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Unlikely To Like You
In full planning-mode again, Nika forgot her coffee and only had her wallet because it was in her hand.  That would have been missed immediately though as she had a call to make.  “Gillian,” her condo AI.  “Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  What’s our mozzarella and tomato situation?”  The AI came back with an answer and Nika asked a few more questions before disconnecting and entering the book store next door.  Six minutes later Nika emerged, crossed the coffee shop’s window front and all but ran home.  The book store clerk locked the door and flipped the old-fashioned sign to closed.  A printed card later appeared below: Closed for Private Party.

Forty three minutes later Nika, carrying an old school picnic basket, returned to the bookstore and knocked on the door.  Entrance granted, she set about preparing for the date.

She was early to the door in case Liv was early.  They hadn’t exactly synched watches.  That would have been perfect but probably the last time Liv would ever speak to her.  On account of craziness.  

Nika unlocked the door and managed not to pace.  Somehow.  She was not nervous, that feeling had passed.  Instead, confidence wrapped its familiar self around her being.  She stood firm with the decisions she’d made regarding dinner and if that wasn’t good enough...well, she’d put forth her best effort.  No regrets.  
Liv couldn't help glancing at the clock regularly. Time seemed to have slowed because it seemed to take forever for an hour to go by. The shop was going to be open late and another manager, Dante, was already here to close. She signed what she needed to sign and then...

She just stood there, looking at the door. Butterflies the size of cats bounced around in her stomach. Could she do this? It had all happened too fast. Accidentally, it seemed. She swallowed, closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. When she opened them, she briefly caught Nika's face through the glass door, smiling playfully. A quick nod to the right and she disappeared.

Ooookaaay? she thought, intrigued despite her nerves. What was she up to? She got her coat and walked to the door, opened it and peeked around to see where Nika went. The door of the bookstore next door was closing. Liv looked at the door, saw the sign. Closed for private party.

Despite her fear, she smiled, puzzled. What had Nika done?

She put her hand to the handle and, after a moment, pulled it open, the comforting musty smell of books filling her nostrils. But not just books, she realized. Food. She smelled food. Nika stood there, eyes dancing over her wide dimpled grin. Liv's mouth dropped open slightly. There, on a cleared area of the floor sat a wicker picnic basket, open, bottle of something sitting inside in an iced bucket. A blanket had been spread and plates had been set. Napkins and utensils. She looked at Nika in surprise, smiling widely, her nervousness having seemed to evaporate.

She laughed slightly. "Heh....I didn't expect this," she said shyly and walked over, studying the woman curiously. A picnic in a bookstore was not anything she had every heard of. Her smile was genuine.
Nika greeted Liv with a beaming smile.  Dimples.  Unicorns.  Kittens.  Joy.  Holy shit.  Nika felt great.  There was an asinine warmth that spread throughout her core.  That was a fantastic feeling.  “Sweet cheese and crackers.”  She didn’t even hear what was coming out of her mouth.  “I’m so glad to see you.”  Nika held out her hand, not thinking.  “Hungry?”  She grinned.  “C’mon.”   

The book store was arranged in pods.  Their little alcove was in the travel section near the back.  “I give you, Italy.”  She frowned but nodded briefly.  “Well, the next best thing.”  Nika smiled, dark eyes alight.  The section was done in cherry, which she loved.  The shelves were a familiar reddish hue, filled floor to ceiling with Fodor’s where-tos and atlases, maps and guides and and.  Leather chairs and loveseats cozied in among the shelves as well.  Strings of tiny soft white LEDs criss-crossed the nook’s airspace and clearly were not part of the regular decor.  A muted green and white checkered throw split part of the room between two oversized chairs.  A wicker basket, long loved, occupied a corner of the cloth with place settings already arranged.  Dinner was still packaged away, lids loose to allow the scents and odors of home to complete the sensory experience.  It would help cool things a little so they could eat in a reasonable amount of time too.  Liv had said she’d be hungry when she got off.  Nika looked over at her date, eyes glittering.  “Shall we?”
Liv's eyes wandered as she took in what Nika had done. The section she was in gave off a warm reddish glow from the cherry red shelves and trim. Despite the fact that everyone had a wallet with holo-mode, books still held their charm. They were tangible- something you could touch, could place your finger to mark your place while flipping back to something earlier and then back again. You could touch them and skip through them. They had a smell to them. Welcoming.

The room called to her. But it wasn't just the books. The little touches that came from Nika. The strung up lights twinkling softly. The blanket. The well worn basket. The plates and silverware and food containers. A picnic.

A part of her wanted to run. It had been a long time since anyone had shown her attention like this. Had smiled at her the way Nika did. Had reached out a hand, wanting to bring her in. It scared her. She took a deep breath and relaxed.

God smiled on her and she felt his warmth across her skin, the brush of angel's wings- lighter than air- on her cheeks. She embraced the angel and the room seemed to light up, the warmth and invitation becoming a cocoon for her to sink in to. The smells of the books and food and wood polish.

Liv realized she was purposely not looking at Nika. The scent of her- the slight hint of perspiration and floral shampoo- clouded her head. Their eyes met and Liv breathed in sharply. They danced above dimpled cheeks and a wide playful grin. Her hand was held out invitingly.

Liv's heart raced as she tentatively reached out to take it. It had been a long time since she'd touched anyone. Well, mom and dad, of course. But not like this.

She felt a spark at the touch, the warmth of her hand in hers. She let herself be led to a seat on the floor, preferring to focus on the feeling. Her hand was a bit calloused, but not in a uncomfortable way. She was a motorcyle...racer? Was that the term? Well, she did that and so it made sense. Working with tools and such.

Shyly, eyes roaming the layout, she whispered "You didn't have to go all out like this. But...thank you." Feeling peace, the angel left her and everything returned to normal. She felt a sense of loss, but it was lessened by Nika's touch, by her smiling face.

A bit of nervousness returned. Had Laila done this? Something like it? That 'little bit' grew and she tried to quash it. "So what did you bring? Did you make all this?"
Liv’s hand was warm and soft in her own.  The feeling was nice.  The Italian grinned away the whisper and very nearly bounced over to where the food was.  Her personality could be a little excitable at times.  Later she might look back in wonderment at how genuinely happy this date made her.  ...if she didn’t manage to ruin it.  She released their hands with a little regret but it was necessary.  It might also have been creepy to keep on.  “Ha.  I’ll show you.”  Her eyes twinkled.  “I did but this is mostly leftovers from Monday...hope you don’t mind.”  A grin.  “Lasagna is better after day one anyway.  Gotta give it time to set.”  

Like a good hostess, Nika served Liv first.  The basket held all manner of delectable edibles.  First out: caprese salad made with fresh sliced tomatoes, delicious mozzarella and sweet basil.  Nika arranged the plate, alternating red, white and green before pulling out bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil to drizzle over the salad.  Next were dates wrapped in bacon, both dipped in maple syrup, that she’d baked.  They were still warm.  As was the main course, Nika’s family lasagna, reheated from the cook-fest on Monday.  It was a healthy-sized cube and there was more in the basket if need be.  Of course there was also garlic bread, she was not a savage.  Last but not least (dessert notwithstanding), Nika pulled little boxes, filtered 100% juice etc, from the basket.  Cartoon characters graced the exterior and did not protest in the slightest when she popped the straw in and set them down.  Nika’s expression was apologetic.  “I know wine would have been nice too but I couldn’t convince Sveta to let me bring that in.”  She pursed her lips.  Confession time.  “I also don’t drink…”  Nika looked at Liv, an alarming thought suddenly occurring.  “Please tell me you’re not a vegetarian with a gluten intolerance.”  Shit.  Shit.  Fuck.  Damnitalltoheck.  “I’m sorry, I should have asked...I was trying to be spontaneous.”  Nika frowned.
She watched, that little "bit" of alarm seeming to grow, as Nika went into the basket like a magician, reaching in to his hat to pull out the next magical item. A vague memory of Laila seemed to surface, one she hadn't remembered- or maybe it had it been seared over by things there at the end. Laila, being funny and sweet. Finding a single flower sitting at the table she usually sat at in the school library. Dinner under the stars. The first tentative touching of hands. All the little things that had made her feel special. Wanted.

She wanted to shove it away. Tried. It was like pushing up against a heavy box. It moved, but it resisted. A sharp pain of anguish sounded in her heart. Not every girl was Laila. She knew this. Was she broken? Too afraid to trust ever again?

She tried not to show her fear because- Oh dear God, please it can't be over for me, can it? Please?- she did want to try. Heart thundering in her chest, she still wanted to try.

Almost as if in answer, Nika reached in and pulled put two kid's juice boxes, complete with cartoon characters on the outside. Liv burst out laughing, as much from tension as from actual joy. She reached out and took it, suddenly transported back to life as a child, a day at the park or on the train and Mamma giving her a snack. A time of security and carefree childhood bliss.

There were tears at the corner of her eyes as she laughed, and she tried to wipe them away with some embarrassment. "Sorry, Nika," she said through the giggling that still took her. "No. No, I absolutely love it. I don't drink either. No. This is just perfect. Thank you for this." Her smile was warm and she meant it.

She was still scared. The fear was real. But she would try.

Amid small talk, they dug in. She loved the salad, the cheese so subtle you needed to savor it slowly so that it matched the dominating flavors of the balsamic vinegar and tomato. The dates were....interesting. She couldn't decide if she liked them or not. They were so soft and mushy and almost cloyingly sweet. But the salty bacon seemed to something anyway. Yeah, she wasnt sure.

But the lasagna... "I can't believe these are leftovers," was all she could say as she tried to be a proper lady and not just stuff her face. It was perfect.

The sounds of slurping came from her juice box straw and she was given another one before she could ask.

She paused, half of her lasagna still on her plate calling to her. She looked at Nika, smile on her face. "You know, you might think about opening an Italian restaurant. Moscow has many. But I bet you'd win the International Lasagna Awards or something. Add that trophy to your many others." She laughed playfully and spoke without thinking. "I'd be happy to do the art for your menu or sign or something. Sketch you slaving away for your customers."

She caught herself. She hadn't thought about doing that kind of thing in a while. She wasnt sure she could even draw, anymore. The fear lanced through her, but she held her ground, a touch of hope giving her strength.

That and some juice from her childishly sweet juice box.
She could have melted from relief.  Awesome that this worked out because Liv was pretty quiet in the beginning and this wouldn’t be the first time Nika had gone way overboard on something.  What a gamble it had been.  Liv looked as though she was actually enjoying the meal and that was fantastic.  Nika liked hearing the other woman talk.  She laughed and smiled at the thanks.  “You are most welcome.  I’m glad you like it.”  Nika started in on her own plate, cutting a bite-sized cube easily with her fork.  The noodles, she made the pasta herself, were like butter; they all but melted in your mouth.  Lasagna was her favorite food.  Then tacos.  Still, it was nice to have had the time to cook a bunch, even if the reason sucked.  The only evidence from the crash that remained was the small brace and hard sleeve over the last two fingers on her left hand.  Even that wasn’t terribly noticeable which was preferable as Nika didn’t really like drawing attention to herself.  Not unnecessarily.  There was her public persona for the media and the like sure and Nika was goofy and a prankster and everything she appeared to be in the interviews but she was also very private.  She’d rather be left alone really.  It was the job that made her go out all extroverted.  Hell, Nika didn’t even post to her own social media accounts...that was Annessa and her assistants.  Nika just sent them pictures and stuff when they bugged her to death.

A barking laugh erupted at Liv’s quip about a restaurant.  “I’ll consider it when I retire so I’ll hold you to that.”  Nika looked thoughtful.  “Can you really draw or paint or...?  When I’ve come in for coffee sometimes you’re neck-deep in books that require two hands and a triple digit IQ...”  That’s so hot.  “Are art skills a prerequisite to being a mad scientist?”
It had been something that came out without her meaning for it to. She had felt relaxed and comfortable with Nika. But now that it was said, she felt a worm of worry churn in her gut. No. It was fear. She tried not to show it, but she did briefly glance at the door.

Instead, she drank from the juice box.

After a moment, she met her eyes "Art was a..." she had been going to say her life's work; her passion; who she was. But she no longer felt that way. She didn't know what she was anymore. She was afraid of being told that she was a joke. Worthless. Again.

It was what Laila had said to her. The last few pieces she had done- acrylic on Bristol- had been laced with pain and agony. Distorted and twisted multiple limbs on a diseased and pustuled torso, Wishbones. A snarling man holding a grotesque infant to his chest protectively as blood and tears flowed from its mouth and eyes, The Ashamed. A young girl, looking at her, tears leaking from her eyes, lost and in hopeless, massive horns protruding from her head, A long way from home.

She wasn't sure when her work had become so dark and macabre, so filled with pain and disillusionment. The brush work wasn't the best. She couldn't help that. Her wrist had been in a cast. Laila had broken it, accidentally. She sometimes didn't know her own strength. For a moment, Liv felt the vise like grip, grinding radius and ulna together, a stab of pain lancing through her. The fine detail had been hard to do when she couldn't hold the brush properly. And of course, there had also been gaps of time before she could finish them. She'd work and then abandon them when she needed time to recover- dodging messages from her parents and friends. She couldnt bear to let them see what had happened, what she had caused. She'd ended up dropping her classes there at the end.

The worst part had been when Laila had found them and laughed at her. Laila, eight years older than her, had been one of her art professor's assistants working on her master's degree. She knew what she was talking about. It was what had so attracted Liv to her at first. She was so intelligent and passionate and just knew so much. Liv had loved to listen to her as she commented on various pieces, pointed out things that Liv had never seen or noticed. And she had eviscerated Liv's work with a savagery and relentlessness that left her breathless and sobbing. She absolute shredded her. "Derivative. Childish. Melodramatic. Pointless. Garbage."

Each word, each judgement, had been a knife stabbing into her heart. And she was bleeding from a hundred such wounds, numb and at her end, when Laila then literally ripped them apart as so much pointless trash. The medium had burned in the fireplace of Laila's comfortable town house,and Liv felt each lick of flame as if it were her burning to death.

She came back to herself, the smell of charred paper and oils still in her nostrils. She grimaced. "Sorry. So...yeah. just a hobby. I'm not very good." A weak smile formed. "So...maybe menu art is my thing. She wanted to change the subject. Get back to being comfortable.

She glanced at Nika's finger braces. "So, motorcycles, huh? Sounds scary. But, you love it, obviously." A nod to her injured hand. "What happened?"

[[On IG check out Hellevan. I used her work for Liv's. Absolutely amazing stuff.]]
It was like the room had gone cold.  Nika stopped chewing as she watched the past play itself out in the other woman’s eyes.  There was a lot of past, apparently.  Note to self, never bring art up again.  Nika’s brows drew together and her face flickered in concern before the other woman brushed everything under the rug.  Hmm.  Maybe that was for the best on a first date though?  She wanted to say something but the only thing that popped in her head was some dumb joke that went something like, ‘there’s no crying on first dates!’  Thankfully the pieces of filter that blow through the white wasteland of her mind all trapped themselves together on a stray line of barbed wire and prevented that catastrophe from leaving her lips.  Jesus.  Nika shrugged.  “I mean, do what makes you happy.  Life is too short not to.”  

Moving on then.  Speculation over what had happened was mercifully stopped before she had time to make a list.  Of course she wouldn’t pry on a first date.  Assuming there was going to be any more after.  God I’m rusty.  Another forkful of lasagne perhaps gave the other woman time to regroup.

Dark eyes snapped upward at the question.  She hadn’t known Liv knew who she was before now.  Her career had been a source of contention in previous relationships.  She’d endured both ends of the spectrum there; used by Katherine and worried to death by Morgan.  Geez.  Nika swallowed and made sure her tone didn’t carry baggage.  Just a question, she doesn’t know you yet.  Yeah?  Yeah.  She dared let an ember of hope exist.  Nika nodded.  “Motorcycles, yeah.”  She raced cars too but that was usually for charity or promotional stuff.  A thoughtful look.  Nika breathed a sigh but not rudely.  “I don’t really think about it.  Mostly it’s a focus thing with a smattering of anxiety thrown in.”  A lopsided smile.  “If the stars align the abject terror is kept at a bare minimum.”  Her laugh was carefree.  “I do love it.”  A glance at her own hand.  Spare the gory details.  I got hit by a guy riding above his talent-level?  No, you sound like a super-cocky asshole.  “Bad day at the office.”  That works.  “What about you? I imagine classes and work have you pretty well booked.  Are you from Moscow or just here for university?”  Nika had long ago given up on figuring out where people were from.
Nika seemed to notice the temperature shift and gave her the space needed to regroup. She seemed nonchalant about what she did, about her injury.

She touched her wristed, remembering the break. Her voice was soft. "Yeah, the wrist hurts. Glad you are better."

The woman has an easy going air to her she envied. Fearless. Devil may care. She envied that. In a moment of honesty, she shared. "I rode an ATV once. One of my college friends. I say behind him holding on." She couldn't help reliving the terror, though with some humor as well. "He must have thought himself invincible, the way he took turns and jumps. I hung on for dear life, my head tucked into his back, begging for it to be over."

She did laugh then, a wicked smile forming. "And I told him that I had died, I woulda come back to haunt him forever. Make sure his pecker went soft everytime he was with a girl." Ok, she laughed at that.

She wasn't sure why she shared that with Nika. It had just come to her.

To her question. from here. Mom and Dad and my little brother. I am staying with them right now. I was at the university but...I guess I am trying to find my place. Or what I want to do."

She took a hit from her juice box. "Gotta do what you love, right? What about you? I can hear an accent on your tongue. Spanish? Italian?"

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