DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have quoted a little from the Bible (psalm 25) in the beginning, and from Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit at the end.
TIMELINE: Begins immediately after the episode on 17th of April and diverges from the canon storyline at that point.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Turn To Me
Natalia stared at the bride and groom ornament in her hand, trying desperately to keep her mind blank. She didn't want to think about what had happened, didn't want to think about the pain in Frank's eyes as she ran from him, or the deeper pain in Olivia's as she turned her back on her in the gazebo. Despite her guilt over Frank, she knew whose pain called out to her more. She may have been confused about everything, but she knew deep down that Olivia had always come first.
Tears swelled behind her eyes which she blinked away. "I need you, Olivia," she whispered, her voice cracking. "I'm so lost. Please find me."
But the house was empty, no Olivia, no Emma. Not even their things remained - they were all packed away in boxes and moved indecently quickly. Almost as indecently quickly as that god-forsaken wedding.
Natalia let out a short sharp scream as the tight band of self control in her chest suddenly snapped and she threw the ornament across the room, noting with satisfaction the dent it left in the wall. That was good. This pain, this maelstrom, this calamity should leave a scar somewhere. Other than the ones on her heart.
She moved through the room like a tornado, ripping and shredding all the decorations Olivia had so carefully bought to celebrate what Natalia now knew would have been the worst day of her life. Anger coursed through her like a drug, anger at everything, at herself for being such a coward, at Olivia for walking away when she was most needed, at God for giving her these feelings in the first place. This was supposed to be such a happy day - would have been a happy day, if only she could change her heart. But loving Olivia was something she couldn't possibly change, no-matter how she tried. Like the speed of light, or - Natalia let out a bitter laugh - the love of God. It was a universal constant, and she could no more stop her heart from loving the other woman than she could stop the birds from singing.
The wedding dress was like prison to her now; she needed to take it off, needed to be free in her own skin again. It had taken two people to get her into it, but she got it off by herself, tearing it beyond repair in the process. It didn't matter. No-matter what Frank had hoped, she knew she'd never be wearing it again.
Leaving the remnants of her wedding decorations behind she slipped into the kitchen, feeling like a ghost in her own house. The plate that Emma had made stared at her, mocking her with its image of the family she had had, the family she feared may now be irretrievably lost.
A cold shiver whispered down her spine. Natalia crossed to the drier, pulling out some fresh clothes. It was a relief to pull on her favourite worn blue jeans. She could feel her shattered identity returning piece by piece as the soft cotton hugged her hips. The next item she pulled from the machine was one of Emma's nightshirts. Natalia paused for a moment, then put it to the side, her hand shaking as she smoothed the thin cotton almost reverently. But it was the next piece she pulled out that undid her.
It was one of Olivia's T-shirts, old, worn, a little threadbare in places, never to be worn in public, only inside with family. She'd been wearing it on their last movie night, curled up under the blanket with Natalia and Emma, watching King Kong. Natalia remembered how she'd pretended to be scared so she could have an excuse to turn to Olivia and hide in the protective circle of her arms, to bury her face in her neck and breathe in her scent. And Olivia had obliged, as Natalia knew she would, giving her strength and security, comfort and love. Natalia remembered how Olivia's body had felt pressed against her, how the other woman's breath had caught as Natalia's hair tickled her skin, how her muscles had clenched as Natalia splayed her fingers over her stomach, her head on her shoulder. What absolute torture it must have been for her. What torment Natalia had put her through.
The shirt smelled fresh and clean as Natalia pulled it over her head, hints of soap powder and fabric softener, hints of Olivia. She breathed the scent deeply as she reflexively made the sign of the cross.
"Dear God." Her voice was watery as she began to recite the only prayer that would come to her. "Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have increased. Free me from my anguish. Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
A laugh bubbled up inside her as she felt her spirit calm. God hadn't abandoned her. She could still feel his presence in prayer, just as she always had. "Oh, thank you God, thank you..." she murmured, sliding into a chair and crossing her hands across her chest. She stayed there for long moments before she looked up again, nodded to herself and dried her eyes. "I have some work to do," she said, and got up to fetch some garbage bags and a broom.
A harsh knocking cut through the fog of sleep and Natalia started awake, almost falling off the couch. A bone-deep weariness had overtaken her once she'd finished clearing up the living room, so deep she hadn't even been able to make it to her bedroom.
Oh no, she moaned internally. Not him. Ignoring the knocking and calling, she rolled onto her stomach and buried her face into the upholstery.
"Ma? Are you in there?"
Natalia rolled back onto her side. Low blow, Frank, low blow. With a deep, deep sigh she dragged herself to her feet and unlocked the door. "I can't talk anymore tonight, Frank, I'm sorry...." she began, then trailed off when she saw the sombre look on his and her son's faces. "What is it?"
Rafe stared at his shoes. "You should sit down, ma."
"What is it?" Natalia demanded, rounding on Frank, who looked like he was about to start crying. The expression on his face terrified her - sympathy, fear, worry, and love rolled into one.
"Natalia," he whispered, taking her hand. "It's Olivia."
Natalia had spent more time at the hospital in the last twelve months than she had in her entire life. It seemed it was her fate to keep returning to keep vigil with people she loved, first for Gus and then over and over for Olivia. Sitting by Olivia's bed this time she just felt numb, unable to really comprehend what she was seeing.
One side of her face was almost black with bruises, swollen almost beyond recognition. Bandages had been wrapped round her head to stop the bleeding which had been, according to Frank, quite extensive. Her left arm and leg were both broken and had been set in splints while a team of doctors conferred over her case. Natalia was oblivious to them. She barely even blinked as she stared blankly, gripping Olivia's right hand in a grip that would have been painful had the other woman been conscious.
"The car just lost control. The snow, and everything. The driver tried to swerve, but there was nothing he could do. They were just crossing the street..." Frank trailed off and began stroking Natalia's back, the gesture meant to be comforting. She barely felt it.
"Emma?" Natalia croaked. It was the first word she'd spoken since Frank had told her that Olivia was in the hospital.
"She's fine, ma." It was Rafe who answered, crouching down to look up at his mother's face. "Olivia took the force of it. She must have shielded Emma, cause the kid's only got a couple of scratches."
Natalia exhaled very, very slowly. "Of course she did," she said, leaning forward to kiss Olivia's hand.
Rick chose that moment to come over and talk to them. His face was grave. "We need to get her into surgery right now," he said without preamble.
"Is it her heart?" Frank gave Natalia's shoulder a soft squeeze as he felt her stiffen.
Rick shook his head. "Worse than that," he said. Natalia looked up sharply.
"There's worse?" Her voice was choked and incredulous.
"She's suffered a serious head injury. There's some fluid build-up in her brain, Natalia. She could be bleeding internally, we're not sure, but we've got to relieve the pressure."
For a moment Natalia didn't seem to react. "Wh-I mean, what happens if you don't?"
Rafe was by his mother's side in an instant as she crumpled like a house of cards left next to an open window. "They need you to sign the forms, ma," he said, taking her hands in his and forcing him to look at her.
"Wha- forms? I don't underst-"
"Olivia gave you her power of attorney," Rick interrupted. He paused as a pair of shocked dark eyes snapped towards him. Obviously that had come as a surprise. How typical of Olivia to steam ahead without consulting anyone. "The document was in her medical records. I'm sorry Natalia, I know this is hard for you, but time is really of the essence here. If we don't get her into surgery right now she'll be leaving this room in a bodybag."
"Hey, go easy Rick, she's upset for cryin' out loud."
"I can't do anything about that Frank, but if she doesn't sign these consent forms Olivia's gonna die right here in this room!"
"Hey, you don't have to yell, man, my mom's trying her best."
"Don't you people understand how serious this is? For God's sake-"
Natalia's near scream brought the budding argument to an abrupt close. She turned her gaze onto Rick and grabbed his clipboard. "Pen!" she demanded. Someone pressed a biro into her fingers and she signed all the necessary places on the form with a firm and unshaking hand. Thrusting the clipboard back against his chest she turned to Olivia. "Give me a moment alone with her please."
All three men reacted to the tone of authority suddenly lacing her voice. "I'll tell the OR we're coming," said Rick.
"We'll be right outside," Frank added, leading Rafe from the room.
Alone with her unconscious friend at last, Natalia allowed her fear to crack through the surface again. "Please God," she murmured. "Don't take her away. She's my whole world, God. I need her." She cupped Olivia's cheek, avoiding the bruising even though she wouldn't feel the pain in this state. "I love you, Olivia. Come back to me. I promise I'll make everything up to you. Just don't leave me." With that she finally allowed her tears to fall. Burying her head in the blankets covering Olivia's torso, she wept, an overwhelming and debilitating terror spreading like ice water across her skin. "Don't leave me," she moaned into the blanket, and suddenly felt a pair of hands rest on her heaving shoulders.
"She'll be all right," Frank said softly. Natalia could only weep all the more bitterly.
Harley had said the same thing about Gus.
The hours dragged by like decades as Natalia, Frank and Rafe waited for news from the OR. The ticking of Frank's watch, unnaturally loud in the silence, was the only sound. Natalia focused in on it, the rhythm, imagining it to be the steady beat of Olivia's heart.
This was the second wedding day she'd spent in a hospital for Olivia's sake. You're trying to tell me something, right? she thought, lifting her eyes towards heaven. She thought of all the major events of her life since moving to Springfield, and how they'd all seemed to involve Olivia. Peripherally at first, but at some point their orbits seemed to have shifted and suddenly just about everything revolved around her. And now their orbits were on the point of shifting again. They would either spin apart on their own paths, never to meet again, or they'd crash into each other and become something else. Natalia couldn't quite decide which would be preferable. To allow themselves to fall into each other, to let herself be taken over by these feelings, this passion that bubbled so close to the surface. Or to give it up, to go on about their own separate lives, levees in place to stop the raging floodwaters of frustrated love.
Just thinking of it made her blood run cold. If there was one thing she was sure of it was that she needed to have Olivia in her life. She'd never really had the kind of life that allowed her to make friends. Working three jobs and bringing up a child alone didn't leave much free time for drinking coffee, watching movies, talking on the phone, all the things that she supposed other people did to maintain relationships. It wasn't until moving to Springfield that she'd managed to make the kind of connections she'd always longed for with other adults. She always said that Rafe was enough, and when he was a child he was. But he was grown up now; soon he'd leave her and until now there'd been nothing in her life to take his place.
Until Olivia and Emma. Olivia was the first adult she'd ever lived with other than her own parents. And after a few weeks of living in the farmhouse with her and her daughter she'd come to rely and depend on her presence more and more. It was exactly what had been missing all those years with Rafe. Someone to share the burden, someone to talk to after the kid's bedtime, someone who could understand adult worries like lack of money, and the state of the economy. Not that Natalia really lacked money now. Olivia had given her raise after raise until she'd finally consented to stop working at Company and devote herself solely to the task of being Olivia's assistant at The Beacon.
And so that's how it was for a while. Their routine of mornings with Emma, days at work, and evenings together, and somewhere along the way they had both fallen deeply, hopelessly, irretrievably in love. It hadn't been like flicking on a light; there was no one moment she could point to and say: "yes, that's when my world, as I had always known it, changed." It was more organic than that, like the coming of dawn, or the slow rise of the bread she made every Sunday. But it was there nonetheless, the knowledge that at some point she'd started to crave their closeness a little more, that they'd begun to sit next to each other on the couch rather than at opposite ends, that they'd started holding hands for no particular reason. And because neither of them had ever had a real friend before it took some time to realise that their behaviour wasn't quite normal; that even 'best friends' didn't hold hands at school presentations or watch movies under one blanket wrapped around each other.
Olivia had known first, of course, her mind just naturally worked that way. Natalia had been so naive, so blind to the implications of what was going on between them. She wondered now just how long she'd have gone on taking Olivia's hand, wiping away her tears, holding her when things got hard, without realising exactly what she was doing. If Olivia hadn't kissed her that cold night in January, would she have gone on oblivious forever?
And what was she going to do now?
"Ma?" Rafe's voice jolted her back into the moment and she looked up to see Olivia being wheeled back into the recovery room she knew so well. Natalia was on her feet in an instant, hurrying to the other woman's side.
"Is everything okay now?" she asked Rick breathlessly.
Rick led her to the chair by Olivia's bed and made her sit down. "She's stable now," he said. "But still critical. There was some bleeding inside the skull, but we've stopped that. We're going to keep her asleep for a few days to let her body recover. But you should be prepared..." he trailed off, looking down at Olivia's battered face.
"P-prepared? For what?"
Rick took a deep breath. "For the possibility of brain damage."
Natalia's hands shot to her mouth as the Earth suddenly stopped turning. "Oh my God," she murmured. "Oh my God..."
"From the position of the injuries we suspect there could be damage to the temporal lobe," he continued, seemingly oblivious to the pieces of Natalia's world that were so obviously crashing down around her ears. "That means-"
Rick's next words were drowned out by the sounds of a scuffle and an argument outside the room. "Just tell me where my daughter is, Frank."
Natalia's head shot up. "Oh no. Not him." Philip arrived in the room seconds after the words left her lips, followed by Frank who seemed to be trying to hold him back. Philip came up short at the sight of his ex-wife in the bed, almost unrecognisable.
Natalia was on her feet in an instant, her eyes furious as she pushed him from the room. "Out," she snapped. "She doesn't want you here."
"Okay, okay," Philip replied, putting his hands in the air. "Calm down."
"Don't tell me to calm down! I have enough to deal with right now without you coming where you're not wanted." She punctuated each word with a shove to his chest so that by the time she was finished he was up against the wall.
"I'm just here for Emma!"
The blood drained from Natalia's face as she realised that she hadn't given a single thought to where Emma was after she'd been told she wasn't badly hurt. Oh my God, Emma, I'm so sorry! she castigated herself. It both amazed and terrified her how easily and readily her world had contracted to a tiny bubble whose length, breadth and volume was a hospital bed and the broken woman lying on it. Nothing else had mattered from the moment Frank told her about the accident. "Emma..."
"She's with my dad," Frank interrupted, rescuing her. "She's not hurt, Philip. Olivia made sure of that." Natalia flashed a grateful glance at him, trying to silently thank him both for taking care of Emma and for defending the unconscious woman in the room behind them. An image of what the accident may have looked like flashed suddenly before her eyes. The snow falling gently, roads covered in white. The squeal of brakes and Olivia's wide-eyed stare as headlights bore down on her. The crash and crunch of breaking bones. And finally, the white of the snow turning red as the blood of the person who meant everything in the world to her spilled onto an uncaring road.
"Well, I'll take her from here," Philip said, shocking Natalia back to reality.
"What?" she cried. "Are you insane? I mean, more than we always thought?"
His cheeks reddened. "She's my daughter!"
"And Olivia's! And I know for an absolute fact that she doesn't want you anywhere near Emma."
Philip drew himself up to his full height, trying to intimidate Natalia and failing. She looked up at him with clear, defiant eyes and raised eyebrows and Philip was suddenly struck by the resemblance to Olivia's mannerisms. "I'm her father-" he began.
"And you get supervised visits," she interrupted. "You'll get nothing else as long as I'm around."
Philip took in the determined faces arrayed before him, Frank, Rafe and even Rick lined up behind Natalia like bodyguards, and Natalia looking up at him fiercely and unblinkingly. "I'll be back," he said, knocking his shoulder harshly against Natalia's as he slipped past her. She stumbled backwards and Rafe caught her as Frank turned to chase after Philip's retreating form.
"No, leave him," Natalia said, smoothing her hair back from her face.
Frank couldn't hide the frustration creeping into his voice. "I should deal with him. He's gonna be a problem."
Natalia nodded. "Yeah," she said, anxiety colouring her tone. "He is."
Natalia knew she needed to find Emma and get to The Beacon. Olivia had told her once where she kept her living trust and - Natalia fervently hoped - instructions concerning Emma's care. But there was one place she knew she needed to make time for so, leaving Frank and Rafe to watch over Olivia with instructions to call her the instant anything changed, she headed straight for the hospital chapel.
Natalia had always been proud of being a Catholic. It was a connection to her parents, her ancestors, her roots. It was what set her apart from most of the people around her, it gave her life definition and focus. All she'd ever had was Rafe and the church. Her faith allowed her to feel the presence of God, it allowed her to rise above the petty problems of each day, it allowed her to hope for better even when things seemed bleakest.
But what she most craved at that exact moment were the mysteries and rituals which would allow her to stop thinking for just a few minutes. She needed to escape into the silence and peace of time-honoured tradition, secure in the knowledge that God would be with her as she floundered and would catch her if she fell.
The chapel was empty and half lit as she entered, genuflected and made the sign of the cross. The scent of incense caressed her as she breathed deep. Her thoughts were swirling hopelessly like leaves in a storm, linking, breaking, leaving her unable to form her own words to pray. But that was fine. She needed to escape, she needed something routine and repetitive.
"Our Father," she began. "Who art in heaven..." She followed that up with ten Hail Marys and a Glory Be and when she breathed the last 'Amen' she felt a presence slide into the pew beside her.
"I thought I'd find you here."
Natalia didn't look up. "Hello Father."
They sat together in silence for a few minutes, Natalia contemplating the image of Jesus on the cross; Father Ray contemplating Natalia.
"Which mystery were you praying?" he asked finally, his tone gentle.
A deep breath. "The Agony in the Garden," she replied.
"The Sorrowful Mysteries."
"It's the day for them," she said. In more ways than one.
She heard his clothing rustle as he turned a little to face her. "I hear you're going through some agony of your own right now," he said softly. She turned her face to him then and was nearly undone by the gentle and understanding look on his face. "Maybe a little more agony than you've let people see, hmm?"
She turned away, unable to meet his eyes. She knew that if she continued this conversation she would lose control and she couldn't afford to do that, not now, not here. "Will you hear my confession?" she asked.
He paused. "Of course," he said at last, although his voice was hesitant.
Natalia made the sign of the cross. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned," she said, looking steadfastly forward. "It's been three days since my last confession."
Father Ray regarded her curiously. "And what sins have you committed in those three days?"
She paused for a moment before she found the words. "I know that thinking something can be just as much of a sin as doing it," she began. "That's what the Bible says, right?"
Father Ray nodded slowly. "It does say that," he replied.
"In that case I'm guilty of murder," she said, her voice tight. "Because when I heard that someone had hurt Olivia I wanted them dead. I wanted to kill them..."
Father Ray allowed her confession to sit in the stillness of the church for a moment before he continued. "Anything else?"
Natalia shook her head tightly. "No." Then she nodded. "Yes. I was dishonest. I promised someone something I couldn't ever give them."
"Why couldn't you give it to them?"
She looked at him suddenly through her eyelashes. "Because I'd already given it to someone else."
They lapsed into silence again, and then Father Ray made the sign of the cross on her forehead. "Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Natalia felt tears pricking behind her eyes. "Thank you," she breathed.
"I haven't told you what your penance is yet," he reminded her softly.
"I want you to hear my confession," he replied.
Natalia's eyes snapped up to meet his. "But...I can't give you absolution, Father," she said, confusion colouring her voice.
"On the contrary Natalia, I think you're the only one who can. Just listen, please?"
Father Ray turned his face towards the cross. "I lied to a man today," he said. "I had promised to perform his wedding ceremony but I called him just before it was supposed to begin and gave an excuse."
Natalia couldn't quite control the surprised gasp that escaped her. "Why?" she asked.
He smiled at her. "Because I believe in the Sacrament of Matrimony," he said. "Because the marriage was not sacred."
Her heart thundered in her ears. "Why?" she asked again.
"Because," he said. "The bride had given her heart to another."
A breath. "She had." Not a question.
They sat together for an endless moment. Then she spoke. "What should I do?" Her voice was small and lost.
He seemed to consider the question for a moment before turning to her and folding her up in his arms. "God is love, Natalia," he whispered in her ear. "When you're confused, when you're lost, when you have doubts, just remember that."
He held her for long moments as she sobbed, feeling her shatter and then slowly put herself back together, piece by jagged piece.
"So what's my penance?" he asked with a grin as she finally pulled back. She smiled sadly.
"Go and sit with Olivia for me," she said. "I'd like her to have the Last Rites. She's already baptised, so..." she trailed off.
Father Ray nodded. "I can do that," he said. "But you know, it's called the Sacrament of the Sick these days."
Natalia managed another smile. "Oh I know, I know, it's just-"
"It's just that the Second Vatican Council is something that only happened to other people, right?"
And suddenly, improbably, wonderfully, Natalia found herself laughing. Father Ray stood and placed his hand on her head. "May God bless you, Natalia, and give you strength," he said, and then retreated, leaving her by herself in the dimly lit chapel. But not alone.
"I'm not alone," she breathed reverently and giddily, her eyes fixed on the cross. "Thank you."
With a final genuflection she left, new strength coursing through her as she went to find Emma. God help anyone who stood in her way.
It was surely a well known fact that ice cream cured all ills. Adjusting for scoop flavour, sauce type and sprinkle density let the ice cream gourmet practice a special brand of alchemy that could create a bowl of frozen perfection capable of creating happiness from even the most desperate of situations. At least that was the equation that Buzz Cooper had always lived by. Although, he reflected ruefully as he regarded the sad and quiet little girl he'd been left with, his magic formula seemed to be in need of adjustment.
Emma sat hunched over in the booth at Company, absently swirling one of Buzz's trademark chocolate sundaes with a long spoon. She hadn't spoken since leaving the hospital except to ask for her mom and Natalia alternately until her voice seemed to dry up. The silence was worse than the tears. He'd tried to get her to talk several times, without any success.
"Hey," Buzz tried once again, sliding into the booth opposite her. "If you don't want ice cream I can whip up something else? A burger? Pancakes? Chili?" After ice cream, chili was his big trump card. But Emma just shook her head. Buzz sighed. "You know, Emma...I've known your mom for a long time," he began again. "So I can be pretty sure about this - she'll be OK." Emma just carried on playing with her rapidly melting ice cream.
"Okay," Buzz said, putting his hand on her arm. "Just think about this. Your mom's been real sick before, right? When she needed a new heart?"
Emma nodded. "She got a new one," she said in a colourless voice.
Buzz was just glad to hear her speak at all. "Yeah, that's right," he said. "And you know, if she can fight through that and get better I just know she can do it again."
Emma didn't look at him. "She hurt her head," she said softly.
A grimace. "I know sweetie."
Emma looked up at him. "She can't get a new head," she said solemnly.
Buzz was saved from having to respond to that by the tinkle of the bell above the door. "Buzz? Emma?" All things considered Buzz felt he'd never been happier to hear Natalia's voice. It was obvious that Emma felt the same as she slipped out of the booth and ran towards the voice. Buzz heard the muffled 'oomph' as Emma leapt into Natalia's arms before he turned to look at them. Natalia was holding Emma tightly against her chest as the little girl wrapped her legs round her middle and her arms round her neck.
"Hey, baby," Natalia said. "I missed you."
"I missed you too," Emma replied.
Natalia pulled her head back to look into Emma's face. "Look at you! Your nose is all red!"
Emma shrugged. "I scraped it on the road," she said and suddenly her face crumpled.
"Oh no, sweetie, please don't cry," Natalia begged as she walked them over to the booth and sat, arranging Emma in her lap.
"I...want...my...mommy," Emma gasped between sobs, clinging to Natalia like she'd never let go.
Natalia closed her eyes, bumping her forehead against Emma's. "Me too, baby."
"She's gonna die," Emma wailed, her tiny fists digging into Natalia's arms painfully.
Natalia shook her head. "Now you listen to me," she said, using the tone normally reserved for when Emma needed to do her homework but wanted to watch cartoons. "You, me, Rafe and your mom? We're a family. And I'm not gonna let anything happen to any of us. You hear me? Your mom's not going anywhere. I promise."
Natalia flashed Buzz a grateful glance as he set a mug of incredibly strong coffee in front of her. Emma had finally cried herself out and now lay in the booth beside her. Natalia could now see that it wasn't just her nose that was scraped - her left cheekbone and chin were also raw and red. Her heart ached and she longed to just pass her hand across the girl's face and magically fix everything. And once she'd performed a miracle at Company she could return to the hospital, tell Olivia to take up her bed and walk and everyone would live happily ever after. Possibly there would be puppies, rainbows and lollipops involved.
She shook herself before the hysterical laughter she could feel building inside managed to burst out. The carousel of emotions she'd been swept up in over the last day was obviously driving her crazy. Was it really only that morning that Rafe had returned so unexpectedly from prison? It was hard to believe that a human soul could feel such joy and then such despair in so short a time without breaking.
"Thanks Buzz," she said at last, gesturing towards the coffee and the girl, hoping he understood how grateful she was for everything he'd done.
"No problem," he replied, sounding almost as tired as she looked. She'd caught a glimpse of herself in the glass of the door - her hair was tangled, her skin drawn and pale, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy from too much crying. And the worst of this night wasn't over yet, she knew that.
"I need to go to The Beacon," she sighed, resting her weary head on her hand.
"Stay awhile," Buzz said kindly. "You need to take care of yourself for a few minutes." He leaned forward to brush her hair back from her eyes, but she moved to escape his touch.
"Don't be nice to me, please," she said, forcing a fake smile onto her face. "If you're nice to me I'm not quite sure what'll happen, but I need to stay together. For her." Her lip trembled.
Buzz looked down at his own cup. "Well," he said at last. "I just meant that, you know, you look awful. You really need to go and put some fresh makeup on before you face the world. Don't wanna give people nightmares."
Natalia felt a rush of affection flood through her and found that she was nearly crying anyway. "Yeah, 'cause you're an oil painting yourself, right?" she replied, her voice trembling.
Buzz flexed his muscles and grunted. "I'm an Adonis!"
She let out a bark of laughter, her hand over her mouth. He looked wounded. "I could take exception to that," he said, injecting a little whine into his tone.
"Natalia?" Emma's sleepy voice interrupted.
Natalia's full attention was on her immediately. "I'm sorry baby," she said gently, smoothing Emma's hair back. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"Can we see mommy now?"
Natalia's eyes burned. "Soon honey," she replied. "We just need to drop by the hotel first, okay? Mommy left some important things in the safe there and we need to pick them up for her. All right?"
Emma nodded sleepily, rubbing bleary eyes. "And then we can see her?" she asked.
Natalia nodded. "After we get the things she needs," she said, silently apologizing for not telling the girl the whole truth. She had no intention of allowing Emma to see Olivia in her current state. In fact, if she could hold her off until Olivia was awake she'd consider her temporary guardianship a tremendous success.
Quickly Natalia drained her coffee, wrapped Emma up in her coat and gathered her into her arms. "Thanks again for everything Buzz," she said as she paused at the door.
"Hey," don't worry about it," he said. "Anything else you need...anything," he squeezed her shoulder, "we're here for you. The whole Cooper clan."
Natalia replied with a tight nod, a smile and a predictable stab of guilt as she headed towards her car. What was waiting for her there made her stop in her tracks.
Philip was leaning casually against the driver's side door.
The smile playing on Philip's lips as he watched Natalia and his daughter was not quite friendly, yet not quite menacing. It made her more uneasy than outright hostility would have, and she instinctively looked over her shoulder to the restaurant. She could see Buzz clearing up their coffee cups, but he wasn't looking at her.
"Hello Emma," Philip said gently, pushing himself off the car door and moving across to his daughter.
Emma responded by clinging tighter to Natalia and turning her head slightly to watch him through half-lidded eyes. "Hi daddy." She didn't sound as pleased to see him as she usually was.
Natalia wasn't sure if her own anxiety was rubbing off on Emma, but she forced herself to calm down and smile as warmly as possible at Philip. "Hello Philip," she said. "I didn't expect to see you so soon."
"No, I don't suppose you did."
"We're going to the hotel and then we're seeing mommy," Emma said in a small voice, curling her fingers into Natalia's hair. Natalia grasped her even closer.
"I need you to sit in the car now, okay sweetheart?" she whispered directly into her ear. When she felt Emma nod she lowered her to the ground walked her round to the passenger side door. When she was securely buckled in to the seat she closed the door and turned to Philip.
"Emma really doesn't need to be upset right now," she began, crossing her arms across her chest.
Philip spread his arms out magnanimously. "What makes you think I'm going to upset her?"
Natalia barely avoided rolling her eyes at that remark. "We're going to The Beacon," she said. "Olivia has all her legal stuff there; we can discuss her instructions for Emma's care tomorrow. After Emma gets a good night's sleep."
Philip shook his head. "We need to talk about this now," he said.
Natalia sighed deeply and ran both hands through her tangled hair. "Fine," she snapped. "Then come with me and see what Olivia wants for yourself. Just don't expect me to drive you." With that she nudged him aside and got into her car. She watched in the rearview mirror as Philip stalked back to his own and turned on the engine. His lights followed her too closely all the way to the hotel.
Emma barely protested at all as Natalia slipped her into her bed in the suite she was sharing with her mom. The girl fell prey to exhaustion almost the moment her head hit the pillow, her body curling around the stuffed rabbit Olivia had got her for Christmas so she lay in an almost foetal position. Natalia took a moment to smooth her hair back and kiss her forehead gently before she turned to Philip, who was hovering like an unwelcome spirit in the background.
"I could have handled that," he insisted, following her as she moved into the other room.
"Ssssh," Natalia scolded. "Don't wake her, for God's sake. She needs this."
"I'm not gonna wake her," he replied, forcefully but quietly. "Believe it or not, I know what's best for my daughter."
Natalia sat on Olivia's bed, watching Philip as she would a wasp in her kitchen. "Olivia is very sick," she said, somehow managing to keep the heartache from her voice. "She's in a coma. Emma is completely distraught. What exactly makes you think that dragging her away from a safe environment will do any good?"
"Safe?" His voice began to rise. "I'm not dangerous!"
Natalia's back stiffened. "That's not the impression I got at the hospital."
Philip held her gaze for just a moment before looking away, scraping his hands through his hair as he began to pace. "I was worried about Emma," he said tightly. "All I heard was that she'd been in an accident. I'm her father. I wanted to take care of her. I'm...sorry." The last word clearly cost him a lot.
Under normal circumstances Natalia would have felt sorry for him, parent to parent. Right now however she was far too tired and far too emotionally wrung out to care about his feelings. "Go home, Philip," she said, a note of steel in her voice. "I'll call you tomorrow and we can talk about what we're going to do."
Philip cast a long look to Emma's closed bedroom door, then back to Natalia. "We will talk tomorrow," he assured her.
"Fine." The tension in her voice was palpable. "But can you just go now, please? I meant what I said before. I can't deal with you right now."
There was a long pause before Philip finally nodded his head. "Tomorrow," he reminded her as he slipped out the door.
Natalia flopped back onto the bed, sighing deeply. "Whoop-de-fucking-do," she spat venomously before seeming to realise exactly what she'd said. "Well, I guess that's on my confession list," she muttered.
The urge to stay right where she was lying was incredibly strong. Every inch of her body ached and as for her mind...well, it was in pieces. And if her mind was in pieces then her soul had been ground to powder. She turned and buried her face in the comforter, inhaling Olivia's scent like it was a drug. "I need you here," she whispered. "Come back to me... Dear God, let her come back to me."
She had no idea how long she lay there. She may even have fallen into a fitful, restless sleep. All she knew was that when she finally opened her eyes they burned like fire. Her nerves were frayed and her muscles were alternately aching and twitching. She needed to sleep, but she also knew she needed ammunition against Philip. Groaning as she rolled from the bed, she stood and looked blearily round the room. There was a safe in the suite, she knew that, but it seemed likely that Olivia kept important documents in the main safe in her office.
She passed a couple of maids she knew to nod to on the way downstairs but couldn't muster up a smile for either of them. Nor could she manage to be civil to the desk clerk who offered a small smile and a look of worry. Natalia completely ignored her as she padded past, heading for Olivia's office.
The office was just average sized but it was dominated by a very large, very messy, desk. Olivia always claimed that she was simply using a three-dimensional filing system. It had caused their first and only major disagreement in a professional capacity when Natalia had tidied the desk soon after being appointed assistant. She'd really believed she was going to get fired that day, and she also believed that only the memory of her heart stopping during their last real battle of words had prevented Olivia from letting loose. Still, Natalia hadn't made the mistake of touching Olivia's desk again. And she had to admit, Olivia Spencer got things done, messy desk or no messy desk.
The safe required a combination which Natalia suddenly realised she had absolutely no idea about. "Okay, obviously the combination to the safe is not really important enough to tell me, right 'Liv?" she muttered. She tried Olivia's birthday, with no success. Too obvious, she supposed. Emma's birthday also yielded no results and she was just trying to remember Ava's when she found herself impulsively inputting her own.
The safe clunked open revealing a surprisingly neat pile of assorted papers and documents. "Olivia," she whispered, a flood of love for the other woman rushing through her suddenly and leaving her breathless. It took her a very long moment to recover from that, but when she did she decided to take all the papers upstairs to the suite so she could be there if Emma needed her.
On the way back up she met no-one, and was very glad of it. The news of her aborted wedding and Olivia's accident had been spreading around the small town for hours, and she knew that soon the whispering and the questions would start. The longer she could put that off the better.
The first thing she found was yet another power of attorney, this time dealing specifically with Emma. Natalia sighed in relief as she realised that she at last had something concrete to use against Philip for as long as Olivia remained unconscious. Olivia had given her the most generous powers she could, it seemed, allowing her to make decisions about Emma's health, both emergency and routine, her education, even on whether or not she should go on field trips. There was also a letter for her in an envelope marked 'To Natalia, about Emma' in Olivia's neat sloping handwriting.
|Dearest Natalia, |
I think you know how much I trust you with Emma. There's no-one I trust more. I've hopefully arranged everything so that you'll be free to take care of her if I'm sick. But if I die, Philip gets custody.
Natalia, I can't let that happen. I won't have my daughter brought up as a Spaulding, I won't. So that's why I need to ask you for something, something big. But I'm not afraid of what your answer will be because I know you and I know you'll do it.
If I die, go to my lawyer right away. He has adoption papers on file which I have already signed and dated. You just need to sign them too and use the same date I did. It's the only way I know to get my custody passed to you. And I don't want anyone else raising Emma but her #2 mommy.
Always remember, Natalia - you're a freakin' superhero.
Natalia read and reread the letter at least six times and would have gone on reading it if her tears hadn't threatened to wet the paper through. Suddenly her mind could supply no image but that of Olivia lying broken on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her lovely face bruised and swollen. Unable to hold herself up any longer Natalia fell back onto the bed, surrounding herself with Olivia's blankets. The faint memory of her perfume clung still to the bedding and Natalia drank it in greedily as she wept over what she might have lost. It took a long time for her to cry herself to sleep.
Saturday was traditionally Natalia's day to sleep late. When Rafe was growing up she'd always tried, as far as possible, to make sure she had Saturday off from her various jobs. In the morning Rafe would get up really early, get his own cereal and watch cartoons while Natalia caught a well deserved extra hour or two in bed. Then they'd go out together - to the park or for a walk round the neighbourhood if the weather was good; to a museum or library if the weather was bad. Very, very rarely she might take him to a movie - if the tips had been especially good that month, or if a few numbers had come up on the lottery ticket that she shared with the girls at work. But generally Rafe seemed to enjoy their Saturdays together whatever they did - and they were her most treasured days of the week.
That morning, for the first time in almost twenty years, Natalia woke with the dawn on a Saturday. She had been asleep for maybe five or six hours and she knew her body really needed more but her mind seemed to have staged a mutiny. All the thoughts she'd tried to beat down had come back with a vengeance in her dreams - Olivia's stark "there is no us", Frank's kicked puppy eyes, Olivia's face as she lay in the hospital bed. She scrunched her eyes shut so hard she could see coloured dots flashing like fireworks but the images wouldn't stop coming.
She rolled over onto her side trying to escape the onslaught of thoughts and found herself pushing against something warm and solid. Her eyes snapped open but her brief confusion was erased when she saw the ear of a white plush bunny poking out from under the bedclothes. Emma had transplanted herself in the night and now lay burrowed under the comforter, her body curled around a stray pillow. Natalia felt a wave of love swell and break as she leaned down to press her lips to the girl's forehead. Emma didn't stir, but she did sigh a little, her breath tickling Natalia's chin.
Being very careful not to wake her, Natalia slid out of bed. Her body was crying out for coffee and a shower, though not necessarily in that order. She felt grimy and the skin on her face was tight with a layer of dried tears. She longed for the sensation of water on her skin, washing away all the bad things like a baptism. That was what life with Olivia had been like, she thought. Baptism. The death of one life and the beginning of a new, deeper, richer one.
The Beacon Hotel had very good bathrooms, and Natalia spent longer than she'd meant to just standing under the steady spray letting her mind drift. The hot water was delicious and she almost - almost - managed to forget everything that was going on. But eventually she knew she needed to get back to the real world.
A quick towel dry later and she found herself looking through Olivia's bureau for a fresh shirt. Right at the back of the drawer she found a grey T-shirt she immediately recognised - Olivia had worn it a lot when she first gout out of hospital. Natalia couldn't resist it. It was actually a size or two big on her, but she didn't care. She began to wonder if she'd ever wear her own clothes again. The desire to be near Olivia in any way she could was so strong.
As soon as she was dressed she placed a call to room service for breakfast - banana pancakes and milk for Emma; coffee and a bran muffin for herself. She wasn't sure she'd be able to eat but when she saw Emma toying with her food she forced herself to swallow, if only to provide a good example.
"Did you sleep well honey?" she asked gently.
Emma shrugged. "I had a bad dream."
Natalia frowned. "Is that...is that why you came in to sleep beside me?" Emma nodded. "Do you want to tell me what the dream was about?"
"Mommy," Emma said simply. "Her arm was all backwards."
Natalia held back tears with sheer force of will as she tried not to think about how scary yesterday must have been for Emma who had been conscious the whole time and had had to see Olivia broken and bleeding in the road. "It's in a cast now," she said. "And soon it'll be all better."
Emma shifted restlessly. "Can I ask you something?"
Emma wouldn't meet her eyes. "Is my mom going to die?"
Natalia was sure her heart was breaking. She crossed the room and knelt by the side of the bed, grasping Emma's hands in hers. "No," she said confidently. "She is definitely not going to die."
Emma seemed to consider that for a moment, and then her face broke into a wide smile and she hugged Natalia's neck hard. "I love you, Natalia."
"I love you too, baby," Natalia replied, surprised she could even speak through the lump of emotion in her throat.
"Can I ask you something else?"
Natalia pulled her head back so she could look at the girl's face. "Sure."
Emma smiled. "I don't want to call you Natalia anymore," she said.
Natalia felt her eyebrows rising to her hairline. "No?"
Emma shook her head. "Rafe calls you 'ma'," she continued.
"Uh...yeah, he sure does," Natalia replied, feeling like she was about two steps behind in the conversation.
"But when he was little he called you 'mama'," Emma said. "He told me once." She looked into Natalia's eyes hopefully. "Can I call you mama too?"
This time there was no way she could stop her tears from falling. Her hands covered her mouth as she cried the happiest of all possible tears. "Oh, my baby," she gasped, pulling Emma into her arms and holding her tightly. "My darling, darling girl." She rained kisses down on the girl's forehead and cheeks, her face clasped gently between her palms.
"Does this mean yes?" Emma giggled.
"Yes!" Natalia exclaimed. "I'd love you to call me mama. I would...really, really love that."
They hugged again, but only briefly as the moment was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Natalia?" came the voice from the other side. "It's Philip."
When Emma was securely ensconced in the other room watching Saturday morning cartoons, Natalia turned to Philip. "I'm not letting you take her," she said bluntly. "I know what Olivia wants now." She passed him the document giving her permission to act as Emma's guardian while Olivia was sick. Philip read it over several times.
"I could fight this," he said blandly. Natalia sighed.
"You could," she agreed. "But Olivia will be awake in a few days and the point will be moot. And all you'll have succeeded in doing is turning me against you." She paused. "Do you know why Olivia lets you see Emma at all? It's not really because she sneaked off to testify for you that time." She met his eyes. "It's because of me. Because I told her Emma had a right to love her dad. Because I stopped her from badmouthing you in front of her."
Philip crossed his arms across his chest. "So what are you saying...?"
"I'm saying," Natalia replied sharply. "That I can influence Olivia. And if she wakes up and finds out you've been causing trouble it'll confirm everything she already thinks about you. All you'll do is push us so we're both against you. And let me tell you something, when Olivia and I are united? We are absolutely invincible." She finished with a note of pride in her voice and a defiant tilt to her chin. She was managing to look pretty invincible all on her own.
Philip lasted for a good ten seconds before admitting defeat, holding his hands in the air. "Okay, okay," he said. Natalia relaxed a little as she heard him laugh softly. "You know, you're quite something Natalia," he added.
Natalia rolled her eyes. "Don't flirt with me," she scolded.
Philip raised his eyebrows. "Wouldn't dream of it. Olivia's the one woman in the world who scares me. Well," he amended, taking another look at Natalia. "Actually, maybe that's one of two."
Natalia flushed, not quite knowing how to respond to his assumption that she and Olivia were together. She remembered a time when denial would have leapt instantly to her lips but now? Things were different now.
"But you know, I am supposed to get supervised visits every second Saturday," Philip was saying, pulling her back to the moment.
"Oh yeah, I remember," she said absently. Then she fully realised what Philip was saying. "Today? I don't know if that's such a good idea Philip..."
"It's a great idea," Philip argued. "You can call Jane to chaperone. I can distract Emma from what's going on. You don't want her seeing Olivia in her current condition, do you?"
Natalia didn't like it, but she couldn't deny it was true. "You'll stay with Jane," she said finally. "And text me every two hours."
Philip performed a small salute. "Yes boss," he said, and slid past her to get to Emma.
Natalia quickly called Jane, unable to shake her uneasiness, yet knowing she was being slightly ridiculous. Philip had taken Emma for visits with Jane before, and everything had been fine. Nothing was different today.
Except that I'm her mama now, her mind supplied. We're really a family. Rafe, me, Em and Olivia. We belong together.
She still wasn't exactly happy about Philip looking after Emma, but at least one good thing was coming of it. She was able to get back to Olivia's side now. She knew that was exactly where she belonged.
When she returned to the hospital she found Rafe dozing quietly in the hard plastic chair by Olivia's bed. She stopped for a moment in the doorway to watch him. He looked scruffy and strange in his wrinkled suit with the top shirt buttons undone and the tie loosened. Stubble had broken out on his chin and he looked a little pale, even accounting for the sickly pallor the hospital lights gave everyone. He was breathing deeply and slowly through his mouth, snoring a little just occasionally. Natalia didn't think she'd ever loved him more.
"Hey sweetie," she murmured as she crossed over to him and ran a hand over his brow. Rafe jerked awake, blinking furiously.
"Ma," he said blearily when he managed to focus on her. "Did you get Em?"
"Sshh, ssh," she soothed. "I got her. Everything's fine now." She glanced at Olivia. "You stayed with her all night."
"Yeah, well, she's important to you she's important to me, right?"
Natalia looked down. "Is that the only reason?"
Rafe paused. "No," he admitted at last. "I know I used to hate her guts ma, but...she's changed. You know, she's actually a good person." He shrugged. "She must be or you wouldn't care about her so much, right?"
Natalia wasn't sure how she had any tears left, but they arrived again on cue as she looked down into Olivia's face. "I do," she whispered. "So very, very much."
Rafe watched her as she reached out a trembling hand to cover Olivia's. The touch seemed to ground her, injecting a little more strength into her spine, letting her stand up a little straighter. A slow drawled "oh" slipped from his mouth, then he smiled up at her. "Am I going to have two mommies too?" he asked, a smirk pasting itself onto his face.
Natalia was frozen. "I-" she began, then broke off. "Rafe-" she tried again, but no more words would come.
"Ma, ma," he laughed as he stood up, took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. "I keep trying to tell you - whatever makes you happy makes me happy. That's it. I don't care who it is so long as he-" He stopped, a slow smile appearing on his face. "Or she," he continued, "is good to you and treats you right."
Natalia wrapped her arms around him so tightly she was surprised she didn't hear ribs cracking. "How can you tell all this just by looking at me?" she muttered. Rafe laughed.
"You're my mom," he said simply. "And I've seen you in love before you know."
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut. "I did love your dad," she whispered. "I did. But this is just...different."
Rafe rubbed her back soothingly. "Well yeah, she's a chick right?"
Natalia shook her head. "That's not what I mean." She frowned, trying to find the words for what she wanted to say. "Marrying Gus was a dream," she said at last. "It was a dream I'd had since before you were born. A dream I'd kept alive in the back of my mind the whole time you were growing up. You know there was never anyone else for me. He was the only man I ever wanted in my life."
Rafe nodded. "I know, ma," he said gently.
"But this thing," Natalia continued. "This is different. This is something I never imagined I could want. Not just because she's a woman but because she's her...because of our history." She looked up at her son, smiling. "God we hated each other." They both laughed and Natalia brought her hands round and placed them on his chest. "But she did something to me," she said. Her left hand moved to cover her heart. "She got inside. I don't know how. I don't know when. I just know she did. And now that I know what it is...to love her...to want her, I-" her voice cracked as the tears started again. "I don't know how to want anything else."
Rafe gently took her face in his hands, wiping away her tears with his thumbs. "So don't try," he said slowly. "Just love her and be happy."
They stood together like that for a long moment before Natalia's face split in a beatific smile. "How did you get so wise? When did that happen?"
Rafe laughed. "I dunno ma, maybe I've had good role models or somethin'."
Natalia grabbed his face and kissed his forehead. "I love you so much, Raphael Rivera. I don't know how you turned into such a good man. But thank God you did."
Rafe shook his head. "No ma," he said. "Thank you."
A noise at the door crashed into the moment, shattering it. "Wakey wakey Rafe, I brought coffee!" Frank was pushing the door open with his back, two paper cups in his hands. "Oh," he said when he turned and saw Natalia. He smiled and his voice dropped into a soft almost-whisper. "You're back. I was so worried about you, baby."
Natalia didn't dare look at Rafe whose eyes she could feel boring into the side of her head. Instead she concentrated on providing a weak smile for the man whose heart she was about to shatter into a million pieces.
Natalia sat for a long time holding Olivia's hand while she waited for Frank to return from taking Rafe back to the farmhouse for some well deserved sleep. It was amazing, really, what this woman's hands could make her feel. She remembered the few times their hands had touched before they really became friends. Olivia's hands had just been like anyone else's then, as hard as it was to believe that right now. They hadn't made her heart speed up, hadn't made her fingers tingle, hadn't made her feel weak and yet so very, very strong at the same time. They were just hands. Nothing more than bones, veins, muscles and skin.
But that changed, and Natalia began to think that maybe it was her hands she'd fallen in love with first. She had certainly begun to notice them more when Olivia spoke, waving her arms around energetically to make her point. And she had begun to crave their touch, the warmth of them, the unfamiliar softness and gentle strength. She needed that strength to pass to her now as she waited for Frank, knowing she needed to tell him everything.
"Well, he's home," Frank said as he slipped back into the room some time later - Natalia had lost track of exactly how long he'd been gone. She smiled tightly at him, still holding Olivia's hand tightly.
He pulled another chair over so he could sit next to her. "So, you got everything sorted out with Em and Philip, right?"
Natalia nodded, her gaze fixed on Olivia's face. "Emma's started calling me mama," she said, wonder and joy in her voice. In fact, she was really saying it to Olivia rather than Frank, so it was a surprise when she heard him reply.
"Is that such a good idea?" he said.
"What?" She turned to him, frowning deeply. "Why?"
"Well, I know things didn't quite work out yesterday but we're still engaged," he said. "When we get married we'll be starting our own family. Emma'll have to move on."
Natalia almost laughed, but there was no humour in the situation. "Oh, Frank," she sighed. "We're not getting married."
She could almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he sat stunned for almost a full minute. "Wha-" he said eventually. "Natalia, what are you talking about?"
Natalia turned back to Olivia, still holding her hand. "I'm sorry," she said, and meant it. "But I told you yesterday...I'm not really free."
Frank shook himself. "This is about Gus," he began, but Natalia interrupted.
"No, Frank, it's not about Gus."
Confusion spread over his face like a wave. "What?" He looked around the room helplessly. "This is...this is just being here in the hospital again, that's what it is." He ignored Natalia's shaking head. "You know, this is all just bringing back memories of Gus. You need to get out of here, you're not thinking straight."
"Well maybe not, but I am thinking clearly," Natalia replied instantly. The lines of confusion on Frank's face deepened.
"Come on," he said, grabbing her arm. "You need to go home and try not to think about this place." He persisted, despite Natalia's repeated 'no's. "Come on Natalia, you don't need to be here!" he said finally.
She looked up at him, shaking her arm loose. "You're wrong," she said. "I know where I need to be." She turned to Olivia again and even Frank could not mistake the look of pure love and devotion that transformed her face. "And who I need to be with..."
He looked from Natalia to Olivia and back again for at least half a minute. "This is what you meant," he murmured. "When you said you weren't free. Not Gus."
Natalia nodded. "No," she admitted, and looked up into his face with clear eyes. "I meant her."
Frank was pacing. He'd been pacing for at least five minutes and hadn't said a word since Natalia's quiet declaration. She was leaving him to it. She knew she owed him more than this, but it was getting harder and harder to want to give it to him with grace. She sighed. "Frank," she said at last, but he didn't let her continue.
"You know, this is so typical of Olivia," he muttered.
Nonplussed, Natalia's eyebrows raised and her lip curled in an unmistakably 'what the hell?' expression. "Uh..."
"She's always been selfish, you know?" He gestured towards the woman in the bed, a touch of contempt in his eyes. "But this really beats all."
"Frank? What are you talking about?"
He threw his hands up in frustration. "Her!" He was close to yelling. "Manipulating you, playing her 'oh I'm so sick, take care of me' game. Making you feel like you need to look after, making you feel obliged!"
Natalia was literally speechless. Had he heard nothing she'd just said? "I don't feel obliged," she finally managed to choke out, but Frank didn't seem to be listening.
"She can take care of herself, Natalia," he said. "You deserve to be free, to have your own life!"
"She is my life!"
He stopped in his tracks. "What?"
Natalia scraped her hands through her hair and grimaced. "I don't want to hurt you, Frank," she said. "I care for you, and I respect you. But you need to listen to me. Really listen."
Horror was beginning to dawn on Frank's face. "What are you saying Natalia?"
"I'm saying," she began steadily. "That I can't marry you because of Olivia. Not because I feel like I need to look after her. Not because she's manipulated me into thinking she needs me. Not because I'm obliged to her. Because I am in love with her."
Frank slumped against the wall, looking for all the world like someone had kicked him right in the stomach. "No," he moaned. "This is all wrong. You can't mean this..."
Natalia looked away. "I do, Frank," she whispered. "I do. I'm sorry that this hurts you, I am. But I can't pretend any more. I can't keep running from it. Because you know, I'm only running from myself."
Natalia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to get her heart under control. She hated this, had always hated it, confronting people, disappointing them, hurting them. She had very nearly gone through with the wedding rather than face this moment. Her heart thudded in her ears. But no...not her heart. She looked up at Frank who was rhythmically banging his head against the wall.
"Frank," she gasped rushing to his side and trying to pull him away from the wall. "Stop, you're hurting yourself!"
He jerked away from her hands as if he'd been burned. "What do you care?" He cast a venomous look at Olivia. "She'll never love you, you know," he spat. "Olivia Spencer doesn't know the meaning of the word. She only cares about herself."
Natalia shook her head, her face hardening. "You're wrong," she said, her lips a tight line. "I know her. I know how she feels."
"I know her too, Natalia. I've known her a lot longer than you and let me tell you, she'll never change. She's a cheater and a manipulator. She'll break your heart, I guarantee it."
Natalia shook her head. "No, Frank. Listen to me, I-"
"Oh, just tell me why?"
She shook her head. "Wha- Why what?"
"Why her and not me?" he demanded. "I think you owe me that much."
Natalia looked down at her hands. "It's not as simple as that, Frank. I-"
"Just tell me why."
"Because she sees me!" Natalia snapped, jerking her head up, eyes flashing with hurt and anger.
"I see you too!" Frank yelled instantly. Natalia almost laughed.
"No Frank," she explained, her voice hard. "You only think you do because she showed you."
He reeled back from her words as if struck. "Wha-?"
"You said it yourself," she reminded him. "She coached you. Helped you out a bit? Told you what I like, what I need, how to pretend to be the one for me? Didn't you ever wonder how she knew? Because she already was the person I needed, Frank."
He didn't speak. He looked lost, so unspeakably lost, that she felt all her anger draining away. "I'm sorry, Frank," she murmured. "I didn't plan this you know, it just...happened."
Frank shook his head. "I don't get it," he said softly. "I mean...what the hell does she have to offer that I don't? What has she ever given you?"
Natalia took a step back. "What has she given me?" she asked incredulously. "Well, she gave me a house last summer, for starters. And ten thousand dollars for Rafe's legal fees, before we were even friends."
Frank's lip curled. "I didn't think you were the type whose affections could be bought, Natalia."
Natalia straightened. "You're very close to saying something you can't take back, Frank," she warned.
He slumped a little. "Listen," he began, but she cut him off.
"No, you listen." Her voice was strong and clear. "What has she given me? A reason to go on living after Gus died. A chance to do a job I'm really good at, a job I never really believed I could do. A wonderful home and a life with the sweetest little girl in the world." She looked down at Olivia's sleeping face, and her voice softened. "She...challenges me," she said. "She always has, not that I always appreciated it. She pushes me, she spurs me on to do things I'd convinced myself I wasn't capable of. She sees more in me than just a mom or...or a waitress. She sees what I can be, not just what I am. And she helps me see it too." She looked up at him again. "What has she given me? Confidence. Self-respect. Friendship. And most of all - a love so pure, so...selfless...that she was willing to let me go just because she thought I'd be happy. She thought being married to you would make me happy. But it never could Frank, and I'm sorry. Because she is the one who makes me happy."
Frank's face made her heart ache but she knew he'd needed to hear everything she'd just said. She cursed herself for having been such a coward, for pushing her love for Olivia down so deep that she'd convinced herself that using this good, honourable man to run from her feelings was the best thing to do.
"I-" he choked, then swallowed, clearly fighting tears. "I have to go." She didn't try to halt his retreat. He was gone from the room in under five seconds, practically running to the exit.
Natalia sat down heavily, her breath coming out in one long rush. "So" she said to Olivia's unconscious form. "That went really, really well."
Natalia sat with Olivia for a long time before the buzz of her cellphone in her pocket brought her back to reality. There were two texts from Philip she hadn't read. The first had come in at 11am saying Taking Emma to the zoo. The second had arrived at exactly 1pm and said Emma says the lioness reminds her of you, I wonder why? She managed a smile. At least he was holding up to his end of the bargain, even if he did still make her a little nervous. She dashed off a quick reply - Bring her to the farmhouse at 5 please - and returned her attention to Olivia.
"Well, I have to go for a little while," she said, brushing Olivia's hair away from her face. "I have a few errands I need to run, but I'll be back to sit with you soon." She kissed Olivia's smooth forehead almost reverently, and suddenly remembered being in a similar position once before. She had almost kissed Olivia then, had come so close to taking that final step. She remembered the pounding of her heart, the tingling of her lips, the sense of absolute inevitability. She'd hardly been able to breathe when Olivia woke up and shattered the spell. And she'd run, literally and metaphorically, as far and as fast as she could.
She could have that kiss right now she realised, her heart thundering in her ears. Olivia wasn't going to wake up and stop her, she was going to be under for another day at least. She could quench a little bit of the slow fire that had been raging in her belly for so long. Her eyes drifted to those intoxicating lips and she nearly - nearly - gave in.
"Oh, you'd better wake up soon," she muttered, diverting her lips to the sleeping woman's cheek instead. "I really, really need you to kiss me."
With one last longing look at the woman she was so spectacularly in love with, she gathered her things and made for the door. And ran smack into Rick who was coming in at the same time.
"Whoah," he said, grasping her arms to keep her steady.
"Sorry," she said, smiling. "I was just going off to run a few errands."
"I need to talk to you first," he said, holding out yet another clipboard with forms for her to sign.
"Oh, this looks fun," she muttered, sitting down again and taking the clipboard and pen from him.
He smiled. "It's about the fractures this time," he explained. "The arm is a good clean break, we'll just put it in a cast for six weeks or so and that'll be that. It's the leg that's concerning us."
Natalia skimmed the form he'd given her, not really taking in any of the medical jargon but she was pretty sure she understood the phrase 'compound fracture of the tibia'. "So what do you need to do?" she asked.
"Well," Rick replied, drawing up a chair. "Basically we need to do a little surgery on the leg. We'll insert a titanium nail into the bone, and clear a few things up in there. It's actually not that bad - at least she didn't damage the ankle or the knee too. This has a good prognosis for a full recovery, eventually."
"Eventually?" she repeated.
"Well, she'll need to stay completely off the leg for at least six weeks," he explained. "Once the cast on the arm's off we can think about letting her use crutches for limited periods. When the leg cast comes off her muscles will have atrophied somewhat, so that'll require some physical therapy. All in all I'd say she should be pretty much back to normal in five, six months."
Natalia sat in silence for a moment. "Six months," she repeated dully. "Wow. That's...uh, that's a pretty long recovery."
Rick nodded. "And it'll be boring and painful," he said, not really sounding too sorry about it. "But listen, we really need to get this nail inserted right away. We should have done it yesterday, but we had to deal with the head injury first."
Natalia quickly signed the form. "Okay," she said. "Well...let me know when she's out of surgery," she said, standing.
"No problem," he said. "Listen, about what I was saying yesterday-" he began, but Natalia held up her hand.
"Can I talk to you about it later?" she asked. "I really need to make a few calls as soon as I can. I'll be back tonight, okay?" With that she was gone.
Rick watched her leave, uneasiness settling over him like a blanket. He looked down at Olivia. "Okay, let's get you cut open," he murmured, and pressed the call button for a nurse.
By the time five o'clock rolled around Natalia was exhausted and sweaty but extremely satisfied. Olivia's very confused movers had been called and had spent a couple of hours bringing back all the things they'd carted out of the farmhouse the previous day. Then Natalia had woken Rafe and enlisted his help in putting everything back where it belonged. Olivia's bedroom looked like Olivia's bedroom again. The only thing missing was the woman herself.
Natalia had even managed to avoid crying all day. She'd only come close once when she was making Olivia's bed with fresh sheets. Her hand had scraped against something under the pillow which turned out to be a photo of her and Emma that Olivia had taken sometime in February - after the two mommies debacle and before the Philip catastrophe. Natalia was looking right at the camera with shining eyes and Emma was looking at Natalia with such glee and love that it made her heart ache. Reverently she had placed it back under the pillow where she found it, her heart almost bursting with love for the woman who had first put it there. Natalia wondered if Olivia would ever stop surprising her. She really, really hoped not.
Philip dropped Emma off at exactly five o'clock. "I'm behaving myself," he said as Emma rushed passed Natalia to see what she'd done to her room in the one night since she'd been gone.
"Do you...uh...want to stay for dinner?" She wasn't quite sure what had prompted her to ask, and was extremely relieved when he shook his head.
"You know, maybe I'll take you up on that another time," he said.
She resisted the urge to let out a calming breath. "Okay...well, thanks for looking after Emma."
"Anytime," he said seriously. "I mean it. I love my daughter very much. I'd never do anything to hurt her."
Natalia nodded tightly as she showed him to the door. The day had gone some way to allowing her to begin trusting him but she wasn't there yet. Not by a long shot.
"You put my books in the wrong place, mama," Emma scolded her as she came back into the kitchen.
Natalia shook her head, a smile breaking out on her face. "They're on your bookshelf aren't they?" she asked, ruffling Emma's hair.
"But they're not in the same order!" Emma protested.
Natalia chuckled. She hadn't been able to resist arranging the books in order of height rather than the higgelty-piggelty way Emma had had them before. "Well, why don't you go and fix that while I make us some dinner, hmm?"
Emma scampered off to do just that. Natalia smiled after her. She hadn't asked about her mom yet, something for which Natalia was grateful. She wasn't sure what she was going to tell her when she demanded to see her. One thing was for sure, she definitely didn't want to let her see Olivia until she was conscious and able to reassure her personally that she was all right.
For an hour or so Natalia devoted herself to cooking, glad of the normality of chopping, frying and simmering. She could hear Emma and Rafe moving around the house and for a few moments she almost let herself forget that there was a piece of her heart lying in a hospital bed across town. Momentarily she allowed herself to lapse into a fantasy - her children safe and happy in the other room, dinner simmering gently on the stove, and Olivia slipping up behind her, wrapping her arms round her waist and resting her chin on her shoulder. She closed her eyes and sighed, almost able to feel those strong arms around her, almost able to smell the scent of her skin...
"Hey ma, what's for dinner?" Rafe yelled from the living room, jerking her back to reality without ceremony.
"Uh..." She had to clear her throat. "Chicken and rice," she called back. "And don't yell in the house, okay?"
"Okay," he yelled. Natalia rolled her eyes.
An hour later, bellies full, the three of them settled down on the couch to watch TV. Emma pressed herself against Natalia's side her small arms wrapped around her waist. When the phone rang Rafe got up to answer it. "Hello," he said, then listened for a few moments. "It's for you ma," he explained, carrying the handset over to her. "It's Doctor Rick."
"Hi, Rick," she said, a smile in her voice as she raised the phone to her ear. "So, is her leg bionic yet?" Rafe watched as the smile slipped from his mother's face. "What? But...it's too early, isn't it? I thought it'd be another day?" Rafe sat up a little straighter. "Okay," his mother said. "I'll...I'll be right there."
Rafe was sure Doctor Rick was still talking but Natalia had already hung up and made a dash for the coat rack. "Hey, what's going on ma?" he said, following her.
"You need to look after Em for a while, okay?" she said, ignoring his question.
"Ma!" he repeated. "What is it?"
She turned to him, a mix of worry and hope swimming in her eyes. "She's awake!"
Return to Guiding Light Fiction
Return to Main Page