DISCLAIMER: I do not own Guiding Light or the characters therein depicted. I do not seek to profit from this story. This could be considered an AU as it does not respond to any canon Otalia after Alan confronted Olivia. That means the mayor never went on TV with Emma's presentation, there was no lunch with the mommies, there is no Valentine's weekend with Frank, and Phillip has not returned in my story. Also, graphic depictions of love between two consenting adult women are contained within, obviously.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I tried to remain as close to character as humanly possible but as I have only seen YouTube clips of Otalia and no full episodes, I cannot guarantee the results. Also, the title is a line from the Yes song "I've Seen All Good People." I was driving to work in early February when it played on my radio and as soon as I heard that line, I knew I would be writing Otalia. Here are the results. Thank You: To Destini for beta-ing this long-ass story. And for getting me hooked on Otalia in the first place. :)
CHALLENGE: Submitted to the Guiding Light As It Happens Challenge at Passion & Perfection.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Captured for the Queen to Use
By DiNovia


"Well, three then. That's not so bad."

Natalia's relief sounded hollow to Olivia Spencer and as she watched the younger woman busy herself with some idle cleaning to alleviate the trembling of her hands she thought, No, it's four, Natalia. Four people who thought...wished...hoped we were a couple.

She wondered when it had stopped being guilt that drove her outrageous and indefensible actions on behalf of this woman. When had it stopped being about Gus's heart, Rafe's imprisonment, Emma's Halloween, the $80,000, the farmhouse? When had it stopped being I will never be able to begin to pay back this woman for everything she has done for me and my family? When exactly had it become I want her to have whatever will make her life magnificent in her eyes? When had she fallen in love with Natalia Rivera?

Olivia knew she had made plenty of mistakes--big mistakes. She had swooped in and "fixed" things that had not needed fixing out of a sense of obligation and an acerbic little Father-Knows-Best haughtiness that was anything but love and she had somehow managed to escape these black holes of situational narcissism with Natalia's friendship intact. She had yelled when she'd wanted to hold her and she had sneered when she'd wanted to praise her and she'd questioned Natalia's sweetness and her earnestness when what she'd really wanted to do was thank her for caring so much and so well.

No more, she thought firmly. No more hiding behind jokes or sarcasm or self-deprecation. No more deflection. No more dissembling. From now on, Natalia would get what she deserved from Olivia: the truth.

She really looked at Natalia, then; looked with a critic's eye. The long, dark hair that wasn't as well styled or as healthy as it could have been. The slender but toneless body. The dishpan hands. The weariness in her eyes. The too-perfect veneer of Everything's just fine. These imperfections were just a sham though--a fragile trompe l'oeil that inevitably shimmered and faded away to reveal the true beauty underneath.

The simply-cut bark-brown hair, the soft curves of a real body, the gentle hands that knew the satisfaction of hard work, the indomitable spirit, the compassion that sought to bring others comfort before herself, that smile like honey dipped in cream... Gazing up at Natalia from the table, watching as she picked melted cheese from the side of a still-unwashed casserole dish, Olivia felt that beauty cascade over her and she made a tiny sound of surrender. Tears flooded her eyes and she was powerless to stop them.

Natalia heard, of course, and saw the tell-tale glimmer of tears as they slipped down Olivia's cheeks. She was at her side in less than an instant.

"What? Olivia, what is it? Is it Alan? Did he threaten you?" She grasped Olivia's hand in her own, trying to pull her housemate and boss up and out of the tears as if she were drowning in them and Natalia was the only one who could save her. She was so intent on her fear that she was effectively blind, groping for guidance and finding little. "Olivia? Is it your heart?"

Ruefully and not without some recognition of the irony, Olivia answered, "Yes. It is." And she let that heart, beating strong now through the combined power of Natalia's utter selflessness and a tiny lithium-iodine battery, show finally and fully in her eyes. The change--in Olivia's features, in the electricity of the room, in the Universe itself--was simply astonishing.

Natalia sat back a little in her chair, confused. "Wh-- I-- I've seen that look before." Unfortunately, she couldn't quite remember where until suddenly--shockingly--it came to her. Nicky. Nicky had looked at her that way, every day they'd been together. The knowledge that it was now Olivia Spencer gazing upon her with such unadulterated devotion made Natalia's heart bound like that mare she'd seen frolicking in the Parker's pasture last Spring when she'd first laid eyes on this farmhouse and knew, right down to her soul, that this would be her first and last real home. Her fingers began to tremble again, caught in a snare somewhere between Christmas-morning-when-you're-eight and that walking-naked-into-senior-English dream. "I have seen that look before," she accused. "Nicky used to look at me that way just before he kissed me."

Olivia, poised on the edge of flight, her heart thrumming in her ears like a hummingbird's wings, heard Natalia's slightly breathless observation as an admonition.

"I'm sorry, Natalia," she blurted quickly, averting her eyes and tugging her hand from the younger woman's grasp. "I'm sorry," she repeated, rising and backing toward the doorway as if making a shaky getaway. "We'll--I don't know--we'll move out and you won't have to see Ol' Abomination in the Eyes of the Lord again. I'll figure out something to tell Emma and she'll understand, really, because she's a very bright little girl, and you can keep your job, of course...unless you don't want it anymore, which I completely understand, so I'll give you a hell of a reference, okay? You can get a job any..." Olivia noticed Natalia's bemused expression and her shaking shoulders. "...where..." The brunette couldn't restrain her laughter anymore and it tumbled out of her, her palms flat on the antique dining table in front of her as if to keep her in her chair. "...you'd...What the hell are you laughing at?"

Natalia flipped the switch on her amusement instantly upon hearing the sound of genuine exasperation in Olivia's voice but bubbles of laughter rose inexorably in the sea of her mirth, escaping to the surface as stifled giggles. "What am I laughing at?" She swallowed another inconvenient chuckle and replied, "You! Honestly, Olivia Spencer, get over yourself!" Is this what they'd come to? Walking on eggshells around each other and everyone else, afraid to even hug one another lest the town show up at their doorstep with pitchforks and clubs and flaming torches? Then Natalia realized that she'd been the driving force in that hesitancy, she'd been the one whipping the whole incident out of proportion and her laughter died a slow, miserable death. Emma's teacher hadn't been shocked or upset about her and Olivia's "relationship"! She'd been warm and welcoming and supportive. So had Christina, according to Olivia. The only negative response had been from Alan but it was all so cliche, wasn't it? The rich, white, conservative man who sees bigotry as a way of protecting his public image?

And don't forget about your negative response, she reminded herself. Running down to Emma's school to--to--what? To make a fool of yourself! To show that you cared more about what strangers thought than about what Olivia thought, what Emma thought. What kind of example is that for a little girl? What message did that send to Olivia? That you're ashamed of her, of what you have? Of what you want?

That last thought pulled Natalia up short. What do I want?

She wanted what she had, she reasoned: a family, a home, a safe place to come to every day where she belonged, where she was... Loved, she finished, completing the thought. Where I'm loved and where I love in return.

Remembering the look in Olivia's eyes, it was clear to Natalia that she was loved. Loved more completely and more deeply than she had any right to expect, more than she deserved. But the real question...

Natalia pushed herself out of her chair slowly, advancing thoughtfully upon Olivia, the tiny spot between her brows wrinkled with a deep pensiveness that only served to unnerve the hotel owner even more.

"What?" she asked, backing away from the smaller woman. "What is it?"

Natalia didn't answer and she didn't stop. When she had Olivia backed against the brick wall, she reached up and cupped her questioning, terrified face in her hands. She leaned forward and captured Olivia's mouth in a breathless, heady kiss that was as tender as it was tremulous and that ended all too quickly. Without opening her eyes and without quite knowing what she was doing, Natalia leaned forward again...and this kiss was entirely different.

Olivia, paralyzed by the first kiss, mustered no defense at all to the second one. Which is how she found her mouth opening to Natalia's sweetly questing tongue. Which instantly turned that kiss from tender to torrid--gloriously wet and warm, hungry and electric all at once--until Olivia's mounting panic broke through her stomach-flipping desire and she abruptly pushed the younger woman away, her hands splayed on Natalia's shoulders.

"What the hell was that?" she demanded, her voice fluttering more than she would have liked at the moment, making her sound breathless and out of control.

Natalia's eyes were closed and she still had Olivia's face cupped in her hands. When she finally opened them, Olivia didn't--no, couldn't--believe what she saw there.

Eyes shining, Natalia whispered, "It was everything..."

"No, no. No, Natalia!" Olivia paced the short length of the living room, her arms knitted tightly across her chest. "You can't just--just do that and think it makes everything okay!"

The younger Latina woman watched Olivia make her fifth staccato trip past the banister with a terribly confused look plastered on her features. "But--"

Olivia held up one hand, looking for all the world as if she were directing traffic. "No. Stop. It doesn't change anything. Not really." Her voice fell away and she began to wear out the carpet again, rubbing her forehead as if she were getting a migraine. "It doesn't change anything," she repeated, softer this time, as if she was trying to convince herself. Then suddenly she pinned Natalia with a gaze so blade-sharp it burned. "You don't know what you're getting into!"

Fire erupted in Natalia's eyes and she felt the anger stiffen her bones. Her chin came up like a battle flag and her jaw was set. "What I'm getting into? What about you, Olivia? You kissed me back! In fact, you were the one who kissed me in the first place!"

"I kissed you that first time to wake you up! You were being so--so dense!"

"And what about just now--in the kitchen? Why were you kissing me then?!"

"Because I love you!" shouted Olivia without thinking. The realization of exactly what she'd just admitted stopped Olivia's pacing with a bone-jarring jolt and she glanced briefly at Natalia before pinning her guilt-laden eyes to the floor. But before Natalia could rally and respond, Olivia was back to her pacing. And her shouting. "And don't you DARE say that back to me, Natalia Rivera! I mean it! I will walk right out that door and I will--"

"You'll what? You'll leave me? You'll take Emma away from our home?" Tears began to gather in Natalia's eyes and voice, extinguishing her flickering anger and leaving a fog of confusion and hurt in its place. "Why can't I say it? Why can't I say that I--"

"Because you don't mean it! You don't! And if you say it and you don't mean it, it will kill me! It will kill us! And--and--the world will explode or trees will crash through the house or there'll be--I don't know--an earthquake or something and I can't take that on top of everything else! I just can't! Don't say it, Natalia. Just don't say it!"

Natalia threw her hands into the air, exasperated beyond measure. "An earthquake? Trees? What are you talking about, Olivia? And how do you know I don't mean it? You don't know--"

"But I do know! I do!" Olivia finally came to a stop, her eyes pleading with the younger woman. She sighed and shook her head, then began again, her voice calmer now. "You saw what was in my eyes when I was sitting at the kitchen table because I wanted you to see it. I've felt that way for a long time now and it's grown stronger, deeper every day. It's been in my eyes before but today--today--you finally understood what it meant. And it made you think about Gus and about Rafe and about Emma and about--I don't know--family and about what you had and what you have now and about what you want. So you wanted to know. You wanted to know what kissing me felt like and you found out it makes you shiver in my arms and maybe all of that feels like home to you. And that's great! I'm not complaining, believe me." She gave Natalia a watery little smile. "But the difference is, for me, this isn't like home; it is home. This is it. This house, my daughters, and you. That's what I want if I can have it. I've already thought it through, all the consequences, all the commitments. You haven't."

"I don't understand!" And Natalia really didn't. She wanted to kiss Olivia again, to be drawn into that electrified maelstrom of thundering blood where conscious thought simply didn't exist anymore, to surrender to that deafening waterfall of feeling for once instead of watching safely from the bank. Couldn't she have that? Just once, couldn't she have what she wanted without having to think about it?

Olivia sat on the sofa and when Natalia didn't follow, she patted the cushion next to herself and gave the younger woman a tiny, crooked smile. "Come on, sit with me."

Resigned, Natalia crossed her arms and parked herself on the couch. She didn't look at Olivia.

"I'm only asking you to think it through. For your sake as well as ours."

The word 'ours' caught Natalia's attention. "Ours? Yours-and-mine ours or...?"

"Emma's a part of this too, Natalia. She's just a little girl and she doesn't completely understand what's going on here but she did sit through Alan's mind-numbingly boring hour long lecture on the Spaulding family and instead wrote her project on her 'two mommies'. She loves you and losing you would break her heart, too. So I'm asking you to think this through before you risk my daughter's heart."

"Olivia, that's not fair! I would never hurt Emma! I love her every bit as much as I love Rafe. You know I would never intentionally hurt her!" Natalia's hands were clenched into frustrated fists and she pounded them softly on her knees to emphasize her point.

"I know that," replied Olivia, her control slipping ever so slightly and the enormity of what she felt for Natalia showing again in her eyes. "I just want you to understand everything that's at risk here."

"I do understand!" cried Natalia, but her voice wasn't as certain as it had been when she'd declared the exact opposite just a few moments before.

"Do you really?" prodded the older woman, her voice gentle but her eyes strong and clear. "What about God, Natalia? Your faith has seen you through so much, has brought you so much comfort. Will your relationship with God change because our relationship does? Everyone knows the Church's opinion of same-sex relationships--can you live with that? Can your faith survive that?"

Natalia crumpled against the back of the couch, doubt plaguing her eyes now. "I--I don't know. I--Olivia--it doesn't matter--it--" But her voice faded away and there was no strength in her protestation.

"And what about Springfield? You ran down to Emma's school to make sure her teacher hadn't gotten the wrong idea--what about when it's the entire town and it's the right idea? Because you know me, Natalia. I won't be able to hide this from anyone. I won't live in the closet, even if it is as big as a farmhouse. Will you be able to go to the grocery store or to Company or to visit Rafe knowing that everyone knows about us?" When Natalia didn't answer but instead just looked at Olivia helplessly, the older woman shuttered her heart away from her eyes and sat back. "This is why I want you to think this through. All the way through. If my love for you brings you one...one molecule of unhappiness, Natalia, then it isn't worth it to me. If it hurts you or me or Emma in any way, then it isn't love." Olivia smiled at the younger woman sadly and then leaned forward, touching her lips softly to the corner of Natalia's mouth.

"And I won't settle for anything less."

Frank flipped his cell phone shut and gave Natalia a thumbs up. "It's a done deal. Jeff isn't using the cabin at the moment and he says any friend of mine is a friend of his. It's all yours."

Natalia forced herself to smile back at him though Frank was quick to note that it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Thank you so much, Frank. I don't know what I'd do without you. What Rafe and I would do without you..."

"Are you sure you don't want me to drive you up there? I could turn around, come right back..." The flash of hope in the captain's eyes was as hard to disguise as the emptiness in her own had been and Natalia felt instantly uncomfortable...and guilty. Frank Cooper was a good man from a good family that had done more for her and her son than they really deserved, considering why they'd come to Springfield in the first place. She had had no trouble whatsoever recognizing his growing feelings for her and she'd found it oh-so-flattering at first. Flattering and kind and... Dull as dishwater, she finished for herself. And I know dishwater.

There was no spark between them, no matter how much he wanted there to be one. Their one kiss had been the closest Natalia ever wanted to get to kissing a brother. The fact that she didn't have a brother made that thought only slightly less disturbing. Flat. Passionless. Dry. Like getting socks for Christmas. Like bad champagne. Like a cheese sandwich and not an interesting cheese either. More like those cheese slices that came individually wrapped in little plastic sleeves.

Okay, okay, we get it, she admonished herself, abruptly halting the fruitless litany. You can stop now. It's not like you're on Jeopardy. 'I'll take Things as Boring as Kissing Frank Cooper for a thousand, Alex.' Heh.

Natalia almost rolled her eyes at herself, realizing at the last possible second that Frank was still waiting for an answer to his hopeful offer. Not thoughtful, mind. Just hopeful. Were all men so transparent?

"Oh, Frank. That's so kind of you. Really. But I could use the drive as a head start on clearing my head. Do some thinking, you know?" She squeezed his arm in what she hoped was a friendly way. "You're sweet to offer, though. Really."

Frank's crestfallen look would have been almost comical under any other circumstance. Natalia just felt irritated by it.

"Well, if you're sure," he began, stretching the pause as long as he could to give her a chance to change her mind. When she didn't take the bait, he sighed. "At least take my portable GPS. I'd hate for you to get lost up there. All alone."

Later, twelve miles outside of Springfield and well on her way to the borrowed cabin in Sweet Brier, Natalia almost laughed out loud. All alone? Was he serious? How could she possibly be all alone when her head was crowded with ghosts? Ghosts from the past, ghosts from places she'd been, of her dreams and hopes for the future, of decisions, bad and good. She resisted looking in the rear-view mirror lest she see them cluttering up the back seat.

"Turn left in eight hundred yards, then take the motorway." The dulcet tones of the GPS interrupted Natalia's ruminations, unnerving her severely whenever it spoke. She wasn't a hi-tech person and this unseen driving companion put her at the edge of her comfort zone. Plus, it was a little embarrassing. Who would have thought Frank would have a thing for British accents?

She followed the given directions and checked the route information. She had 88 miles in which to let her mind wander before another turn had to be made and it surprised her not at all that the first thing she thought about was The Kiss.

Kissing Olivia Spencer was nothing like kissing Frank Cooper. For one thing, Natalia's lips still tingled. So did the rest of her, she noted, her cheeks flaring hot and red. Places that she hadn't felt tingle in that way, ever. Just from the memory of Olivia's mouth opening to hers, of their tongues intertwining and her stomach back-flipping like a crazed gymnast, the need in them both rising to a fever pitch--

Jerking the car back onto the road, Natalia realized that no, kissing Olivia Spencer could not be compared to sandwiches made of plastic cheese. Not now, not ever.

She made an effort to get her breathing under control and when she finally did, she thought about what Olivia had said; that she "wouldn't settle for anything less."

Could she? Natalia set her mind down a particular pathway that began with a small wedding and reception at Company and wound through long, comfortable years of contented blandness until the colors of the fantasy seemed to drain away and the whole imaginary scene was tinted in neutral beige.

She could, she realized, make a life with Frank Cooper and it would be pleasant if benign. It would be safe and secure, would be accepted by every person in Springfield and beyond without the bat of a single eye, and--

And it would be utterly colorless, she grimaced. Colorless, lifeless, joyless. Is that what Mama wanted for me?

She couldn't know, of course. Her mother, Rosalinda Rivera, had died of cirrhosis of the liver secondary to Hepatitis C when Rafe was only two years old. She had been an unwed mother, too, putting herself through nursing school after having Natalia. She'd contracted the disease via a needle stick at work and didn't tell anyone of her diagnosis until it was too late.

Natalia always believed that her own unwed pregnancy had contributed to her mother's death by somehow hastening the damage to her liver or compromising her immunity...or something. At the end of her life, Rosalinda had worried constantly about Natalia and Raphael and had often pressured her daughter to find "someone that can take care of you both."

Frank Cooper certainly fit that bill. A good man, healthy, with a good job, devoted to her and to Rafe...

...versus Olivia Spencer, a woman scarred but unbroken by tragedy after tragedy. Rape and being forced to give up for adoption the child that had resulted from it, the death of her mother during an argument between them, five failed marriages, the death of her only grandchild, the kidnapping of her youngest daughter, a heart transplant... She'd been given a second chance and was using it to heal wounds she'd both received and dealt, hoping to change her life and her daughters' lives for the better. She was unabashedly devoted to Emma and to Ava, to Natalia and to Rafe; lioness fierce in her protectiveness; ostentatiously generous and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable at the same damned time! It was all Natalia could do to keep herself from turning the car around and driving straight back to Olivia's arms.

The former hotel maid pounded the steering wheel with mounting frustration. Was this--all this maddening compulsion to be with Olivia, all this longing--somehow related to a twisted need to be needed? Did it have more to do with the lost chance she'd had with her mother than it had to do with Olivia herself?

"No," she said, startling herself with the intensity in her voice. "Mama chose not to tell me about her illness. She didn't want what she had seen so many years working in that hospital: a life without hope and meaning. She chose to spend her last years living, not dying. This thing with Olivia, it has nothing to do with my mother. It's not guilt, it's not any of that idiotic psychological garbage that society uses to explain it away. It's strong and real and I need her in my life! I need her..."

She brushed tears from her eyes with an impatient swipe of her hand and wondered why. Why exactly did she need Olivia Spencer so much?

"You're worried that it's because she has my heart, aren't you?"

Natalia looked at the image of Gus Aitoro in the passenger seat with wide, disbelieving eyes. "Speaking of ghosts," she muttered, cutting her eyes back to the road before she drove the car into a tree. "What, dead husbands don't knock? You couldn't have worn a bell or something?"

Gus laughed. "You're picking up her sarcasm," he noted, pleased. "I like it. Suits you. But I repeat: are you worried that what you're feeling for Olivia is because she's carrying around the last living piece of me?"

Natalia refused to look at him. "Isn't it?" she asked, her voice cracking like brittle glass.

"First, she isn't carrying around the last living piece of me; she's carrying around a muscle that used to keep me alive. Now it's keeping her alive, which is what I wanted. You know that; that's why you gave it to her. Second, Rafe--our frickin' son--has more of me in him than Olivia does and he does a better job, frankly, of pulling off the swagger. Tell me I'm wrong."

Natalia flicked her eyes at her smug dead husband. "You had to use the word 'frankly', didn't you? That was intentional."

Gus had the good sense to look sheepish. "Sorry. Couldn't resist. Like I said, you're picking up her sense of humor."

"It's appalling," she complained, sounding disgusted.

"It's hysterical!"

The two of them stared at one another for a moment before succumbing to laughter, the stalemate broken.

When their laughter faded, Gus asked, "Listen, Natalia, did you ever feel that way about me? Be honest."

The young woman thought about it for a long time before answering. "I thought so. Now I don't know. I think I thought you were the answer to a seventeen-year-old prayer. But you didn't need me. Not in the way you needed Harley. You and Harley were partners, real partners. I knew that, even if I didn't want to admit it."

"That's the connection? Olivia needs you?"

Natalia chuckled ruefully. "Not as much as she thinks she does and not as much as I need her."

"Tell me why," he pressed, stretching out in the seat and putting his hands up behind his head. "I'm interested."

She grinned unexpectedly, shyly, the dimples that everyone loved making the briefest of appearances. "Have you ever seen her when she's all fired up about something? She's furious--on the warpath--and her arms are pumping at her sides as she stomps down a hallway or through a room? You know she's going to say something absolutely insane to someone and you're half afraid she's going to get herself killed but you know if you stood in her way or tried to stop her, she'd plow right through you!" Natalia could almost hear the rapping of Olivia's heels as she pictured the scene in her head and her grin widened for just a second...until it slowly faded, her eyes stained by a haunting sadness. "Now," she said, her voice softer, "have you ever seen her when she's afraid or in pain or when she thinks she's alone? Those eyes... They reach right into your soul and they pull you to her until all you want to do is fix it, whatever it is. You know you could if she'd just let you and you practically beg her to let you because the reward...the reward is that smile." Her eyes lit up with the thought and her grin returned unbidden. "She's got a thousand beautiful smiles but that smile is a slide-y, sneaky side-smile she flashes at you as if you're her partner in crime and the two of you are risking God-knows-what to steal the goose who lays the golden eggs. That smile...it's meant just for you and you'd do anything to get one. Anything..."

Natalia basked in the memory of just such a smile, given her only a few days before--after Emma had been put to bed and the two of them had sat on the couch, drinking wine and talking until too late about anything and everything. Natalia had attributed her resultant giddiness to the alcohol but now she knew. She knew what made her tremble in Olivia's presence, whether with anger or surprise or desire. It was Olivia's spirit, that spark of life that seemed to shout "Here I am, world! See? You haven't beaten me yet!" Olivia Spencer flung herself into life and she lived it whole and hard. She never did anything by halves and she never backed down and she never, ever watched from the safety of the bank.

"That's it, Nicky!" Natalia felt breathless with sudden discovery. "Olivia is wildflowers! A thousand wildflowers in a million crazy colors dancing on a hillside. A thousand wildflowers you never realized you needed until you try to imagine the hillside without them and it just doesn't make any sense. Olivia makes life make sense!" When he didn't respond, she turned to him, asking, "Nicky?"

The passenger seat was empty.

"Mommy?" asked Emma Spencer, warily opening the door to her mother's car, her pink and purple backpack hooked over one shoulder. "Is everything okay? Where's Natalia?"

"Everything's fine, sweetheart," replied Olivia, reaching over to help Emma with the door. "Natalia had to go out of town for a few days so I'm here to pick you up today. Is that okay with you or should I have gotten a permission slip signed or something?"

Emma laughed. "No, it's okay. I was just wondering." She hopped in the passenger seat and fastened her seat belt just like Natalia had taught her. Olivia waited for the tell-tale click, then eased the car into the outgoing school traffic, paying careful attention to the other children still making their way to their cars. Emma used the distraction to search her mother's face for signs that something bad was happening, finally deciding something was wrong but it wasn't that her mother was sick again. That made her feel a little better.

"So how was school today, Jitterbug? Did you have fun?" Olivia made it through the school's quagmire of a parking lot and turned the car towards home. She carefully avoided the knowledge that the farmhouse was empty at the moment and exactly how that made her feel.

"It was good," said Emma noncommittally. "Kinda boring. Except--when we came in from recess--Steven found Eduardo dead in our room! It was sad--"

Olivia almost ran the car off the road. "What?! One of your friends found someone dead in your classroom?!"

"Not 'someone,' Mommy. Eduardo, our class hamster, remember?"

Olivia tried to remember how to breathe. It wasn't going well. "Oh. Eduardo. The hamster. Right. Of course."

"He was all hard in his cage, like he was frozen but he wasn't cold," continued Emma, obviously excited to have something juicy to report about her day, "and Miss Jennings took him out and put him in Jenny's diorama box because it was just the right size and we went outside and buried him by the swings because that's what you can see from our window and we wanted him to be somewhere where he wouldn't feel scared. Miss Jennings made a speech about what a good hamster he was and how much we all loved him and then Amber sang the 'O Say Can You See' song because it's the only one she knows by heart except for Happy Birthday and that song from Hannah Montana. Then we all put rocks on the grave and when we were finished, we went inside and had snack."

"Uh huh." Olivia turned off the main road and onto the little two-lane highway that would take them home, wondering silently how she was going to successfully raise Emma to adulthood without the help of someone a hell of a lot more competent with children than she was. Natalia, she thought desperately, whatever you decide, please don't leave me to raise this child alone. We'll never make it without you. Eventually she remembered that the death of the class hamster could, in some circles, be considered a tragic event and she asked, "Were you sad about Eduardo, Emma?"

"A little," replied the little girl, looking down at her hands. "Mostly I wondered about Eduardo's mom and how we were going to let her know that he had died but Miss Jennings said she thought maybe Eduardo's mom had died a long time ago and that made me think that maybe Eduardo had been sad about his mom all the time he was our class hamster and none of us knew!" She looked up at Olivia with wide, blue eyes, so earnest in their sincerity it almost broke Olivia's heart. "If I had known, I would have talked to him about it. I would have told him that I was sorry that his mom had died and I would have told him that I knew how sad he was because I felt that way when you were sick."

Unable to see through her tears, Olivia pulled the car off the road, undid her own and Emma's seat belts, and pulled her little girl into her arms, hugging her fiercely. "You don't have to be sad anymore, honey! I'm fine now. I'm going to be around for a long, long time. It'll be you and me, together. Like always."

"And Natalia, Mom!" Emma said, pulling back to roll her eyes at Olivia. "It'll be you and me and Natalia!" She thought for a moment, then added, "And Ava! And Rafe!"

Olivia laughed. "Our little family just keeps getting bigger, doesn't it?"

"I like it just the way it is."

"I'll bet you do," agreed Olivia, tickling Emma's tummy. "Because we all spoil you!"

Emma squealed with giggles until Olivia let her go and then the two of them sat cuddled up in the car, looking out at the Parker's pasture, enjoying a peaceful moment together for once. No horses were out today and patches of brown grass mottled what was left of the snow but it was still beautiful to Olivia. A clean, cold landscape that inspired anticipation of the warmth and safety of their home just down the road. Or would have, if Natalia had been there, waiting for them.

As if she'd felt the bloom of sadness overtake Olivia, Emma asked, "Mommy, why did Natalia have to go out of town?" .

"Well, she wanted to get away for a few days of relaxation," Olivia replied, her voice suddenly too bright, too cheery. "She wanted to take a little vacation from cooking and cleaning and helping me at the Beacon."

Emma knew this was a lie because whenever her mother used that voice she was lying. But something inside her that she didn't quite understand told her that asking about it would make her mother lie even more and maybe even get her mad and she didn't want that. So she only asked, "Will she be home soon?"

"Yeah, baby. She'll be home soon." Olivia looked out at the barren landscape for another long moment, praying that she was right about that. Then she started to feel the February chill invade the car. It hadn't taken long. "But right now, we should go home, get warmed up, and have dinner. Buckle in, sweetheart, and let's go."

Emma squeezed her mother in a hug one last time before sliding back into her seat and refastening her seat belt.

"When you say 'dinner'," she began, flashing her mother an innocent look, "does that mean you'll be cooking it?"

Olivia snorted as she started the car and pulled back onto the road. "What--you're not in the mood for trout amandine over herbed polenta tonight?" She laughed at the look of disgust on Emma's face. "I was thinking we could order pizza--if that's all right with you, O Picky One."

Emma cheered. "Yay! Pizza!"

"Uh huh," chuckled the older woman, shaking her head. "That's what I thought you'd say."

And for the first time since Natalia had left, Olivia Spencer thought that maybe--just maybe--she could pull this off. Whatever this turned out to be.

Natalia found the key just where Frank said she would and she opened the cabin's front door. She looked into the empty, cold, black maw of the unfamiliar home and felt the ache in her chest grow. She didn't want to be here. She wanted to be with Olivia and Emma. But she still had so many unanswered questions, so many things to get straight in her head...

No pun intended, she thought glumly.

She stood on the front porch for a long moment, looking into the short, gray hallway until tears blurred her vision. "This is wrong. This isn't going to help." She locked the cabin door, returned the key to its hiding place, and got back into the car. She picked up the GPS and programmed a return trip to Springfield. "Take me home," she said softly. "I want to go home."

"Mommy?" Emma Spencer picked up the greasy napkins and paper plates from their illicit pizza feast and took them to the garbage can under the sink. Olivia was supposed to be wrapping the leftovers in tin foil and putting them in the refrigerator but instead she was peeling pieces of pepperoni from Emma's half of the pie and munching on them surreptitiously. For a second she thought she'd been busted--and getting busted by Emma doing something "bad" for her health was only slightly less likely to garner a lecture on the proper care and feeding of a transplanted heart than if Natalia had caught her. Natalia had trained the child well.

"Yes?" she asked around a contraband disc of salted pork and beef. She kept her back to Emma and prayed she wasn't going to have to sit through another showing of the Power Point presentation on heart healthy nutrition from the American Heart Association. She'd seen it twice this month already.

"When Natalia comes home, do you think she would help me with my Valentine's cards for school?"

Relieved, Olivia swallowed the pepperoni hurriedly, closed the tin foil over the congealing slices of pizza and slammed the fridge door. "Sure, honey. I'm sure if you asked her nicely, she would be happy to help. I could help, too, you know. I'm not all thumbs."

Emma laughed. "That would look silly! All thumbs!" she said, holding up her own and waving them around.

"Yeah, but it would be all the better to tickle you!" said Olivia, pouncing on the little blonde and going straight for her belly button. Emma squealed with laughter and tried to escape but Olivia held on tight, finally wrapping her arms around her daughter and lifting her off the floor.

"Hey!" cried the fourth-grader. "Put me down!"

Realizing she wasn't supposed to be doing any heavy lifting--not even of her own child--Olivia reluctantly put Emma back on the floor and hugged her, taking a moment to lose herself in the clean, sweet scent of her daughter. She used to do that a lot when Emma was a baby, especially during those quiet feedings between two and four in the morning. She felt like she never got to spend any quiet time with her little girl anymore. She missed it so much.

"Do you want to start on those Valentines tonight, baby? I promise we can leave some for Natalia to help you with. We won't leave her out."

"Are you sure she won't mind helping?" asked Emma timidly, instantly confusing the hell out of Olivia. It wasn't like Emma to be hesitant, especially regarding Natalia. She thought of her as her other mother, for God's sake!

"I'm pretty sure," she replied, her brows crowding over her eyes. "Why are you so worried about it, honey?"

"Because they're hearts!" she explained, looking at her mother as if she were a little dense.

"What?" When Olivia finally understood what Emma was trying to say, the implication hit her like a brick, making her eyes burn with tears she was desperate to hide.

God, she thought. I'm crying at everything lately. I have got to get a grip!

To Emma, she said, "You know what? We'll just have to ask her when she gets home. Until then, I'll help, okay? Let's get your craft stuff out and we'll make Valentines right here at the table."

Emma nodded morosely and opened the little green cabinet under the plate rack, pulling out her craft supply basket and a sheaf of construction paper. "Okay."

Olivia helped set out the supplies and ruffled Emma's hair. "Emma, honey, you're sweet to worry about Natalia's feelings like that." She sat down and pulled out a piece of pink construction paper, folding it in half and cutting several heart shapes out of it. They fell to the table like the petals of a flower. "You really love her, don't you?"

Emma took one of the hearts and opened it up. She retrieved a purple crayon from the gigantic tin filled with them and began to outline the edges of it. "Yeah," she answered, concentrating on her art. "She's my other Mommy!"

Olivia pulled a red piece of paper out of the stack and soon red petals joined the pink ones. "Does anyone in your class say anything about our family, sweetheart? Has anyone made you feel bad about being a little...different?"

"No. Not really." She moved on to another heart and Olivia noticed that she had printed 'Mom' on the first one. She knew the second one would say 'Natalia' without even having to look. "My friend Derek told me that he wasn't allowed to play with me anymore. I asked him why and he said his dad said he couldn't but he didn't say why. So we decided that we would just play at school where his dad couldn't see us." She didn't seem overly concerned about that development but Olivia decided to press a little further. This was her daughter, after all. If her love for Natalia had even the slightest potential for hurting Emma or placing her at risk, Olivia knew what choice she'd make--what choice they'd both make. Better to find out now before anything had really changed.

Right. Nothing's changed at all. And I have a bridge on Mars I'd like to sell you.

"No one at school has called you names or hurt your feelings about your presentation, then?"

Emma looked up from Natalia's Valentine. "No. Why, Mommy? Was there something wrong with my essay?"

Olivia stopped cutting purple hearts and looked up, wanting to make sure that Emma saw the conviction in her eyes. "There was nothing wrong with your essay, Emma. Not one thing. It's just that sometimes kids can say mean things when people are a little different. I don't want that to happen to you."

"It won't," replied Emma, the surety in her voice rock solid. "Natalia told me that kids who make fun of other kids are just scared or sad inside and if it happens to me, I shouldn't get mad. I should just say 'That's not a nice thing to say. I'm sorry you said that because we might have been friends.' Then I'm supposed to tell Natalia whatever they said. In case she has to explain something."

"Oh," said Olivia nonplussed. "Well...that's...really good advice." And completely opposite what I would have told you. I would have taught you my right hook. I have got to work on my anger issues.

Emma finished one Valentine and picked up another one, dotting it with glue. Soon she had the red and silver glitter out and was making a fabulous mess. Olivia could not have been more oblivious. They were so both distracted that neither of them noticed the back door open, admitting a snow-covered Natalia. She froze upon seeing them, a look of profound relief and utter peace stealing onto her face.

Just then, Emma blurted, "Mommy, what sort of mean things would someone say about my essay? Is it because there are two mommies and no daddies?"

Olivia, taking a sip of mineral water, almost choked. When she regained control of her voice, she replied, calmly, "That's part of it. Do you understand why?"

"No. My friend Steven only has one mommy and Amber has two mommies and two daddies. And Jenny has a mommy, a daddy, and a grandma living at her house. No one says mean things about their families."

"Uh huh," said Olivia aloud. Inside she was screaming Ohgodohgodohgod! What on Earth are you thinking, Olivia Spencer? You're no good at this. You, in fact, SUCK at this! She looked hesitantly into Emma's open, expectant face and wondered exactly how she was supposed to explain these concepts without permanently traumatizing the child. Somehow she thought a speech that started out "So you know how Mommy was married to your grandfather and your daddy..." might fall more on the traumatizing end of the spectrum. Living through it certainly had.

"Well--" she started again, feeling as close to panic as she ever had when talking to her daughter. She noticed she was holding the scissors in a white-knuckled grip and she tried to put them down. She couldn't.

At first very interested to see how Olivia would explain the other interpretation of 'My Two Mommies' to Emma and therefore invested in keeping quiet, Natalia finally relented, coming to the older woman's rescue. She couldn't just stand there and watch her twist in the wind like that. Besides, Emma deserved an answer. A good one.

She came further into the room, twining her red scarf in her hands. "Maybe I can help," she offered, her voice soft.

Two pairs of shocked eyes sprang up from the table.

"Natalia!" exclaimed Emma happily, running to throw her arms around the brunette's waist, leaving tiny glittered fingerprints on her coat. "You're home! Mommy said you were on vacation!"

Natalia knelt to ruffle Emma's hair. "Yeah, I was. I got all the way there and decided that I didn't need a vacation after all. I just needed to be with my family."

"I'm glad you're home," said the little girl. "Mommy and I are making Valentines! Do you wanna help?"

Natalia glanced nervously at Olivia--who hadn't said a word--then smiled at Emma. "Sure, sweetie... Let me just take off my coat." She shepherded the fourth-grader back to her chair and hung her coat and scarf on a hook by the door.

Olivia hadn't taken her eyes off of Natalia since the moment she'd spoken and they glittered darkly, unreadable in the light of the kitchen.

"What are you doing here?" she asked as the younger woman took a seat at the table, her voice wire-thin and hard.

"I told you... I wanted to come home." Natalia smiled weakly but trepidation and doubt filled her liquid dark eyes. Olivia didn't reply, just continued to stare at her, so Natalia pushed her confusion and hurt as far down inside as it would go and turned back to Emma. "So what were you two lovely ladies talking about when I walked in?" she asked brightly.

Emma pushed a stack of blank hearts and some crayons at Natalia. "Mommy was going to tell me why some people would say mean things about our family because it has two mommies," she explained nonchalantly.

Olivia closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, all the fight leaving her. Oh, sure, she thought, defeated. You can't remember to put your dirty clothes in the hamper--ever--but you can remember that. Great.

"Well, that's a good question." Natalia took a purple heart and opened it in front of her, coloring the edges absently. "If your mommy says it's okay, maybe I could answer it for you." She looked up into Olivia's hazel eyes, pleading silently with her own. "Is that okay, Mommy?"

Olivia shrugged and splayed her hands in front of her as if to casually say "Have at it." In reality she wasn't feeling very casual at all; the gesture was simply all she could manage. She couldn't speak--she knew her voice would break. She thought she might actually throw up. Butterflies the size of 747s buzzed around her stomach in a particularly nauseating pattern.

Natalia nodded, grateful that Olivia trusted her as much as she did, even now. "Well, Emma," she began, "you know your friend Derek and how he has a mommy and a daddy?" Emma nodded. "Well, his mommy and daddy weren't always his mommy and daddy. Once, they were just a man and a woman who met somehow and became friends. And after they had been friends for a while, they realized they loved each other very much and they wanted to live together and raise a family together--"

"Just like you and Mommy!"

Olivia sat up suddenly and she held her breath, waiting for Natalia's reaction. The younger woman looked up and found Olivia's wide-as-dinner-plate eyes with her own, pouring her heart--everything inside of her--into them. "Yes, just like me and Mommy," she answered quietly, hoping against hope Olivia would understand what she was trying to say. The resulting gasp that Olivia tried to stifle behind her hand told her everything she needed to know. Smiling now, almost giddy with relief, Natalia turned back to Emma. "So Derek's family has a mommy and a daddy who love each other and who hug and kiss sometimes and our family has two mommies who love each other and who hug and kiss sometimes."

Emma still looked confused. "But why would someone say mean things about that?"

"Well, because it's a little different. Sometimes when things are different, people get scared or angry for no good reason and they make a big deal out of things that are really none of their business. They may say mean things or they may avoid the different ones or they may even try to get the people who are different to change to be more like them. They shouldn't do that and if anyone does anything like that to you--"

"I know! I'm supposed to tell them that speech you taught me and then tell you what they said, in case you have to explain what it means."

"Right! Absolutely right!" She patted Emma's shoulder, noting how pleased she seemed by giving the correct answer. She sneaked a look at Olivia and smiled. "You could tell your mommy, too," she added. "She's pretty good at explaining things."

Unable to contain herself anymore, Olivia burst into surprised, happy tears, looking back and forth incredulously between her daughter and the woman she loved. The woman who had just told her, in so many words, that she loved her back.

Alarmed, Emma asked, "Mommy, what's wrong?"

Natalia answered for Olivia. "Oh, your mommy just needs a hug. How about it, Emma? Do you think we can hug her back to happy?"

"Yeah!" cried the fourth-grader, jumping out of her chair. Olivia rose to her feet and caught Emma's hug around her waist, smiling down at her daughter through her tears. Then she opened her arms to Natalia, wrapping the smaller woman in them tightly and burying her face in her long, inky river of hair.

Natalia held Olivia, whispering softly in her ear so Emma couldn't hear. "I understand everything now," she breathed, cupping Olivia's face in her hands, gazing into watery hazel eyes. "Nothing will ever take me away from you again."

Olivia cried harder, completely unable to respond except to tighten her hold on Natalia and her daughter. On her family.

Olivia stood in front of the fireplace, absently watching the flames leap. She had her back to Natalia when the younger woman came downstairs, an indulgent smile brightening her features. "Emma's finally asleep! You would have thought I'd been gone longer than six hours--" Olivia's snort of derision instantly stopped Natalia's progress down the stairs. "Olivia? What's wrong?"

The older woman turned, casting a baleful look on her beautiful assistant. "Are you sure you were even gone that long? Six whole hours?"

Natalia's good mood evaporated. "Oh, I see. You're overthinking things again." She came the rest of the way down the stairs and stood across from Olivia, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Me?! You don't think it's possible you're underthinking things a little? I mean this morning you told me you didn't know when you'd be back; it might be a week or more, and--surprise!--you're back six hours later!"

"I didn't need a week, Olivia. I just needed to get some things str--" Natalia stopped herself just in time and rethought her choice of words. "--clear in my mind."

"Clear in your mind," echoed the distraught older woman. "Did you do any thinking about this at all?"

"Of course I did!" cried Natalia, trying to calm herself. She had to remember that Olivia was scared. Scared that when things were just starting to get better, something would happen to destroy it all. She'd lived through that so many times already, had had so many things taken away from her, sometimes Natalia wondered how she had become the strong, amazing woman she was now. "Of course I did," she repeated, her volume lower this time.

"So--suddenly, magically--you're alright with everything. Emma's teacher and Christina. Alan and Buzz. Rafe and Frank. It's all okay with you now."

"There will be some...problems, I'm sure, Olivia. But I meant what I said: nothing will take me away from my family again. Not even my own ignorance."

Olivia rolled her eyes. "There are other ignorant people out there, too, Natalia. People who aren't going to be okay with this--with us! How are you going to handle them?"

"One at a time," said the brunette evenly. Remember, she's scared. She has to get this out. Don't kill her right this minute. "That's all I can do, all we can do, Olivia. Live our lives one day at a time--"

Olivia threw her arms up in the air and turned away from Natalia, annoyed by the answer. "That's just it--this is our lives I'm talking about, not some stupid sitcom!"

"Oh, for God's sake! Don't--"

"Aha! God!" Olivia whirled and pointed at the younger woman accusingly. "What about your faith, your church? There's no way you could have come to terms with that in six hours, Natalia! It takes you longer than that to make the weekly meal plan!"

The younger woman clenched her fists at her sides in an effort to keep herself from throttling her would-be lover. "Actually," she said as calmly as she could manage under the circumstances, "Father Ray and I had a long talk at the cemetery today--eh! Let me finish!" Natalia stopped the older woman from speaking with a raised hand when she saw the question in her eyes. "We had a long talk at the cemetery," she repeated, "and he made me see that maybe I was thinking about our relationship all wrong. Remember when Alan was in the hospital, having visions of Rafe? I asked Father Ray one day if God was punishing me by putting Rafe in prison, if He was punishing me for my lack of faith. He said that maybe Alan's visions were a part of God's plan for me. He reminded me of that today."

Olivia shook her head. "I don't under--"

"What if those visions of Alan's were meant to bring Rafe and I here and what if everything that happened later--Rafe going to prison, Gus dying, you getting his heart, the $80,000--what if that was all meant to bring us, you and I, together?"

"What?" Olivia couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You really believe that?" The question came out more hopeful than she'd meant it.

"We're together, aren't we? We live here and are raising Emma in spite of everything else. It could have gone wrong so many times, but we're still here, still together."

Olivia looked at her dubiously. "What about the Church's view on same-sex relationships?" She gave Natalia a crooked grin, the fight seemingly leaving her. "You can't tell me Father Ray gave us his blessing."

"Actually, he sort of did," she replied, shrugging. "He started out by giving me the Church's official stand on homosexuality but then he said that he'd seen some gay relationships that were based on mutual respect and love with strong, decent values while he'd seen some marriages--some he had even officiated at--that were empty of love and everything else. He said he'd rather have me in a good, decent, loving relationship with a woman than in a loveless marriage--no matter what the Church said. He told me that God trusted me to know right from wrong and if I felt--in my soul--that you and I were meant to be together, there was nothing he could say against it. It was between me and you and God and no one else."

Olivia looked at the floor, afraid of the answer she would see in those incredibly big, dark eyes. "And do you? Feel that way, I mean?" Her voice was barely audible--for once, thought Natalia--and she looked for all the world like a lost child.

Natalia took two steps to reach the older woman and held her trembling hands in her own. "Look at me," she commanded gently. When Olivia raised her eyes and Natalia was sure she had her undivided attention, she said quietly and with utter conviction, "Olivia Spencer, I know in my soul you and I are meant to be together."

She reached up and tenderly cupped Olivia's cheek, drawing her down to her mouth. When the taller woman hesitated, pulling back a little, she whispered, "It's okay..." She covered Olivia's mouth with her own, parting her lips gently, groaning when she felt Olivia open to her. Their tongues twined together for the second time that day and the resultant explosion of feeling was twice as intense. Olivia--at first restraining herself in case this all turned out to be a dream--finally relinquished her control, kissing Natalia thoroughly and deeply, exploring her hungrily first, then tenderly, until the kiss wound down and they released one another.

When they parted, Olivia felt tears flood her eyes again. "God!" she complained, exasperated with herself. "I've got to stop crying! I probably look awful!"

"You're beautiful," Natalia reassured her, wiping away the tears as they fell. "And besides, crying is good for you. It keeps your heart healthy."

As soon as she'd said them, Natalia knew they were the wrong words to say. If she could have taken them back, she would have done so--ironically--in a heartbeat.

"My heart?" asked Olivia, suddenly unsure again. She felt like she was drowning in quicksand, every breath, every thought threatening to take her under. She'd get to one safe place only to find the ground beneath her slipping away again. "Or Gus's heart?"

Natalia closed her eyes. She was trying to be patient with Olivia's insecurities but honestly, she was becoming a little tired of this do-you-don't-you dance. There were other things--much more satisfying things--she'd rather be doing at the moment. Things that would bring back that head-to-toe tingling sensation to which she was quickly becoming addicted. She felt a blush creep into her cheeks and hoped Olivia wouldn't notice it.

"Your heart, Olivia," she soothed, gazing steadily into fearful hazel eyes. "It's your heart."

Olivia shook her head, her chestnut tresses shivering with the movement. "But--"

Natalia lost her patience with Olivia suddenly, snapping, "Oh, face it, Olivia, if Nicky's heart had anything to do with this, you'd be in love with Harley, not me. She was the love of his life. You're mine." Olivia drew in a sharp breath at her words but she continued on as if she hadn't heard. "Now, I'm tired of arguing with you. Come on. You and I are going to bed." She held out her hand until Olivia took it, moving slowly, disoriented. Natalia pulled her gently to the bottom of the stairs where Olivia halted them abruptly.

"But I-- There's no way I could sleep right now, Natalia," she complained. There was too much going on, too much to think about! How on God's Green Earth was she supposed to relax enough to be able to fall asleep?

"Did I say anything about sleep? No, I didn't. So shut up already and come..." Natalia wrapped her arms around Olivia's waist and dropped a kiss in the hollow of her throat. "...upstairs..." Her mouth moved to the tender spot under Olivia's ear and her stomach dropped deliciously when she heard the tiny gasp that kiss inspired. "...with me..." She finished her oh-so-persuasive argument by wrapping her arms around Olivia's neck and pulling her into the deepest, wettest, most toe-curling kiss either of them had ever experienced. It went on and on until both of them began to see exploding lights behind their eyes and they broke it off, gulping air into tortured lungs.

They looked at each other for a long moment, stunned by the power between them, until Olivia began to prod Natalia up the stairs, saying, "Upstairs. Now. Right now."

Natalia laughed as she tried to keep her feet beneath herself on the treacherously steep staircase. "Okay, okay! We're going! Right now!"

In her room, Olivia almost laughed out loud at the irony. Here she was, blissfully alone with the woman she loved, with the woman who had chosen her despite the gossip and the looks and the veiled undercurrent of disapproval, who had put her first above all of that--and she couldn't get her damned hands to work! It was maddening! She struggled with the first button on Natalia's blouse but it kept eluding her, slipping through her fluttering fingertips like the fireflies used to on summer evenings when she was Emma's age. She made a short, sharp, self-deprecating sound and glanced nervously at Natalia.

"Let me help," whispered the brunette, gently placing her hands over Olivia's trembling ones, steadying her. Then one by one, she calmly undid the tiny buttons on her wine-colored blouse until it hung open, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of black lace and soft curves underneath. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to Olivia's, her gaze shy and yet expectant, her breathing shallow with anticipation.

The significance of this offering was not lost on Olivia Spencer. This woman, this sweet, beautiful woman who had already given her so much--her husband's heart, her friendship, her trust, her home--was selflessly offering one final thing: her love. It was almost beyond Olivia's comprehension. Things like this didn't happen to her; they happened to Reva or Harley. They happened to more deserving people, better people.

What could I have done to deserve her? she wondered, the haunting music of Tosca and the acrid taste of champagne and Seconal swelling briefly in her memory. To deserve this? A love story I can be proud of...a home...a family...

She slipped her hands under the silk of Natalia's blouse, edging it off her shoulders, dropping to the floor with a sigh. Then she reached out and lightly traced the hollow at the base of her throat with her fingertips, incredulous, breathless that any of this was happening.

"So...beautiful..." she whispered, dazed, stunned with sensation.

Natalia's eyes fluttered closed and her breath caught. Olivia's tremulous touch cut like a steel blade, burning like ice, and she ached for more. Part of her wanted to just push the older woman against the wall and kiss her until the icy flames consumed them both utterly...but she couldn't. She knew that Olivia needed to believe in this, in her. She needed to understand that what Natalia was offering was real and honest and fearless. If it took Olivia all night to unearth the truth and she never did more than touch her right there, then Natalia would somehow endure it.

For the love of my life.

Those words... They should have sounded stranger to Natalia than they did. To the unmarried, pregnant sixteen-year-old Catholic girl inside of her, they were shocking...but Natalia was beginning to realize she wasn't that naive, frightened child anymore. Somewhere along the line, she'd grown up. She'd discovered this unshakable core of strength inside her that had weathered all manner of chaos and yet still stood tall and proud. It was that strength that recognized its complement in Olivia Spencer, the unconquerable woman and mother who had overcome a lifetime of pain with precious little in the way of help or support, and it cried out for her, hungry for completion.

Olivia followed her fingertips with her mouth, mapping Natalia's heartbeats with her tongue and lips, and a soft gasp of surprise escaped the younger woman. Olivia drew Natalia into her arms, laying a delicate vine of wisteria kisses along the length of her throat and along her jawline until she found her mouth, capturing it, plundering it rapturously, deeply, slowly... It was she who maneuvered Natalia until she had her pressed against the doorway and she who found agility enough to manage the catch on Natalia's bra, unhooking it and discarding it without breaking their endless kiss...

When Olivia cupped her breast for the first time, the younger woman threw her head back, crying out as the ache inside her coalesced suddenly, urgently. She arched her back and Olivia took the movement for invitation, following the caress with a kiss. Olivia's mouth was wet and hot against her skin and when she suckled the tightening bud of Natalia's nipple, the overwhelming tide of sensation dragged the younger woman under and she fought for breath, fought to keep her feet.

Olivia, stunned by the electric chaos that was her own need, pulled her mouth away from Natalia's skin and braced herself against the door, gulping air as she looked at the raven-haired goddess before her. Natalia's eyes were huge, wildly reflecting Olivia's disbelief and her hunger. Their mouths crashed together then and they devoured one another until Natalia pushed Olivia away, hands scrabbling for the hem of the older woman's t-shirt, pulling it from her jeans and snaking underneath it, trying to push it up and over her head.

"Light...Nat..." gasped Olivia, hand reaching for the switch on the wall. "Light...off..." she breathed, shivering at the feel of Natalia's hands on her skin.

"No," countered the younger woman, playfully swatting Olivia's hand aside with one of her own while the other continued to hike up her shirt. "On."

"No," said Olivia, her voice changing from desire to desperation. "Off." She lunged for the switch but Natalia caught her hand, stopping her. "Off!" she repeated harshly, pulling away from her lover.

Surfacing painfully from her need, it took a moment for Natalia to recognize that something was truly wrong. Confusion overtook her features, still flushed with desire.

"Wait--why?" She held her hands in front of her--palms up--in a gesture of harmlessness. "Olivia?" She wracked her brain for a reason that having the light off would be so important, stunned by what she came up with. "Is it...your incision?"

Olivia crossed her arms tightly over her rumpled shirt, holding herself together as best she could. "I--I don't like to see it," she explained darkly. "I don't like anyone to see it. It's embarrassing...but not in the way that you think. It isn't vanity."

Vanity, she thought, laughing derisively at herself, remembering her endless quests for the perfect shoes...clothes...possessions...in the years before her heart gave out. All of them wasted, useless. All of them incapable of buying her one more hour, one more breath on this Earth. She shook her head and turned haunted eyes to Natalia.

"Do you know what they do when they open your chest?" she asked softly. When Natalia--eyes round and worried--silently shook her head, she explained. "They cut through your ribs and your sternum with something that looks like a set of bolt cutters. When they've cut through the last one, they open the whole thing like a birdcage, holding it that way with something they call a 'rib spreader'. The process is called 'cracking the chest'. Then they shove your lungs out of the way and they--" She stopped, suddenly overcome with waves of revulsion and terror. Angry, frightened tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. "There were h-hands inside me and they cut out my heart, Natalia. They put it in a stainless steel bowl like a dog dish and left it there, naked and broken, until finally they discarded it. Threw it in the furnace to be incinerated like a piece of rancid meat!" She shouted the last word, startling herself, jarring herself from her grief. She closed her eyes and covered her face briefly with her hands, taking a deep, steadying breath. Then she scrubbed at her tears. "I have never been so vulnerable...so alone...so powerless before; not even waking up that morning after I'd been raped." Despite her best efforts, the tears continued to fall. To compensate, she tried to deaden her voice. She was only marginally successful. "It's a daily reminder of my weakest moment. Sue me for not wanting you to see it."

The long silence that followed finally got the better of Olivia and she looked up, afraid of what she might find in Natalia's eyes. Don't pity me, she pleaded with her own. I couldn't take that. Not today. Not ever.

But there was no pity in Natalia's eyes. Instead, she looked at Olivia pensively before glancing down at the button on her own slacks, reaching for it and undoing it.

"I'm going to tell you a story," she announced, slipping out of her shoes and putting them neatly next to Olivia's dresser. She unzipped her pants and slipped those off too, folding them and hanging them on the back of a chair. "It's about a man in India, a servant. Everyday he walked to the river for fresh water, hauling it back to his master's house in two earthen jars that he carried on a pole balanced on his shoulders." She demurely removed her panties, folded them, and placed them on the chair with her pants. "One of the jars was whole, but one had a crack and every day the cracked one lost half its water on the pathway." She glanced at Olivia, her head held proud and high despite the vulnerability she was so obviously feeling, and she made a decision, padding solemnly over to the older woman on bare feet. She knelt in front of her and helped Olivia take off her shoes, lining them up neatly next to her own. "After two years, the broken pot apologized to the man, saying 'I am so sorry!' 'But why are you sorry?' asked the man. And the pot said, 'Every day you work hard to carry water to your master and because I am cracked, you lose a portion of it. I am a burden to you.'" She stood and undid the button on Olivia's jeans, unzipping them and slowly sliding them down her long, beautiful legs. It was the first time her voice cracked. "The m-man picked up the jars and began to walk back to his master's h-house. 'Do you see the flowers along this path?' he asked the broken pot. The pot said 'Yes.'" She folded Olivia's jeans and laid them over the back of the chair, too. Her eyes then fell on the tiny wisps of cloth that pretended to be Olivia's panties and she removed them from her hips, her fingers trembling. "The man s-said, 'I planted those flowers along this path knowing about the crack. I used your flaw to provide water to the seeds so that they would grow.'" Natalia raised her eyes finally to Olivia's, a question shimmering in their depths, and she reached out for the hem of her shirt.

For a long moment, Natalia didn't know what Olivia would do. They stood there in the golden light of the room, neither one moving, until the older woman finally sighed and uncrossed her arms from her chest, having known from the beginning that she would, having known that she could deny Natalia nothing. "The man continued, saying, 'Every day I pick these flowers for my master's house and they make it beautiful.'" The two women reached for the hem together and pulled the t-shirt over Olivia's head, Natalia smiling through her tears as she assisted with the pale blue bra underneath. "So beautiful," she repeated earnestly, gazing on the thin, twisted ribbon of coral skin that marked the East and West of her lover with such abrupt clarity, then moving on to take in the exquisite curves and hollows of Olivia's stunningly gorgeous body.

"This?" Natalia said, tracing the scar with inexpressibly gentle fingertips. Olivia gasped and trembled with the touch, a wildfire storm of silver shivers cascading over her. No one had touched her like this since before the transplant. Being touched by Natalia now--so lovingly, so patiently--was overwhelming. "This is not a sign of weakness, Olivia Spencer," continued Natalia tearfully, looking up into eyes the color of the sea. "This is the crack God gave you so you could pour your love onto your daughters, onto me... Helping us grow and change... Reflecting the love you give back to you..." She drew Olivia into her arms and when their bare bodies met in embrace for the first time, it was as if a great bell had rung, the sound pealing out in rolling waves, setting the whole world right. Natalia twined her fingers in Olivia's silken hair and pulled her down for a long, languid kiss that hollowed both of their bellies with delicious anticipation. When they parted, they stared at each other for a long time until Natalia brushed a few strands of Olivia's hair out of her eyes.

Olivia arched one well-defined brow. "Are you calling me a crackpot?" she asked saucily, tugging at a lock of raven silk.

Natalia wiped her eyes and arched a brow in return, a mock haughtiness entering her features, calling her high cheekbones into stark relief. She gave a small shrug. "If the shoe fits..." she countered, deadpan.

"How would I know?" replied Olivia, equally deadpan. "You took mine."

The air crackled between them as they each fought to maintain control but in the end, they couldn't restrain their laughter. When it faded, Natalia said long-sufferingly, "I didn't want you to run away again."

Olivia's eyes darkened with fervent intensity, becoming instantly fierce and resolute. "I'm through running from you, Natalia," she said softly. "I'm through running, period. From now on," she promised, "whatever comes, I stand and fight." A tiny smile played around her kiss-bruised lips. "As long as I have you, I can't lose."

In the end, Olivia compromised about the light... She lit candles. And in her eyes, she was brilliant because the candles' buttery flickering radiance touched Natalia's skin with a luminous auric halo and she understood, finally, the rapturous contemplation of the believer.

Natalia's luxurious hair, spread like a Japanese fan made of the finest ebony silk, framed her face and her glimmering eyes pierced Olivia's own, pleading with her to touch her again. Olivia bent her head and captured a dark nipple with a searing kiss, groaning when she felt it pebble in her mouth. Her trembling fingertips blindly searched for Natalia's other nipple, circling it, grazing it with her nails so softly before finally tugging it, rolling it gently between them.

Natalia whimpered and arched her back, her body aflame, aching with need. It elated her and terrified her at the same time, this all-consuming need, and her body quaked, ravaged by adrenaline and desire.

Olivia sensed her lover's disquiet and rose above her, gazing into her eyes, soothing her and begging her, Trust me. Natalia nodded, struggling to breathe through her fear, feeling as if she were dissolving, dissipating into glittering starlight. Olivia lowered her mouth and grazed the hollow at the base of Natalia's throat with her lips. Then she suckled first one, then the other breast, marking them with a benediction of her longing. She caressed the younger woman with her thread-of-gold hair, sweeping it down her body, her eyes fluttering closed and her breaths sharp and shallow. The scent of Natalia's need was dark and heady, like currants, spice and molten gold. Olivia's arms strained to hold her upright as she peppered the gorgeous woman with ephemeral kisses...here at the curve of her left breast, here at the rise of her hip, here at the swell of her navel, here at the heartbreaking union of hip and thigh...

Olivia gently parted Natalia's legs, her mouth coming again to the rise of her belly, kissing her there, slowly, deliberately, as she settled herself between her trembling thighs. As Olivia's mouth began its scorching journey downward, their gazes locked, feverish in the half-light. Natalia held her breath, the ache of her body coalescing, intensifying...threatening to tear her apart. She balanced on a knife's edge.

"I have waited so long for you," Olivia husked, then she kissed Natalia, plundering her satiny, silken cleft with her mouth, consuming her, devouring her slowly, ravenously, absolutely. At the first touch of Olivia's tongue, Natalia threw her head back and cried out her name. Awash in the blazing liquid ferocity of Olivia's ardor, she could only pray that she would survive it. She lifted her hips, pushing them into Olivia, wanting to feel her deeper inside and then she did and--Oh God--there had never, ever been anything like this! Her blood pounded in her veins, thundering through her, blotting out sight, sound, everything. Her whole body, her heart and soul, all narrowed to a single blistering molecule of time and space, driven by Olivia's utter adoration, and it became a dervish, dancing to the music of its own lunacy until...until...

Olivia Spencer was lost... She stood--fearless, laughing joyously--in a cloudburst, worshiping the taste of rain. She cupped it in her hands and drank deeply, unquenchable in her need, filling up with light, with love, filling up with shimmering sweetness, drowning in it, until she toppled over like a wine goblet, the honeyed liquescence of her yearning surging into the world, flooding it, until...

The cataclysmic collision ignited their incandescent release and Natalia cried out, "God! Olivia!"

In the stillness of the deep night with only one candle still burning, Natalia Rivera lay on her stomach, her body replete with satiation, her lovely features arranged in a visage of utter contentment. Olivia Spencer was propped up on one arm next to her, tracing the hollow of the younger woman's spine from the sacral dimple to the nape of her neck and back again, over and over. The hotelier could not stop touching her lover and the gentle caress made the brunette purr with feline satisfaction.

They'd made love twice again already, Natalia discovering in herself a certain voracious appreciation for the sounds that Olivia made just before she climaxed. She planned to hear them at least twice more tonight if she could manage it. She grinned to herself with the thought, blissfully happy to spend this momentary hush planning her next 'attack'.

Olivia was lost in her own ruminations as she stroked Natalia's back, the primary one being Well, I guess I don't need to order that copy of 'Lesbian Sex for Dummies' I've been eying on Amazon. Humor aside, the older woman was stunned by how easy, how natural, how right making love with Natalia felt. Their bodies fit together like a well-made clock, every movement, every sound, every touch leading to another and another, unceasing, until the chime of the hour broke the silence, a pure, silver sound that felt like coming home. It was amazing and Olivia understood how lucky she was to be alive, just to experience it.

"Mmmmm..." hummed Natalia, stretching gently under Olivia's ministrations. "What are you thinking about?" she asked softly.

"Clocks," replied the chestnut-haired woman without elaboration. Natalia stiffened beneath her fingers and it took quite a lot of discipline for Olivia to keep from laughing right out loud.

The younger woman pushed herself off the bed and turned incredulous eyes on her lover. "Clocks?!" she repeated, aghast.

"Yeah, clocks," agreed Olivia. "Why? What do you think about after sex?"

"Well, not clocks!" complained Natalia, her voice rising with her distress. "I mean-- I-- Olivia, clocks? With the minute hand and the cuckoo and the--" As her disbelief spiraled out of her, she noticed the tremor of Olivia's shoulders and her slowly cracking features. "And Oh God, Olivia, you are so mean to me!" She swatted her with the palm of her hand, harmlessly but still clearly annoyed. "What were you really thinking about, you--you--bad girl?"

Olivia laughed. "Bad girl, huh?" She waggled her eyebrows at Natalia and gave her a lascivious once-over. "You don't know the half of it," she growled, pulling the younger woman into her arms, nibbling her throat.


The older woman relented. "Okay, okay! What was I thinking?" Natalia nodded, her big, brown eyes wide in the dim light and tenderness flooded Olivia unexpectedly, taking her breath away. "I was thinking how I am so in love with you," she breathed, her voice catching on her sudden emotion. "I was thinking that I am so lucky to still be here and that it's all because of you and that I don't really deserve you but I am so glad you love me anyway--"

Olivia found her mouth stopped by the purest, most guileless kiss she'd ever experienced and when they parted, Natalia cupped her cheek in the palm of her hand. "I love you, too, Olivia Spencer. I will always, always love you."

Reminded suddenly of a question she had, Olivia didn't respond, averting her eyes.

"What?" Natalia felt the shift in her lover's mood immediately. "Olivia, what is it?"

Olivia sighed, not sure she wanted to know the answer to what she was going to ask and yet powerless to keep from asking it. "When you went to the cemetery today to see Gus--was it to say goodbye? Because of us?"

Natalia smiled sadly, kissing Olivia on the forehead softly before catching her gaze, wanting her to see the truth in her own eyes. "No, sweetie," she said softly. "I went there to thank him."

"Thank him?" repeated the older woman. "For what?"

Natalia ran her fingertips down Olivia's incision, finding it without even looking, caressing it almost absently, comforted by its presence.

"For your life," she said simply.

The End

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