Hi," Natalia said sweetly, though her voice was hoarse. Tears immediately fell from her tired eyes, silent but unrelenting. "I'm sorry."
Olivia straightened up, pulling the chair closer to the bedside. "Don't," she struggled. "Don't say that. This isn't your fault."
Line after line of tears cascaded down Natalia's cheeks, her lips shaking. "Our baby," she squeaked. "Where..."
A light knock sounded at the door, and before Olivia could say anything, a petite older woman with graying hair appeared. "I'm sorry, I know there's no good time right now," she spoke softly, concern etched on her face. "But I'm Cheryl Greene, the hospital's grief counselor. I wanted to come in when I had you both together. A tragedy like this is never easy, and we do have services available for you both."
Olivia was about to explode at the woman, marching in with her needless drivel, but Natalia spoke first.
"I want to see my baby."
The counselor nodded. "Of course. We can bring her in right now, and you can both have as long as you need with her. Some families... some families even take photos, to remember their child--"
Olivia stood up, startling the older woman. Her face was red with anger. "Would you just--?! Please, we'd like to see her now."
Cheryl quietly slipped out of the room, and Olivia sat back down at Natalia's bedside. They sat there without speaking for a few minutes, until Natalia sighed, the sound oddly light.
"A little girl. We had a little girl," Natalia's tear-streaked face broke into a bittersweet smile. Her face fell though suddenly. "Oh my god, Frank. Does he--?"
Olivia ran a hand up and down Natalia's sheet-covered thigh. "Yes, of course. Rick called him in and I..."
"You gave him the news?" Olivia couldn't believe the sympathy she saw in Natalia's face. As though she was the one who had had a hard go of it.
"Yeah, he, um..." she licked at dry lips. "He's pretty broken up. I think he saw... the baby... while you were still knocked out."
Natalia nodded slowly, and tears resumed. Her body looked so spent and deflated, Olivia had to look away.
The nurse arrived pushing a tiny crib, and Olivia felt certain that she would be sick again. Natalia squeezed her hand, which abruptly brought her back to the moment. Swaddled in a blanket with tiny gray elephants on it, the nurse placed their baby girl in Natalia's waiting arms. She looked asleep.
"She's so beautiful," Natalia wept, air sucking into her lungs and mouth faster than she could exhale it. Everything trembled, sadness quaking through Natalia's entire body, but their daughter remained trapped in an undisturbed repose. Olivia could feel her beloved wife teetering on the edge of completely losing it, so she forced herself to trace one finger across the baby's face.
"As beautiful as her mother," Olivia whispered, her voice instantly calming the younger woman. "Perfect." And she was.
Natalia carefully freed one tiny arm from the blanket, and turned the plastic ID bracelet around so she could read it. "Rivera-Spencer," she smiled wistfully. "I want to name her Isabella."
To Olivia, naming their child only made the pain more visceral, the loss more real. She hated the idea, and she hated herself for hating the idea, but she agreed, and Natalia asked her to bring Frank in so they could have all have a moment together with their daughter. Another stab of anger Olivia didn't quite understand shot through her. Her skin crawled at the thought of Frank Cooper right now, even though her mind told her he was a grieving parent just as they were. She slipped away and left Natalia with the baby.
Outside, she tracked down Frank, who was flanked by Buzz and Marina. "Could you... could you come and sit with Natalia and I for a minute, Frank?"
He seemed shocked by the question, but nodded and followed her. "Have you seen the baby? She's..."
"Yeah, she's in with Natalia," Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. "She wants to name her, Frank. She wants to name her Isabella and she wants us all to--"
"Oh, god," he moaned, leaning down into a half-squat, crying. "I don't know, Olivia. I just can't take this, I just can't..."
He was breaking apart right in front of her, and Olivia couldn't stop feeling disgust over his weakness. Once again, her mind told her better, but she twitched with anger. "Frank!" She pulled the man to his feet, and shook him once for good measure. "We're all going a little crazy right now, ok? But I need you-- Natalia needs you to keep it together in there and be supportive."
His mouth hung open, a little shocked, but he shook his head and followed Olivia's lead. Back inside the room, the three of them sat at Natalia's bed and Natalia whispered a prayer. While her voice was comforting, Olivia resented a god that would take the life of an innocent child that way, and she couldn't imagine how Natalia didn't feel the same. But she masked her anger for her partner's benefit, and when they were finished, she offered to locate the nurse to spirit their little Isabella away.
Olivia hadn't gone five steps before she ran into Cheryl, the grief counselor that had visited with them just an hour earlier. "Ms. Spencer?" she called out to her when Olivia tried to dodge her. "Can I speak with you for a second?"
Nodding in acquiescence, Olivia set her jaw and waited for the woman to speak.
"I'm very sorry for your loss, Ms. Spencer. I know this is an incredibly difficult time for you and your family. I just wanted to let you know that we have people you can talk to, support groups, and--"
Olivia began to wave her off, annoyed.
"Everyone grieves in their own way, Ms. Spencer," Cheryl said firmly, as Olivia began to walk away. "It's important to remember that. Sometimes, when two people grieve very differently, it can drive a wedge between them at a time when they need each other the most."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"I've been sober now for seventy four days," Olivia spoke more confidently, and the faces in the audience smiled and clapped lightly. "But I've been here for seventy five." Laughter erupted from the crowd. "Diane, in the back, she's the one that narc'd me out that first night. Thank you, Diane." A tiny woman waved from the back row of seats, to more applause.
"I've been sober for seventy four days but there's still a lot of work I have left to do. This, standing up here tonight, that's part of it. My sponsor, Pierce, she's been riding me pretty hard to get up here and speak... You all know Pierce, come on. What a bitch." When her audience whooped and laughed, Olivia felt normal for the first time in a long while. She began to feel like the Olivia Spencer she once was: confident, commanding, and charismatic. She smiled, but then refocused on the serious. Her time was now.
"My partner and I lost our baby almost a year ago," Olivia's voice cracked, and the silence returned to the room. "She, uh... it was a girl, and she was stillborn. We did everything right, the whole time, and we just... lost her. My partner, my wife," she reached down and spun the wedding band on her finger. "She was strong and healthy, ate all the right things, never smoke or drank. But one morning I found her in the shower, and she was bleeding."
As she began to cry, Olivia looked offstage for Pierce, who was still there, standing with her hands clasped tightly together in front of her. She nodded to Olivia, urging her to continue.
"The rest, I mean... the rest played out like you can imagine. People in and out of the hospital, telling you how sorry they are, everyone kinda tiptoeing around you like you're a bomb set to go off... It drove me crazy, but I guess they were right. I concentrated so hard on keeping it together for everyone else, for Natalia, for my kid, that I never let myself grieve. And now... I haven't seen my family since I came here. They've asked to come visit but I keep telling them not to," Olivia sighed deeply. "But tomorrow... they're coming tomorrow and I'm scared as hell. I'm scared as hell they'll never forgive me."
Olivia stood outside the farmhouse, unable to move. An icy drizzle had just begun to fall, soaking the colored leaves scattered on the grass. The lights were still on inside. She looked at her watch. It was 7:15, and Emma should be upstairs in her room finishing her homework. Natalia should be in the kitchen, making dinner and singing softly to herself. And she should be flying through those doors right about now, to her perfect life and her perfect family after a busy day as her own boss.
But not this night.
Instead, Olivia played with the keys in her hand, searching for the right one but hoping secretly to never find it. When the lock turned in the door, it sounded different. It used to be golden gates swinging open wide; now it sounded like prison doors slamming shut. Inside, Olivia found everything as they had left it, just over twelve hours ago. Her coffee mug sat abandoned on the side table near the couch, the white cream forming unnatural ripples at the surface.
Earlier she had bounded up the stairs with an untapped energy. Now she found her legs heavy, each step a chore. For a second, she felt dizzy, and grasped the handrail for support. Her voice pierced the silent stillness, its depth and coarseness surprising her.
"Natalia..." she cried out, but she knew she was alone. This journey she had decided to take alone; she knew implicitly that she must take it alone. The more people offered to help her, the more adamant she became about handling this herself. After all, Natalia alone had carried a baby that had died inside of her, birthed that baby to an agonizing silence, and would bear the loss in the most brutally physical way. Surely Olivia could find enough strength to shoulder this particular burden on her own.
At the top of the stairs, Olivia stopped to gather a basket that had spilled in the hallway. Folded laundry lay overturned, and after she righted it, she saw the light still on in what would have become Isabella's room. Cautiously she approached, unsure of what her would reaction would be. The room was cold, colder than the rest of the house, and Olivia breathed a humorless laugh into the air. The crib and rocking chair sat covered in plastic, and she dared not touch them. Methodically, passionless, she moved to the window to make sure it was closed securely. Then she drew the blinds shut, turned off the light and closed the door with a click.
In their bedroom, Olivia searched the drawers for some of Natalia's things. Something comfortable for her to stay in while she remained at the hospital tonight and possibly tomorrow. A brush and a tie for her hair. Slippers. When Olivia's eyes traveled to the bathroom, she considered it for a moment. Knees shook nervously beneath her, but she bit back tears and went inside.
The blood had not serendipitously ran clean down the tub drain. It sat in dried smudges, diluted in some places from the shower's spray, dark red and ominous in others. The heart in her chest slowed, and slowed, until Olivia was certain it had stopped completely. She closed her eyes, but all she could see was Natalia's face, frightened and confused, and her lover's murmured prayers played over and over again in her mind. Taking a deep breath, Olivia crouched down to reach the cabinet beneath the sink, where she found a scrub brush and some abrasive cleaning powder. As she rose to her feet, her shoulder cracked hard against the sink's ceramic edge.
"Fuck!" Olivia screamed. Her voice seemed to echo in the empty house. "Goddamn it!" She threw the brush and its handle across the bathroom, and it landed in the tub with a clatter. Her anger still not satiated, she picked up a glass vase of dried flowers and hurled into the tub as well.
Finding her face in the mirror, red and veiny, she slid down against the wall in defeat, settling into a ball on the floor. She grunted and groaned and screamed until a thin stream of spit formed on her lips. Her face even contorted in the spasms of crying, but tears would not fall. She could not seem to manage a single tear for the death of her daughter.
When she could finally stand, Olivia composed herself and went downstairs into the kitchen, brought up a dustpan and broom, and swept the glass and flora from inside the tub. Then she turned the water to its hottest setting, ignoring the bursts of pain in her hands, and scrubbed every droplet of blood from the surface, from basin to wall. With a cloth she went on hands and knees from the bathroom, to the bedroom, to the hallway and down the stairs, retracing Natalia's anguished journey, until not a single bloody reminder could be found.
Exhausted from the task, Olivia sat on the floor in the entryway, and just stared.
"You have to call Rafe's command in the morning. Maybe Frank knows someone at the recruiting office, who knows the right person to call. Call the contractor, tell him you won't be needing him after all. Tell him not to call the house. Cancel the registry. Call Emma's school. Make... arrangements for a burial..."
She spoke out loud, and even though the words were hard to come by, she felt stronger with a clearer mission defined. She would do everything in her power to make the transition easier for Natalia, and for Emma, and with that single focus she might find escape from the profound sadness that poisoned the very marrow of her bones.
"I'm scared they won't forgive me for abandoning them. Sure, I was there. I was physically there. But it's kind of hard to be emotionally available when you're drinking from the moment you wake up until the time you pass out at night. And that's what I'd do, you know? I'd get up and go to work, where nobody dared ask me a damn thing about how I was spending my time. I'm the boss, for Christ's sake. If I wanted to sit in my office and drink vodka straight from the bottle, well then you better believe that's what I'd do."
Heads bobbed in the audience, a quiet understanding that only those who had struggled with addiction could relate to. Some sitting in front of her were conquering it every day; others had just begun their journey.
"Sometimes I'd get caught though. Natalia," Olivia smiled proudly. "She could always tell, if I slipped up and drank on the drive home, because I wouldn't have a chance to brush my teeth and chew down a pack of gum or whatever to squash the smell. But I don't think she knew the extent of it until it was too late." Her smile faded, replaced by a far-off look. "Well I mean plus there were the nights I couldn't walk straight or the nights I made a fucking fool out of myself at my daughter's school."
Olivia ran a hand through her long brown hair, which she'd taken to wearing in its natural state of half-curly, half-not. It felt right to be here in this place and let her body do whatever it needed to return to normal. "I'm afraid that Natalia won't... I'm afraid Natalia won't forgive me for lying to her. Once I ran out of excuses for the drinking, I started changing it up, having a few drinks early in the morning if I could, but popping painkillers the whole damn day. Lot less evidence that way. You can't smell 'em, you don't leave behind bottles everywhere... Until I got so damn caught up, so confused... I couldn't tell the difference between the two, to be honest with you."
When she turned to catch the eye of her sponsor standing off to her left, Olivia noticed just how much she'd been crying. Her hands were soaked from idle swipes at her face, and her lashes felt heavy and stuck together. Pierce just shook her head and smiled at Olivia, mouthing the word, "Finally."
Rafe was granted leave for the funeral, and when he arrived at the farmhouse, Natalia had swept him into an embrace and threatened to never let him go. A few weeks of boot camp under his belt, he laughed softly into her hair: he wouldn't argue with that. They'd decided on just a burial service, which would be only for the immediate family. Olivia had taken care of the arrangements, being careful to take the calls outside on the porch, or in her office at work. She didn't want to put any further stress on Natalia, who in five days had already begun shedding pounds off her diminutive frame.
It was as if her body wanted to forget as quickly as possible. Not that Olivia could blame it. Already her face had lost that round fullness, and her once-swollen belly made the most rapid retreat Olivia could ever remember seeing. But there was one part of Natalia's body that simply would not forget, and as they readied for the funeral, Olivia could hear Natalia struggling in the bathroom.
"You okay?" she said gently, peering into the doorway.
"Dammit," Natalia swore only sparingly, and she looked into the mirror at Olivia standing behind her and attempted a lighthearted guilty frown. She fussed with the bust of her shirt, and the bra beneath it. "It's the, uh... I keep--"
Olivia understood. "Say no more," she nodded, and stepped into the bathroom to help the other woman. But instead of being thankful for allowing her a dodge, Natalia threw her hands down at her sides.
"Why do you keep doing that?" she demanded sharply. "You keep cutting me off, every time I ... every time I try to tell you what's going on. With me, with my body, with my feelings. You keep saying 'gotcha' or 'say no more' like you don't wanna hear it!"
Olivia's face fell almost imperceptibly. "That's not it, Natalia. Jesus. I'm just trying to spare you... if I already know what's going on, why make you say it?"
Natalia shook her head. "Spare me? You're trying to spare me? It's unavoidable, Olivia. We might as well just say it out loud. Say everything out loud. I'm squeezing my breasts into a bra size I haven't worn since grade school to try and stop my body from producing milk because, oh yeah, there is no baby. I'm springing leaks faster than I can plug them. There! I said it. And I'm still here."
Her face had turned a bright red, and her hands shook. But Natalia was still indeed alive, still standing. And Olivia had her first inkling that maybe all the avoiding and the covering up and trailing off had not been purely for Natalia's sake. She didn't know quite what to say, so she just lowered her eyes and helped Natalia change the dressing inside her shirt.
When they finished in the bathroom, Olivia took a glance at herself in the mirror. She looked, to her surprise, exactly as she had a week earlier. A little tired, perhaps, but in her black hose, black skirt, and black suit jacket, she could've just as easily been going to work. But she was going to her baby daughter's funeral. It disturbed her what little difference it seemed to make on her appearance.
Natalia pulled her hair over one shoulder and stepped in front of Olivia, and without words Olivia reached around her neck to fasten the thin chain that held Natalia's cross. She didn't raise her eyes, but she could feel Natalia looking at herself in the mirror the same way Olivia just had. Only she knew Natalia's reflection had changed dramatically, painfully, from just a week ago. Her heart pounded in her chest, the beat so strong it almost hurt. She wanted more than anything to ask Natalia what she was feeling at that moment, but, afraid of the answer, Olivia remained silent. Instead, she placed her hands on the smaller woman's shoulders and simply whispered, "I love you."
Downstairs, Rafe had made sure that Emma was ready, and the two of them sat on the couch, playing a game of Uno. The little girl was quiet, but smiled easily with the young man she considered her brother. He left the cards in a stack on the coffee table. "We'll finish later, okay?"
When they arrived at the cemetery, the wind had picked up and it was colder than a typical October day. As they climbed out of the car, Natalia made sure to fasten Emma's scarf tightly around her, and slid gloves over her tiny fingers before Rafe extended his hand for the little girl to take. They made their way slowly across the green grass, and Natalia watched them as she waited for Olivia.
"Come here," Olivia spoke softly, tugging on Natalia's wool coat the way she'd just done for Emma. "You warm enough?"
Natalia's brown eyes watered just a bit, and she wiped at them absently. "Yes, I'm fine. Are you?"
"You keep me warm," Olivia's voice cracked. It wasn't that Olivia didn't know that Natalia needed her tenderness right now. It was that it was so damned hard to let some feelings show but not others. But her effort did not go unappreciated, as Natalia pressed up onto her tip-toes and kissed her cheek. Olivia gave a small smile, then pointed a thumb behind her. "I'm going to see what's keeping Frank."
Natalia nodded and walked towards the small tent where the priest was standing with Rafe, Emma, and Buzz, who stood next to a seated Lillian and Marina. In the parking lot, Frank stood staring off into the woods beyond the cemetery, alone.
"Frank," Olivia called out as she approached him from behind. He turned to look at her.
"I already sent my father away, Olivia. I'm not so sure you're going to have any better luck."
Olivia sighed, her breath clouding in front of her face. "You just gonna stand here, then?"
He bit back an angry grimace. "I can't do this."
A sarcastic laugh tore through the freezing air. "You can't do this? You-- you can't do this?! I thought we already covered this Frank? We're all suffering here. We're all dying inside. Are you going to make Natalia bury your daughter alone?!" Olivia threw an arm towards the cemetery.
"She'll have you," he spat out bitterly.
Olivia rushed towards him until her face was inches from his. "Fuck you, Frank. Put that shit aside." Her nostrils flared as she bore holes through Frank with her eyes. He held her gaze as long as he could, until he turned away, crying. "Oh you're fucking kidding me." Olivia spun away from him, and picked up her pace towards her waiting family.
By the time she reached the top of the hill, she was out of breath, and Natalia reached for Olivia's hand. "What's--?"
"We should begin. He's not coming," she glared at Buzz, who shook his head sorrowfully. Natalia looked as though she was considering protesting, but when she peered down the hill and saw Frank pacing with his arms crossed, she nodded.
The funeral was short, and as they lowered the tiny casket into the ground, Emma wept against Natalia's side, the little girl's arms laced around her waist. With her free hand, Natalia held Olivia's, and everyone bowed their heads as the priest said a prayer. When it was over, they retreated silently down the hill, where Frank had already driven off.
"Don't do this, Olivia," Buzz cut her off before she could begin, rushing to his side the moment they reached the parking lot.
"Don't do what, Buzz? Tell you what a piece of shit your son is for not--"
"He's grieving, Olivia," Buzz interrupted. "Can't you see that? We may not get it, you and I, we might think it's crazy but it's just how he's dealing."
Olivia's lips trembled as she searched for the right words. She was angry, so mad she could barely see, but she knew Buzz had a point. Still, she shook with rage. The shaking inside her threatened to bubble over before she felt Rafe's hand on her shoulder. He stood behind Olivia, and when she turned to face him, she saw an unsteady boy trying to be a man. And she knew she couldn't lose it and leave him to pick up the pieces. So when he whispered for her to come back to the car, she calmly obliged.
On the way back to the farmhouse, Phillip had called, wanting to see his daughter. When Emma seem to perk up at the suggestion, they made arrangements to have her spend the night, and Olivia turned the car in the other direction. As they arrived at his house, Emma climbed up from the back seat and kissed both of her mothers goodbye. Rafe volunteered to walk her up the drive.
Alone in the car, Natalia spoke first.
"I think I'd like to go and sit in church for a while," she said, looking down at her hands in her lap. "I know Rafe will join me, but... you could, too."
Olivia sighed. "It would be good for you to have some time with him." Then realizing how that sounded, she laughed lightly. "Him, your son, Rafe, I mean. But... I guess god too."
Natalia's cheeks dimpled into an adoring smile. "I knew what you meant." Unbuckling the seatbelt, she turned slightly in the passenger seat to look at Olivia. She took her hands from the steering wheel and pulled them into her lap. "You don't have to pray, you know. You could just sit there. And be... whatever it is your feeling, you could just... feel. I know you, and I know you aren't ready to talk to me about it. I'm sorry I snapped at you today. It's just so hard," Tears broke out, smearing the makeup Natalia had carefully applied. Olivia couldn't bear to watch her cry, so she turned her glance to some unknown speck out in the distance.
"I don't know quite how to say it, Natalia, but I just don't feel... up to..." She wanted to tear into Natalia's god, to ask her how on earth she could sit reverently before him when he did nothing to save their innocent child. But in her peripheral vision she saw the beautiful woman she loved propped up by the very faith Olivia despised. "I just don't feel up to it right now. Would that be okay? I'll come get you whenever you'd like."
Natalia nodded, and when Rafe hopped back into the car, they went off in silence.
Back at the farmhouse, Olivia was alone again. She plodded up the stairs, and in the bedroom she stripped down completely naked. On the hottest setting it would allow, Olivia showered, letting the water run down her face until she felt she might drown. And when she was finished, she pulled on a pair of jeans and a simple black sweater, and went back downstairs.
She stopped in the living room, and looked around. She imagined the house at Christmas, how it would look with a real tree, and the stockings they would hang. There would be a tiny one for Isabella, and her cries would fill the room. Emma would play with her on the floor, and Natalia would hum Christmas carols just to annoy her. When the wind blew a shutter against the side of the house outside, Olivia was brutally ripped from her revelry. Her daydream was not meant to be, and she ran from it. Literally, she raced into the kitchen where she could finally breathe the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
Without really even thinking about it, Olivia went to the cabinet on the far side of the kitchen, and stood on her tip-toes to reach the contents inside. Behind a seldom-used vase, she found a bottle of expensive vodka she'd received as a gift from a client at the Beacon. She considered the mixers she knew she could find in the refrigerator, but they held no appeal. She wanted to feel the burning of the alcohol down her throat. She wanted to feel the bite as she sipped it. So she grabbed a glass and filled it with ice, pulled a jacket from the hook near the back door, and went outside.
The cold air of the falling night felt right somehow, and Olivia breathed in deeply. She walked through the grass to the front of the house and sat on the bench there. For a second she smiled, remembering all the conversations she and Natalia had shared in that very spot. She remembered sitting on the steps near her feet, holding Natalia's hand in hers, dreaming about what their life together would be like. And she remembered the night before they lost the baby, when they stood out on the porch together and Natalia swayed in her arms to music only she could hear. Olivia had kissed her then, and promised her that they could face anything together.
And yet here she was, alone. She unscrewed the cap of the bottle and tilted it just enough, till its clear contents filled the glass in her hand. She closed her eyes, and drank.
"Where was I?" Olivia laughed genuinely, using one of the remaining dry spots on her shirt, her shoulder, to wipe her cheek. "Oh who the hell knows, the point is..." she walked slowly to the other side of the raised platform. "The point is, I did whatever I had to do. To mask the pain. To be strong, or at least that's what I told myself. I never did give Natalia, or for that matter my daughter Emma or her brother Rafe, enough credit. I kept telling myself that they were the ones ready to crumble at a moment's notice. That they were the ones who needed to be spared this agonizing pain. When really, it was me all along."
"Are you awake?" Natalia's breath smelled like peppermint and her body felt warm against Olivia's skin.
"Kinda," Olivia mumbled into the pillow, rolling over with a groan. "Sorry, I must've passed out." As she cleared the cobwebs of sleep, Olivia remembered the events that had led to her passing out in bed with all of her clothes on. She'd had a long day at the Beacon, a long day that, more and more lately, involved drinking at least a fifth of vodka. She had come home, eaten dinner with Natalia and Emma. Spoke to Rafe over the phone. They sat in front of the television together for a little while, watching Spongebob Squarepants and eating cookies Natalia had just baked. She'd excused herself to go to the bathroom upstairs, but then never returned. Olivia figured she must've laid down on the bed and never got up.
"It's okay," Natalia whispered. Olivia could feel the other woman's fingers undressing her, unbuttoning her shirt and sliding off her jeans. "Emma finished her homework and went to bed. I know you've been working really hard, and I didn't want to wake you. But," Natalia wrapped her arms around Olivia's now nearly naked body. "I can't fall asleep."
Olivia shook her head to wake herself more fully, and felt Natalia's lips pressed against hers. It wasn't like the other kisses they had shared in the weeks since they lost Isabella. Those had been comforting, protective, supportive kisses, usually borne out of sheer emotional exhaustion or sometimes even formality. But this kiss, with Natalia's gentle tugging and slippery tongue, awakened Olivia's senses that had gone dormant during their lack of use.
"You taste like booze," Natalia teased.
The older woman sighed into her lover's mouth. "I had a drink with dinner." It wasn't a lie.
"I know," Natalia wound her fingers into Olivia's dark hair, and scratched at the scalp beneath her fingers. "I just wanted to give you hard time."
The sensations wrought by Natalia's touch struggled for dominance over the groggy haze the alcohol had put Olivia under. The battle itself was exhausting, but it had been too damned long since they had felt each other this way. There were nights when they would lie together naked, waiting for arousal to come, but it never did. Almost involuntarily, Olivia felt her hands clutch roughly against Natalia's backside, desperate and wanting.
"It's been almost two months," Natalia whispered in her ear. "I think... I think I'm finally ready."
Her words were laced with a bit of daring, and the younger woman snaked her legs around Olivia's waist. She drove her body hard into her lover, and Olivia tasted the skin at her neck with lips and teeth and tongue. Sliding her hands up her sides, the body beneath Olivia's fingertips felt like a stranger's. Natalia's hip bones jutted out at sharp angles, her waist was narrow and her belly was flat. Her breasts still strained against the fabric of her thin white tank top, but they were no longer the outsized centerpiece of an engorged body. To be sure, Olivia found her new form arousing, but she couldn't shake the feeling that this was not the Natalia she had last made love to.
It felt at once unfamiliar and exciting and sad, and Olivia struggled with those competing emotions. Her body and soul needed Natalia, craved her, but she found herself unsure of just how to do it. Frustrated, Olivia took possession of her lover in the only way she could. She brusquely sought out the center of Natalia's desire and pressed her fingers inside of her, leaving Natalia gasping for air.
"You feel more than ready," Olivia growled, working so hard against Natalia that the veins bulged from her neck. For her part, Natalia did her best to remain quiet, knowing their daughter was asleep in her nearby bedroom, but she encouraged Olivia with whatever coherent words she managed to whisper.
"More," Natalia begged. "Harder. I need to. Feel you."
Olivia's breath grew ragged and sweat slicked the skin between them. The bed shook and seized until finally Natalia's fingers curled into two tight fists, taking with them the soft flesh of Olivia's back. For a while Olivia remained on top of Natalia, both too weary to move. In silent apology, Natalia caressed the expanse of Olivia's back with only the tips of her fingers, slowly and gently.
Olivia felt dizzy when she finally slid over to rest at Natalia's side, and her eyelids fluttered briefly. The younger woman pulled her face forward to nuzzle it against her own. "Don't go. Don't go away on me. I need you here."
But Olivia had already passed out.
"So that's why I'm up here, now, after all this time. I finally figured out that I wasn't drinking and popping pills because I was trying to deal with everyone else's profound depression. I was drinking and popping pills because of my own. I can't believe it took me almost a year to admit, you know, yeah... the death of our daughter got to me."
As she looked out at the faces in front of her, it struck Olivia how addiction truly did know no bounds. No one was immune, and everyone had to find their own way to climb back from it. She caught the eye of a woman she'd never seen before, who must've just arrived. She was about Olivia's age, but her face was sallow and her eyes red. She wondered if that's how she had looked when she first came.
"It's funny, because in business... I'm the hard-charger. I'm the go-getter. But I came here thinking I could just sit back and let them fix me. We all know that doesn't work... You can't get half-pregnant, and you sure as shit can't get half-rehabbed," Olivia chuckled lightly along with the audience. "You're either in or you're out, and I'm in. I'm so in. I miss my family. I miss my wife. Not that waking up and looking at your ugly mugs hasn't been fan-fuckin'-tastic," More laughter filled the room. "But my girl is hot."
Strains of music bled out through Emma's halfway open door, and as she strode past, Olivia could her hear daughter softly singing along, sounding more than a little bit like Natalia. It had become her new routine, to watch Saturday morning cartoons until about eleven, when she would take off for her bedroom to put on music and get ready for the day. A literal straddling of the line if there ever was one, it was Emma's way of staying a kid while peering into the scary world of teenagerdom. Olivia shook her head, not ready to even imagine those years that lie ahead.
"Everything okay at the hotel?" Natalia appeared in the bedroom doorway. She'd been called in at eight A.M. by a flustered morning crew.
Olivia nodded her head and mumbled something about the plumbing problem being fixed as they spoke. She brushed past Natalia with a squeeze of her shoulder, and went straight into the bathroom where she immediately set about scrubbing her teeth. Her strokes were hard and fast and almost angry.
"You're going to take the enamel right off 'em if you're not careful," Natalia teased, watching her from the bedroom as she gathered dirty laundry Olivia must've forgotten about off the floor.
The older woman spat into the sink and hung her head, her hands braced against the edges of the ceramic. "You a dentist now?"
Her words sounded cold and hollow, and even as she wiped a towel across her mouth, Olivia couldn't bare to look at herself in the mirror. When she turned to leave the bathroom, Natalia blocked her way, arms locked into the doorframe. She didn't say a word. She didn't have to.
"I'm sorry," Olivia said, meeting Natalia's glare. "I'm sorry. I've just got a headache, and between the toilets backing up at the Beacon, and Emma's... Miley-Swift-Montana-whatever that is..."
Natalia tried to keep the smile from her lips. "Taylor Swift? Hannah Montana?"
Olivia grabbed the smaller woman by the waist. "Yesss... that. Why can't she be listening to The Eagles or something?" Olivia groaned as she snuck past Natalia, and pulled her shirt off to change. Before she could replace her silk shirt with a tee, Natalia fell in behind her and slung an arm across Olivia's stomach.
"Hmm," she hummed into the other woman's shoulder. "When did you get so old and cranky?"
"I was born old and cranky."
She felt Natalia's laugh against her skin, and her instinct was to turn around in the embrace and return the love and adoration that Natalia so selfless heaped upon her. She almost did. Until Natalia spoke.
"I know you said we'd clear out the baby's things today," Natalia practically whispered. When Olivia's body stiffened, Natalia placed a neat kiss on her shoulder. "But with the Beacon and everything, if it has to wait, it's okay..."
"It's December, Natalia," Olivia wriggled out of her grasp and pulled the white v-neck over her head. She knew it had sounded harsh, and her mind raced for ways to soften the blow. "I know we were going to donate the furniture, and what better time than Christmas, you know?"
Natalia dropped onto the bed with a sigh. "You're right. Someone could really use it, right before the holidays. It would be a blessing."
In another time, another universe, Olivia would've sat right down next to Natalia, the love of her life, and made everything right. But she no longer knew how. She didn't have the vocabulary for a pain so deep and a loss so utterly permanent. All she felt was a dull ache, and a passing thought about when she'd be able to steal away for a drink.
"I'm going to go out the barn, and get a screwdriver or something to take the crib apart."
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut, her lips and nose pinching in an almost comical wince. "Okay," she managed. "I'm... I'll be okay. I'll help you get it out to the car when you're done."
Olivia leaned in and gave her a peck on the forehead. "Take your time, sweetheart."
Out in the barn, Olivia kicked over a rusty metal bucket and sat down. From the inside pocket of her jacket she pulled a small bottle of vodka, and took a sip. And another. And another. From the same pocket she pulled a travel-sized bottle of mouthwash, which she now never left the house without, and swished around a large mouthful. She stared at the dirt floor, and spit.
As she made her way across the yard in the bitter cold, she contemplated calling Frank. He'd been evasive and unreliable since the funeral, but as much as she hated him for it, right then she could've really used his help. She knew better than to ask Natalia about him, though, because every time she brought Frank up, Natalia would defend him, saying he was taking the loss exceptionally hard.
"We're all fucking miserable," she spoke to no one, her boots crackling against the frozen earth.
Inside Olivia struggled with the wooden crib. It was beautiful in its simplicity, the kind of design she imagined had remained unchanged for a hundred years. And the craftsmanship was first-rate, which made disassembling it a bit problematic. But after a few starts and stops, Olivia had managed to break it down into pieces small enough to fit in the car. She was about to start on the rocking chair when she saw Emma watching her from the hallway.
"Mommy NO!" Emma screeched. "What're you doing?" The little girl ran to the end of the hall, and into the would-be nursery.
"Emma wait! There are screws and stuff everywhere. Stay right there," Olivia pointed to the doorway, and Emma's stocking feet.
"What are you doing with Isabella's things? You can't! You can't get rid of them!" She was frantic, and sobbing.
Olivia tried to modulate her voice. "We're giving them away, Emma, so another family who needs them can use them."
"No! I don't want you to. I don't want somebody else to have them! I don't want--" Emma's voice had now reached a full-fledged scream, and her face was red and streaked with tears.
"Goddamn it, Emma!" Olivia screamed back, matching the little girl's volume and scaring her into a stiff, straight posture.
Over the little girl's shoulder, Natalia appeared. "Olivia!" Her face was a mix of shock and consternation.
There was a beat of silence, and Olivia could feel a familiar shaking in her hands. It traveled up her arms, into her chest, and down into her legs as she stay frozen, kneeling on the cold floor.
"I don't want to forget about her!" Emma turned and cried into Natalia's waist, until she bent down and picked up her up, the young girl's arms and legs a tangly mess around Natalia's frame.
"Emma..." Olivia called out to her daughter, but Natalia didn't turn back.
When Natalia hadn't returned after fifteen minutes, Olivia rose to her feet. Her joints ached and her head swam from the effort. She righted herself with a hand on the windowsill, and brushed the dust from her knees. She could hear them talking in Emma's room, so she approached, nudging the door open with her foot.
Natalia looked over her shoulder at her, and for the first time Olivia couldn't read the expression in her eyes. She stood there for a moment, waiting for the recognition to come. But it didn't. For as long as she could remember, Olivia prided herself on her ability to read every emotion, every thought etched on Natalia's face. And she knew Natalia could do the same for her. It was what made them them. It was what made them invincible. But what she was staring at right now was a blank slate, and it terrified her.
It was too much to bear. "I'm going out for a few. I'll take care of this stuff when I get back."
She hadn't meant for it sound so callous, but these days Olivia wasn't feeling like her usually articulate self. She grabbed her keys, walked down to the car, and drove off without even letting the engine warm.
"So I guess I've bored you guys enough," Olivia cocked a half-smile. "I think I'm the last speaker tonight, so... sorry if I held up anybody's smoke break or donut run." A rustle of laughter again filled the room, and people began shifting in their seats as Olivia drew her story to a close. "I think I'm ready, for what it's worth. I think this helped me clear that last hurdle, you know? So thank you, all of you, for letting me share. For letting me cry."
When her office door swung open without so much as a knock, Olivia quickly picked her head up. She guessed that she'd popped one too many Vicodin when she got in this morning, because she couldn't remember anything between hanging up the phone with Greg and the door rattling. She wasn't sure how much time had passed.
"There you are," Natalia breathed, her slender body wrapped in a light dress. She brought her hand to the olive skin just above the bust line. "You scared me."
Olivia stared at her for a second, unsure of herself. She straightened up in her chair, and twisted her neck with a crack.
"I went to the cemetery but you weren't there..." Natalia's eyebrow raised, offering Olivia the chance to finish her sentence with an explanation. When none was forthcoming, Natalia shook her head and pursed her lips. "You forgot. I should've guessed. Seems you can't remember anything these days."
The other woman did not speak. She couldn't. Her mouth was dry and her tongue felt swollen and weak. She raised her eyes to meet Natalia's. It was the least she could do.
"Have you had a drink today, Olivia?" Natalia slammed the door shut behind her. "I mean, it's only eleven, but... well, I know those 'lunch meetings' start early and run late."
Olivia found her voice. "No, I have not had a drink today. I just--" It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the truth either. "It slipped my mind, and I'm sorry. Let's go, I'll clear the rest of my day." She started to stand up, her movements slow and slightly just off the mark.
"Stop doing that!" Her voice climbed an octave, sounding desperate and uncertain. "Stop trying to just... gloss everything over. We spoke about this this morning, you agreed, we hadn't been to Isabella's grave together since we buried her. It's been six months, Olivia. It's spring. Don't you want to--"
"Don't you dare," Olivia stood up with a start, sending her chair crashing against the wall. "I've been there. On my own time."
Natalia stared at her, the deepest, most penetrating gaze Olivia had ever felt. Her eyes watered, and silent tears fell. The sight of her wife, the mother of her child, once again in tears sent pinpricks of pain up and down Olivia's back, across her skin, in the pit of her stomach.
"You're lying," Natalia said weakly. "You're lying, and I know you're lying because every time I've been there, I've had to clear away the weeds. Clear away the snow. The only dead flowers I've ever picked up have been the ones that I left behind."
An unnerving feeling arose inside of Olivia. Between the desk and Natalia, there was no escape. Nowhere for her to go. She felt caged in; every muscle in her body twitched. She was at once tired and lethargic and jumpy and unsettled. But Natalia would not relent.
"I don't even know who you are anymore," the words dropped from her mouth as if of their own accord. Natalia looked surprised to even have said them. And then her eyes went wide, a realization dawning on her. "You've never even cried for her. All those nights you held me, and held Emma... you never once cried."
Olivia couldn't quite make sense of what she was feeling. At first panic, then relief. Relief that Natalia hadn't yet figured out that Olivia was drinking and medicating her way into oblivion. But she knew she should feel more, that she should be racing to explain to Natalia that her lack of tears hadn't meant that she cared any less. That she should be frantically trying to make Natalia understand that she had it all wrong. But she couldn't summon the right emotions. She was blind, feeling her way through a barbed wire maze.
Natalia took her non-response hard. "Does this mean anything to you, Olivia? Do you even care anymore? Did you ever?" Olivia could tell whatever she was about to say next pained Natalia in the most literal way possible. "Was Isabella just some... awful reminder you're happy to be rid of?"
All the right words to say screamed in Olivia's head. They pushed and clawed and fought their way to the front of her drug-addled brain. But the shaking inside her took over, and she couldn't stop what happened next. The gun had been cocked, and Olivia couldn't steady herself enough not to pull the trigger.
"Maybe," she hissed. The words singed her lips as she spoke, and somewhere inside of her the lion broke free from its chains. She pushed past Natalia roughly, taking the smaller woman by surprise. She hurriedly tucked her shirt into her pants and shook her hair free from her collar. She stood at the door with her fingers on the handle. "You want me to go with you to her grave? You want me to sit and watch you cry, and know that there's nothing I can do to make it better? That nothing is ever going to be good again? Normal again? You want me to listen to you pray one more time to a god that, I hate to break it to you, isn't listening? Then let's go."
If it were at all possible, Olivia would've believed that Natalia's already petite frame had shrunk. She looked so small standing there, her tanned skin a perfect complement to the pale dress. Her shoulders rounded, her body folded in on itself, an instinctive protective measure. Long, slender fingers held on to opposite forearms, the sparkling diamond on her ring finger mocking Olivia with its beauty.
"I'm not going anywhere with you," Natalia whispered.
After the meeting was drawn to a close, Olivia found Pierce in the back of the room, pouring two cups of coffee.
"For you," she placed the mug in Olivia's hand. "Bravo, young grasshopper."
Olivia snorted, rolling her eyes at the younger woman. "Sweetheart, I could be your mother."
Pierce tossed her head back. "You wish. No seriously, great job up there. I'm so fuckin' proud of you, I could hug you. But I know you're not the 'hug it out' type."
Olivia watched as the woman who had become so close to her winced at the hot coffee. "For how much I paid to come to this place, you'd think they could manage a decent cup of coffee."
"And maybe throw some kickbacks to the dedicated volunteers," Pierce laughed, walking alongside Olivia down the hallway. "I was a junior counselor at summer camp for fat kids once that paid better. We at least got to use the pool tables at night... plus the keggers around the fire after the kids went to sleep."
Olivia raised an eyebrow. "Well we know how that turned out."
Howling a laugh, Pierce bumped her shoulder into Olivia's. "Touche, old friend." When they arrived at Olivia's room, the two women exchanged chin nods, the most sincere display of affection either could really manage. "You're really knocking out this early?"
"I'm a little nervous," Olivia admitted. "I want to be rested and refreshed when I see Natalia tomorrow."
"She's not bringing Emma?" Pierce asked, stopping her backward tread down the hall.
Olivia shook her head. "Doc suggested we take a little time to get... reacquainted with each other before we bring the kids in. But she'll be in town. Natalia will bring her by with Rafe on Sunday if everything goes well."
Pierce chewed her lip, and nodded. "And it will. Go well, that is. Then you've got two weeks more and you're outta here."
"I can leave whenever I want," Olivia shouted down the hall at Pierce's disappearing figure. "This shit is voluntary, remember?"
"So they say," Pierce turned around one last time, her arms spread wide. "Guess that makes you a glutton for punishment."
The ringing on the other end of the line sounded tinny and shrill. It was so sharp that she had to pull the phone away from her ear, and as she fumbled with the volume button, Olivia could hear someone finally pick up.
"It's perfectly normal to be having dreams about me, Spencer. I just have that effect on people. Now go back to bed."
Olivia smiled at the sleepy voice on the phone. "You're ego is a thing of beauty, Pierce."
The other woman let out a dramatic sigh, but then cleared her throat. "What's up? Everything okay?"
"I'm..." Olivia clenched her teeth in the darkness of her tiny room, and climbed out of the bedsheets.
"Articulate," Pierce commanded. It had been one of Olivia's biggest problems since coming to the rehabilitation facility. She'd taken to trailing off, leaving incomplete thoughts blowing in the wind, waiting for someone to either fill in the rest behind her, or let her off the hook completely.
"Fuck, I'm</i> nervous<i>, Pierce. Don't work me over like the goddamn shrink. Can you just be my friend for three seconds?" Olivia moved to the window, where she pulled back the blinds. Moonlight swirled and blinked back at her, bouncing off the Pacific Ocean.
She could hear Pierce rolling over in the sheets. "As your friend," she sighed again. "I can tell you that I'd be worried if you weren't nervous."
"Yup. I've watched a lot of people come in and out of rehab in the last two, three years. Some of them, you look at them and you just know they aren't ready. Most of the time, it's because they didn't take their treatment seriously. They dried out, sure, but the underlying cause is still there. Whatever drove 'em to drink, or shoot up, or whatever... it's still there because they were too afraid, or too cavalier about it, to tackle it head-on. Not with you," Pierce chuckled a little bit. "Yeah, you bucked and gave us hell, but once we got you used to the saddle and bit, damned if you didn't fire like a thoroughbred filly."
"Your continued use of sports metaphors bores me," Olivia groaned. "But I think I get what you're saying, and... I appreciate it. I know I wasn't exactly a joy to deal with two and a half months ago."
"The fuck are you kidding, Spencer? You're still a nightmare to deal with."
"I knew calling you was a bad idea," Olivia smiled once again, and then yawned. "I'm going to try and fall asleep. And Pierce?"
The woman on the other line grunted an acknowledgement.
"Thank you for pushing me."
In the days since Olivia's blowout in the office, she and Natalia had made an art of avoiding each other. They were civil around Emma, but at night Natalia slept alone. Olivia had taken to sleeping in her old bedroom, which now held a bunch of Rafe's things while he was away. She'd hidden a bottle of vodka behind his video game console, and two bottles of pills in a box of his marked "Summer Clothes". It felt odd and perverse, and she hated it, but the nights were long, and being alone frightened her more than she knew how to express.
She could tell Natalia was ruminating on something, but she dared not asked her. Instead, Olivia just lived in fear. Fear that she was losing her grip on everything she tried so hard to balance. Fear that she was one pill away from stopping her heart. Fear that Natalia would leave her and never look back.
Five nights after Olivia's words had stung Natalia in a way she never meant to, Olivia arrived home to a seemingly empty house.
"Natalia?" Olivia's voice sounded foreign, and it bounced off the walls of the farmhouse unforgivingly. "Emma?"
She made her way up the stairs, a task she was finding more and more difficult, and searched the rooms there. No one.
Back downstairs, she double-checked outside. Natalia's car was in the driveway, but no one answered her shouts. Where there should have been panic, a dull ache simply took over Olivia's body. When she found Natalia at the kitchen table, she could tell she'd been crying.
"You didn't answer. Thought no one was here. Where's Emma?"
Natalia looked at the older woman, and Olivia could swear she still saw love there. "She's with Jane. I asked her to take her for the night." When she started to protest, Natalia waved her off with a shake of her head. "Just sit down, Olivia. We need to talk."
There it was. The panic and dread that had failed her just a few moments ago. Churning in her stomach, threatening to paralyze her. Olivia absently noticed that she could only summon those feelings when it was her own safety on the line. Her own secrets. She hated herself for putting her love and adoration for Natalia in that wooden cabinet where that first bottle of vodka belonged. She must've worn it on her face, because Natalia frowned.
"You look like you already know where this is going, so I'll spare you the beating around the bush," Natalia took a deep breath, and placed her hands flat on the table. She stared at them. "This hasn't been easy on any of us. Losing Isabella... I thought I was going to die. Literally, I felt the life drain out of me. And I leaned on you to keep going. Perhaps too much. Maybe I didn't see it then but--"
Olivia tried to interrupt her. "Natalia, you don't have to--"
"Let me finish. Just... let me finish," Natalia's brown eyes lifted to meet Olivia's, and her brow softened. "Maybe I didn't see it right away, but I'm not some babe in the woods you can fool forever. I know about the drinking. I know it's gotten bad. I don't know how bad, but it must be some kind of awful if you honestly think you're fooling anyone anymore."
Olivia shook in her chair. She tried to focus and hold Natalia's gaze, but it was tiring and difficult. She did what she could to steady herself.
"And I found your pills. Upstairs." As she inhaled, sobs overtook her, and Natalia fought hard against them. Olivia admired her bravery. Finally, she pulled an envelope off the chair next to her. She pushed it across the table, and Olivia reached a shaky hand out to see what was inside.
"Everything is arranged already, if you're willing to go. The flight, the reservations. I would've done it sooner, but I had to be sure. It's a rehabilitation center, Olivia, and I think--"
Olivia laughed. The sound curdled in the air. "Natalia, I'm not--"
"If you don't go and get some help, I'm not going to be around to pick up the pieces and enable you. I love you, Olivia," Natalia tried to bite back the tears but they came anyway. Her voice shook but she remained firm. "I love you more than I have ever loved anyone in my entire life. But I don't know how to help you. I can't do it for you."
This was it. This was the moment Olivia had imagined in her head but never saw through to the end. There wasn't a script she could follow, so she simply sat there, mouth slightly agape.
"Our daughter died, Olivia. And I know you... I know you thought you were being strong by pushing your feelings down deep and trying to forget all about them. So be strong now. Admit that you need help, and I will stand by you for as long as it takes. Whatever it takes."
She looked so beautiful that it broke Olivia's heart. Olivia had always joked about Natalia being her angel, her saint, but at that moment she looked every bit the part. She had handed Olivia her salvation, wrapped in a bow and tied with string. It wasn't the first time, and Olivia instinctively clutched at her heart. When she could feel it still beating in her chest, she bowed her head.
Olivia paced back and forth in her room for a few minutes, looking at the mirror with a sideways glance every now and again. Natalia hadn't packed her a whole hell of a lot of clothes when she initially left for rehab, and she'd only acquired one or two new things since then. A bathing suit when she found the sprawling Northern California facility had a hot tub and a pool, and a pair of jeans when she gained a little weight and couldn't fit into the pairs she'd arrived with. So when she looked at her reflection, she couldn't decide what to do. A simple white v-neck t-shirt and distressed jeans, fitting a little looser than she would've worn around Springfield. No necklace, no earrings, and a pair of leather flip flops on her feet. Her skin was tan from the California sun.
"I either look like shit, or a million bucks. I don't even know anymore," Olivia laughed nervously to herself. She knelt down and rolled the hem of her jeans up just a little bit, and surveyed herself one last time. "Better."
The complex was a cluster of bungalows connected by a breezeway to a main building, and the grounds sat on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To the casual observer, it would've looked like the perfect place to vacation. Except there were no bars, no calypso band, and there was an occasional screaming match at the check-in desk. Olivia found a spot on the second floor balcony of the main building, and waited. When she sat with one leg on the railing and turned her head, she could see the visitors' parking lot. If anyone asked, she would pretend it was a serendipitous coincidence, but in truth she had been staking out this spot for weeks, imagining what it would be like to see Natalia there, coming for her.
When a slender figure with brown hair stepped out of a white rental car, Olivia's heart rate quickened. She didn't have to imagine anymore.
She watched as Natalia, whose hair was pin-straight and cut into an angle across her face, exited the car and fumbled with something in her purse. She looked around the lot and when she stepped out from behind the car, Olivia's breath hitched. Natalia wore a high-waisted black pencil skirt that stopped just above her knees. A light oxford shirt that fit her as though it had been tailored precisely for her body. Slingback heels that, even from far away, Olivia could hear clacking against the pavement. The mountain breeze blew her hair into her face, and Olivia had to laugh as she watched the otherwise graceful woman swatting at it, annoyed.
It took a few minutes, but eventually she heard the same click of Natalia's heels on the tile steps near Olivia's perch. When their eyes met, Olivia felt a huge smile cross her face. Natalia stopped at the top of the stairs, and smiled back.
"The woman downstairs told me I would find you here," Natalia's voice was calm and even, but her eyes watered. One arm held her purse tightly over her shoulder. "Are you Olivia Spencer?"
Olivia laughed and slid off the railing, meeting her halfway. "That's me."
They met in a kiss so unbridled it took Olivia by surprise. She had sat up at night, reminding herself of the hurt she had caused Natalia, and that, despite their conversations on the phone, and letters and emails, her wife might be hesitant to welcome her back into her heart with open arms. "I should've known better," Olivia whispered against Natalia's lips.
Tears streamed down both of their faces as Olivia held Natalia's face in her hands. "About what?" Natalia whispered back.
"Everything. Just... everything," Olivia used her thumbs to wipe the tears from Natalia's cheeks. "You look..." Breath rushed out of her lungs in a whoosh. "Amazing." It was true. Natalia looked at once older and more refined, yet younger and fresh-faced. Her skin was flawless, her eyes sparkled, and she exuded strength. Olivia held her and refused to let go.
"You too, Olivia," Natalia blushed a little and deep-set dimples appeared. "You look so healthy... I'm so... you're you again."
They stayed like that for a few minutes, in each other's arms, kissing and not kissing, taking in the breathtaking views around them.
"So um... you need a drink or anything? Some water, some fruit...?" Olivia took her hand as they went back downstairs, and into the main building.
Natalia shook her head. "I'm fine." She clutched Olivia's hand more tightly, as the older woman waved hello to people she knew, and watched as they winked or nodded their approval. "Friends of yours?"
Olivia smiled. "Some are. Some I can't stand, but I'll be damned if I'm going to miss a chance to show you off."
"Some things never change, do they?"
As they sat in the counselor's office, Olivia felt antsy and couldn't wait for his introduction to be over with, so they could get to the real stuff and move on. He was explaining to Natalia his role in Olivia's recovery, and the different elements the facility used to tailor each individual's treatment to fit their needs. Natalia nodded and seemed genuinely interested, but Olivia made no secret of the fact that she didn't enjoy being talked about as though she weren't in the room.
"Gee doc, I keep waiting for you to tell her all I need is an oil change and I'll be ready to hit the road," Olivia rolled her eyes.
The doctor smiled at Natalia. "As you can see, some things even rehabilitation cannot fix." They shared a laugh, but Natalia squeezed Olivia's hand in her lap.
"So now, generally what we do with two weeks left until a client leaves us, we try to facilitate that transition as best we can by inviting the family to join us here, where we can remediate any problems together. We've found this gives folks the best chance for success once they leave the stability of a closed environment." He smiled at the two women, who looked at each other before looking back at him.
Olivia was about to make another joke until she remembered what Pierce had told her, about addicts being too cavalier about their disease. "I'm scared about a lot of things."
Natalia did a bit of a double-take, clearly surprised by Olivia's admission. The doctor nodded, and encouraged Olivia to continue.
Her green eyes searched Natalia's, and she pursed her lips tightly, thinking. "Out of all the things I said and did since... since we lost the baby... it's the things I didn't do that I regret the most. I can't go back in time and make it right. So there's a part of me that wouldn't blame Natalia if she could never forgive me."
When Natalia started to reassure Olivia, the doctor stopped her. "It's important that she articulates the things she feels she needs forgiveness for. It's been one of her biggest hurdles," He reached an upturned palm in Olivia's direction. "Agree or disagree?"
"I agree," Olivia nodded, dropped her glance to her lap. "I need to, um..." she turned her head to meet Natalia's gaze again. "I need you to know that I didn't cry for Isabella... because I was afraid that once I started, I would never stop. I felt like... I felt powerless to stop what was happening to you. Watching you... give birth to our daughter when you knew she was already gone. It tore me up inside because I couldn't do a goddamned thing about it, so I vowed that I wouldn't put any more burden on you. If I couldn't fix it, the least I could do was not make it any worse."
Olivia cried without a sound, and she felt lighter as each tiny drop fell. Natalia never let go of her hand.
"But I did make it worse, Natalia. I... fucked up," she breathed, then gave a half-smile in apology for her language. "I shut you out. I shut Emma out. I thought I was being your rock, you know? But you didn't need that. You needed your partner and I failed you. Remember that night on the couch? When we..." Olivia's eyes made a loop and the doctor fidgeted in his chair.
"Which time?" Natalia teased her through her tears, a guilty smile creasing her face. When Olivia spun her wheels, Natalia relented. "I know when."
"Yeah well I told you I would do anything for you and Isabella. I told you I would do whatever it took, to keep you safe, to love you, to give you everything in the world. And when it was taken out of my hands... I just lost it. I lost it completely. And then I said that awful thing," Olivia dropped her head into her hands, her fingers curling around her long hair.
Natalia reached for her and stroked Olivia's back. "I know you didn't mean that. I know you loved Isabella."
Olivia sat up and stared at her, lips quivering. She knew she had to say it, but she couldn't be certain her tongue wouldn't fail her. "What if..." she sucked in some tears that fell across her lips. "When you first showed back up in Springfield, and you were pregnant, I... I resented that baby. I tried to wish it away."
The younger woman's body tensed, as though Olivia had slapped her straight across the face. Olivia recognized the feeling in her gut, a feeling she'd had many times since their daughter's death. A feeling of wanting to run, wanting desperately not to confront the pain. These were the moments recovering addicts spoke of from the dais in the great room down the hall. These were the moments upon which one's recovery hinged.
"And then I remembered," Olivia's voice broke, climbing higher as sobs choked her throat. "I remembered that baby was a part of you. And I loved it. Right then, I knew I had been wrong. I knew that anything that grew inside of you, that came from you, the love of my life, could never be wrong. Could never be anything less than perfect. I would give my life to bring Isabella back to you."
Her cries were deep and reverberating, filling every space in the tiny room. To Olivia, it felt like an eternity before Natalia finally turned in her chair.
While she knew she couldn't stay that way forever, Olivia was hesitant to look Natalia in the eyes. So she steadied her breathing, willed her heart to slow down, and took it one step at a time. She took in the angular bend of Natalia's knees. The skin there was smooth and unblemished, except for a tiny scar. Olivia wondered where she'd gotten it, and stored the question away for another time. The fabric of her skirt was pulled taut over her thighs, and the buttons of her shirt created a trail for Olivia's eyes to follow. From the center of her torso to the curve of her breasts, Olivia blinked back tears. At her collarbone she was finally able to dry her eyes, and by the time she lifted her face to her lover, Olivia prepared herself for whatever she might say.
"I forgive you," Natalia whispered. And Olivia slumped into her lap, exhausted.
Having survived the counselor's office, shaken but with their love reaffirmed, Olivia escorted Natalia to her private room, so she could change out of the shirt she had sweat and cried clear through. The younger woman looked around while Olivia went to the bathroom. On a mirror above the dresser, Natalia found a photo of the three of them, she, Olivia, and Emma, that she'd shoved inside Olivia's suitcase the day she left. Its edges were curled and worn, and when she plucked it from its perch, it felt soft, like it had been handled a thousand times before.
"Oh, my skinny days," Olivia quipped as she returned from the bathroom. She was buttoning up a white linen shirt when Natalia stood up, taking over for her. The younger woman's fingers made neat work of the buttons.
"You look fantastic, Olivia. Better than you ever have."
Olivia smiled as Natalia looked up at her, stopping with two or three buttons left undone. "So do you. What's..." Olivia ran her hands down Natalia's upper arms. "What's all this about? You feel pretty strong under there, Rivera."
"Rivera-Spencer," Natalia corrected her, placing a light kiss against Olivia's mouth. "And it's yoga. I took up yoga while you were gone."
"Aw man, that's so new-agey, I'm not sure if I like that," Olivia wrinkled her nose at the other woman, and smiled. Natalia simply stared back at her, brown eyes melting Olivia's resolve. She had missed her wife in so many ways, but nothing could compare to the smoldering ache she felt when she remembered what it felt like to touch Natalia's naked flesh.
Breaking the tension, Natalia turned and swept her hair as she went, placing her hand on the door. "Oh you will. You will."
Olivia feigned collapsing to the floor, and Natalia laughed heartily. The sound filled Olivia with hope, and she motioned for Natalia to follow her. "Let's get something to eat."
As they made their way through the complex, Olivia gave Natalia the ten-cent tour, showing her the little world she'd called home for the past two months. It was nothing to scoff at, nestled high above the pristine Pacific, covered in green and basked in sunlight. When they reached the cafeteria, Natalia laughed softly.
"I've worked in cafeterias, Olivia," she looked around the swanky set-up. "And this is not a cafeteria."
"You're the one who put me up here, remember?" Olivia squeezed her side as they shared a tray.
Natalia pulled a dish of fresh-cut fruit from the buffet line. "Like you'd have stayed if it was anything less than four-star."
Olivia just shrugged, and when their tray was full, they found a table outside on the patio, a large tree providing some shade.
Their meal was a quiet one, with Olivia answering whatever questions Natalia had about her treatment. There were a few awkward starts and stops, but for the most part, Olivia felt relieved to share her journey with the other woman. She knew she had trust to earn back, and she made it clear that she was now an open book.
Finally, Olivia took a break in the conversation to ask about her daughter. "How's Emma?"
Natalia sighed. "She's... okay. She misses you, and she's drawn about seven thousand pictures for you." They shared a smile. "She'll be okay, Olivia, but I have to tell you. I've been completely honest with her. I told her that Isabella's death made things very hard for you. And that you... did things... to try and make the pain go away. And god bless her, I think she understands. As best a ten year old can understand."
"God, she's going to be ten," Olivia drew in a breath. "I can't believe--"
A figure bounding towards them caught Olivia's eye, and she let her fork hit the plate. "Ah, I'm going to kill her."
Natalia looked confused, her eyes darting from Olivia to the approaching stranger.
"Natalia, this is Pierce... my sponsor," she waved at the young woman who crouched besides their table.
"Whoa, Natalia Rivera-Spencer, in the flesh," Pierce smiled broadly, shaking Natalia's hand fervently. "I've heard so much about you and, damn, it's all true."
Olivia shot her a look. Pierce mimed a look of innocence, and continued. "I don't want to interrupt anything but I just had to meet you. Olivia's been a real dream, and I'll be sorry to see her go."
"That's funny, I haven't heard a single thing about you, Pierce," Natalia looked disapprovingly at Olivia, who suddenly felt like a kid in the principal's office.
"Not surprised," Pierce replied. "But I won't hold it against you, Spence," the young woman stood up and squinted in the sun. "Alright, I gotta run, but it was wonderful to finally put a face to the name."
She turned and left the table, but then smacked her hands in the air and spun back around. "Oh, and I almost forgot," she put her hand over Olivia's on the table. "You know the bungalow? Down on the beach? Reserved for you tonight, buddy. Don't make me waste the six weeks of salary a place like that costs me."
Before Olivia could say anything, Pierce was gone in a whoosh of torn jeans and Converse sneakers. Natalia had a wry smile on her face. "Was that what I think it was?"
Olivia nodded her head, unable to keep from smiling. "Yeah, just when I want to hate her, she goes and does something nice," Olivia reached across the table and brushed a stray hair from Natalia's face. "Think Rafe would mind staying with Emma overnight and bringing her here in the morning?"
Natalia looked at Olivia through long lashes, her tone playful. "We'll just have to ask him and see."
When Natalia breezed back through the lobby area, a rush of wind following her inside, she turned the head of every single person in the room. She had pulled on a pair of sunglasses while she was out in the parking lot, and she quickly flipped them up onto her head and into her shimmering dark hair. Her heels hit the floor with a commanding snap, and her movements were direct but graceful. Natalia, being Natalia, didn't seem to notice the eyes on her, but Olivia, being Olivia, certainly did. She smiled at the other woman.
"This place is crawling with celebrities and senators, and you still manage to leave their jaws on the floor. Whatever's gotten into you, I like it," she said out of the side of her mouth. She reached for the small overnight bag on Natalia's shoulder and slung it over her own.
Natalia looked around, eyes wide. "I don't see any celebrities," she whispered.
Olivia just shook her head and fought back a smile. They walked back through the complex, and Olivia jiggled the back in her arms. "So what's all this? Was it your plan all along to stay out here with me for the night?"
"I was hoping it might work out that way, yes," Natalia looked at Olivia a little sheepishly. "I've just missed you so much." She stopped midstride, and Olivia pulled up short a few feet beyond. "You do know that, don't you?"
Olivia turned to look at her. "Yeah, I mean... yeah. I figured once some of the anger wore off, you'd..."
Natalia continued walking, and Olivia fell back in step with her. "I was never mad at you, Olivia."
"Not even a little?"
"I was hurt, and confused, and scared... but never mad at you. And I did miss you. I missed being near you," her voice had shrunk nearly to a whisper, and when they had traversed the grassy courtyard, Natalia was silenced by the view.
Stone steps lay in front of them, a winding, spindly trail down the cliffs to the beach. From above they could see the rocky formations that sheltered the strip of sand below, cupping it like two ancient giant hands, enveloping it in stillness and tranquility.
"This is amazing," Natalia sighed.
Olivia closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath, taking in the now-familiar scent of the salty ocean. The afternoon sun dueled with the wind, making her skin feel alternately cold and warm. "When I stood here for the first time I knew I had to get better so I could share this with you. I finally understood."
She felt Natalia's hand fold into her own, and she squeezed lightly.
"There's so much we've never done together. So many things we've never shared. I'm not going to give my life over to this addiction, to this disease," she turned to face Natalia. "Can you give me another chance?"
A whimper snuck out of Natalia's throat, as her lower lip appeared in a pouty smile. "You gave me another one, didn't you? How fair would it be if I didn't?"
Olivia bared her teeth in skeptical wince. "Ehh, not sure if this is the same kinda thing..."
Natalia tugged at the sides of Olivia's linen shirt. "I'm not losing you too." She tried to smile, but sadness appeared in the lines that creased Natalia's face. Olivia forced herself to look, to see the loss and the pain there. But she found that the longer she looked, the more she saw only hope.
"No way you're making it down these steps in those heels," Olivia tilted her head to the treacherous-looking cliff.
Using one hand to steady herself against Olivia's shoulder, Natalia popped the shoes off and held them up with two fingers. "I'm not afraid to get a little dirty!" she teased.
"Yes you are." Olivia said flatly, taking her hand as they gingerly picked their way down the stairs.
Natalia squealed at a bug that ran past her bare feet. "Okay, maybe a little."
The two women walked barefoot through the sand until they reached the tiny cottage set back against the cliffs that loomed above them. It was weathered on the outside from the salty air and stiff winds, but on the inside it was all understated luxury. Olivia set the key on a table by the door, and slid only the screen door shut behind her, so that the sounds of the gently rolling ocean filled the room.
"Um, let's just move here," Natalia frowned as she looked around. "I mean, it's kind of a dump, but I think we could make it work."
Olivia's chest shook with a laugh. "Yeah, and the view sucks. I bet we can't even get cable down here."
Natalia bare and sandy feet wriggled against the tile floor. "I'm going to change," she stepped into the bathroom and let out a gasp. Olivia guessed that it too was immaculate and perfect. "I'll be just a second."
Even from outside on the cabin's tiny porch, Olivia could hear Natalia inside spouting excited yelps as she uncovered the cottage's varied amenities. A few minutes later, she appeared in a pale yellow sundress, her hair tied back and a blanket in her arms. The color of her dress and shadow from the awning made her skin look even darker, almost caramel.
"I suppose you want me to scoot over," Olivia pretended to be annoyed.
"I suppose I do," Natalia shooed her with her hand, and curled onto the oversize wooden rocking chair against Olivia's body. The breeze was cool, and until the sun set a little more, they were in total shade, so she pulled the blanket over her legs and draped the rest over the other woman. "This is nice."
Olivia simply hummed a gentle response, and held Natalia a little tighter. One finger lazily traced a trail across Natalia's skin, against each finger, the veins on the back of her hand, the crook of her elbow. "You're so beautiful. You've come back even stronger than you were before Isabella. A freakin' superhero for sure."
The younger woman nuzzled her face in Olivia's neck. "I'm nothing special. Just a woman. Just a mom. Just your wife. That's enough for me."
"Is it?" Olivia had wondered about the answer to that question many a night.
"Mmmhmm," Natalia nodded, her hair tickling Olivia's chin. "I believe that everyone has just one-hundred percent to give. Can't do it all. Can't give everything to your kids, and everything to work, and everything to building a life and a home. So you make choices. Prioritize. And I love my life. I love our home, and raising Emma, and cooking dinner for the family--"
"That's my little woman," Olivia joked.
Natalia pinched her hard in the belly. Olivia let out a wail, but Natalia kept on. "See, I knew you were going to make a joke. But I'm serious. It's what I've always wanted, and you guys need me at home. Everyone likes to feel needed, to feel like they're good at what they do."
"But weren't you the one having an argument with me about turning into a Stepford wife just a few months ago? Launching your coat around the living room like it was a torpedo?" Olivia cocked an eyebrow when Natalia looked innocently up at her.
"Well things change. We change. And Emma... Emma needs that stability."
The words felt like a knife to Olivia's heart, but she needed to hear them. Natalia was right; after all, Olivia herself had thrown those words out when Natalia left town and suddenly came back. "You're right, and thank you for being... such a great mother to our daughter." A sob made its way up Olivia's throat.
Natalia pulled closer the body against her. "You're a great mom, too, Olivia. You will be again. You just needed to take care of you for a little while. Emma will understand that. It might take a little while, but she will."
Olivia simply nodded and closed her eyes. The sounds of the waves breaking and the wind whistling through tiny crevices in the rocks played out like a symphony, lulling them both to sleep. But before she drifted off, she made sure to say the words she hoped to repeat a million times more in her lifetime. "I love you, Natalia."
Sunset was just a few minutes away when Olivia was awoken by the the last rays of the day, beating against the wood frame cottage. She squinted a few times to collect herself, and then she shook Natalia awake.
"Hey, wake up. You're going to miss it," Olivia spoke softly to the sleeping woman pressed against her chest. When that failed, she pondered a different tactic. "Okay, stay asleep. I'm just gonna go take my sandy feet and put them in the bedsheets, and then I'm going to put my fingerprints all over every mirror in the--"
Natalia groaned and stretched an arm out towards the sea. "What? Why would you do that?"
"I knew that'd wake you. Check out the sunset."
Untangling herself from Olivia's arms, Natalia stretched some more, and Olivia found herself taking in more of the view of her wife, and less of the setting sun.
"Knock it off, you," Natalia stated plainly.
Olivia's head jerked back to the front, and she smiled shamelessly at the orange sky. A few minutes of silence later, and the sun disappeared like a blown out match.
"That was my first sunset, I think," Natalia grinned lazily, still staring at the ocean.
Natalia nodded. "I mean, I've seen the sun set before. Over Springfield. In Chicago. But never like this. Not where you get to see it... all the way."
Where Natalia sat on the edge of her seat, leaning forward with her chin in her hands, Olivia slid in behind her and pulled her back to her. "Well I'm glad I could share it with you."
Natalia giggled into her hands.
"What?" Olivia put her nose close to Natalia's cheek, and took in the faintly sweet smell of the woman she missed so much.
She slipped out of Olivia's grasp and stood up, only to turn around and put her legs on either side of the other woman, straddling her lap. Her voice was husky but tinged with humor. "You don't mind being my first?"
Olivia's eyes went wide, and her breath whistled through her clenched teeth. "Mind? Oh no, no, noooo, I don't mind at all."
"Good," Natalia purred, fidgeting against Olivia's thighs in deliberate circles. "Because it's been so long--"
"--that I hope I haven't forgotten how to touch you. I might need some practice," she leaned in and captured Olivia's lips in a kiss, her tongue pressing hard and urgent against Olivia's waiting mouth. "I might need some... instruction."
Olivia had to let out a laugh. "Who are you? This tight little body, this naughty little--"
Natalia interrupted her, her brow wrinkled. "You don't like it?" Her bottom lip jutted out, begging Olivia to take it in her mouth. So she did, and Natalia's soft moans vibrated between the two of them.
"I do, I do. You're so... I feel like I could just throw you around," Olivia stopped, looking for a reaction from the woman above her. When Natalia nodded excitedly, her teeth biting at her lips, Olivia laughed again. "And that ass?" Natalia covered her face in embarrassment. "I've never loved yoga more in my life."
The two woman laughed and teased and kissed, roughly and sloppily and neatly and gently.
Olivia continued. "No, I'm serious. I'm buying stock in yoga. Can you do that? I want to do that," she smiled as Natalia giggled some more. "I'm dead serious. Did you rent a DVD or something? Jesus, buy all the copies. I want every last one if that's what made you look so fucking sexy."
"Watch your mouth," Natalia pinched Olivia's lips with her fingertips. "No, I'll watch it for you."
Behind them the waves crashed against the shore and the sun's absence made the wind feel colder. "You wanna go inside?" Olivia asked, seeing the goosebumps peppered across Natalia's skin.
"In a minute," she replied. "I'm just enjoying the view." She held Olivia's face in her hands, her thumbs grazing the other woman's cheeks and lips. "You've been going on and on about me, but all I can think about is you. California... the whole vibe, you know? It suits you."
Olivia frowned. "What's that mean?"
"It means..." Natalia sighed. "This relaxed side of you. The jeans. The wild hair. Barely any makeup. You look so... free. It's been a long time since I've seen you like that. It's... bare and raw and... I love it. I love you. I love that you look like you again! I love that when I look into those bright green eyes, I can tell what you're thinking again."
Tossing her head from side to side, Olivia narrowed those green eyes just a bit. "Can you tell what I'm thinking now?"
Natalia pressed her lips flat in disapproval. "Yes, and it's terrible, and it's dirty, and let's go inside and try it right now."
Olivia waited until the shower had been running for a good five minutes before she snuck into the bathroom. The room was full of steam and tiny droplets of water streaked the glass shower door, giving Natalia's naked figure a dreamy, surreal appearance. Olivia saw her head turn in the shower.
"Oh my goodness, you scared me!"
Olivia slid out of her jeans and undid the buttons of her shirt. "Oh my goodness," she teased. "Good to see some things never change."
"I could say the same about you! You're still the same..." Natalia stopped when Olivia appeared in the frame of the open shower door. "What? Olivia, what is it?"
The other woman stood there, stark naked and frozen mid-step. "It's just that... the last time I saw you... like this... you were," Olivia finally managed to nod her head. "You know."
It was a travesty of the highest order, in Olivia's objective mind, that the image of her lover naked, wet and inviting, could conjure up anything less than earth-shattering arousal. The fact that it made her insides jump was of little comfort. It was an unsettling feeling.
And Natalia understood. "Come here," Natalia ordered gently. She reached out and pulled Olivia close, until the warm water fell all around her, pressing her brown hair down flat against her head. In her eyes. Everywhere, all Olivia could see was water and darkness. Until Natalia's careful fingers brushed the hair back from her face, and her body blocked the onslaught of water. "It's okay if it still hurts. It still hurts me too. But we--"
Olivia didn't wait for Natalia to finish. Instead she pulled her in for a bruising kiss, their bodies meeting in a slippery fit of passion. She drove Natalia back against the tile wall with a thud, and Olivia moaned an apology into her mouth. They volleyed back and forth for a few moments, pushing and pulling, giving in and taking over. But Natalia kept advancing, even when the spray of water threatened to drown them both.
"I want to show you how alive you are," she panted, water running down between them. Olivia felt Natalia's hands all over body, everywhere at once, and coupled with the hot steam it made her dizzy. She reached for the first solid wall she could find to steady herself.
Mouth and hands made their way to Olivia's breasts, and she let out a deep, long-awaited sigh. Thinking back to their earlier conversation, Olivia smiled. "Haven't forgotten... a thing... I see."
Natalia laughed into the crook of the other woman's neck. "It's coming back to me."
Her hands grasped at Olivia's hips, and Natalia slid down to her knees, every inch of the way making sure they stayed skin-to-skin. Olivia had a fleeting thought about water and electricity, and prayed to no one in particular that she wouldn't combust. But as Natalia knelt before her, her tongue laying waste to every last shred of her resolve, Olivia could've sworn she saw God, and Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. By the time Natalia was through with her, Olivia could barely stand.
When Olivia insisted she couldn't be satisfied any further, Natalia slinked away demurely, leaving a trail of wet footprints leading to the bed. Olivia simply admired the view and remarked on her good fortune, turned the shower off and joined her.
"Proud of yourself?" Olivia's voice was hoarse.
Natalia slid into the cool sheets. "A little."
She climbed in next to Natalia and propped herself up on her elbow. "How much did you miss me?" Olivia's tone was dark and smoky.
She shook her head. "You can do better than that."
Natalia's naked body squirmed against Olivia's. "The bed was cold without you..."
"And?" Olivia dipped down and began licking at the stray droplets of water that remained on Natalia's skin. She could feel her shudder from the contact.
"And, hmm... I had no one to warm me up?"
"Better," she whispered, snaking her tongue out against the throbbing pulse at Natalia's neck. "Did you think of me... while you were in bed at night?"
Olivia felt rather than saw a flush come over Natalia's exposed body. "Olivia..."
"Mmm, interesting. Now you're shy?" She laughed deliberately just as her mouth hovered over her breast. She knew what her hot breath on cool skin would do to Natalia.
And it worked, sending the other woman into back-arching moans. "Not shy... just, modest."
"You mean difficult."
"You like that I'm a lady," Natalia managed before Olivia's gentle nipping sent her groaning for mercy.
"Yeah, you were very lady-like about five minutes ago when you were--"
A frustrated Natalia slapped at her thigh. "Olivia, dammit..."
"Ah-ha-ha. I got Saint Natalia to swear. Wonder what else you'll do with a little... prodding." Olivia repositioned herself so that she was lying between Natalia's legs, and she peered up at her with an impish grin. "Tell me about what you do when you're all alone."
When Natalia stubbornly remained quiet, Olivia took one pass at her with her tongue wide and flat.
"Oh Jesus," Natalia smacked her hands against the sheets.
Olivia breathed another laugh into Natalia's skin. "I'm listening." Another swipe of the tongue, a little slower this time.
Then Natalia resorted to a tactic Olivia suspected she would try. She whimpered. And pouted. "This isn't fair. You... I haven't had you... in so long... and this... is what you do to me?"
It was Olivia's turn to be unresponsive. Instead she just kept on with her infuriating pattern, a slow and steady rhythm of torture. When she sensed that Natalia was on the verge of giving up, she took a long, languid suck at the other woman's most sensitive skin, and Natalia arched back so hard she almost sat straight up.
"Oh fuck, Olivia," Natalia's tone sounded like a rabid mix of schoolyard scolding and uncontrollable desire. "I curl up under the sheets and I touch myself, and I miss you, and I pretend that it's you, but it's never the same, because I can only come when you fuck me."
If ever Olivia had made a greater miscalculation, she surely couldn't remember it. Natalia's lusty admission had sent her own body into fits, and it was all she could do to try and recall why she'd coaxed it out of her in the first place. But with her hands, and her mouth, and the very breath in her body, Olivia tried desperately to show Natalia just how much she loved her, and missed her, and needed her. She held her like a partner, revered her like a wife, and pleasured her like her lover. And when Natalia's breath finally slowed, and tears welled in Olivia's eyes, she let them fall.
In the morning Natalia woke Olivia with a kiss, and the two fell in step as though they'd never been apart. They took a walk along the beach, hand in hand, and tried to make the most of their time in such a secluded, peaceful place. They saw a few others from the facility at the top of the cliffs, far down the beach near the stone steps, taking advantage of the early hour to run or meditate. But no one bothered them down at the narrow end where the squat little cottage sat, and they idly tossed stranded seashells back into the foamy sea, barely saying a word.
"Have you spoken to Ava?" Natalia asked, brushing her hair out of her face with the back of her hand.
Olivia nodded. "Yeah, she knows I'm here. She wanted to come and visit, too... but I told her not to."
"Why?" Natalia turned to the other woman, and Olivia noticed the tiny vertical line that always appeared between her eyebrows when she was concerned. "She lives so close, I guess I figured..."
"Mm, nah. Didn't want her to see me the way I was, Natalia. You know, all... washed up and surly." Olivia smiled ruefully. "Bad enough Emma had to see it. I still can't believe I did that to her."
She thought it odd that Natalia didn't say anything in response, anything to allay her fears or soften the blow. But it was a moot point anyway; in an hour's time, her youngest daughter would be here, and whatever hurt or confusion she felt would be Olivia's to deal with. A familiar feeling crept up on her, slinking its way through her belly and up her spine, and Olivia reached out for Natalia's hand instinctively.
"We should probably go up," she said as she wove her fingers into Natalia's. "Have a cup of coffee before Rafe and Emma get here."
Natalia dusted her other hand off against her skirt, sand flying in the wind. "Sounds good."
They quietly made their way back to the cabin and gathered their things. Natalia retreated to the bathroom and came out a few minutes later, her hair pulled back and makeup retouched. Silently, Olivia slid past her and took her own turn, washing her salty hands and feet in the bathroom and running a brush through her hair. In the mirror she noted that she did indeed look better than she had three months ago. Her face was not as ruddy and bloated as it had been, and her eyes were clear and bright. Even though she'd put on weight, it was a healthy few pounds, spread out across her body instead of confined to her face and swollen hands and feet. She shook her shoulders a bit, and forced a smile.
"You look beautiful," Natalia surprised her from the doorway. She stood behind Olivia and rubbed her shoulders with hands so deceptively strong, Olivia found herself looking down at one shoulder, to reaffirm they did indeed belong to Natalia. When she saw that they did, she closed her eyes for a moment and enjoyed the sensation. "Anything you wanna share?"
Olivia spun around slowly, not eager to end the impromptu massage. "Nothing you don't already know. I'm getting repetitive now. Just nervous."
"I never get tired of hearing how you feel," Natalia cocked her head to the side, eyes sparkling. "I need to... you know, know how you feel. A lot. Because not knowing..." Olivia knew where she was going with this. "Scares me. You think you can put up with me asking a hundred times a day?"
"For now," Olivia pinched a wry smile. "As long as you don't mind that I'm not terribly original."
Natalia sighed. "Are you kidding? Everything about this relationship has been a little too original. I welcome the change of pace."
Back at the top of the hill, Olivia sat next to Natalia on a stone bench overlooking the ocean, trees shading them from the quickly warming morning sun. She was on her cell phone, one finger in her ear in attempt to press out the sounds of the wind.
"Just park in the visitors' lot and we'll meet you at the front desk," she smiled at Olivia. "Great. See you in a sec," Natalia clicked the end button on her phone and stood up. "Why don't I get them and bring them back here? It's so nice. We could eat on the terrace again."
Olivia frowned. Natalia wanted to gauge Emma and Rafe's disposition for herself, before exposing Olivia to it. "If you think that's best."
Natalia picked Olivia's chin up with a gentle finger. "Just sit tight."
She watched the other woman cross the grassy courtyard, her hips swaying just slightly. The very sight of her made Olivia's breath hitch, and made it that much harder for her to believe she could've ever been so selfish as to leave Natalia alone, to raise her child, to take care of their home, while she got schooled in a private paradise on lessons she really ought to already have known. This particular feeling, this particular guilt, was new territory for Olivia. She'd been so focused on earning Natalia's forgiveness for what she'd done while she was home, she hadn't really thought about things she hadn't been there for during in her absence. But objectively, Olivia knew that if Natalia harbored any feelings about it, she would've said something. Or at least she hoped.
In her mind's eye, Olivia imagined Emma's tiny form appearing at any moment from the shady archway, nearly tumbling over herself to run into her mother's arms. The thought made her smile, and that smile remained frozen on her face as her family finally did appear.
Emma was wearing a denim skirt and pink t-shirt, with something Olivia couldn't quite make out emblazoned on the front. She held tightly to Natalia's hand, and on the other side, to Rafe's. Rafe looked older somehow, the same trim boy he'd always been except with a slight edge. Still, he smiled warmly at Emma.
Olivia stood up from the bench as they joined her, then squatted back down to be at Emma's height. "Hey there Jellybean!" Her voice was excited but tight, not wanting to confuse Emma with tears, even if they were good ones.
"Hi Mommy," Emma said softly, letting go of Natalia's hand long enough to put her arms around Olivia's neck in a hug.
"Look at you!" Olivia exclaimed. "What are you, six feet tall? And what's this?" She tugged at the t-shirt, which in white script letters read 'Pirouettes'.
Emma looked up at Natalia, deferring to her. Natalia waited a beat, clearly hoping Emma would answer Olivia directly. But when she didn't, she smiled. "It's a dance studio. Emma joined a dance troupe this summer... didn't you, Jellybean?"
The little girl just nodded, then buried her head against Natalia's side. Olivia waved off Natalia's apologetic glance, smiling as she stood. "And Rafe," she pushed her hand into the pocket of her jeans. "I see those Army folks gave you a haircut. They didn't take your tongue too, did they?" Her eyes dropped to the silent Emma.
"Nah," Rafe smiled genuinely back. "They didn't. You look really good, Olivia. It's good to see you." He opened his arms and Olivia, her arched eyebrows betraying her surprise, stepped into the embrace. He hugged her tightly, and couldn't help a laugh. "Hey, I'm as surprised as you are."
Natalia beamed with pride. "I think the army made him rethink how bad he really has it back in Springfield."
"Sure did," Rafe sighed. "As long as you don't ask me to do any push-ups or wash the floor with my toothbrush, I'm freakin' thrilled to see you."
Olivia smiled, but she was undeniably a little disappointed. The role reversal, with Rafe as the accepting, loving son and Emma as the estranged daughter, unnerved her deeply. She had no one to blame but herself, though, so she simply reminded herself that this process, her daughter's trust and forgiveness, would take time. "I'm sorry I missed your graduation, Rafe. I really would've like to have been there."
She could tell by Rafe's face that he knew she meant it. "No worries, Olivia. It was just long and boring and..."
"Hot," Emma chimed in from her perch halfway behind Natalia's leg. This drew a laugh from all four of them.
"Yeah, it was like... a hundred degrees out there," Rafe shrugged. "That's the south in July though, I guess."
The small talk continued as they made their way to the restaurant. On Olivia's suggestion, they opted for the one with proper service instead of the cafeteria, noting that they served pancakes and muffins there.
"I want scrambled eggs," Emma stated with a subtle defiance.
Natalia patted her on the head. "I'm sure they have those too, sweetie. Why don't you go sit down next to your mom? Best seat in the house, and you can see the ocean and the whole beach from there."
Emma begrudgingly sat down next to Olivia, apparently unable to resist the appeal of the awe-inspiring view.
After the waitress took their order, including Emma's scrambled eggs, Rafe told Olivia about his training, what boot camp was like, and the people he'd met there. "It sounds crazy, but as much as it sucked," he batted his eyelashes at his mother, willing her to remain quiet about his choice of words, "I totally miss it. The way it, like, forced us to depend on each other. I've never bonded with any friends like that."
"That's great, Rafe," Olivia smiled over her coffee mug. "I'm sure you already know, but your mom is over the moon with pride. I mean, it's enough to make you gag."
Rafe laughed. "I know, I know," he slung an arm around Natalia's shoulder, and she leaned into him affectionately. "But I'm glad you'll be back, you know, soon. 'Cause I ship out next month. For Afghanistan."
Natalia drew a hand to her mouth, and her eyes dipped. "I hate thinking about that part, though."
Olivia reached across the table for her hand. "He'll be okay. Right Emma?"
Emma looked up her mother with the most bewildered eyes. It pained Olivia to look, but she held her gaze. The little girl recovered with a sip of her orange juice. "Yup. Rafe is like G.I. Joe, but cooler."
That broke some of the tension at the table, and the rest of the meal proceeded as smoothly as Olivia could've expected. When it was time to meet the psychologist again, Natalia offered her hand to Olivia and she took it, and for a fleeting second she forgot that she was in rehab, that she'd torn her family's life apart with her disease, and that their baby daughter lie in the ground thousands of miles away. They were just a family, walking down a breezy, sunlit hallway, talking and laughing.
"I think I'll go and, um, shoot some pool in that rec room over there," Rafe stated plainly as they reached the doctor's office door.
Olivia's brow furrowed, confused. "Rafe thought it'd be best if the three of us got to talk to the doctor alone, and I agreed," Natalia bit a tight smile, and Olivia's face went blank. She wasn't wild about the idea of them making decisions without her, but she also knew she'd set that train in motion the moment she reached for the bottle that first time.
"Okay, yeah," Olivia nodded, compliant. "We'll come get you when we're done."
The shrink's office was bright and airy, but once again it felt small and cramped to Olivia. Emma sat in between them on a couch, and the doctor pulled up a chair to be closer to them.
"So, Emma... Your mom tells me so much about you," he began. "She says you're gonna be ten this year."
Emma nodded, and twisted the hem of her t-shirt with nervous fingers. "Double digits," she practically whispered. Olivia's eyes welled with tears.
For the first few minutes, the doctor asked Emma about herself, and Olivia knew he was just trying to make the little girl feel comfortable. After all, he knew every detail of Emma's life, down to the last detail, because Olivia had told him. Many days, Emma was all Olivia could talk about. Early on, it was the only thing she could manage.
"So, are you excited for your mom to come home?" His eyes were expectant over his glasses.
Emma looked to Natalia, who stroked her hair. The diamonds on her ring finger caught Olivia's eye, and she remembered the day she'd given the rings to Natalia. The meal the three of them had shared, the closeness she felt, and Emma's unadulterated bliss at the prospect of her family finally coming together. The tears that had held tight to Olivia's eyes now fell unfettered.
"Maybe we don't need to--" Olivia began.
"Olivia," Natalia stopped her. "Don't you think she should..." She let her words trail off, and she and Olivia shared a brief, tense gaze.
"I don't mind talking to the doctor," Emma said, matter-of-fact. Olivia couldn't help but roll her eyes and smile. She was her daughter after all. And right now, Olivia could've offered her a pony and she would've refused without blinking. "Your shoes are funny," she spoke directly to the doctor.
Everyone's eyes moved to his two-toned sneakers. He bellowed a little bit. "Well, yeah, Emma. They aren't very 'doctor-like', are they?" When the little girl shook her head, the man continued. "We're kind of a different place here. We like to let people be who they are, and for me that means wearing my fun sneakers, even to work."
"What kind of doctor are you?" Emma asked.
He leaned back in his chair. "I'm a feelings doctor. I help people deal with their feelings. Feelings that sometimes scare people, or make them do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. Does that make sense?"
"So my mom is here because she has bad feelings? She's not sick?"
Olivia began to speak but the doctor quieted her with a genuine smile. "That depends. Are you worried that your mom is sick? Sick like she was when she had to get a new heart?"
Emma looked off, appearing to consider the question. Then she nodded.
"Well she's not sick, not in that sense of the word. She's not going to leave you, Emma. She's not dying. Your mom was very sad. Very sad. And sometimes adults get so sad," he pushed his hands against his knees, catching Emma's gaze. "They get so sad, that they need help feeling better. So that they can get back to being healthy and happy and--"
Emma's tiny shrill voice cut through the doctor's words. "But we were all sad! We were all sad but she's the only one who left! She made everyone hate me at school, and then she left! And she wasn't even sick! And I... I hate her."
And with that, the little girl fled the room, her ponytail bouncing behind her. Both Natalia and Olivia rose to their feet instantly and the doctor stopped them with a hand to Olivia's wrist. "It's okay, this isn't uncommon. These things tend to go one of two ways. Either the child is so afraid that their parent is physically sick or--"
"Or they're resentful because they're not. I get it, Doctor, thank you. Maybe I should've consulted a psychic instead of trusting your--"
"Olivia," Natalia's voice sounded soft and pleading, and its effect wasn't lost on the other woman. She always did have a way of pulling Olivia back when she was ready to go off. "Let's just go get her, and take this one step at a time, okay?"
The doctor pulled at his beard, and nodded, effectively dismissing them. Emma hadn't gone far, just down the hall where Rafe was playing pool with a young man a few years his senior. She wasn't crying, but she sat as stiff as a board, watching the two men play, her hands pressed firmly against the seat of the chair she was perched on.
Natalia held Olivia back in the doorway with a palm flat against her belly. "Please just take a breath," she begged. "I know this is upsetting, but it's perfectly natural..."
Olivia's eyes narrowed to thin slits. "There is nothing natural about my daughter despising me. I'm not just going to be led around by the doctor, by you... I've lost enough time already."
Natalia straightened up. "Well you may have decided that you've done enough penance here, here in this place, but you're going to have to work a little harder for your daughter. I love you, Olivia, but honestly. Listen to yourself."
Her jaw clenched, staring at the woman she loved and knowing she was absolutely right. A tremble began deep within her, and for a second Olivia feared she might tip right over into Natalia's arms. But then, her features softened. "I know. I know. You're--"
Natalia waved a hand in her face. "It's not about who's right or wrong." The young woman was steadfast and firm, but loving. Olivia was awed.
"Did yoga do this?" Olivia's eyes glinted, a proud, sad smile on her face. "Did yoga make you so strong? So steady?"
The younger woman dropped her chin, and looked through her eyelashes at Olivia. "No, honey. Isabella did."
Olivia had managed to coax Emma from her spot on the billiard-room stool, with the promise of a scoop of ice cream and a walk by the sea. Negotiating with her mother, Emma agreed only to go if Natalia came with them, and as much as it stung Olivia, it also moved her. The woman she loved, the woman who'd been crazy enough to want to spend the rest of her life with Olivia, had truly become Emma's second mommy. In every sense of the word. The circumstances made it bittersweet, but it was wonderful to see them so close.
Rafe had made fast friends with a young guest at the rehabilitation facility, so he agreed to stay on the grounds, and await their return. Natalia gave him a kiss on the cheek before they left to take Emma outside, and Olivia could've sworn she heard the young man comment on Rafe's wicked hot mom. Despite everything else, it made her chuckle inwardly.
Ice cream cone in hand, Emma raced down the stone steps to the beach, ignoring Olivia and Natalia's warnings for her to be careful. The two followed close behind, letting the girl kick off her shoes and flop down near the water's edge.
"It's dripping everywhere!" Emma squealed, licking her hand and her fingers around the cone. "Natalia, come take a bite so that it doesn't fall off!"
Natalia's eyes sought Olivia's permission, and Olivia simply smiled. "Go on. Help her, Mama."
The two made light, albeit messy, work of the remainder of the ice cream cone, and Olivia lowered herself down onto the sand next to them. "Was it good?"
Emma nodded, and Olivia swore she saw faint etchings of guilt on her daughter's face. She thought she'd be relieved, knowing Emma had a least a twinge of remorse for shunning her mother, but it only made her feel worse. She preferred the carefree Emma of old. "You didn't have tons of ice cream while you stayed here?"
Olivia was grateful Emma was speaking to her, even if it was about snack foods. "Nope, not once. Can you believe it?"
"Why not? If I had an ice cream buffet at our house, I would eat it every day." Emma started in on the makings of a sand castle, and Olivia and Natalia helped.
"I didn't really want ice cream, or cupcakes, or cookies. They don't taste very good when I don't have you and Natalia to share them with," Olivia squinted in the sun, but she could feel Emma's eyes turn to her.
"You stopped sharing ice cream with us even before you left."
Her words hung in the air, an oddly astute observation for a ten year old, cutting Olivia to the bone in a way she knew she deserved. She watched Natalia, who wiped a few stray tears from her face.
"I was... oh god, Emma. I love you so much, and I'm so sorry..."
"Can I go play in the water? I won't get my clothes wet, I promise," Emma stood up and looked to Natalia for the answer. Natalia looked around Emma's tiny frame, to Olivia, whose face was pulled into a hard grimace, fighting back tears. Olivia had to love her wife for trying to include her in the decision.
"Of course, Jellybean. Go ahead but stay where we can see you," Olivia croaked.
When the little girl spun away, she danced and squealed and splashed in the water. She was seemingly in her own world, and Olivia was glad of it. She couldn't bully her daughter into accepting her. She couldn't rationalize it. She'd just have to wait for it to come, and better that the little girl wasn't plagued any further by her mother's series of dubious decisions.
"She'll warm up, Olivia," Natalia scooted closer to her and rested her head against Olivia's shoulder.
Olivia clucked her tongue. "I dunno, Natalia. I can't blame her. I can't even remember... I can't even remember half the shit I did those last few weeks."
It was true. The weeks immediately preceding her entry into the rehab program were like a blur to her. She of course remembered the meltdown in her office with Natalia, and she had a few spotty memories of running into Josh and others around town here and there. But what had she been like? Who was the Olivia Spencer that Springfield saw last? She knew she'd done enough in the last month of her downward spiral to erase any notion that Olivia Spencer was the strong, silent pillar for her grieving family. That image had lasted only briefly.
"There were... there were only a few times. Just a few, when you'd clearly lost control of your... drinking... that Emma saw you that way. Most of the time, you just weren't around. Like you knew it was better that way."
"Was it?" Olivia's voice broke, and a strong wind blew saline tears across the bridge of her nose. "Was it?"
Natalia cleared her throat. "Probably. It hurt that you were gone all the time, yes, but you did manage to hold it together for the funeral. More than I can say for Frank."
It'd been literally months since Olivia had even thought of that man, the baby's father, the coward who avoided all of them for months after the baby's death. But in retrospect, at least he allowed himself to grieve. "Never thought I'd say this but... kinda wish I would've went that route."
Natalia bumped against Olivia lightly. "You thought you were doing the right thing. I haven't lost sight of that, so don't you, okay?"
Olivia nodded. "What did she mean, when she said... I made everyone at school hate her? I feel like I remember, but I can't..."
"Um," Natalia sighed. Clearly she was weighing what to say.
"Just... I need to hear it. What the hell did I do?"
"Oh Christ," Olivia moaned, laughing a little now at the sheer unbelievability of it all. "There was more than once?"
Natalia bit her upper lip, and nodded. There was pained sympathy on her face. "Valentine's Day... do you remember the after-school party?"
"No," Olivia ran her hand through her hair, agitation rising in her stomach.
"You kind of..." Natalia hedged. "You kind of went off on everybody who you thought was looking at you funny. Looking at us. Looking at Emma."
"Fucking brilliant, Spencer..."
Natalia reached for Olivia's arm. "You were drunk, I guess, but I didn't really realize it until it was too late. You're... you were very good at hiding it sometimes." She shook her head. "I was doing a very good job of not seeing it, too. And you were totally wrong, that's the thing. It was the strangest thing. Everyone, all the parents and the teachers, they'd been so supportive ever since we lost Isabella. Parents brought over food all the time, and invited Emma all kinds of places. You know, to get her out of the house, let her have some fun, things like that."
"And I told them all to go to hell, I suppose?" Olivia looked at Natalia from the corner of her eye.
"Something like that."
The memory rushed back and made Olivia queasy. "The fuck are you all staring at? Oh, that's right. Emma has two mommies. Two mommies and a dead sister. I bet you're all thrilled that the depraved dykes of Springfield got what they deserved..."
"Fuck," Olivia whispered into the wind. Emma was still frolicking in the surf, her denim skirt wet at the hem despite her earlier promise. "And?"
Natalia looked confused. "You said there was more?" Olivia pressed.
"Oh I don't think we need to--"
Olivia stopped her with a cocked eyebrow. "Really, at this point? What's the difference? If you have to live with the shame, I should too."
Her wife's eyes softened, but her expression was serious. "I have never, ever been ashamed of you, Olivia. A little surprised at your passion for fact-finding when it concerns Betsy Ross and the American Revolution but--"
"Oh God, I remember that. Jesus," Olivia laughed again, this time a bit more genuinely. "I stand by that, though. Sure, maybe I shouldn't have stood up in the middle of the play but--"
"But what, Olivia?" Natalia leaned back now, her arms locked against Olivia's shoulder. Her face was a smiling mix of incredulity and morbid curiosity. "It was a grade school play!"
"That's romanticized, revisionist history, Natalia. Many women were working on flags at the time. Most historians--"
Natalia shot her palm straight up, fingers like soldiers at attention. "Most historians don't have daughters on stage playing Betsy Ross when they make the argument, Olivia."
The older woman looked away, the humor quickly stricken from her face. "I see your point."
They sat there, not speaking, for several more minutes until Emma came running up, out of breath and more than a little wet.
"That your idea of staying dry, little lady?" Natalia asked, winking.
Before she could answer, Olivia stood up, shaking sand from the bottom of her jeans. "Aww, come on, Natalia. She didn't do so bad," Olivia smiled at the little girl, then leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Watch this."
With one swift movement, Olivia swept her daughter into her arms and up over her shoulder, and the little girl screamed with delight. Before Natalia could protest, mother and daughter went scampering through the surf and into the water, completely submerged save for two bobbing heads.
In Olivia's arms, Emma forgot the troubles of the past few months, and they played in the water joyfully, splashing and slapping at surf. When they dragged themselves back to shore, wet, heavy clothes hanging off of them, Natalia had her hands over her eyes.
"You two... are a wreck!" But she laughed and Emma plopped down in the sand once more, catching her breath.
Olivia could feel Natalia's eyes on her. Shaking her head but fighting a smile, Natalia pointed up and down at Olivia's body. "You're, um... you're very..." But she was backing up, matching every step Olivia took towards her with a step back of her own.
"What?" Olivia laughed. "Natalia..." And with that Olivia reached out to close the last bit of distance between them, and pulled the other woman against her hard. She locked her hands around Natalia's waist, and she immediately fought it.
"Oh no you don't," Natalia squeaked, fighting as best she could until Olivia had dragged her into knee-high water. "But I--"
And then they were both in the water, Natalia's skirt floating up to the surface and blooming outward. She held on to Olivia as though her life depended on it, and Emma howled with laughter from the shore.
"Olivia! I can't swim!" she whimpered, digging her nails into the skin of Olivia's strong shoulders. The water lapped at their lips, salty and stinging.
The older woman looked at her, panicked and out of breath. Then her face fell, and her breathing quieted. "Then put your feet down."
Natalia loosened her death grip and examined Olivia's terribly self-satisfied grin. Olivia could feel two feet tangle with her own on the sandy ocean floor. "I hate you," Natalia pushed off her, and began the slow trudge back to shore.
The three of them sat on the beach, soaked to the bone and tired. Aside from Natalia's muttering, there wasn't much sound. Olivia stood up first, and put out a hand which Natalia begrudgingly took. Then she helped her daughter to her feet as well, and they walked slowly back towards the buildings on the cliffs above them. Finally, Emma spoke.
"That was so cool."
Olivia was glad she never let Natalia or the kids come to visit her, at least not before their mandated "family weekend" near the end of her rehab stint. It wasn't that she wasn't thrilled to see them, or that she didn't relish holding Emma or kissing Natalia. It was that she loved it too much. A part of her was very confident that she never would've stayed through the end of her treatment if she'd had even a taste of her "normal life" before she was ready.
The nights were the hardest, lying awake alone and counting down the days until she would once again share a bed with Natalia. Share a home. Share responsibilities, chores. Even the mundane tasks held an enchanting allure all of a sudden. Drying the dishes while Natalia washed. Getting Emma ready for school. Arguing about how many slices of bacon were really necessary on a BLT. When the phone on her bedside table rang, Olivia's eyes immediately darted to the clock. It was midnight on the west coast, and the phone's display said it was Natalia calling.
"Everything ok?" Olivia asked hurriedly, the late hour filling her voice with worry.
A sleepy laugh calmed her nerves. "Yes, everything's fine. Just couldn't sleep. Which is weird because I'm exhausted."
"Long day?" Trying to keep the guilt out of her voice, Olivia stuffed a pillow behind her so she could sit up in bed.
"Yeah. Greenway's just getting on everyone's nerves, which means I get to hear about it," Natalia sighed.
Peter Greenway was a temporary hire at the Beacon, brought in to maintain the status quo while Olivia completed her rehabilitation. He wasn't authorized to make any major decisions, but he was experienced enough to keep the hotel from running into the ground. Natalia had brought him on, respectfully declining to man the Beacon herself and choosing instead to remain a stay-at-home mom for Emma. In retrospect, it was probably the wisest decision, wiser than any Olivia had made recently.
"He's not ruining my hotel, is he?" Olivia joked, knowing full well the answer.
"Oh no, Olivia. You know Peter does excellent work. He's just a little..."
"Something like that, yeah," Olivia could almost hear Natalia's smile. "You'd think they'd be used to that over there."
Olivia snorted a laugh. "Oh go to hell."
On the other end of the line, Natalia sighed. Olivia could hear the sheets rustling and imagined pulling Natalia's body close to her own once again. "Speaking of," she murmured, her voice muffled a bit and then cleared again. "Emma asked me if she could come to church with me tomorrow."
"Huh," Olivia offered noncommitally. "She did?"
"Yeah, I... I wanted to see what you thought about that."
Olivia chewed the inside of her cheek. She wasn't sure what she thought about it. "I don't know, Natalia. I don't love the idea of my daughter listening to Father Ray preach on about--"
"It's not Father Ray. I've started going to a different church. I thought I told you?"
Tension tugged at the muscles in Olivia's back, and her stomach felt twisted and acidic. It wasn't so much the discussion of Natalia's church, but the nagging realization that the world really had gone on without her for the past three months. To be truthful, in her memory she was missing more like six. Half a year in the life of her family, and all she knew of it were the drips and drabs she'd picked up through phone calls and emails.
"Maybe you did, I'm sorry. But anyway," Olivia shook her head in the darkness. "I... I don't know, Natalia. I mean, can I really say no here? Do I get veto power from rehab?"
Natalia must've sensed the frustration in her voice, and lowered her own to a whisper. "I know this is hard, Olivia. I know you feel really out of the loop right now. But I promise you things will get better. You'll be feeling like your old self in no time. Once you get back here, get back in the swing of things..."
"What if I don't?" The question hung in the air, stale and offensive. "What if I can't?"
"I'll tell Emma she has to wait, until I get more settled in the church." That was Natalia's way of dismissing the question outright. Olivia had to smile.
"No, no. Go ahead. If you're sure this church isn't some crazy indoctrination camp, well then... I trust you."
Natalia was silent for a minute or two. "What about you? One more week, huh?"
"Yeah," Olivia stretched, limbs straightening in all directions. "Got my exit interview on Wednesday. Like I'm retiring from the Postal Service or something. They are not going to like my scathing reviews of the staff."
"Olivia," Natalia scolded lightly. "Be nice."
"I'm always nice. But seriously," her voice dropped an octave. "I miss you. I can't... wait to come to you. Help you. Make up for lost time."
"You don't have to--"
"I want to go to Isabella's grave. With you. I want to... make that up to you. And to her."
Olivia could hear Natalia's breath catch in her throat. "I would love that."
"I love you both," Olivia whispered. "I love you both so much."
Bags of candy sat scattered about the meeting room, chairs aligned in a haphazard circle. Pierce was in one corner of the room, dragging a table back to its rightful spot.
"Got a sec?" Olivia drummed her fingers against the back of one of the chairs.
Pierce turned around, and when she saw it was Olivia, she smiled.
"You old bitch, didn't you get enough time in the meeting tonight?"
"Yeah, well I figured I've only got a few days left; I better get my money's worth. What the hell is it with you and all this candy, anyway?" She motioned around the room, and Pierce clenched her teeth, embarrassed.
"Oral fixation. I'm going nuts trying to quit smoking. It's harder than losing the bottle, let me tell you." As she spoke, she popped a handful of Swedish Fish into her mouth. "Like right now, I wanna go out and burn one, but... no. I've got these," she frowned, mouth full of red. "Delicious gummy fish that mock me with their shit-eating grins."
"I'm not envious," Olivia rubbed at the back of her neck.
"So what's up? Sit, sit. The room's empty for the rest of the night."
Pulling a chair underneath her, Olivia crossed her legs and rested her elbows on her knees. "My daughter wants to go to church, my business is being run by a stranger, and my wife is so perfect that it drives me nuts."
Pierce laughed, and yanked at a Twizzler. "First of all, Spencer..." she wagged the limp candy in Olivia's direction. "You make mountains out of molehills. Losing your daughter? That was a mountain you tried to make into a molehill. But Emma wanting to try out some Jesus? Come on."
Olivia shook her head. "It's a joke to you, but--"
"You're not uncomfortable with Emma going to church. You don't even care. You told me yourself: you think Natalia's faith is one of her most beautiful qualities. So don't sit here and tell me you're worried about Emma going to church with your wife."
The older woman stared blankly at Pierce, who waved Olivia up and out of her chair. "Come on, outside. I can't do this with fucking Sweet Tarts."
They stepped outside onto a stone patio, the courtyard lit only by a few spotlights recessed into the paved walkways. The ocean breeze fingered through the tree limbs.
"You're not upset about the church thing, or the guy running your hotel. You're upset about the loss of control," Pierce flicked the lighter and inhaled. A grey cloud of smoke followed.
Olivia leaned against the side of the building and sighed. "Okay... yeah. It's like..." She searched for the words, but couldn't find them. "Screw it, give me one of those."
Pierce's eyes widened a bit. "Didn't think you smoked," she tossed the pack to Olivia and when she pressed the cigarette to her lips, lit it for her.
"Haven't since I was maybe nineteen," Olivia exhaled, the smoke not as smooth as she remembered. Her thoughts were jumbled, and she squinted off into the distance to try and regain them. "I don't know, Pierce. I don't know if I can handle everyone walking on eggshells around me. Looking at me and wondering if I'm just gonna pop off, like... like I did before I left."
Pierce simply nodded, and let her continue.
"And Natalia. She's so sweet and so wonderful but... if she babies me too much, I'm gonna lose it, I know it. I can already see it. She'll coddle me and tell me not to rush into anything, back to work or back to whatever, when all I really wanna do is start my life again."
Ashes blew in the wind as the two women stood there in silence, Pierce regarding Olivia with an indistinguishable countenance.
"Can't stop what people are gonna think about you, Olivia. And from what I've heard about what you were like before you started drinking and all... you aren't the type to really give a damn either way."
"But Emma. She's getting older now and she hears people talk," Olivia hung her head, dropped the cigarette and stubbed the butt out with her shoe.
Pierce nodded. "The only people you've gotta worry about are Natalia and Emma. Ava and Rafe. That's it. You've forgiven yourself. Natalia's forgiven you. Now you go home, and you earn back that trust, you show them what the hell you're all about now. And everyone else?" Pierce took a final drag of her cigarette. "They'll either come around or they won't."
"That easy, huh?" Olivia snorted. "What if they don't?"
Pierce shrugged, then offered Olivia a wry smile. "Nobody ever came around in my case. And I'm still standing, ain't I?"
Olivia stood with her hand over the doorknob for what felt like days. It was the end of August in Springfield, and there was no ocean breeze to temper the intense heat and humidity. Sweat rose at her hairline, and she swiped it away with her shoulder. She hadn't responded to Natalia's last text, asking what time her plane was due to land. It had started out as a fun idea, telling Natalia she'd be home late in the day, then showing up early and surprising them. But now it felt like a terrible idea.
Inside she could hear the sound of the television, its quiet murmur not enough to drown out the plodding of what Olivia could only assume were Emma's clumsy footsteps. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. How did that not drive Natalia crazy? She checked her watch; it was 11:23 on a Saturday. Closing her eyes, Olivia tried to imagine the scene that she would find on the other side of the door. When nothing came to her, she swore under her breath.
"Okay Olivia, just do it. They're not strangers in there. They're family. They love you. Just... do it already," she whispered to herself, steeling her resolve.
Finally, she swung the door open slowly, and peered inside. No one in the living room. She stepped inside and pulled her suitcase silently in behind her.
When she called out in an unsteady voice, it sounded more like a question than a statement. "Honey, I'm home?"
There was a clatter in the kitchen, then Natalia appeared in the doorway. "Oh God! You scared me! What're you doing here?!" She ran to Olivia, who hugged so tight the younger woman's feet lifted off the ground. "Oh my God! Emma! Come down here," Natalia finished her shout up the stairs with a kiss, short but sincere.
Tiny feet appeared at the top of the stairs, and one by one they creeped further down, their pace deliberate. "Who is it?"
Olivia laughed. "Who is it? Whaddaya mean, 'who is it?' You can see me from there, Jellybean!"
Emma trotted down the rest of the steps, her white frilly socks sliding against the wood. "Hi Mom," she said softly, pressing her head into Olivia's belly in the embrace.
Natalia clapped her hands together once. "Okay so, you're here! We didn't have a chance to set up our surprise for you," Natalia winked at Emma. "But that's okay. We'll put it up now!"
"We made a banner for you. It says 'Welcome Home'. But you're already here, so what's the point?"
Emma's tone was sad and defeated, and Olivia felt instantly deflated. It seemed she was still striking out with her daughter, no matter what she did. The urge to feel sorry for herself tickled somewhere inside of her, but she looked at her little girl and shook it off. "I am a giant dope," Olivia said plainly. She squatted down in front of Emma. "I must've messed up my flight times," she glanced up at Natalia, then back at her daughter. "But I think I know how to make it up to you. The whole time I was away, you know what I was thinking? I was thinking 'I can't wait to get home to my Emma and my Natalia, so we can get a puppy!'"
The little girl's eyes welled with tears, and she ran to the couch and buried her head in the pillows. "I don't want a puppy anymore."
Olivia stood up, and sighed. "Ohhhkay, Jellybean. No puppies."
She felt Natalia press her hand against her back reassuringly. "Emma, your mom is trying very hard. Don't you think you should--"
"No, no. It's okay," Olivia interrupted her gently. "You take your time, 'Bean. When you wanna talk, I'm here. I love you very much, but I know hurt you pretty badly too. And you're a smart cookie. You'll know when you're ready." Emma rolled over and sat up, appearing to take in what her mother had said. She didn't look at her, but it was enough of an acknowledgment for Olivia. She turned and squeezed Natalia's sides playfully. "In the meantime, is there any food in this house, Mama? I'm starving!"
In the kitchen, Olivia watched Natalia pull out the makings of a sandwich and some salad in a plastic container. She wore a pair of cotton pants that cut off at her calves, and a t-shirt. It was simple, but standing there in her own kitchen for the first time in so long, it was stunning.
"I'm guessing these are your hippie yoga pants?" Olivia reached out and plucked at the fabric as Natalia swept by her.
"Ha, ha," Natalia chided, her head disappearing in the refrigerator. "Don't think I don't know what you're looking at right now," she reappeared holding a pitcher of lemonade which she thrust into Olivia's arms. "And I have to tell you, insulting the pants certainly won't get you in them."
A laugh shook through Olivia before she could stop it. "That was good, that was good. I'll give you that. Damn, you got funny while I was gone."
Natalia sighed as she slapped a knife into the mayonnaise jar. "Had to. I was a little younger the last time I did this whole 'single mom' thing. Emma is a handful, as you know."
Olivia put her hand over Natalia's to stop her. "I'm sorry I wasn't here, but I'm going to make it up to you, okay? I'll start by making my own sandwich for a change."
"Oh no you don't," the other woman blew a strand of hair out of her face with a puff. "You have a bit of a heavy hand with the cheese and mayo. The goal is to live past fifty, my dear."
"I'll live to be a hundred if you don't ease up on the... what are these? Sprouts? Oh god, send me back to rehab."
Natalia pinched her face into a kittenish pout. "You love me."
"I do," Olivia kissed her puckered lips. "So... what's going on? Who's killed who in Springfield? Jilted lovers? Bank robbers? Give me the dirt."
She appeared to consider it for a second, but then Natalia just shrugged. "I've been keeping a low profile, as I'm sure you can imagine. Things have picked up at Company, which is good for Buzz. Um, Frank... Frank's police chief now."
Olivia wailed. "What? Really? That two-bit--" At Natalia's narrowed eyes, Olivia held back. "That's wonderful. For him."
"Not much else. Little stuff. But I made you a list," she smiled as she offered Olivia a crumb-and-mayonnaise covered finger to lick. "On the fridge."
The older woman stepped over to the refrigerator and pulled a legal pad-sized piece of paper from beneath a "Skinny Cooks Can't Be Trusted" magnet. Perusing the list, a crooked smile crossed her face. It was written in Natalia's neat script, and contained everything from 'Go to a Baseball Game' to 'Clean out the Barn'. The activities were varied and numerous, and some, Olivia could tell, must have been added at Emma's behest.
"I didn't..." Natalia suddenly looked bashful. "Some of them I could've done without you. I just... didn't want you thinking that we weren't here, missing you. Waiting for you."
Olivia crossed the room once again and pulled Natalia in close. Her thumb brushed against the other woman's cheeks and Olivia covered her lips with her own. The kiss was passionate, unhurried, and left them both breathless. "You don't know how much that means to me," Olivia breathed. "I've never wanted to," she yanked the list from the table and held it up to read it. "Paint a hopscotch board in the driveway as much as I do right now."
Natalia laughed. "Okay, some of them were things Emma wanted that I wasn't prepared to negotiate on. Speaking of," Natalia tilted her chin towards the doorway. Emma's petite frame stood there, pages of construction paper in hand.
"I made these for you," Emma held them out towards Olivia, who took a hard swallow and stepped forward to take them. "I don't hate you," the little girl looked down at her hands. "I know I said that, with the doctor. But I don't. I'm just..."
"Confused?" Olivia offered.
"Yeah, confused. And... maybe a little mad."
Olivia looked quickly through the drawings and paper cut-outs Emma had made for her. They were beautiful, and heartbreaking. "You're allowed to be a little mad, Jellybean. I'm a little mad at me, too, if that helps."
The little girl nodded and scampered away, and soon the heavy sounds of her feet up the stairs shook the house.
"She gets her articulate nature from you," Natalia said quietly.
"Yeah," Olivia smiled through newly-fallen tears. "But she gets her big heart from you."
"Don't come yet."
Air hissed from between Natalia's clenched teeth, her expression a mix of frustration and arousal. From beneath her, Olivia could see a single, engorged vein snaking up from Natalia's collarbone, along the otherwise unblemished skin of her neck, and vanishing behind dark locks of hair. The muscles of her upper arms were taut and visible, striations appearing and disappearing with each thrust as she pressed so hard against Olivia that her bones threatened to shatter.
"Don't you dare," Olivia commanded a little more firmly. She wrapped her free hand around the other woman's waist and rolled them over together, their bodies never parting. Nearly-black hair spilled across the pillow, sweat curling it into haphazard twists despite the overworked air conditioner.
"Please..." It was, in one word, a desperate, whispered plea, a prayer, a question, an answer. Olivia had, in her excitement over finally being home, risen before Natalia, and after a quick trip downstairs for a glass of water, decided a wake-up call of another type entirely was just what her sleepy wife needed. An hour later, they were both very much awake, panting and sliding against each other.
Natalia's eyes were squeezed shut, fine lines creasing around her eyebrows. Between hurried breaths she bit and tugged at her lower lip, causing it to redden and swell. Olivia drew her own mouth to flesh there and sucked gently, eliciting another helpless moan from the woman now writhing beneath her.
"Open your eyes, Natalia," Olivia whispered, using all of her strength to force their shared movements to a near stop. When she complied, Olivia found her brown eyes dark and shimmering. "Beautiful," she smiled.
Natalia's hands held tightly to Olivia's sides, their locked grasp an implicit urging, despite her best attempts to match Olivia's calm. The older woman's eyes traveled down Natalia's body, past her bobbing breasts, the thumbprint of her navel, and down to where their bodies joined.
"Watch me," Olivia's voice dropped an octave. "Watch me do this to you."
Another groan, this one tinged with disbelief. Natalia propped herself up on her elbows and guiltily obliged, lowering her eyes. "You cocky, arrogant..." Before she could finish, Olivia pushed the breath out of her with deep, steady pressure.
"But you do love what I do to you," Olivia winked.
Natalia nodded lazily. "Mmhmm."
"Now," Olivia met her gaze once again. "Feel what you do to me."
She felt Natalia hesitate, and knew it was more out of logistics than any embarrassment or prudishness. They were past that now.
"I can't reach you," Natalia said softly.
Olivia laughed a little. "Come on, Yoga, yes you can."
"Now isn't the time to be teasing me. I... oh," Natalia's eyes widened when her fingers found the spot where her tongue usually roamed. Her lips curled into a mischievous smile as she worked Olivia over, and in response the other woman resumed their earlier pace.
"That feels..." Olivia struggled to finish, and Natalia moaned in agreement. They moved together like that for as long as they could stand it. Finally, though, when Olivia whispered that she was about to give in, Natalia dug one set of fingernails deep into the skin at the back of her neck, and they both let go together, bodies seizing and sliding and slowing.
For a few minutes they flirted with the idea of falling back to sleep, eyelids fluttering and lips dragging absently across each other's skin. But when the sounds of Emma's footsteps rocketing down the stairs filled the entire house, Olivia just smiled. "No rest for the weary."
With Natalia in the shower, Olivia made her way downstairs and found her daughter sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. She was watching what looked like a music video, featuring some teenaged quasi-rock stars called The Jonas Brothers. She assumed they must be quite popular, judging by the fact that Emma knew all the words to their song and cooed wildly at the screen every time one particular boy had a close-up.
"What's his name?" Olivia tried to sound casual, but she actually felt a bit nervous being alone with Emma for the first time in a long while.
The girl turned to her mother and then back to the TV. "Nick. He's soooo cute."
"I don't know, I like that curly-haired dorky looking kid." She observed the television with a measure of skepticism.
Emma snorted. "He's Jodie's favorite. Her mom is taking her to go see them in concert next month."
"Oh really?" Olivia spotted an opening, and sat down on the couch behind Emma.
"I asked Natalia if she would take me, but she said I have to ask you."
The little girl surely didn't mince words. "Ouch. That hurt," Olivia said out loud to no one in particular, sighing. "Well Jellybean, I'll talk to Jodie's mom. If we can get you a ticket, maybe she won't mind taking you along. Won't make you go with me." She tapped her palms against her robed knees and stood up. "But if you want some breakfast, you'll have to put up with me. I'm cooking this morning."
Emma turned around and looked at her mother in disbelief. Olivia had to laugh at the girl's exaggerated eyebrow arch, perfected already and she wasn't quite ten years old.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Save the dramatics."
In the kitchen, Olivia pulled a few things from the fridge and a pan from the lower cabinets. Then she set about making coffee, a task she realized she hadn't done in as long as she could remember. Not out of laziness, but rather that she just never had to. Never thought to. It nagged at her for a minute, until she shook her head and flipped the switch on the machine. The aroma of brewing coffee always did have a cathartic effect on her, and Olivia smiled easily once again, remembering her and Natalia's early morning antics. It could be worse, she decided.
"I must still be sleeping," Natalia's sultry morning voice snapped Olivia from her revelry. "I'd swear that was a spatula in your hand."
Olivia scowled at her. "Jesus, you guys are a rough crowd this morning! Give me a break, I know how to make an egg."
Natalia wordlessly wrapped her arms around Olivia and rested her head between her shoulder blades. Olivia leaned back into the embrace, dropping a tiny pat of butter into the hot pan. Emma trotted into the kitchen and pulled up a chair at the table, the wooden legs dragging loudly against the tile.
While Natalia poured them each a cup of coffee, Olivia could feel Emma's eyes watching her every move at the stove. "Can you do me a favor, Bean?" The little girl nodded. "Hand me three slices of bread."
She took the three slices of white bread that Emma handed her out of the plastic bag, and while her daughter watched curiously, Olivia bent one slice slightly and took a bite right out of the center.
"What're you doing that for?" Emma asked, surprised. "You don't eat the toast before you cook it!"
"Ah, but you do when you're making Eggs in a Window."
Emma chewed the inside of her lip, and Olivia knew she was intrigued but didn't want to show it.
"Pull up your chair, and I'll show you," Olivia waved her over, and winked at Natalia who smiled silently, watching the two of them. "First you... here, take this slice and bend it in half a little. Not too much, you don't wanna break it." The little girl complied, her tiny hands gingerly holding the bread. "Now, take a bite and let it go."
She bit a half-moon shape into the bread and chewed it quickly, then watched the bread pop back into shape, leaving a perfect hole in the center. "Hey, cool!"
Olivia took the piece of bread from her and held it up to her eye. "I see you," she teased. "Now, you drop it in the pan like so." The butter sizzled and Olivia lowered the flame on the burner. "Then, for the piece de resistance," she affected her best French accent, and cracked an egg into the center of the bread. "Voila!"
Emma laughed and then caught herself. "That's pretty neat," she said seriously. "I mean, for an egg."
Natalia giggled from the other side of the room, both of her hands wrapped tightly around the coffee mug she held to her lips. "For an egg," she teased.
"A friend of mine taught me that while I was away," Olivia took on a serious tone of her own now. "Because while I was getting better, it was good for me to... to do things for myself that I ordinarily wouldn't do. To help... show me I could still go on. To show me that I could still survive, even though I was so sad and upset."
Emma drew her arms inward, curling them against her chest, and folded her legs onto the chair. When she didn't speak, Olivia looked to Natalia, who met her gaze but could only shrug.
"Mommies, and daddies too, they always want to... make things all better for their family. When Isabella died, sweetie, I just... I couldn't handle it. You and Natalia? You guys were stronger than me, don't you see?" She squatted down and picked Emma's chin up with her finger. "You two, my tough little cookies... I should've come to my family for help, but I didn't. Sometimes," Olivia sighed deeply. "Sometimes even mommies make big, big mistakes that they can't fix on their own."
Emma frowned slightly, but nodded. "The eggs are burning, Mom."
"I suck at this, Pierce. I really do."
On the other end of the line, Olivia's sponsor laughed. "This isn't botox or Viagra, Spence. There's no instant fix. You're just gonna have to eat shit for a while. You blew it big time in the eyes of your daughter, and frankly, I wouldn't be all that upset that she doesn't want you to come to the Jack-off Brothers concert. She's doing you a favor."
"You're a moron, you know that?"
Pierce plowed right past Olivia's dig. "But seriously... how's the sex? As your sponsor, I need to know about all aspects of your recovery."
Olivia smacked her hand against the steering wheel. She narrowed her eyes and bit back a smile, even though she knew Pierce couldn't see her. "Blow me."
"I hope she is. That's why I'm asking."
"You're disgusting, and every time I call you, I'm more and more disturbed."
Laughter reverberated through the phone so hard Olivia had to pull it away from her ear. "Natalia in the car with you? She's hot, Olivia."
"She's in the market picking up some flowers. I'm waiting outside. And yes, you've mentioned that about ninety times. Can we get back to the problem at hand?" She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she waited for Natalia, checking the rearview mirror every once in a while and brushing at an out-of-place hair or a stray eyelash.
Pierce sighed. "I feel for you, Spencer. I really do. You're doing the right thing, being honest and everything. Just keep plugging away. Where's she now?"
"Emma?" Olivia asked. "She's at a friend's house. Natalia skipped church this afternoon so we could go to the cemetery together."
"Whoa, easy tiger. You've been home for five minutes; don't bite off more than you can chew. That's so Olivia Spencer, though, isn't it? To jump directly into the deep end of the pool?"
Olivia groaned. "More like a cannonball. Today just became a triple-whammy."
"How's that?" Pierce asked, sounding confused.
"I'm gonna have to call you back. Frank Cooper just strolled up."
Clicking the phone off as she rolled down the window, Olivia squinted through the sun at the man standing over her. "Frank," she offered flatly.
Not really enjoying the feeling of Frank Cooper towering over her, Olivia killed the engine and hopped out of the car. "Heard you're chief of police these days, Frank. Good for you."
"Thanks," he said, clearing his throat. "I just saw your car and..."
"What've I got? Expired tags or something?" Olivia looked around the car, only half joking.
"I just thought I'd see for myself how you were doing. You're... out?"
Olivia clucked her tongue. "I wasn't in jail, Frank. I was in rehab, and yeah, I've finished the program."
He nodded his head. "Good, good. Good for you. I'm, uh..."
"We don't need to do this, Frank. We don't have anything to say to each other, do we?" She cocked an eyebrow at him and waited.
Frank looked for a second like he was going to simply slink away, but then he wagged a crooked finger at her. "Natalia's a good woman, Olivia, and you--"
"I what, Frank?" She may be fresh out of rehab, but Olivia would never consider backing away from a fight with Frank Cooper.
His voice roped into a near-snarl. "She deserves better than you."
"She deserves better than most, Frankie, I'll give you that," she sighed. Her mind flickered back to the part of her treatment where they talked about forgiveness, and not holding onto old grudges, and all that sappy business she'd fought to keep out of her brain but couldn't. She knew she needed to try a different tack. For everyone's sake. Her face softened. "Look, we've known each other a long time, Frank, haven't we?"
He nodded, pushing his hands into his pockets.
"And you know me, more than a little bit. So I don't need to tell you that, on my list of shit I'd rather not do, this ranks right up there with drinking battery acid or selling blow. But I owe you an apology, Frank. I do."
Frank looked baffled by her redirect, but he stood fast.
"I'm sorry I treated you the way I did, after we lost Isabella. She was your daughter too, and I lost sight of that. No, scratch that. I knew it, I recognized it, but I hated it. Hated you, hated God, hated the world."
His chin rose a bit, lip stiffening. "I know what you mean."
"And you know what I had to do today, Frank? I had to look my daughter in the eye and tell her how badly I screwed up. I had to tell her that mommy doesn't always have the answer, and that mommy made a big mistake. So now this," she motioned to the space between them. "This is cake. You think I'm some selfish lush? I don't really give a damn. All I care about is that you know that I'm sorry."
Frank was as easy to read as a shampoo bottle, and Olivia could see he was considering the olive branch she'd just extended. After a moment, he nodded again. "I'm not proud of the way I acted either. Maybe if things had been different... we could've leaned on each other."
"Maybe," Olivia looked off, not wanting Frank to see the tears in her eyes.
"I should get going," Frank said, kicking one boot against the pavement.
Olivia nodded, then stopped him. "How was she, Frank? Really? While I was gone? She was amazing, wasn't she?"
He turned. "Natalia?" He laughed lightly. "Stronger than any of us, that's for sure. Even before you... left to get help. I'd see her in the mornings, dropping Emma off at school. Running errands, whatever. She'd always beat me to a wave, and she'd always be smiling." Olivia expected to see some of that unrequited love in his expression, but what she saw was only genuine admiration. "Maybe there's something to that god business after all?"
It was Olivia's turn to laugh. "Emma seems to think so."
They shared a beat of silent understanding before Frank turned once again. "You take care, Olivia."
Olivia looked to the sky, to the clouds that had begun to roll in after a sunny morning. It was hot and muggy and already felt like rain, even if the drops hadn't fallen yet. She was about to hop back into the air-conditioned car when she saw Natalia heading towards her, a bouquet of white and purple flowers in her hands.
"Sorry," she sounded out of breath. "Long lines in there!" She swept her hair back with the back of her hand and look quizzically at Olivia. "Everything alright?"
Olivia let her eyes wander up and down the length of her wife's body. Not lasciviously, but with a look that she hoped came across as reverent and loving.
"What is it?" Natalia tried again.
"Nothing," she shook her head and crooked a smile. Around the other side of the car, she opened the passenger door for Natalia. "Let's go see our daughter."
The rain looked to be holding out as they crossed the grassy hill leading up to Isabella's grave. Olivia took Natalia's hand, wrapped her fingers tightly around it, and watched as a flock of birds leapt from the ground and spread out across the sky, disturbed by their footfalls. Despite the oppressive heat, Olivia shivered. The last time she was here, she had turned off her emotions, but like the spigot of a well she never stopped feeling the pressure there, deep and urgent and threatening to escape at any moment. Objectively she knew exactly what she would find there, but when they reached the tiny headstone, her eyes reflexively snapped shut.
She felt rather than saw Natalia kneel down next to her, in front of the marble slab she knew bore Isabella's name. Natalia's name. Her name. Isabella Rivera-Spencer. But unlike the other stones there, on hers there was only one date: October 18, 2009. The day their daughter was born was also the day she had died. Olivia thought that was the gravest injustice of all, to have never heard her cry, or saw her eyes, or felt tiny fingers wrapped around her own. Not once.
A tug at her hand roused her from her thoughts. Olivia looked down to see Natalia, legs folded neatly to her side and her skirt splayed out against the grass where she sat. The light violet color of the fabric looked almost gray in the overcast light, but Natalia's skin seemed immutable, still glowing and alive and beckoning Olivia to come closer. She squat down gingerly, mimicking Natalia's pose except for a gentle hand she placed on her lover's lower back.
"You, um," Natalia sniffled back tears. "You okay?"
Olivia looked down at Natalia's lap. "Yeah, I think so. Can we just sit here for a minute?"
Natalia nodded, and rested her head against Olivia's shoulder. In the silence she could hear everything acutely: a lawn mower in the distance, a squirrel scraping against the bark of the tree nearest them. Her own heartbeat was loudest of all, though, and she wondered if Natalia could hear it too. Surely she could feel it, as close as they were and as much as she knew Olivia would be struggling.
She began to make tiny circles with the hand that was pressed flat against Natalia's back. Her body felt cool compared to the stagnant August air. Her hair smelled the same way it always did, that gentle mix of something floral and something musky. Shampoo and soap and her own skin, the same smell that had filled her nostrils that fateful morning when she threw open the door to the steam-filled bathroom. Olivia drew in a deep breath of that scent, and kept her eyes closed.
"I was so scared, Natalia. So scared. Not just of losing the baby, but of losing you too."
She felt the other woman shift slightly against her. "The whole time I was praying for God to take me instead of the baby. To let her survive."
This took Olivia by surprise. It swirled within her a range of emotions that she couldn't quite understand, but she knew that she had to let them wage whatever battle inside of her they saw fit. She realized she didn't really know much of what Natalia had felt in those first few days. By then she had already turned everything off inside her own heart.
"And when I started really going into labor, I knew. I knew it wasn't me who was in danger. I felt life slipping away, out of me, but it wasn't my own. That's when I knew."
Olivia tried several times to speak, but found she couldn't. She rolled her tongue around in her mouth, trying to force it into action. Finally, it obeyed. "I felt guilty for being relieved that we hadn't lost you as well. Isn't that horrible? I saw a silver lining to the death of our daughter."
Natalia let out a sad laugh. "No, it isn't horrible. It must have been hard, to have those dueling feelings inside of you. Starting with her conception, even. I know you said... that at first you weren't so thrilled."
The older woman winced at the memory. "Yeah, I kinda..."
"No, no. You don't have to make excuses. You're human, Olivia. Just like me. And maybe there was a part of me, too, that... didn't quite know what to make of the gift that God had given me. I don't know, I know I'm guilty of pushing certain feelings aside that don't necessarily fit with my religious and moral views. Not even allowing myself to explore them, stuff like that."
"You mean like you and I?"
Natalia nodded, her brown hair shaking against Olivia's side. "Most obvious example, yes. But that... my feelings for you could've overpowered anything, Olivia. I didn't stand a chance." She looked up at Olivia and smiled, a few tears scattered across her smooth cheeks. "And with Isabella... I just... I don't know. But I know that when I thought about raising a child with you?" Her eyes rolled up dramatically. "I loved the idea of it. It was all I could think about, while I was away. I wanted to be a mother to our child and watch her grow with you."
"I wanted that too," Olivia managed through the lump in her throat. This was an area Olivia wasn't quite sure she was ready to explore. What could have been. What should have been. It felt senseless to linger on the things that would never be, a fruitless, masochistic exercise with nothing positive to come of it. So she tried to direct the subject elsewhere. "Do you come here a lot? Does it help you?"
"It depends. I come when I feel like I need to," Natalia sighed. "And it does help. I feel close to her here. That's why I never could understand how you stayed away for so long."
A question Olivia wasn't quite sure she knew how to answer, she considered it for a minute. "I didn't want to feel close to her," she admitted. "I don't mean for that to hurt you, but I just... I didn't know how to process it all. Easier to stay away, I guess. And I drank... I drank because even all the way at the Beacon, or at Towers, or Farley's or even on the side of the highway somewhere when I'd just pull over... I still felt too close to her."
"And me?" Natalia's voice cracked at the question.
Olivia pulled the younger woman's hands into her lap. "I thought about... leaving you. When even the booze couldn't get keep all those feelings away. I thought maybe I needed to put some distance between us. For my own sake, but also for yours."
Now Natalia openly wept, hard and jarring sobs punctuated by the occasional sharp intake of breath. Olivia curled around to face her, moist grass sliding against her denim-covered legs.
"But I couldn't do it, Natalia. I couldn't leave you. I tried to run, to run and hide at the bottom of that goddamned bottle and I never could quite do even that right. But you could. You were so much stronger than me. Maybe you always were. But you saved me, Natalia, when you gave me that ultimatum. And I'm going to spend the rest of my life making it up to you."
A few deep breaths later, when Natalia had gathered herself enough to speak, she wiped furiously at the tears all over her face. "No, I don't want that."
Olivia's face fell. Instantly she felt the need to be sick.
"No, I don't want to spend the rest of my life with a martyr. Isn't that what you said to me? When I came back from the retreat and begged you to take me back? You said that you didn't want me falling all over myself to make it up to you. You just wanted me. Well I just want you." She reached her hands out to cup Olivia's face. "I know that things will never be the way that they used to be, that we'll always carry this around with us, first losing Isabella and then your addiction. But not every one of our hopes and dreams died that day, Olivia. Some dreams we can still make happen."
"I don't know, Natalia. I'm a little gun-shy around 'hopes and dreams' these days. There's a reason they tell alcoholics to take it one day at a time."
Natalia slid closer to Olivia and rose to her knees. Her face still in her hands, Natalia dropped a gentle kiss on Olivia's forehead. "It was hard enough," she paused for a second, her voice breaking. "It was hard enough putting my little girl in the ground. Don't bury our future, too."
Olivia looked up into Natalia's eyes until she couldn't stand it anymore and clenched them shut. "If I don't even trust myself, how can you?"
"Because I have faith."
She let Natalia just hold her there against her chest for a few minutes. When a light rain started to fall, Olivia peeled herself away from the other woman and frowned at the sky. "Maybe we should..."
"Wait. Just a few more minutes," Natalia held Olivia's wrist in her hand, her thumb stroking the bony protrusion there. Examining her face, Olivia was certain there was never a more perfect set of features than those she found before her. But there was something Natalia wasn't saying, she was sure of it, except just as she was about to ask, the rain picked up.
Hard rain broke suddenly from the clouds, driving into the earth with a noisy clatter.
"Come on," Olivia stood up quickly, and pulled Natalia beneath the cover of a large, leafy oak tree. Rain dripped into Olivia's eyes and she wiped it away with a dry edge of her shirt, then offered it to Natalia.
"Wow, that got bad fast," Natalia snuggled closer to Olivia as the rain fell all around them. "It's beautiful though."
Olivia agreed. "Yeah, I like a good summer shower." The smell of the wet grass and Natalia's damp skin against her reminded Olivia that she was, indeed, still alive. She pulled Natalia in for a kiss, and she could taste the rain and salt on her lips. "I love you, and I love Isabella. You know that, right?"
"Of course I do," Natalia wound a finger through Olivia's wet hair. "That's why... that's why I want to... not now, but eventually..."
When she stopped mid-sentence, Olivia furrowed her brow at the other woman.
"I was thinking we could..." Natalia bit her lower lip and slid Olivia's hand between them, and held it against her belly. "When we're ready, I was thinking we could try again. I want to raise a baby with you. I want to complete our family. Just me and you this time."
Olivia felt the breath leave her chest, but instead of feeling a hollow there, she felt butterflies. Excitement. Anticipation. She was sure the look on her face was one of absolute dumbfounded disbelief, but she couldn't find the will to shake it free. Until finally, a thought entered her mind.
"Well, we can't do it entirely on our own. We'll need some help."
Natalia matched Olivia's smirk. "Anonymous help, yes. Obviously."
The heavy rain began to make its way between the tree limbs and started to soak them once again. Olivia took hold of Natalia's hand and, instead of making a run for it, pulled them both out of the cover of the tree and directly into the rush of the rain.
"Olivia!" Natalia cried out. "Are you crazy?"
Water soaked through her blue button-up shirt and she could feel the raindrops slipping along her scalp, drenching her hair as well as Natalia's. Wetness snaked down Natalia's exposed cleavage and stained her light purple dress a darker shade, and pulled the fabric snug against her curves. Olivia shook her head, unable to believe her ridiculous fortune.
She practically had to shout to be heard over the rain. "If you're willing to try again with me, with all my faults and all my fears and... everything..." she nuzzled her nose against Natalia's face. "Well then I'd be crazy to say no."
And there, in the pouring rain, against the surreal backdrop of the rolling hills of the cemetery, at the site of their greatest loss, their deepest sadness, Olivia imagined that this was what absolution felt like. Rain cascaded down between their bodies, and their lips met in a slippery dance, holding each other tighter than ever before. They were, at that moment, inseparable, indivisible, a force no tragedy could stop, no obstacle could part.
Breathless as they broke from the kiss, Natalia kept her face pressed closely to Olivia's. "When you told me you loved me, across this field, at Gus's grave... I was lost without you, Olivia. We were both lost."
"We found ourselves in each other once. Maybe we just needed to come back here and find ourselves again."
A flash broke through the sky and thunder clapped in the distance.
"We're gonna find ourselves in big trouble if we don't make a break for it right now," Olivia laughed, pulling Natalia's arm tightly against her body. "You ready?"
Natalia smiled through the rain. "Ready."
It felt good to be back to work. She'd sent Greenway home with a hefty bonus for not burning the place down while she was gone, but the Beacon simply was not the same without Olivia Spencer. She'd taken the first few days to get back in the swing of things, before she really started throwing her weight around again. And now, just like old times, her employees regarded Olivia with equal parts fear and respect, and it felt like finally the pieces of her life were falling back into place. She and Natalia were great, Rafe was disgustingly congenial and fun to be around, and now she was back at the head of her hotel, right where she belonged. All that was left was Emma, who was still giving Olivia the cold shoulder more often than not. She tried not to think about it, but at times Olivia feared she may never get back the closeness she and Emma once shared.
The voice at the door startled Olivia, and when she looked up, she was met with Doris Wolfe's cheshire cat grin.
"Mayor Wolfe, do come in."
"Dispense with the formalities, Olivia. It's so great to see you! I've been trying to track you down for three days now."
Doris walked straight past the chairs in front of Olivia's desk, and right on through to Olivia herself, where she leaned down and pulled her into a strange embrace. Olivia couldn't hide the incredulous look on her face, her mouth hanging slightly agape.
"What?" Doris asked innocently. "You've been gone for months. Can't a... friend... hug a friend these days?"
Olivia felt herself take a cue from Pierce's trademark bluntness. "You're getting laid, aren't you?"
The mayor cackled a laugh Olivia knew to be fake. "God, Olivia, honestly."
"That's not an answer."
Doris pointed a finger at the other woman, and looked poised to launch into an argument. But at the last second she pulled up, and let her hand fall into her lap. "Fine, you got me. I met someone. But that is so not relevant right now. I want to know how you've been, for crying out loud."
"I'm... good. Doing as well as could be expected," Olivia shrugged a little in her chair, and smiled smugly.
"Gosh, not very verbose I see. Did they lobotomize you out there in sunny California, too?" As Doris sat down on the corner of her desk, Olivia let out a chuckle.
"They mellowed me out a bit, yeah. You're the only one who doesn't seem to think it's an improvement."
The mayor's face sagged a little. "No, no. I do think it's wonderful that you're doing well. Don't get me wrong. Maybe I'm just a little jealous because now it makes me look like the only crazy bitch in town."
Olivia opened her arms wide, laughing harder now. "This is Springfield, Doris. Need I remind you?"
She nodded her head. "Good point. So--"
Before Doris could finish, the phone on the desk rang. Olivia excused herself for a moment and answered, expecting to hear her assistant's voice on the other line.
The voice sounded vaguely familiar but Olivia couldn't place it. "Yes, who's calling please?"
"This is Mrs. Johnson, Emma's teacher? I... I'm sorry to bother you at work, but I tried calling your house and didn't get an answer."
Olivia remembered that Natalia had a doctor's appointment this afternoon. "No it's no problem at all. Please, is everything alright?"
The woman on the other line sounded tentative, and it grated on Olivia's nerves. "It's nothing serious, really. Emma took a little fall on the playground at recess just now. She's just got a few bumps and bruises, but she's pretty shaken up."
Doris was watching Olivia's concerned expression. "What's going on?" she mouthed silently.
"Okay, Mrs. Johnson, I'll be right there. Tell Emma I'm on my way." She put the phone back onto the receiver and raised a finger to forestall any further questioning from Doris. "Emma took a spill at school. She's okay, but I've gotten run and go get her."
Doris clasped her hand over her heart. "Oh thank god that's all it is. You need a ride?"
Olivia already had one foot out the door. "Nope, I'm good... And Doris?" She raised both eyebrows at the mayor from the doorway. "Don't think you're getting off that easy. I want a full report on this... someone of yours the next time I see you."
Not since her own childhood had a set of middle school steps loomed so large. Anxiety niggled at Olivia as she stood staring at the bright blue double doors, and if it wasn't happening to her, Olivia would've found the entire scenario very amusing. She held her hands at her sides and took a deep breath. From outside she could already hear the footsteps of little children, and the beckoning call of a teacher warning them not to run in the halls.
"This is ridiculous," Olivia finally said aloud, and swung open the metal door.
Inside children milled about the hallway, a break in periods as they all hurried to their next class. Olivia towered over all of them, her heels and suit undoubtedly making her look even more intimidating. A teacher waved her over to her doorway.
"Emma's mom, right? Olivia Spencer?"
Like the voice on the phone, the young woman looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't place either of them. Absently she wondered just how much damage her drinking had done to her memory. She was normally much better at this.
"Ms. Smythe. I think you're looking for Emma's homeroom, it's just down the hall. Second door on your left."
"Thank you," Olivia smiled at the teacher, wondering what the last interaction she'd had with the young Ms. Smythe had been like. Had she been there for Olivia's monumental meltdown? Or surely she had been at the school play? Whatever it was, Olivia made sure to smile extra hard, a silent plea for forgiveness even if she wasn't sure she needed it.
At the door to Emma's classroom, Olivia paused. From the tiny window she could see a mostly empty room, desks and chairs seemingly abandoned. But Mrs. Johnson, Olivia guessed, sat next to Emma at a table in the back of the room. Her little girl looked like she'd been crying, and it broke Olivia's heart.
"Hey Jellybean," Olivia spoke softly as she entered the room. The teacher looked up at her and smiled, waving her over.
"Hi Ms. Spencer. We spoke on the phone. I don't know if you remember... I also had Emma last year?"
A light bulb went on in Olivia's head. "Mrs. Johnson, yes. I believe... I believe I owe you an apology," Olivia extended her hand to the other woman, who accepted it warmly. The last time she'd stood face to face with Mrs. Johnson, she seemed to remember chewing her out in a most indecorous fashion.
"Not necessary, Ms. Spencer. I'm glad to hear things are going well at home."
Olivia nodded. It made her uncomfortable to know that complete strangers knew some of the most intimate details of her life, but this woman seemed kind, and definitely cared a great deal about Emma.
"So what happened, Emma? You get scraped up on the playground?"
The little girl looked up at her mother and blinked a few times. "Where's Natalia?"
Olivia swallowed, and took a moment to choose her words carefully. "She's at an appointment. Mrs. Johnson called me, and here I am."
Emma looked beyond Olivia, out the window where some trees rattled against the glass. "I fell. First week back at school and I already look like a total dork."
Her daughter had begun to sound less and less like herself these days. Olivia felt very much to blame for her daughter's sudden cynicism and self-doubt, but she tried to remain focused on the present, and not the mistakes of her past. "Oh Em, it'll be okay. I..." Olivia had a difficult time uttering the cliches most parents would spout off by rote memory. After all, the last year had tested the little girl's faith in every one and every thing imaginable, forced her to grow up in a way Olivia regretted but could not reverse. It was naive to think some trite phrases and a pat on the back would do the trick this time. "Why don't we skip out a little early today? We can talk over some ice cream. That is, if you're still into ice cream. Otherwise we could always do coffee and a scone?"
Emma rubbed her nose and smiled, and even Mrs. Johnson ventured a laugh.
"Yeah, I think ice cream might help," she sniffled in her best matter-of-fact voice. Olivia rounded up Emma's things, including homework for the class Emma would miss, which garnered a groan from her daughter. "Oh brother. Thanks mom. Really."
Olivia turned to Mrs. Johnson. "It's the internet, isn't it? And all the hormones in the milk? Please tell me all the other kids are growing up this fast, too?"
The teacher smiled wistfully. "Faster every day."
Even though she had wanted to avoid Company, Olivia knew that she couldn't hide forever, and at this particular juncture, soothing her daughter's pain outranked protecting her own ego. Not to mention that Springfield was a small town, and therefore the very idea of "hiding" was a complete and total farce. She would've probably been better served announcing her return from rehab in the newspaper, coupled with a photo of her holding her latest sobriety token like a prize-winning bass. But it actually hadn't gone that badly, with Buzz greeting them warmly and crafting a table's worth of comfort food that returned a smile to Emma's face. The conversation between mother and daughter was light, but Olivia took it as a sign of progress that Emma had lowered her guard enough to laugh with her, even calling her "Mommy" once again.
Outside in the rear parking lot, as she held the back door of the car for Emma to climb in, Olivia spotted Buzz sneaking away for a cigarette amongst the dumpsters and the plastic delivery crates.
"Hang out here for a sec, okay Emma? I'm gonna go talk to Buzz real quick."
Emma nodded and Olivia trotted back towards the restaurant.
"That shit'll kill you," Olivia chided.
Buzz smiled defiantly and took another drag. "Pot, meet kettle."
"Damn, you go away once for rehab and you lose your ability to be self-righteous forever? That hardly seems fair."
They shared a laugh and Buzz shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno, in this town everyone's got a pretty short memory. You could be back on your high horse in no time."
She regarded the man before her with affection. "Thank you, Buzz, for everything today. Emma's had such a rough time lately, and it was great to see her smiling like that again."
He sighed. "We may have lost Isabella, Olivia, but we're still family. For better or worse, you know... we're linked now. Forever. Your brood and mine. I know you spoke to Frank."
"Ah, you do?" Olivia looked at him with a skeptical grin. "And?"
"And thank you for not cutting him out. He's still a little lost after the baby. And he still cares so much, about Natalia, about Rafe, Emma... I appreciate that things were really difficult for a while, but thanks for extending him a little... a little grace."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Not something I'm generally known for, is it?"
"Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks."
"Call me an old dog again, Buzz," she cocked a thumb towards the dumpster. "And they'll never find the body. You're coming to Rafe's big send-off party, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
When Natalia strode into the farmhouse kitchen, her face twisted in surprise.
"What're you doing home? It's so early!"
Olivia stood up from the table where she was working on her laptop and pulled Natalia in for a quick kiss. "So good to see you too!"
The other woman apologized with another kiss. "No, really? Everything okay?"
Dropping back into her chair, Olivia grimaced slightly. "Eh, better now. Emma kinda... bit it on the playground today and feels pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. She's alright, skinned knees, nothing major. I let her play hooky the rest of the day, took her to Company for a snack."
"Oh Olivia, you sure she's okay? Where is she? How did it go... with the two of you... at Company?"
"What is this, twenty questions? Come sit on my lap if you're going to give me the third degree, Mama." Natalia obeyed, and wrapped an arm around Olivia's shoulder. "She's upstairs, working on her homework."
"And the two of you?"
"It went well. She didn't give me the silent treatment or anything. I'm just glad I could be there for her."
Natalia ran her fingers across Olivia's cheek. "I'm glad too. Baby steps."
"Baby steps-- that was going to be my next question. What did the good doctor say?" Olivia's insides quivered at the question, and she squeezed the woman in her arms a little tighter.
"That I'm healthy as an ox. Totally, completely fine. That it's safe to... that we can try whenever we want. Whenever we both decide we're ready."
Olivia squinted at her. "He called you an ox? What is he, blind?"
Natalia pinched Olivia's arm, eliciting a yelp from the older woman. Olivia's cell phone began to vibrate against the table, and from her lap Natalia swatted her hand away.
"I'll get it, I'll get it. Unless it's your other woman calling," Natalia tilted her head slightly to look at the caller ID screen. "Nope, just Pierce. I think I'll take this one."
"Hey, Nat--" Olivia gave up when Natalia swiftly answered the phone with a lilting, sing-song voice.
"Pierce, how lovely to hear from you... How'd you guess... Well, no, she's here but I wanted to speak to you first. You see, Olivia is, as I'm sure you already know... yes, impossible..." Natalia shot the other woman a disapprovingly stare. "I know. And I wanted to invite you to my son's going away party next week... Oh you would... well that's great! I'll give you over to Olivia now, and she'll give you the details. I look forward to meeting you again... Oh, stop... Here she is."
Olivia snatched the phone away with great haste. She returned Natalia's stare with one of their own, and then stuck her tongue out at her to further punctuate her argument. "Pierce, you can't possibly want to come to--"
"Uh, wouldn't miss it for the world, Spencer." Pierce was laughing now, and Olivia knew there was no sense in arguing with either woman.
"Fine. It's next Saturday. You're in luck, I know the owner of the nicest hotel in town. I can get you a full suite with--"
Natalia stood in front of Olivia and furrowed her brow deeply. When Olivia pretended to ignore her, she pushed her hands to her hips and stamped on foot on the kitchen tile. "Olivia!"
"I mean, you can stay here," Olivia corrected herself with zero enthusiasm.
Pierce sighed. "Why that's so gracious of you, Olivia. I can hardly wait."
"Don't look at me like that."
Olivia softened her eyes at the other woman. "Like what?"
"Like that," Natalia squeezed her features together into a scowl. "Those big green eyes... you know I can't resist."
"That's sorta the point."
Natalia brought her hand up between them and covered Olivia's eyes with smooth fingertips. "There, now I can firmly say no to you. No."
Wriggling in the sheets, Olivia scooted up so that her eyes were once again visible, and she could feel the band of Natalia's ring against the bridge of her nose. She batted her eyelashes. "Come on, wifey. Stay in bed with me."
"We're getting out of this bed," Natalia spoke confidently, but her actions betrayed her. Minutes after her proclamation, Olivia could still feel her lover's warm body against hers, and instead of retreating, she'd actually tucked her thigh in between Olivia's legs. Where her fingers rested against Olivia's face, the older woman planted tiny kisses on her palm, and laughed into the skin there.
"You're so full of shit," Olivia breathed. Her choice in language was met with a hard shove below the sheets, which, given the position their bodies were in, was not entirely bad. "Ooh, do that again."
At this Natalia groaned and rolled over, seemingly ready to finally succumb to the day. But Olivia pulled her back in tightly, one arm all she needed to rope Natalia's tiny frame back in against hers. "Hey! We've got like, fifty people coming over today! Are you going to finish all the cooking and cleaning?"
This time Olivia laughed into Natalia's ear. "I'm the one who said we should have it catered. And Natalia, honestly," she nibbled at the other woman's neck, prompting a reluctant giggle. "You're always cleaning. Nothing's ever not clean in this house. I think I saw mice picketing outside. You're starving them out, and they're pissed."
"The house is fine, you're right. But you need to clean out that barn, Olivia. The kids always end up playing out there, and I don't want one of them stepping on some rusty old tool or--"
Olivia squeezed the delicate body in her arms. "Yeah, yeah. I get it. Still don't understand why we couldn't hire somebody to do that, too. It's not too late you know. I bet I could get Jasper from the hotel to come out and haul away whatever junk is still lying around. It's like Amityville Horror in there. I hate--"
"That sounds oddly like whining, Olivia Spencer. And I thought you were turning over a new leaf?" Natalia rolled over in the embrace, and looked into Olivia's eyes. "Tackling things yourself? Not throwing money at the problem?"
It was Olivia's turn to groan bitterly. "You could fill a forest with the 'new leaves' I've turned over in my lifetime, Natalia. Do I really have to stick to this one?"
All brown eyes and pouty lips, Natalia purred at her. "I think it's sexy when you get all sweaty and mad out there in the barn. A little hay in your hair..."
"Oh, well in that case..." Olivia felt her entire body tingle at the thoughts that entered her mind.
"Great!" Natalia clapped her hands and wrested herself free from Olivia's grasp. "Then it's settled. Time to get up!" She looked unmercifully at Olivia, who lie in shock, woefully disappointed at having been played.
"You tricked me," Olivia moaned, sliding out of the sheets.
"You're too easy," Natalia shrugged, slinking off into the bathroom.
The barn was hot and musty, and in the rays of morning sunlight, Olivia watched flecks of dust float and spin and curl like smoke. Rafe had arrived shortly after Olivia dragged herself out of bed, but he begged off helping her in the barn with some excuse about setting up tables and chairs in the yard. If he wasn't scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan in less than twenty four hours, she may have given him a hard time. But as it was Olivia rather liked the idea of him out in the grass, where Natalia could see him from the kitchen window while she finished preparing for the party. He was, she reminded herself, Natalia's little boy. And he'd surprised all of them by growing into a decent man, instead of the quarrelsome punk he almost was. Olivia assumed that whatever moral foundations Natalia had laid as his mother, the military and the death of Isabella had cemented.
Olivia was vaguely aware of the sound of a car door slamming shut until she kicked over a corroded metal bucket with the edge of her shoe, and her senses dulled. Beneath the bucket, amongst dried leaves from who knows when, a half-empty glass bottle thumped against the dirt. She recognized the faded label immediately, once as familiar to her as her own reflection. Like putting on a pair of pants in the dark, her body instinctively knew its dimensions, sensed its gravity. In slow motion she picked it up, turning it in her hands. She brushed the dirt from the face of it. Noted the contents were still unmolested inside.
Unscrewing the cap to the bottle of vodka felt at once completely natural and completely foreign to Olivia. Her hands trembled and she closed her eyes, thinking for a moment about her past. Her future. The love she had found in Natalia. The gaping wound from the loss of Isabella that had only just begun to heal. Memories flashed through her mind, good ones and bad ones, some in vivid color and others in grainy black-and-white. And now Natalia wanted to try again, to have another baby with her. With her eyes still shut Olivia pictured her beautiful wife once again swollen and round with pregnancy. That dimpled smile that shone with the pride of motherhood. She tried to force out the ones that scared her; images of Natalia, knees bent into a doctor's chair, her face contorted in pain. Olivia could feel her heart rate climbing uncontrollably.
The voice came from the barn door that sat halfway open, but, backlit by the sun, Olivia couldn't make out who it was. She shook off the ringing in her ears that dulled the sound, and watched as the figure stepped fully into the shade of the room.
Pierce stood in front of her in a faded black t-shirt, blue jeans and worn out sneakers. Her brown hair fell around her eyes, making them look soft, almost sleepy. But Olivia knew that Pierce was focused on that bottle in her hand.
"This, uh... this isn't what it looks like," Olivia thrust the words from her mouth in a hurry, eager to explain herself.
"What does looks like?" Pierce blinked, her expression flat.
Olivia shook her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "No, I wasn't... I didn't... I just found this here. I was about to... I was about to dump it out. How'd you get here, anyway? Thought I was picking you up from the airport in a few hours?"
The other woman shrugged, and walked slowly through the old barn. "Got an earlier flight. Rental car. GPS. It wasn't too hard. Natalia sent me back here. She's in the kitchen up to her elbows in something that looks very... mayonnaisey."
They both stood there for a few moments, at an impasse. Finally Pierce peeled a cigarette from her pocket and lit it with a burst of orange flame.
"So you gonna dump it or what, Spencer? You thinkin' you might wanna--"
Purposefully, and with more force than really necessary, Olivia overturned the bottle and let the contents splash on the floor. It created a muddy puddle, the smell of alcohol briefly filling the barn. "I don't wanna do anything that's going to jeopardize my recovery, Pierce." Olivia tossed the bottle in the giant rubber trash bin, and bared her empty, upturned palms to the other woman.
Cigarette hanging from her lips, Pierce clapped her hands together slowly, an awful grin spreading across her face. Olivia strode up to her and plucked the cigarette from Pierce's lips, and pressed it to her own, taking a long, deliberate drag. Then she blew the smoke sharply over her head and stubbed out the butt against the ground.
"You doubting-fucking-Thomas. You wanna check my breath, make sure?" Their faces were inches apart, but Olivia towered over the other woman. They shared a stare, until a hard-fought truce was forged through a mutual nodding of chins.
Sunlight burst through the door, followed by an equally bright and beaming Natalia. But her smile flattened into a slightly befuddled look when she found Olivia and Pierce standing nearly nose-to-nose.
"This isn't what it looks like!" They recited the words in unison, a laugh spreading between them. They stepped back from each other and Pierce smiled awkwardly while Olivia simply pushed her hands into her pockets.
Natalia took them both in, first one then the other. "I'm not really sure what it looked like, to be honest. But I'm not worried. You kids about done in here? I think maybe Pierce can help me out in the kitchen, and Olivia, it's probably time you got in the shower."
Olivia looked sideways at Pierce. "See what I have to live with? Constant orders."
Pierce watched Natalia as she led the way across the yard and into the kitchen.
"You poor, poor thing," Pierce remarked. Olivia snapped her fingers against the other woman's shoulder when she caught her looking a bit too intensely. "Oh, I'm really going to enjoy this visit, Spencer. I really am."
While she was in the shower, Olivia considered the fork in the road she had just faced. In a way, it had been easy to refuse the bottle, to not give in to temptation. She didn't crave alcohol because she didn't need or want it; her life was on track and she was happy. But she worried, as she ran a towel through her wet hair, what that decision would be like when she wasn't so happy. Olivia was a realist, after all. Even with the love of her life at her side, there were bound to be obstacles along the way, and unpleasantness was just a normal part of life. She took comfort in her self-awareness, though, and smiled nostalgically when she remembered all the nights she spent hashing out her problems with Pierce. The young woman downstairs was, she hated to admit, a huge part of her recovery. Olivia had spent years carefully crafting the air of confidence and power, while Pierce had the real thing in spades. It was easy to forget her sponsor was only twenty eight years old, and Olivia instantly wished she knew more about the other woman.
Sliding into her jeans, Olivia couldn't help but notice they'd become her uniform as of late, at least whenever she wasn't at the Beacon. She felt comfortable in them, and comfortable in the skin beneath them. Maybe for the first time in her life, Olivia was fairly certain it didn't matter what she had on, just that she comported herself in a way she could be proud of, a way she'd never be afraid that her daughter would see.
Downstairs she could hear the hum of activity in the kitchen, so Olivia padded across the living room and stopped just short of the doorway. Natalia was inquisitively questioning Pierce, and Olivia was curious.
"Okay, I really don't know what I'm doing here... How big should these slices be?"
Olivia heard Natalia laugh. "Hm, not slices really. Just chop it up. Little bits."
"I notice you stuck me with the onions. Even Olivia's never seen me cry... are you sure we're ready for this, Natalia? We've really only just met."
From the living room Olivia stifled a groan. Pierce was flirting with Natalia. Rolling her eyes, a fleeting thought about a zebra and its stripes crossed Olivia's mind.
"Something tells me you'll manage. So, you were saying?"
The thump of a knife hitting the cutting board sounded hesitant at first, then almost rhythmic. "I wasn't Olivia's first sponsor. I wasn't even her third. They normally pair up closer demographically... but your lovely wife mowed through the fortysomethings in her first two days."
She could hear the wince in Natalia's voice. "Oh my goodness. So you're..."
"Thirtysomething? Nope, not yet. Olivia made the gals in that age bracket cry, too," Pierce sighed. "Nope, I inherited Olivia and her boatload of issues because no one else could tame her. But something tells me you can relate."
Now Natalia sighed. "I know she can be... prickly on the outside. But you obviously got to her. You know what she's really like. What she's capable of."
Olivia shifted on the balls of her feet. She started to feel like perhaps she shouldn't be eavesdropping.
"She's great, are you kidding me? I mean, just a great person to be around... in that completely insufferable way." The sounds of movement in the kitchen stopped. "She's really committed, Natalia. To making this work, to getting better. I've never seen anybody love someone like she loves you. It's... tenacious."
"I love her too, Pierce. We were thinking... we were thinking of--"
"Whoa, who gave Junior the knife?" Olivia blew in like a cool breeze, putting the brakes on Natalia and Pierce's conversation. She wagged her finger at the young woman at the table. "This one only knows how to make eggs and virgin daiquiris."
Natalia leaned in to peck Olivia on the cheek. "She's doing a fine job, and you," she pointed her elbow to the refrigerator. "Are just in time to peel those potatoes. We've got an hour before people start arriving and I still need to wash up."
Left to their own devices, Olivia and Pierce took turns eyeing each other in between chops and peels.
"You're really going to leave your hair like that? You look like Nick Nolte's mugshot."
Pierce snorted. "Still, a vast improvement over your look the first night I met you."
"Ugh," Olivia tossed a handful of potato skins aside. "Don't remind me."
"Humility, my dear," Pierce wiped at her eyes with her wrist. "Ain't it somethin'?"
Olivia couldn't hear herself think over the sounds surrounding her. If she could've contemplated it that deeply, she imagined she would've been quite moved by the scene before her. Rafe was slinging a football around in a game of touch, with James and Jonathan trash-talking him on the other team. Daisy and Ashlee had returned for the weekend from California, in a move that surprised Rafe so much he actually cried. Everyone who'd been invited had showed, which surprised Olivia so much that she cried. In the bathroom, of course, but she'd cried nonetheless. When Phillip sat down next to her, Olivia snapped her head around and shot him a wide smile.
"You doing okay over here?" Phillip asked, dropping his soda on the table in front of him.
Olivia nodded. "Just taking it all in, I guess. Can't believe everyone's so..."
"Pleasant? Supportive? Yeah, it's kinda unbelievable isn't it?"
Olivia plucked at the white tablecloth, working over the same spot with her fingertips in a repetitive motion. "I knew everyone would be here for Rafe. Kid's going off to war for Christ's sake. But," she dragged her fingers to a stop. "I thought I'd get a few more sideways glances. Hear a few more whispers."
Phillip sighed. "Look around you, Olivia. Everyone of us has been judged at some point. Sometimes unfairly so. Maybe everyone's just tired of it. Tired of working so hard to stay so damn angry."
"I don't know about you," Olivia tugged at the skin just below her eyes. "But I think all those years of animosity gave me premature wrinkles."
Phillip smirked. "You look beautiful, Olivia. You came back and you just... you look better than you ever have. I suppose she's got a lot to do with it?" He tilted his chin towards Natalia, who was busy shuttling desserts out of the kitchen with Doris and Blake. She moved confidently and smiled often. She looked free.
"Oh yeah. Still can't figure out what she sees in me, but I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth."
They shared a laugh, and Olivia shook her hair out from beneath the collar of her shirt. More to herself than to Phillip, she remarked, "What is with those two, anyway?"
He looked quizzically at Olivia, who motioned to Doris and Blake, who laughed and shoved each other as they set down pies and cookies on the long buffet table in the grass. When he just shrugged, Olivia continued what would have been her internal monologue aloud.
"I noticed it when they came up the driveway. Doris was all smiles, practically cackling with laughter. You know that irritating laugh of hers. Doesn't seem to bother Blake. In fact, it looks like she..."
Olivia trailed off when Pierce appeared at the table and plopped into a folding chair next to them. Phillip eyed the fresh desserts and then the two women at his table. "That apple pie is calling my name. I'll leave you two alone to speculate."
Pierce hurried down a piece of what Olivia guessed was her fourth or fifth hot dog. "Speculate 'bout what?"
"Doris and Blake," Olivia pointed her chin towards them. "What's going on there?"
"Hmm," Pierce chewed another bite, and appraised them. "Totally fucking."
Olivia did a double-take, her eyes wide at Pierce, then across the yard to Doris and Blake. "You think? Get the fuck out."
"I don't know, Spence. I don't know 'em from Adam. But they look like..." Pierce's words sounded soft and muffled through the remainder of bun she unceremoniously shoved into her mouth. As Pierce and Olivia watched, Blake pinched Doris's side, and the mayor swatted her away with a gentle swipe.
"Oh Doris, you little..." Olivia stood up, palms shaking the table as she rose. "And for god's sake, Pierce. Slow down with the eating. You're scaring the kids."
As she crossed the lawn, Pierce shouted something back at her, but Olivia didn't bother listening. Her eyes were fixed on the mayor of Springfield, who had sashayed over to an empty chair and sat down.
"You," Olivia didn't sit down. "You've been flitting around here all afternoon, all happy-go-lucky and perky. When were you gonna tell me?"
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about, Olivia," Doris smiled defiantly.
Olivia hated hearing her own words thrown back at her. "Don't be cute, Doris. You and Blake? She's your someone, isn't she?"
Doris pointed her fork, full of pie, at her. "Yup. You got me."
Olivia had already opened her mouth, expecting to volley back something snide, when Doris's confession left her momentarily speechless. "Wait, seriously? That's it? You aren't going to... to deny it? Or make a big scene, demand I keep my mouth shut?"
The mayor shook her head, relishing a bite of the sweet dessert. "We started dating a few months ago. Kept it quiet for a while but... when we heard about the party, we decided we'd come together. Stop hiding. Let the chips fall where they may." Now Doris shrugged. "Kinda like... our version of the Bauer barbecue."
Olivia, in her peripheral vision, watched Blake handing out plates to Frank and Buzz. "She's not very religious, is she?"
Doris laughed. "Not that I'm aware of."
"You might want to take her car keys. Just in case," Olivia tried to suppress a smile, but simply could not do it. "And how are the two of you being received?"
The other woman shook her head from side to side. "Well enough. But I don't think everyone's actually caught on yet. We're kinda counting on Ashlee's big mouth taking care of anyone who's still clueless by the end of the party."
When Olivia felt a hand on her shoulder, she turned to find Blake Marler's smiling face. "Olivia. No dessert for you?" Blake offered the plate she held in her hand to Olivia.
"Oh, um... no. Thanks. I'll get some a little later. I'm gonna... it's really good to see you, Blake. You look," Olivia backed away, smiling and wagging an upturned thumb at Doris. "You look great."
She was still murmuring to herself, trying to fill in the blanks around Doris and Blake, when Natalia showed up at her side, throwing her arms around Olivia's neck. "Talking to yourself?"
"Yeah... Doris and Blake. They're--"
"Together? Yeah, I noticed," Natalia just looked up at her unphased, her big brown eyes shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. "Can I get your help in the kitchen for a minute? I think the coffee pot just met an untimely death."
The remains of the party lay scattered on the lawn, chairs and tables and coolers half-full of soda cans. What was left of the sunlight filtered through the trees at the far end of the property, basking Olivia and Pierce in a twist of shadows and dusk. At the table where they sat, Pierce pushed around a lump of potato salad with a plastic fork. It was her umpteenth serving of the stuff, and Olivia wondered where it all went on that tiny frame of hers. The crowd had come and gone, but Olivia could hear Emma softly murmuring a few feet away in the grass, a pair of headphones in her ears and a drawing pad on her lap. Natalia had gone for a walk with Rafe, one last requirement she demanded before he go off with Ashlee and the rest of his friends for a night out. Her heart ached when she thought of her wife, a mother sending her son off to war, proud but worried. To her surprise, Olivia found herself feeling much the same thing, her affection for the boy having increased tenfold in recent weeks.
Olivia and her sponsor sat in relative silence for many minutes, content to just watch the sun fade and get lost in their own thoughts. But when Natalia appeared around the corner alone, both heads raised slowly.
"C'mere, mama," Olivia waved Natalia, who'd obviously been crying, into her lap. "Rafe finally wrestle out of your grasp?"
Natalia smiled weakly. "Yes. I think I left welts." She settled against Olivia, who nuzzled her nose into her wife's cheek.
"You'll see him off in the morning though, right?" Pierce asked, sympathy in her eyes.
"Yeah, we will," Natalia sighed. "I just..."
As Natalia trailed off, Emma trotted over to where they sat, her ponytail bouncing behind her. She bopped to the music in her ears, pulling a bottle of water off the table and taking a long swig. As she rubbed her mouth with her sleeve, Olivia tugged on the wires of her headphones.
"Take those off a sec, Emma. Come talk with us."
The little girl scowled at her mother and hid behind Natalia's back. She'd been an angel all day, but when she got tired she got defiant, especially now with her and Olivia's strained relationship.
Natalia slid off Olivia's lap and wiped absently at the tears welled in her eyes. "Emma, that's not how you treat your mother. Especially after this wonderful party she worked so hard to throw for your brother."
"You did most of the work," Emma spat out the words and then tried to bite them back, but it was too late. Olivia dropped her head, frustrated. Natalia began to speak, but Pierce sat up in her chair, her hands on her knees.
"Hey, what's that your mom calls you? KidneyBean?"
Emma looked at Pierce skeptically. "Jellybean."
"Smellybean? That's weird, you don't seem all that smelly to me."
Now Emma fought back a smile. "Not smelly! Jelly! Jellybean!"
"Alright, Jellybelly, well... there's something about your mom you should know. That is, if you're up for listening." Pierce waited for the little girl to consider her offer, and when Emma nodded, she pulled up a chair and motioned for Olivia's daughter to take a seat. Olivia sat watching them, her hands flat against the tablecloth, and felt Natalia's hand rest on her shoulder.
"Leaving you to go and get better... that was the hardest thing your mother has ever had to do. In her whole life, the hardest thing ever. And you and your mom, you've been through a lot, right? Even way back, before you ever knew Natalia and Rafe?"
Emma nodded solemnly, taking a cue from Pierce's suddenly serious countenance.
"So now imagine all that, all that you guys have been through, and even all that doesn't compare. Nothing compared to leaving you. I met your mom when she was at her lowest, when she was sad and lost and really confused. And you were all she could talk about. Now she and I, we've got a lot in common. We've both been through some really tough stuff, but I never had a daughter or anybody else I had to worry about. It's always been just me, so I had it easy. But not your mom. She knew leaving you and Natalia would hurt you, but she had to do it anyway, so that you could all be a family again."
Olivia's body shook with sobs that she tried to contain. Natalia's hold on her shoulder got tighter, and she watched Emma watching her.
"When your baby sister..." Pierce continued carefully. "When Isabella died, your mom couldn't protect you. She couldn't protect Natalia. But when she went away, when she agreed to get help, that was her way of protecting you from... something worse. I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. I remember when my sister was your age, she used to hate when I told her, 'Someday, you'll understand.' It might not make sense right now, but someday it will. I promise you."
Emma appeared to be taking stock of what Pierce had to say, her face changing from confusion to understanding then back again. There was a minute of silence, when only the sound of her tiny fists wiping at her wet eyes filled the space between them. "You have a sister. So then it's not just you. You're not all alone."
Pierce smiled, and Olivia saw something on her face she'd never seen before, not in all the months they'd spent together. It was regret.
"I did have a sister, Emma. She, um..." Pierce stopped and looked at Olivia, implicitly asking for her permission to go on. Olivia swallowed hard, and nodded even though she wasn't quite sure where this was headed. "She was a couple years younger than me, you know, so when I was a teenager, she was just a little older than you are now. Cute as a button and I loved her so much. But one day my mom asked me to pick her up from school... she'd stayed late rehearsing for a play. And I didn't want to, I didn't want to pick her up. I was mad, and I was rushing and I..." She shook her head at the memory. "We got into a car accident, Emma, and... she died. She died and it was my fault."
Emma's hands sat knotted in her lap, and Pierce reached over and placed her fingers gently atop them.
"It was my fault, and my parents... they could never forgive me. I loved them, but they never forgave me. And it wasn't until recently that I was able to forgive myself. That's why it's so important that you give your mom a chance, that... that you both try your hardest, even if it hurts. Because I know you're mom loves you. And you love her too."
The little girl looked moved, but not shaken. She blinked back tears, and when she looked across the table at her mother, Olivia clutched at her heart and mouthed the words 'I love you.' Slipping off her chair, Emma moved to slide in between Olivia and Natalia, and climbed into her mother's lap. They cried, heads pressed together, tears soaking their clothes. When they separated, Natalia swept the salty slick hair out of Emma's eyes, and then did the same for Olivia.
Pierce cleared her throat, and rose from her chair. "It's getting dark. I should move some of this stuff into the house, give you guys some time alone."
Olivia wanted to say something, but everything that came to mind sounded trite and useless. It should've been no surprise, then, that her daughter knew precisely what to say.
"Pierce?" Emma's voice sounded oddly hopeful and bright. "What was your sister's name?"
The young woman smiled at the little girl. "Juliet." She turned to go, but Emma's voice stopped her.
"You're not all alone. Juliet forgives you."
When Olivia and Natalia returned to the farmhouse the next morning, Natalia still flush with tears shed during Rafe's final pre-dawn sendoff, something smelled utterly fantastic. The night before Natalia had scurried around, scrubbing every last pot and pan and piece of cutlery, while Olivia and Pierce tried to convince her to leave it all be and join them in lighting sparklers and eating leftover pie in the darkened yard. But Olivia knew better, and gave up after only her second or third try, knowing full well that Natalia wouldn't rest until the house was cleaner than it was before the party. And Olivia secretly adored that Natalia knew she was the complete opposite, content to let the dish water sit all night, cold and grey, until morning.
But it was surprising that, despite hearing Rafe plod up the stairs at nearly four A.M., and with the military's cruel joke of a wake-up call less than ninety minutes away, Natalia hadn't risen to make her son one final breakfast, or at least shove some kind of baked good in his mouth as they hurried out the door. She must've been exhausted, both mentally and physically, to let that moment slip by. It was very unlike her, and the thought still nagged at Olivia as they entered the house, one child on his way to war, the other on the couch still half-asleep.
"Emma," Olivia pressed her words into her daughter's hair, a light kiss on the crown of her head. "Pierce in the kitchen?"
The little girl nodded and rubbed her eyes. "She woke me up asking me where we kept the real butter."
Natalia laughed lightly. "Did you tell her I tossed all that stuff out when--"
"I told her you hide it in the old margarine tub, behind the baking soda, so Natalia won't find it."
Olivia winced and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping her face would somehow look as angelic and innocent as Emma's did, all ruddy and crisscrossed with pillow creases. Judging by Natalia's decidedly firm pinch of her arm as she strode past, Olivia had no such luck.
"You're horrible, you know that? What with your heart and everything else... Why do I even bother?"
She wagged a finger at her daughter. "Tattle tale."
When Emma just shrugged and fell against the couch cushions, Olivia followed Natalia into the kitchen, placing her hands flat atop the other woman's shoulders as she caught up to her. "I love you, mama."
"Yeah, yeah," Natalia dismissed her with a wave of her hand, but couldn't hide a smile. "What smells so good in here?"
Pierce's head appeared from behind the refrigerator door. "French toast. Old family recipe. Very intricate, insanely complicated. Wanted to do something nice since... I know you guys had a rough night and a rougher morning. Not rude of me, is it?"
While Natalia assured her it was anything but rude, Olivia took a seat at the table. She watched the interplay between her wife and her friend, and a bemused smile crept across her face.
"Okay, secret recipe? I can keep a secret." Natalia nibbled on a crust of bread and leaned her back against the countertop, watching Pierce whisk eggs in a metal bowl.
Pierce cocked an eyebrow. "How do I know I can trust you? How do I know your not some culinary spy?"
Natalia summoned forth a dimpled smile, and Olivia suddenly felt invisible. "Horse trade. You tell me yours, I'll tell you mine."
"Ahh," Pierce tossed her head back. "I dunno, Natalia. I much prefer 'you show me yours, i'll show you--'"
"Uh, hello? Casanova?" Olivia cleared her throat and pressed her lips into a scowl. "I'm sitting right here, you know."
The young girl let the whisk rattle against the bowl, and pointed two fingers at herself. "Me? I was talking about the eggs. Don't have the foggiest idea..."
"Ohh, Olivia. My sweet," Natalia shoved off the counter's edge and threw her arms around Olivia's neck, bringing her face to rest against hers. "Sweet little jealous maniac. It's cute, isn't it?" She raised her eyes to Pierce.
"Cute is not a word I would use to describe Olivia Spencer," she snorted. "More like, menacing."
"Persistent," Natalia nuzzled her nose against Olivia's cheek, and the older woman simply rolled her eyes.
Pierce volleyed back. "Unruly."
"A little stubborn," Natalia admitted.
"Displeased," Olivia interjected flatly.
"Oh alright, that's enough," Natalia laughed and placed a quick kiss on Olivia's cheek before settling into the chair next to her. "But I guess if I had to think about it, you are kinda my type."
Olivia's head spun round to fix on Natalia, who was giggling to herself as she arranged plates and silverware on the table. Pierce had stopped slicing bread and held the knife in mid-air, confused.
"Your type?" Olivia waited for Natalia to meet her gaze. When she did, the younger woman looked surprised.
"What? What'd I say?"
Pierce just sighed and shook her head, continuing on with the breakfast preparations.
When Olivia responded only with narrowed eyes, Natalia repeated herself. "What did I say?"
"Your type. You said Pierce is your 'type'." She made quotations in the air with her fingers. "I guess I'm slightly confused. Didn't think you... looked at... women-- other women-- that way."
And she meant it. She wasn't mad, not by a long shot, but she was a bit puzzled. Since they'd been together, Olivia had certainly had her moments, with her eyes newly opened to the same sex, where she'd wondered just what it all meant for her, personally. But Natalia was something else. Olivia just assumed Natalia would rather not look any deeper into that well.
"Oh Olivia, honestly." Now it was Natalia's turn to roll her eyes. "Olivia has this habit of underestimating me," Natalia addressed Pierce who, perhaps feeling uncomfortable, remained steadfastly focused on the french toast. "While you were gone, you know," she turned back to Olivia. "A friend took me out. I wasn't looking at other women. But I did notice them."
"A friend? What friend?" Olivia's voice sounded more suspicious than she'd intended, so she softened her brow. "I mean, anyone I know?"
"Do you remember Kevin? He waited on us, the day you proposed? I had met him once before?"
Olivia groaned. "Oh, right. The night you had to drag my drunk ass out of the bar."
"Yes, that night. Well I went back to walk around one day. Emma was on a school trip and I was alone for the weekend."
"You went back there? Alone? To the gayest part of Illinois this side of Boystown? Brava." The smile returned to Olivia's face, and she was rewarded with Natalia playfully tossing a napkin at her. "And?"
"And we met up for dinner. Stayed around to watch a band play. There were... all kinds of people there. Gay, straight, men... women."
Pierce turned around, snapping the burner on the stove to the 'off' position. "I'm sorry, but this is just too good to pretend like I'm not listening. And?" She plopped down alongside Olivia at the table.
Natalia laughed at all the fuss. "I can't believe you two. It's nothing. Nothing happened. We just... I just... it was interesting to see, that's all. I'd never really... I mean, you and I," she looked at Olivia. "We're kind of the only gay couple I know." After a beat she must've realized how funny that sounded, because her face crinkled into a question. "We're gay, together. But maybe..."
Olivia leaned back in her chair. "No, no. Don't stop there. Maybe...?"
Now Natalia's face reddened. "Oh I don't know. I don't know what the heck I'm saying."
"Does she always talk like June Cleaver?" Pierce whispered out of the side of her mouth, and Olivia nodded, trying not to laugh.
"Oh, screw off," Natalia said defiantly. "I don't know. I thought... I thought some of the women were very attractive. Soft, feminine... but strong and... I don't know. I hate you both."
She slumped over her coffee mug and absently added more sugar, while Olivia and Pierce just stared at her.
"So what you're saying is if you met me at bar, you'd let me pick you up." Pierce puffed out her chest and Olivia flared her nostrils at her.
"If I met you at a bar I would immediately drag you out and tell you to go to a meeting," Natalia answered matter-of-factly, without looking up.
Pierce laughed. "You know what I mean."
"Hey," Olivia reached over and stopped Natalia's frantic stirring with a gentle touch. "Nevermind. We're just teasing you. I'm glad you--"
"I had a teacher when I was in high school," Natalia blew past the stop sign Olivia had put up for her. "She was perfect in every way. Before... before I got involved with Nicky, before I... you know... she was all I ever thought about. She had pin-straight hair and the clothes I always dreamed I'd wear and she was smart and articulate. I thought I wanted to be her. I assumed that's what it was, you know? I idolized her."
Olivia looked to Pierce. This was her area, after all. Not just as a sponsor used to facilitating self-discovery on a regular basis, but also as the most senior lesbian at the table. It pained Olivia to admit it, but in the world of same-sex relationships, she was learning she was the lowest on the totem pole, even behind Natalia.
"And after your night with Kevin? After you saw all those other couples, women, just out havin' a good time?" Pierce picked up the cue and helped Natalia along.
"I think I was in love with her," Natalia spoke softly but confidently, squeezing Olivia's hand. "I think I was in love with her all that time."
Olivia sat and waited for Natalia's brown eyes to meet her own, and when they did, she smiled wryly. "Dammit," Olivia whispered. "I so loved being your first lady love."
Natalia laughed through a few tears that fell down her cheeks. "You're prettier, if that helps."
"Indeed it does," Olivia nodded. "You okay... with all that?"
Pierce got up from the table and began to heat up the pan once again.
"I think so. I mean, I don't know what it all means, exactly. What it meant for me and Nicky... for everything... that lead to Rafe... and everything after. But I think I'm okay with it. I still have a lot of questions I need to answer first."
"The only question that matters is," Pierce pointed a spatula at Natalia. "Were you shitting me or not? You think I'm cute, don't you?"
Natalia smiled, and then looked innocently at Olivia. She shrugged her shoulders. "What? I can't help it! There's something so mysterious about those eyes and that attitude!"
"And the shaggy mop of hair, and the questionable hygiene," Olivia added. "Remind me never to leave you two alone, okay?"
"Ahh, relax Spence. Besides, we're more like..." Pierce trailed off, returning her attention to the stove.
"We're more like family," Natalia finished.
Olivia stretched her arms over head with a wince. "Where's that damn french toast, Pierce? Shit, I'm starving."
"Coming right up," Pierce slid a plate in front of Olivia, and then one in front of Natalia. "Yours with an extra side of gay, on the house."
Natalia dropped her face into her hands with a slapping sound. "I'm never going to live this down, am I?"
"We're going to have to buy her a Subaru," Olivia managed through a mouthful of french toast.
Pierce howled. "But for the love of god please do not let her near a pair of hideous sandals."
Natalia let her fork hit the plate with a loud clatter. "Olivia and I are thinking about having another baby."
The bombshell was followed by a mushroom cloud of silence, and it hung in the air for what felt like forever. Olivia let her mouth hang open, unable to force it shut. Yes, they had discussed it, but Olivia didn't like the idea of Pierce knowing, probably because she feared her sponsor would think it a terrible idea so early in her recovery. She hadn't said as much to Natalia, but she was cursing herself now. They certainly didn't need a third party's disapproval to add to their worries.
Pierce knitted her brow in that way that she always did, an ambiguous reflex that gave no intimation of her thoughts. Then, she shrugged.
"That's really great. I'm glad you both feel strong enough to consider something like that."
When Pierce continued eating, not only did Olivia look disappointed, but now Natalia did as well. So Olivia spoke up. "That's it? That's all you have to say?"
"Well what else would I say? No I will not be your sperm donor. I'm not ready for a child, and besides, I think it'd be awkward."
Olivia frowned. "You need help."
"What I need," Pierce reached across the table and spread her fingers wide, wagging them. "Is some syrup. Give it here."
Olivia placed the glass bottle in her hand, but before she let it go, she spoke. "It'd be nice if my sponsor wasn't thousands of miles away. You know, to help us both through."
Pierce fought with the sticky cap, then gave up, and met Olivia's stare. "I'll miss the surfing and the bikinis."
"You need a real job. One that actually pays. And some friends that don't call you drunk in the middle of the night."
"I dunno, it's insanely hard to move a sixty gallon saltwater fish tank across--"
"You need a family," Natalia said plainly.
Pierce bit her lip and blinked back tears. Then she smiled and turned to Olivia. She tilted her heads towards Natalia. "Tell the ol' lesbo I'll think about it."
"It's impossible for me to have a conversation with you like this."
"Well," Natalia's voice strained slightly as she stood up, deliberately, first drawing one foot beneath her, then the other, then rising in an oddly flowing motion. "You're the one who said it couldn't wait."
Olivia watched Natalia raise her arms above her head, then lift one leg off the ground, her balance appearing effortless. "Is this spiritual for you? Does it... should I leave?"
The younger woman shook her head at Olivia's sudden change of direction. Her brown hair bounced and brushed against her bared shoulders, and for a moment Olivia's mind wandered somewhere erotic and dreamy. "You're all over the map, Olivia. What is it exactly you want to talk about? I'll be done in five minutes."
Olivia let herself fall silent, content to watch Natalia from the edge of the bed. Her movements were graceful and natural, slow but with a definite rhythm. She could hear her breathing, and before she knew it, Olivia had closed her eyes. There was something so peaceful, so comforting about the sound of her lover's breaths, deep and even. It wasn't until she felt Natalia's lips on her own that she even realized she'd fallen asleep.
"You in there?" She felt Natalia's words against her mouth. Sliding her eyes open, she was greeted by that inimitably perfect smile, bright, focused eyes and olive skin that glistened with a fine sheen of sweat. She truly loved her wife.
"Hm, must've dozed off. You all done?"
Natalia bent one knee beneath her and sat next to Olivia on the bed. "Yup. I'm all yours. What's up?"
"You mean it?" Olivia pouted a little.
"That you're all mine. You mean it?"
Natalia frowned a bit and looked through her eyelashes at Olivia. "Of course. Is everything alright? Are you missing your sidekick already?"
Pierce had left for the airport a few hours earlier, after a three day visit that left them aching from all the laughter. Even Emma had been sad to see her go. "No, no. I mean, yes, but I'm fine. I just... Pierce and I talked before she left."
"And?" Natalia brushed a hair from Olivia's face.
"There's still some things... I haven't let myself think about. That I need to, if we're going to... move forward. Try for another baby. All that."
Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose, then her neck, and Natalia let her. All the little tics Olivia had, they were like a ritual, a walkthrough she had to complete before tackling any serious issue. And the other woman knew it as well as she did, so when her hands came to a rest in her lap, Natalia finally spoke. "Such as?"
"I think... I've finally mourned what was. We had a baby, we had Isabella, and she died. We lost her. I ran from her, from you, from this family... to the bottle. I did terrible things I'm not proud of. But I still haven't let myself think about... what would have been. What... we would have had, if Isabella had survived. If I hadn't turned to... alcohol. To drugs."
Natalia took a deep breath and examined Olivia's face. Her eyes remained steady and dry. Then she slowly raised her hands to Olivia's face, caressing her cheeks with delicate fingers. She let her fingertips dance across lips and eyelids for a minute before she stopped and held tightly onto the other woman. "You mean, what she might've looked like? What kind of little girl would she be? Would she cry a lot? Would she smile a lot?"
Olivia nodded. Her voice was quiet and raspy. "Do you ever think about those things?"
She smiled. "Every day. Every single day. It used to hurt. It would stop me in my tracks, sometimes, in the middle of whatever I was doing. I'd have to sit, or kneel down, just to keep going. But not anymore, sweetheart. I mean, maybe it still hurts a little, but nothing like it used to. Now it kinda feels like a fond memory, like something a long time ago, that makes me smile. She's happy, Olivia. She's in heaven. She's our little angel."
"I think," Olivia whispered. She wiped at the tears at the corners of her eyes. "She would've been beautiful. She would've grown fast, too fast, and she'd have too much hair. Big looping curls of that dark brown hair. And your eyes. God, your eyes."
Natalia breathed a laugh. "And she would've been loud, like you. Crying all the time, laughing all the time. She'd be a little flirt, too. Another horrible trait from you."
"Frank's ugly feet."
Now they both laughed. "Probably. Ugh, probably. But she'd be so smart. I'd stay home with her and teach her something new every day, and you'd come home from work and we'd show it off."
Olivia moved to fill the space between them, pulling Natalia in for a kiss. "And what would she call us? When I'd run in the door--"
"And throw your coat on the couch like you always do? Even though I hate it?"
"Exactly," Olivia smiled. "What would I hear in the kitchen?"
Natalia bit her lip. "Well, you're 'Mommy' and I'm 'Mama'... obviously."
"Obviously? Okay. So you and Emma and Isabella in the kitchen?"
"We'd throw our arms around you, and Emma would tell you all about her day..."
Olivia sighed. "Can she never grow up in our fantasy? I am not ready for her to be a teenager."
Natalia nodded furiously. "Of course, yes. That's why it's called a fantasy. And you'd never complain about the vegetables I make you eat, and Isabella would sleep all the way through the night every time, and I'd never gain a pound, and--"
"That part's reality," Olivia laid back against the pillows and pulled Natalia down with her, the weight of the other woman on top of her an easy feat. "You're so sexy."
"I'm all sweaty," Natalia grimaced a little but let Olivia kiss her neck. "I'm... oh."
Olivia laughed into Natalia's hair. "You like that?"
Natalia groaned impatiently. "What do you think? Mmm."
After torturing Natalia with strategically placed kisses and nips, Olivia slowed her movements and drew her arms tightly around the other woman's waist. She slid Natalia off to her side to look into her eyes. "So it's okay to miss her? To miss what might've been? It won't... keep me from loving a new baby?"
Natalia shook her head before she burrowed it in the crook of Olivia's neck. "No, not one bit. It won't just be any new baby, besides. It'll be our baby. Yours and mine."
Olivia bounced an eyebrow. "I kinda like the sound of that."
"Mmhmm, I knew you would. You possessive, territorial..."
"You make me sound like some jungle caveman."
Olivia barked with laughter. "Ah, that feels like a hundred years ago. Tarzan, Jane? Jane, Jane?"
"I think you're a little of both, to be honest. And that makes me so hot for you."
They both went flush at Natalia's frankness. A growl escaped Olivia's lips. "It's kind of frustrating that I can't just knock you up right here."
Natalia drew a sharp intake of breath, and Olivia began backtracking. "Sorry, that's not what I meant."
"No," Natalia pushed Olivia onto her back once again and swiftly straddled her. "Am I totally awful? I've never wanted to be knocked up by somebody so badly in my life."
Olivia's eyes went wide. "We're all alone. Emma's at Phillip's. We could... practice?"
Natalia lowered herself until every inch of her body was pressed against Olivia. "Help me get out of these clothes."
Towers was abuzz with the happy hour crowd, and as Olivia walked in, she could tell the big talk of the day was the Bears' early season success. Sports in general bored her, except when she occasionally caught a tennis or golf match. But even then, only in person. Certainly never on television. She tugged at the hem of her suit jacket, unsure if she could stomach sitting at the bar as she waited for Doris. Between the sports talk and the booze, it might just prove too much for her after a long day at the Beacon. The hostess recognized her and smiled as she greeted her by name.
"Ms. Spencer, wonderful to see you again! It's been a while. Would you like a table or your usual spot at the bar? I'm sure I can get those gentleman to make room for you," the girl beamed as she motioned to the curved wooden bar.
"I'll, um," Olivia was at a loss. "The bar is fine." Even as she said it, she couldn't believe it. Her face must've contorted to reflect her surprise, because the hostess hesitated.
"Are you sure? I'll gladly--"
"It's fine. This is fine. Thank you," Olivia's "business" voice had a way of making people snap-to, and the hostess was no exception. She turned on a dime and bolted to the chair, sliding it out for Olivia. "Perfect, thank you."
She slid out of her jacket and draped it over the chair back, and pulled her hair around her shirt collar so it laid just so. Then she pressed her hands against the legs of her suit pants, smiling as she felt the sharp creases there. Natalia always insisted on freshly ironing her shirts and pants, even though they'd already been pressed by the dry cleaners. Indeed, whenever Olivia mentioned that fact, it brought a scowl of disdain to Natalia's normally cheery face.
"They use a machine for their ironing, and it's sloppy and imprecise," she would say.
Olivia almost laughed out loud. Not just at Natalia's would-be pouty scowl, but at the idea that the other woman could drive her insane with lust and desire with simple domesticities. That the true path to Olivia Spencer's heart lie in baking and ironing and sheets that smelled like sandalwood was a fact she preferred stayed hidden. She had, after all, a reputation to keep.
It must've been her reputation, then, that led the bartender to leave a martini in front of her without saying a word. Extra dirty, extra olives, and from the smell of it, extra top-shelf. She stared at it, and for a moment felt something approaching sadness. She didn't miss the drinks, the headaches, the empty feeling they always left her with. But for the first time she was acutely aware that there was a part of her she had to leave behind. The image was as old as time: the hardworking executive, unwinding at the bar with a drink after work. And she could no longer be a part of that. It was crazy, she knew, but she missed that. She missed Springfield's top attorneys and businessmen each taking their turn next to her at the bar as she held court, like some kind of royalty. She missed laughing at their corny jokes, and giving them her advice that they so eagerly solicited.
But tonight she was at the bar, and she felt invisible. She felt liked she no longer belonged there, and while her rational mind told her that was a good thing, another part of her longed to be normal again. She reached out for the extra long string of speared olives, and spun them once around the frosty glass.
The man sitting next to her jostled her accidentally, and he turned around to apologize.
"Don't worry about it," Olivia replied brusquely.
"No, no," the man squared himself around, facing the bar so he could properly address Olivia. "If I would've known I was sitting next to such a beautiful woman, believe me, my focus never would've been on this guy over here." He smiled and tilted his head toward his friend, who raised his glass and acknowledged her as well.
"It's really okay. Bears talk is important stuff. I'll leave you to it."
Olivia knew she could've walked away right then, but then where would she have gone? She was meeting Doris here, and she'd be here any second, and shouldn't she really be able to handle this by now?
"You a football fan?"
"Not in the least." Olivia remembered at least that much of the tenets of recovery: honesty.
He smiled again, and then gestured to the bartender for another beer. "We're in from Chicago on business. We should be at the game tonight. Monday Night Football and we had to miss it to come out here for a meeting. Just a minute ago I was cursing my luck. But if you'll indulge me a few more minutes, I'll be the luckiest guy in the world."
Olivia didn't ask him his name, but he offered it, so she gave him hers as a courtesy. The conversation flowed from there: he was in the pharmaceutical business, divorced, and, if she was being fair, quite attractive. He smelled like expensive cologne and his suit was exquisitely tailored. He was a man Olivia would've made quick work of in her old life, one she could take home, have meaningless sex with, and feel absolutely guilt-free in the morning. He'd leave her his number, and she'd never call, but he wouldn't care. He probably wasn't even really divorced.
Absently, in the midst of regaling him with stories about her hotel ownership, she picked up the spear and brought it to her mouth, drawing one green olive with her teeth and sucked it into her mouth, in a manner she hadn't meant to look flirtatious but probably did. It was an old habit, after all, and when she bit into it, lips that were instinctively curled into a smile fell, and she brought her hand to her mouth in shock.
"You alright?" the man asked.
She couldn't help but swallow, and she nodded slowly as she felt the color drain from her face. "I'm fine. I just... I have to..." Olivia could taste the briney vodka on her lips. "I have to go."
The room was a blur as she tossed a twenty dollar bill on the bar and ran out, the man in the suit calling after her just once. She felt the tears stinging in her eyes but they wouldn't fall, a familiar feeling she had almost forgotten about.
In the lobby she crashed into Doris, whose head was down, punching furiously at her Blackberry. "Whoa, hang on there!"
"Oh god, Doris," Olivia couldn't even make an effort to hide the fear in her voice.
"Yeah, it's me. I was running late. I... are you okay? What's going on?"
Olivia didn't say anything, she just sat down on a bench near the doorway. She ran her hands over her thighs, over the creases in her pants. "Oh god. Oh my fucking god."
"Olivia, what the hell is going on?" Doris reached for Olivia's hand, ceasing the repetitive motions.
When Olivia raised her eyes to meet her friend's, she was certain Doris could see right through her. "I... I sat down at the bar. I was waiting for you..." Their heads were close as Doris was clearly alarmed, concerned for Olivia's wellbeing.
"I can smell it," she said softly. A tiny wave of relief washed over Olivia as Doris's tone was light and nonjudgmental. "What happened?"
"I need to get some air," Olivia stood up and Doris followed closely behind her, as the two made their way out into the parking lot. The floodlights were on but it was barely sunset, and an early fall breeze swept through Olivia's jacket.
As best she could, Olivia explained to Doris what had happened, how a feeling had overtaken her and she'd just done what she'd always done. "I didn't want to drink, Doris. Honestly, I didn't. I just... I wanted to feel like my old self for a little while."
They leaned against Doris's car for a few minutes, and Olivia cursed herself repeatedly. Doris's phone bleated several times but each time she silenced it, appearing more and more aggravated.
"Blake?" Olivia's voice sounded small and childlike.
"Yeah," Doris beamed for a second but then reeled it in. "You know, she just worries when I don't respond right away. I pretend to hate it but... I gotta admit, I could get used to this."
Olivia's hair blew in her face after a strong gust overtook them. She stared at Doris for a long time. "Do you think so, really? Is this," Olivia sighed, and it helped her feel lighter. "What it's really all about? Lovers that turn into spouses, families that simultaneously wear you out and reenergize you? Paying the bills on time, driving a sensible car?" When she said it aloud, it sounded like more of an actual question than it had in her head. Of course Olivia already knew the answer, but how it came out was very telling.
"Is everything... is everything okay at home, Olivia? Are you and Natalia having problems?" She tightened her blazer around her against the unexpected evening chill.
Olivia's head rolled back, and she found herself laughing. "No, god. Everything's great. Blissful, even. That's what's so ridiculous about this whole thing. Isn't that crazy?"
Doris shook her head. "Not for people like you and I it isn't." She winked at a slumping Olivia. "We've gotten our asses kicked by love, or things we thought were love, so many times that we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. We're always glancing over the fence, swearing that the grass is looking greener and greener by the second. Even when we know it isn't."
"It's covered in dog shit," Olivia snorted, kicking at the gravel beneath her feet. "I don't want that life anymore, Doris. I never wanted it in the first place. But it's... it's who I was for so long. Settling down, committing, having a real family-- that I can handle. But I walked into that bar tonight and I felt so goddamned lost. I didn't like that feeling of not fitting in anymore."
"Would you rather feel at home with a bunch of strangers at happy hour, talking shit for hours? Or would rather be at home at that farmhouse," Doris smiled with a bit envy. "With Natalia... with Emma?"
"Plus one," Olivia raised her eyes and a single eyebrow.
"I don't follow."
She sighed again, only this one lacked the cathartic qualities of the last. "We're trying to have another baby. Well, we're going to start trying. Soon."
Doris's eyes grew exponentially. "Are you kidding me?" Love her or hate her, Doris was never ambiguous. "I'm sorry, I'm just surprised."
"It's okay, I know what you meant. We've put a lot of thought into it. She's ready, I'm ready."
"But is that something you want?" Doris leaned in closer, sliding her shoulder against the drivers' side door.
Olivia considered the question. Cars crept by, searching for spots, and the rumbling engines kept a silence from developing. "More than anything."
Doris's tensed shoulders fell at Olivia's confident response. "Well that settles it then. That's all I needed to hear. But it does explain your little crisis, don't you think?"
"I guess, but I'm not really sure I should be giving myself any excuses," Olivia cursed herself once again. "And of course it begs the question, now what do I do about tonight? Do I tell Natalia? It might spook her, no matter how confident I think I am."
Doris clucked her tongue. "You're asking the woman who kept her entire life a secret for god knows how many years. I'm not big on disclosing what doesn't absolutely need to be disclosed, but something tells me you should."
"Ugh, I know." Olivia rubbed her hands together in front of her. "Am I ever going to get this right? For christ's sake, I'm out here mourning my barfly past, when I've got a woman at home with tits out to here who just loves to cook and clean and f--"
Doris clenched her fists when Olivia stopped short. "No, no. Do go on."
After her night out with Doris ended abruptly, Olivia took the extra time to drive around Springfield, thinking. By the time her headlights cut through the darkness of the farmhouse driveway, it looked quiet inside. She dropped her keys into a bowl on the table by the door, peeled her jacket off and dropped it onto the couch. She was halfway up the stairs, unfastening the cufflinks at her wrists, when she stopped in her tracks.
"New leaf, Spencer. New leaf," she muttered as she trotted back down, grabbed her suit jacket and carried it up the stairs with her.
She peered in at Emma, who was asleep, then found Natalia down the hall, curled up in a chair in their bedroom.
"You belong," Olivia scolded the offending garment in her hands, pushed a hanger into the shoulders and hung it in the closet. "In here."
Natalia didn't look up from her reading. "If you start picking up after yourself, I'm going to have too much time on my hands during the day and I might take up a lover."
Olivia chuckled. "That's why I'm knocking you up. Keep you occupied."
"Ah, that's right," Natalia flipped the page in her book, then held it out in front of her, growling in frustration. "Am I getting old? This type is so tiny, I'm having trouble seeing it!"
Olivia stood at the foot of the bed, undressing. Candles lit the room, in addition to a small reading light by the armchair where Natalia sat. It was warm and smelled clean and fresh, and the linens on the bed looked crisp and inviting. It was the most welcoming place a person could come home to, a far cry from even the plushest, most expensive suite at the Beacon. Olivia hated the thought of putting a black mark on the picture of perfection. Loathed it.
"What're you reading?" She fidgeted some more with the cufflinks, before Natalia unfolded her legs and came to her aid, her dexterous fingers uncoupling them with ease. She wore a cotton nightgown, conservative but not frumpy, revealing a bit of skin but clearly built more for comfort than titillation. Her face was freshly washed and makeup-free, but even without mascara her eyelashes were long and black and Olivia remembered what it felt like to feel them against her cheek for the first time.
Natalia looked up at her when she finished, her eyes excited. "Just some books I picked up from the library. C'mere."
Olivia let her blouse fall off her shoulders into a heap, and followed Natalia to her perch near the window. "You know you can just go to the bookstore like the rest of the universe. Library books smell funny, and you can't keep them."
Natalia handed her one of the heavy hardcovered books and frowned at her. "We don't have room for any more books, Miss. Nor do we need them. Not these anyway. I figure we'll only need them once."
Turning it over in her hands, then looking at the rest of the stack, Olivia had to agree. They were all books about getting pregnant via artificial insemination. Some bore clinical sounding names, while others made light of the awkward topic. Some had mothers and fathers on their covers; others were swathed in rainbows and inclusive pronouns.
The older woman regarded Natalia, took in how animated she became as she explained what she'd read. She was nervous and excited and happy, and tenacious in her quest for knowledge. Olivia smiled. "You've done your homework."
"Hm, a little bit. It's a lot to take in. The doctor wasn't kidding when he said we had options." As she spoke Natalia plucked Olivia's shirt from the floor, and tossed it into a basket. Olivia could feel her watching her as she stepped out of her trousers and pulled on a robe. When she went in to the bathroom to wash up, Natalia followed her, still talking a mile a minute, until she suddenly stopped herself.
"Gosh, you know what? I'm going to give you a rest. I should save all this for another time. You've had a long day." Her tiny frame spun in the doorway, and Olivia watched in the mirror as she slinked away. She finished brushing her teeth and washing her face before she returned to the bedroom, where Natalia had turned out the lights and climbed into bed, all but one candle blown out.
The light flickered against the cream-colored walls, and Olivia considered her next move. Clearly, Natalia was eager to take this next step in their life together. And so was Olivia, of this she was now more certain than ever. So what good would it do to scare her? Olivia had already made sense of her moment of weakness. And when Natalia pulled back the sheets and revealed she had shed her nightgown before coming to bed, Olivia's last coherent thought was of letting sleeping dogs lie.
"Sit, sit. I got it."
Breakfast was quiet the next morning, but in a calm, content way. They had stayed up making love until far too late, and then lie awake even longer talking about their future. The soft laughter and tickling eventually gave way to sleep, but they both could've used more. Now Emma sat crunching on a bowl of cereal and reading the back of the cardboard box, something about a mystery and a word search, and Olivia stood up to get cream for Natalia's coffee. She poured it in into her mug worldlessly, until the other woman waved at her to stop, her eyes never leaving the newspaper in front of her.
"Will you be late tonight?" Natalia asked after she took a sip, smiling when she found it satisfied her taste.
Olivia shook her head. "Shouldn't be. Assuming nothing major goes down. Have you heard from Rafe?"
"Mmm," Natalia finished another sip. "Last night. His email's working again. For now. He says everything's okay, that they'll be on the move again next month so he may be out of touch for a little while." She sighed, and Olivia placed a hand over hers.
"Hey Mom?" Emma swallowed her last bit of cereal as she spoke.
"I know I said I didn't want one," she pushed her spoon around the now empty bowl, avoiding eye contact until the last second, "but I may want to rethink the whole puppy thing."
Olivia laughed, and Natalia leaned into her shoulder from the chair next to her, looking up at her as if to say 'What now?'
"Um, well, Jellybean," Olivia began, laughing again and poking Natalia a little. "Here's the thing..."
Emma watched the two of them eagerly, her little fingers steepling and folding again and again.
"Natalia and I are going to try and have another baby. A little sister or brother for you. What do you think about that?"
Her eyes went wide. "Wow, really? Another baby?"
Natalia nodded. "Mmmhmm. Isn't that great?"
Emma considered the proposition for a minute. "Wait. Another baby... with Uncle Frank?"
"No, nooo," Olivia responded perhaps a little too fervently. Natalia broke up with laughter at her denial. "Just..."
"Well then... wait. How..." Emma shook her head. "I don't think I get it."
Olivia looked for answers in Natalia, who couldn't seem to stop herself from giggling. At last she finally breathed the words, "I don't know!" and Olivia knew she was on her own for this one.
"There are ways you can..." Olivia rubbed at her temples as Emma's expectant stare never wavered. She wasn't getting out of this easily, this much she knew. "Oh screw it, we can handle a baby and a puppy at the same time, can't we?"
It was less of a rhetorical question and more of a plea to whatever god was listening. Emma immediately shot up with joy, dancing and screaming in the kitchen. Natalia just looked at her like she'd grown a third eye.
"Are you out of your mind?" Natalia whispered.
Olivia laughed, and then sighed. "Yeah, kinda."
"What do you mean how did we choose? We examined all the options: hair color, eye color, ethnicity, education, interests," Olivia drummed a pen against the wooden desktop.
On the other end of the line, she could hear a car door slam. "I picked out a sweater from the J.Crew catalog last night. Small, charcoal gray. I could've gone with the plum but you know, with my skin tone... it woulda been iffy. Same kinda thing?"
Olivia laughed, and indulged the other woman. "Yes, exactly like that, Pierce. It was kind of... a cross between a J.Crew catalog and a police lineup."
"Whoa. Well in that case, I really hope you picked the right one."
"It was fun, actually. Odd and extremely terrifying, but fun. Natalia insisted on picking someone with features close to mine. You know, so we could squint our eyes in a dark room and swear it looked like me."
Pierce coughed dramatically. "God, I hope not. Poor thing."
The phone on her desk rang, but Olivia silenced it with a press of a button. "You're a mean-spirited bitch, and that's why I love you."
"Aw shucks, Spence. I'm fuckin' teary-eyed over here." There was a crunching sound on the other end, and then Pierce let loose a string of profanities. "Oh Christ I lost the eggs. Dammit, that's what I get for letting them use those shitty paper bags. I want you to know I was thinking about your kids when I did that. I'm gonna be dead, right? What do I care about the environment? You owe me a carton of eggs for saving your children from the scourge of global warming and deforestation."
Olivia leaned back in her chair, and pressed an arm over her head, stretching. "Move to Springfield. I'll buy you all the eggs you want."
"I'm working on it. Besides, I've got time. You don't think this baby thing is gonna take on the first try, do you? There's only like a ten percent success rate, isn't there? Unless she's taking fertility drugs? Please tell me she's not taking fertility drugs."
Olivia couldn't hide the amusement in her voice. Pierce sure did know a lot about the subject. "Lemme guess... Google?"
Pierce didn't miss a beat. "No, Oprah. You don't want ninety kids, Olivia. You don't want to be the next Jon Gosselin, wearing douchey Ed Hardy t-shirts and hanging out with Lindsay Lohan's dad."
"Calm down, Pierce... Jesus. Do I have to remind you? Natalia is tragically fertile. She so much as looks at sperm and she gets pregnant. It's frightening."
Pierce wretched. "Um, first of all? Ew, don't ever say that to me again. And second of all... just, eww."
"Very mature," Olivia grew irritated as she had to silence her work phone yet again. "Goddamn it, I can't get a moment's peace in here!"
Just then, Olivia heard the familiar beep on her end of the phone, a signal that she was getting another call. When she pulled the phone from her ear and saw it was Natalia, her heart instantly started to race. It had probably been her ringing on the office phone. "Lemme let you go Pierce. It's Natalia on the other line."
"Alright. Tell her I said hey."
Switching calls, Olivia hoped her voice sounded measured and calm. "Hey sweetheart. What's up?"
"Kyra says you're in the office. Why aren't you picking up?" Natalia sounded irritated.
"Well, the romance is truly dead. I'm fine, buttercup, thank you for asking. And if you must know, I was on the other line with Pierce."
"Oh." Her tone lightened immediately. "I'm glad. You haven't spoken to her in a while and... you've been acting weird."
Olivia's heart rate had slowed, but at then picked back up again. "Weird? Weird how?"
She could hear Natalia struggling for the right thing to say. "I don't know, just... I'm sure it's my imagination. Just getting nervous, that's all."
Olivia smiled and hoped the other woman could hear it in her words. "I love you, Natalia. I'm ready to do this. I'm excited." She scooted her chair in closer to the desk and leaned on one elbow. "I was just talking to Pierce about it, matter of fact."
"You were?" There was a definite smile in that voice.
"Yup. Told her we're all set, whenever your body says go."
There was a silence on the other end, and Olivia shuffled some papers that had been clogging up her desk for days. Work was busier than ever, a fact that she tried to avoid thinking about, but rarely could.
"Hm, well... if I'm reading this ovulation test correctly, then we're definitely ready to go."
Olivia shot out of her chair the second Natalia finished the sentence. "I'll be home in fifteen minutes."
"Light a candle or something."
Olivia's face crumpled in disbelief. "What? Why? It's daylight!"
Natalia's hands slapped against the sheets. "Because I want a little romance, I don't know! Just do it."
Moving around to the bedside table, Olivia obliged. "I could put on some Barry White if it'll make you feel better?"
"Oh, don't you make fun of me," Natalia tried to sound stern but was in the throes of laughter before she knew it. "This is nuts."
Olivia slid onto the bed alongside of her. "So many jokes I could make, but I'll refrain." She brushed a stray hair out of Natalia's eyes, and was rewarded with a deep, dimpled smile. "I love your smile. Have I told you that? It's so beautiful. So you."
Natalia blushed. "Now you're just placating me and my crazy notion that there should be some tenderness involved in the conception of our child."
"No, I mean it," Olivia kissed the woman beside her on the forehead just once, then let her hand find the back of her neck, weaving her fingers into the smooth dark hair. "I am absolutely the luckiest person on earth. Don't think I don't know that."
She let her eyes travel the length of Natalia's body. She was in a black cotton skirt and a light sweater, with a neckline that plunged just enough. Her bare toes wiggled in anticipation, and when Olivia brought her hand down to trace her thigh, they moved even faster. She could feel Natalia watching her, and when she slid her hand higher, between her legs, they both gasped for air.
"I already took off my..." The younger woman looked suddenly shy, unsteady. "Should I..." she tugged at the waist of her skirt.
Olivia felt her own features darken. She hadn't expected this to be a lustful, passionate moment, what with all the clinical details and how-to's. But seeing Natalia like that, knowing the journey they were about to embark on together, filled Olivia with insatiable want. "Leave it on. It's hot."
Now Natalia smirked a little, the confidence creeping back into her face. She draped one hand across the back of Olivia's neck, and hiked the hem of her skirt up with the other. "You like that, don't you?"
The black fabric fell into the crease of Natalia's thigh as it bent at her hip, and Olivia couldn't stop the groan of desire from rattling through her.
"I'll take that as a yes," Natalia whispered just before she captured Olivia's lips in a crushing kiss. When they parted, Olivia rolled over to get what she would need from the side table. It looked simple enough, a needleless syringe, but a tremble went through her.
Natalia must've sensed her hesitation, because she held out a hand to steady her. "Look at me," she commanded gently. "I don't know how this is going to sound, so I'll just say it. I trust you, Olivia. With all of me. My heart, my soul, and my body. I've never wanted to give myself completely to anyone but you. I'm yours, all yours."
It was at once erotic and intensely emotional, almost spiritual, the way Olivia felt when Natalia said those words. Decades of pain and self-doubt and fear melted away, and as she completed the act, slowly and with great care, she wept. Just one or two tears, but there they were. After so many months of hurt and loss and anger, the rawest and strongest emotion Olivia felt was finally one of joy and elation, one of belonging and love. It was truly a union in the purest sense of the word, and as they lie there together motionless, she swore she could hear Natalia's heart beating.
Finally, Olivia sat up, and softly kissed her lover's waiting, open mouth. "Now, um... you know what the doctor said."
"I do," Natalia was almost breathless.
"It'll help, you know, increase our chances."
"It will." She was definitely out of breath, and now Olivia could see her pulse pounding at the vein in her neck.
"If you're too nervous, we don't have to." But even as she said it, Olivia was already slipping her hand back beneath Natalia's skirt, searching for that one tiny spot she knew would breath life back into her.
She'd found it, and Natalia shook her head to try and regain her focus. "No, I want you to. I need you to."
Olivia had made millions, worked her way to the top of her profession; she'd made and broken grown men with the snap of her fingers; she'd stood at the precipice of death and returned unharmed. But she never in her life felt as powerful and strong and needed as she did bringing Natalia to that wrenching, desperate, panting climax. She let Natalia collapse against her in relief, holding her face against her chest, and listened as her breathing slowed into the rhythm of sleep. So many thoughts ran through Olivia's head that she literally could not hold them in, even if she knew Natalia wouldn't hear them.
"You belong to me?" Olivia chuckled lightly. "No, my love, I belong to you. You've given me everything... not just a life, but a life with purpose, with meaning. You saved me when I was dying, you helped me find my way when I was lost. You loved me when I could not love myself. And with such grace," she sighed. "I don't know how you do it... I'm just thankful that you do."
With Natalia asleep in the bedroom, Olivia had slipped out to make a few phone calls from the kitchen. She'd left the Beacon in a huff, leaving behind a slew of meetings and paperwork that were to be handled that afternoon, and her mind spun. When her eyes drifted to a drawing hanging on the refrigerator door, things got even more muddled.
"Ah, the fucking puppy," Olivia winced, remember that tonight was the night they were supposed to pick up Emma's new puppy. There was a girl in her class who, conveniently or inconveniently, had a dog who'd just given birth to a litter of puppies. Her mother described them as "almost purebred" Jack Russell Terriers, whatever the hell that meant. And Natalia had googled them the night before, bemoaning the fact that the words "rambunctious" and "extremely energetic" had appeared in just about every entry.
"Honestly, just shoot me now," Olivia said aloud to no one, throwing her head back as she searched the fridge for something to drink.
"You're the one who agreed to it," Natalia's slight frame appeared in the doorway, looking sleepy with her hair adorably mussed.
Olivia seized a bottle of cranberry juice and poured herself a glass. "Would you like some?" When Natalia politely declined, she took a swig. "My god, that tastes horrible without vodka."
When Natalia only frowned, Olivia put up her hands. "Okay, okay. Bad joke."
"Terrible," Natalia clarified, sitting down at the kitchen table.
Olivia stepped behind her and rubbed the muscles of her shoulders through her shirt. "Why don't I pick up Emma from school today? Then we'll go pick up the little mongrel and bring him back here. You take it easy, put your feet up, think pregnant thoughts."
The younger woman tilted her head back and looked up at her, smiling. "If you think that will help... but don't you still have work to do? I know the Beacon is crazy this time of year. I feel bad enough that I tore you away in the middle of the day like that."
"Eh, I'm sure the place won't go to shit if I take the rest of the afternoon off. Besides, I'm having a little trouble concentrating after our little session upstairs." Olivia's eyes fluttered and she let out a deep breath. Just thinking about it made her dizzy.
"Mmm, yes... that," Natalia shrugged out of Olivia's grasp and stood up, pulling her into an embrace and pressing their bodies together. "You are quite good, Olivia Spencer. You have the hands of a surgeon, you know."
The hands she spoke of felt less than graceful as Olivia grasped at whatever bit of Natalia's flesh she could find, above the waist of her skirt and under her sweater near the small of her back. "You think?"
"I do," Natalia nodded, brushing her lips against Olivia's cheek. "So gentle, so precise... No one has ever made me feel the way you do. Even watching you... watching that self-satisfied little smirk--" She pressed a finger against Olivia's now-smiling face. "Yes, that one... Don't get me wrong, I love the humble, wiser Olivia too... but I'm glad you reserved a little bit of that cocky swagger just for me."
Olivia's knees felt weak. Natalia was always her undoing, whether it was with her words or her touch or the sexy swing of her hips as she moved. And Olivia was always quick to let her know, through a deliberately raised eyebrow or a whisper in her ear or even a dirty text message, that her charms were working. But that wasn't Natalia's style. No, instead Natalia would modestly shrug her shoulders, or slap at Olivia's hand as though she hadn't a clue. Then, randomly and without warning, she would unleash whatever thoughts, fantasies, or ruminations on their sex life she'd been holding back on. It was potent, and made Olivia more than a little envious of her self-control.
"You're killing me, you realize?"
She nodded guiltily. "I know. But don't worry. I won't forget how well you took care of me. Just be patient..." And with that, she slipped out of Olivia's grasp and headed for the living room, calling out one final time as she left. "Emma's out in fifteen minutes. Better hurry!"
Emma rattled like a machine gun, nonstop from the school parking lot to the Masons' driveway, straight through the entire puppy-picking-up process, and finally ran out of ammo just as they approached the farmhouse. If Olivia didn't know any better, she'd think her daughter had snuck in a double espresso with lunch. But the little girl was excited, understandably, so Olivia simply did her best to keep up, elated to finally be close to her once again. The tiny little animal made squeaking sounds in the backseat, and despite her best efforts, Olivia could feel a niggle of excitement of her own, the damned thing looking so cute and helpless and all.
"Remember what Mrs. Mason said, Emma," Olivia turned the key in the lock at the front door. "Best to keep the little guy confined to one room for now. No letting him wander around the house just yet."
"It's a she, Mommy! Duh," Emma cradled the dog in her arms as she stepped through the door. "Natalia! Come see her!"
Natalia popped up from the couch and let out a squeal of her own. "You sound just like Emma," Olivia lamented, but then couldn't help herself. "But oh my god, isn't he adorable?!"
Tiny legs squirmed and stretched as Natalia held the puppy up. "Looks like a she to me, Doctor Spencer."
"You weren't complaining earlier," Olivia scowled and braced for Natalia's ever-present admonishing pinch. "Ow, dammit."
Emma laid on the floor with the bouncing puppy. "Can I name her?"
"Of course, Jellybean! He's-- she's-- yours!"
The little girl twirled her hair, obviously deep in thought. Finally, she sprung up to her knees. "I know!" she clapped her hands. "Princess Jaclyn Abernathy!"
Both Olivia and Natalia turned to one another, their expressions equally flat. "Isn't that a little... wordy?" Natalia asked gently.
"Come on, mama. Doesn't she just look like a Princess Jaclyn Abernathy?" Emma stated what she thought to be so clearly evident, but something else had struck both Olivia and Natalia in the heart.
"Did she just..." Natalia's eyes watered.
Olivia nodded. "I think so."
When Natalia began to cry and sob, Emma looked inconsolable. "Wait, what did I..."
"Oh no, sweetie. You," Olivia watched as Natalia struggled to speak, finally grabbing hold of Emma in a bear hug. "You didn't do anything wrong. I think Princess Jaclyn Abernathy," she looked at Olivia sideways, "is the perfect name for your puppy. These are happy tears, I promise."
Startled and maybe even a bit strangled by Natalia's extra-tight hug, Emma's face took a second to relax into something approaching understanding. "Is this because I called you mama? Mommy calls you that all the time... I just figured it was okay for me to, too."
"Of course it is, 'Bean. We're a family." Olivia beamed, and when little Princess Jaclyn Abernathy decided to pee all over the rug in the living room, Olivia found she didn't mind at all.
Natalia and Olivia had taken turns showing Emma how to take little Jackie out for a walk, both intent on using the new addition to their family as a way to teach Emma about responsibility. But, of course, the tiny animal didn't like being cooped up in the kitchen when it was time to go to bed, and it had taken more than a little wrangling to get Emma to understand why it was important to not give in that first night. It got easier from then on, and in a few weeks Emma could actually walk Jackie instead of dragging her behind them as they walked. In those days, the pup had also earned a thousand different nicknames, from PJ to Jack-Jack to Miss Tinklepants McGee. As it turned out, the major culprit for the syrupy name-calling was Olivia herself.
"What? She looks at me like that and I can't help but think, 'Princess Poutyface.'"
Natalia looked over the pie she was slicing for Emma. "Who knew you'd be such a sap!"
Olivia rose to her feet to clear the remaining dishes off the table. "And who knew you'd be such a grinch? I saw you swat my little dollface on the butt before. I'm calling PETA."
"She ate a deck of cards!"
"Ohh, big deal. So she chewed on some old cards."
Natalia rolled her shoulders back. "And then she pooped on my yoga mat!"
"Ha! Way to go, PJ. Dropped the queen of spades on that voodoo mat!"
Olivia rather enjoyed watching Natalia try desperately not to laugh. "You're disgusting," she slid a plate in front of Olivia and handed her a fork. "Take this out to Emma, and I'll meet you guys out there. You can start the movie."
In the living room, Emma was curled up on the couch, a blanket pulled tightly around her. It had gotten cold fast and this October was shaping up to be one of the coldest ever. When Olivia plopped down beside her, she felt the little girl nestle closer to her. It was all she could do not to cry right there on the spot. And when the dog leapt into Emma's lap and rested her head on Olivia's leg, she very nearly did lose it. Luckily, the sounds of Emma sloppily enjoying her pie kept her smiling.
They were almost an hour into the movie when Natalia finally appeared from the kitchen, wiping at her hands with a dish towel. "What're you up to in there? We didn't leave you with that much mess, did we?" Olivia pursed her lips at her wife.
"No, I'm just antsy. I'm just gonna keep on..." she waved the towel in the air as she crossed the living room and headed for the stairs. "You two watch the movie, okay?"
Olivia shot her a concerned glance, and Natalia tried to reassure her with a smile. But it nagged at Olivia for the rest of the night, and when the movie was finally over, she found herself relieved. Since PJ had graduated to sleeping in a crate in Emma's room, Olivia waited while the little girl took her out one last time for the night. Surprisingly, Emma didn't seem to mind bundling up against the cold for her beloved puppy, and she was responding quite well to the added responsibility. Pride swept through Olivia as she followed them up the stairs, kissing Emma good night and turning out the hallway light before heading to the bedroom.
Inside, she surmised from the sound of running water that Natalia had climbed into the shower, and Olivia tried to wait her out by reading a magazine. But she was overcome with nervousness about the other woman's behavior, so she sprung to the bathroom door and waited. It wasn't like Natalia to brush off movie night with their daughter, and Olivia made a mental checklist in her mind of things it could be.
"Fuck," she said aloud, the word hanging in the air like a poison. Grabbing her phone from the nightstand she checked the date.
Tomorrow would be one year to the day they had lost Isabella. "Fuck," she repeated, dropping the phone on the bed. The sound of the shower stopped suddenly, and Olivia stood frozen in the middle of the room. A million thoughts crossed her mind, things she could do, things she should do, but everything seemed futile and useless. She knew the only thing that mattered would also be the hardest: simply being there for Natalia.
In a flash Olivia moved to turn out the lights, save for a small lamp that basked the room in muted warmth. She pulled off her jeans and slipped into an old pair of flannel cotton pants, unfastened her bra and replaced her t-shirt with a white tank top. When Natalia emerged from the steamy bathroom, she was wrapped in a white robe tied tightly at her waist.
"Hey," Olivia whispered.
"Hey." Natalia was toweling off her hair, and Olivia silently took over for her.
Massaging her scalp with the fluffy towel, Olivia could smell a mix of Natalia's shampoo and the laundry detergent they used. It was clean and comforting, and Olivia absently noted that it was a smell that used to scare her half to death.
A minute or two later, Olivia draped the towel over the laundry basket and pulled Natalia in close. She wound her arms around Natalia's front, tugging her even closer at the hips. Softly she whispered in her lover's ear, careful to keep her voice smooth and even. "I love you, Natalia. I miss her too."
Natalia's breath came in starts and stops, and Olivia held her until they evened out, her lips pressed to her cheek.
"I love you too, Olivia. I'm sorry, I just..." She turned in Olivia's arms until they were face to face, the soft light casting shadows across their features.
"It just kinda crept up on us, didn't it?"
Natalia nodded, then relaxed into Olivia's arms. "Are you... okay? Are you feeling..."
"Tempted to run away? Tempted to drink?" Olivia knew the words were frightening, so she softened them with a crooked smile. "Nope. No way. I'm right here with you, Natalia."
"There's something else," she wiped at her eyes with her hand, the oversized sleeves of the robe hiding most of her fingers. "It's been... two weeks. More than that. We can check, you know."
It took a second for Olivia's mind to switch tracks. But once she figured it out, her face lit up. "Oh! Has it? Should... should we?"
Natalia was sniffling away a tear and smiling at the same time. "I kinda wanna know."
"Me too," Olivia felt herself get even brighter, excitement coursing through her veins. "Well go on, get in there!"
The waiting was agony. Two minutes felt like two days, and Olivia paced around the bed while Natalia kept her eye on one of Olivia's watches she'd picked up from the dresser. "Well?!" Olivia had had just about enough waiting. She was ready to know if this was it, if they were officially going to be parents again.
"Okay, okay... I think we're good," Natalia looked up expectantly at the older woman. "You go check. I... you go do it."
Taking up the task bravely, Olivia walked to the bathroom door, which sat ajar. She approached the sink feeling a little like Indiana Jones, about to swap a timeless treasure for a bag of rocks. She turned back once, looking to Natalia, who just hurried her on with a wave of her hand. Her heart throbbed, a deep, radiating ache that she could feel at the very tip of her extremities. She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to imagine disappointing Natalia, especially on this night.
"Well?!" It was Natalia's turn to be impatient, and Olivia didn't turn back around right away. When she did, what she saw there melted her heart: Natalia's face, a twist of worry and sadness and anticipation and excitement, her lower lip tucked ever so slightly between her teeth, her expressive brow knitted. This was the woman she adored, the woman she would die for, the woman she would spend the rest of her life loving.
"Told you we'd get it on the first try."
Natalia let out a little yelp before she caught herself, her hand over her mouth. She raced into Olivia's arms, sending her backwards and nearly into the dresser.
"Whoa mama, try to give me a little warning next time," Olivia supported the weight of the other woman gladly, just relieved they wouldn't have to face yet another disappointment. "C'mere, you."
Kissing Natalia was always a pleasant sensation for Olivia, but this one felt special somehow. It felt like a homecoming, a return to what Olivia hoped would be their carefree days. Their tongues danced and volleyed, until what began as something playful and joyous turned deeper. Taking quick, staccato steps forward, Olivia ushered Natalia over and onto the bed.
Hands and fingers roamed everywhere, hurriedly and without pretense. Their bodies behaved as though they had never held each other before, never tasted each other, and indeed, for Olivia, something did feel different. Every last inch of Natalia's skin was electrified under her fingertips, and soon their feverish pace threatened to end their tryst far too early.
"Wait," Olivia pulled back, breathing hard. "I don't want to do this if you're... conflicted. We can celebrate another day, when it's not--"
"It's time, Olivia. Time to let the past be the past. Time to look to the future." As she spoke, Natalia held Olivia's hand at the wrist, pressing the palm of her hand against her belly. "I love you so much."
"You have no idea," Olivia groaned, the friction between them in all the right places. "Jesus, we're having a baby."
"We are. Together," Natalia whispered as she let her hand creep between them, ever so stealthily. "I think owe you," she punctuated the words with a thrust directly at the source of Olivia's desire. "Between work, and the dog, and everything..."
Olivia felt herself curl harder into the pressure Natalia was applying. "Too long." It was all she could manage.
She could feel Natalia's breasts sliding against her own, and the sensation was almost too much to bear.
"Let me take care of you like you take care of me." Natalia's words dripped like honey from her lips.
But Olivia was confused, terribly aroused, and every muscle in her body threatened to snap.
"Relax, Olivia," Natalia purred, using her free hand to gently push Olivia back onto the bed. "Lie down."
She'd received orders in her life, most of which she ignored, but this directive Olivia took very seriously. It took awhile, the stress of the last few weeks having quite literally amassed on her shoulders, but eventually Olivia gave in to Natalia's thorough, attentive exploration. As the night wore on, Olivia grew more and more relaxed, and frantic sex turned into slow, intimate lovemaking, which turned into sleep, which turned back into frantic, impassioned sex. They must've fallen asleep again because when Olivia woke up, the sun had risen and all the sheets were missing.
Olivia stood slowly, feeling a little bit old for the first time in a long while. Her back screamed at her, but she couldn't stop smiling. She made her way over to the closet and found her own robe, then returned to the window to peek outside. Leaves blew across the front yard of the farmhouse, and the grass looked weak and ready to give in to winter already. She must've been deep in thought, because it wasn't until she felt arms around her that she even realized Natalia was awake.
Natalia burrowed into the crook of Olivia's neck. "It wasn't a dream?"
"Mm, no it wasn't," Olivia let Natalia's unruly hair tickle her chin. "Do you think we'll be okay parents? Not too old and crazy to do it right?"
"I think we'll be great parents," she tucked her hands into the pockets of Olivia's robe. "Despite you being old and crazy."
"All these leaves everywhere," Olivia gazed out at the yard but felt her mind drift elsewhere. "I wanna go... today on my lunch break, to Isabella's grave. Clear it off, you know. Make sure they've kept the weeds back. Bring some flowers."
Natalia looked up at her, not with sadness or even expectation, but maybe a little bit of pride. "Want some company?"
Olivia pretended to hem and haw, until she gave in to the woman pressed against her. "Always. I'm better with you by my side."
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