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Liv compressed her lips in anticipation as she checked herself one last time on her wallet. The butterflies in her stomach were horses now.

But at least she wasn’t in work clothes or reeking of coffee. Her dark hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail. Not one for much makeup, she mostly had touched up her eyes with eyeliner and a bit of coloring to her lips.

A thin black choker wrapped her neck. She wasn't girly. Not much anyway. Getting dolled up only made her uncomfortable. She instead wore a dark floral, baby-doll dress covered with an over-sized, leather biker jacket. The garments clashed, yet complimented each other. Satin maroon tights were layered with high striped socks,  dark purple Doc Martin boots adorning her feet.

Dorky. Stupid. Warm enough. Liv felt like herself

[Image: krutitsy-patriarchal-metochion-at-sunset...RNBE0R.jpg]
She waited at the entrance, the occasional swirl of cold up her dress a welcome distraction. Krutitsky Monestary wasn't a church. That would be the lamest date in the history of lame dates. She would know. 

No, it was just a gorgeous place to explore. Now, anyway.

She wasn't sure why she chose it. It was peaceful. And she felt maybe a bit...stronger here. More sure of herself. She wasn't sure why.
Nika had been out of town all week testing new components for the bikes at the famed Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli in Rimini, Italy.  The atmosphere had been complete madness.  Fans, media, the teams and other riders...everyone was hyped up and bat shit nuts.  It had seemed like a circus more than usual for some reason.  She’d missed the race in Assen having been injured in practice by a careless competitor and no one, it seemed, was letting that die.  Annessa, Ducati’s PR guru, had eventually stopped granting interviews because Nika had gotten tired of talking about the crash; her last account was something like, ‘For crying out loud, you’ve seen the video...I had no idea what happened until I saw it in hospital.’  Even Nika had her limits with the fucking press.  

Thank God she was cleared by Medical to test too.  Sure, she had some soreness in her wrist and still had to wear the sleeve over her fingers but other than that, right as acid rain.  After a royal TARFU with the new fairings on Thursday that resulted in both her and Alex crashing, the team had had strong words and tense moments in a meeting afterward.  Both riders were more or less able to continue but the mechanics needed to work all night on repairs so they’d have spare bikes the next day.  Nika always felt for them when that happened.

Then there was the team rule where everyone put their phones away for the weekend.  That was nice and crappy all at once.  The guys’ significant others hated the rule.  The guys who got bitched at a lot loved it.  Nika was actually involved emotionally for the first time in a long while which was a weird place for her.  Since the initial date with Liv, they’d been texting regularly...well that night and all the next day and a half...until the wallets were turned over to Annessa.  And you know? It had been really nice.  Nika was enjoying getting to know Liv.  Nika was still reserved, not wanting to push too hard or fast or whatever, and hell Liv was too.  They’d only been on one date!  All the way back to Moscow though, they’d talked.  Nika’d called her on video chat and asked about her day.  It was nice.  So naturally she’d been excited to be asked out on another date by Liv.  So far so good.

Nika drove her baby, Sebastian, the black sapphire metallic BMW M3...the one that used to belong to a mobster.  It was the least outwardly showy car she owned and it was also her favorite.  It was all sharp, aggressive lines and raw, sexy power.  1600 horses under the unassuming hood.  A monster of a car in disguise.  She parked around the corner intentionally, not wanting to make a scene even if the car was 10 years old.  Car people would appreciate it not even knowing what was under the hood.  Nika didn’t think Liv was a car person.  Into real things, that one.  Still, maybe someday she’d get her on a bike.  The thought of Liv the back of her Ducati, arms wrapped around her waist...danced across her mind as Nika parked.  Hot.  Stop it, Jesus.  What’s wrong with you?  Second date, dumbass.  Still, Nika smirked a little as her alarm chirped and she put the key in her pocket.

Liv was in plain sight from a mile away.  Not literally because there were a lot of trees and the street curved but Nika saw her plainly enough, clear as the optics on her sniper rifle.  So cute in that dress.  They’d said it was she’d opted for skinny jeans, street rocker high tops, a retro Doctor Who t-shirt and a Dainese leather jacket that was so supple, it looked like she was born in it.  

Nika’s face spread into a smile when she neared and she gave a dorky little wave.  “Hi.”  She beamed.  “You look so cute, if you don’t mind me saying that.”  Her face flitted through the myriad of expressions associated with ‘what just came out of my mouth?’  She shrugged and held out a small dark blue book bound with a length of twine.  The blank pages were thick, unevenly cut but not offensively so with that slightly yellowed/off-white color that screamed ‘handmade.’  “I brought this back for you.”  Her dark eyes headlined a shy, dimpled smile.  I missed you.  Can’t say that aloud yet though.  That’d be a little creepy. 
Liv looked at the proffered book wrapped in twine, a small ember insider her seeming to glow as if it had been gently cupped and blown upon, the look in Nika's eyes encouraging. A simple gesture. A simple gift. But one without expectation, without judgement. She couldn't hide the grin on her face, the reverence with which she touched the unevenly cut rough pages, that tactile feel and pungent smell like a memory of home from a lifetime ago.

Part of her tried to temper her response. Laila had offered gifts at first too. She was not so cynical to believe that all women were like her, no. She was too much of a romantic for that. But she needed to be careful. She was on ice, now. She didn't know if it was thin or if she might slip and fall.

The gift warmed her heart, though. Just knowing Nika had even thought of her while busy trying not to die. She held it carefully and gave her a hug. Nothing more than a sister might. Nothing more. Except it was heartfelt. And it felt good.

She was shy now, of course. "I feel bad. I didn’t get you anything." She did too. Liv, already screwing it up. As usual.

She wanted this to be special and still she was failing. Stop! Stop overthinking! She breathed, hearing the quiet of the place. God’s peace.

She stilled. Notebook in one hand, she held out the other, smile returning. "Come on. Let me show you around.",
Nika barely managed to school her features to neutral as Liv examined the book.  Her nearly-black eyes were glinting though and betrayed her internal shouts of unbridled and manic gleeShe likes it! She likes it!  In her head she was hopping around like an oaf, arms windmilling; an embarrassment to her species.  It was a wonder she wasn't winded.  Whew.  Her internal monolog devils high-fived.  She beamed over Liv’s shoulder at the hug, her dimple nearly collapsing all of space and time with its depthsYou are a right fucking idiot.  I know.

She successfully bottled that until relative calm remained.

Nika was not used to being touched but managed not stiffen too much or make any embarrassing sounds.  It felt good though.  “You shouldn’t feel bad.  I’m the one who disappeared for three and a half days...gotta make amends for that.”  Nika crossed her eyes and adopted an aristocratic accent.  “Besides, this is all part of my plan d’courtship.”  Yes, she knew that wasn’t a word.  “Endless wooing.”  Oh god, don’t feel bad!  “Besides, you’re giving me the pleasure of your company.  Time being the only irreplaceable thing you can never get back.”  She meant that wholeheartedly.  Nika looked into Liv’s eyes and whispered somewhat comically in a last-ditch effort to lighten the moment.  “Priceless…”  A hopeful expression.

Liv offered her hand, Nika took it with a smile and relished the feeling.  Without being creepy.  Slow.  Slow down.  You’ll scare her off with your intensity.  
Liv laughed at her accent and stifled the flush of excitement that came at her words. She said a mental prayer and tried to relax. Once she and her mom had been walking through a park when she had been maybe 9. A fluttering in the fresh spring grass had caught her eye and she ran toward it and knelt down, the feel of her mother's protective presence behind her.

There, among the nascent blades moved a tiny sparrow, feathers small, beak opening and closing, small wings trying to heave itself on the ground. Her mother's hands had gone to her shoulders as she explained what had happened. The branches were too high for her or her mother to return it to its nest.

Still, she had insisted and her mother flagged down one of the groundskeepers to help it. At least that was what she thought had happened. Now that she was older, she suspected that man hadn't been able to do anything and her mother knew it. It was a cruel world and Liv wasn't ready to learn that yet.

Only now Liv felt as if she were the little bird, only she had been returned to the nest, had seemed to heal. Looking over the edge of the safety of the nest, the ground seemed very far below. And she had been scared. But she had jumped anyway. She was here now, testing her wings.

Just fly. That's all she needed to do. Fly. Nothing else.

It was hard, though, as she stared into those dancing eyes. She swallowed, wanting to shift the subject.

She turned to view the monastery. The red stone buildings, soaring towers and steeples bright against the warm blue sky.

"Shall we?", she said, Nika's fingers laced through hers. It made her nervous and so she tried to shift things to areas she felt more comfortable in. She talked of the history of this place. She had been an art history major, not architecture, but she had been here enough times. Its history was filled with highs and lows. Under the Soviets, sadly, the place had been used as a prison and orphanage. Thankfully, after the fall it had been restored to its glory.

She fell quiet after a while. "It’s a pretty place anyway," she said after a moment. The journal was in her other hand. Her hand itched to put pencil to paper for the first time in over a year.. And yet she was terrified at the same time.

The look of disgust on Laila's face as she tore up her drawings had stabbed at her, the bloody heart wounds far worse than the bruises she'd hidden.

It had taken so long to build up the courage. But this had been where God had found her, under the stone staircase, weeping, ready to die. Where her angel put her wings around her in an embrace. Where she felt the warm endless river of her love pour through her, bringing the world to life.

She looked at Nika. She'd felt that river again when she’d kissed Nika. She was scared. But she had faith.

A deep breath. Another leap. "Can I sketch you?"
Nika walked beside Liv, in the moment.  The day bright and cheerful, not too hot or cold, the barest stir of the air keeping things from stagnation.  The sounds of the city were light years away within the walls of this place.  Charming and mysterious, the different styles of buildings somehow went together and clashed all at once.  Nika knew nothing about architecture really beyond how best to blow shit up.  Still, you could almost feel the history here.  It was an easy place for her to get lost in.  She was the type who could sit and stare at something, be it an epic vista or the lines on a car, for hours.  It was peaceful.  Zen.  

Nika listened to Liv talk about the place, never one to pass up a chance to learn something.  She’d never set foot in a proper schoolroom or whatever they were called.  Nika had been educated via VR classrooms and in practical application workshops (perhaps too polite a phrase for the actual subject matter).  She’d heard of day trips or field trips and had herself seen gaggles of school aged children snaking about the various monuments and the like so the awareness was present.  Never her though.  Had she missed out?  She didn’t think so.  Was this place on the list of Moscow’s show and tell?  Who cared?  They weren’t here now, in fact no one seemed to be except them.  Fine by her.

Nika was content listening to the sound of Liv’s voice and frankly, was very much enjoying their prolonged...hand holding.  It was nice for such a simple thing.  Nika turned to agree, the place was indeed pretty.  She did so with a smile, not wanting to break the spell of Liv’s soothing discourse.  There was a silent moment wherein Nika knew something was going on in Liv’s mind but nothing was coming out.  To guess would literally be a shot in the dark.  Best let it come out naturally.  Surprise caught her full in the face.  Sketch?  Why had that been an issue?  Nika shrugged, both curious and unperturbed at once.  Her eyes said, ‘If that would make you happy.’  Her mouth said, “Sure.”  Then the devil with a sense of humor chimed in.  “...but only if you make me taller.”  Nika grinned. 
Nika's playful answer soothed away some of the trepidation. Some of it, anyway. Those slashes had run deep, scars still only partially healed.

Thank God for mama and papa. And for Grigor, her brother. Standing in the rain, overwhelming shame and fear deadening her arm. Try as she might, she could not seem to lift it to knock.

Tiny lights twinkled through the cut glass of the door. Between the water in her eyes and the distortion, nothing was recognizable. They seemed cold and infinitely far away, stars lost in a dark sky.. She had come that far, standing on the stoop of her family home, bags in hand. Only that far.

She wasn't sure how long she had stood there, soaked to the skin by the never ending downpour, her tears mingled among the rain.

But they had known. Somehow they had known. The door opened and there was papa, his eyes taking in the truth at once, massive arms bringing her into his embrace. Mama crying with joy as she descended on her with a blanket of love.

And her little brother Grigor, still a kid in her eyes despite his 19 years- the one who would bother or tease her out of sheer boredom- taking her a large towel and draping it around her, finding her bags to take to her childhood room, and then disappearing, drawing her a warm bath, she later discovered.

Home again, to heal in safety. It had been only a year ago. Just a year. Yesterday, really. A lifetime. An eternity.

She breathed dispelling her nervousness. Nika was not Laila. She hoped. Prayed.

She had Nika sit, one of the buildings framing her and dug into her purse. Old habits. Always a pencil somewhere.

And she began. The sketch wasn't about fidelity to a single moment. It was trying to find the deeper truth. Who was this girl? And to capture that in a moment.

The quiet stretched out. "Tell me about your trip. What was the best thing you did and saw?" A small smile. "Or ate?" Her voice would soothe her and help her find what she sought.
Nika watched Liv’s face briefly before averting her eyes, thinking it would just be weird to have a stare-off at this point.  The eyes are windows to the soul after all.  Plus Liv was trying to art.  Or something.  Nika couldn’t draw to save her life or anyone else’s.  She was limited to programs and the like if she needed something down ‘on paper.’  Her signature had actually been so atrocious Ducati had sent her to a handwriting expert when she was barely a teenager.  Now the script was flowing and beautiful and she could sign autographs all day without getting a cramp in her hand.  

“My trip.”  She mused.  It was work really and Nika didn’t think Liv wanted to hear her talk about that.  She could watch it on tv, what had happened.  Hell, an All-Access Ducati pass would give her camera feeds from Nika’s bike when she was on it.  A lot had happened, actually.  There had been more drama in the garage than they’d had all season.  An outside engineering firm was brought in with a new fairing and with it a supposedly better aerodynamics package.  That had turned out to be the reason for the crashes.  The bike had been unstable in 4th gear and uncontrollable in 5th.  The top gears, 6-8 were all fine and the engineer hadn’t bothered to gather data on the lower gears at all.  The test rider they’d used had spent all his time at the top too.  It was a clusterfuck of epic proportions.  Nika had been spit off the bike going 188 kph but after skidding a bit through the runoff had been fine.  Alex crashed in a different corner and had ended up breaking his ankle again.  

Nika had borrowed a corner worker’s radio and tried to get a warning back to the garage but the engineer didn’t listen.  So she made her way back to the paddock as fast as she could but Alex had already gone off.  There were some heated words exchanged before the guy sarcastically asked her to use her ‘magical powers’ to predict which corner Alex would crash in.  She did and...he did.  She’d nailed it.  She was a professional, of course she’d know what gear Alex would be in in a particular corner.  Then Nika fired back that science wasn’t magic and perhaps he should go back to school because all the data he needed to prove her correct she’d just given him during her laps.  The team closed the garage doors after that and the media was left to sow whatever seeds they wished.  No, that would be too much for Liv.  That was just on Thursday.  Friday and the testing weekend went much better.

Nika also did not mention visiting her parents’ graves.  Not something to talk about out of the blue just yet.  Instead she gave the story of the blue notebook.  “During the second World War there was a village near Misano around Fiorenzuola di Focara whose women were world-renowned for their lifelike paintings of the Adriatic Sea.  With the men all off fighting in the war, the women became the best forgers of papers for the resistance, creating hundreds of documents used to save thousands of lives.  No one knows for sure how many.  They were warned one night that Mussolini’s secret police, OVRA, were planning a raid.  With their attention to detail and skill at making drawings look like photographs, the women knew they’d be forced to recreate as many of the faces as possible, some of whom still served as spies against the Axis forces.  The women could never do such a thing so they all blinded themselves intentionally with bleaching powder and the leaders cut out their own tongues to keep from talking.  When the agents stormed the workshop days later, they found only a bunch of blind women selling notebooks to get by.  After the war the women started a school for the blind and the notebooks were their main source of income.  The covers are blue in reverence of the sea; never to be seen again except in the minds of the women who’d made that sacrifice.”  The school was one of her favorite charities but she left that part out.

Nika ran a hand through her head-stubble.  “Italians are crazy, sorry.”  Her dark eyes found Liv’s face.  “You still want to date me?”  A little smile curved her lips.  “There isn’t a word in the Italian language though for crazy so the closest we have is ‘passion.’ “  Her eyes twinkled and she whispered.  “That was a lie.”  Nika craned her neck to get a peek but not seriously.  “How’s it going?” 
Liv's hand was hesitant, at first. Holding the pencil this way felt...odd. And yet it also felt familiar. Her fingertips pressed and released, pads gripping slightly, as she began roughly, tracing the outline. Outlines were important. A fuzzy vision, forgiving and hazy. For a time, Liv concentrated on the positioning, the background, crude lines and shapes, light and suggestive. rather than set and immutable.

Over time the details would become more visible, the contrasts and similarities. A reality that started to manifest itself.

And so Liv had focused on the outline of Nika's form, had concentrated on the building behind her as she spoke. Gradually, as the woman spoke, Liv noticed patterns, they way her eyes rested when in thought or in memory, the way she held her mouth in repose, her resting face, only to be punctuated by life and animation, sparkling eyes, gesturing hands, dimples in her wide inviting smile.

Somehow, a stroke here, a touch there, she began to see Nika emerge from the paper.

Her words helped, voice washing over her and sweeping her up, freeing her from her thoughts, from questions and second guesses. In her mind she saw the women of that village, saw their courage, their sacrifice. Part of her was in awe. The other was horrified at the cost- the bleach to the eyes, the loss of the tongue. The cruelty the world sometimes imposed on those who just wanted a normal life free of suffering.

Nika had thought of her. She couldn't help but wonder why. The part of her that was moved with appreciation saw it as something positive. But the extremes, the lengths they'd gone to...

Her hand stopped at the question. "I do," she said quietly. She did, too. Did want to date Nika She liked her. But there was a hint of fear at the subject. Passion. So wonderful a feeling. But an excuse too. 'I’m sorry, hun. I just love you soooo much. It makes me crazy. I’m sorry babe. Forgive me. I didn't mean to. You just have to know that sometimes I can't control myself....' And she'd want to believe. That was the scariest part.

Her hand shook for a moment before she got a hold of herself. The drawing was mostly done. There was more to do. But Liv felt paralyzed.

This was it. Nika would look. And she was terrified of the response.
Nika too felt joy briefly.  Concern quickly replaced it.  Silence stretched between them.  Liv was...afraid.  Afraid.  Nika all but bristled.  Liv had mentioned an ex before, just after she’d shrank inside herself like an abused puppy.  Two loud heartbeats.  That was it.  Nika was very still.  She couldn’t push for it, a confirmation, but Nika was a thousand percent sure of it now.  Liv’s ex hadn’t just been an asshole...Liv’s ex had hurt her for real.  Part of Nika wanted justice using her rather specific skill set.  The other part wanted to throw a shield around the woman, hold her close and scream a challenge into the wind.  Now you have to come through me. 

Instead, her eyes were as caring and soft as her words.  “Hey.”  Nika inched closer.  “I’m not her.”  Closer still like a cautious approach to an abused and scared puppy.  “I will never hurt you.”  She scooted on a step until she was as small as could be, unimposing, right across from Liv.  Legs drawn up, arms wrapped around them.  “I promise,” Nika whispered.  She did not look at the notebook.  Just Liv’s face.  “You’re so much more.  So strong.”  Nika’s own life played behind nearly black eyes.  “Survivors are the strongest of them all.”  The barest change in her serious face made it seem as though she beamed a smile.  “You’re a superhero.”  Nika’s expression was open, honest.  “...and if you’re not ready to see someone, that’s okay too.  I can wait.  I can wait to show you these aren’t just words.  I’m not going anywhere unless you want me to.”

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