[[AUTHOR'S NOTE: This convoy has just about reached the end of the road. Over already! These two were so incredibly sweet together... I wish with all my heart that they make it. Maybe that's a silly thing to feel toward fictional characters, but they're real in my mind. I used my pen in an attempt to give them the happiness they deserved. Thanks to my reviewers and the other less-vocal readers out there; I hope you liked it, and I hope you like this final chapter as much as the others.
Until we meet again,JX]]
Celica and Accela slowly made their way through the city; it took them about twenty minutes to reach a streetcorner where Accela stopped, walked around behind her and clapped both hands over her eyes. Celica let out a gust of air from her nostrils. "Hey, what's all this? We're not about to suffer through an impromptu ice ballet in the park or some crap like that, are we?"
"Not quite," Accela replied as she began marching her around the corner, blind. "Don't peek, okay?"
"Fine, fine." When they stopped, she asked, "Are we there yet?"
"Okay. This... was for you."
And the hands fell away, and Celica found herself gazing at a quaint little bistro with a half-dozen tables outside under an earth-toned awning. The interior looked moodily lit, and she could see it was only one-quarter full; the typical lunch shift had likely just ended, so these were the stragglers who were enjoying their meals too much to feel any particular urge to hasten their exit.
"I don't get it," she laughed. "We're grabbing a bite? What's... oh?"
That's when she noticed the large neon sign above the entrance: it read "Celly's".
"Remember how we used to joke when we were kids?" Accela whispered, slipping her arms around Celica's waist from where she was still standing behind her, resting her chin on a shoulder. "That we could both have the same nickname? I mean, neither of us actually claimed it because it would get too confusing, trying to figure out which 'Celly' people meant when they used it, but... well, I didn't think there could be a more appropriate name for my first restaurant."
"This is YOURS?" Celica exclaimed, glancing back at her friend before turning to scrutinize the exterior more closely. No part of it spoke of a cheap dive or a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon; it was elegance personified. Years of toil had probably gone into making it exactly the place Accela wanted it to be. "I can't believe this, I- wow, look at you, Miss Entrepeneur!"
"Oh, hush," Accela said modestly. "It's just a restaurant."
"No, it isn't. It's awesome. Let's go in, I have to see this!"
In they went, and Celica felt her breath being taken away. There was an upright piano crammed into the back corner, and old photographs of the city and paintings and other bricabrac lined the walls. The chandelier hanging above them might even have been genuine crystal. Pleasant chatter filled the air, half-drowning out the piped-in soft jazz. A bar took up one wall, set back far enough as to not intrude on the main seating floor. The bartender waved at Accela when he noticed her entering. Swinging doors that lead to the kitchen flapped almost continuously as a harried-looking waitress attempted to please everyone at once.
"Welcome, Boss," said another man at a podium with a receding hairline but a pleasant expression above his bushy mustache. "Will your companion be requiring a table?"
"She will, Philippe," Accela told him warmly, "but not immediately. I'm showing her around."
"Very good, Ma'am."
Celica made a beeline for the bar - not because she wanted a drink, but because she'd noticed something. Hanging in front of the mirror, at a height so one's reflection would still be visible below it, was a framed, blown-up photograph she recognized.
"It's all of us," Celica said, voice thick with emotion. "Integra... Sylvia... that night-"
"Was the night you got blitzed and coated the poor bartender in your supper," Accela laughed. "I'm fairly certain."
"Yeah," Celica breathed with a tear in her eye as she stared at the picture. There the four of them were, grinning and raising their glasses, seated at the bar of an establishment that probably no longer existed. Celica had her free arm draped around Accela's shoulders. Sylvia was sticking out her tongue at the camera. They had been so young and full of vitality... "How... how did you even..."
"It was in an old, deleted email attachment," she said softly. "It took some digging, but you know me; queen of the cyber-realms. That wouldn't have been necessary if RUC hadn't raided our various living quarters while Ashley had us framed and at the top of the most wanted list, but it was worth the extra effort to reclaim it again. To me it was, anyway."
"I think it's the best thing ever," she laughed wetly. "Oh... oh, I can't believe this place, it's so big! And it looks amazing, all this old wood, polished brass... how did you come up with the starting capital?"
"We have several investors - including one Integra Martel, who is overseeing some of the more radical changes within RUC's corporate side. Between her and Representative Revant, it's a whole new city."
A corner of her mind tingled when she heard the surname Revant, but she couldn't place it so she set that aside for now. "Wow, this is huge... can we see the kitchen? Oh, can we, can we, can we?"
"Of course," Accela giggled, delighted in Celica's interest. "Only if you promise to be good."
"I will, I will!"
It was spotless and industrial in the restaurant's nerve center, yet there were little touches here and there that made it homey, like ancient cookware hanging high upon the ceiling or wood carvings. Three cooks were in various states of business, and a fourth was by the back door, digging in his jacket for something. When they approached him, he smiled and waved once he'd found his cigarettes and left to enjoy a brief respite from the trials of food service.
"It's like a real place," Celica breathed, eying the door that said "MANAGER'S OFFICE" nearby. "How long... how long have you had it?"
"About two and a half years. I spent a long time perfecting recipes, trying out ludicrous ideas, and coming back to old standards. Once I thought I really had the makings for my own place I started shopping around for locations, amassing the start-up funds... poaching chefs that wanted a change of environment. The bartop, piano and chandelier are all vintage; I wanted to bring some real character to it, to make it not so much a place to fill your stomach but a place to relax and enjoy yourself. The way we used to when you came over for dinner." They glanced at each other, then glanced away. "The best perk of all is that I'm never out of laurel leaves," she confided with mirthful eyes.
Celica grinned, glancing at a nearby rack of herbs and spices that held at least three dozen tiny bottles. "I'll bet you aren't."
"Sorry I'm late," someone announced as the door burst open. "Hope Dave isn't too pissed, but I can jump in for him n- Oh my God..."
"Garabine?" Celica gasped, hands at her mouth. And it was; there she stood in a black sleeveless t-shirt, khaki shorts and heavy boots. Even such casual clothing couldn't disguise her especially refined, striking beauty. The most shocking part was her hair; it was still shorn on the sides, but on top and in back it was longer and with a slight wave, the natural blonde allowed to shine through instead of covered in various shades of neon as it had been five years ago.
"C... Celica." Garabine swallowed, then grinned in that way that melted away her seemingly-forbidding facade. Her hand thrust out and Celica clasped it. "Accela mentioned you were awake when I was in yesterday, but... wow, I can't believe it, after all these years..."
"I'm just a bad penny," she snickered before being jerked into the most awkward hug she'd ever had the displeasure of experiencing. It was hard to begrudge the Nordic goddess, though; in spite of it all, they had gotten along. After a few hard thumps on the back for good measure, she was released. "Missed you, too. So you work here? What's the deal?"
"She bartends," Accela said, glowing with happiness at watching two of her closest friends embrace. "Most other restaurants were too fussy about her 'punk' appearance to give her anything other than kitchen or dishwashing gigs, so I figured, 'Hey, now that I'm a businesswoman...'"
Garabine shrugged, shoving her hands into her pockets. "Doesn't take much knowhow to pour a few drinks. Easy money, as far as I'm concerned - plus the few nights a year that a cluster of college brats stumble in and think this is a good location to thrash, they usually see me and realize they'd be better off moving along. Saves us from paying the extra scratch for a bouncer."
"She's had to bust some heads," the guy taking his smoke break laughed as he rejoined them. "Watched her do it, too - blood was spilled. Scary, scaaary..."
"Shut up, Benji."
"I'm serious; it's scary working for lesbians, but at the same time I've never felt safer." When Garabine started glaring at him, Benji held up both hands and backed away, a good-natured grin splitting his features. "Shutting up."
"Good plan," she sighed as he reclaimed the cutting board waiting patiently for him. "Christ, what a nimrod. But we all love him."
"Plus, he can peel and Julienne a potato in under thirty seconds," Accela remarked. "Hard to find talent like that."
As Garabine made her way to man the taps and thereby relieve Dave, who was more than grateful, Accela insisted that Celica sit at the best table in the house and wait, then vanished into the back. Celica did as she was told, impatiently and with indelible excitement. Looking around idly to see what else there was of interest, she spied a hat hanging high up on the wall - a type of cloche. After a long, long moment, she recognized it as one of her own; she couldn't remember for sure, but it was entirely likely she had left it over at Accela's place once upon a time and never retrieved it. As far as she could tell, there wasn't a speck of dust on it, despite its out-of-reach location. It took quite a bit of effort to keep from breaking down in tears before the first course arrived.
Celica made her way through a salad with chopped almonds and cucumbers, a piping-hot chicken dumpling soup, and a main course of sirloin with sides of au gratin potatoes, grilled, seasoned asparagus and mushroom risotto. By this point, she was already full to bursting, but somehow she made more room for the tiny cup of creamy amaretto-flavored gelato that closed out the meal. Only once dessert was brought out did Accela rejoin her at the table.
"So... what did you think?"
"I think it tasted like your cooking," Celica laughed, dropping the spoon into the gelato bowl. There was a tiny scoop of it left in there, but there was no way on earth it was going to fit so she regrettably left the dead soldier behind. "Which is the highest praise I can give it, of course. All those your recipes?"
"I confess that the asparagus is one of Tori's creations," she said with a tiny smirk. "But I wholeheartedly approved. The rest is me, or me and Tori or Kevin bouncing ideas off each other before we come to a final product. With that gelato, I started from scratch; threw out any specific recipe and worked it from the ground up. It's taken me a year to get it to this point, and I still think there's room for improvement; we'll see."
"I'm gonna pop," Celica laughed. "Is there somewhere I can take a nap?"
"Let's go to my office so they can clear the table," she whispered, standing and helping Celica to her feet; she gladly accepted the hand, given the bulging additional weight around her midsection.
The manager's office was surprisingly spacious for a restaurant, though not wastefully so. There was room for one or two extra office chairs in front of the desk, and even a couch along one wall. Certificates of milestones reached and printouts of news articles and reviews by food critics lined the walls, centered around a large, inspirational poster of a kitten; Celica suppressed a guffaw at seeing such a thing there. Her sleepy head demanded she beeline for the couch, but instead she crossed to the desk where Accela was plopping down, leafing through a few papers as her computer screen flickered to life.
"There's me again," Celica said, pointing to a picture frame.
"Yeah," Accela sighed, frown lines creasing at the corners of her mouth as she gazed at it. The captured image of Celica had wild and floppy hair, her arm raised in greeting; it had been a chilly day, she was wearing a heavy coat. The energetic look on her face was goofy, but also endearing in a way. "As soon as we can, I'd like to update this picture."
"Because my brain is too used to feeling sad when I look at it," she said with a quiet smile. "Every day I've been at work for the past two years, I have at one point or another. Even now that I can look at it again and feel happy, it's not without that pang of bittersweet. So it's got to go, as soon as I get a new one. Don't suppose you have a camera on you, huh?"
"Not at the moment," Celica admitted as her heart ached within her chest. Feeling a touch lost, she crossed to the couch and curled up on it, feigning sleep as she reflected on things. Accela really had been struggling to move on with her life - struggling daily, perhaps even minute-to-minute. She felt like a ghost, haunting the life of a friend who was supposed to have dealt with her passing long ago. Had this resurfacing actually been for the best? Maybe, maybe not - but it was beyond too late. Celica had a sneaking suspicion that if she up and disappeared, the heartstricken redhead wouldn't be able to cope with it. Not twice in a lifetime.
o o o
"So what did you think of the place? Tell me honestly."
Celica shrugged as they walked down the moonlit streets, angling toward Accela's building. "It's a great place. Spectacular, even - I still can't believe it's yours."
"Then what's the matter? You seem confused or something."
"Nah." She contemplated a moment, then shrugged again. "I guess... it's silly, but I guess I just assumed you and Integra would still be cops, like before. But you both have these totally different lives now. So, uh, consider my mind blown and all. On the other hand, it makes sense you'd want to get out of that line of work after everything that went down."
Accela nodded, adjusting her purse strap as they waited at the edge of a crosswalk. "You're not wrong there. I mean, for a while I tried, I signed up to work on the newly-reformed City Police Squad; they have an intelligence unit, and I did okay there. But not quite, y'know? It was like... how do I describe it? Like my law enforcement days ended with Special Security Division. Integra, too. I mean, maybe we could have still felt at home if all four of us transferred in, but without you and Sylvia..."
"Yeah," Celica agreed. "I know if it had been me, and I'd lost any two of you guys, I'd probably have rethought my life goals as well. Maybe opened a video game store or something."
"You," Accela laughed, and Celica laughed with her. "Is that what you want to do now?"
"Hell no. If I made video games into a career, I'm sure I'd start hating them. But, well, I'm not too keen on carrying a badge anymore. I dunno."
They were silent for a few seconds as they crossed. "You know... I could use an assistant manager. I've been trying to get by without one, and it hasn't been all that rough since I didn't have much of a life outside the restaurant. But with you back I will, so maybe if we split the workload it can give us both the-"
"You're offering me a job? For serious?"
Accela nodded, eyes twinkling in the light of a dozen streetlamps. "Of course, you can't slack off at this one, so I'll understand if you turn it down to find something more laid-back. Running a business is hard, thankless work. Mostly thankless, anyway; it has its moments."
That did give Celica some pause. Her gut instinct was to leap at the chance to fully integrate her life into Accela's, but she certainly didn't want to be a burden. "Hmm. Yeah, let me get back to you. I just woke up and found my world is upside-down, so I really haven't had much chance to think about what the future has in store. But... thanks. I mean it."
"Hey, what are friends for?"
Along they walked in silence, deeply engrossed in all sorts of thoughts about careers and life goals. They were crossing a footbridge over one of the city's busiest streets when Celica reached out a hand to stop her friend.
"What is it?" Accela asked, turning slightly. "Come on, we've got a ways to-"
"Let me ask you some stuff. And I want you to be brutally honest with me, too."
Accela turned fully to face her, hands clasped upon her purse. "Go on."
"Are you... happy?"
"Of course. I don't get it; what's percolating up there in that head of yours?"
"Were you happy? I mean, with the life you've built up for yourself. Your friends, your restaurant. It feels right for you. Doesn't it?"
"It does," she said with a slight smile. "I've never been happier. It's a much better fit than RUC ever was; looking back on it, I know now that if I hadn't had such good friends, I'd have handed in my resignation long before. Of course, that's if Director Lynx would even have let me go..."
"Yeah," Celica said, grinding her teeth for a moment at the mention of the evil cur's name. "Well that's a positive, at least."
For a moment, Accela waited, but when it became apparent Celica wasn't going to speak again she asked, "So? Is that all? Because it seems like you want to ask something more. Come on, out with it; what's bothering you?"
"Are you sure... you want me back in?"
"Are you sure." Celica scratched at her elbow absentmindedly before she realized with a shock that she was scratching metal; there couldn't be an itch there. Resemble parts don't itch. "See, you've got it all figured out, every piece in place. But then I come back and... and I'm afraid I'm going to ruin it. I don't belong in this world anymore, Accela; I'm a relic from the past. You don't need me here, and I don't have any place I'm needed anymore. So why... why was I found and brought back? What's my purpose in existing now?"
"Oh, Celica." Accela sighed, placing a hand on her friend's cheek and holding it there. "Part of me wants to scream at you for talking like this, but on the other hand... I think I understand. A little, anyway. It's normal for you to feel out of place; we all spent a long time feeling that way, after the Blast Fall, and then again when Eunomia and Eirene almost did us in. But we've had five years to adapt, to transform into citizens the new era needs. You haven't. Give it time, you'll get there."
"I just don't know," she whispered, barely audible over the traffic. "You've got everything figured out, and I don't want to be the monkey wrench jamming up the works. And if I came to work for you... it'd be like asking for a handout, using my time lapse as a crutch to avoid some real soul-searching. You don't deserve to deal with that on top of your business."
Accela's fingers curled in and pinched her cheek. "Cut it out. Even if you did use me as a crutch, I'd be honored to bear your weight. You know that. And before you start whining that you don't want me to have to, I counter with this: I'd do it gladly. A billion times over. You are more important to me than a thousand restaurants." Then she smirked. "But if I did hire you and you're no good, I would have to terminate your employment. Or at the very least, demote you. I'm not going to let you languish in a position where all the other workers suffer because of it."
"Gee, no pressure," Celica grumbled, and Accela tittered. "Okay, so you're not dumb, just overly kind and generous. I get it. I knew that, anyway. But on my other point... would I still be the right girl for you? Please, think back to how I was right before Rose first joined RUC and everything went to hell in a handbasket. That Celica - since she's still me, more or less. Is that girl the one for you?"
"Yes." She rubbed the back of her neck as she turned to look out at the cars speeding to and from destinations unknown. "I won't lie, it will be a huge adjustment for both of us; as I'm sure you've seen, I'm not who I was back then, by a long shot. So you've got a whole new Accela to become better acquainted with. And for me... I haven't been anyone's significant other in ages. My whole life will now be entering another transitional stage. And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Yeah?" Celica hesitated, an odd form of shame flooding through her despite realizing it wasn't her fault. "Even though I'm a cyborg now? So much of me is Resemble... I don't know how you could stand to touch me."
To her surprise, she got a laugh in response to her brooding. "For Pete's sake, Celica – if I can get over you being a woman, I think I can deal with a few upgraded body parts! Give me some credit, here. Just promise me we will take it slow, like you said, right? I've... shut myself off emotionally since I lost you." Accela's fingers white-knuckled on the railing. "A lot. Integra will testify to that. So, um, I've got to get used to opening back up again. Take down the wall brick by brick. But I'm ready to begin if you are."
Celica nodded. "That sounds nice. Except one part; I don't wanna wait."
The din of the honking cars and their motors seemed to fade to silence as she watched Celica falling to her knees. At first, she gasped and reached a hand toward her, ready to ask her if she was alright - until she saw her holding out a tiny velvet box, deepest black.
"Time is of the essence," Celica said in a frightened voice, even though she was smiling. "Losing out on the past half-decade is one of those hard-earned lessons you can't ignore. We've squandered enough precious minutes. Let's fix that. I wanna skip ahead to the good stuff."
The hand Accela had reached out with was still hanging there. For a brief second, her fingers twitched toward the box, but then she turned her eyes back to Celica's, seeing the apprehension in the chocolate orbs. "What's... I'm not sure what you're trying to say."
"I'm trying to ask you to marry me, you dork. And everybody said you were the smart one."
Seconds passed. Accela's mouth was open a tiny sliver as she concentrated on the box, as if willing it to speak further, to elaborate on these events so she could better understand. And it did; Celica used her other hand to flip it open, revealing a glittering green gemstone set in a gold band. It was modest and tasteful, though by no means lackluster. This seemed to snap her out of it.
"Oh my gosh," Accela breathed in a rush as her mind started to filter through the words and interpret some of their meanings, connecting them to the ceremonial jewelry. "W-wait... really? Me marry you? I mean, you want me to?"
"I did mention that, right?" Celica asked with an exaggerated look of confusion, frowning playfully. "Somebody rewind the audio feed, I want to make sure I didn't say something different."
"B-but- but you were the one who said- that we should reconnect b-before-"
"Screw it. I may not know what I want out of the rest of my life, Accela, but there's a part that's completely indisputable to me. We can play catch-up for the rest of our lives, starting now. If you still feel the same way about me that you did before, then it's pointless to beat around the bush. I'm not gonna miss my chance like I did back then, not when there's no reason I should. This is what I want. YOU are what I want."
Passerby were staring. Some of them had uncomfortable or outraged looks, seeing two women behaving this way, but others smiled, and a few couples held each other's hands, touched at the display of pure, unadulterated romance unfolding in such a public location. A flamboyantly-dressed man with a beret perched jauntily on his crown called out, "The word you're looking for is 'yes', girlfriend!" Several onlookers laughed.
"You heard the man," Celica goaded, trying not to grin.
"Ohh, I hate you for putting me on the spot like this," Accela whined, fidgeting as her cheeks nearly exploded with color. "You're a real piece of work, Celica Yayoi."
"As are you, Accela Warrick. Now let's put our pieces together and make a complete set. You game?"
The thumping of Celica's heart - which she was sure could be heard by everyone gathered - kept time. Five seconds. Ten. They were up to sixteen when she saw Accela nod, an imperceptible movement no more than a few millimetres down, then back up.
"What's that? Sorry, but we've had this talk about body language not being a viable form of consent, especially when-"
"YES, YOU IDIOT!" she shouted, launching herself into Celica's arms. Only due to her Proceed ability was she able to not only catch her fiancée and keep them from bashing their heads against the concrete, but also hang onto the ring lest it tumble to the frenzied roadway below.
"Are you sure?" Celica gasped, stunned that all had gone according to plan. "Really, really sure? I mean, you can take this all back later if-"
"Yes means yes!" Accela laughed gaily, tears of happiness welling up and falling onto Celica's cheeks. "And I mean it, I mean it like I've never meant anything before! My best bud and I! My tall, dark, handsome... oh...!"
And then she was crying too hard to articulate any further. Vaguely, Celica knew the gathered crowd were clapping and cheering, and she caught a few wolf whistles, but she didn't care. It was their moment. Let them celebrate it if they chose to; the world should be celebrating.
"Here," Celica whispered as she suddenly realized there was one thing left to do; she withdrew the engagement ring from its box and held it out. Accela raised up so it could be slipped onto her trembling finger, after which she gazed at it, transfixed. When she was through admiring the item she knew she wouldn't be removing for quite a while, she planted such a kiss on Celica that not only did the wolf whistles rise in volume, but they started hearing them from yet further away; they were putting on a great show.
"We are going straight back to my place so I can... thank you properly," Accela told her wetly as they stood, smiling blearily as she swiped at her face to clear it of excess saline. "And because too many people are here. You ready?"
"Congrats," said the man in the beret as he passed. "You two are adorable! Let me know when you set a date, I'd love to play for you."
Accela sniffled as she turned to him. "Play? What do you mean?"
"I'm a piano man," he said, waggling his especially-long fingers. "Unless you wanted to go with strings; then I can't help you."
"Actually, if you're interested, I could use another pianist at my restaurant. Stop by Celly's if you're shopping around - and that way we can put you on the guest list."
"Splendid!" With a courteous bow, he flitted away, calling, "Au revoir et félicitations!" over his shoulder.
"God, we have a guest list already," Celica laughed as they resumed their walk, arm in arm. "Life sure doesn't stop for nobody."
Accela was still flushed; her hue wasn't likely to return to normal for the rest of the night. "Should we call Integra? Oh, and I bet Rita would want to know, she'll be thrilled to death! There's so much to do - cakes! Bridesmaids, wedding dresses! Or, well, should I be wearing a dress? I will - and you can wear whatever tickles your fancy, dress or suit or-"
"Take it easy!" Celica cackled, beyond amused. "We've got tons of time to plan this hoedown. All the time in the world. And no, I will not wear a suit! God, I thought we agreed I wasn't the boy!"
"You're right, of course. But I bet you'd look dashing in a red, double-breasted tuxedo..."
"Shut your pie hole," Celica said, fighting down a slight rouge. Even though she was grinning. "And I don't think it's wise to use terms like 'double-breasted' when talking about a lesbian wedding. Gives off a different kind of mental image, y'know?"
"AHH, I cannot believe how happy you just made me!" Accela crowed, running ahead a few steps and spinning on the spot, head thrown back and gazing up at the Aurora Shell. "I'm getting married to my best friend! We're going to be together forever!"
"And ever." Celica dashed forward and grabbed her around the waist, twirling her around and ignoring her shriek of mingling surprise and delight. "All mine! You're really stuck with me, now."
Just after she alighted on the ground once more, Accela looked up breathlessly into her lover's face, abuzz with excitement. "Did you ever think we'd be here? RUC gone, no more donning the Proceed suits, restauranteurs, tying the knot? It's like a drunken daydream of the sweetest kind! God, what would my mother say?"
"She'd better say, 'Well done, daughter of mine. That Yayoi's a fine catch – where should we mail the dowry?'"
Accela couldn't suppress a snort. "Don't be so full of yourself, sweetheart. But I'd have to agree with her; you really are. Even when you're a little bit psycho." Then, with a conspiratorial glint in her eye, she said, "Race you home."
"Oh, you are SO on!"
Gales of laughter floated along behind the two best friends as they sped through downtown, ducking and dodging and ruining Celica's fine dress, and none of it bothered them. It was as if they were both phantoms or spirits, passing through and around all objects and worries and troubles - intangible, unstoppable.
o o o The End o o o
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