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01 March 2009 @ 12:48 am
Tanked Muse Productions Presents...  
Title: Captured for the Queen to Use  (part 1)
Author: DiNovia
Fandom: Guiding Light
Pairing: Olivia/Natalia
Rating:  NC-17
Words:  14,441
Archival:  P&P and Kimly, of course.  Everyone else, please ask.
Spoilers:  None
Summary:  After Alan's confrontation, Natalia seems guardedly relieved that only three people considered her and Olivia a couple.  A closer look at her surroundings, however, reveals another person with the same mistaken impression.  But is it really mistaken after all?
Content Disclaimer:  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.  
Source Disclaimer:  I do not own Guiding Light or the characters therein depicted.  I do not seek to profit from this story. 
A/N:  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 bldy_destini for beta-ing this long-ass story.  And for getting me hooked on Otalia in the first place.  :)
Submitted to the Guiding Light As It Happens Challenge at passion_perfect .

"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."


Continued in part 2...

My State of Mind: excitedexcited