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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.

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