DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
SEQUEL/SERIES: Follows Whatever It Takes and The Lost.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To snuffnyc[at]gmail.com
The Thing with Feathers
It was summer again. Time had a way of creeping up on her these days, it seemed. Natalia knelt in the grass, thick and green and freshly mowed, and let the blades tickle her open palm. She smiled, even though she was exhausted and hot and annoyed by the dampness that already gathered in the bend of her knees and at the small of her back. A surprising gust of wind rustled through the trees above her, providing her with some much-needed relief. She tilted her head back in acknowledgement: God was smiling back at her.
At least that's what she told herself, that God was here and watching over her still, despite everything, despite all that threatened to tear the very faith right from her heart. Another smile, bittersweet and longing, crossed her lips as she imagined what Olivia would think of her, clinging and reverent to a God who never seemed to answer her prayers.
Natalia looked straight up and into the sun, squinting. "Stubborn, she'd say. Stubborn and crazy." She let her chin fall to her chest and sighed, betraying some of that tiredness she worked so hard to hide. "I miss her so much."
She let it linger for a moment, her sadness as almost-palpable as the humid air that hung around her. But just for a moment; with a furious shake of her shoulders, she roused herself and straightened up. Hands slapped lightly against her thighs. "Now where was I?"
With deft fingers she took up the task of arranging and rearranging the flowers on the headstone in front of her once more. "Right. I was just thinking that these would look better over here. What do you think?" She spoke to no one and yet directly to her at the same time. The marble stone gleamed, silent.
"Oh, who am I kidding. You could care less," Natalia attempted a laugh, but when it rang hollow she let her hands fall into her lap. "I miss you. Emma misses you. The dog misses you."
She raised her eyes and scanned the cemetery. It was quiet, as usual, but she could see another figure in the distance, kneeling, mirroring her own pose. But even from across the rolling hill, Natalia could see the figure was shaking, crying and heaving, pressing a hand to the grave marker every few seconds. It pained her to watch, for that had been her not so long ago. Doubled over in an agony words couldn't express, a bare wound no salve could hope to heal.
But just as she'd done before, Natalia rose from the ashes, pushed onward, and one day she came to visit this place and found the shuddering had subsided. The tears still stung her eyes, but they pressed forth with less urgency, and dried more quickly each time.
"I feel guilty," Natalia confessed aloud. "I know it's been a few weeks. I'm sorry. I've been having a bit of pity party lately, but I'm snapping out of it."
Truth was, Natalia knew she was strong enough to handle this. Strong enough to raise another child on her own, strong enough to find her way again. But it was the twisting of the knife, the questions surrounding Olivia's disappearance, the realization that the money was all gone, her son's inability to just once sleep through the night, that added up to something Natalia wasn't sure even she could bear. Some nights she would just lie there, awake and staring at the ceiling, wondering what she had done to deserve the indignities that had been heaped upon her.
Which, of course, would send her into another downward spiral entirely, one where she castigated herself for the self-pity, for biting her thumb at God, for forgetting what a blessing the birth of her son was. It was a cycle she would repeat a thousand times, but just as the trembling had finally stopped, each day Natalia found more hope and less defeat. She knew it was only a matter of time, and she prayed for the strength to survive until then.
"Olly pulled a picture of you off the refrigerator the other day," Natalia shifted in the grass, changing gears. "He, um well he put it in his mouth, but you know for a one year-old, that's that's pretty good, really. He takes all the pictures of Jackie and just throws them on the floor," she laughed, and pulled a stray hair back behind her ear. "They don't get along, those two. Lots of bad blood. Some kind of dog-baby power struggle I don't quite understand."
"I was thinking," Natalia tore a few pieces of grass from the ground, then let them fall absently from her hand. "Might take Emma and Oliver and start fresh somewhere new. I've got that little job but it's not enough. And I can't stand the way people look at me here. It's either pity, or suspicion, or just plain curiosity, like I'm some kind of circus attraction. But I don't want to leave you and Isabella behind. I need advice," she sighed heavily, once again looking to the sky.
"What about you? Any advice? I could really use some. A sign? Something." This time there was no gust of wind, no overt gesture from God indicating that he'd even heard her request. She'd just have to take it on faith. She returned her gaze to the headstone.
"I need answers, and I'm not going to find them here. How can I? How can I find the truth in a town full of people who've already made up their mind? I know Olivia didn't pull that trigger. I know it in my heart. And I'm going to find your killer, the real killer, and bring them to justice. Maybe then maybe then Olivia can come home."
Natalia steadied her hand and brushed her fingertips against the engraved stone. It felt cool despite the summer sun, and she had to fight the urge to press her face to it, to cradle her body against it and wail one last time.
Instead, she brought a hand to her mouth, kissed the fingers there, and laid them upon the stone gingerly. "Kind of lofty goals, don't you think?" she laughed ruefully. "I can barely keep my checking account in the black and now I'm going to dabble in crime solving? Sometimes I think I'm losing my mind."
She stood up and took one last look at the headstone, framed neatly with the flowers she'd brought. "I'm going to do it, Pierce. I promise you. Then maybe you can find a little peace maybe we both can."
"I don't know what the hell that is. A snowman holding a crackpipe?"
Olivia felt her daughter lean hard into her with laughter. Time ticked away as Pierce desperately tried to guess what Natalia was drawing, and the way things were looking, Olivia felt she and Ava could be reasonably assured of victory.
"A toaster oven riding a horse?" Pierce's guesses grew more and more frantic as the sand in the hourglass began to fade.
"It's a movie!" Natalia squealed, jamming the felt marker harder and harder into Emma's easel that they'd co-opted for their game.
Ava clucked her tongue. "Time's a-wastin', Team... what was their team name again?" She turned to Olivia with a furrowed brow.
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Team Rainbows-and-Ponies, something wholesome like that."
Pierce tossed the hourglass as time expired, sending it rolling across the coffee table. "Honestly, Natalia. What... what the fuck?"
Thrusting the marker in her direction, Natalia looked displeased. "It's Christmas Eve, Pierce!"
"Jesus is listening, P. He's mad, and he's not going to come down the chimney tonight if you don't stop swearing," Olivia scolded Pierce smugly, barely able to keep the laughter out of her voice.
Natalia left her post in front of the easel and returned to the armchair, shaking her head as she took a sip of her hot chocolate. "Keep your voices down... Emma's upstairs asleep! And Olivia,please. Jesus does not come down the chimney."
Ava still looked puzzled. "Well, wait. Natalia... what was that supposed to be?"
Olivia watched as her wife described the scribbles she'd laid out on the pad. None of it made any sense to her, or anyone else for that matter. She, Ava, and Pierce each eyed each other with disbelief.
"Sweetheart... next time you're trying to depict 'My Best Friend's Wedding', you should just draw me," Olivia pointed two fingers downward in the air, scissoring them back and forth. "...running after you into a gazebo."
There was a beat of silence, and then the three of them shrieked with laughter, followed belatedly by a reluctant Natalia.
"Fine, fine. Team Bitchy-and-Entitled, you win. Pierce and I will clean up."
The two Spencer women put their feet up on the coffee table, and leaned deeper into the couch cushions.
"Bitchy and Entitled," Olivia snorted, turning up her palms at her daughter. "She says that like it's a bad thing."
Pierce collected the dirty pie plates and glasses strewn about, pausing near the kitchen. "She's going to make me wash these by hand, isn't she?"
"Um, probably," Olivia said plainly. "But come on, look at it this way: it's character-building."
There were muttered expletives as Pierce disappeared into the kitchen, and alone with her daughter for the first time since she'd arrived early that morning, Olivia slid her arm around Ava's shoulders.
"That was fun, mom," Ava smiled up at her. "The whole day, I mean. And you've come a long way. I'm proud of you."
Olivia tried to shrug off Ava's compliment. "Ohh, stop. We've all come a long way. Hard to believe, sometimes, just how far you can come and still be the person you were before."
Ava nodded. "I hear that. There's so much that feels like a lifetime ago. Even Max..."
Hearing her daughter say his name, Olivia felt herself swell with emotion. "Oh, sweetie..." She pulled Ava closer, and kissed her on the head, right where her dark hair parted. "I still think of him, too. And Isabella. They will never be far from our hearts."
There was a clatter as Pierce pulled up short in between the kitchen and the living room. "Uh, sorry to interrupt, but Olivia? Your cell phone's been buzzing on the kitchen table."
Olivia gave Ava another quick squeeze and then stood up, groaning a little at the tension in her back. "I swear to god, I don't know how I'm going to keep up with an infant," she moaned. "Thanks Pierce."
Taking the phone from the young girl, Olivia's face wrinkled. There were three missed calls, and they were all from the same, unfamiliar number.
"I'm gonna see who that was," Olivia motioned to the front porch, grabbing a jacket from the closet and tucking the phone between her shoulder and her ear. "Probably something up at the hotel. You okay for a few minutes, honey?"
Ava smiled tightly. "I'll be fine, Mom. Go ahead."
Out on the porch, Olivia waited while the line rang. Snowflakes had begun to fall, and despite the tiniest niggle of worry, Olivia smiled. Things were going great with Ava on her first visit home in over a year, and Natalia was healthy heading into the second trimester of her pregnancy. She was actually humming a few lines of "White Christmas" when someone finally picked up on the other end.
It was a man's voice, oddly familiar but Olivia couldn't place who it was. "Yes, I have a few missed calls from--"
"Listen very carefully."
Natalia uncurled her legs between the sheets, pausing for a moment as she became vaguely aware of movement behind her. "Olivia?"
A light chuckle. "Who else would it be?"
"Mmm," Natalia sighed softly as she felt Olivia slip into the bed. "Everything okay?"
She could feel Olivia's breath against her bare shoulders. "Yeah, shhh. Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."
It was hard for Natalia to sort out her thoughts; sleep had invaded her body with a particular force this evening. Maybe it was the Christmas Eve feast, the games and the company, or the guilt of not making it to midnight Mass. But the last thing she could recall was waiting up for Olivia, who'd gone to the Beacon to tend to an emergency. She tried to find the clock on the bedside table with a few haphazard swipes of her hand.
"Relax," she felt Olivia rein in her arm from behind her. "It's almost five."
The hour alarmed Natalia, and she rubbed her face hard against the silken pillow. "Five? What happened? What--"
"Electrical problem," Olivia answered just a bit too quickly for Natalia's liking. Something didn't feel right. She tried to roll over to face her, but Olivia's body was tightly pressed against her own.
"Well what did you do? Did you call..." Natalia tried to will herself to finish the question. Phil was his name, the electrician with the twenty-four hour service. But she couldn't for the life of her get a firm enough grip on consciousness to spit it out.
Olivia let out a low growl, and more hot breath against Natalia's back. "If you're so awake then why don't we..."
"Olivia..." Natalia started to protest, showing her displeasure by wriggling hard against her lover's wandering hand. "No, wait. Why did they call you instead of--"
Before she could finish, Olivia had sprung up on her elbow and come round to capture Natalia's mouth in a kiss, folding their bodies together from head to toe. "Natalia," Olivia whispered. "Please... I'm... I want you. I'll be gentle, I promise."
Natalia couldn't hold back the moan that escaped her lips. Olivia knew what those words did to her. And even if part of her had doubts, between the fog of sleep and the havoc being wrought by Olivia's hand against the back of her thighs, she felt herself acquiesce. Lightly at first, she ground her backside against the other woman's body. When she felt Olivia's hand move between her legs, she pressed harder. Permission granted.
"I love you, Natalia." The words sounded soft, small, almost desperate. Olivia moved inside of her slowly, so skillful a lover that she could create a mountain of need and desire within Natalia, when only moments ago there was none.
"I... love you... too... Olivia..." She whispered in time with the rhythm they had created, but having Olivia behind her like this left Natalia with an ache for more contact. In an uncharacteristically bold move, the younger woman let her fingers slide down to where Olivia's body met her own.
She felt Olivia's approval reverberate through her chest. "I like watching you do that."
For a while there were no other sounds, just the two of them sliding against the sheets, unhurried. Their breathing, a bit more so.
"Promise me no matter what happens, you'll never forget that. I love you. I will always love you."
Natalia was very near the edge, her entire body trembling. Before she gave in and let that wave crash over her, she squeezed her eyes shut and nodded, as fiercely as she could to reassure the other woman. There was fear in Olivia's voice, Natalia was sure of it. But she'd passed the point of no return now, and came undone in Olivia's arms with a long, wobbly exhalation.
Questions needled at her brain, pricked at the back of her eyelids even as she felt them fluttering shut. But Olivia was stroking her hair, and quieting her with soft breaths through pressed lips, making sleep a command she could not disobey.
With a start, Natalia sat up in bed, sweat stinging her eyes.
Her palm flattened against the other side of the bed. Empty, sheets still smooth and untouched. Slowly, it dawned on her that it had only been a dream. A memory, long ago and a world away.
"Goddamn it!" Natalia tore back the sheets where Olivia used to lay, punching the pillows in a fit of anger so rare she instantly recoiled, balled fists hanging in midair. "Forgive me, Lord..." she whispered, murmuring a prayer through fingers she folded and pressed to her lips.
She worked hard to ignore the pain that ripped through her chest. It wasn't a passive ache, it wasn't heartbreak. It was a heart attack, a full-blown assault on her carefully staged exterior. Sutures being torn open from the inside.
And then it hit her.
That night. Christmas Eve. A year and a half ago. Olivia's odd behavior. That phone call. The midnight run to the Beacon.
Natalia could see herself in the mirror on the nightstand, eyes wide and glassy in the moonlight. "That's when it all began."
"So, what'd you think?" Natalia bumped Emma lightly with her hip, one hand searching the bottom of the bag for the last few popcorn kernels.
Emma pursed her lips and looked up at the ceiling, considering the question. "Zac Efron issooo totally cute."
Natalia giggled, then popped a handful into her mouth. "And?"
"What else is there?!" Emma laughed, and shot Natalia a look that she would remember forever. It was so subtle, so perfect, and so utterly Olivia. "What?"
She must've noticed Natalia's far-off look. The older woman leaned into her daughter and eyed her through thick lashes. "Nothing," she lied. She didn't want to disturb the placid waters, risk ruining the wonderful day they'd had so far. The little girl deserved some peace. "Just so happy I got to spend the day with you, Miss Emma!"
Emma graciously allowed Natalia to sling her arm around her shoulders and pull them close together in a squeeze. The theater was busy; it was a Saturday afternoon, after all. Families filled the bustling lobby, its soaring atrium echoing with laughter and the whoosh of fountain soda machines. A group of kids Emma's age stood around a cluster of arcade games near the exit, all pimples and gum-smacking. Natalia made a mental note, correcting herself. Emma wasn't a little girl anymore.
In fact, she would be twelve years old this year, and the countdown to official teenaged status would begin. It seemed to excite Emma, but it scared the hell out of Natalia. She'd raised a boy who wasn't so far removed from this age bracket that she'd forgotten what it was all about, but times felt different. Everything felt different.
"Oh. No way. No way." Emma squeaked and slid around to the other side of Natalia, seemingly hiding from the group they were about to pass. "Mama, oh my god, please hide me."
Natalia looked around, confused, but, then again, not all that confused. "A boy?"
"Tariq West. Oh please don't let him see me!"
She had to laugh, deliberately slowing down a little as they walked. "So wait, you like him or you don't? Which one is he?"
"Natalia!" It'd been over a year since Emma had called her by her first name. It jarred the older woman. "I don't know! He's kind of cute, but kind of a nerd and--"
"Hey Emma!" The cracking voice belonged to a slender boy with black curly hair and glasses, who popped out from the group of kids and appeared in front of them, twisting his fingers in an apparent case of pre-pubescent nerves.
When Emma stood, stunned and silent, Natalia chimed in. "Well hello there. Tariq, right? You're in Emma's class?"
"Yeah, hey... you're Ms., um... Mrs.... Miss R--... uh," he fumbled over his words and his knuckles whitened.
Natalia winked at him. "You can just call me Natalia, how's that?" She put out her hand and the young boy shook it, smiling bashfully. Emma was right, he was a little bit cute, and a little bit geeky.
"How are you, Emma?" The more he spoke, the redder Emma got.
It took a nudge from Natalia to get her started, but eventually she replied. "I'm... good. How are you?"
"I'm good. Just chillin', you know."
Natalia nearly spat out her popcorn.
"So hey..." Tariq's voice leaped an octave, and Natalia had to smile as he visibly tried to tamp it back down. "You wanna hang out? Angela's dad is taking a bunch of us to get pizza after his mom and little brother finish that chipmunks movie..." His eyes moved from Emma to Natalia, and back again.
When Emma stammered through some vagaries about chores and dance class, Natalia held up a finger. "Would you excuse us one second? We'll be... Just one second."
Natalia looped her arm into Emma's and turned them aside, taking a few steps away. The young girl was muttering something through clenched teeth. Natalia tried to make out what it was, but when she couldn't, she simply spun Emma around to face her.
"Okay, don't panic. I may be old and out of practice, but I think we can figure this out like...adults." The mere suggestion sent a tingle up Natalia's spine. But Emma was a smart, level-headed girl. Looking into the eyes of her nervous, very obviously smitten daughter, Natalia felt a huge smile cross her face. "You wanna stay? If you do... that's okay. But if you don't, that's okay too."
Emma chewed her lip for a beat, then squeezed Natalia's hand. "Can I?" It was almost a whisper.
Natalia beamed again. "Of course, sweetheart. Two things, though. One, I have to check with--Angela's?-- Angela's dad first. Two, you have to stay with the group and call me in two hours. And three,"
"You said two things!" Emma interrupted, suddenly impatient.
"I know, but I'm the mom so I get to make things up as I go along. Three," Natalia sighed. "How old are you?"
"Eleven and three-quarters."
"And how old will you be when you have your first kiss?"
Emma rolled her eyes and recited the answer from memory. "Thirty five."
"Right. Okay," Natalia laughed, her turn to be nervous. "Go ahead. I'll go make sure it's alright."
She watched as Emma approached the group, a good mix of girls and boys, then get swallowed up by it. For the second time in just a few minutes, Natalia couldn't help but see so much of Olivia in their daughter. A natural talker, affable and polite, Emma quickly melded into the group like she'd been there all along. She felt her eyes water at the thought: Olivia would be so proud.
Natalia snapped back to reality with a shake at the sound of the deep voice at her side. "Yes. Yeah... she's, um..."
"I know who you are, Ms. Rivera," the man smiled at her, but Natalia could see the questions in his eyes. The sympathy mixed with something slightly less benevolent. "I'm Jeff Drake, Angela's father."
Natalia took his hand, a marked difference from the young boy's clammy, clumsy shake. "Some of the kids asked if... I mean, if it's too much trouble, that's--"
"It's fine, really," he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder to stop her. "We were just going to grab a pizza, and you know how the kids like to hang around out there, shoot hoops across the parking lot or whatever."
Natalia nodded. "It'll be a good night for it."
He smiled. "Ah, summer nights. Remember those, don't you? Man, when I was a kid, we didn't need a chaperone though. My parents could just let us run around outside for hours, till the sun went down."
"Well I grew up in Chicago so..."
"Okay," he laughed. "So maybe it was a little different there. But you know what I mean. Now, these days... you feel like you can't let them out of your sight, not for a second. It's... It kinda..."
The slender woman sighed heavily. "It kinda sucks a little."
Now Jeff boomed with laughter. "Yeah, kinda. It kinda does."
She felt him looking at her, and she hoped it was with kind eyes, as she had little left to fend off yet another sideways glance from a parent. She knew what they thought of Olivia, of her family, of her situation. Olivia was the alleged killer, suspected of murdering her friend, and then taking off. Natalia was the poor, clueless, lesbian wife left to raise their children, alone and practically penniless. Luckily, Emma had avoided much of the stigma, and what she she hadn't, she'd been smart and confident enough to brush off. At least so far.
"Hey, if you, um... If you ever need someone to keep an eye on Emma for you," Jeff scratched at his neck. "Angela and her are pretty good friends I think. We could..."
Natalia was about to thank him when she saw his eyes go wide, and he immediately straightened up. Across the theater lobby, a woman was approaching, so quickly she was practically dragging her tiny son behind her.
"Hey kiddo, how was the movie?" Jeff crouched down to scoop up his son, and he hastily introduced Natalia and his wife.
Mrs. Drake scrutinized her openly, and Natalia felt herself slowly stepping back. With one hand on the purse straps over her arm, she thanked them and said goodbye. She tapped Emma's shoulder to get her attention, and slipped her a twenty dollar bill.
"Thanks, Mama," Emma said softly. "I'll call you in two hours?"
Natalia nodded, still aware of Mrs. Drake's eyes drilling holes into her from fifteen feet away. Perhaps Emma noticed the sadness in Natalia's smile because she called out to her just a few seconds later.
"Hey, Ma," she shouted, unabashed and smiling."I love you."
On the way over to Company, this had felt like a good idea. But now, settling into a booth near the back, Natalia wasn't so sure. Frank had picked up her call on the second ring, as he always does, and she'd barely finished explaining that she had Oliver's sitter for a few more hours and nothing to do, when he agreed to come down and meet her. There were more stares in the restaurant, but nothing approaching the obvious disdain that Mrs. Drake had shown in the theater. Instead of looking around and meeting more eyes she wasn't sure she could stand, Natalia bowed her head and folded her fingers in her lap, a private prayer.
She felt someone slide into the seat across from her, but could tell just by the sensation it gave her that it wasn't Frank. Frank always brought in with him a strange feeling, an unreadable vibe that made Natalia uncomfortable. No, this presence was calming, sympathetic, strong. When she raised her head, she pressed her lips into a stout smile for Buzz.
"You doing okay?" He whispered the words as though they were sharing some secret. While she understood, this behavior often grated on Natalia, whomever the source, because it was just senseless. Everyone knew. Everyone talked about it. It'd been a year, and some days it was the talk of the town and other days it got pushed to the backburner. Either way, they were quite firmly past the whispering stage.
"I'm fine, Buzz," she smiled wider at him, and it was genuine. She cared so deeply for Buzz Cooper, especially knowing how hard he had taken the non-wedding between her and Frank. He had a lot of faults, but he was truly a loving man. "You sure you don't need any help around here a couple nights a week? I could prop Olly right up on the bar; he's terribly good with the ladies."
"I'll bet. But we're good here, Natalia. Didn't you just start at that law office?"
She curled the corner of a paper napkin with her fingers, lowering her eyes. "Yes, and I'm grateful. But I could always use the money. Two more kids that gotta go to college... all that."
He reached across the table and covered her hand with his. "Can't Phillip help... with Emma, I mean?"
"Oh of course, yes. He's been more than generous. She'll, um... never have to worry. She's lucky to have him. Lucky things were righted with him before... everything."
Buzz pulled back his hand and tucked it under his chin. Natalia noticed that whenever he did that, it caused his lower lip to jut out, and it gave him a child-like countenance. She smiled at him before returning to her napkin twisting.
"She's lucky to have you, too. You're something else, Natalia. Strong. Real strong. I admire that in a woman."
Natalia blushed. "You coming on to me now, Buzz? I'll tell your wife."
"Shhh!" he exaggerated. "No, really. I mean it. But... that's not why I came to talk to you. I wanted to tell you," Buzz looked around the restaurant and paused. "It's Frank. He's... he's not been himself lately. I was wondering if maybe you could--"
Just then, his son appeared, bounding through the doorway and making his way towards Natalia's table.
Buzz looked over his shoulder and smiled briefly. "Anyway, Natalia. Like I said, if there's anything I can do..."
"Thank you, Buzz. We can talk more later." Natalia watched as the two men swapped places, Buzz clapping a hand on Frank's back as he took a seat.
"It's great of you to come, Frank, on such short notice. I--"
"No, no, Natalia," he cut her short, seemingly out of breath from his jog through the door. "Please. You can call me anytime. I was happy to hear from you."
She found it hard to set her eyes on Frank for more than a few seconds. His forehead was beaded with sweat, which Natalia wanted to ascribe to the relentless July heat, but coupled with his bleary eyes and Buzz's ominous words, it troubled her.
"How are you, Frank?" she asked, wincing slightly as she struggled to focus. Finally she gave up and nearly hid her face behind the menu.
He sighed, and his breath was stale and hot. "I'm doin' alright, keepin' busy. Got an e-mail from Rafe the other day. Good to hear he's doing so well."
"Yeah, we spoke on the phone the other day," she smiled thinking of her oldest son. He was currently stationed in North Carolina, awaiting his next orders. "He and some other friends of his are thinking of visiting next month. Guys in his... unit I guess? From Afghanistan."
Frank nodded, then crossed his arms across his broad chest. "Let me buy you dinner, Natalia."
"Um... sure," she agreed reluctantly. "But I really should be buying dinner for you. You did such a great job on the lawn last weekend. You really did not have to do that, Frank." More like 'should not have'. Natalia was uneasy accepting Frank's help because of the complications of their relationship. But most days he simply would not accept no for an answer.
Not only was she convinced he still held a torch for her, but since Pierce's murder, it had become increasingly obvious that he had gone ahead and ordained himself Natalia's savior. Of course he was of the opinion shared by the rest of the police department, that Olivia had killed Pierce that night and subsequently fled. Add to that the fact that he seemingly just plain didn't like Olivia Spencer even before this entire incident and, well, Natalia prayed for the strength to ask the tough questions.
"Just trying to take care of you, Natalia. Someone's got to."
He stated it so matter-of-factly, giving it barely a thought before returning his eyes to his menu. She knew he meant well, but it incensed Natalia. One day, a couple of months ago, she returned home from work to find Frank already there, repairing a part of the fence that had come down over the winter. There was something out of place with Frank, even then, and it concerned her. She wondered if Frank had sought therapy or any kind of help after Isabella's death.
"Well, we're doing okay. Oliver's keeping me young," she laughed at her own sarcasm, but noticed Frank flinch when she mentioned her son's name. "I think I can recite every late night TV program and infomercial for you."
He tried to smile. "Any interest in sharing the crab dip? You'll love it," he looked up at her expectantly, not seeming to notice the odd transition.
"I should probably tell you why, exactly, I asked you down here tonight," Natalia let her menu lightly slap closed. "I've got some questions, Frank. Questions about Pierce's shooting. Some things have come up... some things I've thought of recently that could help--"
"Natalia, please. We've gone over this a million times." He leaned forward, his elbows against the table. "What else could you possibly want to know?"
Her hand had begun to tremble, and she squeezed it open and closed a few times beneath the table to steady it. Swallowing, she found her mouth dry, so she took a long sip of her water, watching Frank over the glass. He didn't look particularly disturbed by her questioning. Maybe a little annoyed.
"There's a few things. She started to behave strangely, before... way before anything with Pierce, and there was--"
"I can answer that for you, Natalia, but you don't want to hear the answers." His face remained flat and even, but his eyes narrowed. "We've got records-- months of records-- showing Olivia moving funds, liquidating her assets and moving the money to offshore accounts. Making large cash withdrawals. What do you think that shows us?" He didn't wait for her answer. "Premeditation. And the crime scene? Olivia's fingerprints... in Pierce's blood. Shell casings from the same caliber gun you yourself claim to have seen in her possession." He leaned even further forward now, but his stoic exterior flinched just long enough for Natalia to see something there that scared her. He was enjoying this.
"A shirt of Olivia's, down by the river. Soaked in the blood of her so-called best friend. What other questions could you possibly have?"
Natalia sat, stunned. All this information, these facts, she'd heard them all before. But this was the first time Frank had issued them in such a way as to try and persuade her of her partner's guilt. To try and make her feel foolish. Naive. To hurt her.
"Frank," her voice was low and deeper than normal. She spoke slowly to keep from erupting. "I can get the bank records on my own. But maybe her cell phone records--"
"You know I can't do that, Natalia. You know--"
"Stop interrupting me!" she shouted, rattling the table and startling the diners around them. She drew in a deep breath and let it whistle between her lips. "You could if you wanted to."
She was pushing up from her seat at the table when the tears began, serving only to anger her further. She didn't want to cry about this, not here anyway, and not like this.
"Natalia, wait," Frank tugged at her arm as she moved past, but she shook it off with all the force she could muster. She'd made it all the way to the parking lot before he caught up with her.
"Natalia, dammit. Stop. Stop for one second."
Her eyes met his, and she held sway briefly before she faltered. She had to spin away, unable to stop the tears. "Don't come by the house again, Frank. Don't do me any more favors, okay?" She felt him approach her from behind, could feel the heat radiating off him.
"Don't do this. Give me a chance. She left you. That's what Olivia Spencer does, Natalia. Now, you and I... we could--"
Tears and all, Natalia turned to face him once more. Her cheeks felt hot and wet, and her vision blurred, but she stood fast.
"I wish she would come home, Frank. I wish she would come home, even if it meant you would be the one to haul her away to prison for the rest of her life for a crime she didn't commit. I wish she would, Frank, so that you could watch me stand by her side the whole way." She unlocked the car door and pushed it open, pressing Frank further back, giving her some space. He looked about to come unwound, and she didn't want to be anywhere near him when he did. "I will never be with you Frank. I'd sooner walk Olivia straight to the gas chamber myself."
Another gust of wind rattled against the window panes, and Olivia sat up just a bit to take a peek outside. Snow was falling from what seemed like every direction, floating down from the dark sky, whipping sideways against the clapboard siding, even rising up from the ground like curls of smoke. Despite the frigid February temperatures and record-setting wind, it was warm inside this room, and she felt safe.
"You can turn that up, you know. I'm not exactly reading," Natalia looked up from her magazine and shook it in Olivia's direction. "More like looking at the pretty pictures."
It was some trashy grocery store celebrity rag, the kind Olivia would've never bought if it hadn't been for the doe-eyed pleading of her better half. To be fair, she did so love the amused giggles and disapproving shushes it elicited. It was an informative and hypnotic experience, watching Natalia read one of those magazines. She could tell who was cheating on whom, who was revealing too much skin and who was popping out kids at an alarming rate, all by the tone of a murmur or a particularly forceful snap of the page.
"Mmm," Olivia grunted. "Not really watching, either." She shifted on top of the down comforter, and took another look outside. "They weren't kidding when they said to expect a blizzard."
"Don't worry. I've got plenty of coffee and plenty of bacon."
Olivia turned to face the other woman, who sat near the window in her favorite chair, curled up with her legs folded to one side, reading lamp aglow just over her shoulder. Olivia loved to watch her this way: relaxed, unguarded, wrapped in a robe Emma had picked out for her for Christmas. Her bare toes wiggled a little as she read.
Finally, she raised her eyes to meet Olivia's. "What?"
"Nothing," Olivia smirked. "Just... that's what you think my basic needs are? Coffee and bacon?"
"Yes," Natalia replied, sliding out of her chair, one hand pulling the robe closer to her body. "I've got everyone in this family down to a science."
The older woman chuckled, patting the empty side of the bed. "Really? Do tell."
"Easy. Emma? Pancakes and brownies. Maybe some Rice Krispies." She crawled onto the bed and took up the same position, legs folded, near the foot of the bed so that she was facing Olivia. "You? Coffee and bacon. Pierce? Twizzlers and toilet paper."
Olivia felt her shoulders shake with laughter. "But Pierce is at her apartment."
Natalia squeezed her face into a smile. "I sent her home with some."
"Good to know. Wouldn't want to get a frantic call from her in a couple of hours," Olivia pulled at the hem of Natalia's robe, urging her to come closer. The other woman obliged, leaning into her shoulder, draping Olivia's arm around her. "And what about Junior here?" She used her free hand to gently caress Natalia's belly.
"Avocados. Well, guacamole actually."
"Really!" She laughed. "I don't know what it is, but the kid loves guacamole. I've spent every hour of every day craving it since I got pregnant."
Sitting up in bed like this with Natalia, with barely any light in the room and the night closing in around them, Olivia could almost forget the world outside their home. The stress she'd been under, the secrets she'd been keeping... they all seemed to melt away with just a wiggle of her wife's adorable little feet.
"My Aunt Rosa taught me how to make my guacamole. A few secret ingredients, the right technique for picking the avocados..." Natalia always smiled when she spoke about cooking.
"I have wondered what you were doing in the produce aisle. Now I know-- you were communing with the avocadoes." She felt a stab beneath her ribs. "Ow... no seriously, that isgood guacamole. It's pretty much heaven on a spoon. If I could dip bacon in it, I would."
Natalia laughed against her neck. Olivia would never tire of that sensation.
"I've never heard of your Aunt Rosa before. How come?"
"Oh, I don't know," the body against her nestled in closer, letting her head drop onto Olivia's shoulder. "We were close when I was growing up, but once my parents threw me out... it was very hard to keep in touch. It... it was a strained relationship. Plus she was all the way in New York, and we were in Chicago."
Olivia stroked Natalia's hair silently, waiting for Natalia to decide whether or not she wanted to continue. It was always a tough subject for Natalia, but lately had become unbearable for Olivia, too. The older woman was keenly aware of the fact that if anything happened to her, Natalia would be alone. Again. She felt herself wince at the thought.
"But," Natalia squeezed Olivia's waist. "Who knows. Maybe if I find myself in the Bronx one day I'll look her up."
There was another minute of silence, the television casting odd shadows on the wall, muted.
"Exactly what on earth would bring you to the Bronx, my dear?" Olivia raised an eyebrow when Natalia looked up at her. Another hard poke in the ribs.
"I don't know... the Zoo?" She laughed again, and Olivia laughed with her. It was still so easy, to fall in with her like this, to laugh and toss and turn over the bed like she hadn't a care in the world. But she did. She had too many.
They came to rest facing each other, Olivia with one arm tucked beneath her head, propping her up. "I love you, Natalia."
"I love you too, babe." The other woman chucked an arm Olivia playfully. "Why so serious all of a sudden?"
"I'm just..." she felt her stomach lurch. What to say, what not to say... it was all so complicated. "You know I would do anything to protect this family, right? Whatever it takes, right?" She recited the words she'd said so many times before.
"Yeah, I know. Whatever it takes... we both would. But what's wrong? Why... why now?"
"There's nothing, I just..." She contemplated telling her, telling her everything, but she didn't know where to begin. And she sure as hell had no idea when it would end. The thought of burdening Natalia like that, when it could really be just as simple as... No, she couldn't risk it. She couldn't risk anything while Natalia was pregnant with their child. They couldn't lose another one. They wouldn't survive. "You know business hasn't been what I would like it to be at the Beacon, and--"
"Olivia. Honey, that's what this is about? Money?"
"Well..." Olivia croaked. Well indeed.
Natalia sat up, and drew her knees underneath her so that the skin of her lower legs and thighs brushed against the sliver of exposed skin at Olivia's torso. Still after all this time, that square inch of contact sent shivers through Olivia.
"No matter what happens, that is the least important thing to me. What matters is that I love you. That you love me."
As she spoke she draped her upper body across Olivia's, slowly and with great care. Then her hips and legs followed suit, sliding against the fabric of Olivia's cotton pants. Between them she could feel Natalia unfasten the knot of her robe and peel it back, and when she looked down, all Olivia could see was the olive skin of Natalia's generous breasts pressed against her own.
"You do love me? I mean, you said so yourself..."
Words died on Olivia's tongue. "I did. I do."
"And I love you."
When their lips met, Olivia felt everything else slowly leave her mind. When their tongues thrashed against one another, hard and furious, Olivia felt a spark of confidence. That's all this was supposed to be about: money. Business. Once they got what they needed, they would disappear and she and Natalia could go on with their lives. And when Natalia made a trail of kisses along her jaw, and up to her ear, Olivia decided that nothing else mattered, that she would give away her last dime if it meant spending a lifetime with Natalia and the family they'd made together. She was no slouch, after all. If need be, Olivia could find another job, start over, build something even bigger and better.
Pulling back, Natalia sat up and pulled her hair to the side. Coyly, she ground her hips round against Olivia, just once, deliberately. Baring her body to her, making a show of it. Olivia felt her eyes go wide, the little surprises Natalia always seem to have up her sleeve never ceasing to amaze her. When she moved even slightly, Natalia held her still.
"Shh," Natalia silenced her before she could even begin to protest. Lightly her fingers danced across Olivia's chest, up her arms and across her shoulders. "You're tense."
With that observation, Natalia let her thumbs settle in the notch of Olivia's v-neck tee, above her breasts but below her collarbone. Then carefully, slowly, she began to knead the muscle there, drawing her fingers in to simultaneously work her sides. A long breath escaped Olivia's lips.
"Everything's going to be okay," Natalia whispered.
And when all the other sounds fell away, even the wind buffeting the house, Olivia believed her.
Getting the job at the law firm was a stroke of serendipity for Natalia, having gone in one day to speak to Cynthia D'Ettorre, her and Olivia's attorney, only to find out they were opening an office in Springfield. It was a good job, something nine-to-five that let her be home for Emma at dinner and have her weekends free. She'd arranged for a sitter to take Oliver most days, but sometimes he bounced around between Blake and Doris, or even Marina who'd become a stay-at-home mom to Henry. The firm had its own daycare program that many of the employees made use of, but Olly was too young just yet. It would be great, financially, in another year when he was old enough, but Natalia often found herself pushing that idea out of her head. She preferred to believe that by that time Olivia will have made her way home, the real killer found and the entire mess behind them. She never allowed herself to think that Olivia had intentionally abandoned them, not once, no matter how much effort it took. Facts could only tell you so much, she believed, and she knew they weren't the whole story.
Some days, Natalia would drive an hour away to the firm's headquarters, to the glass-enclosed building where she and Olivia had legally bound themselves to one another, to the same town where Olivia had slipped that diamond ring on her finger. Mostly it was just to deliver documents, or sit in on a meeting with clients that required extra attention. For the most part, she was a secretary, an assistant, and a very proficient coffee-pourer. None of it was beneath her, at least not to Natalia. She was a hard worker and did whatever was asked of her. And her superiors acknowledged her dedication often, sometimes slipping her bonuses in her check that she wasn't quite sure what to make of. But she certainly wasn't in a position to turn them down.
"Cynthia?" Natalia asked softly as she pushed the office door open with her shoulder. It was never easy to be back in her office like this.
The blonde behind the desk sighed. "Call me Cindy, please. When you say 'Cynthia' I look up and expect to see my mother standing there with that look on her face that says 'I just don't get why you love playing with G.I. Joes so much.' I'm forty years old and she's just now figuring out it wasn't her fault."
Natalia smiled, and began setting out some packets on the conference table across the room.
"How about you?" Cindy asked, dropping her pen on the desk and rising from her leather chair.
Natalia furrowed her brow for a second, then shrugged. "I was really more into dressing in my mother's clothes. Trying on her high heels."
Cindy laughed. "No, no... I meant... while that does provide me with an adorable mental image... what about your family? Are you close with your parents?"
Leaning against the table Natalia was arranging, Cindy winced. "Ah, okay. Wrong thing to ask. I'm sorry."
With everything in place, the younger woman pressed her hands against her the fabric of her black skirt, uncomfortable. "No, it's okay. I haven't seen my parents since I was sixteen. When I got pregnant with my son. My first son."
"Wow, okay... I... I suck, Natalia," Cindy laughed lightly. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually this ham-fisted. I just..."
"It's fine, really." She smiled, and she meant it, but she also didn't want the conversation to go any further. Cindy was a great boss, and a wonderful woman, but Natalia didn't have the energy to bare her soul to yet another inquiring mind.
Luckily, she got the hint. "Well anyway, one of the reasons I asked you to come out here today was because I got those phone records you were looking for. Olivia's cell records."
The sound of her name froze Natalia in her tracks. "You did? How? I mean, you didn't have to..."
"I know you said you had a hard time getting cooperation from Chief Cooper. Truth is, you could get the records from the cell company yourself because your name is on the joint account, but that would take forever. Waste of time, especially when we know that SFPD already has them." Cindy stepped back behind her desk and pulled a manila envelope out from the drawer. "I just called and acted lawyerly. It's what I do."
Natalia accepted the envelope with lowered eyes. "Thank you. I know it seems crazy but..."
"It's not crazy. I remember the two of you together," Cindy reached for Natalia and linked a finger and a thumb around the other woman's wrist. "It's not crazy. Let me show you... they've done some of the legwork for you already."
They walked over to the conference table once again and Natalia unsheathed the stack of papers and fanned them out. They were records stretching as far back as when Olivia first came home from rehab, and amongst the columns of nine digit numbers, there were different color highlights.
"The red ones have all been traced back to prepaid cells. Burners, untraceable. First signs of those are..." Cindy slid her finger down the page but Natalia already knew.
"Christmas Eve. Two Christmases ago."
"Yeah, that's right. Did you--"
"Let's just say it came to me in a dream," Natalia laughed humorlessly. "These numbers, the burners... Looks like there's a few incoming, a few outgoing, then they disappear. I don't get it. There must be a hundred unique numbers here."
Cindy rubbed at her neck. "I really don't know, Natalia. If I had to guess? Somebody was just being exceptionally cautious. Maybe..."
"Maybe someone wanted to keep her guessing," Natalia spoke softly, almost to herself. "Whoever it was reached out to her first. The incoming calls start on Christmas Eve, then the money starts moving not a week after that. Can't be a coincidence."
Cindy arched an eyebrow in the other woman's direction, obviously impressed. Natalia just shrugged. "I've poured over those bank statements more nights that I can count. Looking for a hint. Anything."
"The yellow highlights," Cindy continued, pointing out a few such selections. "Those are verified, traceable numbers. You'll probably recognize most of them. Work calls, calls home..."
Natalia's eyes stung. Calls home. Calls to her. Calls she wished she could have just one more of.
"Thank you, Cynthia-- Cindy," Natalia corrected herself. "I really appreciate the help. Frank... um, Chief Cooper, you know... he's got a lot of history, not just with me but with Olivia and... I'm afraid this case hasn't been investigated very objectively. They seem to think it's open and shut."
Cindy sighed. "If only they could nab their girl, huh?"
Over the clatter of the pots and pans, Natalia could barely hear the light knock at the back door of the farmhouse.
"Come in," she yelled, probably louder than necessary.
"Everything okay in here? Sounds like a war zone." It was Phillip Spaulding, his hands full, a brown bag on one arm and a bouquet of flowers in the other.
Natalia smiled at him. "What's all this?"
"Beth's sorry she couldn't come. Made me swear I'd bring something-- don't worry, I didn't bake it. Just a pie, some cookies, those cupcakes I know Emma likes."
He dropped the boxed sweets on the counter, and handed Natalia the flowers. "Every lady should get flowers now and then."
"Oh, you shouldn't have. Thank you, Phillip. Really. They're lovely." She reached around him and found a vase in the cupboard, and searched for a knife to trim the ends off the mixed bouquet.
It was a little surreal, the image of Phillip, Olivia's once nemesis, once husband, standing in her kitchen handing her flowers and offering her baked goods. But for all the things he once was, he was always Emma's father, and now, someone Natalia considered a friend. He'd been there for her when news broke of Pierce's murder, and the discovery that Olivia had gone missing. He'd deflected questions when asked about his history with Olivia, the local reporters looking for anything that would paint Olivia as a scheming, heartless murderer. He'd even taken control of the Beacon, trying desperately to keep it afloat despite its operating in the red. He'd become something of an admirable philanthropist, pouring money into the hotel just to keep the doors open, just to keep the faithful employees off the unemployment line. Nearly dying will do that to a man.
"Anything I can do to help? It smells delicious..."
Natalia waved him off, smiling despite the beads of sweat that collected on her forehead. "It's almost ready, just gotta--" She held up a finger and disappeared for a second into the living room. "Emma!" she shouted. "Your dad's here! Bring Olly down and don't run."
She moved back into the kitchen and puffed her cheeks full of air, letting it go when Phillip quirked a smile at her.
"You're doing great, Natalia."
"Oh... I don't know about that, Phillip. The other day? I got out of the car without putting it in park. Just--" Her fingers danced in the air. "--climbed out."
He laughed. "Been there."
"Yes, but I just watched it. Watched it roll right into the bushes." She pulled a piece of bread from the loaf on the table and popped it into her mouth. "Josh Lewis came by last week and put the bumper back on."
"They were ugly bushes anyway?" He offered with a shrug.
"Kind of," Natalia laughed. It felt good to have family in her kitchen, something roasting in the oven, Emma's footsteps shuffling above them. "Phillip... I've been thinking. About Olivia. About everything..."
He pulled out a chair and sat down, watching her intently.
"You sure she never came to you... looking for help? Advice? Anything?"
Phillip sighed. "I wish she had, Natalia. You know I do. Is everything--"
Emma came bounding in with Oliver wrapped up tightly in her arms. "See? I'm the most careful big sister in the universe, Mama. No running. Not even a hop over the last step! Hey Daddy!"
Natalia took Oliver and squeezed her little boy's cheeks, scrunching her face at him, then pulled out a seat for Emma. She was busy giving her father a big hug, her skinny, sprouting arms draped around his neck.
They made light conversation throughout the meal, Emma carrying most of the load with tales of her summertime exploits. Since her afternoon with Tariq last week, Emma was mentioning the young boy's name more and more. Natalia and Phillip just looked at each other with equal parts fascination and terror.
By the end of dessert, the table was covered in empty cupcake liners and a white box covered in powdered sugar that looked like it may have once housed a dozen cookies. Phillip and Emma sat, stuffed to the gills, and watched little Olly clap two hands full of vanilla frosting.
"Oh, sweetie..." Natalia fussed with her son. "You love making a mess, don't you?" She rubbed at his chubby hands with a wet cloth.
"Tell you what, Natalia. I need to work off all this dessert. Emma, you wanna help me with the dishes? Let your Mama," he looked up at her and winked, "get a few minutes to herself? Maybe take Oliver in the living room and catch the end of Jeopardy?"
Natalia laughed, and without even thinking, she said, "That's Olivia's show. I don't know Monet from Monaco."
There was a moment of silence, until Phillip stood and cleared his throat, stepped to the sink and turned the water on full blast. "If only Olivia could see this, huh? Phillip Spaulding, washing dishes."
Natalia smiled wistfully. "I'll take, 'Things She'd Never Believe If I Told Her' for a thousand, Alex."
Some time later, Emma appeared from the kitchen, raced past Natalia and Oliver on the couch, and mumbled something about checking to see if her friends had IM'd her. She blew a kiss in Natalia's direction and was gone again, Natalia too exhausted to put up a fight.
"Huh." Phillip stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. "That wasn't so bad."
"Try doing it twice a day, every day." Natalia teased.
"I brought up Europe to Emma again. She still seems noncommittal."
Phillip had asked Natalia about a month ago if he could take Emma on a three week tour of Europe before she went back to school for the fall. While Natalia supported it, Emma hadn't been as receptive as they'd hoped.
"I'll talk to her. It's an experience of a lifetime. I'd hate for her to miss it, then regret it later." Natalia moved a sleeping Oliver to her other shoulder. "Now he sleeps. Three hours, he'll be up again. No chance you want to take him, is there?"
Phillip smiled at her joke. "Does he speak Italian?"
A short knock at the door startled them both. The rap against the wood paused, then became more insistent. Phillip motioned for Natalia to stay seated.
When he swung the door open, it took a second before Natalia could make out the figure in front of him.
"Frank," Phillip said flatly. "How are--"
"Phillip Spaulding?" Frank asked, more to Natalia still seated on the couch than to Phillip himself. He turned his shoulder and stepped into the house, Phillip just shaking his head. "Does your wife know you're here?"
"Hello to you too, Chief Cooper." Phillip grimaced a bit.
"Frank," Natalia stood up, trying hard not to disturb her sleeping son. She worked to keep her voice from climbing. "I thought I told you not to come here."
Phillip looked at her, surprised. She hadn't told him about their blowup at Company.
"You weren't thinking clearly, Natalia. I'm here because--"
There was a tense standoff of sorts, Phillip holding the door open for Frank, Natalia standing her ground, her arms wrapped around Oliver.
"Phillip Spaulding isn't the kind of man you want--"
"Oh for crying out loud, Frank! He's here to see his daughter. Not that it's any business of yours."
"I was just leaving. Why don't we both go?" Phillip eyed the other man sternly. "After you, of course."
"Can I come in?" Natalia knocked gently on Emma's door.
"Yup, me and Jackie were just getting ready for bed." The dog was already perched on Emma's bed, belly-up and snoring.
Natalia took over for Emma, who was brushing her hair in the mirror. "Lemme do that, kiddo."
To see their reflection in the mirror, you would never know the pain and heartache they had suffered through. They were, at this moment, just a mother and a daughter, even if one had creamy porcelain skin and the other a deep, summer-darkened olive. Even if Emma had shimmering, light brown hair to Natalia's dark, almost black.
"You're beautiful like your mother."
Emma's eyes fell. "You think so?"
"I know so."
When Emma went silent once again, Natalia pressed on.
"Your father says you still aren't sure about taking the trip with him and Beth."
The young girl sighed. "I don't know. I don't want... I want to go, kind of."
"But..." she folded her arms in front of her. "But I don't want to leave you all alone. Who will help you take care of Olly? And Jack?"
Natalia smiled, then held Emma's gaze in the mirror. "Don't you worry about me, I'll be fine. When I was your age, I would've loved to see the world. It's what I want for you... it's what your mom would want, too."
"I'm not a kid anymore, you know..."
Natalia felt a question coming on. "I know that."
"So... you can tell me. You know, what really happened. I know my mom wouldn't... do that. Not to Pierce. Not to anybody."
"I don't believe she did."
"You don't believe? But you don't know?"
Natalia stopped running the brush through Emma's hair. "The truth is, sweetheart... we don't know what happened. But I know that your mother loves this family very much. And when the time is right, I believe that she'll come back to us."
"But how do you know? I mean, she could be... she could be dead and we wouldn't even know it!"
Tears threatened but Natalia fought them back. She put both her hands on top of Emma's head. "Stay right here, I want to show you something."
She vanished down the hall, fumbling in the darkness of her bedroom for something she'd reached for a thousand times before. When she found it, she returned to Emma's room and sat down on the bed, patting the space next to her, signaling Emma to join her.
"Now I know your mother and I always told you that secrets are wrong... That keeping secrets was a bad thing. But once... just this once... I need you to promise me you won't say anything to anyone."
Emma looked at up her and stiffened her lip, putting on her bravest display of adulthood. "I won't."
Natalia pulled a rubber band from around the bundle of envelopes, eight in all. They were worn and some had been opened in obvious haste. Blue script adorned the front of the envelopes, addressed to Natalia Rivera, with no return address.
She pulled one of the letters out and handed it to Emma, who read it out loud.
"Dearest Natalia. How are things? I miss you so much and hope we can get together soon. Nobody writes letters anymore. I thought it would be nice, for you to find something in your mailbox besides bills and those silly magazines you like to read. Even though we don't talk as much anymore, I still think of you every day. I heard you have a family of your own now-- I hope you're still making the guacamole I taught you, I bet they love it too. Not too much onion, little girl! I love you with all my heart. I'll write again soon. Love always, your Aunt Rosa."
The little girl looked quizzically at the page, turning it over to see if there was more. When she found nothing, she looked at Natalia. "I don't understand."
"Emma... I have an Aunt Rosa, but I haven't spoken to her in twenty years. She doesn't even know where I live."
"So they're not from..."
"I think they're from someone else. Trying to send me a message."
Emma chewed her lip and considered the letter again, running her fingers across the neatly looped script. "You think..."
"These letters are from your mother. She's trying to tell us she's okay. She's trying to tell us to be strong, until she comes back to us."
"It's not that we haven't taken notice. Believe me, you've been extremely cooperative up to this point, Olivia. You don't mind that I use your first name, do you? We should be able to dispense with the formalities by now, eh?" The man paced evenly between two stacks of empty wooden pallets.
Olivia bent her lips into a crooked smile. "Do I have a choice?"
He laughed. "No, no... I guess you really don't. But still... it's the polite thing to do. To ask first. What's not very... polite, Olivia, is going outside of our established protocol. You don't call me. I call you. It's not rocket science. There is to be no trail connecting me," he folded his hands inward, towards his chest, "to you. Works out better for everyone involved that way."
The warehouse they stood in was on the outskirts of town in an abandoned industrial park near the highway on-ramp. She'd lived in Springfield for many years and never knew it was even here. She couldn't help but smirk. Chances were good this wasn't the first blackmail plot that'd gone down here. In a flash, that nondescript sedan out front could vanish across the highway, out of the jurisdiction and in a thousand different directions.
Olivia had considered the location many a night. There was no place to set up and lay in wait, no strategically advantageous position to conduct surveillance from. No accessible windows for sneaky entry or egress. Just one door at the front, and one at the rear, the latter with iron bars across the jamb that Olivia wasn't sure she could even move. And stacks and stacks of debris from the years of disuse: wood, bricks, PVC pipes, even ordinary trash that god-knows-who saw fit to dump there.
"Mighty polite of you to extort every dollar you can out of me by putting my family in danger. Not exactly protocol either."
Dress shoes skidded to a halt on the dirty concrete floor. "You say that as if you've had no hand in this, Olivia. You of all people should know, when you want something, you've got to pay for it."
"I have paid." Olivia narrowed her eyes at him. He had no idea.
"Not nearly enough, I'm afraid. Not enough by far. Did you honestly think you could just wake up one day and decide, 'Hm, I think I'll be a good person from now on?' It's not atonement--" he snorted, "-- giving up the booze, and turning into a house cat. It's not atonement if youenjoy it."
There it was again. Peter Greenway was a businessman, a contractor out for money, nothing more. But increasingly over the past few weeks, these meetings had taken on a whole new dimension, the demands more and more impossible, the wheels threatening to come off the whole thing entirely. And as of last night, things had taken on a dangerously personal tone. But Greenway had no ties to her, no ties in Springfield. She'd been able to investigate that much.
Olivia decided it was time for a new approach.
"Peter... you don't mind that I call you that, do you?" She smiled. He conceded with a nod. "Your role in this, I can understand. You know better than anyone, obviously, that I'm no stranger to doing whatever it takes to build an empire. Wealth. Power. I understand the appeal."
He shifted on the balls of his feet, and Olivia could tell she was already unsettling him.
"You said yourself, this is a crime of opportunity. You saw an opening, a weakness, and you exploited it. Hell, if it wasn't happening to me, I might just be impressed. But this... this business with my family? The barn? Was that a warning? You're a smart man. You had to know I could never come up with that kind of cash in the time frame you gave. Now why would you set me up to fail, Peter? Unless that was the point all along."
She knew she had to keep pressing, even if she was uncertain where she was headed.
"Every demand, down to the last cent, I've been more than cooperative. I've liquidated just about everything I can. A few hundred thousand at a clip I can handle. But last week you ask me for twenty million dollars like you were asking me for a quarter to ride the ferris wheel. If you expect me to sell off the Beacon, brick by brick, well... that's going to take some time."
"A woman with your connections could--"
"Don't. Don't play dumb with me. You were smart enough to put me on my heels six months ago. Now, you're making shit decisions and getting sloppy. Committing fucking arson for Christ's sake!"
"I had nothing to do with that." His voice was flat, but she could've sworn she saw a slight grimace.
"Your boss then? Whoever's in charge, running this mess? Well if that was his work, his idea, I want you to get a message to him for me," Olivia crept closer to the man, stepping into the harsh light of the bare bulb, casting a shadow on his face. "He's overplaying his hand. Whatever bullshit rap you want to pin on me, whatever leverage he thinks he has... Nothing's worth all this. You put my family in danger again and I'll pull the plug on this whole thing myself. The feds, the SEC, the whole lot of them... they'll think it's fucking Christmas. I'll march right in there with a big fucking red bow on my head if that's what it takes."
She stood blocking his light, wanting to let that uneasy feeling wash over him. She'd sure felt enough of it herself these last six months. Finally, she stepped away, giving him some space to breathe.
"I was willing to play your little game when it was just about the money. But this? This reeks of something else. Pride, maybe? You think long and hard about the deal you made, what youhope to gain when this is all over. If things go south for me, Petey, they go south for you too. Can you say the same about whoever's pulling the strings?"
The silence between them was heavy, expectant.
"Ten point five then. I've seen the books. You can come up with it." He unfolded a piece of paper and handed it to her. "Transferred to these accounts. Same timeline as usual."
Olivia perused the scrap of paper and then shoved it into the breast pocket of her suit jacket. "And?"
"You do that and I'll convince him we've gotten about all we're going to get out of you."
Clearly she had gotten to Peter. He was greedy, but not stupid. But then again, neither was Olivia.
"There's something else."
"Give her an inch and she takes a mile."
"I want him here. Friday night. Before I finalize the transfer."
"Please." She stopped him with an abrupt wave of her hand. Her eyes flickered, her disdain unmistakable. "If I'm going to get fucked, I want to look him straight in the eye."
The summer sun made even walking to the mailbox a chore. Natalia squinted up at the sky, no sign of clouds. No sign of relief in sight.
It was Saturday, and she was sure she'd heard the mailman pulling away just a few minutes ago. She held her breath as she swung open the little corrugated metal box, immediately shuffling through the contents. Not a word from Olivia, but she'd expected as much. For the first few months the letters came somewhat regularly, each time postmarked from a different part of the country, but written in the same precise script, in the same ink, signed with her aunt's name in a penmanship she recognized as clearly as her own.
But two months ago, the letters stopped coming, and Natalia could only suppress her worry for so long. It was time, she'd decided. Time for her to stop hiding behind the fear of what she might find, or her fear of failing to find anything at all. She had to give it her best, last shot to bring Olivia home, otherwise those eight letters might be all she had left.
She fidgeted with the waist of her skirt as she crossed the grass, looking back up at the farmhouse and the surrounding property. The grass was still green and healthy and full of dandelions. Not like last year. Last summer, the drought had gone on so long, the yard had taken on a pock-marked appearance, most of the grass yellow and burnt. But not this year. In fact, the grass was greenest off to the side where the barn had once stood, the ashes of its burned out hull having fertilized the ground anew.
It was a victim of a lightning strike, the fire marshal had said, the old structure a tinder box waiting to go up in flames after the driest summer on record. Natalia had left its scorched shell there for some time, having given birth to a son and lost her partner less than a week after its destruction. It wasn't until the fall that she'd had someone come and haul the charred wood away, then she fell to her knees and literally swept away the remains with her open palm.
Now Natalia stood in the brightest, greenest patch, kneeling down to run her hands through the thicket. She closed her eyes and remembered that night, the fear that the fire would spread, setting her home, her family's home, ablaze. She'd wondered briefly later on if the fire had something to do with Pierce's death. Olivia's flight. But Frank had assured her that the fire marshal...
Frank had assured her.
It didn't make sense, but it sent a chill through Natalia, in spite of the penetrating summer heat. She stood up quickly and rushed to the house, her thoughts a jumbled mess. When she escaped the heat through the back door of the kitchen, she found her cell phone bleating on the wooden table.
"Hello?" She hadn't bothered to look at the caller ID, in her breathless haste. When there was no sound at first, her heart quaked in her chest.
"Natalia, hi. It's Phillip," came the answer. She steadied her breathing.
"Hey, Phillip. I was just--"
"Listen, I don't mean to bother you but, you know that number you gave me? The guy you said managed the Beacon while Olivia was in California?"
It was Phillip's delicate way of saying rehab. She smiled a bit. "Yeah, Peter Greenway. Did you get in touch with him?"
"Well, I tried the number a few times. Just got his voicemail. I know you said he did good work, and between you and me I could really use an extra set of hands trying to keep the hotel operational, but..."
Phillip kept talking, but Natalia's mind began to race. Finally, she had to cut him off. "Phillip, I'm gonna have to call you right back."
She ended the call abruptly, taking her phone with her as she ran through the living room, taking the stairs up to her bedroom two-by-two. It took her a minute to rifle through all the papers she'd left on the nightstand, but eventually she found it. There, on Olivia's cell phone records, buried amongst the sea of red-- calls to and from unidentifiable prepaid cell phones at odd hours of the day and night-- was the number. The number she had given Phillip two days before. It had looked familiar to her the other night, but she'd been tired and assumed if the police had flagged in yellow, that they had identified it already.
It was Peter Greenway's number, just once in all those months. At six AM, the morning after the fire. A 30-second call.
With trembling hands Natalia fumbled for her cell phone and began punching out the numbers. She had to know.
A week with no answer felt like a lifetime, even to a woman as used to waiting and wanting and being as utterly in the dark as Natalia Rivera-Spencer. She had elevated it to an art form, a repertoire of careful, practiced movements: a smile when it was the right time to smile, a focused, concentrated stare when at her desk at work, a patient, steady hand on the days she volunteered at Emma's school. But her mind churned at an impossible rate, exacerbated even further as she worked to uncover the truth surrounding that fatal night.
Some situations, though, required no play-acting at all. Every moment with her son, with his mystifying little quirks and intense loathing for sleep during traditionally prescribed hours. And Emma, with her rapid ascent into adolescence, equally mystifying but for entirely different reasons. Even at the cemetery, kneeling beside her daughter's grave, or Pierce's, Natalia felt strangely at peace. Her guard crumbled and peeled away like it did when she was in church, the rows of pews replaced by rolling hills and a grove of trees.
There was one scenario that Natalia was dreading, fearing her expertise might fail her and give away her suspicions. She'd been avoiding Company, avoiding town mostly, for fear of running into Frank Cooper. She knew she couldn't smile at the man who had shown up at her house that night, wild-eyed and accusing. Remaining civil however, she told herself, would be necessary, and as she drifted off to sleep, her last thought was that she'd give it a try tomorrow.
When she woke again, to the buzzing of her cell phone on the dresser, Natalia wasn't quite sure how long she'd been asleep. A quick glance at the clock showed it was 1:30 in the morning, and she worked out the rough math in her head. Oliver had finally gone down around midnight, and she'd climbed into bed not much after that. Her senses perked up when she realized it could be Phillip or Emma calling; they'd left for Europe that afternoon, and with the time difference...
Her brow furrowed in the darkness of the bedroom. It was a number Natalia didn't recognize, and her heart began to pound in her chest. Carefully, as though the phone itself was a bomb set to explode, she brought it to her ear.
"He-llo?" Natalia frowned at the sound of her own voice. She was hoping to come across a little more confident than that.
"If you want to speak with me, you'll meet me in an hour at this address. Get a pen."
The man's voice was clipped, not outright angry or annoyed, but it scared Natalia nonetheless.
"I... who is this? Who--"
Instead of answering her question, he started rattling off the address, and Natalia scrambled in the dark to try and find something to write on. But even as she scribbled it down on the back of a magazine, she knew this was a game she couldn't afford to play.
"I have an infant son. I can't just--"
"Fine," the man huffed. "Then I'll just come to you."
The line was dead before she could argue. She rushed around the bedroom, throwing on clothes, doing a lot of moving around but not much else. Blood throttled through her veins as she debated what to do. Her hand shook uncontrollably when she reached for the cell again. Fingers hovered over the digits. 9-1-1. Her baby boy was sleeping in the next room. She wasn't sure just who was about to show up at the farmhouse. She had her suspicions, but she was alone. Scared. Vulnerable. Still, something told her not to dial.
Instead, she pressed her hands to her hair and pulled it back into a loose bun, finding her face in the mirror over the dresser.
"Please, God. Please. If you're listening. Just... please."
It was a prayer for her safety, for her son's safety. A prayer for answers, a prayer for hope.
The night was muggy and silent, even the cacophony of crickets slowed by the humid, stifling air. Natalia sat on the front porch, eyes as wide as dinner plates, waiting. Every few minutes she jingled the cell phone in the pocket of her jeans, then resumed her grip on the smooth pine of one of Rafe's old baseball bats. It was the best protection she could muster on such short notice, and even she could not stop her lips from upturning at the ridiculous thought of her wielding it. She openly wondered if she had it in her to bludgeon someone if the need arose.
Crackling sounds came from the driveway, and Natalia straightened her back in an instant. There were no headlights, but she knew the sound well. Whoever it was did not want to be seen heading to the farmhouse. From the lone light on the porch, she could vaguely make out the silhouette of a man approaching her.
"You won't be needing that. I'm not here to hurt you."
Natalia looked down at her hand on the baseball bat, then back up at the figure that came closer to her. When he stepped into the light, she saw the face of Peter Greenway. Still, she didn't let go.
"You called me, remember?"
He was taller than she remembered, boosted probably by the fear that caused her every fiber to twitch. Suddenly, she couldn't remember all that she had wanted to ask him the night she called. She'd left him a voicemail, trying to sound calm, even cordial, but now, standing here with a weapon in her hand, she guessed he knew what she'd really been after.
"I trusted you." It wasn't what she had been planning to say.
He shrugged. "You're not the first person to make that mistake. Won't be the last."
"Who... who are you? What have you done with Olivia?"
"You look a little... flushed. Why don't you sit down?"
She found his rehearsed politeness condescending. Her whole body shook, infuriated. "Fuck...you. I want answers."
His eyes went wide, and a smirk crossed his face. "I admire your candor." He took a seat at one of the Adirondack chairs on the porch, and took his time lighting a cigar. "I'd love to tell you where Olivia Spencer is, Natalia. But the truth is I have no idea."
Natalia eased her back against the railing, steadying herself. She was about to speak, when Greenway beat her to it.
"I don't know how much of a help I can be. But I do know this. You will never speak my name again, ever. You won't mention me to anyone. This conversation never happened. Do you understand?"
"I'm a professional, Natalia. I don't get involved in the messy business of relationships. Personal vendettas, things of that sort. There's a reason I've been able to walk free all these years. I keep it simple, I collect a tidy sum from my... clients... and then I move on. But when I came to Springfield and applied to manage the Beacon, well... let's just say we all got a little bit more than we bargained for."
"You will. Just listen. You're smarter than you give yourself credit for. I'm here, after all, aren't I?"
She nodded again.
"You shouldn't blame yourself for entrusting me to run the hotel in Olivia's absence. You couldn't possibly know that you were letting a wolf into the hen house. But the records you thought were secure, that Olivia thought were secure... any third grader with Google and half a brain could decrypt those passwords, Natalia. It's easy... almost as easy as turning the... shall we say... gray areas of Olivia Spencer's criminal history into a dark, dark black. Tax fraud, insider trading, money laundering connections... with a little manipulation of the books I could've pinned Jimmy Hoffa on Olivia and made it stick. It's what I do. Although normally, I work alone."
"But not this time?" Natalia watched the man's expression change. He seemed resigned. "Who else is involved? Why take on a partner? Why now?"
"Why do you think?" He clucked his tongue and shook his head, looking down at the cigar between his fingers. "Your wife and I, we have something in common. Those gray areas, that spotty history. Leaves us open to exploitation. To blackmail. You find me someone with secrets, and I'll find you a way to bleed them dry. Never met an opponent whose past wasn't their own undoing. Not until I came to Springfield. Because my... partner in all this... he's no criminal mastermind, to be sure. But what he lacked in know-how, he made up for with thirty, forty years of a squeaky clean image. Not a skeleton in the closet, not a single person who would speak ill of him. Unfortunately for people like Olivia and I... that's not a luxury we enjoy."
"What the fuck are you doing out here?"
Olivia turned to find Pierce, red-faced and angry.
"I had to take a call, Pierce. Can't do it inside the hospital. Calm down."
The younger woman strode toward her, letting the double doors swing closed behind her. It was near dusk, the last rays of sun glinting off the windshields and shiny chrome of the cars in the lot.
"Don't give me that shit, Olivia. What the fuck is going on with you? Natalia's inside--"
"Don't," Olivia gnashed her teeth at the other woman, "fucking lecture me."
When she turned away to recheck her phone, Pierce grabbed her by the elbow and spun her back around. She glared hard at Olivia.
"Look me in the eye and tell me you're not drinking again." Olivia said nothing, but held the other woman's gaze. "The sneaking around. The secrecy. The volatility. And now you're out here, in the ninety fucking degree heat, while your wife is inside in labor. This oughta be good."
Olivia brusquely shook off Pierce's hold, and straightened the shoulders of her shirt. Her phone rang. "Fuck. Pierce... just... just let this go, okay? I'll be in in a minute. I'm not..."
The phone rang again, its angry shrill on loop over and over again while the two women stared each other down. Olivia knew she couldn't answer it with Pierce standing there, so she let it ring, hoping it would drive her away. Force her to back down.
But Pierce would not relent. Olivia couldn't believe the timing. She'd come this far, carried this secret for all these months, and now, just as she was nearing the end, it all threatened to come apart. Natalia had gone into labor a few hours earlier, and they'd raced to the hospital so she could be monitored every step of the way. With the memory of Isabella still fresh in their minds, they weren't taking any chances, so even when the doctor assured them they still had quite a ways to go, Olivia insisted Natalia be admitted to the hospital. And there they stayed, until Greenway started calling, unusual even for him, in the middle of the day. She'd put it off as long as she could, but now it'd been a few hours, and Olivia dared not make him wait much longer.
"Whoever it is, they're blowin' you up. Just answer it." Pierce stood fast, brown eyes narrowing into slits in the sunlight.
Olivia could feel her exterior crumbling, the weight of the past few months taking its toll on her. "Please, Pierce. Please just... leave me alone."
The phone finally stopped ringing. Olivia worried her heart might stop along with it.
"You know I can't do that," Pierce whispered, a sad note in her voice.
Olivia swallowed, her throat dry. She looked around the parking lot, off into the distance. "Natalia's okay. It'll be a few more hours, at least. Rick said so himself."
"And... I need you to trust me. I have to handle something. Something... for work. It's not--"
"What?" Olivia shook her head, confused. When Pierce just stared at her, she reached up and brushed at her cheeks. Looking down at her fingertips, she found them wet and trembling. She hadn't even realized she'd been crying.
"Now tell me you gotta run some errand at work. Broken pipe? Saggy mattress?"
The breath she'd been holding spilled out, and Olivia's shoulders fell. She raised a finger to Pierce as she dialed with the other hand, quickly jerking the phone to her ear.
"Yeah." She spoke into the receiver. "When? He agreed then? Fine."
For a minute neither of them spoke, and Olivia tucked the phone into her purse, the demanding little device satiated for the moment. Sizing her friend up one last time, Olivia found that Pierce wasn't shrinking, wasn't backing off. In fact, she seemed more determined than ever. It made Olivia both a little annoyed, and a little proud.
"Get in the car. I'll explain."
They hadn't moved, only turned over the engine so they could get the air conditioner up and running. The hospital parking lot was darkening now, and traffic was slowing. Olivia tried to keep her mind off of Natalia, who by now Olivia was certain was the only love of her life, the only true love she had ever known. She would die for Natalia, and that's what it felt like at the moment: dying every second that she was away from her.
"This is..." Pierce ran her hands through her dark mass of hair. "Pretty fucked up. I can't believe... I can't believe it even got this far."
"Neither can I, Pierce. I just want it all to go away, don't you see? And tonight, I can do that. It'll all go away. Just one last drop. And I'm done."
The young woman laughed ruefully. "Kinda like one last drink, huh? One last hit. And then what?"
"They'll have their money and they'll disappear. I told him there's no more left. Tonight, they'll both be there. They'll take the last of it and leave. I have... I have his word on that." She felt stupid even saying it out loud. That was no guarantee, and she knew it. There was no honor among thieves, this much she knew personally.
Pierce didn't say anything, just folded and unfolded her hands in her lap.
"I know what you're thinking."
"That's why I didn't say it."
"Fuck, Pierce... what else can I do? I made a mess. Of everything. From the beginning. Greenway's right, you know. I wanted to start this new life, turn over this new leaf, be with Natalia like none of that other shit ever happened. Like I didn't do everything in my power to get rich and stay that way. No matter who it hurt. No matter what laws I broke."
"I thought you said he hacked into your computer and messed with everything? Made it look like you were involved in shit you weren't."
Olivia sighed. "I have a history, Pierce. It's not all... bullshit. Taxes, stocks, you name it. There were a lot of corners cut, okay? The best lie is sandwiched between two truths."
"And you've got a foot-long with all the trimmings from the sound of it."
The older woman laughed, and studied her friend. "Yeah, something like that."
"It's gotta be tonight?" Pierce grimaced.
"Has to. I can't risk not coming through this time. The barn fire. It was... a message."
"Fuck," Pierce muttered.
"Let me come with you."
"No." Pierce hadn't even finished when Olivia denied her. "No. You don't need to get tangled up in this."
"I can help you. Set up the transfer... be your assistant. You said this mystery guy, this boss... he'll be there tonight. You don't want them thinking they've got you outnumbered, do you?"
There was some logic to it, as much as Olivia hated to admit. Another set of eyes, someone there to confirm everything in case... "No," she stopped herself. "It could be... dangerous."
"Not if you make it easy. We just give them what they want."
Olivia watched the sun disappear behind the trees for good, then rubbed at her eyes. "Still doesn't mean it'll really be over."
"It can be. If you end it."
Pierce leaned in but didn't make eye contact with Olivia. She knew what her friend was thinking.
"Fuck," Olivia whispered.
"That's my line."
"You mean turn myself in? Let the chips fall where they may?"
"For one thing. For another, you square things up with Natalia. Once she's had the baby and all, you're out of excuses. She deserves to know the truth."
Her beautiful wife. Her loving, loyal wife who deserved everything in the world but this. Olivia's heart ached. She needed to get control, to push down the feeling of helplessness for just a little while longer.
"I wanna see what I'm up against first. Find out who this fucker is. See if we can't turn the tables on his ass. I'm tired of dealing with the middleman. Tonight we'll see his face. And then I'll make a decision."
"You keep saying 'we'." Pierce cocked an eyebrow at her.
"I'm going inside to check on Natalia. I'll make sure she's alright, then I'll figure out something to tell her. Go get my laptop from my office and meet me back here in thirty minutes. I wanna get this over and done with so I can be here when my son is born."
Sleep, it seemed, was not an option. Greenway had left around four, and for the last hour Natalia tossed and turned, a million different emotions running through her. Fear that he'd duped her, lulling her into a false sense of security so he could do to her and her son what heswore he hadn't to Pierce. Murder, he'd said, was something he would never stoop to, something that wasn't in his white-collared blood. But Natalia had long ago stopped trusting most people.
And confusion, a fuzzy sort of half-understanding what he'd told her, a story chock full of missing pieces Greenway had simply refused to fill. Worry, too. Worry filled whatever parts of her the fear and confusion hadn't already claimed. Worry for Olivia, the partner she'd spent her whole life longing for. The mother of her children, and her very best friend.
Exhaustion made her muscles twitch, and when the clock glared back at her, 5:14 in the morning, Natalia sighed audibly. There were never enough hours as it was, working and taking care of the kids, keeping the dog off the couch and taking out the trash. Now that she added clandestine late-night meetings and an impossible puzzle to solve, she dreaded looking into the mirror and seeing the old woman she so acutely felt like.
She decided to forego the extra few minutes of pretending to sleep and instead padded across the bedroom and into the bathroom. Flicking the switch on the wall, the light felt too harsh for her weary eyes, and she promptly turned it back off. Once, a few months ago, Natalia had awoken in the middle of the night and, on her way to the bathroom, nearly broke her toe when she stubbed it on the door frame. So now there was a perpetual 'night light' on in the corner, and on this morning, it comforted her to be in the almost-darkness, the warm shower easing some of the tension from the evening's escapades away.
Showering was the only time Natalia allowed herself to miss the intimacy she shared with Olivia. At night she shut herself off from those thoughts completely, a necessity, essential to her survival and her ability to carry on. And during the day she hardly had enough time to breathe, let alone reminisce about the touches and kisses and .... everything that Olivia could always do to make her feel alive. But this was the only room in the house that, after a year, stillsmelled like her. It would've made her blush to admit it to anyone, but no matter how tight money got, no matter how she struggled to pay the electric bill in the drafty farmhouse, she always set aside money for Olivia's expensive shampoo and conditioner. Sometimes even her fancy face wash. And every morning, she let the scent of the woman she loved and missed so much wash over her. It was, she reasoned, still cheaper than therapy.
The soapy suds made her skin slick and pliable, and she reached back to massage the knots in her neck and upper back. She imagined they were Olivia's hands, strong and skillful, kneading the sharp pain there into something lustful and heady. Natalia's eyes fluttered shut and a long, slow breath hissed from her lips. Her hands traveled down her front, across her breasts and then lower, where she hesitated.
"I miss you. I miss you so much. I..."
Her thoughts were cut short by the squawk of the baby monitor on the sink. First a few gurgles, then a full-on wail. Oliver was awake.
"Of course," Natalia whimpered, feeling a twinge of the self-pity she prayed daily to avoid. "Be right there, sweetie!" she shouted, even though there was no way he could hear her.
The little boy's fingers were tangled in Natalia's wet hair as she hustled around the kitchen, brewing a pot of coffee several times stronger than she normally would.
"What are you doing, bubba? Trying to eat Mommy's hair? How 'bout we don't do that, okay?"
Natalia loved her son. His smile was like a balm for her soul, and when he looked up at her, she couldn't help but smile back.
"Well I know you like it, Olly. It smells like your other mommy," she carried on as though they were having a conversation, even leaving pauses were his responses would be. "She will. She'll be back soon. Mama's just gotta figure out this whole business with the--"
A knock at the door. She frowned. It wasn't even seven o'clock in the morning. Jackie barked, but only once, before she trotted back into the kitchen: that was a good sign. Whenever there was a knock at the door, if it was a stranger, the dog went ballistic. If it was someone she "knew", someone she'd smelled before, she quickly lost interest. Of course, the little terrier hadn't even stirred when she went out last night and met a blackmailing criminal on the porch, so Natalia was reluctant to rely on the instincts of her four-legged companion.
She snapped Oliver into his high chair and made sure nothing smaller than her fist was within his reach. The boy would put absolutely anything into his mouth, when he wasn't busy catapulting it across the room.
"Coming!" Natalia shouted, tying her robe a little tighter around her small frame.
Before she even made it to the front door, she could see Frank through the window. A shudder traveled through her. She froze for a second, unsure of what to do. He caught her eye through the glass and shrugged.
"Well are you going to let me in?" he called from outside. "I just wanna talk."
She moved to the door and cleared her throat, and gave her hands a quick squeeze. When she threw open the door, the smell of alcohol assaulted her senses.
"Frank... my God. It's seven in the morning."
He was a wreck, his shirt untucked and the knees of his jeans dirty. His eyes looked glassy, far away, and his normally broad chest sagged.
"Please. I just wanna talk."
"I'm getting ready for work, Frank. Oliver is--"
He brushed past her clumsily and waved off her protest. "You were going to marry me once, Natalia. Can't you cut me a fucking break?"
She let him drop onto the couch, and she closed the door quietly behind her. "When you think you can get up, I've got coffee in the kitchen."
Natalia finished feeding Olly while she waited for the man in her living room to collect himself, until finally he appeared in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
"Here." She pushed a mug into his unsteady hand. He stood there for a beat before he spoke.
"I haven't been myself lately, Natalia, and I'm sorry. These last few weeks... I've just... I wanna just start all over again, okay? Can we do that? I can't stand knowing you're upset with me."
"Is this 'you' now? If I had to guess I'd say you're still a few hours from sobering up."
He groaned. "I've just been in a bad place lately. You ever... you ever get that way?"
She found his eyes with her own, and she couldn't help but feel for the man. She'd seen that look before. In others. In herself. "Of course, Frank. But drinking..."
"I know, I know. But it helped me get over my pride," he smiled a loopy grin. "Help me come over here and apologize. That's gotta be good for something, right?"
"I want to be a part of your life, Natalia. However I can be. I want... I want to be part of your future. We've both been through a lot. I think we could... use each other. To lean on."
She considered him for a minute. He seemed genuine, despite his inebriated state, and he was, she reminded herself, a good man. One of the best men she'd ever known in her life. "We can try, Frank. But... now... is not a really good time. Can't we--"
He didn't take her gentle rebuke well. His face crumpled, then fell into a stony blankness.
"You look tired, Natalia."
She stopped abruptly, her mug in mid-air. "I'm..."
"You look like you had a long night?" His eyebrow raised, a question. It made Natalia's stomach drop, the way his gaze turned from sorrowful to... something else.
Her mind went immediately to her meeting with Peter Greenway. Maybe Frank saw him, maybe he knew. Was he watching her? That thought alone turned her skin clammy.
A dozen 'maybes' raced through her head, the silence growing long between them. She knew she had to say something.
"Oliver," she said plainly. "You know he keeps me up."
Frank placed the coffee mug she'd given him on the counter, and pushed off the door frame with his shoulder. When he drew his shoulders back, his imposing form returned, his chest wider, his height advantage more pronounced. His eyes swept up and down Natalia's body, and she suddenly became very aware of the fact that she was wearing only her robe, and felt frighteningly vulnerable. This was not the face of one of the most honorable men she'd ever known.
"I saw a man here last night."
"Frank..." she tried to stall him, fumbling with the plastic clips that held her tiny son in his chair. She needed to free him in case...
"I want to be a part of your life so badly, Natalia." His red-rimmed eyes squinted, deepening the wrinkles on his face. "But you... would a good Catholic girl allow strange men to her house at night?"
His voice went high, like he was questioning a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Natalia pulled Oliver close to her, and stepped back, towards the back door. She didn't know this man, this man who flip-flopped from apologetic to accusing like a light switch.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Frank, but you're scaring me."
This wasn't the man who had helped her son, mentored him and guided him. This wasn't the man she once trusted, the man she once loved, even if it wasn't the way he'd wanted her to love him. This wasn't the man who... her breath caught in her throat as the memory struck her. In the quiet kitchen the quick intake of air sounded like a gunshot, a dead giveaway. She had figured him out, but it was too late. He knew.
Inching backwards slowly, Natalia bit back tears. "You want to be a part of my life, Frank? Then you answer me one question. When Olivia went away to rehab... when I was looking for someone to manage the Beacon... I asked you to do a background check on Peter Greenway. Asked you personally, as a favor. You said it came out all clear..." The calm began to seep out of her voice. "Those were your words. 'All clear.' Now I want to know... why did you lie to me?"
His laugh curdled the air between them. "I don't know what you think you know, Natalia, but you need to..."
His eyes followed hers. Her car keys on the hook near the door.
"Don't." It was all he said, and it froze Natalia where she stood. Slowly he swept back the hem of his blue shirt, revealing the black metal of his service pistol at his hip.
She started breathing hard, her hold on Oliver so tight it made him squirm and cry.
"Put him back in the chair."
His voice was flat, unfeeling. Natalia felt sick, his menacing stare and the smell of alcohol emanating from his skin, but she fought hard not to vomit right there on the kitchen floor. After a tense standoff, she relented. She put the boy in his chair and carefully fastened the strap, his cries intensifying with each passing second. The second it clicked into place, Frank grabbed her wrist and twisted, driving both of them hard against the counter.
"This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. You were going to want me... to need me... once she was gone," he panted in her ear. "I just want us to be together. The way things were supposed to be for us. Before... before she came along and ruined everything."
Olly screamed now in his chair, the sounds of her child's cries and the weight of Frank's body against hers wiping all other thoughts from Natalia's mind. She gasped for air as he shifted against her, wanting to fight back but unable to control her limbs. She prayed to God, squeezing her eyes shut as her arms refused to obey, as her legs threatened to collapse beneath her.
It was obvious what he wanted, what he intended to do. All the months of caring for her family alone, all the laundry baskets and long drives to and from work, and all the meals and all the dishes-- it all brought her to this, her body too weak to fight, her ever-shrinking frame no match for his.
But maybe it had been conditioning of another kind, her mind sharpened to a point from the hours of pouring over phone and bank statements, reviewing dates, times, scrutinizing every bit of evidence against Olivia in Pierce's murder. An image flashed in her mind as she heard the hasty unbuckling of Frank's belt.
"Wait," she whispered at first, then shouted at him. "Wait!"
Miraculously, he did. He spun her around to face him, his grip on her shoulders painfully tight.
"Please..." Natalia swallowed back a wave of nausea. "Not in front of my son."
His mouth twitched, and he pushed her roughly towards the living room. She could feel him at her back, close on her heels, watching her. It was there, just where she left it at four-thirty in the morning, Rafe's baseball bat with the handle sticking right out between the couch and stairway. Natalia knew she would only get one chance, and she needed a little distance.
She turned suddenly before she reached the couch, pressing into Frank, startling him.
"I'm sorry, Frank. I'm sorry. Please don't hurt me."
The ego stroke seemed to have calmed him. He whispered, almost seductively, to her. "It's too late, Natalia. You kick over enough stones..." He smiled as she backed away, one hand tentatively at the loosened knot of her robe.
No sooner had she breathed the word did Natalia see his shoulders sag slightly, an opening. She reached behind her and felt the butt of the bat with her right hand, drew it forward with her last bit of strength, and connected solidly with the side of Frank Cooper's head.
The office was tiny, cluttered, but more private than any of the witness conference rooms, at least that's what she was told when they brought her in here. They'd sat her down, and one by one the string of strangers came in. Detectives asking her to clarify something she's said in her statement. Uniformed officers bringing her water, soda, asking her if she needed anything. The air conditioning unit hummed, stopped, and then hummed again. Natalia felt like a castaway, marking the hours by the predictable on-off cycle of the machine. It went on for twenty freezing cold minutes. Stopped for ten bearable ones. Then twenty more minutes of frosty air and white noise that only barely drowned out the chorus of noise going on outside the office.
When she got restless, Natalia rose to her feet and fingered the blinds that covered the glass, separating her from the business of the rest of the police station. Slices of blue, back and forth, rushing everywhere, phones ringing off the hook for minutes on end. Springfield reminded her of a volcano, lying dormant, a sleepy and quaint little town for the most part, until it erupted in a fiery ball, spewing madness everywhere. Except unlike any other volcano on earth, this one erupted three to four times a year. She guessed she shouldn't feel special that she just happened to be the cause of this particular one.
There was a light knock at the door, and Natalia was shaken from her thoughts. Doris had promised her she'd find her as soon she could get away. When the chief of police gets accused of rape, the mayor suddenly has a very full plate.
"Natalia, my god." Doris's suit was rumpled, her sleeves rolled up. They shared an awkward hug.
"I... I wasn't sure who else to call. I know you can't get involved. I mean, I know--"
Doris tugged at the string of the blinds, closing them tightly. "I'm on the record as saying we're launching a full investigation. Bringing in state investigators as we speak. But off the record? I don't need a fucking investigation to know what happened. Where's Olly?"
Natalia rubbed at her temples. "With the sitter. I've been here for hours, waiting for news on Frank. I hope... I hope I didn't kill him."
Doris snorted. "Why? The bastard tried to rape you."
"He killed Pierce, Doris. I just know it. He was blackmailing Olivia, and something went wrong-- I haven't figured that part out yet-- and he killed Pierce. If he dies... that's all going to die with him. We may never know."
The mayor considered this for a moment. "If you killed that son of a bitch with one swing, I'm going to have to demand you join my weekend softball team."
Natalia looked at her flatly, and just shook her head.
"What? Too soon?"
The younger woman ran her hands through her hair. "It isn't funny."
They sat in silence for several minutes, Natalia fidgeting in her chair. Olivia was all she could think about, and she tugged at the v-neck of her white t-shirt. She absently brushed her lips against the hem of the neckline.
"You're swimming in that shirt. How much weight have you lost?"
Natalia looked down at her arms. There were some veins visible now that used to be invisible. Her wrists looked frailer than she remembered.
"Don't know. S'not my shirt. It's Olivia's."
Doris sighed and took the other woman's hand. "We're going to find her, Natalia. Even if... even if..."
They were interrupted by the door swinging open violently, the glass rattling in its frame. It was Buzz.
"Natalia..." He breathed her name so softly, as though any louder and it would've broken him into pieces. He was followed by a man Natalia didn't recognize, who looked like another detective or maybe a lawyer. "I can't even--"
The other man stopped Buzz with a hand to his shoulder. Buzz looked back at him and then cleared his throat.
"He's conscious, Natalia."
With a hand over her heart, she sighed.
"He, um..." Buzz looked back at the other man again. "He's refusing medical treatment. Says he... he wants to confess. He wants to confess it all."
Natalia's eyes went wide. "Buzz, that's... but how? Why?"
Doris stood up and wrapped an arm around Natalia's shoulder. "Doesn't usually come that easy. What's the catch?"
"He's asking... Frank says if they want his confession, he wants you in the room with him. He says he wants to... he needs to ask for your forgiveness."
Before Buzz could even finish, Doris began to roar back at him. "Are you fucking kidding me? No. No fucking way. He wants to victimize her again. No way will I allow that to happen."
Natalia swallowed hard as Doris and Buzz began to go at it. "Doris, wait."
"Natalia, no. If he wants to confess, tell him I'll get him a piece of fucking paper and a pen."
"Buzz, you said he wants to confess it all. Everything. Does that mean...?"
He nodded. "I think it does. He's distraught. He's... I've never seen him like this. I think he knows it's all coming down around him."
Natalia turned to Doris. "If I don't... if I don't agree to meet with him, he'll just delay his confession. Sure, we might get it out of him eventually, but how long? How long will I have to wait for answers?"
"It could be... a while." Doris looked down at her shoes.
"I can't wait any longer, Doris. I need to know now." She took a deep breath. "I've made it this far. Tell them I'll do it."
As soon as she agreed to it, the man behind Buzz turned and bolted down the hallway to deliver the news. Buzz wrung his hands, obviously upset.
"Natalia, if I'd have known..."
"I know, Buzz." She took his hands in her own. "I know."
She examined her face in the bathroom mirror. Dark patches ringed her eyes, and no matter how many times she ran her hands over her hair she couldn't get it to smooth. Natalia knew she looked like hell, but there was a strange feeling inside of her, a strange lightness, a strange strength. She was tired, so tired she could barely stand, but something propelled her forward. For the first time in a long while, there was a foreseeable end to the nightmare. There was a goal she could almost reach out and touch with her hand. There was hope.
"You ready?" Doris stuck her head in the door.
Natalia nodded and turned way from the mirror, and followed the mayor down the corridor of the police station. As she passed everyone turned to watch her, like a celebrity on some kind of lurid red carpet. The brightness of the common areas of the police station was replaced with a fluorescent dullness as they approached the interrogation rooms and holding cells. Natalia worried that she might suddenly be sick.
"There will be a detective and an officer in with you at all times, Natalia," Doris assured her. "You can get up and leave at any time. If for any reason you don't feel comfortable..."
"I know. I know."
Natalia waited as they unlocked the door to the interrogation room, and waited for her eyes to adjust. There at the end of a long metal table was Frank Cooper, in shackles and suffering from a bloody knot on the side of his head that had only been halfway tended to.
The two officers acknowledged her and offered her a seat a safe distance from Frank, and she accepted. It was cold, and she shivered.
"I'm sorry, Natalia." His head hung low, his chin nearly at his chest. What she could see of his face was ruddy and blotchy, and the table in front of him was literally dripping with his sweat and tears.
She couldn't manage a single word.
"I never meant for it to be this way. I never meant to hurt you. I just... I just wanted what everyone wants."
When she shifted in her chair he raised his eyes to meet hers. They were bright red and sunken.
"Everyone had everything I wanted. Everyone had moved on and found someone... made their own families, found their own way. Pops and Lillian, you... you and... Even Marina. Even Rafe found a calling. And then Isabella... she was going to give me something to call my own. She was going to need me. And when she died... I knew I'd never have what I thought I deserved."
He paused, and wiped his face on his sleeve. "Please say something."
Natalia's body shook from the inside, but she forced it not to show. She willed her face not to flinch even a millimeter. "Why did you want me here?"
He smiled sadly. "Do you... do you think God can forgive me for all that I've done?"
She closed her eyes. For the first time in her life, she wondered.
"If you are truly sorry. If you seek forgiveness. If you confess your sins and--"
"That's why you're here. I want to confess my sins to you, Natalia."
She blinked. "I'm not God, Frank. I'm not a priest."
He cried and sobbed, his nose dripping and spit falling from his mouth. Natalia had to look away.
With a jolt, he straightened up, his back upright, his shoulders once again square. "When I found Peter Greenway's criminal record, I knew I had him. I knew I could use him to get what I wanted."
Natalia eyed the voice recorder on the table, as well as the detective who leaned forward in his seat.
"I thought... I thought if I could take what Olivia Spencer loved the most away from her, that she'd leave. She'd leave town, with a little luck she'd leave town with her tail between her legs and I could..." He looked up at her, and Natalia had to fight back tears. She prayed for the strength to not be repulsed by this man.
"But she kept... she kept giving it all away. The money, the power it gave her... she handed it to us like it was nothing... I'd keep upping the ante, and she'd keep calling. I didn't expect that."
Olivia. Natalia squeezed at the arms of her chair just thinking about her. The most power-hungry woman in Springfield, just giving it all away. It didn't surprise her that Frank Cooper had underestimated Olivia Spencer.
"I knew she didn't want to go to jail. But I also knew the charges Greenway drummed up probably wouldn't hold. I had to scare her. I had to make her see things my way. But she just wouldn't... I thought if I took away the very thing she lived for, she'd finally fucking listen to me. But... as it turned out, the thing she was living for... the thing she could never be blackmailed out of... was you."
"Not until you tell me who your little friend is here."
Olivia looked at Pierce, who shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, snapping at a piece of gum. The kid was really cut out for this kind of stuff.
"She's my assistant," Olivia smiled. "I figured it was only fair. Two-on-two, you know?"
"I want to see that the money's been transferred." Greenway crossed his arms over his chest.
Pierce moved to the dusty table and set down the laptop, but Olivia held her up with her hand. "I want to see his face."
Greenway paced on the warehouse floor, and looked to a dark corner of the room. Slowly a figure began to emerge from the shadows.
Olivia's eyes went wide. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
It was Frank Cooper, his boyish flop of hair wet with sweat. Olivia could barely hide the disdain from her voice.
"Wow, I did not see this one coming."
"Just start the transfer," Frank ordered, and Olivia let Pierce start up the laptop.
"While we wait," Olivia laughed, "Why don't you start by telling me where the fuck you got the balls to pull off something like this?"
Greenway looked to Frank, who grimaced but stood fast. "I'm going to take you down, Olivia. Let me make a recommendation: go quietly. Don't drag Natalia through the indignity of watching you get carted off in handcuffs. The money's gone either way-- the question is whether or not you want to lose your freedom, too."
Olivia moved closer to Frank, examining him. He was trying to appear confident, in control, but Olivia knew better. It began to incense her that she'd been duped by him at all. Surely Olivia Spencer could best Frank fucking Cooper.
"Don't you even say her name, you piece of shit. Is that what this is all about?"
Before he could answer, Pierce called out from behind Olivia, sounding a bit agitated. "Olivia, come on. I need your passcode to access your account."
She stepped back to the table, never taking her eyes off of Frank. She punched in a long string of numbers, and what was left of her business accounts flashed on the screen.
"So how does this work, exactly? You extort me for the last of my money, then just go away? I don't see how I'm supposed to just trust you on that one."
He smiled. "No, no, Olivia. You're the one that's going to go away. Maybe it looks like you moved all your money off-shore, maybe it looks like you're just a complete failure who went bankrupt. I don't care what it looks like. But you're going to leave town, without a word. Tonight."
She watched his face flinch. She could hear Pierce typing in the background, but her focus was narrowed on Frank. The longer she watched him, the more obvious it became.
"You know Natalia went into labor this morning. That's what this is all about-- that's why you called precisely when you did. You wanted me out of the hospital before our son--"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Olivia," his voice dripped with sarcasm. "But wow, that is one heck of a coincidence." His face crumpled. "Oh, no... you don't think? You don't think Natalia's going to blame herself, do you? Blame the baby? Maybe you just couldn't handle the thought of another child. That is... wow."
Greenway cleared his throat in the background. "If I may... we came here for a business transaction."
"Not a pissing match," Pierce added, stepping behind Olivia and placing a hand on her shoulder. "We talked about this, Olivia. We knew it might come to this."
Olivia knew what she was backhandedly referring to. She knew Pierce wanted her to concede this hand, transfer the money so they could get away safely and then turn herself in in the morning. But watching Frank Cooper's smug face was too much for her.
"If you think I'm going to step aside while you try to--"
"Do I need to remind you, Olivia? The barn was no accident. You want that to be your house? Natalia's home? I'll burn it to the ground, so help me God, no matter who is in it. Face it, Olivia. You lose."
"I will kill you if you touch my family." Olivia bared her teeth and charged forward, but Pierce roped her in before she could reach Frank.
"It's done, Olivia. It's fucking done." Pierce dragged them both over to the table and spun the laptop around, so both the two men and Olivia could see it. Her account balance read zero. "Let's go. Let's just go."
But Olivia couldn't stop herself. "You think she's ever going to be with you, Frank? She already left you at the altar once."
His face reddened. "Listen to your friend, Olivia. Get out of here."
"No way, Frank. You wanna play with the big boys? Hm? You think you're big time now? What's that, Pierce, that you always say? Something about baseball?"
"Shoulda stayed in Triple-A," the other woman offered reluctantly.
"Should've stayed in Triple-A, Frankie. Because you don't know who you're dealing with. Whose to say I don't take my happy ass down to the feds first thing tomorrow? See what they think of all this? Maybe I go down for all my dirty deeds... maybe I don't. Maybe I cut a deal to take down the corrupt Chief of Police?"
Suddenly everyone was yelling, Pierce and Greenway and Frank and everything started to jumble together. She knew she shouldn't have said anything, but it felt so goddamn good watching Frank squirm. He was done, and now everyone knew it.
It wasn't until Frank reached for the gun in the small of his back that everything got quiet again. His service pistol sat still holstered at his hip. This gun Olivia knew would be untraceable.
"Cooper, what the hell? Screw her if she wants to go to jail. She can't prove our involvement." Greenway immediately started backing away when Frank held the gun at his side. "Let's get the hell out of here. We've got the money."
But Olivia knew what Greenway refused to believe. It was never about the money.
"I'm not going anywhere." He held the gun out and pointed it in Olivia and Pierce's direction. "If you don't have the stomach for this, Greenway, you can leave. I'll get you your cut once I'm done here." He craned his head around and smiled at his associate. "You trust me, don't you?"
Greenway murmured under his breath and slipped out the front, leaving Olivia and Pierce frozen in the gun's gaze.
Olivia's heart pounded in her chest. She'd done this. She had let her pride get the best of her, pushed all his buttons just because she could.
"That's so you, Olivia," Frank wiped at his brow with his shoulder, the gun tilting but remaining fixed on them. "You just have to have the last word, don't you? Have to be in control. Well, maybe now you know how it feels. To have everything within your grasp... only to lose it."
"Frank, um..." Pierce tried to interrupt his rant but he just shook the gun in her direction, silencing her.
"Why should you have everything and I have nothing?" His eyes narrowed, and in the poor lighting Olivia thought he might've been crying. "You got a new heart. You got a second chance with Natalia when you drank it all away. I want my second chance."
He was coming unwound right there in front of them, and Olivia knew she needed a strong volley to knock him back for good, and get them out of here unharmed. Maybe if she called his bluff one more time.
"Go ahead and kill me, Frank. Just do it."
But he just laughed. "And make you a martyr, Olivia? The victim of some unsolved crime?" There was a pause as the last of his maniacal whine hissed from his lungs. "No, I think I'll go another route."
He fired off two rounds, the flash nearly blinding Olivia. For a split second she thought she was hit, blood spraying against her cheeks. But when she opened her eyes, she saw she hadn't.
Pierce was kneeling on the ground beside her, blood covering the front of her faded gray t-shirt. Olivia was frozen in shock, watching her friend clutch at her chest, her eyes wide in surprise. After a second Olivia finally dropped to her knees grabbed at Pierce's chest, pressing hard there as she held the other woman up.
"Olivia Spencer, cold-blooded killer." Frank whispered over the gurgling sounds Pierce made as she struggled for air. "Just remember, Olivia: you did this."
He lowered the gun and took aim once more, the barrel of the gun dipping and rising as he struggled to steady himself. He hesitated, and Olivia pleaded for Pierce's life. Before she could even finish, the muzzle flashed and the taste of gunpowder and blood filled her mouth.
Natalia hadn't looked up at him, couldn't look up at him, since he started explaining what happened that night. She traced a figure eight with her fingernail against the denim fabric of her jeans, listening. Trying not to cry. Trying not to scream. Trying to find the Catholic teachings she'd recited since birth amongst the blackness that invaded her heart.
The detective cleared his throat. He explained that the state investigator would have questions, questions about the evidence found at the scene, and that the more detailed Frank was now, the easier it would be later on.
"Just luck, mostly," Frank sighed. "Her prints in Pierce's blood. The clothes she must've shed on her way out of Springfield. It was, ah, coincidence that Natalia remembered seeing Olivia with a nine millimeter in her possession once before."
Natalia remembered all the times Frank had come to her, how at first it was all about the case but then the tone of things changed. He would come to bring her dinner, to fix something around the house. He had inserted himself into her life almost against her will, and all that time she'd been too blind to see it. It angered her, and when she raised her head, she knew he could see that anger in her eyes.
"You spied on me, Frank. You watched me. How many..." She couldn't even finish the sentence.
When he didn't answer, just hung his head, she slammed her fist against the table. It startled even the officers.
"Answer me, dammit."
"I don't know. I just wanted to be close to you, Natalia. I'd watch you and you were so full of life. So full of... hope. That's how I figured out about the letters."
She nearly flew into a rage. She drew in a deep breath to try and control her voice. "You didwhat?"
"The letters. It took me a while but I finally figured it out. I... started intercepting them. I couldn't compete. No matter what I did, no matter how I bent over backwards for you, I could never bring the joy to your life that those foolish letters did."
The letters. The only connection to Olivia that she'd had in over a year. Natalia could not keep the tears at bay any longer. For several minutes her sobs went unabated, interrupted only by the sound of metal against metal as Frank fidgeted in his cuffs and shackles.
"Where are they? I want the rest--"
"I burned them," he replied bluntly.
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut. She imagined Frank Cooper, under the guise of fixing her fence or mowing her grass or taking her trash cans to the curb, picking through her mail. Prolonging her agony. Manipulating her. And finally, in some sick last ditch effort, trying to rape her in her own home.
"You disgust me, Frank. You really, truly disgust me. If it's forgiveness you're after, you need to find it somewhere else." She stood up from her chair and turned away from the man, motioning to the officer near the door that she wanted to leave.
Before the lock was thrown, though, Frank reeled her in one more time.
"Don't you want to know why they never found her body?"
Her limbs felt electrified.
She cut through the crowded police station with the grace of a dump truck, bouncing her shoulder off uniformed officers, women in suits, apologizing as she spun round, trying to escape the concrete building that held her in for far too long. She could see the late afternoon sun through the glass revolving door when suddenly a figure stepped in front of Natalia.
"Whoa, easy tiger. Where you running off to?"
Natalia looked around Doris Wolfe impatiently. "I need to get Oliver. To get home. I have--"
"I heard. But you've got no idea where Olivia is. If you can wait, this crap will be all over the national news in twenty four hours. Hell, she'll come to you."
Natalia pressed her lips into a scowl. "Try to hide your excitement when you say 'national news', Doris. This is my life you're talking about."
The mayor scurried to catch up with Natalia as she ducked around her. "Scandal is scandal is scandal, Natalia. And Olivia comes out smelling like a rose. If a friend such as myself happens to get a little profile from it, where's the harm?"
The younger woman stopped, her hands slapping against her thighs. "Whatever, Doris. Good for you. Just get out of my way."
"Twenty four hours, Natalia! Once the state investigator goes over Frank's statement, and the DA's office has a chance to make sure it floats... Forget milk cartons, Natalia... Olivia's face is going to be all over CNN. Unless she's living under a rock, I'm pretty sure she'll get the message."
"I have to try," Natalia pleaded with Doris, then hugged her quickly. "Thank you for everything."
"MSNBC!" Doris continued, shouting at Natalia as she ran through the parking lot. "Katie Couric!"
Five PM. Natalia sat in the bedroom and listened to the clock near the bed. Olivia hated that clock. She said the ticking kept her awake, and that everyone in this day and age should have a digital clock, one that woke you with music instead of a shrill bell, and had a snooze button and never ticked. Natalia let her have her Bose iPod dock, that did everything but peel the sheets off Olivia in the morning, and kept her own tarnished brass alarm clock, the same one she'd found in a thrift store ten or fifteen years ago. Sometimes the bell didn't work, but it didn't matter. Natalia never needed an alarm to wake anyway.
Oliver sat between Natalia's legs on the bed, playing with a soft plastic book that crunched like a bag of potato chips when he put it in his mouth. He giggled and murmured and clapped his hands excitedly. Natalia laughed.
"I feel the same way, bubba. What do you think? If you were Mommy, where would you go?"
She brushed back the boy's curly brown locks and placed a kiss on the crown of his head, eyeing the spread in front of them. She'd taken out each of the letters Olivia had sent, organized them according to date, and reread them carefully. She turned them over in her hands, chewed her lip. Slapped the eraser end of one of Emma's pencils against the envelopes. Smelled them.
That last one made her laugh.
"That's twice in two minutes," Natalia observed about her own laughter. "Not bad. You're already saving me, Olivia. Or should I call you Aunt Rosa."
Her Aunt Rosa. The cover story Olivia had used in an attempt to hide her communications with Natalia. It got her thinking.
For probably the twentieth time, Natalia checked the postmarks on all the envelopes. They were each from somewhere different, and in seemingly random order. Eight cities, and Natalia scribbled them down on a slice of paper before she slung Olly over her hip. The dog watched them curiously, following them from Natalia's bedroom and into Emma's.
On the inside of Emma's closet door, Rafe had hung a giant world map and put little pins in all the places he'd visited with the Army. Emma loved tracking her brother's adventures, and her bubbly, girlish script was all over the margins of the map, annotating things she found interesting. With her finger, Natalia plotted the cities Olivia had mailed her letters from.
First her finger slid west, to the California coast. Then south to the Arizona desert. Slowly, her hand migrated back east through the Gulf Coast, turned north and stopped.
"A giant U-turn, then... where?" Natalia squinted at the map. Of course, Frank had destroyed the most recent letters, so the path was woefully incomplete. He said he didn't remember where they were sent from, and she hadn't had it in her to remain in that interrogation room another minute to press him about it.
Finding little more than blind guesses on the rest of the map, Natalia rested her head on the thin paper affixed to the door, knocking gently on it with her forehead. The sound made Oliver giggle.
She stopped, and looked at her little boy. Then to Jackie, who sat on the floor, staring at them both with furry eyebrows knitted.
"Of course," Natalia whispered. "I'm such an idiot."
Driving through the night had been a horrible idea. Considering Natalia couldn't actually remember the last time she had a full night's sleep, it was probably borderline criminal for her to be navigating the streets of a city she could barely remember. It was ten in the morning, and Natalia was certain the sun was burning the backs of her hands as they gripped the steering wheel.
She looked in the rearview mirror at Olly, fast asleep in his car seat. She'd left Jackie with his sitter, promised to pay her double since the dog had an extra set of legs, and left town around seven the night before. They stopped once, somewhere in Ohio, and Natalia fell asleep in the well-lit parking lot of a rest stop for an hour or two. Normally, that wasn't something Natalia Rivera-Spencer could even imagine doing, especially with her son in the car, but knocking Frank's block off had empowered her a little bit. She could do tough, if she had to.
Luckily, the need never arose. They headed back on the road without incident, and now she found herself staring at a familiar brick behemoth, the housing project where her Aunt Rosa used to live. The neighborhood was rougher than Natalia remembered, but then again it had been almost twenty years. She prayed her aunt still lived there.
In the lobby, kids ran and played and whizzed past Natalia, her son tightly wrapped in her arms. It was late summer, so the stuffy lobby felt like a greenhouse, threatening to wilt everyone where they stood. Natalia eyed the mailbox directory.
"You looking for someone in particular?" The security guard asked from behind her own little glass cube.
"Um, yes..." Natalia started, heading over to the guard station. "Rosa Vasquez. She used to be, I think, in..."
"14D. Take the elevator 'round the corner. Other one's shot."
Natalia smiled, then wondered about her choice of words. She decided it was probably best not to think about it too much.
The elevator smelled like the lobby but more intense: sweat and dirt and marijuana. It made Natalia think of all the places she had lived with Rafe, all the apartments and rooms they'd shuffled through, all the things she'd seen. Natalia looked down her feet, the scuffed pair of flats there. The little boy with the curly hair in her arms. When she tilted her head up and found her face in the mirrored security camera in the corner of the elevator, she almost gasped out loud. Her big, brown eyes looked just as bewildered as they had when she was sixteen, even if on the inside she felt a lifetime removed from those days. She wondered what her aunt would see there.
When she got to the door, a familiar smell wafted to her nose. The clean, freshly-laundered scent of her Aunt Rosa's apartment, forever locked in a duel with the stale, rancid air of the hallway. She smiled.
Natalia knocked, tentatively at first, but when there came no reply, she tried again more firmly. Finally she head footsteps shuffling behind the door.
"Who's there? Peephole's too dirty."
Natalia laughed. "It's Natalia, Aunt Rosa. Your favorite niece? Or at least..." The door swung open and her aunt's face greeted her. "I used to be."
For a beat, the other woman was silent, then she clapped her hand over her mouth. "Dios mio!Natalia! Get in here, come on," Rosa waved her in with her hand. "Hurry before the stink come in after you."
Natalia stood in the living room that still looked just as she remembered it, her boy making tight curls of her long brown hair around his fingers. She waited for her aunt to turn the many locks on the doors, then face her.
"I can't believe you are really standing here, little girl. Look at you!"
They hugged and then Rosa focused on Oliver.
"And who is this? Oh look at this, we have gordo y flaca here. You need to eat; you can barely carry that chubby boy!"
In that familiar way that family often does, Rosa plucked Oliver from Natalia's arms and held him up, then pulled him close. She made a chugging sound with pursed lips. Never mind that it had been almost twenty years since they last saw each other; they were family after all.
"His name is Oliver. Olly... for short."
"Ohh, Oliver. What a handsome name for such a handsome boy. Sit, sit, Natalia. Please."
Rosa handed Oliver back to her, then fluttered about the kitchen, pots and pans banging as she worked.
Natalia made small talk while her aunt fussed in the kitchen, telling her about Rafe and his tour in Iraq, and her job at the law office. Finally, though, Rosa joined her at the table, two mugs of tea in her hands.
"Baking a few treats for you I had in the freezer. Ten, twenty minutes. You need to eat!" Rosa repeated.
They smiled at each other, and Natalia set Olly on the carpeted living area off to the side of the table.
"Just as clean in here as I remember," Natalia laughed. "You and my mother, always sweeping, dusting..."
"Never too clean, I say. Plus, it keeps me busy. I'm getting old now, you see?" Rosa held her hands out and Natalia took them in her own. Her skin was a dark olive, veins and wrinkles across it, but still so beautiful and feminine. "And look at this!"
With their hands intertwined, Rosa turned Natalia's upwards, revealing the engagement ring and wedding band, stacked neatly on her own slender finger.
"You married, is what it is. Pretty girl like you... I never doubted it for a second," Rosa winked. "I never agreed with your mother and father-- I hope you know that."
"Oh," Natalia looked away, her hair falling into her face. "I don't... I didn't come here to talk about mama and papa. They're... not my concern right now."
Rosa looked concerned. "Well then what is? I don't hear from you for all these years and now... I love you, little one, but it is strange, I'll admit."
"The thing is," Natalia spun the rings on her finger nervously. There was literally Jesus on the cross on every single wall in the apartment. "I'm looking for... a friend of mine. She... left town under some pretty strange circumstances, and, well... I thought maybe she might've come to you. With a message. For me."
Rightfully, Rosa appeared quite confused. Natalia was aware how it sounded.
"I don't think I understand," Rosa began.
"Oh, I know," Natalia breathed a laugh. "I don't understand it either." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "You didn't... have any visitors? In the last... year or so? Maybe someone you didn't recognize? Asking about me or..."
Rosa raised an eyebrow. "Natalia, I'm old. Sometimes, I come in the kitchen and I forget what for once I get there."
Natalia's face fell, disappointed.
"Maybe, if you explain to me what this... friend... is all about, why she left you in the first place, maybe then I'll understand a little better."
"It's... complicated, Rosa. Really, really... complicated."
"She was... accused of a crime she didn't commit. I think... I know... she ran away to protect me, to protect Oliver, because someone wanted to keep her away..."
Rosa leaned back in her chair. "Complicado es verdad... Why would someone leave you to protect you? That... doesn't make sense to me."
Natalia looked around Rosa's apartment, her eyes traveling to the crucifix over the couch. The painting of the Virgin Mary. The candles she always kept burning. The younger woman put her hands over her face and sobbed. "It was stupid of me to come here, Rosa. I love you, but I think I'm looking for something you can't help me find."
Rosa stood up, the legs of her chair dragging on the linoleum. She tapped Natalia on the shoulder, and waved a crooked finger at her, urging her to join her. When Natalia stood, Rosa pulled her over to the couch, and sat her back down. From a shelf below the coffee table in front of them, Rosa pulled out a dusty photo album.
"I show you this, to help you understand."
But Natalia didn't understand. Her aunt flipped through old photos, some of which included Natalia, as a baby, a little girl, even Emma's age. They were family photos, get-togethers, communions, birthdays. They were beautiful, but Natalia didn't know where the older woman was going with this.
"You remember Marisela? She used to come to Chicago with me, your father's brother always had the big crush on her?"
Natalia smiled. "Yeah, yeah I do. She had that curly black hair... I used to be so envious."
"Down her back, it went," Rosa smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes. "Two years ago, I lost her. Breast cancer. Very sad."
"Oh, Rosa. I'm so sorry," Natalia put her hand on Rosa's back and pulled her close. "I had no idea you two stayed close all those years."
"We did, little one. We did. In fact, she lived here, with me. In the other room. For many years."
"I didn't..." Realization dawned on Natalia as she reached the final photo of the album. It was Rosa and Marisela, the taller woman with her arm slung over her aunt's shoulder. The way they looked at each other in that picture reminded her of the way Olivia looked at her. The love and devotion in her eyes.
"Oh my god. Rosa... I had no idea," Natalia's voice cracked.
Rosa tugged at the box of Kleenex on the coffee table. "That was... how it was. For most of our life. To most people."
Natalia wept with her aunt, who shook in her arms and suddenly felt frail and old. The years that she had wasted, not knowing her aunt, not being a part of her life. Natalia wondered how she could have been so selfish.
"How," Natalia dabbed at her eyes. "How did you... guess..."
Rosa smiled through smeared makeup. "I'm old, Natalia. Not blind. You come in here, with your son... you look lost, but not without hope. And this... friend... any friend you would drive hours through the night for," she pressed a fingertip to the dark circles beneath Natalia's eyes. "Well... I would've done that for Marisela."
Her head in Rosa's lap, Natalia cried, the kind of almost-dry, heaving sobs that overtake a person who has been through as long a journey as she had. She felt drained, literally, and began to think that maybe it was time to give up. Maybe Doris had been right. She could wait it out at home in Springfield. Surely Olivia would get the news, wherever she was, and come home. It had been foolish to nearly kill herself coming out here on a lark.
"I had to be sure," Rosa whispered into her ear. "I had to be sure you were here for you, and not some other reason. Some other person, making you do this."
Natalia sat up, confused.
Rosa stood once more. "Your friend, she come here. She tells me she spent lots of time and money trying to find me, not knowing my last name or anything."
"Olivia? She was here?" Natalia couldn't stop her voice from climbing.
Rosa smiled. "She says she knows only two things about me: my first name, and that I make the best guacamole in the Bronx."
Her aunt knelt down and picked up Oliver, appraising him once more. "He is a good boy. You should be proud."
"Where... did she tell you where she was going?"
"Ohhh, she told me. She told me her plans, how she was going to travel around, try to find a man who knew she did not kill that friend of yours. Told me she had to stay away, or another man would hurt you," Rosa spoke to Natalia, but her eyes were fixed on Olly, smiling and making faces at the little boy. "Told me if you ever came here, I should tell you that, and send you on your way. I told her what I thought of that plan."
Natalia waited, eyebrows raised, expectant.
"Come on," Rosa motioned for her to follow her, then opened the door to the spare bedroom and waved her inside.
The room had a few simple furnishings, a bed against the wall, a dresser near the window. Natalia looked around, and touched everything. The brush on the nightstand, the books stacked at the bedside. A single tennis shoe sticking out from underneath the bed, its mate probably somewhere else entirely. She crawled onto the bed and felt the cool sheets against her trembling hands. She looked to Rosa, who nodded. Laying her head on the pillow, she breathed in deeply and took in the unmistakable scent of Olivia Spencer.
A few minutes later, Natalia rejoined Rosa and Olly out in the living room. She moved slowly, like a zombie, still in shock.
"Whe... where is she now?" She could hardly believe she was so close.
Rosa bounced Olly on her knee. "I'm not sure. Most days, she goes out. She writes. She got a little work, writing for some... thing on the Internet. She tries to pay me, but I give it back."
Natalia's eyes went wide, suddenly impatient. "So... so what, I should just wait here for her?!"
"That would be my guess."
Natalia shook her head, waves of brown hair following after her. "Ohh, no, no, no. I did not drive a thousand miles, through the night, on no sleep just to get this far and wait. Please, Rosa..." Natalia knelt down in front of her at the couch. "Think. Think really, really hard."
Rosa looked at the clock on the wall. "It's almost lunch. She likes the espresso bar... in back of one of the Italian delis near Arthur and 187th..."
She hadn't even finished and Natalia was out the door. It hadn't occurred to her that her aunt might have something to do, or somewhere to be, or that watching her son was just a little too much for the older woman to handle. Instead she took the stairs, opting to race down fourteen flights of stairs rather than wait for the lone, not bullet-ridden elevator to arrive. By the time she hit the street she was already sweating.
At the subway station she checked a map, finding the intersection with her finger and committing it to memory. Her mind couldn't stop for long on any one particular thing, and she prayed she hadn't stumbled into the wrong subway station wearing the wrong color or something equally horrifying she'd seen on a Dateline rerun. As it was, everyone in the station looked just as preoccupied with themselves as she did.
She got out at the Fordham stop and walked the rest of the way. At 187th and Arthur Avenue, Natalia frowned. Within a three block radius there must've been a dozen Italian delis.
"Oh, Olivia," Natalia said aloud.
"Oh, Olivia," a homeless man crowed behind her. "Oh, Olivia! Ohhhhh, Olivia!"
His voice got louder and louder and Natalia couldn't help but laugh. Sometimes, she did miss the city.
She spent the better part of an hour sticking her head in as many delis and shops as she could find, not really expecting much. At this point, exhaustion was starting to set in, and the idea of waiting it out for Olivia at Rosa's quiet little apartment didn't sound so bad. She could sleep, and shower, and maybe not look like such a hideous mess when Olivia came home.
The thought made her bounce. Olivia would walk through that door. Olivia was coming home.
At what she decided would be her last stop, Natalia dug in her purse for a few dollars, in need of some coffee herself. The man behind the counter was big and bald and almost comically Italian. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
She waited for him to brew the coffee, peeking around the corner into a small back area where a few people sat at tables drinking espresso and eating pastries. A man and a woman, an elderly man reading the paper alone, and three young men in Fordham sweatshirts who all stopped talking when she met their gaze.
The older gentleman handed her the coffee and her change, and she headed for the door. She had her hand on the metal knob when she heard him call out.
"Hey, Natalia, another cappuccino?"
Only when Natalia turned around, she realized the man wasn't talking to her. He had stepped out from behind the counter and stood in the back corner of the deli, near a screen door Natalia hadn't noticed before.
She couldn't make out the woman's murmured reply, but there was something about the way the shop owner shook with laughter when she did.
"Who you tellin', girl? Try weighing as much as I do. I sweat just thinking about sweating." He let the screen door bounce lightly in its wooden frame, the phone ringing back behind the counter. "Pronto!" he shouted into the receiver when he finally caught up to it.
Coffee in hand, Natalia's curiosity drove her to backpedal into the shop. The man behind the counter spoke animatedly into the phone and didn't seem to notice her weaving her way through the tiny aisles of bagged pasta and bread and wine, to the back corner next to a refrigerator case.
The screen door was dingy, silver duct tape holding bits of it together where it looked like someone once went tumbling through. There was a tiny patio out back, big enough for only three bistro tables, and the afternoon sun sat just high enough in the sky to fill almost all of it with light. On both sides it was blocked in by the buildings next door, and a patchwork of ivy over the fence kept the busy alley to the rear at bay.
Just one woman sat on the patio, alone with one leg up on the chair across from her. She looked comfortable, like she belonged there, nestled halfway in the sliver of shade with her laptop in front of her. Natalia could only make out the shape of her body, and the shiny, wavy curls of dirty blonde hair that shielded her face from view. She couldn't quite figure out why she needed to know so badly, but in her attempt to see her face more clearly, Natalia pressed her hand flat against the screen.
So light in its hinge was the door that it swung open a little and bounced right back at Natalia, and she recoiled in surprise. The woman at the table looked up and at the door, but from the way she tugged at her sunglasses, Natalia guessed the shadows made it difficult for her to see.
But Natalia could see just fine. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Rudy? Who's there?" The woman was suddenly edgy, cautious. She closed the lid of her laptop and shifted in her seat.
With a tentative hand, Natalia swept the door open once more, further this time, and stepped into the frame so the other woman could see her.
The Olivia Spencer that stared back at her was, to the untrained eye, a complete stranger. Blonde curls, just a hint of her true color somewhere beneath, framed her face, her eyes covered by aviator sunglasses. She stood up with a jolt, then froze.
"Oh my god," she breathed. "Are you here alone? Is everything--?"
Natalia swallowed, her throat dry. "Everything..." she let her eyes travel up and down Olivia's body. "Everything... is... just fine. It's over, Olivia."
She put her hand to her head, then pulled off her glasses and tossed them on the table. In the blink of an eye Olivia closed the space between them, took Natalia's face in both of her hands, and kissed her so passionately it drew the air right out of Natalia's lungs.
They stayed like that for a few seconds, their lips tasting each other for the first time in over a year. Under her fingertips, Olivia was exactly the way Natalia remembered her, soft in all the right places, firm in others. She tasted like cappuccino and Chapstick, something the old Olivia would've never even touched. But it did the job; her lips were smooth and perfect and Natalia couldn't help but draw one of them between her teeth as they kissed.
"Oh my god," Olivia repeated. "I didn't..."
"I know," Natalia whispered into her mouth. "I know."
Olivia pulled away from her sharply, her eyes wide. "Frank," she breathed.
"He's in jail. He will be... for a long time."
This time Olivia drew Natalia close and into a crushing embrace, both of them breathing so hard they were practically panting.
A voice came from inside the shop. "Everything okay out there, Natalia?"
Olivia cleared her throat. "Uh, yeah, Rudy. Everything's fine." Then she looked down at Natalia. "Everything's more than fine."
Natalia blushed a little. "You took my name."
The blonde woman tugged at the navy oxford shirt that hung over Natalia's shoulders, the sleeves rolled up. Her eyebrow arched. "You took my shirt."
She folded her arms into the space between her and Olivia, and let the other woman's arms encircle her.
"I don't know what you know, Natalia... but I had to. I had to leave. I couldn't risk..."
Natalia lifted her head from Olivia's chest and looked up at her. "Don't. There's plenty of time for that. Let's just go back... let's go back to Aunt Rosa's and... I want you to meet your son."
For two women who had everything in the world to say to one another, the trip back to Rosa's was oddly quiet. Every few seconds Olivia would turn and look at the woman walking alongside her, still not quite able to believe it was Natalia Rivera, the woman she'd left behind a year earlier, uncertain if they'd ever be able to be together again. Yet here they were, Olivia's pinky finger curled around Natalia's, hands swinging between them as they walked, in a cautious first step towards doing exactly that.
"Something like ten million people in this city," Olivia mused, "and you find me."
Natalia smiled at her. "It wasn't exactly easy."
"I... I'm almost afraid to ask."
"A lot has changed, Olivia. There's so much to tell you, I don't even know where to start."
It got silent again. In the park near Rosa's apartment, some kids bounced basketballs off the pavement, each thump like an exaggerated beat of Olivia's heart.
In the elevator, Olivia nervously shoved her hands into her pockets and gave Natalia a smile the both of them knew was fake.
"One step at a time, right?" Natalia put her hand on Olivia's wrist and tugged it out of her jeans. "Sorry. Not really ready to let go just yet."
This time, Olivia smiled genuinely. "I... missed you."
A bell chimed and the doors slid open, Natalia pulling Olivia through by the hand. "Missed you too."
At Rosa's door, Olivia used her key and let them inside, the shades drawn in the apartment, keeping out the afternoon sun.
Rosa clapped a hand over her mouth at the sight of her and Natalia. "Dios mio, you actually found her!"
Her voice was barely above a whisper and Olivia drew her brows together in confusion.
"The boy... your boy," Rosa smiled at her. "He just fell asleep a few minutes ago. He's in your room."
Olivia turned to Natalia, uncertain. Their son, her son, was right in the next room, and Olivia didn't know quite how to feel or what to say. She had abandoned them, and while the boy was too young to know the difference, it still didn't make her feel any better about it.
She felt Natalia sweep across the room behind her, and heard her enter the bedroom. Rosa looked at Olivia, her palms upturned.
"What?" Rosa whispered. "What is wrong with you, girl? Go in there!"
Olivia scowled playfully at the older woman, and straightened her shoulders as she padded towards the bedroom. She forced a gust of air from her lungs, and stepped inside.
Natalia sat on the edge of the bed, her back to the door, and Olivia couldn't make out the tiny figure she rocked in her arms.
"Is he, um... I don't wanna wake him."
Natalia looked back at her, and gave her that one-dimpled smile that said something akin to'Are you kidding me?'
"Right," Olivia replied aloud. "I'll just..."
As she came around to sit next to Natalia, Olivia saw the little boy there, and gasped.
"Look who it is, Olly," Natalia whispered as she handed the boy to her. "It's Mommy... see, I told you."
Olivia instantly felt tears in her eyes, and every time she blinked, they cascaded down her cheeks. She looked at the sleepy child in her arms, his balled fists rubbing at his face.
"Oh my god," Olivia cried, stealing glances at Natalia who was fighting back tears of her own. "He's... oh my god."
His hair was dark brown, soft and curly and plentiful. His skin was all Natalia: smooth and olive that, when he got older, would turn caramel in the sun. Chubby fingers rubbed at tired eyes, and when he yawned Olivia marveled at the tiny teeth that looked like grains of rice. He blinked a couple times, and after a few seconds of considering her, he smiled. Olivia set a finger inside a deep dimple.
"Just like your mama."
Olivia felt Natalia's arm slide around her shoulders. "Mmhmm. But eyes like yours, you see?"
Olivia held him up a bit. She opened her eyes wide to examine him, and instinctively his eyes went wide in response. She had to laugh. There they were, as brilliantly green as her own, the eyes of her son.
"Olly... you didn't," Olivia turned to Natalia, who just shrugged.
"What? We decided it was a 'maybe'."
Olivia drew him closer to her, letting him nuzzle in the crook of her shoulder. "Oliver, huh? Did mama just want you to grow up nerdy with a pocket protector?"
Natalia laughed. "We should be so lucky! No," she moved her hand to the back of Olivia's neck, playing with the hair there. "It took me a few days... to decide. I... waited. In case, you... came back. When you didn't... he had to take your name."
That feeling of complete and utter failure crept back into Olivia's gut. No matter how many times she told herself she had absolutely no choice, it never stung any less, the reality of what she'd done. And now, to hear Natalia say that she'd waited, that she had thought Olivia would just come back in a day or two; Olivia had always suspected as much but wouldn't allow herself to even imagine it.
"I tried to think of a way, any way, I could keep you safe and still..."
"It's alright, Olivia. I know what happened."
"You do? Everything?" Olivia lifted her eyes from her son and looked at Natalia, fearful and unsteady. But what she saw in the other woman's eyes was clear, firm, and unequivocal: Natalia still loved her. And if she did, then she must know the truth.
"Yeah, everything." She sighed. "And then some."
Olivia raised an eyebrow. "Care to elaborate?"
"Not... right this second." She ran her hands through her hair and smiled weakly. "Is that okay? Can we... can we maybe just... be for a little while? At least until dinner?"
Olivia smiled. "Of course. Is it alright if I bring Olly out to the living room with us? Looks like he knocked out again but I don't want to put him down just yet."
Natalia stood up and pressed a chaste kiss to Olivia's forehead. "Of course, sweetheart. He'syour son, remember?"
"How could I forget?"
"You fell asleep again."
Olivia was on her side, the tiny bed not offering them much room. Natalia was on her back, her hair still wet from the shower, draped across the pillow. Their faces were so close that every few minutes Olivia had to lean back just a bit, to keep the other woman in focus. Oliver was asleep on a makeshift bed on the floor, his tiny mouth ajar, glistening with drool.
"No I didn't," Natalia's eyes fluttered a few times. "Just resting."
They had spent the rest of the afternoon talking with Rosa, dodging plate after plate of food that she'd prepared, and, as Natalia had phrased it, "just being." Olivia took every chance she could to brush a stray hair from Natalia's face, or to run a finger across the back of her hand. And Natalia went out of her way to lean into Olivia as they sat next to each other on the couch, or to absently lay a hand on Olivia's knee beneath the table. It was as though they were feeling their way, quite literally by hand, back to one another, and it gave Olivia hope. Until she knew exactly what Natalia had learned in her absence, what she'd dealt with, she'd just have to trust Natalia when she said she understood.
At around seven that evening, Natalia leaned her head against Olivia's shoulder and closed her eyes, and didn't open them again until Oliver shrieked with laughter. It took a little prodding, but eventually Olivia convinced the other woman to get in the shower and get ready for bed, despite the summer dusk still turning the blinds orange. Rosa always retired to her room around that hour anyway, so by the time she'd heard the shower cut out, it was just Olivia and Oliver in the bedroom, unabashedly observing one another.
Olivia had turned away when Natalia dressed for bed, unsure if she deserved to look upon her that way just yet, considering all the awful things she'd put her through. Luckily Natalia hadn't noticed, and instead just pulled Olivia onto the bed with her, knotting their fingers together against the flat expanse of her stomach. It wasn't lost on her that Natalia had again slipped into one of Olivia's shirts, this time a worn gray Princeton t-shirt she'd picked up at a conference there once. It made Olivia beam, and cringe, all at the same time.
"He never sleeps when it's dark out."
"Hm?" Olivia refocused on the woman next to her.
"He never sleeps when it's dark out," Natalia smiled, her eyes closed again. "I mean, he does... but not for this long. He's usually so fussy at night."
"Maybe he's tired. From the trip."
"Mm, no." Natalia opened her eyes and brought Olivia's hand to her lips, kissing her fingertips. "I think he just couldn't sleep right without his whole family together."
"That makes two of us," Olivia winked. "Speaking of... Emma?"
"Ohhh, she's doing so well, Olivia. Really."
"Yeah. She's in Europe... with Phillip and Beth. Took some doing but she finally agreed to go. And she's got this... boy..."
"Oh god," Olivia nestled her face against Natalia's cheek. "You're kidding me?"
Natalia giggled, her voice soft and sleepy. "Nope. He's sweet. Emma says they're not..." She raised her hands in the air limply and made quotation with her fingers. "Going out or anything. I don't know what that means but I told her she can't go out with a boy until she's at least thirty."
Olivia laughed. "Good."
"She's doing well in school, though. And dance, too. Phillip's been paying for her to stay at the studio, which was nice. I couldn't..."
"God, fuck, I'm sorry, Natalia. I really messed things up."
Natalia nipped at the fingertips that were still against her lips. "Don't. Shh. The money doesn't matter. We'll be fine. All that matters is that Emma will be so happy to see you."
"She will?" Olivia was surprised. "She doesn't... hate me?"
"She's older, Olivia. She's... I hate to say it... mature. We've talked. I think she realized, very early on, that something horrible happened, and it wasn't your fault. She believed in you. And when she had doubts, I showed her your letters."
Olivia smiled. "You did? God, I'm just glad they made it to you. I thought for sure they'd... that Frank would..."
The sound of his name seemed to startle Natalia, and Olivia pulled her closer. Natalia rolled over onto her side and drew Olivia's arm tight against her belly.
"At first I was confused, but then I remembered the conversation we had that night... when I told you about Aunt Rosa and the guacamole," Olivia could hear the smile in her voice. "They gave me hope, those letters. And when they stopped coming... that's when I knew I had to figure out what really happened. That's when I felt something really... sinister was going on."
Olivia took a deep breath. They were finally going there, and she was going to have to relive it once again. Pierce's murder, Frank's scheme. And to make matters worse, she was finally going to know what it had been like for Natalia, finally going to hear about how she mourned without her. Raised their son without her. It was one of those times you desperately wished for, and then when it arrives, you want to run the other way.
As Natalia spoke, her voice barely above a whisper, night closed in around them. Slowly, the sounds of people and cars rushing below them on the city street faded away, until it was so quiet in the tiny bedroom that she could hear Oliver's steady breaths. Olivia learned how Natalia had come to discover Peter Greenway, and his involvement, and what their meeting was like.
"Figures he'd return your call, but not mine." Olivia was still smarting over that.
"Probably because he was tired of running from his conscience, Olivia. That wears you down."
"I guess," she kissed the spot just behind Natalia's ear. "I just wish I could've been there for you."
"That's funny. All I did was worry about you. I feared the worst, you know. That maybe you'd turn to drinking..."
Olivia sighed. "Couple times I thought I might too. But I couldn't. I was too afraid that if I slipped up, just once... I'd do something stupid, get caught or worse... put you in danger somehow."
They laid there in silence for a while, Olivia running her hand across Natalia's waist, over the crest of her hip, and down her thigh to her knee. She made the trip over and over again, committing it to memory. Gone was the frame of the woman who'd found strength while Olivia was in rehab, doing yoga and taking care of herself. And long gone was the robust, feminine form of her pregnant wife, carrying her son, glowing with honor and pride at the mission. This woman was soft without softness, hard without strength. Her bones threatened at her skin, and the hollow between her breasts felt deeper somehow, like she'd lost weight from the very space around her heart.
"You know, with your blonde hair, you look like you did the first time I met you. The first time we spoke."
"Wow, that was a long time ago. You kind of look like you did then, too, now that you mention it."
Natalia wiggled her hips, digging in closer to Olivia. "That's sweet of you. I feel about a hundred years older than I was then."
"You're still the most beautiful woman in the world. Just... there's a little less of you than I remember."
"Not a lot of time to bake as many cookies."
Guilt nagged at Olivia's heart. "Well, we need to get you eating more again. You could get sick."
Natalia scoffed. "I made it the last year without you, Olivia. I'm sure I'll be fine."
Almost imperceptibly, Olivia shifted away from Natalia. It stung, and she deserved it, but still, it took her by surprise.
The other woman rolled around to face her. "I didn't... I didn't say that to hurt you. I promise."
"No, I know."
Natalia frowned. "To borrow a phrase of yours, bullshit. You're all tense. I swear to you, Olivia, I didn't mean it like that. Just got a little defensive I guess. I haven't exactly felt like the most beautiful woman in the world lately."
Olivia dropped her chin. "Well you are."
She could see tears in Natalia's eyes. "You're a good liar. But I'm a wreck. Let's be honest. And you... you look amazing. You're getting better with age, you know."
"Thank your Aunt Rosa. There's something in her cooking. Have you really looked at her? She's four hundred years old but she looks fifty!"
They shared a laugh, their lips brushing for really just the second time that day. Olivia engaged the other woman, drawing her closer by the back of her neck. This time, though, she could feel Natalia hesitate.
Natalia hid her face against Olivia's shoulder. "Yeah, I'm just... a little overwhelmed by it all. It's been a couple of days since I got any real sleep, and..."
"That'll certainly take its toll on you. C'mere." Olivia pulled the quilt up over Natalia's shoulder and made sure she was comfortable.
"And... there's more I should tell you, Olivia. I should tell you what drove Frank to confess."
"Okay..." It had seemed a little odd to hear that the man who was so driven to destroy her had confessed so readily.
"Frank... um... he really lost it after you left. After Pierce... you know. He started out okay but then... there were a lot of signs. Even Buzz started to notice things."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "He's a fucking lunatic, and a murderer."
"Well..." Natalia was stalling, and Olivia was trying not to rush her, but her feet began to dance under the covers. "Okay, okay. He was cracking up. Coming to the house, being weird. Even accused me of having an affair with Phillip, of all people."
"But... he was... I guess he was stalking me, or something," Natalia was leaning back now, watching Olivia, trying to gauge her reaction.
"The other night, he must've seen me meeting with Greenway and... he came over. Drunk. He got a little aggressive."
Olivia sat up in the bed, rattling the side table. "He did what?"
"He... Olivia, please." She lowered her voice. "He tried to... force himself on me."
Blood rushed to Olivia's face, and her hands drew into fists involuntarily. "That son of a bitch. I'm going to fucking kill him!"
"No, no. Olivia, he didn't. He couldn't... I... oh gosh, you're going to like this, and you really ought not to." Natalia bit at her lip. "I kinda hit him in the head with Rafe's baseball bat."
Olivia wanted to take some joy from that, wanted to smile as she imagined her wife clobbering him with a bat, but she couldn't get the image of him, in her home, touching Natalia, menacing her the way he'd done to Olivia. Scaring her. It was precisely what she had worked so hard to avoid. Hell, it was the reason she ran away like she did.
Frustration grew inside of her, and Olivia's entire body began to shake. She could feel Natalia sit up next to her, trying to ease her back down off the ledge. But the groundswell of emotion was too much for her to bear, and she brought her balled fists to her forehead, and cried.
"That fucking bastard! I did everything he wanted, I did everything he said. And he still... he still hurt you."
Natalia stroked her hair, her voice Olivia's only tether to sanity. "It's over now. He's done. He can't hurt anyone anymore."
"But don't you see?" Olivia squinted through the tears. "The last year, the last year I missed... I missed my son's birth, his first words. I should've been there for you, providing for you, for our family. But I left. I left because I thought if I did, he wouldn't hurt you. But he did. I'm the reason he killed Pierce, and like a coward I ran away. I should've killed him myself. I should've put a bullet through his head. It was all for nothing, Natalia. For fucking nothing!"
Natalia wiped at Olivia's tears with her thumbs. "That's just it, Olivia. It wasn't for nothing. If it had played out any other way... who knows what would've happened. Maybe it was all a part of God's plan..."
"Oh Jesus, Natalia. Don't start in with that, please."
"Well it wasn't for nothing, Olivia. Frank says... after you left, after you left that warehouse covered in Pierce's blood? He came back. He came back He couldn't bear what he had done."
"So what?" Olivia didn't understand.
Natalia pulled Olivia's hands into her lap. "He says she's alive, Olivia. He says Pierce is out there, somewhere... alive."
Natalia awoke to an empty bed, her hands running up and down the sheets just to be sure. Everything around her smelled of Olivia: the pillow, the blanket, even the neck of the t-shirt she was wearing. A smile crept across her face. Today the soft scent wasn't an illusion, or a lie she told herself to get by. Today it was real.
She rolled over and saw the place where Olly had slept, the pillows and stuffed animals in disarray, and sighed contentedly. That she had gotten a full night's sleep was a miracle in and of itself, but now, to wake up to near total silence and the smell of coffee brewing was enough to make Natalia positively giddy.
Her body, however, did not share in her carefree whimsy. As she stood she felt the kink in her neck, the lingering soreness in her legs. She assessed herself in the mirror that hung over the closet door. Her hair needed to be pulled back, and she did so carefully as it tended to knot when she fell asleep with it still wet. Olivia's Princeton t-shirt, with the hole at the hem she herself had run her thumbs over and through about a million times, hung on her small frame, nearly eclipsing the plaid boxer shorts that made her thighs look even skinnier than they were.
"Really? You finally see her after a year and this is the best you can do?" Natalia frowned, and looked down her shirt at her own breasts. "Ugh, lost cause."
She put on a bra to try and make her feel slightly less disheveled, and quietly slid the bedroom door open. The living room was bright, the shades opened up and the morning sun pouring in. She looked at the clock: just after nine AM. She hadn't slept that late since before Olivia left.
Natalia could hear sounds coming from the small galley kitchen, and she crept around the dining table to get a look. She found Olivia, Oliver slung over her hip, stirring something over the stove and whispering softly to the boy.
"Living reflections... from a dream... I was her love... she was my queen... And now a thousand years between... Thinking how... it used to be... Does she still remember times... like these..."
"Poetry, Olivia? That doesn't seem like you."
The blonde woman picked her head up with a start, and smiled. "Not exactly," she stopped stirring and walked to the edge of the linoleum floor, where Natalia met her for a quick kiss. "Led Zeppelin. Tangerine."
"After a year of church hymns and Oprah," Olivia smiled, returning to the stove, "figured Junior here would welcome the change."
Natalia folded her arms across her chest, leaning in the doorway while Olivia worked. She could've watched them like that for hours, Olivia playfully dabbing milk on Olly's nose, and their boy red with laughter, enjoying every second of it.
"What?" Olivia asked, licking her finger.
Natalia shook her head, suppressing a smile. "Nothing. Where's Rosa?"
Olivia pointed to the door. "Left about thirty minutes ago. She volunteers around the block. A freakin' saint, if you ask me. He can eat this, right?"
The blonde picked the pot up and showed Natalia the contents, white and creamy oatmeal. "Yeah, yeah... yes."
Olivia flicked off the burner so the contents could cool, and guided all three of them into the living room. She put Olly on the floor, and he busied himself walking unsteadily around the coffee table, both hands clinging to it for dear life.
"You get enough sleep?" Olivia sat back and laid her arm on the back of the couch. Natalia scooted into her reach.
"Mmm, yes. It felt really good. You?"
Olivia shook her head. "Not really, but... it was good. Got to stay up all night and watch you two sleep."
Natalia blushed. "Did I snore?"
"Only a little." Olivia laughed, and drew her thumb across Natalia's cheek. It made the younger woman's stomach leap. "You're both so beautiful. I couldn't sleep. Didn't want to... I wanna stay awake every second I can, so that maybe I can get rid of this feeling."
"Missing you. Even though you're sitting here... right here in front of me... we were apart so long. And I just wanna hurry up and stop missing you, because I can't take it anymore."
Natalia drew in a deep breath that turned into a sob, that turned into tears. "Oh, gosh..." She tried to stop herself.
"Go on and cry, baby," Olivia kissed her forehead. "Last night was my turn. Now it's yours. I got you."
For the first time in a very long while, Natalia felt safe again. Like she could cry, or close her eyes, or turn her back, and not be afraid of what might happen. She stayed like that for a few minutes, until she couldn't cry any more, and then she pulled back from Olivia's embrace.
"Oh gosh," she repeated. "I swear to you, I was not this much of a mess the whole time you were gone."
Olivia smiled wistfully. "I know you weren't. You took care of our children, our home. Don't think I'm not in awe of you."
Natalia looked up at the other woman and examined the green eyes there. She'd always felt her life had meaning, a purpose, and she tried to be a humble, hardworking person who cared for others. But never in her life had she felt she'd done anything particularly spectacular or awe-inspiring.
"I thought about it a lot last night. You need to know, Natalia. You need to hear it, and I need to say it. Nobody else could've done what you've done. No one else. I left because I believed that Frank would hurt you, hurt Oliver or Emma, if I didn't. No other reason. I would've gone to jail, if that's what it took. In fact, I was prepared to... but my pride got the best of me. I... drove Frank to do what he did to Pierce. I could've walked away. I should've walked away. But I didn't, and after it all went down... I made the only choice I don't regret. I know now, leaving was the right thing to do, if only because you handled everything with the grace and strength I never could have. I didn't save this family, Natalia. You did."
"Olivia..." Natalia covered her face with both of her hands, but the other woman pulled them away, forcing her to look.
"Watching you last night, watching our little boy sleep, I got really scared, you know? Because I feel like all I've done the past few years is make promises to you, promises I didn't keep." She laughed softly, her eyes looking to the sky for a brief second. "Christ, I've pretty much done the exact opposite of everything I've ever promised I would. But you... you keep coming back for more. It's like you know something I don't."
Olivia smiled at her, and she sheepishly smiled back. "Or I'm just crazy in love with you."
"Even better. Crazy is forever." Olivia tapped at Natalia's chin with her finger. "But seriously... If you never believe another word I say, I need you to trust me when I say I've got one more promise to make you, the only one I'll ever make again, the only one we can know for certain I will always keep."
Nibbling at her lower lip, Natalia waited.
"I will never love anyone in this world like I love you. Not another woman, not another man. No one. I've managed to fuck up a lot of things in my life, in our life, but when it comes to loving you... Loving you is the only thing I know how to do right. Despite everything, despite it all... I'm perfect when I'm loving you."
Natalia sighed. "You make me feel perfect when you love me."
"You're perfect on your own." Olivia paused and looked down. "Especially in those boxers. Good god, woman."
She frowned. "You've got to be kidding."
"No. Not kidding. So very not kidding."
Natalia leaned in close to the other woman, so close that her eyelashes brushed Olivia's cheek when she blinked. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Your love is the only thing I need. That's my promise to you. You're all I need."
They kissed, their lips just barely brushing, Olivia's breath tickling Natalia's skin like a feather.
Oliver had managed to walk his way across the carpet near the dining room table, and Natalia stood to corral him before he made it to the kitchen. Her knees brushed Olivia's as she snuck through the sliver of space between the couch and the coffee table. She felt Olivia's eyes on her, saw the flush in her face, and reached down to scratch a nail across the other woman's jawline.
"Oh, stop. There's plenty of time for that."
She could hear the whine in Olivia's voice as she leaned over to pick up Olly.
"When we're not in my aunt's house. When we don't have a fourteen hour trip to make home. When we don't have a baby to feed."
Olivia stood up and followed Natalia into the kitchen, and spooned some of the oatmeal into a bowl. "When you say it like that, it doesn't sound like we have plenty of time at all."
The blonde woman handed Natalia the bowl, her lower lip bent into a pout. Natalia quickly leaned in and placed a kiss there.
"We'll make time."
Springfield. Olivia glanced at the old sign in the rearview mirror, heading out of town after dropping Natalia and Oliver off at the farmhouse. She watched it fade away in the distance, and decided it should read: "Springfield: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same." They'd made good time getting back from New York, but she had another stop to make, one she couldn't put off, no matter how Natalia begged her not to. Granted, it was hard leaving her, if only just for a few hours, but Olivia knew the churning in her stomach wouldn't stop until she made this visit. For over a year, she imagined her homecoming would include an equally important stop, to Pierce's grave, but recent events had made that oddly unnecessary. Or at least, possibly unnecessary. She'd know more after she reached the county jail, where Frank Cooper had been relocated, awaiting sentencing. Word from Remy when she stopped at the police station was that the state thought he might not be safe in his own jail, that the disgraced former Chief might meet some unseemly end at the hands of his fellow cops who were, rightfully, disgusted by his acts.
So she drove out to the highway, and tried to organize her thoughts. Decide what approach she wanted to take with Frank Cooper. But when she arrived at the county facility, and made her way through the myriad security frisks and locked doors, none of that mattered. When she saw his face through the reinforced glass, she had to fight to hold onto the barest thread of rational thought. The guard unlocked the door, and his face rose in surprise.
"Olivia. You're not supposed to--"
"Save it Frank. You're pretty much Public Enemy number one these days. It's amazing how quickly protocol goes out the window when every law enforcement officer within a thousand miles hates your guts. Haven't you seen the papers?" When he looked confused, she smiled. "Oh, it's okay. I tried to bring you one, but they confiscated it. Afraid I might try to kill you with it, apparently."
She shrugged her shoulders and drummed her fingers on the back of the metal chair in front of her. Frank looked sullen, tired, and afraid. It pleased Olivia.
"What do you want? I told them everything."
"You told them everything... that's cute. You cried like a little bitch, Frank. Let's be honest."
He grimaced, but said nothing.
Olivia sighed. "How my doing? Do I look calm and composed to you? Because-- like I said, honesty-- on the inside? I want to kill you. I want to cut you and watch you bleed all over this floor. But," she rubbed at the bridge of her nose, "that wouldn't be right. And I let my emotions get the better of me once with you, Frank, but I won't do it again. I'll let the judge send you to prison for the rest of your life. I'll let CNN crucify you on the nightly news. I'll let the shame you've brought on your family-- a good family-- eat you alive from the inside."
He cleared his throat. "You come all this way to tell me that?"
"Among other things, yeah. Mostly I just wanted to see it for myself. Frank Cooper, in shackles. Tied up like the pig he truly is."
She had expected this to be more empowering, more invigorating. But it felt less like vengeance and more like beating a dead horse. He was already a defeated man, already resigned to his fate. His body language was passive, his face pathetic. She didn't expect it, but she felt like she wanted to run out of the room, almost as quickly as she'd come.
"And I came here to find out what you did to Pierce. Where you... left her."
Frank shook his head. "I told Natalia. I told the investigators. I don't know where she is."
Olivia closed her eyes for a second to compose herself. "Tell me what you did. Tell me everything, from the moment..." her voice stalled in her throat. "From the moment I left, to the last thing you know."
With cuffed hands he wiped at his nose with his thumbs. When he spoke, his voice broke. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave her there. I couldn't be sure her body wouldn't give something away, some evidence, anything... that would show you didn't do it. After I made sure you fled the area, I left, but I turned around at the last minute. I was going to dump her body in the river."
Her friend. It had been a while since Olivia let herself imagine Pierce's face. The way she smiled with every single one of her features. Even that ridiculous head of hair, like a permanent joke on the top of her head.
"But when I got back... I was picking her up. I picked her up, to lay her body on a sheet of plastic. There was so much blood... I knew what the investigation would conclude. Murder. No one could survive having lost that much blood. But when I picked her up... swear to Christ, Olivia... she was breathing."
She squeezed her eyes shut this time, unwilling to let Frank Cooper see her cry. But she could hear him. He was crying. Heaving so much he shook the table in front of him.
"I've seen dead bodies before. I've seen blood. But I've never seen... that."
"What did you do Frank?" Olivia whispered, her knuckles white against the back of the chair.
He wiped at his face again. "I wrapped her up in the plastic, and I brought out to my car. Made it look like... I dunno, that she was dragged out somehow. Who knows. I didn't care. And I drove her out to this guy I know. A doctor. He was a CI in a case I worked with the feds once. Used to patch up mafia guys, shit like that. I knew he'd... do what he could for her, and not say anything, because he wouldn't risk exposing himself."
"So what, you just left her there? With some hack doctor in a back room somewhere?"
He nodded. "I didn't know what else to do."
Olivia shook her head. "No, I don't understand. I watched you. I watched you shoot her... in the head. If you're lying, so help me god, I'll--"
"I'm not," he insisted. "I'm not lying. I can't explain it. I mean, I know I was shaking when I... fuck. I don't know, Olivia. All I know is, a couple weeks later, Doc calls me and says she ran out in the middle of the night. Ripped the IV's straight out of her arm and everything. She could be anywhere."
"She could be dead, Frank," Olivia roared, sending the chair to the floor. "Jesus, do you see what you've done?"
He hung his head. "I know. I thought..."
"Fuck what you thought, Frank. You were obviously so distraught over it, you barely had time to try and seduce my wife. My god, you're a fucking saint, Frank!"
"I know what you must think of me."
Olivia laughed, a sad, desperate laugh. "No, no you don't. I've done some underhanded things in my day. But this? This is evil, Frank. This is depravity. This is the shit you pretended to protect people from. You shot Pierce, left her half-dead with some med school flunky, you stalked Natalia... you tried to rape her, Frank. Do you even know what you are?"
"Please," he whimpered. "Please don't..."
"You don't like hearing that, do you? Blackmailing me, framing me, vile Olivia Spencer and her druggy alcoholic friend, we were just fine as collateral damage. Good riddance, right? But what you did to Natalia, a woman who was nothing but kind to you. A woman who once bore your child." She found the words hard to dislodge from her throat. "You couldn't even stand yourself, could you?"
He stared at the ground, then raised his eyes to meet hers. "I wish she would've killed me."
Olivia didn't flinch. "That makes two of us."
The old man with the salt and pepper beard waited for Olivia's response, and shook the paper in his hand when she offered none.
"Springfield's only about thirty, forty miles from here. Got themselves a fine mess, from the looks of it. Chief of police runnin' around, raping and killing. Real shame."
Olivia turned her head only slightly, and observed the man from the corner of her eye. He was, to be sure, the stereotypical prototype of a man you'd meet at a rural gas station. He had on an oily pair of overalls and smelled like auto grease, and stood at the magazine rack, alternating between a copy of Hustler and that day's edition of USAToday. Clearly he hadn't read much past the headline, as Frank Cooper had neither confessed to murder or rape, but rather attempting the two, plus a few other felonies like the arson fire at the farmhouse barn. But Olivia Spencer hardly felt it was her duty to defend the former chief, especially only an hour removed from his presence.
"That your car out there? I do body work right down the street a ways. Nice girl like you, I'd cut you a deal, fix up all them dents. Shine her up like new."
Now Olivia turned and faced him fully, and smiled. Just a few days ago she was Olivia Spencer, hiding behind an assumed name, a wanted killer and a deadbeat who had abandoned her family. And today, she was a 'nice girl' whose thousand-watt smile could once again get her anything she wanted. She felt out of breath just thinking about it.
"That's very kind of you," she replied, refolding the newspaper and returning it to the rack. "But I'm just getting some gas and heading home."
Home. The thought both thrilled her and exhausted her. For the first time in a very long time, Olivia had to consider things like how much this tank of gas was costing her, and how even with the man's 'nice girl' discount, she could hardly afford to fix a car that ran perfectly well, dents and all. She'd gotten some freelance writing work for a few websites while she was on the run, and Aunt Rosa's hospitality had certainly helped enormously. But going home meant sorting out her new life, a whole host of complications that she wasn't particularly keen on facing.
But home also meant Natalia, and Olly and Emma, and a renewed sense of purpose: finding Pierce. It had been bad luck, then, that Peter Greenway had gotten off scot-free in all this, apparently making off with all the money he and Frank had intended on splitting. When Frank told her that, that there'd be no recouping any of her money, she'd properly informed him that he was a fuck-up of the highest order, but he was clearly in such a state of self-loathing that he hadn't even been able to enjoy how incensed it made her.
The man tipped his hat to her as she left, the bell on the door tinkling as it fell shut behind her. The summer night closed its fist around her, muffling the sound. Before she hopped back into the car, Olivia looked off into the distance, just a stretch of road dividing empty fields, and thought of Pierce. She could be anywhere, hurt or incapacitated or maybe just fine, and Olivia couldn't imagine a single place to start her search. She didn't suppose she could be lucky enough to have Pierce see the news articles and come running home, as though nothing had happened.
She sighed and slid into the driver's seat, the slam of the car door sending the sun visor tumbling into her lap. She held up the piece of wrapped plastic, its broken hinge dangling in her fingertips. From the looks of it, Natalia had tried to fix it once or twice with duct tape.
Olivia laughed, then started to cry, then laughed again. "One step at a time, Spencer."
When she arrived at the farmhouse, Olivia fumbled with Natalia's keys. There were brass keys, silver keys, tiny keys, some with labels on them and some without. Some were obviously for the office where Natalia worked; others she hadn't the faintest idea what they belonged to.
The porch light flipped on. Mustn't continue that thought.
Olivia held the keys in the air. "Kind of a lot going on here, don't you think?"
"Sorry. I'll get another set made." The younger woman pressed a kiss to her cheek, and smiled. "Come up. I was about to give Oliver a bath before bed."
The blonde murmured that she'd be right there, and took a minute to get reacquainted with the farmhouse. Things had only changed in the subtlest of ways: a new blanket on the couch. Not the one that she and Emma and Natalia used to curl under for movie night. A candle on the mantle that made the living room smell like a scent she didn't recognize. She shuffled over to the kitchen and peered inside: signs of Oliver everywhere, from the child seat to the magnets on the fridge to a few stray Cheerios on the floor near the back door. She smiled. This must be where Natalia spent most of her time with him.
She stopped near the stairs where she found a picture of Emma, in an outfit she'd never seen before, holding up a certificate saying she'd made the Honor Roll. Olivia had never been prouder.
Replacing the picture frame on the table, she headed upstairs, and things started to feel a bit more familiar. The laundry basket piled high with folded laundry waiting to be put away. Emma's bedroom door adorned with Jonas Brothers posters and a pink feather boa hanging from the doorknob. Olivia let the feathers tickle her fingers as she walked by. There was a light on at the end of the hall, so Olivia headed to what she presumed to be Oliver's room, but when she pushed the door back she found it was empty.
The room had been halfway renovated, just like it was before Olivia had left. The windows were no longer drafty, and the log cabin decor had been updated, but the floors still needed to be done, and the lightbulb on the ceiling was still bare. Olivia picked up a blanket from Olly's crib and brought it to her face. It smelled like the little boy, and Natalia.
The sound of running water in the bathroom drew her attention, and Olivia flicked off the light behind her. Through their bedroom she tiptoed, and found Natalia squatting on the bathroom floor, her hands in the tub testing the water, Oliver's fist closed around a swatch of her hair.
Watching the two of them like this, Olivia felt overcome once again with guilt. The boy played and chewed and squealed, and Natalia tried to soothe him as she hummed softly. How she remained so patient and calm while she juggled ten different tasks, Olivia would never know. But she was grateful for it.
"Hey Junior," Olivia stepped into the bathroom and lifted the little boy into her lap as she sat on the edge of the tub. "Lemme help you out. Can't have you in the tub with all your clothes on, now can we?"
Natalia looked up at her and let her shoulders fall, her hands hanging limp at her wrists above the water. "It's happened. Once he even got in here still wearing sneakers."
Olivia laughed as she popped a few buttons on Olly's shirt. "Hm, sounds like you're a troublemaker."
"Just like his mother," Natalia winked.
Olivia spun Olly around, and let him stand on her knees, facing her. "I think she's talking aboutme, Oliver. What do you think?"
The little boy giggled and stamped his feet, surprising Olivia with his strength. Once again she looked to Natalia, who just shrugged.
Her wife was a curious being, having been dealt lousy hand after lousy hand yet always remaining humble, pious and thankful. If Olivia hadn't fallen head over heels in love with her, she's certain she would've found it insufferable and quite unsettling to be around. But she had, and so she didn't. In fact, Olivia thought it was Natalia's unshakeably sunny disposition that allowed her to look beautiful even slumped over a tub, frail arms ready to snap, hair tossed over her eyes.
"Why don't you..." Olivia brushed a piece of that hair back. "Why don't you let me do this? You've had a long few days."
Natalia sighed. "You don't..."
"Shh," Olivia pursed her lips, first at Natalia, then at Oliver, who grinned at her. "I want to. You just... sit down for a few."
Olivia pointed with her chin to the toilet, where Natalia obliged and took a seat on the closed lid. "Alright," she whispered.
It took a few minutes to get back into the swing of things, but soon Olivia found Olly to be quite the little gentleman in the tub. He splashed around, but for the most part he was as in awe of her as she was of him. His skin was impossibly smooth, and his tiny hands and feet took her breath away. He was their son, and she was finally home.
"That's supposed to be 'No More Tears' shampoo, you know," Natalia quipped.
Olivia looked up at her, and only then did she realize she was crying. "I guess I'm just a little... misty-eyed over here. What can I say?"
She felt Natalia join her once again on the floor of the bathroom, her arms wrapped around Olivia's waist. Her nose brushed against the older woman's cheek. "I love that you're here. That you're home. And we can start to get things back to normal again."
"I'd like that."
Olivia's voice had sounded darker and deeper than she'd intended, but with Natalia's nails scraping lightly at her sides, it was all but impossible for her to remain unaffected. She was relieved when Natalia breathed a light laugh into her ear.
As if on cue, Oliver took a fistful of water and flung it in the air, and it slapped Olivia straight in the face. All three of them laughed.
"I deserved that."
Olivia pulled the boy out of the tub and wrapped him in a towel, warmth emanating from his body as she held him close. Natalia stayed behind to clean up the bathroom, and Olivia brought him into his room, eyeing the stack of diapers with disdain.
"This is the part I hate," Olivia whispered to him as she dressed him. "Can't we just fast-forward to the part where you're potty trained and we don't have to worry about you eating pennies off the floor?"
Olly just looked up at her, alternating between kicking his feet and sucking his lower lip into his mouth. It was disgustingly adorable.
"Alright, alright," Olivia acquiesced. "No fast-forwarding. I missed too much already."
She heard Natalia clear her throat from the doorway.
"You want some help getting him down for the night? He can get a little cranky."
Olivia thought about it for a second.
"Actually... I think I'd like to try... and if I can't... or if he punches my lights out or something..."
Natalia smiled. "Of course, sweetheart. I know you two have a lot of catching up to do. Take your time."
Time got away from Olivia as she sat there in Oliver's room, all the lights out except for a small night-light near the rocking chair. With her son in her arms she explained why she had been gone so long, and how awful she felt having missed out on important first steps in his life. To his credit, Olly seemed willing to accept his mother's apology, registering the occasional understanding two-syllable grunt. When he finally did fall asleep, Olivia had to unwind her hair from his fingers.
It was just as dark in their bedroom when Olivia, at long last, slid into bed alongside Natalia. Unlike the night before at the hotel on the road, and the night before that at Aunt Rosa's, they were finally in their own bed, in their own house, together and alone.
Olivia smiled in the darkness at Natalia's form curled up neatly on her side of the bed, leaving Olivia's side untouched. She wondered if she had slept like that for the last year, waiting for Olivia to come home. She decided she'd have to ask her in the morning: Natalia was out cold.
It took her nearly three days, but Olivia sat down on the park bench, relatively certain she had run into, or been found by, just about everyone in Springfield. She looked at her watch. In typical Doris fashion, the mayor was running late, so Olivia used the extra minutes to touch up her makeup and catch her breath. It was tiring work, explaining over and over again to people, some of whom had no right even asking, what had happened. They'd all read the papers, the blogs, seen the national news coverage it got. For all the love of attention Olivia Spencer formerly possessed, she had recently decided that she preferred anonymity. It brought with it a certain peace.
"Goddamn you look good. Vindication really does have rejuvenating powers, doesn't it?"
Doris Wolfe strode across the grass towards her, clucking her tongue.
"So does getting laid on the regular, if you're any indication. Looking good yourself, Doris."
Olivia stood and pulled Doris into a hug before it had a chance to get awkward.
"Lemme guess-- you thought I was innocent from the start," Olivia teased.
Doris snorted. "I was 50-50. Blake of course thought you were innocent."
"50-50? Fuck you, Wolfe."
"Fuck you too, Olivia." The mayor sighed, squinting in the sun. "God, I've missed this."
"Me too," the blonde agreed, and sat back down on the bench. "So what's up? I thought I'd see you and Blake at dinner tonight."
Doris nodded. "Well, yeah, you will. But I didn't think this could wait any longer. You get that new cell phone, by the way?"
"Yeah, I'll give you the number."
Olivia searched her purse for the cell while Doris pulled out a thick manila envelope. Looking over at it, Olivia winced.
"That's never good. What is that? How much I owe in back taxes and utilities for the Beacon? Even with Phillip's help, I'm going to have to sell her. It's a money pit, and I'm broke. Would you look at that?" Olivia pointed to the gravel parking lot not far away. "I'm driving a ten year old Nissan. I pass out every morning when I see it in the driveway."
Doris, now distracted, cocked her head to the side. "Huh. What happened to your car? The... the BMW?"
Olivia grabbed at her heart. "Natalia sold it while I was gone. Says Suze Orman said the money's better off in the bank, gaining interest, instead of sitting in the yard depreciating. Clearly neither my wife nor Suze fuckin' Orman can appreciate the ultimate driving experience."
"Wow. Now I don't feel so bad that you look so much better than me. Your hair like this, you just look ten years--"
She waved her hand at Doris. "The envelope?"
"Oh, right. They're, um," Doris pulled a few sheets of paper from the envelope, just to let Olivia have a look. "They're leads. On Pierce. The station's been fielding calls since the story broke."
Olivia had planned to hire a private investigator as soon as she got everything squared away again, but here was Doris, handing her a two-inch stack of leads.
"I don't understand. Who's calling?"
"All kinds of people. From all over. Some I'm sure are bullshit, or just mistaken identity... but some of these people have details. It'll take some doing but... I thought you'd want to get a look at them, seeing as how your faith in the police department's a little shaken these days."
Olivia held the envelope in her hands, but found it hard to look inside. In fact, she found it hard to breathe. She felt that way every time she thought of Pierce since she'd heard the news that she was alive. There were a lot of things that had happened in the past year that Olivia could blame on someone else or point to some mitigating factors to explain away. But this-- whatever had become of Pierce-- weighed squarely on Olivia Spencer's shoulders.
When Olivia didn't speak, Doris shifted on the bench.
"She's technically a missing person case now. We're doing everything we can, but if you could take a look at these, and just see if anything jumps out at you..."
Olivia nodded. "Of course. Thank you, Doris. I'm just a little..."
"I know," Doris put a hand over Olivia's knee. "I know she was really important to you."
"Is, Doris. She is really important to me."
When the last of the dinner party trickled out the door, Olivia sighed in relief.
"I thought Josh would never leave. He and Reva..." she scratched at her head. "I always thought it would happen, but it doesn't make it any less weird seeing them back together. So crazy."
Natalia smiled at her. "Crazier things have happened."
"Indeed they have," Olivia nodded, drawing Natalia close by encircling her waist. "Like Olly being sound asleep upstairs already."
Natalia sucked in a surprised gasp. "I know! And everyone getting along so well at your little welcome home dinner..."
"Not everyone. I'm pretty sure Doris and Blake are having a spat."
"They'll be fine. Just two fiery personalities, that's all."
Olivia held the other woman's gaze. "And my Emma's coming home tomorrow..."
When they'd finally gotten ahold of Phillip and Beth in Europe, Olivia insisted that they stay the full length of their trip despite her return. Phillip of course disagreed and promptly made plans for them to return home to Springfield. Emma had sounded so excited, Olivia was certain her voice reached a squeal only Jackie could hear. And in all honesty, Olivia was relieved. She didn't know if she could make it another two weeks without seeing her daughter.
"Oh, she's going to be so happy to see you."
"You know what that means, don't you?" Olivia waggled an eyebrow.
Natalia looked confused. "I should... buy more laundry detergent? I don't know."
"It means," the blonde tugged Natalia by the waist over to the couch. "That tonight's probably going to be our only night of peace and quiet... for a while."
"Ohh," Natalia smiled knowingly. "I see."
"And while kissing you has been," she dotted Natalia's neck with kisses as she spoke, "quite divine... I must admit I'm dying to touch you."
"Mmm," Natalia purred in agreement. "And I should admit I'm dying to let you touch me."
Olivia advanced, pressing Natalia on her back against the couch. They started kissing more passionately before Natalia's hand between them drew Olivia to an abrupt stop.
"But, wait... Can we... first of all, not here."
The older woman looked over her shoulder at the living room, rapidly growing impatient. "What's wrong with--"
Natalia frowned hard, her eyes wide, incredulous. She was obviously ticked that Olivia didn't immediately understand her.
"Oh!" Olivia finally exclaimed, retreating back to allow Natalia to sit up. "Right. Wow. I'm... insensitive."
She hadn't thought much about why the throw rug was missing until just then. Only a few days earlier, Natalia had bludgeoned Frank Cooper not two feet away.
Natalia's frown slowly flattened, and her brown eyes softened. "Not insensitive... just..."
"Horny?" Olivia offered with a raised brow.
Natalia slapped at her lightly. "Stop it. It's not just that."
Olivia scooted closer to her. "Well then tell me what it is. I mean, I want us to talk... like we used to."
She felt the other woman take one of her hands and clasp both of her own around it. Then Natalia worked her thumbs over the veins on the back of Olivia's hand, alternating soft and hard pressure on the palm beneath. It was one of Olivia's weaknesses.
"I just," Natalia continued. "While I want you... very... very," she repeated in an exaggerated tone, probably to assuage Olivia's concern, "very much... I'd be lying if I didn't tell you it's still hard for me to switch gears. I've had to just shut down everything, everything that wasn't absolutely necessary, in order to make it this last year. I put up a lot of walls... to keep everything else out, so I could just focus on the day-to-day. Taking care of Oliver, looking after Emma, work, the house... everything."
Olivia nodded, not wanting to interrupt.
"And to answer your question, because I know how your mind works, no. No I am not mad at you, nor do I blame you, nor should you. We've both had a rough time. I just think between Frank... doing what he did... and the stress of it all... I just..." Now Natalia let Olivia's hand go and slapped at her own knees in frustration. "I want to be with you so badly but... I don't feelvery sexy. I feel... guarded and..."
There was a long pause and Olivia looked up at her, trying to egg her on. "Annnd?"
Natalia shot her arms across her chest and twisted her lips into a pout. "Ugly. I feel ugly. There, I said it."
Olivia couldn't stifle the laugh that came spewing forth.
"Don't laugh at me! I feel like I aged fifty years but you look like you just came home from aspa. I hate you."
Olivia threw her arms around her whimpering wife and pulled her in despite the other woman's playful resistance.
"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
"I do hate you," came the muffled reply. But when Natalia sat straight up, she backed off that statement, shrugging. "Okay, I don't hate you. Not really."
Olivia sighed. "Okay, my turn to talk." She waited for Natalia to signal she would offer no further protest.
"Okay. First of all, you're so gorgeous it hurts me to look at you. I have to squint. See?" Olivia narrowed her eyes at a skeptical Natalia. "And number two, because I know how your mind works, I know that's not going to change how you feel about you. And besides that, you had a... scary experience. You were threatened, hurt, almost raped... and I could stand to be a little more sensitive to that, and less preoccupied with getting you in my pants."
"I hate that expression."
"Noted. Anyway, what I mean is... Forget about tonight. Forget about any pressure. We waitedhow long before we first got together?"
Natalia's eyes went wide, and she fervently shook her head.
"Right. And no, we're not waiting that long again. But even though, according to you, I don't owe you anything... Let me romance you a little bit. We'll take our time. Maybe go out to dinner just the two of us one night next week? Things will be more settled then, even with the kids and everything."
Olivia watched the other woman consider her offer carefully. Natalia was chewing the inside of her cheek, eyes looking up at Olivia and then back down again.
"I do really want you. I do."
"I know," Olivia smiled.
"I mean not just a little bit. Like, a lot."
"But I'm just so run down, and I want to be sexy for you."
"I know..." Now Olivia was just shaking her head.
"And I fantasized about you. I did. All the time."
Olivia's ears pinned back. "Wait, what?"
Natalia smiled coyly. "I'll tell you what... let me take a shower, and then I'll curl up next to you in bed and tell you all about it."
Natalia waited until she could feel Olivia's heartbeat against her back. When she was still, completely still, the naked flesh between them pulsated with each squeeze of Olivia's heart, steady like a metronome. For a fleeting moment Natalia wondered about the condition of that heart, wondered how it had weathered the events of the past year. But she pushed that thought aside-- Olivia was scheduled for a cardiologist appointment next week. No sense worrying about it now.
She'd crawled into bed after turning all the lights out, feeling self-conscious. Olivia must've been able to tell, because even in the darkness she averted her eyes. Natalia was relieved; not relieved that Olivia wasn't looking, although maybe a little, but relieved that Olivia could still read her emotions after all the time they'd been apart. Sure, they'd had a miscue earlier in the living room, but for the most part they still had all the makings of a world-class instrument. They just needed a little fine tuning.
"Mmm," Olivia purred into her hair. "Love feeling you like this."
"Me too," Natalia replied. "Now what was it you wanted to talk about?"
Olivia's laugh shook the both of them. "Don't play coy with me, darlin'. You know what I wanna know."
"Hmm," Natalia considered the other woman. Long legs tangled with her own. They were so smooth and cool, a strong contrast to hers, still warm from the shower. Intertwined as they were, it felt like a balm to her sore muscles. She relaxed even further into Olivia's embrace. "I'm embarrassed."
She could hear Olivia snort in exasperated disbelief, but the other woman did not push her. Instead, she kneaded the muscles at the base of Natalia's neck, across her shoulders and between the blades. She felt Olivia's fingers masterfully climb along her spine and slide back down again.
"Oh God, just like that." The words slipped from Natalia's lips before she could stop them. She felt herself go flush.
"I remember what you like," Olivia replied, but not in a whisper as Natalia had done. In a soft, calm, reassuring voice. Olivia was assuming control, urging Natalia to let her guard down. Another flash of how well they worked together.
This was exactly what she needed. To relearn the slightest things she'd forgotten. How to let her guard down. How to let someone else shoulder the burden, if only for a little while. How to be weak.
And weak is how she felt, with Olivia's strong hands at her back, legs wrapped around her. The slow, simmering heat between them threatened to melt Natalia entirely, but maybe that was Olivia's plan all along. With every stroke, Natalia became more and more certain. She wanted to be consumed by Olivia. Wanted her to take every last conscious thought from her mind and make it disappear.
"Natalia," Olivia commanded her attention gently, then paused. "Relax. You're still so tense."
The younger woman laughed nervously, then sighed. "I'm trying."
"Don't try," Olivia spoke so closely that Natalia felt her breath against her ear. "Don't do anything but imagine... whatever it is you want to imagine. You don't even have to tell me."
A deep breath hissed from between Natalia's lips. It was like riding a bike, she supposed; seducing her was one of the many things Olivia Spencer did effortlessly. Natalia knew there was a difference between romance and seduction, but Olivia always managed to blur the line. And right now, Natalia was in no condition to protest. Not really, anyway.
"Stop trying to turn me on."
Olivia's laugh was husky and confident. "Believe me, I haven't even started trying yet."
Natalia whimpered, helpless. And maybe that's precisely what she needed. To be helpless in Olivia's arms, to give herself over to her, and let whatever was going to happen, happen.
Olivia's hands continued up and down Natalia's back, occasionally detouring to the back of her arms or her sensitive scalp. Natalia finally let herself moan in pleasure, giving up on holding back. She was surprised by her body's reaction to her own cries. After a few minutes, she felt Olivia shift against her, clearing her throat just a bit. Apparently Olivia was having a reaction to the sounds as well.
It took her a few more minutes, but eventually Natalia's mind wandered to the place it so often went on those nights when Olivia was gone, far away from her and this bed. Somewhere warm, quiet, and secluded. Somewhere where they could be alone, and Natalia could spend hours poring over every inch of Olivia's body. Where Olivia could return the favor tenfold.
It started out as a murmur, something unintelligible and barely audible. And Olivia, to her credit, never made a move, never stopped to ask her what she was prattling on about there on her side of the bed. But soon Natalia's voice rose. She wanted to share this place with Olivia.
"It's an old house. A villa or... something. I can smell the trees outside the window."
Olivia's form of encouragement was the best kind. She kept her hands moving, but settled her lips at the nape of Natalia's neck, kissing and nipping the skin there. When Olivia exhaled, it sent shivers through Natalia's entire body.
"We're alone... in bed. I still can't believe I've got you. Olivia Spencer... the woman who could've had anyone, any man or woman alive, chose me. The most powerful woman I've ever met, the smartest, savviest woman in Springfield, chose me. The help. And brought me here, to this quiet, romantic place. It feels like a fairy tale. It feels like one of Emma's movies, a royal in love with a commoner. It's like..."
"Cinderella? You do have beautiful feet," Olivia offered.
Natalia giggled. "Stop it."
She felt Olivia pause for a moment and look over at her. Natalia kept her eyes shut, and waited until Olivia settled in against her once again.
"We spent the whole night making love, and I'm tired. So tired. But you keep bringing me in for more. I can't get enough of you. I can't stop touching you. Your back. Your hips. Your calves-- oh God, all those years of wearing high heels did you so much good. I don't know how to tell you, though. I want to... tell you how beautiful you are, but I can't get the words out."
She felt Olivia sigh deeply against her.
"I love that you're a woman. I do. It's hard for me to say that, because I don't know what that means for everything that came before you, but the fact that you have... breasts and hips and... my God." Natalia felt the familiar pangs of nervousness creep over her, but concentrated hard on Olivia's touch to keep herself from retreating.
"You want to... come inside me, but I don't want that. Not this time. I want to have both my arms around you, and both of yours around me. Face to face, nose to nose. I want..." Natalia felt her voice falter, the last words coming out in a squeak. Olivia stopped her massage, letting her hand come to rest on Natalia's hip and pulled her in closer. She squeezed. Not hard, but firmly enough to steady the other woman's quaking.
"I roll you over onto your back, and lay on top of you. Straddle you. If I move just right... I'm pressed against you and... it feels so good. Not just... not in any one spot. Everywhere. Your breasts against mine. Your arms around the small of my back. I love being possessed by you. I lean down and wrap my arms around your shoulders, play with your hair with my fingers."
Olivia's breathing began to quicken, and so did her own. Natalia didn't dare move, or their night of not having sex would've quickly turned into something fast and rough.
"I'm..." For some reason the word was hard for Natalia to say. "Grinding with you. And I'm so wet against you, and you're so wet against me... It's hard not to close my eyes and let go, but I want to come with you. Staring into your eyes. Breathing in your space. I almost lose it when you lift your hips..."
"Natalia..." In her lover's mouth, her own name sounds like a plea for mercy. But saying the words out loud, letting the fantasy loose in the here and now, where Olivia is indeed alive and flesh and blood and bone against her, Natalia felt free. Free of the shackles of a year spent alone, worrying and wondering and refusing to plan for a future without Olivia in it. As it turned out, it would seem she was right all along.
"When you come, you say my name just like that. And I say yours. And, dear God, Olivia Spencer, I never want to be without you again. I love you so much. I love that you're a woman, and I'm a woman, and I love being your wife. Everything that entails. You're like heaven on earth, Olivia."
Natalia didn't stir, still afraid to trust herself. Neither did Olivia, but Natalia suspected her words had probably stunned her. She'd come out of her shell quite a bit under Olivia's watchful eye, a sexual apprenticeship that she often teased the younger woman about, but certain things Natalia did still had a way of rendering Olivia speechless. Natalia rather liked that about the dynamic they shared.
Finally, Natalia lifted one eyelid, and then the other. Carefully she turned around in Olivia's embrace, and faced the other woman.
"Wow. That was... wow."
Natalia scrunched her nose. "I'm still embarrassed."
"Don't..." Olivia breathed slowly. "Don't be. You're... wow. That was the best sex I've ever nothad."
She reached up and traced Olivia's jawline with her fingertip. "Thank you for being so patient."
"Thank you for not giving up on me. You're the reason for all this, you know. You traced everything to Greenway. You got him here. And you put it all together and brought the house of cards down on... him. You brought me home."
Natalia was grateful she didn't say his name. She didn't want that name in their bed. In fact, she didn't want that name anywhere near her anymore. She sighed.
"Dreaming of you and I... like that... as corny as it sounds, it kept me going. Gave me something to shoot for. That villa in the hills somewhere. It gave me hope."
"Ah, the thing with feathers." Olivia tapped on Natalia's nose.
Olivia's voice lilted with the words. "Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul..."
"Is this more Led Zeppelin?" Natalia frowned.
"Uh-uh," Olivia shook her head. "Led Zep for the boy, poetry for my lady. Dickinson."
Natalia watched as Olivia sat up a little further on the pillow and recited.
"Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul. And sings the tune, without the words, and never stops at all. And sweetest in the gale is heard, and sore must be the storm, that could abash the little bird, that kept so many warm. I've heard it in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea. Yet, never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me."
The younger woman smiled. "That's lovely."
"Like you." Olivia folded her fingers in between Natalia's, and rested their hands on her belly. "I'm working on the whole 'romance' thing, see?"
Now Natalia laughed fully. "I see."
"You're not, you know, common."
Natalia knitted her brow.
"In fact, you're decidedly uncommon."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Supposed to be," Olivia bent her lips into a sheepish smile. "And besides, I've been dethroned. Your prince has become a pauper."
"Hardly," Natalia snuggled closer to the other woman, burying her face in the soft skin of Olivia's neck. "You're a woman of many skills. Very well educated," she kissed the dimple between Olivia's collarbones. "Very experienced..."
"You better be talking about my job skills."
"I am." Her words ran direct contradiction to her hands and mouth, which she let roam across Olivia's body lazily. "And you've still got the hotel. If anyone can resurrect it from the dead, it's you. You always have a way of luring..." Her tongue flicked against an earlobe. "Investors."
Olivia groaned. "And what about Pierce? How am I supposed to find her? I feel... helpless. Helpless and, oddly, extremely aroused."
"You'll find her. Olivia Spencer always gets her woman."
"I'm glad you're so convinced." Olivia cleared her throat again. Natalia knew either her wife was suddenly afflicted with the flu, or she was having a disturbing effect on her. "Ah, can you...not do that thing with your... yeah that. Don't do it."
Natalia laughed, and while she hadn't meant for the laugh to sound seductive, it did. Her chest bounced against Olivia's, and the other woman's eyes went wide.
"And that too. Just... Maybe we should call it a night, or I'm going to--"
Natalia felt emboldened by the way Olivia responded to her touch. She felt what only hours ago she was afraid she'd lost. She felt wanted, needed, desired. Beautiful. Beneath the sheets she pulled Olivia's hand, pressed it between her own legs, and squeezed.
"--fucking lose my mind. Jesus, what're you doing?"
Her voice dropped an octave as she whispered. "Do you want me?"
Natalia could see the veins at Olivia's neck straining as she tried to speak. "You know I do."
"Do you want this?"
Olivia growled her reply, and Natalia stopped feeling ugly. How could she feel hesitant in the face of the other woman's obvious adoration? Even she could not talk herself out of it this time; the physical evidence alone was irrefutable. Olivia Spencer found her sexy just as she was.
"Even though I've had three kids and I'm not young anymore and--"
In one swift movement, Olivia turned and pulled Natalia underneath her, so she could look Natalia square in the face. Almost of their own volition, her legs spread apart to allow Olivia to lay between them.
"I want you because you've had my children. I want you because you're not young anymore. You've grown into something so much more than the help, Natalia. In this bed, we can play Cinderella or any fairy tale you want. But out there? You don't need some knight on a goddamn white horse. You're a smart, strong woman."
Olivia panted with the effort of trying to convince her. Natalia held her gaze, but reached between them to return Olivia's hand to its place at Natalia's center.
"I think I changed my mind," she whispered, watching Olivia's expression darken. "You're right. I am strong. I am beautiful." She used her own fingers to curl Olivia's down and then up inside of her. It felt different, fuller somehow, and Olivia's face showed she noticed it too. "Now make me weak."
Olivia was in the kitchen watching Natalia make them pancakes and bacon when she heard the front door slam. They both looked at each other, a bit puzzled, and somewhat concerned. But when Olivia handed Olly over to Natalia to go check the living room, she plowed straight into a sprinting Emma.
All the air shot out of Olivia's lungs as the not-so-little-anymore girl leapt into her arms. "Emma! Oh my god, baby, I missed you so much!"
She held her tightly for as long as she could, trying to make out the muffled words as her daughter cried into her shoulder. She saw Phillip leaving Emma's suitcase near the door, and she motioned for him to join them.
"Hang on, Jellybean. Mom's gotta put you down," Olivia laughed. "Look at you, sweetheart! Forget Jellybean, I should call you Stringbean! You grew fifty feet!"
Emma wiped at her eyes. "Oh my gosh, Mom. I have so much to tell you! I couldn't wait to get home."
"We caught an earlier flight," Phillip waved hello as he entered the kitchen. "It's great to see you home, Olivia."
They shared a short embrace, and then Phillip leaned in to kiss Natalia on the cheek. "You did it, kid. You said you'd bring her home and you did."
The friendly exchanged was not lost on on Olivia. "You two get close while I was gone?"
"Let's just say your pool of supporters was small enough. It was hard to avoid each other." Natalia smiled at Phillip.
Olivia rolled her eyes. "I knew half those bastards were lying to my face when I saw them... ah, forget it. C'mere, 'Bean! Come in the living room and fill me in."
Emma hopped up and kissed Olly and Natalia first, then followed Olivia into the other room. She could hear Phillip and Natalia setting the table and making more pancakes as her little girl sat down on the couch next to her.
"My god, Emma... I'm so happy to see you. I was so lonely without you..."
Emma leaned into her mother's space, finding a comfortable spot to rest her head in Olivia's lap. "Me too, Mom. Daddy won't tell me... is everything okay? What happened?"
Olivia sighed. She knew Emma would have a ton of questions, but she was just so relieved that she wasn't mad at her that she hadn't really stopped to think of how to answer them.
"Well, 'Bean... mostly everything's okay. Still some stuff we have to work out. But don't let it worry you. I'm here to stay, and that's all that matters."
Emma sat up and looked at her mother skeptically. "I'm going to be twelve, Mom. You don't have to sugarcoat it for me."
Olivia burst with laughter. "Oh really?"
"Really. I know you didn't hurt Pierce. Does everyone else know that now?"
"So then who did? Who did it? I mean, I never believed... well... sometimes I got a little nervous that maybe you'd done it, and that's why you left. But... not really. Not in my heart. In my heart I knew my mom would never do anything like that."
The young girl certainly had gotten older. Olivia supposed all parents felt this way when their kids entered adolescence, but most had day-to-day interaction to gradually get used to it. Olivia felt like Emma had grown overnight. It was exhilarating, even if a bit unnerving.
"First of all, baby... I want to say thank you. Can I do that? Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for knowing... I would never leave you if it wasn't absolutely necessary. I know in the past I've let you down."
Emma chewed her lip. "Mama says when you decide to forgive somebody, you gotta commit to it. I think that means... I think that's how come I didn't get so upset this time."
This time. Olivia hated hearing those words, but she was relieved when they didn't immediately spark feelings of guilt and inadequacy and failure. She'd made mistakes. Her eleven year old daughter could forgive her, so shouldn't she just forgive herself?
"That's very good advice Natalia's given you. Takes some adults years to master. I'm glad to see you're so far ahead of the curve."
Her daughter huffed a little bit and shook her shoulders. "Soooo, are you going to tell me? Who... hurt Pierce? And is it true? Is it true she's somewhere alive? If it is, you know we have to find her, don't you Mom? We have to!"
There was the little girl Olivia remembered. Talking a mile a minute and impishly impatient.
"This one's a little tough, Em. It's... a pretty grown-up situation."
"Mom," Emma put her hand on Olivia's knee. She was really too much. "If you don't tell me, I'm just going to google it."
Olivia considered her daughter for a second. She scratched at the bridge of her nose. "So that's how it works, is it? You're now officially an adult? Just like that?"
Emma just shrugged.
"Um, okay... Now I don't want to scare you, because this man was pretty close to us at one time. Close to all of us. To Natalia, to Rafe... but he's in jail now, and he won't be able to hurt anyone anymore."
How she was supposed to tell her that the man she once referred to as 'Uncle Frank' nearly murdered someone weighed heavily on Olivia. Of course the little girl was right, she would find out sooner or later, but it didn't make it any easier. She cupped Emma's face with her hands.
"Frank, honey. Frank is the one who hurt Pierce."
Tears welled in her daughter's eyes, and she shook her head. "But... but he's a..."
"I know sweetie. I know." Emma could age a hundred years and still look like a baby to Olivia when she cried. "But, he... he did the right thing, Emma. He confessed to his crimes and can't hurt anyone else."
As much as she despised the man, she had to soften the blow somehow. No sense pointing out that he'd only confessed after he was assuredly going to prison anyway.
Emma clambered onto her mother's lap and wrapped her arms around Olivia's neck. "I love you, Mommy. I really, really love you. I'm sorry about Pierce."
Olivia heaved with her own tears. "It's okay, Emma. We're going to do our best to find her, alright? We'll search everywhere if we have to."
She closed her eyes. Olivia remembered what she'd said to Natalia about promises, broken promises, and a world full of things she finally realized she couldn't control. She pulled Emma in tighter.
"I promise we'll try our hardest, Em." It was the best she could do.
Emma sucked up her stuffy nose and rubbed at her eyes. She tilted her head as she observed Olivia.
"You look super cute with blonde hair, Mommy."
Olivia laughed. "Why thank you. I thought it was a good time for a change."
"Can I dye my hair blonde? Angelica from dance troupe got highlights this summer."
"Not a chance in hell, Emma. Seriously. No. Now let's go inside and get some pancakes. I want to hear every single thing I missed."
"Mommy, will you please braid my ponytail? You said you would."
It was Emma's first day back at school from summer break. The last few days of summer had been amazing for Olivia, reconnecting with Emma, getting her life back to some semblance of normalcy. She'd been dedicating her days to trying to find Pierce, following up leads with phone calls and emails and anything she could do to try and track down her friend. But today she was scheduled to have lunch with an old contact of hers, a publishing bigwig who frequented the Beacon. She wanted to discuss a book deal with Olivia. For her part, Olivia hadn't yet mentioned that detail to Natalia, unsure of how she would respond to the idea of airing the last year and half's worth of drama to the entire world. Besides, it was a long shot anyway. But a long shot was better than no shot, as Olivia couldn't quite handle being a housewife for too much longer.
"Mom!" Emma prodded her out of her thoughts.
"Yes, sweetie, of course. But you gotta give me a second. Olly is just about to call me 'mommy'."
Natalia, bless her heart, had been reciting two names to the boy for the past several months. She became 'Ma' and a picture of Olivia stood in for 'Mommy.' Trouble was, Oliver was still too young to make the connection: he consistently referred to the picture as mommy, while staring blankly at the flesh and blood version.
She gently pulled his hand, full of Cheerios, away from his mouth. "Mommy. Come on... I know you want to. Mom-my."
Oliver wrestled with her mightily in the high chair, adamant about getting the cereal in his mouth.
"You're worse than Jackie with the eating, kiddo. Go ahead," she relented with a smile.
"Pup-pup," Olly squeaked at the mention of the dog's name.
Emma slapped her hands over her mouth to stifle a laugh.
"I get no respect in this house!" Olivia bemoaned, leaving Olly's side to braid Emma's hair while she finished her breakfast.
"Who doesn't respect you?" Natalia sashayed into the kitchen, looking stunning in a simple black suit. Olivia missed work, but the role reversal wasn't all bad. At least she got to see Natalia in heels and a jacket on the regular.
Olivia kissed her cheek as she strode by. "Your son."
"Ma!" he yelled, as if on cue.
"Hey bubba," Natalia greeted him with a kiss on the crown of his head. "I see what you mean." She smiled at the other woman, changing the subject. "You sure you don't want to take the car today to your lunch? You could drop me off at work."
Olivia groaned and slumped into a chair at the table. "No, I'll just take a cab. But we have gotto get another car." Olivia was having trouble adjusting to life on a meager budget. That made today's meeting all the more important. It would be a while before the Beacon was righted, if it could be saved at all. But the publicity from all that had happened didn't hurt; suddenly, people wanted to stay at the hotel, and Olivia wasn't about to turn them away. She knew a thing or two about striking while the iron was hot.
"Mmm, do you think that's wise?" Natalia asked over half of a buttered bagel.
Olivia scowled. The deferral was just a nod to Olivia's pride. They both already knew the answer.
"No, probably not."
Natalia looked at her sympathetically. Her brown eyes dipped at the corners. "Soon, sweetheart."
The blonde woman waved her off with a playful swat. Breakfast was unceremoniously interrupted by the honking of the school bus outside, and Emma scurried out her chair and dropped her bowl into the sink.
"Love you guys," Emma hugged them both around the neck before she ran off.
"I'll walk out with you," Natalia stood up in a hurry and grabbed her purse, squeezing Olivia's hand as she passed. "Call me. Let me know how it goes."
"Will do." Olivia sat, looking glumly at the now-empty table. Oliver happily crunched on the last remnants of cereal in front of him. "Just you and me till lunch I guess, Junior."
Her son looked at her, then down at his own chubby little hands, then back up at her. "Maaa.." Then he smiled, baring his itty-bitty teeth. "Eeee!"
Olivia shot up from the chair, and slapped her hands together. "Yes! Mommy!"
He kept repeating it, over and over, encouraged by Olivia's cheering and clapping. Olivia didn't stop until she was out of breath, and sat back down in the chair. She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Of course you realize... they're never going to believe me."
Stephanie Zhu was definitely a woman who didn't beat around the bush.
"It's got all the makings of bestselling fiction, except it's true. Money, power, blackmail. Good guys gone bad, the antihero winning out in the end. We can't lose."
Olivia frowned before taking a sip of her sparkling water. "Antihero? Is that me?"
"In a word? Yeah. You're no saint. That's what makes it so damn good."
"The feds declined to file any charges against me, Steph. Those days are long gone."
The striking beauty smiled conspiratorially. "You played hardball back in the day, Olivia. That's enough to qualify."
"Your wife. Natalia... she's not going to go for it, is she?"
"Would you?" Olivia raised an eyebrow.
Stephanie tapped a finger to her lip. "For the right price, hell yes I would."
"You don't even know if I can string two sentences together. Doesn't--"
A raised hand forestalled Olivia. "You'll have a co-writer. And besides, I saw the freelance stuff you did for those online publications. You can definitely write."
"I'll have to talk to Natalia about it." Olivia smoothed her fingers across the white linen tablecloth. "And Pierce... I mean... I can't just... I have to find her first."
Stephanie leaned in across the table. "I hear you. In fact, finding Pierce is integral to the story. If we want--"
"The story?" Olivia's voice rose sharply. "How about, finding Pierce is integral to my life? To my family."
"I'm sorry," Stephanie sat back, her eyes downward. "You're right. I'm just a little worked up. Nowadays, time is of the essence. Gotta get the book out while people still give a damn. Otherwise, you're old news."
"I know, I know," the blonde woman swept her hair back across her shoulders. "Give me a week. I do want to do this, but I wanna do it right. I just need some time to sit on it."
Stephanie nodded. "A week it is. I'll have a more concrete number for you by then, too. What your advance will be, all the details."
They finished their meal catching up on mundane details, and when she finished her chicken caesar salad, Stephanie explained politely that she had another client to meet shortly. She picked up the tab and left Olivia alone at the table for the second time that day.
"Don't look so sad, you're the toast of the town."
Olivia looked up to find Doris and Doris's martini heading towards her table.
"You allowed to drink on city time?"
Doris scoffed. "I'm allowed to do whatever I want. I'm the mayor."
Olivia sat back and folded her arms across her chest as Doris took Stephanie's vacated seat. "You still having trouble with Blake?"
"What? No. Things are fine."
Now Olivia snorted. "Yeah, they seem fine." She pointed her chin towards the drink in the mayor's hand.
"Don't go all Mormon on me now, Spencer. Just because you're reformed doesn't mean we all have to be. My last name is Wolfe. Remember that." She pointed a finger at Olivia, snapping her teeth with a mischievous grin. "Wolfe. Doris Wolfe."
Olivia knew better than to say anything. Doris was saying it all, plain as day.
"Oh fuck, alright, we keep fighting."
"Every goddamn thing. I don't know."
Olivia smiled. "And that's where all this Wolfe/wolf bullshit is coming from? She trying to domesticate you?"
"Who knows. And you know who I blame? I blame you. You and that damn Patron Saint of All Things Wonderful woman of yours. And the kid, with his dimples and that baby smell that makes normal women go crazy."
Doris nodded vigorously as she sipped. "Yes. Normal. You know, women that aren't like you and I. Maternal, gooey, lovey-dovey women. Ugh."
Olivia knew what Doris meant, but couldn't stop herself from goading her. "What? I'm very maternal. I love children."
"You love your kids. I love my kid too. But other people's children? We're not the type to lose our shit over some baby pictures and a smelly diaper. Get on with that crap."
She had a point. "Okay, okay. Not sure I follow you though. Are you saying Blake wants to have kids with you?"
Vodka threatened to shoot from Doris's mouth. "No, dear God no. But she is all about commitment all of a sudden. Which, I don't get. I don't see you and Natalia traipsing down the aisle."
The thought gave Olivia pause. "Well... well, no but..." She cursed Doris for giving Olivia yet another thing to occupy her already busy mind. "We kind of are married. You know, papers and rings and whatnot."
"Papers and rings," Doris repeated. "That I could do. That's romantic enough for me. But I amnot putting on a dress and paying for a ceremony where hundreds of people I don't even like get to drink for free. Uh-uh."
Olivia frowned deeply. Was that all it was, papers and rings, that bound Olivia and Natalia together? Or was that all it was, period? That's all a "real" marriage was anyway. Some papers and the legal right to each other's worldly possessions.
Then Olivia imagined Natalia in a dress. A long, flowing wedding gown. Her caramel skin against the stark white fabric. Sure, she'd seen Natalia like that before, but in her mind's eye this time was different. Her smile would outshine the jewels around her neck. Diamonds dripping dangerously into her ample cleavage...
"Fuck," Olivia rubbed at the bridge of her nose.
"What's with you?" Doris waved to the waiter, and pointed to her now empty glass.
"You, that's what! I've already got a thousand things on my mind, and now you've got me thinking about a wedding?!"
Doris looked confused. "I didn't say we were getting married, Olivia. I said she wants to get married. That's--"
"I know, I know. But now you've got me thinking. After all I've put her through... Natalia deserves a wedding. A real one."
The mayor paused while the waiter placed another drink in front of her. Then she took a long sip, and a deep breath. "Number one? I'm just drunk enough not to care that you've managed to make my problems about you. Hell, a year without you and I almost miss your selfishness. And two..."
Olivia waited for Doris to finish. After a beat, she rattled the table with her hands. "And?!"
"Ah fuck, I forget number two." She pointed to Olivia's plate. "Are you going to finish that?"
When the cab pulled up the driveway to drop Olivia off, it didn't get very far. The farmhouse drive was filled with three cars, none of which she recognized. They had east coast license plates, and as she cautiously approached the house, she looked inside one of them. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a picture of a mostly naked woman that seemed to double as an air freshener. Olivia chuckled.
"Yeah, those tits are real. And I'm thirty four."
She was a bit apprehensive until she heard laughter coming from the backyard. The closer she got, the more she could hear. Cans snapping open. Young men. Three or four of them. And then a familiar voice.
"...motherfucker thinks he's shit hot.But I've seen him out on the course. Fucking soup sandwich, man ."
As she rounded the corner at the rear of the house, she saw them. Four young men, in various stages of standard military haircuts, including one Raphael Rivera.
"You kiss your mother with that mouth?" Olivia shouted over the din of their laughter.
Four heads spun around to meet her gaze, surprised at her voice.
"Oh shit, Olivia! Hey..." He put down his beer and spread his arms open wide, and Olivia found herself more than happy to walk into them. She hadn't seen Rafe in almost two years. Sure he smelled a little like beer and sweat, but his eyes sparkled and his once-skinny frame heaved with sheer mass. He looked good.
"Here she is, boys," Rafe leaned back from the embrace and waved an arm towards where his companions stood. "The Olivia Spencer. Cop-dodgin', rap-beatin'... this woman is straight upgangsta."
"I don't know about all that," Olivia smiled. "But it's good to see you too, Rafe. Who're your friends?"
Rafe laughed, the sound deep and lightly scratched. "Some guys from my unit." He pointed at them one-by-one. "Cantu, Grease, and Jameson."
"Like the whiskey," the last young man put out his hand and Olivia took it, amused.
"I'll remember that."
The lanky, sunburned boy next to him did the same. "McCombs, ma'am. Only the boys on base call me Grease. It's..." his southern drawl paused for a second, "real nice to meet you."
Olivia shook his hand, and noticed how young he looked. Couldn't be old enough to drink the beer he had in his hand, that's for sure.
A third hand jutted out to greet her. "Pleasure, ma'am."
She guessed from lack of introduction that the last one was Cantu, a dark-skinned, quiet-looking kid with jet black hair and hands the size of Christmas hams. She didn't shake them; they shook her.
"Good to meet you boys," she smiled once again, pushing a few strands of blonde hair back behind her ear. "Not that I'm not thrilled to see you Rafe but... does your mother know you're here?"
"I told her a few weeks ago we'd be stopping through on our way to Lake Michigan. We got some leave and rented a house up there for Labor Day weekend. She didn't tell you?"
Olivia shook her head, trying not to notice Grease staring at her, mouth agape.
"Huh. Well, I guess with everything going on..." Rafe seemed oddly understanding, just shrugging his shoulders and smiling at the miscommunication.
"Sure don't have moms as fine as you down in Georgia, ma'am," Grease broke in, looking like perhaps he hadn't meant to say that out loud.
Olivia lowered her sunglasses and winked at him. "Well that's sweet of you... Grease. But it sounds to me like maybe you boys have been cooped up a little too long on base."
"They keep us stacked butts to nuts over at Bragg, ma'am," he confessed rather breathlessly.
She had to laugh at the odd juxtaposition of such a crass phrase politely followed by such formality.
"Grease?! Man, shut the fuck up. This is why we never take you anywhere." Rafe smiled apologetically at Olivia. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it. But, I'm going to go inside," she looked at her watch. Four o'clock. "and call your mother. Do me a favor though? Keep that beer outside, and keep it reasonable. And for god's sake, warn them."
"About what?" Rafe shouted to her as she turned and headed for the back door of the farmhouse.
She spun around and grinned at him knowingly. "All the 'fuck' and the 'shit' and the beer and whatever... doesn't bother me at all. But Natalia?" She eyed the other three young men directly. "She will fucking strangle you with her rosary beads if you try to pull any of that in her house."
"I take back anything I ever said about the ballooning defense budget," Olivia leaned back in the lawn chair, flicking a few hamburger bun crumbs from her plate. "Judging by the four of you, it must take billions of tax dollars just to feed the entire Armed Forces. Never mind actually going to war."
Natalia had raced home, stopping by the market on the way home to pick up the roughly thirty pounds of meat the boys then promptly charred and ate. They laughed and teased each other, and if it weren't for the haircuts and the camo pants and their uniquely vile military lingo, they could've just as easily been four college guys heading for spring break. But instead, they put their lives on the line as part of their day job. It made Olivia proud and angry at the same time. It was confusing. She shook her head and just smiled at Rafe, who was obviously trying to put his mother at ease as they spoke privately a few feet away.
"She's grillin' him like them burgers he's busy burnin'," Grease noted, rather astutely.
"Pretty much." Olivia just shrugged.
"Is it true Rafe's mom brained the guy that tried to attack her? She doesn't look like she could swing a fly swatter."
Her eyes followed the gaze of the three young men as they focused on Natalia. Busy gesticulating wildly at an overwhelmed Rafe, her wife thankfully did not notice.
Olivia nodded. "She sure did. Let that be a lesson to you. Things aren't always what they seem."
"Hooah," Jameson grunted, followed by a low whistle. "Rafe's mama is Jane fuckin' Wayne, son."
"Hey now," Olivia tapped a nail on her glass of lemonade. "Eyes forward, boys. That's my wife you're talking about."
Cantu stood up to refill his plate, and he placed a giant hand on Olivia's shoulder, so softly she had to look up to make sure it was him. "It's alright, ma'am. No disrespect. What Jameson means is," he scowled at his battery mate, "that Miss Rivera's tough. That she can hold her own in a fight."
"Oh," Olivia slumped back into the chair. Cantu had a gentle way about him that belied his behemoth size. Basically the exact opposite of the skin-and-bones Grease, who talked big but barely cast a shadow. "Well in that case... yes. She is."
The four of them sat in the late afternoon sun, the boys silently chomping away on their burgers and hot dogs, their eyes still watching Rafe and Natalia. A breeze blew through the yard, and everyone held on tightly to their napkins and cups and paper plates. When it reached the mother and son, it pressed Natalia's skirt tightly to her backside, revealing the slope of the back of her legs, and the roundness atop them. Grease gasped audibly. Jameson let his sandwich fall from his hands.
Cantu tilted his chin towards Olivia. "Now I'd be offended."
The blonde nodded, and stood up, unnoticed until her hands slapped the back of both the young mens' shorn heads.
"Eat your food, fellas. Don't make me get rough."
When she had her back to them, Olivia allowed herself a smile. They were entertaining, that's for sure. She headed towards Natalia and Rafe, but felt her phone buzzing in her pocket.
"Miss Spencer? Miss Olivia Spencer? This is Edith Hildebrand, from Cheyenne, Wyoming..."
An odd greeting. "Okay. What can I help you with?"
"I'm calling about your friend. The one that went missing after your police chief shot her."
Olivia felt her face go red. "How did you get this number, Miss... what'd you say your last name was?"
"Hildebrand. Did a little snooping, on the Internet and such. I consider myself a little bit of a detective, you see. Least that's what my husband always says. Says I'm never satisfied with the answer right in front of me. Whatever that means. Anyway, you know I saw that tip line from the police department, but I watch the true crime channels. I know it'd be months before they got to me if I called. Probably think I was a quack anyhow."
Olivia tried to hide her impatience with the woman on the other end of the line. "Okay, okay. Well, what... exactly can I help you with?"
There was a guffaw, followed by a light snort. "More like I'm hoping I can help you, Miss Spencer. Real shame what happened with your friend and all. I saw the news reports. She was shot... in the head, right?"
The blonde winced. "Yes. Maybe it's better if I give you--"
"Gotta be her then. You see, I went to the mechanic couple weeks ago. Irv Wimbley's place. It's local, and he doesn't charge near what the dealers do. Anyway, normally it's just Irv, and that son of his that's not all there in the head. But I go in there, and a girl come out from underneath a Chevy. I remember thinking it was weird. I don't see too many lady mechanics, do you?" She didn't pause to let Olivia answer the question. "Shakes my hand, says her name is Pierce. Says she's the one workin' on my car."
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Olivia drew the attention of Natalia, who silently sidled up next to her and curled her hand in Olivia's. "Okay, ma'am but..."
"She looks kinda like the picture, but more important? She's got a scar, you see, Clear across the top of her head. A big, nasty thing. Fresh, too. Can't be more than a year old."
This piqued Olivia's interest. It would explain a lot. "Alright, well... do you remember anything she said to you that day? Maybe how long she'd been in town? Something like that?"
"Nah, we didn't really have much of a conversation, I'm afraid."
Olivia frowned, and Natalia looked up at her, her big brown eyes concerned. Olivia mouthed the words 'It's nothing.'
"She did have some kinda tattoo, though. On her arm. Some kind of... Shakespeare or somethin'. I've been wrackin' my brain trying to remember, Miss Spencer. I really think this is your friend we've got here in Wyoming."
Breathing deeply, Olivia felt her throat tremble. "Juliet? Like from 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
Natalia looked surprised to hear Pierce's sister's name, and she squeezed Olivia's hand. The blonde nodded, biting her lower lip. It was Pierce.
Tugging her long, blonde hair into a ponytail as she left the bathroom, Olivia stopped abruptly at the foot of the bed and brought her hands to her hips.
Natalia didn't turn around to look up at her. "I take it all that foot-stomping and pouting means you disapprove?"
Her wife was kneeling on the bedroom floor, packing a stack of shirts and jeans into Olivia's suitcase. After a moment, Natalia sat back on her heels and considered the collection, tossed out an oxford shirt and swapped it for a gray cardigan.
"I just don't like the idea of leaving you again so soon. I think we can find a way for you to come with me." Olivia let her hands fall to her side. "And I am not pouting."
From the floor, the other woman chuckled. "Then tuck your lip in before I bite it off."
There was a sucking sound as Olivia drew in the lip she hadn't even realized was bent into an unhappy pucker, and Natalia finally looked over her shoulder at the blonde.
Olivia dropped herself onto the edge of the bed, nudging Natalia's elbow with her bare toe like a child who wasn't getting enough attention. "But..."
"But nothing, Olivia." Natalia dropped a pair of socks into the suitcase and spun around until she was kneeling in front of Olivia near the bed. "The sooner you get out there, the better. And I can't take off work again."
"But you could--"
"And even if I could, darling..." Natalia was mocking her now, and despite herself, Olivia couldn't help but smile. "There's Emma, and Olly, and Jackie... it'll be faster if you just fly out yourself and bring her home."
"That's assuming she'll even want to." Olivia's chin fell, and she let it hang until she felt the nail of Natalia's index finger scrape the skin there, gentle and deliberate.
When she looked up, Natalia's eyes were sympathetic. "Whatever happens, happens. Besides, you've got a way of talking people into doing things they don't want to do."
"Such as?" Olivia cocked an eyebrow at Natalia's mischievous smile.
"Not going to give you the satisfaction."
The older woman leaned down to kiss Natalia's lips, but she backed away coyly.
"So you'll be a big girl and go without me then?"
Olivia groaned, weighed her options for a split second, then gave in. "Fine. But I'm not going to like it. I think I've spent enough time away from you to last the rest of our lives."
Natalia's face crumpled into near-tears. "Sometimes you can be so sweet."
They kissed briefly before Natalia tore herself away and returned to Olivia's suitcase, folding and re-folding each garment until they fit perfectly, like a puzzle.
"So what were you interrogating Rafe about earlier?" Olivia hopped off the bed and went to the bedroom door, listening to the murmur of the young men downstairs in the living room before shutting it with a click. As she spun around, her elbow went crashing into the dresser with a solid thud. "Ow, motherfucker!"
Thoroughly used to Olivia's taste in language by now, Natalia simply sighed. "And sometimes," she said more so to herself, "you can be downright disgusting."
"Sorry," Olivia grumbled, rubbing her elbow and eyeing the offending dresser with disdain. "So? Rafe?"
"It's not any one thing with him. It's everything. Redeployment, that money pit of a car he insisted on buying, a girl he keeps mentioning..."
"Wait, what?" Olivia perked up. "A girl? Rafe? Good for him. Thought he was too obsessed with guns and ammo these days to notice the opposite sex."
Olivia watched the other woman's cascading hair shake in disapproval. "She doesn't sound like a very good influence on him."
Creeping up behind her, Olivia knelt to the floor and encircled a still-folding Natalia with her arms. "Pot, meet kettle. Once upon a time you fell in love with a girl who was no good for you either."
Natalia beat back Olivia's roaming hands with a folded pair of trousers. "It just is. You be quiet."
Olivia had just begun to nibble on the flesh at the nape of Natalia's neck when Oliver started wailing in the other room.
"Impeccable timing, Junior," Olivia laughed into Natalia's ear.
Pressing the palms of her hands against the hardwood floor, Natalia moved to stand up, but Olivia held her firm with gentle pressure on her shoulders.
"I'll take care of him."
"I got it, sweetheart." Olivia patted her wife on the head. "If I'm gonna be gone for a few days, I wanna get some last minute kisses in anyway."
Olivia's ankles cracked as she padded across the bedroom floor, pausing when Natalia called out for her.
The room was softly lit and quiet, considering the boys watching late-night movies just one floor below. Natalia roped a length of her hair around one long, slender finger and smiled at her.
"I'll be in bed when you come back. Don't be too long. I need a few last minute..." She bit her lip and let her eyelids flutter slightly. "Kisses of my own."
Olivia felt her legs go wobbly, so she snapped them together, locking then unlocking her knees. She brought her hand up to her brow, just like the young soldiers had showed her this afternoon, and saluted the only woman she'd ever known that could make folding clothes so damned sexy. "Yes ma'am!"
She'd had to connect in Denver, and on such short notice even the most inconvenient of flights had cost Olivia nearly an arm and a leg. When she finally arrived in Cheyenne, it was already almost four-thirty in the afternoon. How it could take nearly a day to travel anywhere in the same hemisphere, Olivia simply could not comprehend. If this was par for the course when flying commercial, she decided then and there that she'd do whatever she had to to get rich again.
"Well, anything within reason," she snorted, enjoying her own humor alone in the rental car. "Lest we forget the lessons of the past."
She kept her eyes trained on the road ahead, a long stretch of highway that wound its way past an Air Force base which made her think of Rafe. True enough, he was in the Army, but those places all looked the same to her. She tried to imagine him on base, but the only reference she had to draw upon, really, was the movies. Was it like 'A Few Good Men'? What branch of the military had that been? Did it matter? She laughed out loud. Knowing those boys she'd left sleeping on the couch early that morning, limbs akimbo all over the couch and floor, still in their issued t-shirts, it mattered a hell of lot. Mattered more than she could comprehend.
What must Afghanistan be like? What must war be like? She knew enough to figure it was nothing like Cheyenne, Wyoming, all stretched out and open before her, unfamiliar but not at all frightening. Mountainous like Wyoming, maybe, but that's probably where the parallels ended. She'd traveled all of her life, seen most of the world. The year she spent running from Springfield had taken her all across the country, but a place like this? She'd have just driven on through without so much as a second thought. It wasn't that this place wasn't beautiful: it was, the vistas rising up beyond mundane things like the Wal-Mart warehouse and endless string of gas stations. But Olivia felt like she couldn't understand this part of the country. She couldn't understand anything as wide and vast and open and empty. Not scary, not like Afghanistan or Iraq, but lonely. That's what it looked like to her: lonely.
Maybe it was just her morose state of mind, the overcast skies and impending nightfall. Maybe she just missed Natalia. After all, the people looked happy here. The air smelled fresh and crisp, and as she turned off the highway giant swaths of green, dotted by horses and trees, greeted her. Couldn't be all bad. She rolled down the window for a bit, but quickly raised it. Olivia hadn't anticipated the cooler temperatures, but Natalia had. She smiled and looked in the rearview mirror at her carefully zipped bag in the backseat. When Natalia cared for someone, and she cared so deeply for so many it plain boggled Olivia's mind, the caring was an action verb. Neatly folded clothes, spanning whatever climes one might encounter, a bag of nutritious snacks. Bedsheets turned down so precisely they had a permanent crease in them. Breakfasts that almost never came out of a box. The kind of hand soap in the bathroom that she knew Olivia liked.
She wondered for a second what her love felt like from the other side. Was it tangible? Could Natalia hold it in her hand, point to it and hold it up for everyone to see? To say, "This is how Olivia Spencer loves me"? Olivia was aware, her love had its thorny, unpredictable, obstinate side. She frowned. That wasn't it, though, was it? She'd been working on her romance. For most of her life, Olivia Spencer was the one being romanced, and then even in the early days with Natalia she'd felt like it was at least a two-way street. Things changed, though, when Olivia's love too often meant hard times, difficult times, times when Natalia was either utterly and completely alone, or never had a moment to herself.
Olivia had vowed to step her game up, to make Natalia feel, viscerally and in abundance, that Olivia loved her. That she was beautiful. That she was the very sun in Olivia's universe, the star around which anything and everything else orbited. It was work, she couldn't lie, but if one thing about her hadn't changed, it was her love of learning new things, of studying something and becoming a master at it. Only now she was using her intense focus, her natural ability to adapt, for good instead of evil. Once upon a time, that very notion would've sent her into a fit of laughter. Not anymore.
Rounding a corner onto a narrow boulevard that she guessed served as the town's Main Street, Olivia considered that perhaps what she saw as lonely, other people saw as peaceful. Cheyenne was a small city, so it stood to reason that its suburbs would be small, too. Then again, everything looked tiny when it was dwarfed by the mountain ranges in the distance, and a sky that went on into eternity in each direction. Big Sky Country. Was that here? She couldn't remember. The Army, the Marines. Wyoming, Montana. It was all the same when you were a woman who assumed she'd seen it all, only to realize she cast just as minute a shadow as anyone else in this sleepy town.
When she saw the sign, faded red and white metal letters in cursive over the bay of garage doors, Olivia put on her blinker and straightened in her seat.
"That's enough of the moody musing, Spencer," she told herself. "Really."
Wimbley's was just as the woman on the phone had described it, a neat and orderly garage, if a bit antiquated. The gas pumps in the front looked like they would spout leaded gasoline if she tried them. Not that it made a difference, anyway, because the lights in the front office were off and the door locked. She stood in the late afternoon sun, hands on her hips, and waited.
What she was waiting for, exactly, Olivia hadn't a clue. Wasn't this what people of faith, people like Natalia, did when they were faced with an uncertain situation? Sure, Olivia had abandoned faith about ten years and two divorces ago, but maybe it wasn't too late to give it one last shot.
Her prayers, however nebulous they might've been, were answered when she heard the faint strings of "Stairway to Heaven" whistle through the air, seemingly from the garage doors to her left.
"Interesting choice," she mumbled aloud to no one.
The gravel beneath her feet crackled as she searched for another door, finding one on the side of the building near an air compressor that still hummed despite its disuse. She pushed it open with her foot, and peered inside.
Dust swirled in the air, and for a moment Olivia felt like she was back at the farmhouse, standing in the barn, contemplating another drink. It shook her, the thought of it, and she cleared her throat, more for herself than to announce her entrance.
The pair of legs that stuck out from beneath an old pickup truck stopped twitching. "Lucky for you, we're closed, ma'am. Don't do work on imports anyhow."
Olivia looked up at the ceiling, shook her head, and smiled. That was Pierce alright.
"What makes you think I drive an import?"
"Nobody with shoes that fancy drives a Chevy. But on the other hand," Pierce slid out from underneath the truck, and wiped at her face with the sleeve of her shirt. "With shoes like that, you're probably lost. Can I..."
Her words disappeared into the air like a fine mist. Pierce locked eyes with Olivia, hesitated for a moment, and then crawled to her feet.
Her tone was noticeably devoid of any emotion. Her ability to do that always did drive Olivia crazy.
"It's really you," Olivia spoke breathlessly, unable to stop herself from crossing the garage floor and throwing her arms around the other woman. Pierce smelled like engine oil and oranges. When she squeezed, though, she didn't feel her squeeze back. After a beat, Olivia dropped her arms back to her sides and stepped away.
"I can't believe it's really you. I've been... searching for you."
Pierce pulled an old rag from the open hood of the truck and rubbed her hands against it. "Well, you found me."
The silence thick between them, Olivia took her first long look at her friend. Her face was dirty, smudged with grease and sweat from her efforts, and her eyes looked dark and tired. A thick, brown scar marred the surface of her skin, snaking angrily from the center of her forehead and vanishing somewhere near the crown of her head that Olivia could not see. It divided her hair like severe part, an inch wide and barren, splitting the sloppily shorn locks into two separate halves.
Pierce just shrugged. "Indeed."
There were tiny speckles on her skin, deep indentations that looked like the chicken pox scars that peppered Emma's shoulders. Olivia swallowed mouthful of dry, dusty air.
"I don't know what to say." Olivia could feel her eyes stinging.
"That makes two of us."
Pierce's practiced ambivalence was designed to infuriate Olivia, this much she could tell, but she pressed on, despite genuinely having no idea what she could possibly say. So much for rehearsing on the flight up here.
"I'm so glad you're alive. I thought... we all thought..."
"Define alive." Now there was a tinge of bitterness.
"You hate me." It wasn't a question.
Pierce tossed the rag onto a workbench and shuffled her feet. Olivia recognized the body language; hell, she'd perfected it. Pierce was disgusted. But not with Olivia. With herself.
Olivia attempted a smile. "Well, that's something."
"Stop staring at me, alright? Drives me fucking crazy."
Olivia averted her glance, not bothering to make it look nonchalant. She stepped over to the workbench and fingered some of the rubber belts that hung from a pegboard. "I didn't know you were a mechanic."
"I'm not. Not really, anyway. Never got my certification, if that's what you mean." The young woman sighed. "But Irv's a good guy, plus I work cheap. Off the books."
"How long... have you been here?"
Olivia could hear Pierce scratching at the stubble of brown hair on her head. What was left of it anyway. "Three... three months I guess. Something like that."
"You live in town?"
At this, Pierce laughed. "You could say that."
Olivia felt the metal end of a wrench tap her on the shoulder, and her eyes followed it to a door in the back of the garage.
"Boss lets me stay here. For now."
"Here? You stay here?" Olivia tried to keep the disbelief from her voice, but it was hard. The garage smelled like chemicals and her fingers managed to freeze in the five minutes since she walked in.
"Well, it doesn't have HBO, but it does the job."
Olivia had to look at her, had to look her friend in the eye, no matter how much it discomfited her. She was relieved when Pierce didn't look away.
"I'm so sorry, Pierce. This is all my fault."
"My memory ain't what it used to be, Olivia. But I quit blaming you a long time ago. Seem to recall Frank Cooper pulling the trigger that night. Not you."
"It was my arrogance. My... pride. I just couldn't control myself. I should've listened to you."
Pierce took a deep breath and rolled her palms flat against the back of her head. Back and forth, over that scar as if she were searching it for answers.
"Ever the imaginative one, weren't you, Spence? Where was that imagination when you were mouthing off to Cooper, spreading your feathers like some kind of deranged peacock?"
Olivia looked at the floor. "Guess some lessons just take longer to learn than others."
"Don't worry about it. I've moved on. Like I said... I don't hate you anymore. No sense in you hating yourself."
"I could say the same about you, couldn't I?" Tears fell from Olivia's eyes, and she didn't try to stop them. "You look like you've beat yourself up pretty bad. What're you doing out here? Come home."
Pierce's laugh was humorless. "I tried to go home, Olivia."
"You did? To Springfield? When?"
The young woman shook her head. "Not to Springfield. Not after what happened. That hack doctor that Frank Cooper dragged me off to? That fucking Frankenstein, sewing up bullet holes for the Mafia and shooting botox into brokedown housewives? Kept me pumped up full of drugs so I didn't ask any questions. I don't know what the fuck he planned on doing with me once I was well enough to get off that shit. That's why I ran away. I was fucked up, sure, but more fucked up from all the shit he gave me than from any damn gunshot wounds."
Pierce walked over to a rolling stool with a torn leather seat and plopped down.
"And you know me, Olivia. You know how it is. Since I got clean, I never took a damn aspirinout of fear I'd like it too much. Forget it, man. Morphine, oxy, you name it. I was really messed up when I got out of there. So I looked up my parents. Found them in Ohio someplace. They got a big, nice house, even had themselves some new kids. You believe that? They gotnew kids. Like the old ones never even happened."
Again Olivia swallowed, and again she found no recourse. Her throat was dry and she dared not speak, for fear the words would fail her.
"Well," Pierce rolled her eyes. "They must've took one look at me..." She gestured to her face, "and decided I was too much trouble. So my dad pushes forty bucks into my hand and slams the door in my face. That's home for ya. That's home."
"We..." Olivia started, but Pierce wasn't finished.
"So, I figured... why just fall off the wagon when you set the fucking thing up in flames, you know? Took that forty, plus a few other dollars I got selling off everything I could steal out of that doctor's office, and went to town." She scratched absently at the crook of her elbow, and Olivia understood. The lines there were still faintly visible.
"That's when I hated you the most. I was too fucked up to know what was going on with you, how you ran out of town too and all that. I guess I could've called. I don't know. I wasn't exactly in my right mind."
"But you are now."
"Yeah," Pierce spread her arms wide. "King of the castle, am I right? Turns out I don't make a very good junkie, either. Didn't have the stomach for the things I used to do back in the day. Plus this fucking tattoo every day, staring me in the face." She held out her arm. Her sister's name in neat black script. The tattoo Olivia had paid for, as a gift to her friend. It was so beautiful, and so simple, even Natalia had loved it when she saw it. And that was saying something.
"That tattoo is the reason I found you." Olivia smiled.
"Lucky fucking me." Her words lacked bite; for the first time in over a year, Olivia saw her friend genuinely smile.
"I'm sorry, still. Everything I touch turns to shit, Pierce. I guess I should've warned you."
She waved a hand dismissively through the air. "Not everything. Still got that little betty at home, don't you?"
Olivia blushed a little. "Yeah. She's the reason for all this... she never quit."
"She's stupid like that."
They shared a lingering smile, but Olivia felt deep in the pit of her soul a sadness. Pierce was not going to follow her home to Springfield.
"There's always a place for you, you know. With me and Natalia, Emma and Jackie... and Olly."
"No shit? Fool went and named the kid after you?"
"Not just me."
Pierce curled her lip. "Who else?"
This time Olivia swallowed and her tongue didn't feel so swollen, so useless. "Oliver Pierce Rivera-Spencer."
It was Pierce's turn to be speechless. She looked both honored and amused.
"Even if you don't come back for me, Pierce. You should come back for her. At least just let her see you. Natalia... she spent a year mourning you, P. She loves you."
"And you?" Pierce's voice cracked.
Olivia cocked an eyebrow at the figure before her, slumped on the stool, her hands dangling over her knees. "Love is a strong word. Let's not get crazy."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'm not saying it either."
Olivia put out her hand. "If you do decide to come back, you know where to find us."
Olivia wondered if that name would ever stop sounding like nails on a chalkboard.
"He got thirty three years. Lawyers say he'll probably do twenty, twenty five. That's if he survives in prison."
Pierce kicked at the ground. "That guy's a bag of smashed asshole."
"One way to put it."
"I guess we're just lucky he's such a bad shot, huh?" Pierce gave Olivia a half-smile, and pulled her into a brief embrace.
"Guess we are."
When Olivia got home the next day, she was surprised to see Natalia's car in the driveway. She checked her watch, then tried to brush off the tingle of fear that traveled up her spine as she threw the front door open. Natalia should have been at work.
"Natalia?" she shouted as she moved to the kitchen. No one there.
"Natalia?" she tried again, this time up the stairs.
She couldn't be sure, but Olivia thought she heard a low groan coming from the bedroom. Taking the stairs two at a time, she shed her purse and heels along the way. Memories, bad memories, flooded her. As soon as she reached the hallway, her eyes scanned the other doors. No sign of anyone, not Emma, not Oliver, not an intruder. The door to their bedroom was slightly ajar, so Olivia peeked in, holding her breath.
All she could make out underneath a pile of mismatched blankets was one pair of olive-toned feet, hanging limply at the ankles from the side of the bed.
"Natalia?" she repeated once more, softly this time.
Another groan, and a twitch of one foot.
Olivia unbuttoned her shirt at the cuffs, and rolled up the sleeves. She sat gingerly on the edge of the bed closest to Natalia, and peeled back the blankets, one layer at a time. As she got closer to her wife's body beneath, the sheets got hotter and hotter, moist with Natalia's sweat. Sweeping away dark brown locks matted to her forehead, Olivia finally found her.
Olivia frowned, her forehead creasing with concern. "I can see that. Should I..." She looked around the room and found rumpled tissues, several empty glasses on the nightstand, and a plastic bucket within arm's reach of the bed. "Call the CDC?" Peering into the bucket cautiously, she found it empty. "Thank god," she murmured.
Natalia raised her head a bit. "I heard that."
The younger woman shifted, slowly, until she was sitting upright. Olivia stuffed an extra pillow behind Natalia in an attempt to make her more comfortable, but judging by the look on her face, there was no way she was.
"As soon as you left, it hit me. The flu-- uh oh."
And in a flash, the bucket was no longer empty. Olivia grit her teeth, fighting her natural reaction to join right in and revisit her breakfast. Olivia could stand a lot of things-- blood, bullet wounds, broken limbs-- but she couldn't even watch ER reruns without closing her eyes every time someone threw up.
Natalia knew this, and endearingly tried to downplay it the moment she finished. Sitting up, she brought her hand to her mouth.
"Woops. Sorry. I know you hate that."
A smile crept across Olivia's lips. "S'ok. You sure that's the flu, though? I thought the flu was like... coughing, fever, stuffy nose. That?" She gestured with her shoulder to the bucket. "That's like... someone-left-the-milk-out-on-the-window-sill stuff."
"Oh God, please don't say that," Natalia winced and leaned back over, and Olivia thrust the bucket in front of her just in time. Her eyes didn't open until Natalia was through.
"Ohh, my. Wow. Okay."
Exhausted, Natalia's body just sort of hung there, so Olivia repositioned herself, wrapped her arms underneath Natalia's, and folded the other woman back onto the bed, safely beneath the covers.
"Stay right there, okay? I'm gonna... take care of this, and I'll be right back. Okay?"
Olivia waited for a response, then realized how ridiculous she sounded.
"Right, you're not going anywhere. Obviously. Be right back."
It only took her a few minutes downstairs, because Olivia had no intention of keeping that bucket. Instead she took the entire thing, contents and all, and tied it tightly in a black plastic trash bag, set it outside, and grabbed the trash bin from the laundry room as a replacement.
"Next trip to the hardware store?" she joked to herself. "Buckets."
Back in the bedroom, she set a glass of water on the side table and rested her hand on Natalia's forehead. The other woman was burning up, unquestionably feverish, with skin as dull as Olivia could ever remember seeing it.
"I'm so miserable," Natalia squeaked.
"I know, sweetheart. I'm sorry. But I'm here now. I'll take care of you."
Brown eyes appeared above the blue sheets. "You will?"
Olivia laughed. "Of course."
"Even though I'm gross?"
"Even though you're gross."
They were silent for a few minutes while Olivia changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. It was still warm in Springfield, unlike Wyoming, and Natalia had turned off the air conditioning in an attempt to sweat out her fever.
Natalia's voice sounded tiny beneath the blankets.
"So, what?" Olivia asked, looking over her shoulder as she pulled her hair up. "I don't want you thinking about anything. Just be quiet and close your eyes for a little while."
"You're about as delicate as a hammer, Olivia."
The older woman turned around and scowled at the fragile figure in bed, but couldn't hold it for very long before she was smiling again.
"And you're a terrible patient."
Natalia patted the spot next to her on the mattress, still hiding most of her face beneath the sheets.
"You want to know how it went with Pierce?"
Olivia sighed. "It went. I don't know. She's okay. It's her, alright, and she's okay."
"Was she... happy to see you?"
"Not exactly. But... not angry, either."
"Oh, Olivia," Natalia started to roll over but then stopped, held her stomach for a beat, then slumped back. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Really. Maybe with time..."
For a while Olivia just sat there, stroking Natalia's hair, thinking. When she thought Natalia had finally fallen asleep, she looked over at her.
"Hey. Why are you crying?"
Natalia took a deep, quivering breath. "Just wondering if we're ever going to be whole again. If there's ever not going to be something missing."
Olivia moved in closer to curl her body against Natalia. "We are whole. We've got everyone, everything, right here." She held her hand against Natalia's heart.
Soon Natalia's breathing slowed, and by the time Olivia slipped out of bed, she had indeed fallen asleep.
Two days later, Natalia was still laid up, doing battle with the flu that apparently was winding its way through Springfield. Olivia had done everything short of donning a full biohazard suit, loathe as she was to getting sick. She was throwing in some laundry, Natalia's germy pajamas and sheets, and cranking the water temperature up to its highest setting, when her cell phone rang.
"Olivia darling. Any progress?"
It was Stephanie Zhu, from the publishing house.
"Yes and no."
On the other end of the line, the woman laughed. "You're writing a book, Olivia. That means even bad news can be good news."
"Possibly writing a book. That's the not-so-good news. Haven't spoken to Natalia about it yet."
"I can't urge you enough not to drag your feet on this, Olivia. That is, if you really want to do it."
Olivia let the door to the washing machine fall shut. "Well the good news is I found Pierce. So the foot-dragging was not all for naught."
Stephanie was talking excitedly, but Olivia was focused on Emma, who'd just scampered in to let Olivia know that Oliver was crying in the living room. Something about his diaper and spilled orange juice and...
Then the dog started to bark outside.
"Dammit Jackie, put a sock in it!" Olivia shouted, shielding the phone's receiver with her hand. "I'll be right in, Emma."
The blonde cradled the phone against her shoulder, and tried to escape the mess of the laundry room. She wasn't sure, but guessed it wasn't nearly this strewn with clothes and random junk when Natalia was on duty. Two days and the house could really get out of control, it seemed. She hopped on one foot, shaking the other to try and dislodge a pair of Emma's pants that had gotten stuck around her ankle.
"Christ. Hang on, Steph." Olivia finally escaped the laundry room, halfway falling out the door into the kitchen before slamming it shut. With Olly now into a full wail in the other room, and the dog barking and scratching at the back door, Olivia closed her eyes and took a second to compose herself. When she opened them, she spotted a picture on the refrigerator door.
Emma must've taken it, slightly crooked and composed in that way that only kids see the world, but it was beautiful. Natalia was holding Oliver in one arm, walking Jack on leash with the other, looking utterly overwhelmed but beaming nonetheless. In that moment, Olivia fell in love with her wife all over again. If there was a hero of this sordid tale they called their life, Olivia realized, she herself wasn't it. It was the woman in the photo who raised a boy into a man all on her own, then endeavored to do it all over again when Olivia disappeared. It was the woman who smiled when she had no business doing so, and held on when everyone else had let go.
"I've got an idea, Steph. I'm gonna have to call you back."
"Don't think I don't know why you're up here."
Olivia looked innocently at Natalia, who was looking slightly better but that wasn't saying much.
"What? I thought you could use a glass of OJ and maybe a little pillow fluff."
Natalia clucked her tongue. "Bull. You're hiding."
"From the kids. I heard the screams."
"Ah, sorry 'bout that. I was on the phone... I tried to get to Olly before he woke you. Finally got him down for a nap."
"I meant your screams." The corner of Natalia's mouth ticked upward. "A Saturday afternoon with two bored kids. Not your specialty."
Olivia shrugged. "Nothing a little Benadryl-laced pie couldn't handle."
"I love when you joke about drugging our children."
"No, seriously. I've got it under control. Emma's friend what's-her-name called. I'm gonna bring her over there in a few so they can play, or do each other's nails, or make Myspace pages I will eventually have to go in and delete."
"She's getting so big." Natalia sat up and began pulling her hair back into a ponytail when Olivia came over for the assist.
"Let me." Olivia sighed, running her fingers through Natalia's smooth dark hair. "Too big if you ask me. I think she's going to ask us for a new computer for her birthday. She's been not-so-subtly dropping hints that," Olivia notched her voice into a squeal, "'All the cool kids have Macs now!' As though she's trading in math homework for some huge graphic design project or something."
Natalia's shoulders slumped. "Oh, Olivia. I hate to disappoint her. But you know we can't afford that right now. I can't even believe Cynthia's giving me all these sick days. Considering I've missed work more in the last two months than I have in my entire life."
"That's... kinda something I wanted to talk to you about. I was on the phone with a friend of mine... a publisher."
The younger woman looked confused. "Okay?"
"I've gotten an offer. To write a book. It'll pay. Substantially."
"A book about what?"
Olivia chewed her lip. Quirked an eyebrow. Hoped Natalia wouldn't freak.
"Oh no. No way. No."
"Well let me finish--"
Natalia straightened up, trying her best to look in control, wrapped up in the bedsheets at three in the afternoon, wearing a tank top two sizes too big and surrounded by the detritus of a waning cold. "I don't care how much it pays, Olivia. You are not rehashing our family's darkest hours for all the world to enjoy. Sensationalizing something so deeply painful. I think that's just horrible. Horrible. And a... a violation!" Natalia was really getting going now. "Shame on your friend for even suggesting it."
"I completely agree." Olivia waited, her face placid.
"--and not just disgusting to me, what about Pierce? What about--- wait... what?"
"I said I completely agree. That's why I'm going to call Stephanie right back and tell her there is no way I'm writing a book about Bad-Ass Olivia Motherfucking Spencer and Her String of Very Bad Choices."
"Oh. Well then why..."
"I'm going to call her right back," Olivia took Natalia's hands and cupped them with her own. "I'm going to call her back and tell her I'm writing a book about family. About motherhood. About a woman of faith and patience. A woman who loved unconditionally and never gave up."
Natalia gave a placating grin. "So it's fiction then? Because, Olivia, I love you, but let's be honest. No one would confuse you for--"
"What are you, high? Not me, Natalia! You!" Olivia clenched her hands tightly over the other woman's. "You. I want to write about you. Your story... it's... inspirational. All the things you've overcome. The strength of your spirit... everything. It's no John Grisham but I think it's a story worth telling."
The younger woman looked down at their intertwined hands. "I don't know, Olivia. I'm flattered, really I am. And you're wonderful for even suggesting it but..." Natalia stopped and raised her eyes to meet Olivia's.
"You were thrown out of your house at sixteen. You raised a son all on your own. You came to this town and saved the life of your sworn enemy." Then Olivia smiled. "You lost your mind and fell in love with that sworn enemy. You stuck with that love through the loss of a child, alcoholism, murder--"
"Not exactly," Olivia repeated. "But you get the idea. Hell, if I don't write it, I'm afraid someone else will. You can't make this shit up!"
"Ha ha," Natalia looked humorless.
"Let me do this, Natalia. With your help, of course. Let me show the world the amazing woman you vehemently deny being. You humble Catholic, you."
Olivia grinned from ear-to-ear, but Natalia eyed her warily.
"You think anyone would even buy it?"
"I have three words for you, Natalia: Oprah's. Book. Club. We're a lock."
After five grueling days, the flu that nearly paralyzed Natalia finally broke. Olivia knew her wife was feeling better when, after seeing the kids off for the day, Natalia asked Olivia to draw her a bath.
"This isn't fair, you know," Olivia glanced over her shoulder at the younger woman who was disrobing as Olivia filled the tub. "All lookey, no touchey."
Natalia rested a hand on Olivia's shoulder to steady herself as she dipped a single toe in. The view it provided the older woman was, to say the least, distracting.
"Mind out of the gutter. I may be recovering, but I'm still exhausted."
"You wouldn't have to do anything." Olivia's eyebrows bounced lecherously.
Natalia slid into the tub seductively, and Olivia's eyes followed as her body disappeared beneath the bubbles. "Oh really?"
"Let me think," Natalia turned her eyes to the ceiling in mock contemplation. "What could you possibly do for me that I couldn't do myself..."
She squeezed her breasts with both hands beneath the water line and Olivia's mouth hung open in disbelief.
"You're dirty! I like it."
"C'mere," Natalia beckoned her with one bubble-covered curling finger.
Olivia dutifully obliged, leaning forward into the tub, sliding her forearms into the water to rest against Natalia's warm, slick skin. The sleeves of her white linen shirt were instantly soaked, and bubbles clung to the fabric at her chest.
They were just about to kiss when there was a knock at the door.
"Fuck," was Olivia's only reply. Her eyes shut momentarily in frustration.
"Mmm, looks like that will have to wait." Natalia giggled as Olivia shook her hands over the tub, sending bubbles flying.
"Somebody better be dead," the blonde grumbled through gritted teeth.
Trudging down the stairs, Olivia considered for a second ignoring the visitor, but then she sighed and came to her senses. It could be something with the kids. The Beacon. It could be anybody.
As she swung the door open, her eyes went wide with surprise.
"Not the anybody I was expecting."
There, on the front stoop of the farmhouse, just a few days removed from their last visit, stood Pierce Morneau. Covered in road grit and a motorcycle helmet in her hand.
"We didn't really get to finish. Back at the shop."
Olivia was frozen to the spot where she stood. "Are you kidding me?"
"What's with the shirt?" Pierce looked dubiously at the front of Olivia's shirt. There were still some white fuzzy bubbles there.
The blonde eyed her own chest, then back at Pierce, silent.
"I don't want to know, do I?"
Olivia shook her head slowly. She was having trouble processing just what the hell was going on.
"Look, can I come in? I realized I let you leave... without finishing some business."
"Yeah. I mean... yes, yes of course. Come in." Olivia opened her stance so that the younger woman could pass, and watched as Pierce fingered the edge of the armchair awkwardly. "You can sit. If you want."
"Nah, I shouldn't. I'm... pretty dirty."
"You rode a bike all the way here? Your ass must feel like hamburger meat."
Pierce laughed. "Kinda. Listen, anyway... is Natalia here? You were right, what you said. I owe her at least this much."
Olivia rubbed at the bridge of her nose, then smiled guiltily. "Yeah, she's here. She's, um... upstairs. In the bubbles."
The younger woman squinted as she put two and two together. "Ohhh... oh. Wow, I'm sorry. I have some shitty timing, don't I?"
"I think I can forgive you this once. Hang on."
Olivia climbed a few steps then stopped, drumming her fingers on the bannister. She turned and looked at Pierce, who stood with her shoulders slumped and her chin nearly to her chest. She was busy staring at a spot on the floor. Olivia smiled. This was Pierce being contrite.
Upstairs Natalia beamed when Olivia reentered the bathroom.
"Everything okay? You free to... you know?"
Olivia knelt down at the side of the tub. "Not quite. Someone's here to see you."
Natalia could obviously read Olivia's eyes, and a crease worried her brow. "Who?"
Natalia stood on the last step of staircase, gripping the newel post with a suddenly sweaty palm. She recognized the other woman's voice, her clothes, her slouching posture, but couldn't see her face. She could feel Olivia hovering on the landing above her: waiting, watching, not saying a word. Finally, Pierce turned around, a framed picture of Oliver in her hands.
"Really. He looks so much like you."
A faded blue ballcap was pulled low and tight over Pierce's eyes, but the blotches of wetness that peppered her t-shirt gave away that she'd been crying. It occurred to Natalia that while she didn't know Pierce in quite the same way as Olivia, she knew her nonetheless. She might not be able to name her favorite song or the place she was born, but she could always sense the things about Pierce that the other woman worked so hard to hide. Olivia, on the other hand, had been mostly oblivious to her complexities, as she so often was when she'd made up her mind about someone. To Olivia, she and Pierce were mirror images: raw and unflinching on the outside, indicative of a lack of depth on the inside. Natalia knew better though; she had been wrong about Pierce. She'd been wrong about herself, as well, but that was neither here nor there at this point.
"I'm waiting for you to say something so I can avoid saying all the things I really ought to."
Natalia still hadn't spoken. She just stood there, waiting, debating what to do.
At her silence, Pierce smiled and shook a finger in the air at Natalia. "Ah, but you already knew that. Figures."
The younger woman tugged at the brim of the cap, grimacing slightly as she pulled it off, baring the whole of her head. Natalia gasped, and Pierce just shrugged.
Olivia had told Natalia how that night had scarred Pierce, how the final bullet had glanced off Pierce's skull and torn away the flesh there. How the hair on either side of her head grew just as wild and untamed as it did before, but with a gaping divide between it. Olivia had told her alright, but it was another thing to see it. Natalia swallowed hard and took a step forward.
"Not as bad as it looks, really. Itchy, mostly."
Pierce made light of the injury. Pierce made light of everything, but Natalia knew better. She took a few more steps into the living room, past the couch and the armchair, to stand directly in front of the other woman, so close there would be no room to avert her glance.
She hadn't remembered Pierce being this tall. She looked down at her own bare feet, and Pierce's scuffed leather boots, and smiled. Maybe it was the shoes, or maybe Natalia had just never stood this close before. They'd hugged a few times, and if Natalia strained her memory she could recall a number of times when Olivia had as well. But for the most part, despite her warmth, Pierce kept people at a distance. A physical distance that, Natalia was certain, was only exacerbated by the terrible scar snaking across her face. It was natural; people were afraid of such a gruesome injury.
Natalia could feel Pierce take a deep breath, her chest trembling with the effort. Slowly Natalia looked up at the other woman, who bravely held her gaze.
"I should've come back months ago. I could've put a stop to--"
"Shh," Natalia hushed her with a conviction she was surprised to find deep inside of her. "Don't. Just... just be quiet for a second."
Pierce nodded tightly, her eyes watching Natalia's hands. Gently, she took hold of the shirt at Pierce's shoulders, felt the soft, worn fabric there. At the seams the shirt was threatening to come apart, and Natalia shook her head.
"Some things never change," she smiled. She slid one hand down the length of Pierce's arm until she took hold of the other woman's spindly fingers. The skin there was calloused and rough. Natalia squeezed, looking back up, straight into Pierce's eyes again. Straight at the deep canyon that marred her face. "Not the important things, anyway."
Pierce swallowed and licked at dry lips. Natalia's scrutiny was obviously unsettling her, but she endured it. Never letting go of the other woman, Natalia drew up her free hand to run a single finger across the broken expanse of Pierce's forehead. She willed her hand not to quiver.
"You made Olivia whole when she was shattered. You held a mirror up to her and made her see. And that was your job, you helped her. I thought that would be it. I think a small part of me wanted that to be it."
With both hands now, Natalia explored the peaks and valleys of Pierce's face, carefully pushing the other woman to a place Natalia knew was uncomfortable, but necessary. For both of them.
"I guess I felt like... I was worried that if Olivia brought parts of her home from rehab they would haunt her. Follow her around like a... like a big, black cloud. Just a scar to remind her."
Pierce closed her eyes.
"But you were more than that. You were her friend. And," Natalia laughed softly, "Olivia doesn't have many of those. Not like you, anyway. And besides, I was there. Emma was there. We were here before she got help, and we'd be there after. And I knew we weren't just painful reminders. So maybe you wouldn't be either. After all, if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that you might get to try again, but you never get a clean slate."
Natalia sighed, and stroked Pierce's cheeks with her thumbs. "And then you came here and you helped Emma heal, too. You put yourself out there and... you didn't have to do that. I know it was hard for you. You miss your sister. Your family. I know you do."
"Every day," Pierce whispered.
"Every day," Natalia repeated. "You should know... no matter what you think of yourself, no matter what happened this last year... I missed you every single day. I missed Olivia, but I believed-- refused not to believe-- she was alive. But you? You were dead. I was sure of it. I," Natalia's voice broke. "I buried you."
"And yet, here I am."
"And yet, here you are." Natalia leaned into Pierce's chest and rest her head against the other woman, whose body went as stiff as a board. But underneath the rigid frame, a heart was beating. Against her hair, Natalia could feel Pierce's breath, and beneath her fingertips feel the pound of blood in her veins. Blood.
"There was so much blood. I... had to see for myself, and once the crime scene was released, I demanded to see it. Frank wouldn't take me; I had to ask Remy. It had been a few days, and I'd just had Oliver and I'd never been so exhausted in my life. But I needed to go."
When Pierce wrapped her arms around Natalia's shoulders, she assumed the other woman did it more out of politeness than instinct. But pressed against her, there was none of the awkwardness Natalia had imagined of the young girl out of practice. Of course there wasn't the soft fullness like there was when Olivia held her, but there was something else. As Natalia slouched against her, Pierce straightened up, filling the space between them with an unyielding, and yet somehow supple, strength. Natalia breathed in deeply, and closed her eyes.
"I saw all that blood and I thought no one could ever survive that. I was devastated. And after I was devastated, I got angry. You saved Olivia, you saved Emma, and now I needed you to save me and you were... gone."
Pierce tried to speak but Natalia hushed her with a tight squeeze of her chest.
"You're so important, you know. To us, to the whole family. I hate knowing that you think so little of yourself."
"I used to think I was pretty hot."
Natalia swatted Pierce playfully on the back. "I'm being serious. I know you struggled after... everything. We all did. No more apologies. Not from you, not from Olivia. It's time we all moved on. This was the last piece, for me. Now I can move on, and I want you to, too."
"What was the last piece?"
"This," Natalia swayed them both in the embrace. "And you're good at it, Pierce. You should do it more often."
"What? Hug people? I find I'm much better at arm's-length witticisms."
Natalia giggled. "Well, that may work for you and Olivia, but this is much more my speed. I hugged a pillow for a year, cut me some slack."
Pierce sighed and leaned back, looking into Natalia's eyes. "You're, uh... you're important to me, too. I mean, you all are. But especially... oh god, you know, I'm just really bad at this. Please tell me you get what I'm trying to say?"
"I'm not really sure, but I think I have some idea," Natalia laughed, and stroked Pierce's cheek once again. Before she could stop herself, she leaned forward and onto her toes and planted her lips against Pierce's mouth. She held them both there, her hands at the sides of Pierce's face, and kissed her. Not lustily, but passionately nonetheless. When Natalia finally released her, Pierce looked more than a little stunned.
"I just... I don't know. Don't read too much into it," Natalia shrugged. "I missed you."
"That was, um..." Pierce swiped at her lips with her tongue, a wolfish grin spreading. "Worth dying for."
Natalia laughed. "I doubt it."
Upstairs there was a creaking sound, a floorboard shifting above them. Natalia quirked an eyebrow at Pierce, who noticed the sound as well.
Dramatically, Pierced raised her voice to a shout: "No, Natalia. I will not run away with you. Yes, I know I'm irresistible but it just wouldn't be right."
"Ha," Olivia exaggerated each step as she descended the stairs. "Ha."
"Listening the whole time, I presume?" Natalia slid out of their embrace but put a hand around Pierce's waist.
Olivia shrugged. "Absolutely. And, please, do me a favor, P. Take her. She's all yours. I can't afford her anymore."
Pierce cleared her throat. "Actually, it's funny you say that. I wanted to talk to you about that."
Natalia watched as Olivia's face fell. "Uh, I was joking, Pierce. Obviously you cannot have my wife."
"No shit, Sherlock. I meant..." Pierce fumbled with the pocket of her jeans, until she withdrew a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to Olivia. "I should've given these to you earlier."
Moving to Olivia's side, Natalia looked down at the scrawled numbers, some of the ink runny and worn but still legible. She looked up at Olivia who shook her head.
"I don't understand."
"Remember at the Center, when I told you about all the shit I used to get into back in the day? How I used to run all those scams to pay for my, uh... habit?"
Olivia pursed her lips.
"Of course. She never listened when I spoke, yet I had to sit through her incessant bitching for three months," Pierce spoke pointedly to Natalia. "Typical. Anyway, I thought it was kind of entrepreneurial of me, as a twenty year-old, to run credit card scams, cloning accounts, stuff like that. Well..." Now Pierce turned back to Olivia. "Turns out it's like riding a bicycle. You never really forget."
"Are you saying..." Olivia trailed off, and Natalia felt more lost than ever.
"I'm saying, that night at the warehouse? It only looked like I was transferring all the money to Frank and Greenway's account. It didn't occur to me until right then that I could even do it. Otherwise, I would've told you that night in the parking lot."
Olivia's face twitched and went red. Very, very red. Natalia grasped at her hand. "Olivia..."
"So you're saying that... No, no, Natalia. I'm okay," Olivia brushed off her concern but Natalia wasn't convinced. "You're saying that that night, when I thought I was handing over ten-plus million dollars to Frank fucking Cooper, and I was losing my mind, you... you had the money all along? We had him all along?"
Pierce grimaced. "Pretty much."
As Olivia paced back and forth across the living room floor, Natalia became more and more concerned. She tried again: "Olivia, maybe we should..."
A finger flew up in the air to forestall Natalia's pleas. Olivia started to laugh, then cry, then laugh some more.
"I tried to convince you to just walk away," Pierce shrugged. "But you wouldn't listen."
"You mean we could've--" Olivia strode over to Pierce, an angry, frustrated mess, and before Natalia knew it, slapped the younger woman straight across the face.
"Olivia!" she screamed.
"What?! She... she... you should've told me!" Olivia shouted through tears. "You should've told me before I ruined everything!"
Pierce, for her part, didn't seemed phased. Natalia tried to tend to her but she insisted she was fine. "I tried, Olivia. Believe me, I tried. But it was never about the money. You and I both know that. Frank played you. He strung you along, he led you to lie to your wife, to everyone you loved. He threatened your family. He pulled you from her bedside while she was giving birth, for Christ's sake. You lost it. You lost it, and nobody blames you for that."
Olivia's chest heaved. She looked to Natalia, and then to Pierce, and back to Natalia. She held the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. "Fuck. Did I really just slap you?"
"Pretty much. It's cool."
"No, it is not cool. You should be slapping me!"
And then Pierce marched forward and did exactly that.
"Ow. Jesus!" Olivia howled.
Natalia shot Pierce a look. "Pierce!"
"What?! She said--"
"Both of you, calm down. Calm... down," Natalia stepped between them and kept both of them at bay. "Let's just take a deep breath, shall we?"
They both did as they were told, exhaling loudly, each rubbing at their cheek.
"So..." Olivia looked down at the paper in her hand. "This is all of it?"
"All of it," Pierce narrowed her eyes. "Couple times I wanted to dip into it for, you know, recreational purposes. But I didn't. Every penny is in those accounts."
There was a silence as it all sunk in. Olivia slumped into the chair and held her head in her hands. Deep in her own thoughts, she intermittently chuckled. Pierce pushed her hands into her pockets and waited. And Natalia did the only thing she could think of.
Olivia couldn't believe it. Not even a giant slice of cheesecake could distract her from the tiny slip of paper, crumpled and worn and to the untrained eye so utterly worthless. Nearly eleven million dollars on a square of paper no bigger than a postcard. Just because she'd sworn off thepursuit of money didn't mean she swore off having any. She couldn't tear her eyes off it.
"She looks pretty stunned," Olivia heard Pierce say.
"She gets that way when you slap her in the face."
"She started it. Besides, I've seen that look before. That's the 'Oh shit, I'm rich again' face."
Natalia poured three mugs of tea. "I can't even fathom that much money. But I'll admit, it'll be nice not to have to worry so much."
Olivia could hear Pierce groan guiltily.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get clean again. To get my head right. You were suffering and I could've done something."
"I told you, no more apologies. From any of us," Natalia reached out and held Olivia's hand at the wrist, which Olivia acknowledged with an absent-minded nod. "You took a few bullets for the family. I think we can call it even."
Pierce and Natalia shared a half-hearted laugh.
"Wait, I've got something for you," Natalia slid out of the kitchen chair and moved to the refrigerator, where she reached atop it. There was a rustling sound and then a bag of Twizzlers hit the table. "Since we found out you were alive, I thought I should have a few things in the house I knew you liked. Just in case."
Olivia looked up momentarily, long enough to see a beaming Natalia, and the red blur of Pierce tearing into the candy.
"I used to... bring these to your grave sometimes. Other stuff too. A drawing from Emma, sometimes the sports page from the newspaper."
Pierce's furious chewing stopped. "Uh... wow. That's... thank you? That sucks? Both, maybe?"
There was another prolonged silence, until Pierce chimed in again.
"So, if there was no... body... I mean, in the coffin... what exactly did you bury?"
Natalia sounded uncomfortable at the question. "Well, I didn't know what you would've wanted... and... the funeral director told me it's not uncommon for... in those sorts of situations... it's more symbolic, really."
The chewing resumed, along with Pierce's cavalier attitude. "Okay so you buried an empty box? I feel bad. I would've rather you'd saved the money!"
"Not exactly. I put together a few of your things. Things that... represented the essence of you."
"This I gotta hear."
"Just... oh, I don't know, Pierce. I never expected I'd be having this conversation with you!"
Natalia stirred her tea. "Just some old shirts I knew you liked. A ballcap. A few pictures. That iPod you used to carry around with you constantly. Things like that."
Pierce coughed wildly, shaking the table and rousing Olivia from her trance. "You," she started, still choking a bit on a piece of candy. "You buried my iPod?"
"Well... yeah! Like I said, I wasn't aware you'd be needing it any time soon!"
"That was 80 gigs of music, Natalia."
"I don't even know what that means."
"That means... oh god, there were rare tracks on that thing. Bootlegs. Live recordings. I'll never get that shit back. We need to order a fucking exhumation!"
"Hey!" Olivia broke into the burgeoning argument with a slam of her fist on the table. "Let's try to concentrate on what really matters here."
"Says the woman who just spent the last fifteen minutes counting her millions in her head," Pierce snorted.
Olivia pointed a spoon at her. "Shut up, Pierce."
"Nice. I'm not back one day and already it's--"
"Shut up, Pierce," Natalia offered this time.
"Since I've got you both here, I should ask you something. Something I've been thinking about for the past few weeks but I wasn't sure what to do. Until now."
Olivia's serious tone had the desired effect. Both women stared at her in rapt attention.
"Natalia," Olivia rose from her chair, then knelt down besides Natalia's. She took the other woman's hands in hers. "Will you marry me?"
There was a beat, and then Pierce started laughing, and even Natalia looked at her rather incredulously. Not exactly the response she'd been hoping for.
"But, Olivia," Natalia smiled. "We already are. As married as we can be."
Olivia closed her eyes briefly. "I was thinking something more. I haven't thought out all the details but... a ceremony. With everyone we love there." She turned and looked up at Pierce, and winked. "And with you as my best man."
"Oh, I don't know. I'll have to look at my schedule."
"I'll buy you a new iPod?"
Pierce needed but one second to consider it. "Okay, I'm there."
"Then I guess all that's left is," Olivia found Natalia's beautiful brown eyes, brimming with tears. "For you to say yes. I love you, Natalia. We've been through so much, and in that time, we've done so little celebrating. I want to stand next to you and recite poorly written but heartfelt vows. I want to dance with you. I want to rub cake in your face. I want to eye your cleavage in a spectacular gown."
"Seconded," Pierce chimed in, and Olivia responded with a scowl.
Natalia smiled. Olivia waited.
"So? Will you marry me, Natalia?"
The younger woman reached down and brushed a lock of hair behind Olivia's ear.
"You know I will."
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