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Be Still, My Heart

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1.

It was long past dusk by the time that everyone had finished dinner, chatted, left--and they were only now finishing up the dishes. Despite cooking earlier, Natalia had insisted on doing the washing-up. Although Olivia had the uncomfortable suspicion that Natalia’s determination in sparing her the chore represented some type of continued penance on the other woman’s part, she had opted not to turn it into an argument. Instead, she had simply picked up a dishtowel and started pulling items out of the drying rack as quickly as Natalia finished them, ignoring the frown directed her way.

“You don’t have to-”

“I know.” Olivia neatly stacked bowls on the shelf they had agreed upon all those months ago, before moving back to stand by the sink. “But you didn’t really think I’d leave you here to clean up all by yourself?”

“The dishes will dry by themselves. You don’t have to do that.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

Natalia looked over at her then, and the immediacy of her attention let Olivia know that she hadn’t been fooled by the light tone of the comment.

“Never,” Natalia said softly. The smile she offered Olivia was the small, slightly secretive one that Olivia had come to realize was for her alone. “I just want you to be happy.”

Olivia reached out a hand and brushed some hair back from Natalia’s face. “You make me happy,” she said, as she let her fingers drift lower, against Natalia’s cheek, stopping just shy of her mouth. Natalia leaned into the touch, and for a moment they just stood there, the water still running, the dish in Natalia’s hands irrelevant as they studied each other.

In a change from the normal flow of their interactions, the moment was broken not by an outside source, but rather by one of the two of them as Natalia grimaced.

Olivia removed her hand and stepped back. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” At Olivia’s sideways glance, she amended, “It’s just that my back is a little sore.”

“Well, that’s not exactly surprising. You’ve been on your feet all day.”

It was clear Natalia understood where this conversation was going as she pointedly reached out for another plate and started rinsing it off. “Yes, I have. We both have.”

Olivia wondered how it was that everyone always labeled her the stubborn one. It seemed incredibly unfair. Then again, speaking of not playing fair...

“Why don’t you let me finish up here, while you read Emma her story?”

Natalia shook her head. “Olivia-”

“She likes your character voices better anyways.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does. The other night she told me that my door mouse didn’t sound tiny enough. She imitated yours for me, and I think I’m going to have to agree.” Olivia smiled fondly as she brushed the knuckles of her right hand against Natalia’s cheek. It felt oddly bold, touching her again so soon. At some point she had adapted to their form of intimacy...and right now, everything still felt like a stolen moment.

“Well there you go,” Natalia said. “Emma gave you a good starting point.”

“You know, I don’t think my voice even goes that high.” Olivia laughed then, and dropped her hand. The timbre of her laughter seemed to prove her point; deep and rich, it drew an instant smile from Natalia.

“Alright,” she said, finally relenting. “But don’t think you’re fooling anyone. I know you just want your own way.”

“I always do.”

“No,” Natalia said very softly, abruptly serious. “You don’t.”

“Maybe not,” Olivia answered in kind, not quite able to hold Natalia’s gaze. “But that’s a pretty well kept secret.”

“I promise I won’t tell. But, Olivia-”

Emma came running into the kitchen before Natalia could finish her sentence, and although she was always happy to see her daughter, Olivia was more pleased than usual by the interruption. Tonight ran the risk of becoming too much, too fast.

“What’s the rush, Jellybean?”

“There’s a Hannah Montana marathon on TV and-”

“Uh-uh,” Olivia cut her off. “It’s already way past your bedtime.”

“But, Mom-”

“Hey, Emma,” Natalia said, “I bet if you go to bed now, your Mom will let you stay home from camp tomorrow and bake cookies with me.”

Emma eyed her hopefully. “Chocolate chip?”

“Of course.”

“Can I, Mom?” Emma asked, and Olivia could tell from her tone that she already knew that answer was going to be the one she liked.

“Only if you save some for me.” Olivia nodded towards the door. “Now, go on. Get ready for bed and Natalia will read you your story.”

Emma started to leave, but then paused at the door. “I really do have two mommies again,” she informed them happily, leaving two bemused women staring after her as she left.

Olivia recovered first and raised an eyebrow at Natalia. “Hooky and cookies? You are a terrible influence.”

“What can I say? You’re rubbing off on me.”

“Well it had to happen sometime.”

Natalia started to say something, glanced back towards the door, then appeared to change her mind. “I’ll go read to Emma, if you’re sure-”

“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve got this.” Olivia put her hand out for the sponge, pleased when Natalia’s fingers lingered over her own as she relinquished the object. “Now, go and show off those voices of yours. I’ll be upstairs waiting for you when you’re done.”

Olivia hadn’t really been thinking about her words, but Natalia’s quick intake of breath reminded her all too well of the fact that they hadn’t actually discussed their sleeping arrangements for this move-in. Just because they had moved some of her boxes into the master bedroom in a tacit agreement that they would eventually be sharing it together, she didn’t assume that it meant anything about where - and how - she would spend tonight.

“We’ll talk,” Olivia promised, unable to read the look Natalia gave her before she left the room.

For a few moments after Natalia’s departure, Olivia just stood in place, eyes closed, trying to pull herself together. She was glad to be back here. A part of her had been more relaxed since the moment they carried the first of her boxes back through the door. She had missed her home. But the rest of her...

The rest of her hadn’t quite caught up.

The two of them didn’t lie to each other, but she didn’t know how she could be strong for Natalia now, be open the way she needed to be - completely trusting - and not have it be an act of dishonesty. She had barely finished mourning Natalia’s absence. She wasn’t even sure she had fully absorbed the fact that she had returned. Every time her lips formed the shape of Natalia’s name, she checked herself, unsure if the woman in question would still be there to hear the sound.

It was unfair - it was terribly unfair - if Natalia could have forgiven her for every word that came out of her mouth after Gus’s death, how could Olivia not forgive her for this, her one act of cruelty?

And yet, seemingly it was outside her control...which only made her long for surety. Made her want to make sure that Natalia never left again. She’d admit it: she was feeling possessive. And she knew how it always turned out, when she tried to possess someone.

So, whatever else happened, she knew she didn’t want to try and control Natalia.

She just didn’t know what else to do.

***

As she left Emma’s room, Natalia was surprised to hear the sound of running water. Usually Olivia showered in the morning--and Olivia liked her routines.

When Natalia reached the bathroom door it was half-open, so she allowed herself the pleasure of satisfying her curiosity. The sight that greeted her when she peeked around the door made her laugh, and Olivia turned around at the sound.

“That’s a lot of bubble bath,” Natalia said, as she walked over to where Olivia was arranging some floor towels.

“I think I might have overshot,” Olivia agreed, studying the half-full tub. Several inches of bubbles had already formed on the surface of the water. “I didn’t know how much you like.”

“How much I like?”

“Yeah. I thought that maybe you’d-” Olivia gestured to bath. “I mean, when I was pregnant with Emma, baths always helped me.”

“Your backaches were pretty bad too?”

“The worst. Though with me, most of it was because I was so tense.”

“Because of Lizzie and the stairs?”

“Among other things. I really think that getting Emma through her second birthday was the hardest test of my parenting skills. I’m fairly certain that even her teen years won’t compare.”

Natalia made a face. “Don’t be too sure.”

“She does already run circles around us...” Olivia shook her head. “No, I’m not going to think about that tonight.”

“You shouldn’t. Especially since we haven’t even celebrated how well she took the news about us.”

“I feel like we cheated,” Olivia admitted, reaching down and shutting off the water. “I mean, we combined the news about us with the news about moving back into the farmhouse. She would have taken anything well after learning we were moving back in here with you.”

Natalia hid a smile as Olivia dipped the tips of her fingers in the water. It was obvious she was testing the temperature--and even more obvious that she wasn’t aware she was doing it.

Occasionally Natalia still found it wondrous, remembering that there was a time when she believed that Olivia didn’t have a heart.

“I think that she would have still been excited, even if we hadn’t told her about your moving back in,” Natalia said. “She loves that we’re a family--and that she’s going to have a little sister.”

Olivia slid her hands into pockets and shifted her weight. “I’m excited too.”

Natalia wanted to play it cool, but her hands immediately went to the swell of her stomach. “Yeah?” She felt her heart melt a little bit more at the way Olivia held her gaze.

“Yeah. I’m really happy about our baby.” Though Olivia was smiling during the declaration, Natalia couldn’t help but notice that she started to fidget as soon as she had finished uttering the words. As she shifted her weight again, she looked left, towards the filled tub. “You should take your bath, before the water gets cold.”

“What about you?”

“Excuse me?”

“What are your...plans...for the rest of the evening?”

“I’m going to go say good-night to Emma. And then...”

“Do you want to meet me in my-” Natalia paused, her hesitation almost imperceptible as she continued, “in our bedroom. We can talk.”

“Talking sounds good,” Olivia said softly.

Natalia watched Olivia as she walked out of the bathroom, not turning towards her bath until the door had clicked shut.

***

When Olivia walked into Emma’s room, she was unsurprised to see that her daughter still appeared wide-awake. What did surprise her, however, was the worried expression on Emma’s face.

“What’s wrong, Em?” she asked, as she sat down on the bed and put an arm around her daughter’s shoulders.

“Is Dad going to be sad that we moved back here?”

“What? Why would he be sad? You know that he likes Natalia.”

“We’re farther away from him now. What if he gets sick again?”

“Oh, Em.” Olivia hugged her daughter tightly, needing a minute to formulate a response. Emma had been through so much this past year. And though she might be too young to really understand how close she had come to losing both of her parents during that time period, she was still smart enough to sense the nearness of her escape.

“Is he really going to be all better?” Emma finally asked, her voice muffled as she pressed her face against Olivia’s shirt.

“That’s what they tell me, Jellybean.” Olivia tilted her daughter’s chin up with a hand so that she could meet her eyes. “And I promise you that we’ll keep visiting him and making sure he’s taking care of himself. But as for the move, we’re not that much further away, and your dad knows you like this home. He just wants you to be happy. That’s what’s most important to him.”

“You too, Mom.”

“Me too?”

“He wants you to be happy too. He told me so.”

“Of course he did,” Olivia muttered under her breath. Even with his past - the attempted kidnappings - it seemed Phillip would be successful in convincing others of his reformation long before she could manage the same feat.

She sighed. If it weren’t for their daughter, she might be able to summon up some of the spirit of her and Phillip’s old competitiveness...but perhaps it was best for all concerned that Emma’s love of her father kept some of those impulses in check. She wasn’t sure Springfield could survive she and Phillip trying to out-nice each other, though she thought Natalia might enjoy the show.

“Mom? Can you stay here tonight, with me? Please?”

Olivia pulled back a bit to study her. The last time Emma had asked for this, it had been a few weeks after Olivia had returned home from her transplant surgery. After some prodding, Olivia had found out about the nightmares Emma had been experiencing since the start of her mother’s hospitalization. After hearing about the dreams, she had immediately acceded to the request, though Emma had only needed company for a few nights before she was sleeping soundly again.

“Mom?”

Olivia gently tapped her daughter on the nose. “Of course I can. Just let me tell Natalia good night, okay?” She waited for Emma’s nod before shifting towards the edge of the bed, and standing. Better to tell Natalia quickly. Not that she wouldn’t understand, but she was sure to be disappointed. Or at least Olivia was pretty sure that’s how she would feel, if her own feelings on the subject were any indication.

Oh well, she thought, as she knocked on the bathroom door. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t waited before

 


2.

“Natalia?”

“Olivia? Is everything okay?” Natalia had been mildly surprised when Olivia hadn’t called to check in on them at lunch, and the tone of her voice right now wasn’t exactly reassuring. However, Emma had paused in her task of bagging the cookies they had made, and so Natalia made herself smile, even as she gripped the phone tighter.

“Mostly. There was a fire here at the Beacon earlier-”

What? How is that mostly fine-”

“Because everyone’s okay. There were no injuries, and the fire itself didn’t spread beyond one room.” Olivia’s tone became rueful as she continued, “I just wish I could say the same for the smoke.”

Natalia winced. The ventilation system in the hotel had given her more than one headache, back in the day. “Bad?” she asked.

“I’ve been doing damage control all day. Experts everywhere. Room swaps, comped drinks, the whole deal. It’s been a real circus.” Olivia paused for a moment, then continued, quietly, “I miss you.”

“I miss you too. Do you want me to...?”

“No, we’ve got it covered here. I’ll be home to see you and Em as soon as I can.”

“We’ll be waiting-”

“Tell Mom we have cookies,” Emma interrupted.

“Correction,” Natalia said. “We’ll be waiting with cookies.”

“Sounds fantastic. Though I hope chocolate chip cookies go well with martinis. Because, really, by the time I get home, I won’t be able to wait for either.”

“Well, you can let me know.” Natalia shook her head as she hung up. Only Olivia.

***

Olivia came in through the back door and started smiling the minute she saw both Natalia and Emma in the kitchen. They were leaning over Emma’s computer, and all Olivia needed to see were the twin guilty looks offered her to know that they weren’t working on Emma’s homework. Thankfully for them, she was immediately distracted by the item on the table that was not a laptop.

“Oh, cookies,” she said, grabbing one off the plate. “You have no idea how much I needed one of these.”

“Do you want more food to go with that?” Natalia asked.

“Not right now,” Olivia said. “For now, I just want to sit with you two and see what all I missed-”

“Mom, did you know that-” Emma’s nose wrinkled as Olivia moved towards her.

“Not a fan, Jellybean?”

“No, you smell bad.”

“I-”

“You should take a shower before you hug me.” Emma paused, considering. “Or Natalia.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Olivia said dryly. She watched in amusement as Natalia failed to stifle her laughter.

“You’re welcome,” Emma said. She picked up her laptop. “I’m going to finish my homework upstairs, okay?”

“Alright,” Olivia said, as her daughter ran out of the room. She looked over to Natalia. “I’d come closer, but apparently I’m not fit for company.”

Natalia walked around the table to envelope Olivia in a hug. “When are you ever?” she asked.

Olivia closed her eyes as she finally relaxed for the first time since the incident that morning. It wasn’t that the events of the day had represented any kind of major crisis - in fact, the minute she had seen the damage, she had known she could have most of the evidence of the fire removed in a matter of weeks - it had just come at a time where she had really wanted to be home.

She gently ran one of her hands up and down Natalia’s back, only pulling back when she felt her shaking.

“Sorry,” Natalia said, when she saw Olivia studying her, trying once again to quiet her laughter. “It’s just that Emma was right. It must have been pretty smoky in the Beacon today.”

“It was,” Olivia said, unable to help laughing herself. How could she, when Natalia stood across from her, her cheeks flushed, her dimples showing? The expression in her eyes as she caught Olivia’s gaze was enough to warm both of them, and Olivia thought she had never felt so welcomed into her own home.

Although, speaking of welcoming, the aroma of chicken had finally caught her attention. “Am I allowed to eat before I shower?” she asked.

Natalia nodded. “But only if I can eat with you.”

“Are you sure I won’t ruin your appetite?” Olivia asked, as she walked over to the counter and reached up to the shelves for two bowls.

“I think I’ll survive.” Natalia took the lid off the pot on the stove and stirred the contents with a ladle, before filling the bowls Olivia held out to her. “Though if Emma hadn’t already eaten...”

Olivia shook her head as they sat down at the table together. “She tells it like it is, doesn’t she?”

“I wonder where she gets that from?”

“Hey, I know what tact is!” Olivia protested. “In fact, these days I’m downright diplomatic.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Natalia said, not looking up from the carrots she was fishing out of her soup.

Olivia gave her a suspicious look. “Really?”

“Yeah, it’s been a few months since you threatened to eat the cows.”

“I never-” Olivia’s eyes widened as the realization hit her. “Frank told you about that?”

“Frank told me about a lot of things.”

Olivia thought that might qualify as one of the most loaded statements ever uttered in this kitchen. “Such as?”

“Let’s just say that it took pre-marital counseling with Frank to make me realize just how well you know me. Which is not the way one should find out about such things, just so you know.”

“What things? That I listen to what you say? I don’t find that very extraordinary.”

“You really should take more credit for your virtues.”

“But my vices are so well-known.”

Natalia put down her spoon and studied Olivia carefully. “Is this about Phillip? I thought you two had been getting along.”

“We have.” Olivia couldn’t quite meet Natalia’s gaze. “He’s been getting along with the entire town. People have stopped questioning his intentions.”

“If you had Alan for a father, you’d look good in comparison too.”

Olivia looked up at her in surprise, but before she could say anything, Natalia started talking again.

“I know what Phillip did to you, and to Harley - to all the mothers of his children - is truly unforgivable, but he’s spent enough of his life trying to differentiate himself from his father, that it’s hard not to see him as the ‘better’ man in comparison.”

“How do you know...?” Olivia trailed off. The last time they had discussed the Spaulding men, Natalia had barely known anything of Phillip and Alan’s personal history.

“Have you ever spent an afternoon with Blake?”

It was Natalia’s turn to look surprised as Olivia blushed. “Yes.”

“Well, then, you know how she likes to talk.”

“I’ve always known that. What did she do, give you the entire history of Springfield? You only worked for her for a few weeks.”

“Yes. And they were very...informative. But, back to the point I was trying to make, you don’t have anyone close to you-”

“-such that I look nice in comparison?” Olivia nodded. “That’s true. Although, even when I was married to Alan, I’m not sure if anyone would have labeled me the ‘nice’ one. Pretty much everyone thought I married him for his money.” She laughed. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if anyone had ever seen our pre-nup.”

“That bad?”

“Worse.” Olivia couldn’t help but be silent a moment, remembering. Then her expression brightened. “If Reva had seen it, she would have died of shock.”

“Good to see that feud is still going strong.”

“Did you think you’d entirely reformed me?”

Natalia reached out with her free hand and laced their fingers together. “There are some miracles I have no desire to witness,” she said, smiling in a way that did not make Olivia think particularly repentant thoughts.

***

Freshly showered, Olivia studied the contents of the cardboard box she’d just opened. The clothing inside was something of a jumble. Despite hiring movers, there were some things - like the clothing in this box - she had wanted to pack for herself. Except that by the time she and Natalia had talked to Emma on moving day, there hadn’t been much time left over for any of the usual niceties associated with packing clothes. As in, nothing was folded, and her dressiest lingerie shared space with the oldest of her pajama sets.

And none of it was helping her decision making processes. She had never had this much trouble deciding what to wear; she thought most of it had to do with how she felt right now, the oddest mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion. Although her long day was finally catching up with her, her evening with Natalia - talking, laughing, trading stories - had made her long for more of the same.

She also didn’t think she had just imagined the fact that Natalia had been very physical throughout the evening. It wasn’t necessarily any one gesture that had given her the impression, handholding and such was usual for them, but tonight Natalia hadn’t seemed to want to let her go. It was as close as they had ever come to foreplay, and Olivia had loved every minute of it.

But they hadn’t even talked about sharing a bed, and she didn’t want to seem overeager in her choice of attire. It wasn’t that she didn’t have practice at explaining away the existence of ill-timed lingerie - she’d come a long way since the Shayne and Maura debacle - but she’d really prefer to avoid any potential awkwardness that could mar her time tonight with Natalia.

Her decision made, she pulled on a pair of her favorite striped pajama bottoms, buttoned up a matching shirt, and picked up a stack of files that still needed to be reviewed. She barely allowed herself time to stretch out across the bed before she had flipped open the top file. The fire today notwithstanding, there was no way she was canceling her conference call tomorrow. With a third daughter on the way, franchising the Beacon had only moved higher on her list of priorities.

She couldn’t help her relief that she had something useful to concentrate on while she waited for Natalia to finish her bath.

***

Natalia couldn’t help smiling when she walked into her bedroom and found Olivia sound asleep across the bed. She thought she should probably find the sight at least mildly disappointing; they hadn’t even had the chance to talk about the fact that they were obviously sharing a bed tonight. However, the level of comfort - of trust - that Olivia had to feel, to be this relaxed and vulnerable...

...well, considering that Olivia had said that she could never trust her again, Natalia found the sight in front of her to be nothing short of a miracle from God.

Moving carefully so as not to wake her, Natalia tucked a blanket around Olivia. Her movements still caused Olivia to stir, not quite awake as she uttered Natalia’s name. Natalia waited a moment to see if she would rouse and say more, but after a sleepy smile, Olivia’s whole body relaxed again. Natalia allowed herself one brief touch then, leaning down to softly kiss Olivia’s forehead, before moving around to the empty side of the bed.

She laughed to herself as she undid her robe. Leave it to Olivia to decide their respective sides of the bed in a way that seemed to leave no room for debate. Not that there couldn’t be later arguments on the subject--but now, a precedent had been set.

Good thing she honestly didn’t care. She thought they’d probably have enough adjustments to make in the next several weeks to keep them well supplied in topics for arguments.

She turned off her bedside lamp and slipped under the covers, curling her body towards Olivia’s. This close, she could feel the other woman’s warmth. In some ways new, it already felt familiar.

Cocooned in the dark, knowing who slept beside her, she smiled.

Perhaps some of their adjustments wouldn’t be so difficult, after all.

***

When Natalia woke up, it was with a feeling close to panic. It was dark, her body felt unaccountably warm, and the smell of smoke was almost overpowering--

And that’s when she realized that at some point in the night, she had rolled over and Olivia had moved with her. Natalia could now feel the shape of the other woman’s body spooned against her back...and could recognize that the smoky smell probably came from the soft curtain of hair that brushed against her neck, her cheek.

Although she realized that equating the smell of smoke with a feeling of safety was probably not good for her health, she couldn’t seem to help the newfound association. She was already feeling drowsy again as she reached down and placed a hand over the one Olivia had resting on the curve of her stomach. If the baby kicked tonight, they would feel it together.

***

The next time Natalia woke up, muted patches of sunlight had found their way onto her bedspread, and Olivia was already gone. When Natalia put on a robe and went looking for her, she found a note taped to the coffee pot.

Natalia-

Sorry to leave so early, but I had a few issues to clear up at the Beacon. I shouldn’t be home late tonight, so I’ll be there to help with dinner and getting Emma ready for bed.

-Olivia

P.S. I loved waking up beside you this morning.

 


3.

Natalia pulled into the Beacon parking lot. She barely took the time to check her reflection in the rearview mirror before getting out of the car and making a beeline for the hotel. Somehow, she had managed to end up with the afternoon off - something to do with Alan’s upcoming procedure had made him unable to delegate today, even through intermediaries - and she had immediately knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her day.

She knew the fall-out from the fire the previous afternoon would continue for the next several days, so she could offer to help Olivia without worrying about stepping on anyone else’s toes. And the truth was, as good as it had been for the both of them, making their personal relationship independent of their work, she missed working here, with her. She had loved her job at the Beacon. Not only the challenges the job often presented, but also watching Olivia tackle problems. That level of confidence...she didn’t even know how to describe it.

There was something about it that was so honest - as honest as the vulnerability Olivia showed in their personal relationship - that the contrast never ceased to fascinate Natalia. She had meant it when she said that Olivia was the most honest person she knew. Work was just one of the few areas where Olivia wasn’t guarded with the degree of her honesty. She put it all out there, and she enjoyed it.

And Natalia couldn’t help it; she found it fun to watch.

She smiled in anticipation as she walked towards the main entrance, but her steps slowed as she realized she wasn’t going to reach the lobby before running into Olivia...or into Josh Lewis, for that matter. She slowed even more as a few words of their conversation reached her ears.

“...Grandpa,” Olivia said, teasingly.

“You really like saying that,” Josh commented, as he shifted baby Henry in his arms.

Neither of them stood facing Natalia but, even in profile, it wasn’t hard to read their expressions. Relaxed, smiling, flirty - in truth, at this moment Olivia looked at ease in a way Natalia wasn’t sure she even recognized.

Josh said something else that Natalia couldn’t hear, and Olivia opened her arms as he carefully handed the infant over to her. The smile he gave her as she cradled the baby against her chest was very, very tender. His next statement was obviously uttered quietly - Natalia barely saw his lips move - but whatever he said caused Olivia to immediately look up from her study of the baby in her arms, her eyes wide, her shock obvious. For a moment the two of them just stared at each other, their communication completely non-verbal. Finally Josh nodded, once, and Olivia offered him a soft smile, almost innocent in the wonder it expressed.

Natalia watched, breathless, as Olivia’s body language registered her acceptance of whatever compliment he had paid her. Everything about her suddenly seemed less guarded in some indefinable way. Whatever Josh had said to her had had the power to heal, and it was as if Natalia could see old wounds knitting themselves back together, could see-

Could see how much this conversation meant to Olivia. How much Josh meant to Olivia. He not only mattered to her; he mattered to her a lot. Natalia could see it in Olivia’s willingness to expose her own vulnerability--to show how much his words had affected her. As Natalia watched, Olivia shifted the baby again so that he rested in the crook of her arm, and then reached out with her free hand to cup Josh’s face. He put his hand over hers-

And then Natalia had to turn away, ill at the image they presented right now.

When she looked back again, the two of them had separated, although Olivia’s delighted laugher seemed to Natalia to be as intimate as any caress. It only lasted a moment before baby Henry started fussing, demanding Olivia’s attention, but it didn’t matter. For Natalia, seeing Josh’s face soften even more as he watched Olivia focus on the baby, so sure of herself, so practiced-

Natalia had to walk away.

She had known the two of them shared a special bond. She had even known that Olivia talked to him more than the rest of her exes. But she also knew their connection hadn’t always been...this...whatever it was she just witnessed.

The two of them had grown closer while she was away. For the first time Natalia was hit by the images of all the things - besides crying - that a heartbroken Olivia might do...

...things that a heartbroken Olivia would do if some of her self-deprecating remarks were any indication. Up to now, Natalia had always taken them as somewhat exaggerated. She had quickly discovered that no one was harder on Olivia than Olivia herself, but for the first time, she finally pictured them, the possibilities.

For the first time, she really, truly pictured Olivia in someone else’s arms...and immediately felt ripped apart.

By the time she got back to the car, she felt unsteady on her feet, and was more than grateful to be able to sink down onto a seat, in a place that was enclosed and her very own. Fighting back tears, she pressed her hands against her eyes in an effort to block out the outside world.

How had Olivia ever managed to stand hearing about that night with Frank? How had she ever managed push her own feelings aside to offer comfort and understanding?

Natalia had known that her admission hurt Olivia. She had seen it on her face; it was why she had felt so compelled to emphasize the fact that she didn’t love Frank. But she had never, ever imagined that it could hurt like this.

Because once the images started, Natalia didn’t know how to make them stop.

Olivia, lying in bed, curled against Josh. Giving him that look of hers, the one she always had when she really wanted something. Her laughter, followed by a hesitant smile...and then a not-so-hesitant one. Her soft intake of breath, the one she made when touched. All it took was a touch, just a brush of the fingertips...

“God help me,” Natalia whispered, her hand going to the cross that that hung from around her neck as she sat hunched over in the car and prayed.

***

Natalia almost ran directly into Doris in the grocery store. All that saved them from a collision in the middle of the cereal aisle was a quick back-step on the part of the mayor.

“Natalia,” Doris said, “always good to run into you.”

“You too,” Natalia said absently. All she really wanted to do was to finish here. She would have rather gone directly home, but getting Emma out of the house on time in the morning was easier if she didn’t try to cook, and she hadn’t gotten around to buying cereal until today--

“Hey, are you alright?” Doris asked. “Is there something wrong with..?” She didn’t seem to want to finish the statement as she looked down at the bulge of Natalia’s stomach. At Natalia’s mute head-shake, she looked greatly relieved. “That’s good. From your expression-”

“You and Olivia spent time together, while I was gone?”

Natalia didn’t blame Doris for her taken-aback expression; she hadn’t even realized she was going to ask the question until it was too late to stop forming the words.

“Some time, yes,” Doris said, her look becoming wary as she studied Natalia.

“Did you...did you share anything...personal?”

“Yes...?”

“I...” Natalia trailed off as she realized she didn’t have the faintest idea how to politely ask the questions she wanted Doris to answer. “Um...how personal?”

“I’m not quite sure where this is going. I didn’t make a pass at her, if that’s what you’re asking.” She frowned. “And if that is what you’re asking, I think I’m going to be offended. Just because I like women, it doesn’t mean-”

“You find Olivia attractive.”

“Yes. I mean, no.” Doris shook her head. “Look, I see the appeal, I really do. But she’s not really my type...” Doris paused as she studied Natalia again, “..and that’s not why you’re asking. What’s this really about?”

Natalia looked away for a moment, before turning back to Doris and finally confessing, “I was at the Beacon today, and I saw Olivia talking to Josh Lewis...”

“Ah, good old fashioned fear of the exes.”

“It’s not like that. It’s-”

“It’s exactly like that. You want to know if something happened between them while you were gone.”

Natalia started to argue with her again, and then realized that all she would accomplish would be to sugar-coat the truth. “Yes,” she said simply.

Doris stared at her, measuring her, and when she spoke, Natalia’s eyes widened at the depth of emotion that colored her words. “And if she had, what makes you think I’d break her confidence and tell you? You left her without any explanation. You broke her heart.”

“Since when do you care so much-”

“Since when?” Doris cut her off, incensed. “Since I watched her fall to pieces outside a covent.” Her voice lowered as she realized that other people shopping in the store had turned towards them during her outburst, but the intensity of her words did not lessen. “She told me she was unlovable. She showed me her pain. After a woman like Olivia does that, you’d have to be made of stone, not to care.”

“I never meant to imply-”

“Of course you didn’t. And even if you did, I could handle it. I’m not the one affected by the implications of what you say. Or, in this case, what you don’t say.”

Natalia felt the sting of the accusation, but forced herself not to look away. “It was a very complicated situation.”

“It always is. But after you’d made your decision - after you’d left her without a word - when you finally settled down in your convent, did it never occur to you that she might seek some comfort in your absence?”

“I thought she’d wait for me.”

“For how long?” Doris sighed. “Look, I don’t know what did or didn’t happen between Josh Lewis and your girlfriend, but if you want my advice, I think you should be happy that she obviously chose you. I’d focus on the second chance that both of you have together, and just let it go.”

Natalia thought about commenting on the wisdom of taking the advice of someone who had chosen never to face the consequences of her love-life, and then decided to take the high road.

“Thank you for your time,” she said, turning away and moving quickly towards the check-out counter.

***

The local news had just started when Natalia pushed herself off the couch.

“I need a snack,” she said in response to Olivia’s questioning look.

“Do you want me-”

“No, stay here. You hate missing the news.”

“Well, don’t be gone too long. I think Doris is supposed to be giving another one of her speeches, and who wants to miss one of those?”

Natalia tried not to wince at the mention of the mayor’s name. “I’ll be right back.”

Once in the kitchen, she didn’t even attempt to put together a snack. Instead, she poured herself a glass of water and sat down at the kitchen table. As she sipped it, she reminded herself that Olivia had committed herself to their relationship, and that she had no reason for jealousy. Ever since they had admitted their feelings for each other, Olivia had been honest with her. Which meant, if she felt the need to ask...

“Are you alright?”

Natalia looked up to find Olivia standing just inside the entrance to the kitchen.

“I’m fine,” Natalia said, pushing her chair back from the table. “Just tired.”

Olivia nodded as she moved forward to help Natalia up, but Natalia could see that her uncertainty remained--and that hurt. It differed so much from what Olivia’s default response to her reassurances had once been. I trust you.

“You’ll let me know if there’s anything...”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Olivia poured herself another glass of wine. “I’ll be in the living room, finishing the news, if you need me.”

Natalia watched her go, trying not to feel as if she had lost something precious. Right after she had realized she was pregnant, when she was panicking and scared and feeling lost, there had been moments where she had wondered how Olivia could possibly not know that she was falling apart. It hadn’t been until later, when she returned, that she realized that Olivia had trusted her too much to doubt her reassurances. Olivia might have sensed her uneasiness, but she’d believed that Natalia would talk to her, communicate with her, if it was more than she felt she could handle.

Olivia had respected her space - asking questions, showing concern, but not pushing. Not underestimating Natalia’s ability to process her own emotions.

But now...

Now her trust was not the automatic - not the default - response. And though Natalia knew that Olivia’s reaction to her reassurances was deserved, she couldn’t help the hurt it caused her. Especially since she, of all people, understood the value of what Olivia had offered her before.

***

Natalia walked back into the living room during a commercial break.

“I think I’m going to head up to bed,” she said.

“Already?” Olivia asked, the worry in her voice unmistakable. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I just told you-”

“I know,” Olivia said, standing. “I shouldn’t keep asking.” She moved over to Natalia and pulled her into a brief embrace. When she stepped back, she kept one hand at Natalia’s waist and used the other to brush a wisp of hair back from her face. “Do you still want me to run you a bath?”

As tired as she felt, Natalia couldn’t refuse an offer of Olivia’s when she looked at her like that--as if she never wanted to look away. “Yes.”

“I’ll do that now, then. Why don’t you rest on the couch, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready?” At Natalia’s nod, she started up the stairs--then paused, looking down at Natalia over the railing. “I think I’m going to sleep in the guest room tonight. I brought some work home with me that I really need to finish, and I don’t want to wake you up when I finally crawl into bed.”

“I understand,” Natalia said, from her new position on the couch. She knew she should say more - she wanted to say more - but she honestly felt too tired to sort out exactly where to begin. So she just watched as Olivia continued up the stairs to draw her a bath.

 

4.

Olivia was at the kitchen table, drinking her coffee and signing forms, when Natalia came in from picking up the mail the next morning.

Natalia had been quiet all morning. She’d still felt withdrawn after the events of the previous afternoon and evening, and Olivia had been sensitive to her cues. She hadn’t pushed conversation, even though Natalia sensed she wasn’t completely comfortable with their present level of communication.

However, that level was about to increase, as the contents of the mail had raised Natalia’s curiosity.

“What’s this?” she asked, as she placed a large package on the table by the remains of Olivia’s breakfast.

“I ordered some teaching materials.” Olivia reached for her coffee mug, not looking up from a contract she was scanning. “On Spanish.”

Natalia tried not to read too much into the action; Olivia had always been very controlling about her daughter’s education. Natalia had just thought - incorrectly, it would seem - that she had earned the right to be consulted on the subject, considering she was both Emma’s other mommy...and her Spanish tutor.

“Are you worried about Emma this year in school?” she asked, carefully keeping her voice even. “Because you shouldn’t be. Even without my tutoring, she would have-”

“Oh, I’m not worried about Emma,” Olivia said, still staring at her paperwork. “They’re for me.”

“For you?”

“Yes.” Olivia looked up then. “I want to be able to understand you, when you speak the language to our baby.”

Natalia didn’t respond right away, as she tried to sort out her feelings. Though sweet, Olivia’s announcement was hardly simple...rather like Olivia herself. Natalia loved to see her looking ahead, planning, making it clear that they would raise this child as a team. But she also knew that some of her motivations for wanting to learn the language were more selfish. More than anything, Olivia hated feeling left out, not in control. Natalia wished that she had discussed the decision with her, wished she had asked--

“I didn’t mean to assume,” Olivia said quietly, searching her face. “I’ve just heard you talking to Emma and Rafe in Spanish, and telling Emma about your grandmother and your family traditions, and I thought...”

“You’re right,” Natalia said, reaching out to cover Olivia’s hand with one of her own. “And you should learn. But Olivia, why didn’t you talk to me about it?”

“I figured I’d save you the early stages of the process. I found some online materials last spring and started teaching myself, but I didn’t progress very quickly, and then our lives got so hectic...” she trailed off and looked down, then back up again. She held Natalia’s gaze. “Will you teach me?”

“That depends.” Natalia felt Olivia’s hand tense, but her expression remained open.

“On?”

Natalia allowed her face to relax into a smile. “What type of reward system did you have in mind?”

Olivia laughed, unable to hide either her surprise, or her admiration. She pulled her hand out from under Natalia’s and reached up to her face. “I have some suggestions,” she said, as her thumb traced a path across Natalia’s lower lip.

Natalia did her best not to melt into the touch. She knew if she let herself relax, respond, she would never make it to work on time--if she made it there at all.

“I’d love to hear them sometime,” she said, as she stepped away. Olivia nodded and let her hand drop back to the table; much to Natalia’s relief, she looked as if she understood what was going on in her head. “Emma’s lunch is on the counter.”

“Thanks. I’ll make sure she takes it with her.”

“Have a good day.”

“You too,” Olivia said softly, and it was all Natalia could do to make herself turn around and leave the kitchen, rather than staying and letting their conversation continue on to its logical conclusion.

***

That night, Natalia didn’t lock the bathroom door after Olivia left. Instead, she arranged some extra towels on the floor by the tub, then undressed and sank into the warm water. She tried to relax, sending up a quick prayer, but she still wasn’t sure she’d have the courage to act, until she heard Olivia walking by in the hall.

She took a deep breath. “Olivia?” she called out.

***

Olivia walked towards the master bedroom, wine glass in hand, ready to unwind from the day before she and Natalia talked. She knew something was bothering Natalia and the fact that she had refused to discuss it so far made her nervous, despite her best efforts to reason with herself.

She had just passed the bathroom when she heard the sound of her name.

“Natalia,” she said, as she walked over to the closed door. “Are you alright?”

Memories of a similar scene a few months ago threatened to ruin her calm, but she ruthlessly suppressed her doubts. That had been then, this was now.

“I’m fine. But can you come in here for a minute?”

Olivia stared at the door for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay.”

She opened the door and walked inside the bathroom. She started to close the door behind her, then hesitated. She thought the most likely scenario for the invitation probably involved the need for something -- a glass of water, a soda, a pair of forgotten pajamas. However, if Natalia had a request, she seemed in no hurry to voice it. All she had done since Olivia opened the door had been to calmly focus on her; she had yet to so much as glance in another direction.

Somewhat taken aback by the steadiness of the other woman’s gaze, Olivia found herself at a loss for words. “Do you...” she cleared her throat, “need something?”

Natalia seemed amused by the question. “As a matter of fact, I do.” She tapped the side of the bathtub. “Sit with me?”

For a moment Olivia had trouble processing the invitation, so calmly extended, and then she noticed the extra layer of towels on the floor by the tub.

“There?” she confirmed. Natalia nodded immediately, and though there didn’t seem to be any guile in her expression, Olivia still found herself suspicious. “Are you trying to seduce me?” she asked her, half-jokingly.

Natalia looked upwards. “Finally,” she said to the ceiling. “She gets it.” She looked as if she wanted to laugh at the expression on Olivia’s face when she turned back towards her. “No, Olivia, I just want to talk.”

“You just want to talk. Here.”

“You’re the one who wanted me to relax, right? Isn’t that why I’m sitting in this bath?”

“Yes,” Olivia said slowly. All she could think was that she hardly found this idea of Natalia’s relaxing. But the other woman looked so hopeful, so earnest, that she was finding it difficult to-

“We don’t have that much time in the evenings. It seems a shame to waste what little we have on separate sides of a closed door.”

Natalia’s words were calm, sensible, and Olivia found she was out of arguments.

“I guess I should make myself comfortable,” she said, as she moved to sit on the towels next to the bath. Once there, it took her another moment to adjust herself, leaning back against the wall, drawing her knees up towards her chest. When she lifted her left hand to rest on the edge of the tub, Natalia immediately moved one of her hands to cover it.

Olivia smiled at the sensation and took a sip of red wine from the glass she still held in her right hand. The base of the glass made a small clicking sound when she rested it back on the floor.

“So,” she said, “what did you want to talk about?”

Natalia squeezed Olivia’s hand, and Olivia couldn’t help but feel pleased by her enthusiasm. “Anything.” Natalia thought a moment. “Is Emma feeling better about Phillip’s procedure?”

“She seems to be. She hasn’t asked me to stay with her again this week. I think writing those get-well cards for him and Alan last night really helped.”

“She needs to feel involved. Like her mom.”

“Actually, I think she’s more effective than me.” Olivia thought about Emma’s trip to the courthouse for Phillip’s hearing and shuddered. “At least this time she’s not running all over town.”

“Two of us and one of her, and we still can’t keep up.”

Olivia nodded in the direction of Natalia’s stomach. “What happens when she and Emma start tag-teaming us?”

Natalia made a sound that was half-laugh, half-whimper. “I don’t know. Are you still up for drinking your way through the Beacon wine cellar?”

“It’s decided,” Olivia said, smiling triumphantly. “I am a terrible influence on you.”

“I think you still underestimate me. I have ideas of my own.” Natalia’s look became teasing, almost sly. “Speaking of which, are you ever going to admit that this - tonight - was a good idea?”

Olivia took another sip of wine and admitted to herself that, yes, she hadn’t felt this relaxed in weeks. She slipped her hand out from under Natalia’s and reached up to touch her face. “This was a wonderful idea.”

They stared at each other for several moments, until Olivia lifted her wine glass again.

“Is it terrible of me to say that I miss being able to have a glass of wine with you?”

Olivia brushed the back of her fingers down Natalia’s cheek. “Yes,” she said, fondly. “Absolutely terrible.”

“How does it taste?”

“It’s-” Olivia paused as she realized that Natalia wasn’t looking at her wine glass anymore. She felt her chest tighten as she gently set the glass on the floor. This time the sound it made as it met the tile seemed to echo, punctuating the decision she had just made. “Let me show you,” she said, shifting onto her knees and reaching up to cup Natalia’s face in both of her hands.

Olivia leaned forward until their faces almost touched; she could feel Natalia’s breath on her lips before she kissed her. She started the contact simply, just a brush of the lips, but Natalia almost immediately deepened it, pursuing Olivia as she started to draw away, kissing her again, lingering, slow.

When Natalia parted her lips, Olivia glanced up at her, then took the invitation and started exploring her mouth more thoroughly. Her tongue traced the inside of Natalia’s upper lip and she could feel Natalia react, could feel--

Olivia jerked back in surprise as a flood of water spilled over the edge of the tub, soaking her clothes and pooling across the tile.

“Sorry,” Natalia said, retreating back into a mound of bubbles as she looked at the mess outside the tub. “I might not have thought this completely through.”

Natalia’s voice sounded breathless, which Olivia would find gratifying if she knew it was an effect of the kiss--rather than an effect of the laughter Natalia was trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress.

“I think you thought it through well enough,” Olivia said wryly. “I mean, you did want to get me out of my clothes?”

Natalia blushed, but didn’t deny the accusation. “They look very uncomfortable right now,” she commented.

Olivia reached back and picked up her wine, draining the rest of the glass. “I’m going to the bedroom to dry off and change,” she said, standing. “Do you want to join me when you’re finished here?”

When Natalia nodded, Olivia felt her stomach clench again, but in a good way, an anticipatory way. She could tell from Natalia’s expression that she felt it too.

***

Natalia smiled when she walked into the bedroom, but Olivia could tell by looking at her that she was not the only one who had grown nervous in the time it had taken them to get ready for bed. Somehow, seeing Natalia nervous made her less so; it was yet another thing that connected them.

“Don’t forget to lock it,” Olivia said softly, as Natalia turned to close the door.

Considering the never-ending series of interruptions they had experienced, Olivia knew Natalia would see the wisdom of the request; and, indeed, for a moment Natalia’s smile seemed more natural as she completed the task.

In an effort to prevent an awkward silence, Olivia had a question ready when Natalia turned towards her again. “How’s your back?” she asked.

“Better.” Natalia reached up and rubbed her forehead, then seemed to realize she was fidgeting and let her hand drop. She shifted uncomfortably on her feet, but made no move to approach where Olivia was sitting on the bed.

It wasn’t until they realized they were mirroring each other, Olivia biting her lower lip just as Natalia started worrying hers, that they finally relaxed, the tension broken by their laughter.

“We are so ridiculous,” Olivia said, holding out her hand. “Come here.”

Natalia immediately moved towards the bed and took the offered hand, and Olivia pulled her down to sit beside her. For one moment, Olivia allowed herself to rest her head on Natalia’s shoulder, before she shifted to sit behind her.

Natalia glanced back over her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you relax,” Olivia said, as she gently brushed some of Natalia’s hair aside.

“Again?”

Olivia smiled. “Still.” She slid her hands up Natalia’s back until they rested right above her shoulder blades. “That is, if you like back rubs.”

“You know I do.”

“I do,” Olivia agreed, trying not to laugh at the look Natalia was directing her way. Natalia had admitted, once, that they were a weakness of hers, and Olivia had filed the admission away, knowing a valuable piece of information when she heard it.

“Well?” Natalia said, relaxing back into Olivia’s hands. “I’m waiting.”

***

“I had thought about trying this the weekend we went away for our massages,” Olivia said, as her fingers moved across Natalia’s back.

They had just finished a kiss, a kiss deeper than the others that had been punctuating their conversation, and Natalia could hear the effect of it in Olivia’s speech, in the slight deepening of her voice.

“You did?” Natalia frowned at the thought. The last ten minutes had been so wonderful, so intimate, that she already felt greedy for more--and jealous of all the time they had lost. “Why didn’t you?”

“I was afraid you would start packing again if I touched you above the wrist.”

“Oh, stop.” Natalia said, reaching back to swat Olivia’s thigh. “If I had been looking for an excuse to leave, I had it when you suggested that hike.” She had trouble keeping her voice even for the last few words as Olivia’s fingers pressed more firmly into her lower back.

“We had to do something to relieve the tension.”

Natalia shifted as Olivia’s fingers continued to explore her back. She could feel the tension again, here, now, as Olivia’s caresses started to linger. This time, when she turned her head for a kiss, Olivia held her gaze before taking the cue.

The intensity of Olivia’s scrutiny, the intensity of being touched, kissed, held--the sensations were almost too much, too overwhelming. She had never felt closer to anybody than this, right now.

As the kiss ended, one of Olivia’s hands slid around Natalia’s side to grip her hip, pulling her back, pulling them closer. Natalia could feel the curves of Olivia’s body against the length of her back, could feel Olivia’s lips brushing her shoulder, could hear Olivia utter the softest little moan as she reached up to touch her face--

Before she could control her reaction, Natalia flinched.

For one, endless, moment, Olivia went completely still.

In the next, she was off the bed, on her feet, and several steps across the room. She had almost reached the door before Natalia managed to utter a word.

“Olivia, wait-”

Olivia paused, her back to Natalia, her hand on the door.

“It’s alright, Natalia,” she said. “You don’t have to...” She glanced back, then almost immediately looked away. “I didn’t mean...I’m sorry.”

She was gone before Natalia could offer another word in protest.

 


5.

Olivia woke up, disoriented, to the sound of Natalia moving around in the kitchen. She had just figured out where she was - and how she had gotten there - when she realized that someone was staring at her from the stairs.

“Mom, why are you sleeping on the couch?” Emma asked, as she descended into the living room. She still had on her fuzzy bathrobe, and Olivia knew they would be hard-pressed to get her to camp on time this morning.

“I had to work late last night, Jellybean.” Olivia sat up and put an arm around Emma as she lowered herself onto the couch.

Her statement was not a lie only by virtue of all the work papers she had spread across the coffee table; in reality, she had gotten very little done after she had come downstairs last night.

A loud noise in the kitchen made both of them jump. In the silence that followed, Olivia heard Natalia mutter a few words. She couldn’t quite make them out, but she felt pretty sure they were words she had never heard Natalia utter before.

Emma might not have understood the content of the words, but she certainly understood Natalia’s tone. She immediately stood up and started tugging on Olivia’s hand.

“C’mon, Mom. We should see if Natalia needs our help.”

“Baby, I don’t think...” Olivia paused, unsure how to best translate her reluctance into words her daughter would understand. “Maybe you should get dressed before we have breakfast. Give Natalia some more time to get ready-”

But Emma was already shaking her head. “No, Mom, I want to help her now.”

Before Olivia could stop her, she had started towards the kitchen, and then she was gone. It hurt Olivia to hear Natalia’s attempt at an upbeat greeting, her usually bubbly tone muted, and she wished she had woken up earlier, or stayed later, and given them a chance to talk alone.

***

By the time Olivia entered the kitchen, she was showered and dressed, and Emma had almost finished a bowl of oatmeal.

She looked over to where Natalia stood at the sink, and bit her lip. “Good morning,” she finally said.

“Good morning,” Natalia replied stiffly. She wiped her hands on a towel and turned to face Olivia, while still avoiding looking her in the eyes. “There’s coffee and I can make you-”

“Thanks, I’ve got it,” Olivia said. She couldn’t stand the idea of Natalia cooking for her while they couldn’t even look at each other.

Natalia shrugged and went back to the dishes. “Fine.”

Olivia could see Emma studying the two of them, a worried expression on her face, and she decided to forestall the inevitable questions.

“Emma,” Olivia said, waiting until she looked over before continuing, “why don’t you go upstairs and get dressed?”

“Okay.”

“Don’t forget about your pink shirt,” Natalia said, as Emma pushed away from the table. “Remember, we put it over the back of your chair last night.”

Olivia watched Emma leave, making sure she was well out of the room before she turned back to Natalia. “Are you okay?”

Natalia took a shuddery breath. “No.”

Olivia walked up behind her and wrapped her arms around her. When Natalia didn’t withdraw from the contact, she shifted to rest her cheek against the side of Natalia’s head. “Me neither,” she said.

They stood together for a few minutes before Natalia broke the silence between them. “We need to get Emma to camp.”

“Give me a minute,” Olivia said. “I’ll call Jane.”

She stepped back from Natalia and pulled out her cell phone. By the time she’d finished setting up Emma’s ride, Natalia had already gone back to the dishes and Olivia knew that they wouldn’t be discussing the issue any further until they were the only two people left in the house.

***

Olivia walked Emma out of the house through the front door. She had peeked back in the kitchen right before Emma came down the stairs and had seen Natalia still standing at the sink. Olivia knew without seeing her face that she had been crying--and knew without being told that she wouldn’t want Emma to know.

“Where are your keys?” Emma asked, looking up at her as they walked towards the driveway.

“Jane’s going to take you to camp today. Is that okay?”

Emma nodded, then asked the question that Olivia had been dreading. “Is Natalia sick again, Mom?”

“No, Jellybean, she’s not sick. She’s just tired.”

“Because of the baby?”

“Mostly.”

“Did I make you tired, when I was in your belly?”

Olivia smiled for the first time that morning. “Sometimes,” she said, as she stopped and knelt at edge of the driveway so that she and Emma were at the same level. “But that only meant that I had an excuse to eat breakfast in bed.”

Emma giggled, clearly taken with the idea. “We should make breakfast for Natalia.”

“If I let you make breakfast for Natalia, you’d give her ice cream.”

“She’d like it,” Emma said innocently.

“You mean that you’d like it. It’s never gonna happen, Em.”

Olivia could tell by Emma’s expression - determined rather than disappointed - that she would not be conceding the point anytime soon. However, before either of them could further their side of the argument, a car pulled into the driveway.

“There’s Jane,” Olivia said, pulling Emma in for a hug. “Have a good day at camp.”

“I will,” Emma said, as she disentangled herself and raced to the car.

Olivia felt slightly wistful as she stood and watched them drive away. She waited until they were out of sight before she turned and made her way back into the house.

***

Natalia knew the minute Olivia re-entered the kitchen; she could feel her uncertainty as if it were a separate presence in the room. She knew when she turned around, Olivia would be standing there, hands-in-pockets, trying not to fidget.

“Natalia, I’m equally to blame, but we can’t do that in front of Emma.”

“I know.”

“About last night...”

Natalia turned around. “Yes?”

“I shouldn’t have left like that, without talking to you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“Your reaction...” Olivia paused, obviously struggling for words. “I wasn’t sure if I had done something wrong...if me staying was what you really wanted-”

“I don’t think what I want is the problem.”

Natalia regretted the words as soon as she uttered them--hated herself for the look on Olivia’s face. If the situation had been reversed, she probably would have felt the same fears Olivia had just expressed. But the idea that she might be the one who was having second thoughts, when it was Olivia who had been flirting with Josh only days ago; when it was Olivia who had probably--

“What is that supposed to mean?”

For the first time in the conversation Olivia seemed more angry than hurt, and Natalia felt herself responding in kind. She had thought she could stand and discuss this calmly, but now she felt the urge to move, to do anything that would circumvent her desire to escalate the argument. Giving into the urge, she walked past Olivia and into the living room.

Once there, she started straightening the area around the couch, folding blankets that Olivia had used the night before.

“You don’t have to do that,” Olivia said, from her position by the kitchen door. When she received no response, she tried again. “Natalia-”

“What’s going on between you and Josh Lewis?”

“Between me and-” Olivia seemed to run out of breath, and Natalia watched as she drew herself up, braced herself. A look almost like defeat passed across her face. “Who have you been talking to?”

“I don’t have to talk to anyone. It’s obvious the two of you have gotten closer-”

“-since before you left town?”

“Yes.” Natalia forced herself to mirror Olivia’s neutral tone, despite feeling the effect of the implied accusation.

“He was one of my best friends, while you were away. He helped me through some...difficult...times. We talked, drank, played pool.” Olivia studied Natalia’s face carefully. “We spent the night together.”

Natalia felt her stomach drop. “You...?”

Olivia shook her head. “We didn’t have sex. He just held me.”

Natalia knew she should feel relieved by Olivia’s clarification, but she didn’t. The idea of Olivia being held, intimately, by Josh Lewis--

“I couldn’t have sex with him,” Olivia said. “Not then. But later, when you got back, I asked him for it.”

“You what?” Natalia hadn’t thought that the truth could be worse than the images her mind had invented. But the idea that Olivia had approached him after she had returned, after she had verbalized her intentions for the future--it made her ache. Worse, it made her scared.

“I wanted a clean break.”

“And that was your method of achieving it?”

“It seemed the easiest way.”

“And you’re only telling me about this now?”

“He refused me. He told me I didn’t want to do it.”

It took Natalia a moment to absorb this newest revelation. She had expected a different end to the story, and now felt more confused than ever.

“Did he know about us?” she asked.

“Not when it all started.” Olivia hesitated. When she spoke again, her voice sounded uncharacteristically small. “But then I might have mentioned your name.”

Natalia knew that her reaction must be written all over her face, because Olivia continued to speak, the words tumbling between them.

“That’s a good thing, right?” she asked hopefully. “That I couldn’t stop thinking about you?”

Natalia wished that she was as innocent as everyone always seemed to think. Then she wouldn’t understand the implications of Olivia’s statement; she would remain blissfully unaware that her name had come up in more than casual conversation.

“Yes, Olivia,” she finally managed. “I’m thrilled that you said my name while you were in bed with someone else.”

“Actually,” Olivia said archly, “there wasn’t really a bed involved-”

“You’re still not funny.”

Natalia could tell the exact moment Olivia’s control snapped, because she recognized the furious look that passed across her face. It was the same one that had been directed her way during Olivia’s tirade when she had returned from her time away. It affected her the same way now as it had then--had anyone other than Olivia been looking at her that way, she would have taken a step back.

“You know what?” Olivia’s voice was low, almost vicious. “It would have been wrong, I know that, but you left me. There’s a lot I feel guilty for, a lot I should feel guilty for, but I’m not sure that this qualifies.”

“Olivia-”

“Don’t. I have to get to work.”

For the second time in as many days, Natalia watched Olivia walk away from her.

***

“You must be in a relationship with Olivia Spencer.”

Natalia looked up at the sound of Phillip’s voice. She had thought to find some time alone by going to the park this afternoon. Emma had a play-date and Olivia was still working, so it had seemed the perfect time to think, uninterrupted. Her need to be alone was why she had chosen here rather than the church. She wanted to make up her own mind about her current problems before she talked to Father Ray again - she didn’t want him to view her present uneasiness as more uncertainty.

However, all her efforts to be alone seemed to have been in vain, because Phillip now stood on the path in front of her park bench studying her. To his credit, he already looked like he regretted interrupting her solitude.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can keep walking, if you’d prefer. It’s just that I recognized the look on your face.” At her puzzled look, he offered her a half-smile. “I’ve seen it in the mirror before.”

Natalia thought she should resent the implications of his statement, but she couldn’t help her curiosity. “When you were married to her.”

“Yes. And before.” His tone became wry. “I’m sure you’re aware that Olivia and I share a rather complicated history.”

“She’s made a few comments.”

“I’m sure she has.” He gestured towards Natalia’s bench. “May I?” At her nod, he sat down beside her. They sat in silence for a little while before Phillip commented, “Before, all I was saying is that you look as confused as I used to feel.”

“That’s not exactly what I want to hear.”

“She loves you very much, you know.”

“Of course I know that,” Natalia snapped. “I know her, and I know how she feels about us.”

“Then why are you getting so defensive?”

“I’m not.”

Phillip shrugged. “I have no interest in arguing with you. I’m supposed to be out here, enjoying the sun, and you’ve generously offered me a seat to do so. We can change subjects, if you’d like, or we can sit here and not talk at all.”

For a few minutes, Natalia chose the latter option. She needed time to think. She knew her reaction to Olivia’s confession about her encounters with Josh wouldn’t be nearly as strong if Olivia hadn’t left her alone in bed last night, without giving her a chance to explain why she had pulled away. It didn’t help that Olivia had been almost eager in her willingness to sleep elsewhere this week--in Emma’s room, the guest room, on the couch. What they had started last night had been Natalia’s own doing, and though Olivia had responded to her overtures, it seemed as if she would use any excuse for a delay.

Natalia put her hands on her stomach as she felt the baby kick. She saw Phillip glance over at her action, and smile, and it reminded her of the way Olivia smiled every time she knew the baby had moved. For the first time, Natalia realized that they hadn’t directly talked about sex after her return--after Olivia found out about the pregnancy. She looked down at herself again.

“Maybe she’s not attracted to me right now...” she muttered, and was surprised when Phillip started laughing.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean-”

She glared at him. “It’s not funny.”

“No, it’s really not.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“Because we seem to have come full circle...if that’s how you even describe it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve heard that complaint before. From her.”

He looked less amused now, more thoughtful, and Natalia found herself wondering if he would feel comfortable enough confiding in her to continue. She had been surprised, back when she first confronted him about Olivia, about Emma, at his willingness to listen, to see her point of view. He had been so soft-spoken, so understanding. She couldn’t see Emma’s kidnapper anywhere in that man, or in the man sitting in front of her today, and it made his betrayal seem more monstrous. Because she could understand how Olivia had given this man her trust.

“She wondered the same thing about you, when she was pregnant?” Natalia prompted, her curiosity outweighing her good manners.

“She did,” he said. “And it wasn’t the problem. I don’t think it’s ever the problem, though I’m sure the underlying issues differ from couple to couple. In our case, the issues were mostly my own.” He smiled at Natalia’s obvious surprise. “Did you think I blamed her for everything that went wrong between us?

“Not everything.”

He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, there will always be my departure from Springfield, won’t there? You know, I’m already dreading the day I have to explain it to Emma.”

“Maybe she won’t find out-”

“No, she will. It’s inevitable.”

Despite the pain he’d caused Olivia, Natalia felt herself softening towards him again. “Emma loves you.”

“I know. And I know Olivia will help her understand. We’ve come a long way, she and I.” He looked out towards the lake. “If I could go back and change those early days, I would,” he said softly. “For most of our time together, the hurt was mutual. We understood each other just well enough to inflict real pain. But at that time, she was still doing her best to save us, to save our relationship, which is more than I can say for myself.”

“When she asked you, about being attractive, did you tell her the truth?”

“The conversation started when I caught her talking to our baby, telling it to grow more slowly. I was rather cruel about what I saw as her self-absorption.” He looked back over at her. “I can tell what you think, and I know--it’s indefensible, really. Though I managed to outdo myself a few weeks later when I threw her out of the apartment for lying about Emma’s paternity.”

“She said you weren’t Emma’s father?”

“No, she said I was.”

Natalia stared at him. “How is that a lie?”

“It wasn’t. Long story short, I had some tests run and my father got involved.”

Natalia felt no surprise that he didn’t try to explain further. There was no need--mentioning Alan was explanation enough.

“I don’t think she ever really forgave me for not believing her,” he finally said, as if accepting the truth of the words for the first time. “We were over as a couple long before we were married...” he trailed off, his look quizzical as he studied Natalia’s face. “She’s never told you about any of this?”

“No,” Natalia said, “only about what happened with Emma. Nothing about your treatment of her.” She had always known that Olivia’s silence about her past spoke volumes, but today had given her a better understanding of the nature of what had been left unsaid. She couldn’t help giving in to the urge to know more.

“What was Olivia like, when she was pregnant?” she asked.

Phillips’s smile at her question was full of understanding. “She was very beautiful,” he said, glancing down meaningfully at the swell of Natalia’s stomach. His voice filled with regret. “And very lonely.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said, then let the conversation lapse into a comfortable silence. She was thinking about getting up to leave, when Phillip spoke again.

“With regards to your present difficulties...” he waited for her nod before he continued, “Olivia and I were not a good match, but in a lot of ways we understood each other very well. So I can see the changes in her, most of which I attribute to your relationship. She thinks before she acts now; she’s more aware of the possible consequences. A lot of that's due to you, I think-”

“I can’t take all the credit,” Natalia said. “But I am there to remind her that once you say something, you can’t take it back.”

He nodded. “And it’s caused her to moderate her behavior...”

Natalia could feel his hesitation and it mystified her. “But?”

“I'm not sure if she'll ever be able to manage that kind of moderation in all areas of her life. What’s more, I’m not sure you want her to.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“That Olivia is a very passionate person.”

“I know that,” Natalia said, trying to control her frustration. She usually understood people when it came to Olivia, but she still didn’t get the point he was trying to make. Of course she knew that Olivia was passionate. No one who had ever been intimate with her could miss that. All she had to do was look at you, touch you, and you couldn’t help but--

Natalia felt herself tense as she remembered the night before. The look on Olivia’s face in the moment that Natalia had pulled away--she had been terrified.

“You think she’s afraid of offending me.”

“I think she’s very aware of the fact that you’re a good person, and she wants to behave accordingly.”

“But I don’t want her to feel like she has to...” Natalia stopped, unable to finish that statement with anyone other than Olivia as the recipient.

“Then you might have to tell her.”

Natalia latched onto the part of the conversation she was comfortable discussing. “If other people weren’t so committed to making Olivia feel badly about herself maybe she’d see herself as a good person too.”

“Natalia, you haven’t been around here for very long. Olivia has a history in Springfield, one that’s difficult to live down-”

“And so do you.” Natalia looked at him challengingly, daring him to disagree. When he didn’t, she continued, no longer able to hold back the words. “You know, people think that I don’t see her faults. That I’m naive. The truth is, I probably know her faults better than those who condemn her. People seem to forget that there was a time when we were not friends. When we...” Natalia steadied her voice and made herself say what she had often denied. “When we hated each other. I know how selfish she can be. My love is not blind.” She took a deep breath and looked up at him, finishing softly, “But the reason that it is so strong is that I see the rest of her. I see who she is, and I see who she can be.”

“You’re not the first person to recognize the good in Olivia,” Phillip said gently.

“No, but I seem to be the first one to fully appreciate it. When I take Emma somewhere, and she acts independently, or is smart or resourceful, over and over again I hear how she is compared to her mother. For me, it’s different. It’s when Emma is at her most thoughtful, her most generous, that she reminds me the most of Olivia. And no one else seems to see that.”

“Well, you are the cause of the change in her, so maybe you most clearly see its effect.”

“She was setting up charitable foundations in her brother’s name long before I ever came along.” Natalia had come across that paperwork during the most recent move and, despite being touched, had simply filed it back away. “Olivia is a very thoughtful person. It’s there, it’s always been there, but she hides it. I’ve only made her more open to admitting it.”

By the time she finished speaking, Phillip was looking at her with a mixture of admiration and disbelief.

“How can you understand her so well, and have left her?” he asked.

Natalia rubbed her face, and sighed. “Because, as I tell Olivia, we all make mistakes. I came back as soon as I could. And I’m not going anywhere.”

***

When Natalia walked into the kitchen, Olivia was already there, sitting at the kitchen table. Natalia knew she must have left work early to give them extra time to talk, and she felt herself relax, knowing that even if there was a confrontation ahead of them, Olivia was already willing to meet her halfway.

“Is Emma home?” Natalia asked, as she put her purse down on the counter. She needed to know how likely they were to be interrupted before she could say what she needed to say.

“Yes, Jane dropped her off an hour ago. She’s supposed to be up in her room, reading, but one of us will have to check on her soon to make sure she hasn’t spent the whole time texting.” Olivia smiled ruefully as she ran a hand through her hair, and Natalia could tell that her nervousness had been momentarily replaced by a mother’s exasperation. “Sometimes I forget, how did we ever manage to procrastinate when we were kids?”

“I don’t know about you, but I remember being banned from using the phone.”

“You mean you were actually punished as a kid? I would have thought you could convince anyone of your innocence.”

Natalia laughed at Olivia’s put-out expression. “Hey, I might have an innocent face, but it took me a few years to learn how to use it.” As she moved towards the kitchen table, Olivia’s expression changed, and Natalia could predict the new direction of the conversation.

“Natalia,” Olivia said hesitantly, “before we get interrupted, I wanted to say that I’m sorry-”

Natalia cut her off with a kiss to the cheek, surprising her into silence. “I know.”

Olivia searched her face. “You do?”

“Yes. But Olivia, I need you to listen to me. I made my peace with God, and I’m not going anywhere. I chose to be here, with you, and I need you to believe that.”

“I do,” Olivia said, her voice noticeably breathless. “And I chose to be here too.”

Natalia felt surprised at the strength of her relief. She hadn’t realized until that moment how much she had needed the confirmation.

“Good.” She pulled a chair out from the table and sat down next to Olivia. “Then maybe next time you could give me a chance to explain my actions before running out of the room?”

“I can do that,” Olivia said, scooting closer to her. “But only if you promise to tell me when something is bothering you so it doesn’t stay there, between us, for days at a time.”

“It’s a deal.”

“I mean, if I had known what you were thinking about me I never would have let you seduce me into your bed.”

“Seduce you into my...” Natalia repeated disbelievingly. She rolled her eyes as Olivia started laughing. “If that was a seduction attempt, it was one of the saddest attempts of all time.”

Olivia’s smile faded. “What happened?”

“Nothing bad.” Natalia stressed the words, wanting to make sure that Olivia believed her. “I hadn’t really understood, before last night, how much it was going to affect me. How much you were going to affect me. Everything was just so-”

“-intense?” Olivia nodded. “I felt it too.”

“But you had to have been more prepared-”

“No. I wasn’t.”

Olivia didn’t have to say anything else--Natalia didn’t think she was going to be feeling threatened by Josh Lewis again anytime soon. She reached out for one of Olivia’s hands and pressed it to her face. She was thinking about moving closer to her, trying for more contact, when Emma walked into the room.

Olivia kept their hands linked as she pulled them away from Natalia’s face and lowered them to rest on the table. If Emma noticed any difference in the degree of closeness between her two mommies, she was apparently unfazed, because she walked right up to them.

“Do you feel better, Natalia?” she asked, looking up into her face.

“Yes, I do.” Natalia smiled at her. “Thank you for asking.”

“You’re not still tired?”

Natalia did her best to cover her surprise at the question. Whatever Olivia had told Emma about their behavior in the kitchen this morning, she must have taken it very much to heart.

“I guess I am,” Natalia said honestly, “but only a little bit.”

“Did you know that Mom ate breakfast in bed when she was pregnant?”

“Did she?” Natalia glanced sideways at Olivia, finally understanding. “Well, that sounds nice.”

“If you’re still tired, we could do it for you too.”

“Emma,” Olivia said warningly, and Natalia had to put a hand over her own mouth to hide her smile.

“I think I should finish my book now,” Emma said, before racing out of the kitchen.

Olivia looked over at Natalia as they listened to the sound of Emma’s feet on the stairs. “I knew she wasn’t going to let me forget that one.”

“I think it’s sweet.”

“I’m not sure her motivations are entirely selfless. I think she’s convinced she’ll be among those being served.”

“Oh, she would be.”

“Traitor.”

“No, I know how you two operate. She’s not exactly the first person in this family to be willing to go to great lengths for a free meal.”

“Those sandwiches were for Emma!”

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.” Natalia thought back to the sandwiches and their rather protracted disagreement regarding the peanut butter-to-banana ratio. “Personally, I think Emma should be careful what she wishes for.”

Olivia squeezed her hand. “I do know how to cook, you know. I haven’t done it much, since I left San Cristobal, but I was trained as a chef.”

“I didn’t know that,” Natalia said. She wondered if Olivia would ever cease to amaze her with her reticence when it came to revealing certain skills. “Do you have a specialty?”

“Pastries.” Olivia glanced downwards for a moment, then looked back at Natalia and smiled. “So I could make you breakfast, if you’d like.”

“I would like it, if you cooked breakfast for me.” Natalia held Olivia’s gaze. “But who says I have any intention of letting you out of bed long enough to make it?”

When Olivia’s lips parted in surprise, Natalia didn’t even try and resist her first instinct--she leaned forward and kissed her.

***

Olivia pushed up the sleeve of her robe and reached over to turn off the water. Her task accomplished, she stepped back to examine her handiwork.

“You’re spoiling me,” Natalia said, as she walked into the bathroom.

Olivia moved over to her and placed her hands on either side of the swell of Natalia’s stomach. “Hey,” she said, “I remember what it feels like, especially towards the end. It’s-” her eyes widened as she felt the baby kick. “Has she been doing that a lot today?”

“No, not really.” Natalia’s smile was huge. “Apparently she’s excited that you’re here.” She shifted closer to Olivia and rested her hands on the front of her robe. “We’re both excited that you’re here.”

Olivia leaned forward until their foreheads touched, reveling in the fact that they had finally cleared the air between them. She had waited so long for them to be together, really together, that she couldn’t believe how difficult it was to step back from Natalia right now, considering she knew she would get to hold her before the night was through.

“Oh, no.” Natalia held onto the lapels of Olivia’s robe as she started to step away. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“You want me to sit beside you again?” Olivia would stay, if it was what Natalia needed, but it seemed a particularly difficult request tonight, when all she wanted-

“No,” Natalia said, shaking her head. “You’re getting in this bath with me.”

After all the baths Olivia had taken with previous partners, she didn’t know why she found the very idea scandalous but, somehow, she did.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “I’ll go wait in the bedroom-”

“I’m not giving you time to go back to the bedroom. Something will happen and you’ll change your mind-”

Olivia looked down to where one of Natalia’s hands had started inching under the material of her robe. She could already feel her body responding to the suggestion, and she willed herself to stand still.

“At this point, that seems very unlikely,” she said.

“-or you’ll fall asleep,” Natalia continued. “Or we’ll be interrupted.” She offered Olivia her most winning smile. “So, I think you should stay right here, with me.”

“Natalia, are you sure-”

“I can’t wait anymore,” Natalia said simply, and Olivia couldn’t find it in herself to disagree. They were the exact words she had needed to hear.

“Alright.” Olivia removed Natalia’s hands from her body, holding them in her own for a few moments before she stepped away.

Olivia walked to the side of the bathtub and untied the sash of her robe. She heard Natalia’s soft intake of breath as she slipped out of the garment and let it drop to the floor. She waited until she stepped into the tub before she finally looked back at her, no longer able to hold off on seeing her reaction. She felt herself flush with pleasure at the way Natalia’s eyes tracked her movements as she lowered her body into the water.

“Well?” Olivia asked teasingly, once she was settled. “Are you coming?”

She loved the determined look on Natalia’s face as she closed the distance between them. The only moment Natalia evidenced any hesitation at all was the moment right before she shrugged off her robe. Once it was gone, any nervousness seemed to go with it, and she met Olivia’s gaze without reservation.

Olivia had seen much of her the other night, when she had knelt to kiss her in the bath, but this was the first time she allowed her gaze to linger.

“You are so beautiful,” she said, the words a quiet connection between them as Natalia responded to her intensity.

“I love it when you look at me like that,” Natalia said, her voice as low as Olivia’s as she reached out to touch her cheek.

Natalia grasped Olivia’s hand for support as she stepped into the tub. She carefully lowered herself to sit in front of Olivia, sliding backwards as Olivia drew her closer to her own body.

Olivia shifted her legs, using them to cradle Natalia’s sides. She could already feel the effect Natalia’s nearness was having on her, and the effect was only strengthened when Natalia braced herself by putting a hand on her knee, and turned back for a kiss. As the kiss intensified, Olivia was increasingly aware of every place Natalia’s body touched her own. When she gently bit down on Natalia’s bottom lip, she could feel the strength of Natalia’s reaction by the way she jerked back against her; the sudden shift in their bodies caused a flood of water to surge around them and over the edge of the tub.

“You know, I don’t think we’re very good at this,” Olivia said, as both of them leaned over together and looked down at the floor, studying their mess.

“We’ll get better,” Natalia assured her confidently, as she settled back against her. She reached over her shoulder to hand Olivia a washcloth.

Olivia smiled at her assertiveness and kissed the back of her neck. She wrapped an arm around Natalia’s side to steady her, then drew the cloth down the front of her body. She had only been washing her for a few minutes when she felt Natalia start trembling. She paused, the cloth pressed against the side of Natalia’s stomach.

“Natalia?”

Natalia didn’t speak as she took the washcloth from Olivia’s hand and dropped it over the side of the tub. When she found Olivia’s hand again, she covered it with her own, then slid it downwards, past the safe curve of her stomach. For a moment she held herself very still, then looked back over her shoulder.

“I want you, Olivia.”

Olivia took a moment to absorb the words, before leaning down to kiss Natalia’s forehead. She tried not to hold her breath as she shifted her fingers lower, her movements very gentle, almost teasing, as she finally touched her.

She had to concentrate on Natalia’s reactions, on matching the movements of her body, to keep from feeling overwhelmed at actually having her, here, in her arms. Without her, she would never have known that anything like this existed. It was amazing, and it was frightening, how she could feel Natalia’s pleasure as if it were her own.

“I love you,” Olivia whispered, as Natalia tensed against her fingers.

“I love you too,” Natalia said, her voice still breathless as she closed her eyes and relaxed back into Olivia’s arms.

***

Natalia couldn’t believe how much more aware of her own body she felt as Olivia helped her into her robe. It was as if Olivia had reminded her of parts of herself she had forgotten, or perhaps hadn’t even known. Her only regret was that she had yet to return the favor. The bathwater had become tepid by the time she had managed to catch her breath, and they had decided to move to the bedroom.

But Olivia stood in front of her now, her skin still flushed from their bath, and Natalia saw no reason to waste an opportunity. As Olivia finished tying the sash of her robe, Natalia stepped closer to her and traced a finger over her collarbone. Before she could go further, let her fingers drift lower, Olivia gently removed her hand and turned to reach for her own robe.

Olivia’s expression was closed-off as she started to pull on the robe, and Natalia tried not to pout at what seemed to be the signs of another period of Olivia denying herself--of another period of delay.

She caught Olivia’s hands to prevent her from getting dressed. “We’re not doing this again,” she said firmly.

Olivia looked up at her, startled. “Natalia-”

“I don’t know what excuse you’re thinking about using this time. That you didn’t do anything to deserve this. Or that-

“Natalia-”

“-you want to take things slow. In case you hadn’t noticed, what we did back there, together, it was wonderful, but it certainly wasn’t-”

Natalia,” Olivia said, the forcefulness of her tone halting Natalia’s tirade. She looked equal parts frustrated and amused as she continued, “I’m not making excuses, and I don’t want to wait anymore. But I can’t walk back to our bedroom naked, and I’m not going to make it there anyway if you don’t stop touching me like that!”

“Oh.” Natalia found herself at a loss for words, but Olivia didn’t seem to mind. Laughing, she drew Natalia’s hands back towards her body, and they finished putting on her robe together.

***

The minute that Olivia closed the bedroom door, Natalia kissed her.

She didn’t break the kiss as she started to guide Olivia back towards the bed. They only separated when Olivia’s knees hit the side of the mattress, and then only for a moment or two, until Natalia could lower herself to sit beside her.

There were no protests, no nervousness, from Olivia now as Natalia took her face in her hands and started kissing her again. When Natalia finally reached down to untie the sash of Olivia’s robe, Olivia didn’t hesitate to help her progress, shrugging it off, pushing her hair out of her face, shivering when Natalia’s hands started exploring her skin. Their kisses were continuous now, and for the first time Natalia fully recognized the cost, to Olivia, of all the waiting. Every touch made her shudder, and her face was so open, everything about her was so open right now--

Natalia swallowed, trying to ease the constriction in her throat. Olivia would be concerned if she saw the tears Natalia could feel at the corners of her eyes.

Purposefully, she pressed against Olivia, and without a word they shifted together towards the center of the bed.

***

Natalia.

Olivia’s murmur of pleasure as Natalia slid her hand lower down her body made both women go still. For a moment they just stared at each other, before smiling in unison as Olivia shifted her hips, subtly guiding Natalia’s fingers.

“Good to know,” Natalia said, as she took the direction, her smile widening as Olivia’s breath hitched.

“You’re the one who told me we’d figure it out,” Olivia replied, looking proud and adorable and barely kept-together as she pressed against Natalia’s hand.

“And see, I was right. You should remember that.”

Much to Natalia’s surprise, Olivia blushed, even as she offered her a very intimate smile and shifted closer. “I’m not sure right now is the time to count on me remembering anything. But you never had to convince me--I knew that you had to be right.”

They studied each other for another moment, and Olivia’s smile faded. “Make love to me,” she said, the words uttered so quietly that Natalia only knew them by their shape, and by the way Olivia’s fingers moved across her skin.

She kept their foreheads pressed together as Olivia finally let herself go, marveling at the power inherent in her abandon.

There was the press of her hips, the way she bit her lip-

The way she adapted to the pace of the hand moving against her, shuddered at the feeling of Natalia moving inside her-

And, finally, there was the way she sought out Natalia’s mouth when she came, allowing them both to share breath.

***

Olivia didn’t understand how anyone could look so beautiful right after waking up. Even the tangles in Natalia’s hair only served to emphasize the peacefulness of her expression, not to mention the smooth curves of her skin. Olivia couldn’t quite believe she was finally here, waking up beside her; she could still feel the path Natalia’s fingers had traced across her body, and she wanted to hold her again.

“Olivia?” Natalia said sleepily. “Why are you frowning?”

Olivia leaned over and kissed her shoulder. “I wasn’t frowning. I was concentrating.” She reached up and brushed some hair back from Natalia’s face, letting her fingers linger on her cheek.

“Yeah?” Natalia said, her gaze drifting from Olivia’s eyes to her mouth. “On what?” She turned her head so that she could kiss Olivia’s fingers.

Olivia smiled at the caress. “On not waking you up to tell you that I love you.”

“You can always wake me up to tell me that,” Natalia said, and Olivia adored the way she laughed, carefree and slightly giddy. “I love you too.” She brushed her lips against Olivia’s fingers again, and her voice dropped. “And I love the way you held me last night.”

“I really want to touch you again,” Olivia admitted.

Natalia shifted closer to her, and drew her hand down her body. “I want that too.”

Olivia started to take the cue, then hesitated. “Sit up for me,” she said.

When Natalia unquestioningly followed her instructions, she reached behind them to grab two pillows. In a matter of moments she had directed a bemused Natalia to the edge of the bed, and then helped her lean back so that she was propped up on pillows. Olivia could see the recognition in Natalia’s eyes as she slipped out of the bed to kneel at her feet.

Once settled, she placed a hand on Natalia’s thigh. “Is this okay?” she asked, searching Natalia’s face for any sign of discomfort.

Natalia laughed, and Olivia felt surprised at her lack of self-consciousness. She looked completely at ease in her present position, and Olivia wondered if she knew the picture she made, so relaxed, so trusting, the rich fall of her hair carelessly splayed across the pillows supporting her.

“You are so determined to see me as naive. I’ve thought about this.”

“You-” Olivia’s voice caught. “You have?”

Natalia shifted her body so that she was propped up higher on the pillows. “Why do you think I was praying all the time? Did you think I was asking God to take away my desire to...to...”

“-bake cookies with me?” Olivia’s smile was teasing. “It didn’t seem outside the realm of possibilities.”

“You are impossible, you know that?”

“What? I love your cookies. I love the way they-” she paused as their eyes met.

“Taste?” Natalia finished for her. For the first time in the conversation she seemed a little bit uncertain, even shy, and she glanced away.

Before Olivia had time to worry, Natalia looked back at her again, her expression so full of want that it made Olivia’s breath catch.

“Give me your hand,” Olivia said quietly, holding out one of her own.

Natalia responded without hesitation, sliding her right hand down the bed. Olivia interlaced their fingers, and used her other hand to press down on Natalia’s hips as she lowered her head.

***

Olivia made a sound of deep satisfaction as she nuzzled her head against Natalia’s shoulder. They had been lying entwined, side-by-side, for the last few minutes. Natalia still felt too boneless to be able to do much more than rest against Olivia, but she didn’t need to be able to move to appreciate her presence, her warmth.

And yet, despite the tenderness of the moment, she couldn’t help her quiet laughter. “You really do enjoy a challenge,” she said.

“I do,” Olivia agreed. She smiled contentedly, and Natalia almost started laughing again at how pleased she looked with herself. Natalia supposed she had every right, though she still couldn’t quite believe how much Olivia liked taking direction--and how much she herself had enjoyed providing it.

She sighed as she caught sight of the digital clock. “As much as I’d like to stay here all day, we should get ready to go.”

“Yeah,” Olivia said reluctantly. “If it’s after nine, we probably should. Do you want me to run you a bath?”

Natalia offered her a hopeful smile. “Or we could just shower together.”

“Works for me,” Olivia said, and Natalia found herself amused at their newfound eagerness for getting out of bed.

***

Natalia made a face as she looked at the dress hanging on her closet door. She wished she could wear something more flattering, but the only bra that felt comfortable right now was one that made wearing anything in her wardrobe other than this dress difficult. Normally she would chide herself for so obviously giving into personal vanity, however today it wasn’t that simple.

Today was their re-do, their first public event. The Bauer barbecue, as it should have been.

And she wanted to look pretty.

“Are we still stopping by Frank’s on the way to the wedding?” Olivia called out from where she was putting on make-up in the bathroom down the hall.

“Yes. I think it’s good for Rafe to see us together.”

“So that when he gets to the wedding, he knows what to expect?”

“Yes.” He already knew they were going, together, but perhaps seeing the reality before being surrounded by people would make the adjustment easier.

Olivia walked into the room, stunning in her red dress, and smiled. “You look wonderful.”

Natalia frowned at her reflection in the mirror. “I look shapeless.”

“Hardly.” Olivia moved behind her and met her gaze in their reflections. She had every bit of Natalia’s attention as her fingers moved the zipper the last several inches up the back of the dress Natalia had disliked right up until then. At this moment, she was finding it difficult to dislike anything.

“Thank you,” Natalia said softly.

“My pleasure.”

Olivia reached for Natalia’s wrap, and slid it across her shoulders. When their eyes met again in the mirror, both of them were smiling.

“We’ve been here before,” Natalia said.

Olivia gently adjusted the drape of the material that covered Natalia’s upper arms. “Yes,” she said, “except that this time, I can tell you how I feel.”

Natalia turned slightly and tilted her head until she could look up into Olivia’s face.

“You could always just show me.”

Olivia kept her fingers on Natalia’s shoulders as she took the suggestion and kissed her good-morning again.

***

At the wedding, they found it difficult to keep their hands off each other.

They were in the ladies room, and Natalia was washing her hands, when Olivia gave in to temptation and kissed her. Natalia knew she should probably discourage the other woman - this was hardly a private restroom - but somehow, she found herself kissing her back.

“Sorry,” Olivia said, looking anything but remorseful when they finally stepped apart. “I couldn’t resist.” She handed Natalia several paper towels. “Let’s face it-”

“-I’m a hottie?” Natalia laughed as she dried her hands. “It’s a good thing I wore this,” she said, indicating her full coverage dress. “I don’t even want to know what would have happened if I had tempted you further.”

“She probably would have put on quite the show,” said a voice behind them. “This is Olivia we’re talking about, after all.”

“Reva,” Olivia said, smiling thinly. “Still commenting on things you don’t understand?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Reva glanced meaningfully at where Olivia’s hand rested on Natalia’s waist. “I think I understand well enough. I might even be able to offer you some tips.”

“Are you saying that you found another area of untapped expertise? Or, knowing you, perhaps surprisingly well tapped-”

“We can play this game, Olivia. Or you could just let me say what I came here to say, and we can leave the bloodletting for another day.”

Olivia looked undecided at the suggestion, so Natalia jumped in. “What can we do for you, Reva?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to offer my congratulations.” Reva laughed at the wary look on both women’s faces. “It’s good to see you happy. Both of you. This town needs more of that right now.”

“Even if it comes from your enemies?” Olivia asked.

“You always did overestimate your importance to me.” Reva walked over to the mirror and started fixing her hair. After a moment, she glanced over at Olivia’s reflection. “In the past, I might have written off this relationship of yours as another one of your stunts--as a way of getting attention.”

“Excuse me-”

“Oh, relax. I know it’s not the case this time. For one thing, you saw Joshua and me together earlier, and you didn’t even try and flirt with him.”

“Only you would make my love life all about you and Josh.”

“Don’t be disingenuous, Olivia. For years, you made it about us.”

“Only because tormenting you never stopped being fun.”

Reva smiled at the way Natalia’s hand moved to cover Olivia’s. It was an unambiguous gesture of possession. “Except now you have other sources of fun.”

Natalia offered her a challenging look. “Better sources of fun.”

Reva seemed amused rather than offended by Natalia’s assessment. “No doubt,” she said, as she stepped back from the mirror. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you ladies outside.”

Olivia watched her walk towards the door, not looking away until her long-standing enemy had left the room. When she finally shifted her attention, she found Natalia studying her. She cleared her throat. “I have a history.”

“That fact hadn’t escaped me.”

“I’ve changed.”

“I noticed that too.”

“Should we go back out now?” Olivia asked, already starting for the door.

Natalia put a hand on her arm to stop her. “What would the old Olivia have done right now?” At Olivia’s slightly panicked look, she smiled reassuringly. “I’m just curious.”

“Honestly?” Olivia laughed, her discomfort seeming to ease. “I probably would have taken advantage of the fact that we’re both women and have this room to ourselves. That door can’t be too hard to block...” she trailed off at the look on Natalia’s face. “And now I’ve offended you. You know, I’ve never been convinced that honesty is the best policy-”

Before she could say anything else, Natalia leaned forward and gently kissed her mouth. “There are over a hundred guests out there, including your daughter-”

“I know-”

“-but I see the appeal. I’ll keep it in mind, for the future.”

It was Olivia’s turn to watch, speechless, as Natalia walked out of the bathroom wearing a very satisfied smile.

***

“Where’s Olivia?” Reva asked Natalia as she joined the line at the buffet table.

Natalia smiled, her dimples very much in evidence. “Collecting herself.”

“You’re good for her,” Josh said, as Reva laughed.

“We’re good for each other,” Natalia corrected, her smile growing as Olivia purposefully made her way towards them. Natalia knew she might just pay for her teasing later, when Olivia finally got her alone again.

She found herself looking forward to it.

“Yes, you both are,” Josh agreed, and this time Natalia didn’t mind his fond smile as he looked over at Olivia.

“We’re both what?” Olivia asked, as she wrapped an arm around Natalia’s waist.

“Happy,” Natalia said, smiling up at her. She knew that nobody in the room who saw them here, together, could possibly disagree.

***