Act I

The warm sun had been welcomed as Natalia left the farmhouse an hour earlier, but now that she and Sister Anne had been moving some furniture to go out on the lawn next to the mission, she could feel the sweat rolling down the middle of her back. The wisps of hair that had been freely moving before were now stuck to the sides of her face. As she wiped her arm over her forehead to try to push them out of the way, she sighed, her thoughts focused on her son. He hadn't been able to make any of their scheduled online chats and she had been getting increasingly worried. Her gut feeling was that something was wrong but there was nothing she could pin it on, and she didn't feel her recent attempts of prayer were doing her, nor Rafe, any good.

The bed frame was heavier than it had looked, but Natalia braced the edge on top of her leg to adjust for better leverage and picked up her end. Sister Anne eased backwards through the doors, tilting down slightly on the left side to make it fit through the tight doorway. Natalia followed the other woman's lead and together they were through the doors of the small office turned storage room in a matter of minutes.

Once Natalia cleared the door, Sister Anne tilted her head to the left and moved toward the nearest wall. "Over here for now."

They set the solid wood frame down and both groaned in relief. Sister Anne laughed. "Wow! That was really heavy!"

Natalia nodded and fell back against the wall. Slipping her cell phone out of her pocket, she glanced at it and then sighed before putting it back in her pocket. She hadn't worked this physically hard in a long time, probably before Francesca was born. She smiled thinking of her daughter who was having a day out with Frank. For a few weeks there, she and Olivia had been hesitant to let Frank be alone with Francesca, but Eleni had told them how dedicated he'd been to his counseling sessions and how he hadn't touched so much as a beer since his breakdown. At some point, she had to show some trust in him again. This was only for a few hours so she wasn't worried.

"It feels good to work like this though. I haven't worked some of these muscles since I first moved to Springfield." The brunette smiled up at her friend. "Between this and the lessons Anna is giving me, I've been exhausted and sleeping so much better."

"And happy," Anne added as she brushed her hands off on her shorts.

Natalia smiled. "And happy. Some people use hard work and physical labor to avoid thinking or working through their feelings, something I became very good at over the years, but now it actually helps clear my head." She added with a laugh, "You should have seen how spotless the farmhouse was when I realized I was falling in love with Olivia."

"I bet you could eat off the floor," Anne chuckled.

"You have no idea!"

The nun clapped her hands together and looked at her friend. "So, are you ready to get this all the way outside and get to work on it?" She gestured to the bed.

"You bet!" Natalia pushed off the wall and rewrapped her fallen ponytail.

For another hour, the two women worked side-by-side sanding the wood to prep it for a new, darker stain. When Natalia mentioned that Kathryn Howard and her daughter would be offered a room at Buzz's boarding house, Sister Anne immediately offered to donate some new furniture for the room, something suitable for the young girl and her courageous mother, from the mission storage. Natalia had found a worn but cheerful yellow bed set that would go perfectly with the darker stain in some old belongings she'd brought from Chicago but never used again. It would be perfect for the young girl.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sister Anne noticed that Natalia had been checking her phone regularly since she had arrived that morning. "Don't let me keep you here if you need to do something."

Natalia looked up to see the blonde gesturing toward the phone in her hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was being that obvious. No, there's nothing to do. I cooked a big meal last night so there's nothing I need to rush home for right now. We're having leftovers."

Anne nodded but she wasn't convinced. "But that has nothing to do with checking your phone constantly."

Blowing a strand of fallen hair out of her face and using the back of her hand to brush it aside, Natalia glanced over at the nun, sighing. "We haven't heard from Rafe in a few weeks. His recruiter told me this could happen; that they could be gone on a mission for weeks on end and we wouldn't hear from him, but…I don't know…something just doesn't feel right."

Anne watched her for a few moments before speaking, "What does Olivia say?"

Natalia chuckled. "Not to worry. Typical Olivia. She worries about me worrying. I don't think either of us could handle it if both of us worried about the same thing."

"I'm sure she's worried too, Natalia. She loves Rafe very much."

Nodding, Natalia pushed down the tears that threatened, accepting the fact that her partner was in this with her and that soothed her fears to some degree. But… "A mother knows though," she said with finality.

Pushing her sanding wool and other items away, Anne scooted across the rough concrete closer to her friend, taking Natalia's shaky hands in her own. "Would you like to pray for him?"

Quickly, Natalia nodded. When she looked up tears fell down her cheeks and she lifted an arm to wipe her nose with her sleeve. "I haven't been able to pray as much lately. I'm afraid I'm letting Rafe down. It's the only way I can be there for him now."

Anne fought to bring a smile to her face, but was worried and pained for her friend. "Do you want to go inside where it's more comfortable?"

Again, Natalia quickly shook her head. "No, here's good."

Anne scooted closer to Natalia so they were facing each other, their crossed knees touching. Leaning close, she began to lead Natalia in prayer as the warm, early summer sun rose high in the sky overhead.

****

The cool air of the Beacon lobby was vastly different from the increasingly warm day outside. Mike Thorne took off his sunglasses and slipped them into the pocket of his navy blazer. As he walked across the lobby, he slipped off the blazer to reveal large biceps straining at the sleeves of the snug shirt he wore.

All Greg could do as he watched the handsome man cross the lobby was swallow. Fortunately, that meant his mouth wasn't hanging open, but he did go momentarily speechless as the man flashed a bright smile his way and said, "Hi."

Greg swallowed again and cleared his throat. He tried desperately to sound professional and not let his voice squeak. "Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to the Beacon. How may I assist you?"

When the handsome man chuckled, Greg flushed a bright red. Only then did he realize what he had done. The delivery of his question had a slight "come hither" tone and Greg had glanced down the man's body, blatantly checking him out.

Appearing unphased the man introduced himself. "I'm the new police chief, Michael Thorne. And you are?"

"Greg," he squeaked out with embarrassment.

"Nice to meet you, Greg. I'm actually looking for someone. Ava Peralta?"

Glad to have something to do, Greg blew out a relieved breath and immediately picked up the house phone. "Of course, I'll call right up to her."

"Thanks," Mike said and turned to look around the lobby. He walked a few steps away, near the hallway that led to the elevators. To kill time, he read the menu of the restaurant and the signs for the Beacon services, including the daycare.

Greg watched him out of the corner of his eye as Ava's phone rang. On the third ring she picked it up. "Ms. Peralta, there's gentleman, a very good looking one I might add, in the lobby looking for you." He heard the amused chuckle on the other end and a friendly admonishing of "down boy" before she told him she'd be right down and hung up. Considering Olivia and Natalia's relationship, he'd given up the pretense of hiding his sexuality. It was actually nice not having to worry about it.

When Mike turned back toward the desk, Greg caught his attention. "Chief Thorne, Ms. Peralta will be right with you."

Another bright smile. "Thank you, Greg."

When Mike looked away, Greg did a modified happy dance and mumbled, "He remembered my name."

The distinctive clicking of heels on the stone floor caused Mike to turn from the CNN broadcast on the television in the corner. A much more pleasant image rounded the corner as Ava adjusted her suit jacket before reaching out a hand to shake Mike's.

"I thought I paid my time for my crime, Chief," Ava joked.

Mike laughed and handed over something in his hand, neatly folded. "Even though it's warming up, I thought you might want your jacket back. You left it at the station when I took you in."

Ava smirked at Mike's teasing smile. "Ahhh, so that's where it disappeared; I'd wondered. I was a little distracted that day." She took the item from him. "Thank you."

A few awkward, silent moments passed between them. Ava couldn't help but wish there was more to his visit than to return her jacket. When nothing was forthcoming, she pulled out her genetic Spencer charm. With a coy but knowing smile and a slight tilt to her head, she gestured to the restaurant. "Will you join me for coffee?"

Leaning back on the heels of his feet, Mike considered the offer before smiling. "That sounds lovely. Maybe you can tell me more about the daycare?" He pointed to the directional sign behind Ava.

Ava began to speak when she was interrupted.

"What about the daycare?" Leyla asked as she approached Ava.

Ava sighed as she turned and acknowledged the other woman. "Leyla."

Leyla walked up to stand next to the taller woman. She tossed Ava a quick but amused smile before looking at the gorgeous specimen in front of her. She stepped a little closer, just on the edge of Mike's personal space, and reached her hand out. "Hi, I'm Leyla Rivera, owner and director of the Little Light's Daycare. I'd be happy to answer any question you have. Perhaps over dinner?"

Ava's dark eyes jerked in Leyla's direction, but the younger woman ignored her.

Oblivious to the angry glare Ava burned into Leyla, Mike shrugged happily. "Sure, that sounds great! My daughter is staying with family in Chicago until I get settled so I really need a daycare with a great reputation to watch her while I work. Oh, but Ms. Peralta was going to tell me more about it over coffee. I know, Ms. Rivera, join us for coffee and you can give the inside scoop."

For Ava it wasn't a complete victory, but she couldn't help but smile smugly as Leyla looked at her. "Wonderful, let's go."

"Yes, wonderful," Leyla agreed through gritted teeth.

"I'd still like to go to dinner with you though, Leyla," Mike said, getting the younger woman's attention back.

"You would?" Ava questioned him before she could stop herself. Her head was spinning with the shifts in direction.

"Of course," he confirmed. He looked at Leyla and nodded. "I'll call you later this week?"

"Sure," Leyla agreed, having a hard time hiding her amusement. "So, I take it there's not a wife?"

"No, not for three years. She left not long after Breeona was born. She wasn't cut out for motherhood." Mike led the way with Leyla at his side and a not-amused Ava bringing up the rear.

****

"Hey Em! I have this great idea." Olivia talked out loud as she bounded down the stairs. With the recent stress and distance she'd been feeling with Emma, Olivia thought some old-fashioned girl bonding would be good for them so she set up an appointment at the salon for makeovers while Natalia was helping Sister Anne.

When she reached the last step and glanced up, she realized for the first time that the house was empty. "Em?" Olivia called out. Confusion turned to worry. "Emma!"

Some recently forgotten fears resurfaced especially with Phillip having some strange happenings going on around the house. Olivia went from room to room calling her daughter's name becoming more and more frantic with each silent second that passed.

She ran shaky hands through her hair and cursed into the empty room, "Damn it, Emma! Where are you?"

After covering every inch of the house, she ran outside and called for Emma only to be greeted by chirping birds and crickets. Panic was starting to set in, and she could feel her heart racing frantically. Taking a deep breath, she tried to clear her head and think of any places she may have missed.

Then she remembered Emma's new favorite place to hang out was the barn - partly to practice her t'ai chi, but mostly to be alone in her prepubescent angst. Olivia broke into a light jog as she headed to the barn.

Giving the old wooden bar across the doors a good shove, she lifted it fairly easily and flung the door open. "Emma!"

A frantic scurrying to her right drew her attention. She saw the orange glow and smell of the smoke before the cigarette was ground out against a wooden post. Her mind barely took in the rest of the image - Emma seated on the hay between Blake's two boys, Kevin and Jason, who were smirking up at her and a third boy she didn't recognize - before Olivia yelled, "Emma Spencer Spaulding!"

The young girl pulled back as Olivia marched forward. Olivia wasn't sure if she wanted to hug her or strangle her. The boy's faces went from haughty to terrified with lightening speed. The response pleased Olivia as she glared down at them.

"Get out before I ensure that you three are physically incapable of producing testosterone." The boys were pinned to the spot and Olivia sighed. Her patience worn down to the point of nonexistence, she growled, "Out. NOW!"

Scrambling to their feet, the boys gathered their backpacks and raced out of the barn.

Olivia looked at her daughter as she sulked on the hay. She was disappointed in Emma, but she was also exhausted from the stress and fear of the last few minutes. She fought the urge to let her body crumple in on itself and weep with joy and relief that Emma was okay because now she had a much more serious issue to deal with.

Squeezing the bridge of her nose, Olivia took a deep calming breath. "Get in the house. We need to talk."

"But Mom!" Emma whined.

"NO!" Olivia barked. She wasn't up for a civil discussion with her precocious daughter. There were some lines that couldn't and shouldn't be crossed. This was Olivia's. "You don't get the right to talk right now, young lady. In the house…now!"

Climbing to her feet in a huff, Emma stomped off past Olivia and out of the barn. Olivia watched from the barn door as Emma's stomps turned into a jog. Pulling her phone out of her pocket, she dialed Blake's number.

When the other woman answered and listened to Olivia's recounting of her discovery, Olivia sighed and acknowledged Blake's frustrated tone as she apologized profusely.

"Don't apologize, Blake. It'll be fine. Though you may want to drive out this way and get the boys. I put a good scare into them."

Blake made a joke about bringing a change of shorts for them because Olivia probably scared the crap right out of them.

Sighing, they both hung up their phones.

Olivia walked back into the barn and located the smashed cigarette butt. Then trudging the path back to the house, Olivia prepared herself for a face-off with Emma.

****

The sun was setting as Natalia walked into the farmhouse. After the physical and emotional day she had put in helping Sister Anne, all she wanted was a hot soak in the tub and a chance to cuddle up with Olivia. Though, after the long talk she'd had with the nun about Rafe, she felt her burden lightened considerably. The prayer hadn't hurt either; it was the first time she had felt remotely connected to God since her kidnapping.

The loud crash of a door slamming upstairs made Natalia jump, and she immediately dropped her purse to the kitchen table and raced up the steps. She stopped at the top of the landing when she saw Olivia standing outside Emma's room - her head resting against the wood and her hand on the knob.

"Emma, open this door right now!" Olivia yelled.

"Go away!" Emma's muffled, high-pitched scream was heard on the other side.

Bewildered, Natalia took a step forward. "What in the world's going on?"

Olivia turned to her and sagged with exhaustion against the door. Her usually bright green eyes that flashed with passion and intensity were dull and drained. "I don't know what to do. I can't get through to her."

"About what?" Natalia asked her partner, taking another step forward. She couldn't help but worry about Olivia's health. The stress couldn't be good for her.

Shaking her head, unable to find the right words, Olivia sobbed as tears spilled over. Natalia was at her side in an instant. "Come on, querida. Let's go sit down and talk. We'll figure it out." She guided her partner to the stairs and helped her down. First things first, Natalia had to find out what was going on. She walked Olivia to the couch and gently pushed her down then went to the kitchen. Returning with a glass of water and a box of tissues, she sat down by the older woman.

After Olivia drank half the glass and set it down on the coffee table, Natalia took her hand. Raising the delicate hand, she placed a kiss to the back of it and brought it down to rest in her lap. "Okay, start from the top."

Sighing deeply, Olivia used her free hand to squeeze the bridge of her nose. Dropping her hand, she looked at the brunette. "I caught Emma in the barn with Blake's boys smoking."

Natalia pulled back, shocked. "Wait…what?"

"Exactly what it sounded like the first time," Olivia's voice was laced with sarcasm and she grimaced as soon as the words were out. She waved a hand dismissively. "Sorry."

Natalia wasn't even worried about her partner's tone. She was still thinking out what Olivia had said, "Were the boys smoking or was she?"

Unable to stand it any longer, Olivia stood up and began to pace. "Her. Either way, does it matter? She was sneaking around…with boys."

Natalia watched her partner pace and could tell that she needed to word whatever she said very carefully. It wasn't that Natalia wasn't concerned. Sneaking around with boys and smoking behind their backs could be the start of more serious behavior, or it could simply be that Emma was growing up and exerting her independence. The approach she and Olivia took would set the course for whatever they faced next and probably for whatever Emma did to push their boundaries. First though, Natalia had to approach Emma's mother with just as much caution.

Standing, Natalia walked over to the older woman and reached for her. She took Olivia's trembling hands in her own and raised them to her chest the way she always did to focus her partner on their connection. "I'm not happy about this either. Emma's too young to court trouble, and we both know those boys are trouble or they never would have gotten kicked out of school. I also know that Emma's just starting to change from a girl to a young woman. This is a tough time for her, and we need to get on the same page about how we deal with this."

Olivia dropped her head wearily and rested it against Natalia's. She blew out a tired sigh. "I guess locking her in her room until she's forty isn't an option."

Natalia chuckled and squeezed the hands she still held. "I think some would call that child abuse."

"I'm so afraid she's going to get hurt," Olivia choked on her sob and squeezed her eyes shut against the tears brought by her biggest fear. She could see the images of Emma growing up too fast and paying the price for it flashing in her mind. Anger and pain bubbled up in her. "I wanted a better life for her than what I had."

Natalia pulled back, realizing suddenly what Olivia's real fears for Emma were and what they meant. She placed the palm of her hand against Olivia's bowed head before leaning over and kissing the place where her hand had been. She traced her hand down the side of Olivia's face and tugged her face up gently to look her partner in the eyes. "Oh, querida. What happened to you won't happen to her."

Olivia's eyes swam with a mix of anger and sadness. "You can't make that promise," Olivia said flatly.

Natalia stood up a little straighter, trying to convey to her frightened partner the confidence she felt in their ability as parents. "No, you're right. I can't. But…we…can teach her how to protect herself and respect herself and we can be there for her, be firm and consistent. Emma's a smart girl. We need to agree on how to handle this and stick to it. We can't stop her from growing up, but we can prepare ourselves for what that means."

When Olivia nodded, Natalia continued, feeling encouraged, "We haven't even talked about her dating, if she gets a car when she's sixteen, or what her curfew is going to be."

Groaning at the thought of Emma dating, Olivia smiled for the first time since Natalia had gotten home. "We have a lot to figure out."

"Good for you that I've already been through the teenage years with one kid." Natalia grimaced. "I guess that's not the best example."

Olivia pulled her partner in close, feeling comforted and reassured by Natalia's calm approach to their family problems. "Don't. Rafe had some bumps in the road, but he turned out just fine."

"Emma will too. She's going to push our buttons, but we handle it as a team, okay?"

Olivia leaned in close, nuzzling along the brunette's jaw line until she reached a tantalizing ear. "We always were a good team." She lightly nibbled Natalia's earlobe and smiled as she felt the woman shiver in her arms.

"Don't distract me." Natalia tugged at Olivia's hips, her control disintegrating quickly. She pushed back from Olivia and chanced a glance up at the green eyes of her lover. The heated smolder was nearly her undoing, but there was unfinished business that needed to be taken care of first. "Let me go talk to Emma. Let her know that we're going to talk and we'll sit down with her over breakfast in the morning." Olivia took a deep breath and nodded. Natalia leaned in and kissed the other woman tenderly but with a hint of expectation. "I'll meet you in the bedroom."

Natalia ascended the stairs steadily as Olivia closed up downstairs. She rested her hand on the knob to Emma's bedroom. Her hand twitched automatically as she began to open the door then she thought better of it. She lightly knocked instead. "Emma?"

Time stretched and a sudden fear snaked into Natalia's subconscious. What if she climbed out the window? She began to turn the knob again when a muffled but discernable, "Yeah," came through the door.

Relief forced the breath Natalia had been holding out of her lungs and just in the knick of time too as she heard Olivia's footsteps on the stairs. "Can I come in?"

"Yeah," Emma answered.

Natalia entered and closed the door behind her. The room was pitch black, and she felt this was indicative of where Emma was emotionally at the moment. For as long as Natalia had known Emma, she had slept with a night light. The complete darkness signaled the change Emma was going through - no longer a child, not yet a woman - and it made Natalia incredibly sad.

"Where are you, Em? I can't see a thing," Natalia asked, leaning against the door to keep her bearings.

"On the bed," the girl softly replied.

"Can we turn on a light?"

Emma sighed into the darkness. "I don't want to." Before Natalia could respond, Emma asked, "Mom told you what happened, didn't she?"

"She told me what she saw, yes," Natalia responded honestly and inched her way in the direction of the bed, hoping she didn't kick Shadow accidentally on the way over. When her knees bumped the mattress, she turned around and sat on the edge. "She told me that both of you were really upset."

Natalia waited, giving her daughter a chance to respond in her own time. Finally, Emma spoke up but her voice was tinged with fear, "Are you mad at me, Ma?"

"I could never be mad at you, Em. I am worried about you though, and so is your mom. She's beside herself with worry, Cariño." Natalia reached across the comforter until her fingers found Emma's knee. She rested her hand on the young girl's leg for a moment before squeezing. "Your mom and I want to talk to you in the morning. Tonight, all of us are stressed and tired, and it's not good to talk when our emotions are so frayed. Just promise me you won't do anything crazy between now and morning."

"Like what?" Emma sounded perplexed.

"Oh, I don't know. Like climb out your window or something." Natalia shrugged and tossed out the idea to see what her daughter would say.

"No way, Ma! I'm like way up on the second floor!" Emma chuckled.

"Ah ha! So you have thought about it!" Natalia teased.

Emma giggled. It was a sound that warmed Natalia's heart, and for a moment she believed that everything would be okay. Emma agreed to be there in the morning and to talk to them about what had happened today in the barn.

In the short couple of minutes that Natalia had been in Emma's room, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She leaned over where she saw the outline of Emma's head in the shadows and kissed the top of the girl's head.

"Love you, Em," she whispered.

"Love you too," Emma responded through a yawn.

Natalia was almost to the door when she heard the softly spoken, "Ma?"

"Yeah, sweetie?" Natalia stopped and turned back to face the center of the dark room, looking in the general direction of Emma's bed.

A soft sniff preceded Emma's whispered, "Sorry about the barn."

Feeling heartened by the girl's words, Natalia smiled into the darkness. "See you in the morning. I'll even make banana pancakes."

Closing the door quietly behind her, Natalia walked to her own bedroom door. Cracking it open, she was assailed by the sound of water running, lavender and vanilla scented steam wafting out of the bathroom door, and the view of a long leg with a shapely calf rising out of the soapy suds of a tub. Longing immediately clenched in Natalia's stomach. As she walked across the bedroom, she discarded her clothes. Pushing the door open, a rush of desire flared through her body as Olivia casually turned her head and hooded emerald eyes caressed her naked body.

Bracing her hands on the door frame to remain steady, Natalia asked, "Is there enough room for two in there?"

Olivia didn't answer as she stood up in the tub, the warm soapy water cascading down her body. She was pleased when Natalia's eyes followed the rivulets of water and she swayed slightly in the doorway. Crooking her finger at her dark-haired lover, Olivia beckoned her forward. "With what I have planned for you, darling, it won't matter."

On to the Afterdark

****