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
Frank Cooper had made a lot of screw ups in his life but, he decided, what he'd done to Natalia was probably the worst. He'd felt so justified at the time. After all, Natalia had been stringing him along, using him for months to hide from her own feelings. But that was nothing new for Frank; in fact, it seemed to be his lot in life. He projected this image of goodness and decency and safety, and women had this way of seeing him as this non threatening brotherly figure. Natalia obviously had. She'd gone to him precisely because of her lack of passion for him. He remembered the time they'd made love. How could he not have noticed the signs? She had been so rigid and unresponsive to his touch, lying beneath him and staring at the ceiling as if trying to pretend she wasn't there. He thought he might even have hurt her a little as he pressed on, despite her palpable lack of excitement. And afterwards...the look on her face. Like something in her had curled up and died. And he'd been oblivious. He'd told himself it was all about her religion - everyone knew Catholic girls were sexually repressed, right? He'd been looking forward to spending a few years teasing some passion out of her.
From the way she looked at Olivia, Frank understood that she really didn't need any help with that.
Sighing, he took a long swig of his beer. He'd necked three bottles already and it was only lunchtime. Obviously he wasn't going back to work that day. But that was fine. He'd hardly been able to stand being in the station over the last week. Everything about his job reminded him of how he'd used his petty power against Natalia, striking out in his pain and anger to hurt a woman he had claimed to love. But how could he have loved her when he'd never really known her? He'd wanted to take care of her, but she wasn't a child. She'd been looking after herself since she was a teenager. She was strong, independent. Olivia had seen that from the start; he remembered her trying to tell him as much one day at Company. He hadn't listened. Olivia had said Natalia needed to be challenged...well, she had been, but not by him. The things he'd wanted to give her - security, safety, protection - were not what she needed. Olivia had given her what she needed. She always had. So how could he be surprised when, standing at an altar and faced with a choice between him and her, Natalia had chosen her?
Frank knew first hand just how attractive Olivia was, but he could see it wasn't all about that. There was more to Olivia than her looks, devastating though they were. Hell, he'd thought he loved her once, until she'd smashed his heart into a million pieces. But what he'd said to Natalia at the hospital wasn't true. Olivia had changed. Anyone could see it. She was a actually good person, and no-one had been more surprised to discover that than Olivia herself.
Frank glanced over to see his father sliding into the stool beside him. He nodded at the bartender to order another beer for him and inclined his own bottle slightly towards Buzz when it was placed in front of him. "Hey," he replied. They sat drinking together for a silent few minutes.
"So," Buzz said at last. "It's been a hell of a week, huh?"
Buzz watched his son steadily and took a deep breath. "You know, I've made plenty of mistakes in my time," he said quietly. "And sometimes I thought there was no way to make it right. But you know, what's important is to try."
Frank shook his head. "I really hurt her, pop," he said bleakly.
"And she hurt you," Buzz replied. "There's a lot of bad between you, and maybe nothing you can do will ever put things exactly right, but that doesn't mean you get to do nothing. You've gotta try, Frank."
A pensive expression stole across Frank's face just as Buzz's cellphone began to ring. "Hello?" he said, then frowned. "Hey," he said. "How are you feeling?" A low chuckle rumbled deep in his throat. "Is that so? Well maybe I can help you with that...uh huh...onions...okay...I won't be long." He flipped the phone closed and turned back to his son. "That was Olivia," he said. "I'm going to go out to the farmhouse and visit for a little while. Why don't you come with me? Maybe it'll give you a chance to talk to Natalia?"
Frank shook his head sadly. "I can't see her right now pop," he said. "She's not going to want to listen to anything I have to say, not now."
Buzz shrugged. "Okay...well, just think about what I said, okay?"
Frank nodded. "I will," he said, and meant it. If there was one thing that was crystal clear it was that he had a lot of thinking to do.
In normal circumstances Buzz would have been flattered to have a woman so delighted to see him, but he figured it was actually the burger he'd brought with him that Olivia was really excited about. She'd fallen on it the moment he placed it in her hands, chewing with almost orgasmic delight, her eyes fluttering closed in pleasure.
"Oh Jesus tapdancing Christ, this is so good," she murmured around another mouthful. "Why have I never had onions on my burgers before? The onions are freakin' key." Buzz smirked.
"Are you sure you should be blaspheming in this house?" he quipped. Olivia rolled her eyes.
"Don't start," she muttered darkly.
Buzz held up his hands. "Okay, okay," he said, laughing. "I take it the burger meets with your approval?"
Olivia nodded. "You have no idea how much I need this," she said, biting off another huge mouthful.
"Natalia's not feeding you properly?"
Olivia swallowed hard. "Oh, she's feeding me very properly," she said. "Fish, and steamed vegetables, and low fat milk, and calcium supplements. I swear, if I could walk I'd be out there right now murdering one of the cows." She licked some grease off her fingers as she continued. "Red meat increases calcium loss," she whined, making a game attempt at imitating Natalia's voice. "Salt robs your bone density."
Buzz chuckled. "Well, you know Natalia, she's-"
"I know, I know," Olivia interrupted testily. "She's practically perfect in every way!"
Buzz smiled. "I was going to say she's always taken care you."
There was a pause, and then a slow smile spread across Olivia's face. "Yeah," she said softly. "I'm starting to see that." They lapsed into silence for a few moments before Olivia looked around and took a deep breath. "Can you believe I actually live here?" she asked, a hint of wonder edging into her voice.
Buzz tilted his head and raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement of the unlikeliness of the situation. "Yeah, I remember thinking it would last ten minutes at best when you first moved in here," he admitted. "But you know, it really works. I almost can't imagine you anywhere else."
Olivia frowned. "Why?" she murmured, and Buzz could hear the sorrow at all she had lost seeping into her voice. He leaned forward.
"We've known each other a long time, right?" he said. "Been through a lot together?"
She nodded slowly. "That's a bit of an understatement, yeah," she agreed.
He reached out and took her hand, his face serious. "You're a complicated woman, Olivia," he began. "You're intelligent, you're ambitious, you're beautiful...but you've never really been happy." Olivia opened her mouth to protest, but he hushed her. "Please, let me finish," he said.
Her hand felt tense in his but she relented, settling back against her pillows. "Okay," she said guardedly.
Buzz squeezed her hand. "I wanted to be the one to make you happy once," he said, his eyes locked on their joined hands. "I wanted to...I don't know, fix you. Because you're damaged, Olivia. There's something about you, something...inside. Something missing that you've been trying to find for a very long time. That's why you've been moving around all your life, from San Cristobal to Springfield, or from man to man. You've always had your eyes open looking for something better, and you've never really let yourself just be content."
Her eyes were shining with unshed tears as he looked up at her. He let go of her hand and slid his fingers across her cheek. "I'm not trying to upset you," he said quietly. "I'm trying to make you understand...whatever it is, whatever's been missing from your life all this time that's stopped you from really being happy...you found it here. In this place, with her."
She swallowed hard. "How?" she asked, her voice watery.
Buzz shrugged. "Who knows how anyone finds happiness?" he said. "All I know is that you fit here. You're calmer. You're healthier. And you're...yourself. I think you're yourself for the first time."
There was a long, protracted moment of silence as they stared at each other. Olivia opened her mouth to speak.
"Hey, I'm home!" came Natalia's voice, floating in from the kitchen. Buzz dropped his hand to his side and Olivia quickly wiped her eyes.
"Hey there," he called back, smiling as Natalia entered the room to greet him.
"Buzz! Oh, it's so good to see you," she exclaimed, hugging him briefly.
She started to ask after his family (not Frank though, he noted) and how things were going at Company but he wasn't really listening. His eyes were focused on Olivia who was staring at Natalia like she'd never seen her before.
Natalia had always found something very comforting about baking bread. It was almost magical - flour, water, salt and a little yeast was all it took. It seemed simple, but whole civilisations had risen and fallen on that alchemy. She'd certainly felt its absence in the past, when tips were bad or jobs were lost and she could afford to feed Rafe but not herself. Those were the times when she found herself baking rather than buying bread, because she had a little more time on her hands, and because it was cheaper. Plus there was the therapeutic value to the physical exertion involved. Mix, knead, turn, knead, turn, knead until her muscles would scream and sweat would break out on her brow. But it was always worth it because she got to see it rise, grow, slowly take on a life of its own. Like bringing up a child. Like falling in love.
"I still don't see how this is better than buying it."
Natalia turned her head to Olivia, a dot of flour dusting her nose. Olivia's eyes honed in on it. She wanted to wipe it off, she realised; her fingers tingled with the desire to reach out and touch. She thought she'd done something like that before. She remembered leaning over a table...fingers searching...giggling...
"Well, it tastes better, it's cheaper and you have the satisfaction of knowing you made it all by yourself."
Olivia shook herself a little as Natalia interrupted her memory. "But it's so sloooow," she drawled. Emma looked up from her homework and giggled. Natalia rolled her eyes.
"Some of the best things that have ever happened to me have happened slowly," she said, turning her dough ninety degrees and pushing it out with the heel of her hand. Knead, turn, knead, turn.
Natalia grinned to herself. "Glacial," she said. She turned back to Olivia. "Besides," she added. "We're supposed to be all about routine, right? Well, every Sunday I go to church early then come home, make soup and bake bread while Emma does her homework and you criticize me." She smiled. "We're only following doctor's orders."
Olivia shot her a lopsided smirk, their eyes met and locked, and for a second it was just like old times. Something indefinable sparked between them and Natalia's breath caught. Then Olivia looked away. "What kind of soup?" she asked.
Natalia turned back to her dough. Butterflies. "Carrot and cilantro," she said, hoping the tremble stayed out of her voice.
Olivia pulled a face. "Carrots again?" she asked.
"They're good for you," Natalia replied instantly. "Extremely high in Vitamin A. Good for bone metabolism."
She expected some kind of sarcastic retort and when it didn't come she turned, a frown creasing her brow. Olivia was staring at her speculatively, with something Natalia couldn't quite name shining in her eyes. "You are so sweet..." Olivia murmured seriously, then blinked. She seemed to shake herself and quickly plastered a grin onto her face. "This is why Rafe's diabetic, right?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "He absorbed too much sugar in the womb."
It was almost a relief. Olivia was still Olivia after all - and there was nothing like a joke to cover up an emotional moment. Natalia barked out a laugh and returned to kneading her dough, a little more forcefully than before. Emma finished up her homework and excused herself, rushing off to catch her favourite TV show.
Natalia cast a glance over her shoulder at Olivia. "Hey, have you ever heard of the Road to Emmaus?" she said.
"That's in Pennsylvania, right?" Olivia replied instantly, but Natalia could hear the smile in her voice. She rolled her eyes.
"It's a Bible story," she explained. "Father Ray read it in church today."
Olivia sighed indulgently. "Go on," she said.
Natalia smiled. "Well, Emmaus was a town just outside Jerusalem," she began. "And on the day of Christ's resurrection two of his followers were walking there, talking about everything that had happened. A man they didn't recognise joined them and started talking to them and asking them why they were so sad. They told him all about what had happened to Jesus, and he walked with them the whole way, explaining to them the Jewish prophecies about the messiah..." She trailed off, kneading her dough harder and faster than before.
Olivia waited for a moment. "And..." she said, when it seemed as if Natalia wasn't going to continue.
"And," Natalia went on. "When they got to the town they invited the stranger to eat with them. And at the meal something amazing happened. The stranger blessed the bread and when he broke it their eyes were opened and they saw...it was him. Jesus."
Olivia stared at Natalia's back, watching the play of muscles underneath her white cotton T-shirt as she kneaded her bread. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked softly. Natalia slowed what she was doing, then stopped and turned to face her.
"The Road to Emmaus teaches us to have hope, even when things seem bleakest. The travellers thought they'd lost everything, but Jesus was with them all the time. They just needed to have their eyes opened." She paused, then took a deep breath. "We're on our own Road to Emmaus, right now," she declared. "It wasn't just you who lost something in that accident. I lost something too. Our life here...how close we've become...and now we're travelling back to that, together."
Olivia watched Natalia for a long moment, then held out her hand. "Come here," she said softly. Natalia obeyed without question, reaching out and taking Olivia's hand in her own. Olivia looked up at her with serious eyes. "I'm not going to get my memory back because you feed me a bread roll," she said. "You understand that, right?"
Natalia nodded tightly. "Of course I know that," she insisted. "Of course I do."
Olivia smiled. "But that's not to say I won't ever get it back," she added. "Some things are already slotting into place. Like this..." She reached up and wiped that spot of flour she'd been eyeing from Natalia's nose. "It was ice cream before...right?" Natalia nodded again, and Olivia could see tears springing to her eyes. "Hey, don't cry," she admonished gently, tugging on Natalia's hand to get her to move down level with her. Natalia crouched down, allowing Olivia to wrap her arm round her shoulders and pull her closer.
"I'm sorry," Natalia breathed, wiping her eyes harshly with the back of her hand.
"Don't be," Olivia soothed. "I..." she trailed off, looking for the words. "It means a lot to me...that you care," she said at last.
"Of course I care," Natalia replied instantly.
Olivia looked down shyly. "About me?" she asked. "Or about Gus's heart?"
Her question sat in the air between them for a long moment before Natalia's hesitant, trembling fingers moved up and ghosted over Olivia's chest. "I haven't thought of it as Gus's heart for a very long time," she whispered.
Emotion welled up in Olivia's throat and for a moment she couldn't speak. "Yeah?" she said at last, her voice low and husky.
"Yeah," Natalia replied in a breath, flattening her palm against the beat of Olivia's heart. "It's yours," she said. "Just yours..." She looked up into her eyes. "I know you won't get all your memories back just like that," she murmured. "I know this isn't like the story." She took a deep breath. "But you know, what the story teaches us is that salvation comes exactly when we need it. And it can come in the most unexpected of guises. In the most surprising ways..."
Olivia felt something fundamental shift inside her. She wanted to kiss this woman, she suddenly realised. She'd never wanted anything like that before...
She ran her hand through Natalia's hair without really thinking about what she was doing. "Yes," she breathed, her eyes locked with Natalia's. "I think you're right. I think it can..."
Natalia was familiar with this dance. It began with hostility, the partners circling each other like wary animals waiting to see who would pounce first. Then there would be a little change in the rhythm or the tempo and they'd find themselves - almost against their will - inching closer. Soon the wariness would disappear, replaced by a deep desire to continue the dance, wherever it led. Their hands would finally touch and then...just as they should have been falling into each other's arms...retreat.
Olivia was definitely in retreat. If she could have walked she would have bolted from the room after their last conversation. Natalia had watched the shutters come down in her eyes, the hardening of her jaw, the tensing of her muscles. Something had scared her badly and, from the look in the other woman's eyes, Natalia was pretty sure she knew what it was. Lust. Olivia had been staring at her with a very familiar expression...eyes half-lidded and dark, lips parted, breath shallow. Natalia's face had burned under that gaze and for a brief moment she was sure they were about to kiss...
...before Olivia abruptly dropped her hands to her sides and asked to be moved back to the living room.
Natalia sighed as she stirred her soup. History was repeating itself, albeit at a much quicker pace. How was she going to stop Olivia from walking away from her again declaring bleakly "there is no us"?
But then, was it Olivia's fear or her own that had caused that little catastrophe?
Olivia had demonstrated many times that she was willing to sacrifice her own happiness for Natalia's sake. And what had she heard that day? Natalia lamenting for the Coopers. Natalia saying "please just let go" and flinching as if burned when she'd tried to take her hand. Natalia asking "what good is that kind of truth?" Olivia's truth. Olivia's love.
She had rejected it, she suddenly realised. She hadn't meant to. She'd just been talking without thinking, without considering what subtext Olivia was going to read into her words. She'd said "I love you Olivia," but what had Olivia heard? Maybe..."I love you Olivia, but just saying that makes me miserable."
Natalia dropped the spoon into the soup and barely noticed the splash burning her hand. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have pushed Olivia away when all her body had been crying out for was to fall into her arms and never leave? She replayed the gazebo conversation in her mind again, this time seeing the hope that had ascended and then gradually died in Olivia's eyes as Natalia just kept talking...and talking...and talking...
This is my fault, Natalia thought, blood draining from her face. If I'd said what I really wanted to she wouldn't have walked away. She wouldn't have been on that street. She'd be here with me now, whole and healthy.
Sobs rose in her throat which she covered up with the sound of cold water gushing from the tap as she held her scalded hand under it. She held it there for a long time, and when she finally turned the water off her hand was numb.
"Hey, Em was wondering when dinner's going to be ready."
Natalia turned before she had time to paste a fake smile onto her face. Emma was grinning up at her, obviously proud of the fact that she'd managed to push her mom's wheelchair all the way from the living room to the kitchen. But Olivia looked stricken.
"What's wrong? Why are you crying?" she demanded.
Natalia smiled a watery smile and shrugged with one shoulder. "It's nothing," she said.
Olivia raised her eyebrows. "No, it's not nothing," she insisted. "What is it?"
Natalia held up her hand. "I just burnt my hand. It's nothing, really."
Olivia frowned. "Em, will you run and get me the first aid kit?" she said, half turning to face her daughter.
"Oh...really Olivia, it's nothing," Natalia protested.
Olivia shook her head. "Come here," she said, using her work voice. Natalia obeyed reluctantly, closing the distance and sitting in a chair so they were level. "I was a chef once, did you know that?" Olivia continued as Emma handed her the first aid kid.
Natalia couldn't quite hide the look of disbelief that stole across her face. "Then why do I do all the cooking?"
Olivia smirked. "Because it obviously suits me to pretend to be hopeless," she said. "Hey, can you get me the Saran wrap sweetie?" she asked, turning to Emma and missing the look of outrage on Natalia's face.
"You are unbelievable!"
Olivia chuckled. "That's why you love me, right?"
Silence reigned as both women realised what she'd said. Olivia's hands stilled and a deep frown creased her brow. A bomb could have gone off in the other room and Natalia doubted they'd have noticed. The universe had contracted suddenly and all that existed was the two of them and the place where their hands touched.
"So," Natalia began, trying to cut the tension. She coughed to clear her throat. "What does being a chef have to do with my hand?"
Olivia came back to life and grabbed the Saran wrap Emma was holding out to her gratefully, obviously glad of the distraction. "Just that I know how serious kitchen accidents can be," she replied, wrapping Natalia's injured hand gently in the clear plastic. Her fingers were soft and mild on Natalia's skin. Natalia watched her as she worked, her heart melting at the look of intense concentration on Olivia's face as she began to dress the wound with a second layer, this time a cotton bandage. "All done," Olivia said at last, but didn't release her hand. Their fingers played together for a long moment, seemingly of their own volition. Natalia smiled.
"Thank you," she said, then slowly and deliberately leaned forward. "We take such good care of each other," she whispered in Olivia's ear, then gently kissed her cheek.
For a long moment Olivia didn't speak. Natalia pulled back and smiled at her innocently. She's staring at my lips, Natalia thought almost giddily. She'd seen that look before so many times - but now she was willing to acknowledge what it meant.
Olivia coughed. "Yeah," she said finally. "I guess we do..."
"I'll just go and get the soup," Natalia said softly. She hoped she was projecting an air of calm because inside her stomach was doing cartwheels.
Natalia believed that human beings were made up of their own version of the holy trinity - not Father, Son and Holy Spirit but Mind, Soul and Body. Olivia's mind may not remember, Natalia thought with a grin. But her body does... She glanced over at Olivia who still looked a little shell-shocked.
I can use that...
Olivia had felt in a permanent state of discombobulation all day. All week, really, if she was honest. She was finding it very difficult to keep her eyes off Natalia, and she wasn't quite sure why. She was noticing things...her hands, the way they moved, the play of muscles and tendons under the skin. Her smile, the way it lit up the room and lifted her heart. And her lips...oh dear God, her lips. Full and soft looking and so very, very kissable.
And that was really the crux of the issue. Natalia's kissable lips that she couldn't stop staring at. Olivia Spencer was known as a man-eater - she was even rather proud of the label. She had never in her life wanted to kiss a woman before.
She'd have liked to withdraw from Natalia, regroup and think. But she couldn't because she couldn't just get up and leave the room - she was dependant on Natalia for everything. And Natalia wasn't exactly giving her space. If she didn't know the other woman better she'd almost think it was deliberate. Every time she got up from the table at dinner she'd run her hand up her arm as she passed. When she sat back down she'd pat her hand. When Olivia ate she'd wipe little bits of food from her lips with the pad of her thumb - sometimes Olivia was sure there wasn't even anything there. And always there was the smile, and the voice, and the sheer steady, simple presence of Natalia surrounding her, making her head spin.
"Can we watch a movie tonight?" Emma asked as Natalia stood up to clear away the dishes.
"Friday's movie night," Olivia replied distractedly. Natalia stopped in mid stride and looked back at Olivia over her shoulder.
"You remember that?" Her voice was shaky.
Olivia looked up. She remembered popcorn, laughter, Emma and Natalia...one blanket. "Yeah..." she replied dazedly. She frowned. "King Kong..." she whispered.
Natalia dropped the plates.
The spell was broken. Olivia blinked and suddenly laughed as Natalia dropped to her knees and began frantically cleaning up the pieces. "Hey, didn't I tell you I wouldn't be helping you when everything crashed to the floor?"
If Natalia had been holding anything she'd have dropped it again. "You remember that too?"
Olivia paused then broke into a broad grin. "I guess I do." She grabbed Emma and pulled her into as strong a hug as she could manage with only one good arm. "Pretty good going, huh Jellybean? Two in one night!"
Natalia finished tossing the remnants of their dinner plates in the trash. "Well, apparently I don't have to do the dishes," she said brightly. "I think this calls for a celebration!"
Emma squealed. "Movie?" she asked, her eyes bright.
Natalia ruffled her hair. "You choose Em; I'll get the popcorn."
Emma rushed off to the living room, whooping. Olivia and Natalia both laughed, but Olivia stopped when Natalia slid her fingers into her hair, cupped the back of her head and tilted her neck up. "Looks like that bread roll did the job after all," she murmured.
Olivia gulped, staring at those intoxicating lips. "Uh huh," she breathed, but hadn't really heard what she'd said. Natalia smirked.
"I'll get the popcorn."
Ten minutes later Olivia found herself in bed, propped up against her pillows with Emma nestled against her left side, carefully avoiding her casts. The little girl had chosen Beauty and the Beast. That was good. She wouldn't have to concentrate on that at all, and she could spend a little time trying to get her head on straight. Natalia's intoxicating presence would at last be slightly distant. She would have space.
Or at least that's what she thought until Natalia climbed up onto the bed and casually laid her head on her shoulder.
"Ooh, I love this movie," Natalia said, as if nothing had happened. "Good choice Em."
Olivia's heart was racing. "Uhm...Natalia?" she muttered. "What are you doing?"
Natalia smiled up at her. "We're watching a movie," she explained, as if it should have been obvious. "You, me and Emma." She patted her hand on Olivia's stomach. "This is our routine."
"Oh..." Olivia breathed, noting that Natalia hadn't removed her hand.
Emma covered Natalia's hand with her own and smiled up at her too. "Yeah, mommy," she agreed, and Olivia could only nod. Attacked on two fronts, her brain murmured. Hardly fair.
Natalia wasn't sure when she fell asleep. She'd been trying valiantly to finish watching the movie but the last thing she remembered was her eyes flickering shut and Olivia's arm hesitantly coming round her shoulders to pull her closer.
She wasn't leaning against Olivia anymore. She was lying on her side, one hand trapped under her, the other thrown carelessly above her head. She was exceedingly comfortable and warm and safe and...
...and Olivia was pressed up against her back.
For a moment she thought that Olivia was asleep too, and then she felt it. A slightly trembling hand came to rest on her shoulder and then slowly travelled down her arm, a trail of gooseflesh erupting in its wake. Olivia's breath was on her neck, warm and shallow, and Natalia thought her heart was going to beat right out of her chest.
"What are you doing to me?" Olivia whispered softly. Natalia could hear the faint static hiss of the TV in the background, the whistle of the wind in the tree outside, the occasional drip of the leaky faucet in the kitchen. With sudden clarity she realised that she would never, ever forget this moment. This was going to be burned onto her soul forever.
Olivia brought her hand back up and this time tangled it into her hair. She ran her fingers through it almost reverently, sighing gently at the incredible softness beneath her fingertips. "You're beautiful," she murmured, sounding almost surprised. Fingers ghosted across Natalia's cheek, pulling her hair back. "So beautiful..."
Natalia's breath hitched but Olivia was too far gone to notice. She hovered over her for just a moment - hardly any time, but long enough for Natalia to wonder if it was possible to actually die of anticipation. And then - unutterably slowly - Olivia leaned down and placed a gentle kiss behind Natalia's ear, just at the point where her jawbone met her neck. It wasn't a peck. It was long and slow and deliberate and Natalia was sure she was going to ascend into heaven right there on the spot.
Emma's small sleepy voice intruded into the moment and Olivia turned quickly back to her daughter. Natalia's eyes snapped open and she gasped. Her heart was thundering wildly in her ears and for a few moments she was aware of nothing but her pulse, her breath and the burning where Olivia's lips had touched her skin.
Slowly she came back to reality. "Hey," she said, making a big performance of yawning and stretching to maintain the illusion that she'd just woken. "Is the movie over?"
Emma nodded, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her hands.
Natalia smiled. "Okay Jellybean, time for bed," she said, and it was a testament to how tired the girl she was that she didn't even protest.
It took twenty minutes to get Emma settled in bed, and when Natalia returned to the living room after getting into her own night clothes she felt she'd done a very good job of getting herself under control. She was breathing normally, her heart was only doing a jog instead of a sprint and she could even look Olivia in the eye while she got her dressed for bed. Only briefly of course, but it was something.
"Are you going to stay down here tonight?" Olivia asked as Natalia fed her some pills and made her drink half a glass of water.
Natalia nodded firmly. "Yup," she said, smiling. "I'll be right here if you need me."
Olivia looked down, unable to meet Natalia's eyes. "You could..." she began, then coughed. "You could sleep here..." Her eyes glanced over the empty half of her bed. "If you want."
Natalia hardly dared to breathe. "Okay," she murmured. She turned off the light and looked back at Olivia who looked absolutely petrified. Slowly she climbed into the bed, pulling the covers over her shoulders. She could feel the heat of Olivia's body just inches away and had to almost physically restrain herself from reaching out to touch.
Olivia turned to face her, eyes burning in the near darkness. "Tell me a story," she whispered.
Natalia smirked. "What kind of story?" she asked. "The kind with a princess and a space pirate and some evil aliens?"
Olivia chuckled softly. "No," she murmured. "Tell me something I've forgotten. Something about us."
Natalia closed her eyes briefly. Us. She said us. There is an us. "Okay," she said and began to think hard. "Well," she began at last. "You remember the house Gus bought..."
Her voice was low and almost husky as she told the story and Olivia hung on her every word. They talked long into the night.
Olivia Spencer was in pain. Her leg ached and itched under the cast, her arm throbbed, her head was usually thumping and she needed to go to the bathroom almost constantly because Natalia was making her drink a ton of water. She was also really cold all the time except, of course, for the times when she broke out in terrible sweats that nothing would quite relieve. She was often alone and often bored, unable to concentrate on her books or the TV or a movie someone had left on. All in all she should have been having a frustrating time but she noticed none of it because Natalia was there.
Natalia was there when she woke up in the morning, lying beside her peacefully, her lips slightly parted, breathing slow and deep. Natalia was there when she lost interest in her book or TV show around midday and needed a new distraction, bringing her carefully thought out, balanced meals, specially selected for their nutritional properties. Natalia was there when she fell asleep, usually talking softly and rhythmically about some event from their shared past which Olivia had forgotten. Her memory was still an unfinished painting, but she felt that some of the colours were coming through now; filled in by Natalia's patient brushstrokes in the quiet hours between Emma's bedtime and sleep. Some of them she'd even remembered for herself - the piece of skirting she'd spent way too much money and time tracking down at Christmas, and the look of joy on Natalia's face that had made it all worthwhile. She hadn't told Natalia that one yet. She was saving it for that night in bed, because when she surprised Natalia in bed she always got a hug.
And, she'd come to discover, there weren't many things she wouldn't do for one of Natalia's hugs.
That scared her a little, but less than it had. The familiarity of it had gradually seeped under her skin, chasing the fear away and leaving warmth and contentment in its place. She felt right when Natalia was in her arms. She felt empty when she was gone.
But even when she was gone from the farmhouse physically she was present in spirit. In the fresh fruit salad she left by Olivia's bed every morning, in the flowers on the mantle, in the notes Olivia sometimes found tucked under her pillow - simple things like 'Call me if you get bored' or 'Work's so dull without you'. Olivia had kept all of them folded carefully between the pages of the Stephen King book Emma had picked out for her - a temporary home until she find somewhere permanent. Sometimes she'd take them out and read them over again and again...if she concentrated hard enough she believed she could almost smell the scent of Natalia's skin lingering on the paper...
"So, you're getting on with Natalia then," Jeffrey said, looking at her with an amused smirk.
Olivia stopped mid sentence. "What?"
Jeffrey shrugged. "You haven't stopped talking about her since I came in," he explained blandly. "I thought I was here to see how you're feeling, not to get a personal performance of the Natalia Rivera is Wonderful show."
Olivia's lips tautened into a severe line. "I talked about other things," she protested, but even she didn't believe it was true.
Jeffrey raised his eyebrow. "Natalia's such a good cook!" he sing-songed, trying to imitate her voice. "Natalia's so good with Emma! Natalia's been helping me get my memory back! Natalia's looking after me so well!"
Olivia flushed darkly. "God, you're annoying," she muttered, sinking back against her pillows.
"And you," he replied, leaning forward. "Are smitten."
Olivia's face went from red to white so quickly it was almost comical. "What?"
Jeffrey leaned back again, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. "You heard me."
A silence stretched between them. "I don't know what you're talking about," Olivia lied. This feeling, whatever it was, whatever the reason she was having it, she wanted to enjoy it a little longer. She wanted to just bask in it for a while without naming it, because if it was named she'd have to face it and-
"You're falling for her," Jeffrey said, interrupting her inner monologue.
So much for that, Olivia's mind remarked acidly.
"I really wish you hadn't said that," she said quietly.
Jeffrey regarded her steadily for a moment. "I know you, Olivia," he said at last. "I know you don't like losing control."
"Yeah, I wonder how I developed that little hangup," she replied instantly, shooting him a look filled with a kind of anger he hadn't seen for a long time.
"I know," he said softly. "I know exactly how I...damaged you." He looked at the floor, a familiar shame washing over him like a wave.
Olivia covered her eyes with her hand. "What does any of this have to do with Natalia?" she asked.
Jeffrey looked up. "Just that...when you love someone," he began, "you do give them power. Power to hurt you. But power to heal you too."
Olivia shook her head. "I don't need to be healed."
Jeffrey smiled gently. "Really."
Silence stretched between them for a long moment before Olivia looked away and forced a laugh. "This is ridiculous," she muttered. "Me and Natalia? She's just so...and I'm..."
"What? What is she?"
Olivia closed her eyes. "She's good," she said at last. "She's decent, she's kind, she's warm, she's b-beautiful-" her breath caught as she stumbled over the last word, and suddenly remembered saying all of that before, to someone else she couldn't quite place.
Jeffrey took her hand in his. "And what are you?" he asked softly.
Olivia opened her eyes, a look of infinite sadness passing over her face like a cloud. "I'm Olivia freakin' Spencer," she said, in the same tone as she might have said 'serial killer'. "I'm toxic. I destroy everything I touch. I disappoint the people I love. I hurt them. I'm not a good person, and it doesn't matter how hard I try to change. It'll never happen...because of me...the way I am..."
For a moment Jeffrey didn't know what to say. "Olivia," he murmured at last. "You don't honestly believe all that, do you?" Olivia looked away and didn't answer. Jeffrey pressed. "Olivia?" When she didn't answer he squeezed her hand. "You're wrong," he said sharply.
"Am I?" She sounded weary, defeated.
"Yes!" Jeffrey leaned forward. "You're good Olivia. And do you know how I know? Because you forgave me."
Olivia shook her head. "It was my fault-" she began, but Jeffrey cut her off.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I know what I did. I know. Don't!" he warned, holding up his hand to stop her from interrupting. "What happened was not in any way your fault. It was mine. No one forced me. I forced you."
For a long moment neither of them could speak. Twenty-three years worth of pain, shame and guilt sat between them like a living thing.
"I-" Olivia began, breathing hard through sudden tears. "I...I don't-"
"Sssh," Jeffrey hushed her. "You don't have to say anything. But you need to know...there are very, very few people in this world who could forgive me for what I did. You are one of those rare, special people. And that's how I know you're good, Olivia. Because you sacrificed your righteous anger to ease my shame." He looked away. "You do that a lot," he murmured.
"What?" Olivia asked, her voice husky with tears.
"Sacrifice yourself," he replied. "You think you're a bad person? What kind of person is willing to give up everything that could make them happy for the sake of someone they love?" He squeezed her hand tightly. "That's what you've done. I know you don't remember." He looked up. "But if you don't believe me, you can ask Natalia."
"Ask me what?"
Two sets of eyes swung round to the smiling woman who'd just walked in. But as soon as she saw Olivia's face Natalia's smile faded. "What's wrong?"
Olivia wiped at her eyes harshly with the heel of her hand. "Jeffrey and I are reminiscing," she answered vaguely.
Jeffrey leaned back in his chair. "Actually, I was just going," he said. "Think about what I said, Olivia." Then, with a quick press of his lips to her forehead, he was gone. Natalia took his place in the chair by her bed.
"What's going on?" she asked, a frown creasing her brow.
Olivia stared at her, seeing for the first time the warmth, affection and...yes...love in Natalia's eyes. She didn't know why, didn't know what she could have possibly done to deserve this but there was one thing of which she was absolutely sure.
Natalia was her salvation.
She just couldn't shake the feeling that she, Olivia, was a curse.
The halfway house really wasn't that bad, Rafe Rivera had decided. He got a room to himself, with a bed that didn't feel like a layer of bricks with a sheet on it, and no-one was trying to beat him up or sell him drugs. This was definite progress. He had some free time, he had various community service jobs going on, and he could see his family a bit more often now that his mom didn't have to drive so far. Of course, she'd been pretty pre-occupied with Olivia.
It was strange - Rafe couldn't say exactly when Olivia had started creeping into his mother's conversation. It had happened so gradually that it had just seemed normal. "Hey sweetie, how are you, are you taking your medicine, are you eating enough, and oh, I must tell you about this hilarious thing Olivia said..." And pretty soon Olivia's billing had moved up in the conversation so that eventually his mother would just give him a quick visual once over to check how he was before launching into a story about something Olivia or Emma had said or done. And he'd liked that. He'd liked not having to tell her about the things that were going on in his head late at night while his cellmate snored. He'd liked imagining her on a farm with a friend and a child she could mother. He'd begun to like Olivia vicariously. And he'd looked forward to going to that place, that home his mother had sculpted with nothing but sheer determination and love.
But Frank had ruined that for the time being, which was why Rafe was so surprised to see him waltzing into the kitchen and sitting down opposite him while he was trying to eat his breakfast.
"What are you doing here?" Rafe said warily, swallowing his cereal so quickly that it scraped his throat a little on the way down.
Frank smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I came to see how you are," he said.
Rafe shot him a disbelieving look. "I've been here for a freakin' month, you're just now developing a conscience?"
Frank shifted in his seat. "It's not sudden," he said. "It's just taken me this long to figure out what I need to do."
Rafe tossed his spoon into the bowl and pushed it away, his appetite deserting him. "And what's that?"
Frank looked down, then slowly reached into his inside jacket pocket. "Firstly," he said with a deep breath. "I need to give you this."
Rafe looked down at the object in Frank's hand. "My dad's badge..." he breathed, reaching out immediately to take it. Frank nodded.
"When you gave this to me..." he began haltingly. "It was because you thought...I don't know, that I was going to look after your mom, or that she'd be happy with me. Because everyone always says what a good guy I am, right?" He met Rafe's eyes steadily, but briefly. "I haven't behaved like a good guy." Rafe nodded seriously in agreement, and Frank looked down again. "I've struck out, in anger and pain...not physically...but I hurt your mom, and you, just to make a point. That I can be a bad guy sometimes. That I'm not as safe as everyone thinks." He rubbed his eyes. "But it's just kinda backfired on me because I can't look at my reflection anymore without feeling disgusted with myself. With what I've done..."
Rafe knew his mother would have wanted him to feel sympathetic towards him, if only for the obvious pain he was in. But he wasn't as good a person as his mother, although he knew he should try. He couldn't bring himself to display anything but disdain for Frank. Not yet. "So what," he said harshly. "You want sympathy now? You think I'm gonna forgive you because you're acting all broken up and you give me back my dad's badge? It's not that easy."
Frank shook his head. "I know," he said. "I know it's not that easy. I know that maybe nothing will ever make this right. But that doesn't mean I'm absolved of the responsibility to try."
Rafe sat back in his chair and regarded Frank curiously for a long moment. "So what do you want, man?" he asked at last, crossing his legs over at the ankles.
Frank laid his palms flat on the table. "Do you still want to be a cop?" he asked.
For a long moment there was silence. Rafe looked away. "Doesn't much matter, does it?" he said bitterly. "Criminal record and everything. Not much call for ex-con cops, is there?"
Frank leaned forward. "Ah, but that's where I can help you," he said. Rafe's head snapped round to meet Frank's gaze.
"I've been talking to a few people," Frank continued eagerly. "The parole board, the judge, the mayor...I think I can get you out of this place as soon as next week. If..."
Rafe looked sceptical. "If?"
Frank leaned back. "If you take on an internship at Springfield PD," he said. "The parole board think it's a great idea. I guess maybe they like the irony of a guy who shot a DA typing reports and filing at a police station. And it would give you experience of what life as a cop is really like. There's a whole lot more routine than excitement you know. And then, when the time comes and your record is up for review...I could use my influence. I could help you."
Rafe linked his fingers together and ran his joined hands over his hair. "Are you for real?" he asked, excitement beginning to tinge his voice. "I could get out of here? Go home? And maybe still be a cop one day?"
Frank nodded. "You sure could."
"Hell yes!" Rafe exclaimed excitedly, then subsided slightly. "Wait...what's the catch?"
Frank held his arms open in a gesture of surrender. "No catch," he said. "I owe you. And your mom."
Rafe narrowed his eyes. "She's not gonna come back to you, you know," he said. "She loves-"
"Olivia," Frank finished for him. "Trust me, I know."
A silence crept in between them for a few moments as Rafe watched Frank and Frank watched Rafe.
"Why are you doing this?" Rafe asked at last. Frank sighed.
"So I can look myself in the eyes again," he said softly. "You know...that day in the hospital. It wasn't just you and your mom I betrayed. It was myself. That's not me, Rafe. I'm not the kind of guy who hurts a woman just because he got rejected. At least...that's not the man I want to be." He coughed. "Soooo," he drawled, looking up at Rafe again and extending his hand. "Have we got a deal?"
Rafe considered it for a moment before grinning slowly and shaking Frank's hand. "Deal," he said, then tilted his head. "Next week?"
Frank nodded. "Yup, I just need to get a bit of paperwork sorted out and then...you'll be going home."
Rafe laughed with joy. He couldn't wait to tell his mom! But his smile faded as he looked at the clock.
It was Sunday, and she was supposed to be picking him up so they could go to Mass together. She was twenty minutes late.
Natalia knew what people thought of her. She knew she was thought of as pure, sweet, innocent, kind, chaste - all that good stuff. And it was mostly true. But today, as she sat by the side of the road in a car that refused to drive any further with smoke rising lazily from the hood, all that went straight out of the proverbial window.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!" she screamed, punctuating each curse with a smack of her hand on the steering wheel. She took a deep breath when she was done, leaning her head forward. She didn't feel any better. All that had changed was that now her hand hurt and she knew that, even if she managed to get to Mass today, she wouldn't be able to receive communion because she wasn't in anything close to what could be described as a State of Grace.
The day had started so promisingly. She'd woken - warm, contented and safe - early, to the sound of birdsong and the sensation of being held, an arm loose around her hip, warm breath tickling her neck evenly and slowly. Olivia had still been asleep, and Natalia had greedily drunk in the feeling of a heavy, sleepy arm pinning her to the mattress, knowing that Olivia would withdraw as soon as she woke up, like always, and she'd have to pretend she'd been asleep the whole time.
It was strange how, in the days and weeks since Jeffrey's visit, Olivia had been seemingly stuck in a cycle of pushing Natalia away one minute and pulling her closer the next. There were days when she'd flinch from the other woman's casual touches and impulsive hugs as if burned - but then there were days when she craved them, even initiated them. Natalia's head was spinning with it all. She wanted to ask Olivia what was going on, but the words kept sticking in her throat, transforming into banal, everyday questions on the trip from her heart to her mouth.
Why do you fear me? became What do you want for dinner?
Will you let me touch you? became How does your arm feel?
Do you long for me as I long for you? became nothing but ash in her mouth - there was no simple platitude to take the place of that one yet. And yet still she couldn't just ask it, no-matter how many times it leapt unbidden to her lips
Because what if the answer was no?
Natalia sighed. They had been coasting along in neutral for weeks and she had no idea how to find first gear. She had about as much of an idea of how to get their relationship - such as it was - back on the road as she did the broken down car that had failed her so suddenly and spectacularly on the way to pick up Rafe.
A sudden knocking at the window made her head jerk up in surprise. "Oh no..." she muttered as she saw who was there.
"Hey," Frank said, shouting slightly to be heard through the glass. "You need some help?"
Well, Olivia's mind remarked caustically as she flopped on the floor like a fish out of water. This wasn't one of your better ideas.
It was Natalia's fault really. Gotta keep yourself hydrated Olivia. Water will help your bones heal Olivia. Yeah, and water also made her want to piss like a racehorse almost all the time, and Natalia had been in a rush for some reason that morning and hadn't remembered to take her to the bathroom.
It wasn't like her at all. Usually Natalia was up long before Olivia even stirred but this morning she'd woken first...with her body pressed up against Natalia's back and her arm draped possessively over her hip. The thought of it made her blood run cold then hot in such quick succession it made her head spin. Hot because it felt so, so heartbreakingly right. Cold because she couldn't help but wonder how many other times her body had sought out Natalia's in the night - how many times had Natalia woken to Olivia manhandling her and sneaked out of bed to spare her blushes? She could barely bring herself to think about it, but pretty soon it was pushed from her mind by ever louder interruptions from her body, which were leaving her in no doubt of what would happen if she didn't get to the bathroom quickly. Really quickly.
Natalia had been gone for an hour and Emma was still at Jodie's on a sleepover, so Olivia had decided she needed to take matters into her own hands. Which was how she found herself lying painfully on the floor with no way to get herself up, feeling weak, helpless and strangely embarrassed, even though she was alone in the house. Like a turtle upended on its shell, all she could do was lie there and wait for rescue.
Which came much more promptly than she had expected.
"Olivia! What the hell are you doing on the floor?"
Olivia raised a sardonic eyebrow at Natalia as she hovered over her. "Tapdancing," she muttered darkly. "What does it look like?"
Natalia rolled her eyes. "You could have hurt yourself," she admonished.
"Oh no, I didn't think of that," Olivia deadpanned as Natalia helped her up and into her wheelchair.
"Oh, could you just stop for five minutes?" Natalia's voice was raised and tense.
"I will if you will," Olivia snapped, shrugging off the arm that had curled round her shoulders.
Natalia put her hands on her hips. "What does that mean?"
Olivia turned away, scowling. "You don't have to lecture me about consequences all the time," she growled. "You're not my mother, you know."
Natalia let out a bitter laugh. "Trust me, I am very, very much aware of that," she said. "And I don't suppose she had any luck trying to get through to you either, right?"
Olivia's mind flashed back to a warm summer night, an embassy party, an argument, a rebellion...a mistake. "No, she didn't," she said, and her voice was so forlorn that Natalia forgot to be angry.
"What were you trying to do?" she asked gently, sliding her arm once again round Olivia's shoulders. This time she was not rebuffed.
Olivia's jaw tightened. "I need to go to the bathroom," she muttered.
Natalia suddenly remembered that she hadn't gone through their normal morning routine that day. She'd been enjoying the feeling of being held by Olivia so much that she'd just basked in it - and she'd left it so late that by the time Olivia woke up and pulled away she barely had time to dress before rushing out the door to get Rafe. The familiar sensation of guilt hit her like a bucket of water. She had been selfish that morning, and now Olivia was suffering for it.
"Okay," she said at last. "Then let's go."
This trip to the bathroom was almost as awkward as the first one had been. There was just something about fighting with Natalia that made Olivia much more aware of the other woman and what an intimate situation they were in. Natalia had always been very good about giving her as much privacy as she could, but Olivia was finding it hard to ignore her when her skin burned everywhere her fingers touched and her heart was pounding like a jackhammer.
"Why are you back so quick anyway?" Olivia asked when Natalia had got her safely back to bed, more for something to say than anything else.
Natalia sighed deeply. "My car broke down again," she said wearily. "Frank found me on the way to the halfway house and got me a tow truck."
"Did he give you a ride back?" Olivia asked.
Natalia shook her head. "I took a cab," she said.
Olivia frowned. "What? Why didn't Frank take you? He had better things to do?"
Natalia shook her head. "Long story."
That seemed to close that chapter of the conversation and for a moment Olivia couldn't think of anything to say. "Is it going to be expensive? The car I mean," she said at last and Natalia winced.
"Probably. This is all I need..."
Suddenly Olivia brightened. "Hey, I've got an idea. Why don't you get a new car?"
Natalia shot her a dubious look. "Have you seen me buying lottery tickets lately?"
Olivia waved her hand dismissively. "I'll take care of it," she breezed.
Natalia's lips thinned into a line and she shook her head. "No."
Olivia sat back a little as some of the wind crept from her sails. "What?"
"I don't need charity," Natalia said firmly.
Olivia stared at her in disbelief for a long few moments. "Charity," she repeated incredulously. "You think of me giving you a gift as charity."
Natalia looked away, shaking her head. "This isn't exactly like a candy bar or a new sweater. A car is a serious financial commitment. I can't ask you to do that."
Olivia threw her hands in the air. "You're not asking! I want you to have it."
Natalia's resolve strengthened. "No," she said adamantly.
Olivia suddenly felt as if she might cry. Appalled at herself for the treacherous feeling, she transferred most of it to anger. "Why do you do this?"
Natalia sat back a little, slightly stunned by the vitriol in Olivia's tone. "Do what?"
"Reject everything I try to give you. I can't do anything right with you, can I?"
Natalia frowned, searching Olivia's face for the source of this abrupt mood swing. "I don't-"
"You do!" Olivia interrupted, and hated herself for the tears springing to her eyes. "I try so hard to do the right thing...to be a better person for you and you just...won't let me..." She trailed off, punching the bed in frustration as sobs choked through her words.
"Hey, come on, don't cry," Natalia gasped, moving to take the distraught woman into her arms. "Sssh, it's okay," she murmured against Olivia's brow, smoothing her hair back with one hand while clutching her shoulder with the other. "Why are you getting so upset?"
Olivia clung to her, trying to suppress her tears, feeling ridiculous, but unable to stop. "I just want," she gasped, "to give you something for a change. You just give give give to everyone all the time...and there's nothing I can do for you except this...this is all I know how to do..."
Natalia held her tight, soothing her with soft words and even softer lips pressed against her forehead, her cheek and once, ever so briefly, her trembling mouth. "Okay," she breathed against Olivia's lips. "How about a compromise?"
Olivia took a long time to answer. She was lost in a vague haze with nothing but the memory of Natalia's lips on hers for company. "Wh...what?" she murmured at last.
Natalia released her and sat back in her chair. "A business arrangement," she said.
Olivia's head spun at the abrupt change in the tone of the conversation. "A business arrangement," she repeated flatly.
Natalia nodded. "Instead of you buying me a car," she said. "How about we buy a car?"
Olivia frowned. "You mean...we buy a car...together?"
Natalia nodded. "We already live and work together," she said. "It couldn't hurt to do a little merging in other areas. Say I talk to the bank and get us a joint account - you pay your rent and a percentage of your income in there, I put a chunk in every month and we use it to pay the mortgage, and the car loan, and any other joint expenses that come up." She made it all sound extremely reasonable.
"So..." Olivia said warily. "We'd...have a joint bank account..."
Natalia shrugged. "Obviously we maintain our separate accounts for most things," she explained. "But this would make things easier for expenses relating to the house and the car, if you still want to go ahead with that. I'm sure even I can get credit with you co-signing."
Olivia considered the idea for a moment. "I don't know..." she said softly. "I've...I've never had a joint account with anyone before."
Natalia looked at her steadily. "You've been married five times, Olivia," she said in surprise. "And you've never shared your life with anyone?"
Olivia shifted uncomfortably. "Well, when you put it like that..."
Natalia interrupted her with a wave of her hand. "Do you trust me?" she said.
Olivia didn't even have to think about it. "Yes," she replied instantly.
Natalia smiled one of her amazing, breathtaking smiles. "Okay then," she said brightly. "I'll get the ball rolling." She stood, breathing deeply through her nose. "Now, what would you like for lunch?"
Olivia watched her get up and head towards the kitchen, humming a cheery tune. She had the distinct impression that she'd just been wound tightly round Natalia Rivera's little finger.
Strangely, she didn't really mind.
Olivia felt strangely like a toddler learning to walk for the first time. Finally - finally - the cast on her arm had come off and she was allowed to have crutches. Doctor Rick had examined her arm and the verdict was 'weak, but acceptable'. She had a whole list of exercises to do which she'd fully planned to ignore - of course, Natalia wouldn't let her. She'd made sure Olivia had done her full quota of half an hour's exercise every evening since she'd had the cast removed. And she'd been taking her for short walks outside too. Olivia had missed the smell and feel of the outdoors and it was a joy to be out again, even if the crutches made her tired and unsteady on her feet.
And they weren't the only thing making her unsteady on her feet. There was Natalia, too.
She kissed me, Olivia thought for the fiftieth time that week. Her heart did an acrobatic manoeuvre and her stomach lurched. Her reaction to the memory of Natalia's lips pressed ever so briefly to hers had not become one iota less visceral, despite the days she'd had to think about it.
She'd tried telling herself that it was nothing more than comfort, but she knew deep down that wasn't true. She knew when someone was into her. She could recognise the signs - even if those signs appearing in a woman's guise and thrown her in the beginning. Natalia was into her in a big way. And as for Olivia...well, Olivia more than reciprocated the feeling. She'd realised some time ago that she wanted to kiss her. Her mind had gone much further than that now. It had gone from kissing, to holding, to touching, to the bedroom with indecent haste and was now firmly stuck in And what happens then? mode.
Shame. Whispering. Looks. Judgement. Natalia hating her for tempting her off the path to heaven.
It was the last one more than anything that she couldn't live with. She could live with the disdain of this one horse town quite happily - how would it be any worse than being known as the manipulative man-eater after all? But to see love and desire transfigure themselves into hatred and disgust in Natalia's beautiful eyes...Olivia had a feeling that would break her heart. Possibly literally.
A knock at the back door interrupted her thoughts. Olivia smiled. Finally, an excuse to move. Natalia had gone out to pick up some paperwork at The Beacon over an hour ago and she'd given her strict instructions not to go wandering round on her crutches without supervision. Olivia had been behaving. She knew better than to disobey Natalia, after all.
Married five times and this is the one you're happy to obey? her mind quipped as she headed for the door. Not to mention love and honour. You're really far gone.
"Hey Frank!" she exclaimed, pushing the sarcastic inner voice down. "How are you?"
Frank smiled a small, careful smile. "I'm OK thanks Liv...good to see you up and about at last."
Olivia shrugged with one shoulder as she hopped back and let him enter. "Can I get you anything?" she asked.
Frank shook his head. "I'm good."
Olivia smirked. "Good, because I'm not allowed to make coffee anyway."
Frank's eyebrow twitched. "Not allowed?" He smiled. "Olivia Spencer, not allowed to do something? And actually paying attention?"
"Yeah yeah," Olivia replied, a hint of a blush colouring her cheekbones.
Frank took pity. "Is Natalia home?"
Olivia shook her head. "She went to The Beacon for a bit," she explained. "But she'll be back soon, I think."
Frank looked down at the paperwork in his hand. "I need her to sign these papers so I can get Rafe's release finalised..." he muttered. "Do you mind if I wait?"
Olivia shrugged magnanimously. "Sure. You want to come through to the living rom?"
Frank followed her as she delicately limped back to her bed, trying not to appear as tired as she felt from the short walk. He took her crutches and set them aside as she climbed up onto the bed, sitting her leg on top of a small pile of pillows. "How long until this comes off?" Frank asked, nodding towards her leg.
Olivia smiled. "Doctor Rick says two weeks," she replied. "Natalia's been making sure I look after myself."
Frank looked away. "Yeah, Natalia's always looked after you..." he murmured. Olivia shifted uncomfortably.
"Yeah...well...this is just temporary." She pasted a smile on her face to cover the unease that had crept into her heart. When she didn't need to be looked after anymore she'd have to give all this up. She couldn't go on living in this place, seeing Natalia every day, knowing she wanted her and knowing she couldn't...shouldn't...have her. "And you know what?" she continued, false cheer in her voice. "Pretty soon Natalia's going to need someone to look after her."
Frank fixed her with an enquiring look. "She already has that, Liv," he said steadily.
Olivia flushed. Was she so transparent? "You know," she began, pushing her embarrassment away. "Natalia is really...special. She's a really special person."
Frank nodded. "You'll get no argument from me."
Olivia nodded. "And you like her, right?"
Frank leaned back in his chair. "Yeah..." he drawled, not adding that she didn't much like him at the moment.
Olivia flashed a smile on and off at him like a light bulb that burns out the moment you hit the switch. "Do I have to draw you a diagram?" she asked.
Comprehension slowly dawned on Frank's face. If it hadn't been so sad he might have laughed. "Oh...so you think that me and Natalia...?"
"Yes!" Olivia exclaimed. "It's perfect. You're such a good guy, Frank. And she deserves the kind of life you can give her."
Frank regarded Olivia steadily. "And what kind of life is that?"
A normal one, Olivia's mind supplied. One that doesn't involve being attached to the biggest screw-up in Springfield. "I'm talking about safety," she said aloud. "And security and protection."
Frank couldn't meet her eyes. "And love?" he sounded forlorn and far away. Olivia frowned.
"Frank?" she murmured as he leaned forward and took her hand.
"Let me tell you how this goes," he said, still not meeting her eyes. "You push me and Natalia together. You help me out, you coach me in a few things - her favourite foods, what she likes, what she needs... It works. We get engaged, but it's never really right because it's not me she's been falling for. It's just the reflection of who she really wants."
Olivia's mouth was dry. "Frank-" she began, but he squeezed her hand.
"Let me finish," he said. "And do want to know where this leads? The absolute best case scenario? It leads to an altar. Where she leaves me. For you."
Olivia's eyes had filled with tears and when she spoke her voice was shaking. "She deserves so much better..." she whispered.
Frank shook his head. "What she deserves" he said, pinning her with his eyes. "Is everything her heart desires." He gave her hand a final squeeze and released it. "Stop making trouble where there isn't any," he said. "Okay? She loves you, she wants to be with you."
Silence stretched between them as Olivia blinked away tears. "I-" she choked out, then coughed. "Frankie...I-"
Frank held up his hand. "Don't say anything," he murmured, then waved his papers in the air, speaking with a cheer he didn't really feel. "You know, I'm just going to leave these for Natalia. Can you tell her to get them back to me as soon as she can?"
Olivia nodded dumbly, and Frank left her there trying to process exactly what had just happened.
Natalia looked up, her eyes dark and bleak as Frank entered the kitchen. "Oh, hey," he said in surprise. "How long have you been here?"
Her lip trembled a little as she looked away. "Long enough," she murmured. "Long enough to hear her trying to do it again...trying to give me away..."
Frank pulled up a chair and sat beside her. He would have liked to reach out to her somehow, but didn't know if he'd be welcome. "She's just confused," he said.
Natalia snorted. "This isn't confusion," she said harshly. "This is cowardice."
Frank frowned and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "Maybe," he allowed. "But you know...it takes a lot for Olivia to give her heart to someone." He smiled at her incredulous look. "I know, married five times, right? But you know...I think for her that's always been more about her body than her heart. Body is easy. She knows exactly what she has to offer in that department. But this...you know, she's just scared. She's scared she won't be able to give you everything you deserve."
Natalia scraped her hands through her hair in frustration. "But she's everything!" she exclaimed, though quietly, conscious of Olivia in the other room. "She's everything to me."
Frank looked down at his hands. "Have you told her that?" he asked.
Natalia sighed. "I've shown her," she said. "That's more important. Words can be false, words can be lies...actions are where you find the truth. I've loved her...in every touch and every movement and every smile...for so long."
Frank considered that for a moment. "Can I give you some advice?" he asked hesitantly. "Some advice that...a friend gave to me once."
Natalia regarded him warily. "Okay," she said at last.
Frank smiled wryly, barely able to believe he was about to say this. "Tell her," he said. "Tell her what she means to you. And keep telling her. And when she seems unsure..." his voice wavered, but he carried on, "you just hold her, and you love her."
After a moment he looked up at her and had to smile. She was wearing a shell-shocked expression that could have been the twin of Olivia's. He held up the paperwork he'd brought. "I need you to sign this," he said, bringing her back to reality.
"What...? Oh. Right."
She quickly found the places she needed to sign and did it, with a slightly trembling hand. Frank double checked the forms and nodded. "Okay...he should be with you the day after tomorrow," he said. Natalia still looked shell-shocked. "Did you hear me?"
Natalia shook herself. "Yes." She managed to smile. "Yes, I heard you." She surprised him by wrapping her arms round his neck in a brief hug. "I heard everything. Thank you, Frank."
Frank blushed and pulled away from the embrace as soon as he could. "It was the least I could do," he said. "I know it'll never be enough..."
Natalia held up her hand to interrupt him. "Forgiveness isn't something you can earn," she said softly. "Not from me, anyway. It's a gift." She took a deep breath. "I forgive you, Frank," she said at last. "Can you forgive me?"
Frank looked away, sudden tears stinging his eyes. "There's nothing to forgive," he said. "Just...be happy."
Natalia's smile was brilliant. "I will," she said. "If I have to drag her kicking and screaming, I'll get through to her. I will."
In that moment, Frank almost didn't envy Olivia at all.
When he was gone Natalia sat alone for a few minutes, thoughts swirling through her head. Was what she had done really not enough? Did Olivia really still doubt how she felt, what she wanted?
The chair scraped along the floor as she stood and moved to the doorway. She leaned her hip against the doorframe, crossing her arms as she looked at Olivia in the bed. "Hey," she said.
"Hey," Olivia replied huskily. She coughed. "Frank was here..."
"I know," Natalia replied. "I saw him."
They lapsed into silence. Olivia couldn't meet Natalia's eyes. Love, tenderness and desire swelled in Natalia's chest, growing stronger and stronger like a wave rushing to shore the longer their silence stretched until, finally...it broke. "Do I have to hit you over the head with this?" she murmured.
Olivia's eyes snapped towards her as she pushed away from the doorframe and crossed the room. She watched her, heart pounding, as she perched on her bed. Her breath caught in her throat as Natalia took her face in her hands, her thumbs stroking her cheeks, her eyes gentle and soft as they stared into hers.
And then she kissed her and there was nothing brief or chaste or comforting about it.
Olivia gasped, her lips parting slightly as Natalia's hands stroked through her hair. She felt rather than heard Natalia's soft moan and suddenly knew that she had been waiting for this for longer than she could remember. This was all she needed, all she had ever needed, all she would ever need... She wrapped her arms round Natalia's neck, giving in, sinking back into the pillows as Natalia kissed her, and loved her, and claimed her.
Their foreheads bumped together and their breath mingled as Natalia finally pulled away. For a long time Olivia couldn't speak, couldn't think, couldn't even open her eyes. When she did they were dark, love and desire blending in a complex cocktail that made Natalia's head spin.
"We were in love," Olivia breathed, wonder and awe and clarity edging into her voice. "Weren't we?"
Natalia kissed her again, giddiness bubbling up inside her. Her trembling hands cupped Olivia's face like it was the most precious of jewels and her eyes were filled with such heat that she was surprised she hadn't set something on fire. She took a deep, steadying breath.
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