Mixed Signals

Chapter 2

The daily routine was almost more than Celica could handle. It was on this day, anyway; vandals, kidnappings, a shootout in a corner convenience store. All that on top of her inner turmoil. But they got through it, and she was fleeing HQ, letting out a huge gust of air (and hoping to dispel the tension that went along with it) when Accela caught up to her.

"Celica, hang on," she panted, slightly out of breath.

"Shit, what?" Then she cleared her throat. "I mean, what's up?"

"I thought you were coming over for dinner tonight, too. You're not busy, are you?"

"N- uhh, actually I am," she lied through her teeth. "I mean, gotta get some stuff in order back at the house. No big deal, but I gotta flake on tonight. Raincheck?"

"Sure," Accela said, sounding slightly disappointed. So disappointed that Celica decided to ask, hoping for a few more clues.

"Why? Was there something... special about tonight?"

The redheaded officer shrugged glumly. "Not really, I guess. Just thought we, y'know, could hang out. The usual."

Celica attempted a smile, patting her friend on the shoulder warmly. "Why don't you hang out with Sylvia tonight instead? I mean, she has even less of a life than we do so she's probably free. Go paint the town red with her, maybe see if you can badger Integra into coming along. They're a fun bunch with a few martinis in them. I'll catch up with you in the morning."

"But it's not the same kind of fun I can have with you," she protested. "You know what I mean, right?"

This was the point where Celica felt her pulse quicken. "No, not really. What's... so special about me?" But there was such a pleading, watery look in Accela's crystal-clear eyes that she instantly regretted asking. "D-don't- I'm not trying to be a jerk or anything, I'm sorry, but-"

"You really don't know? Come on, I... after all these years I figured it went without saying. But I guess not."

"Accela," she whispered, feeling her face growing warmer than she would have liked for it to, "listen. Don't get me wrong, you really are my best friend, but let's not go reevaluating everything!"

Now Accela seemed more satisfied, but simultaneously a touch confused. "Reevaluating? What are you talking about? Of course we're best friends. I was standing here, thinking you'd somehow missed the memo."

"Oh, okay." Celica took a deep breath. "Sorry. That was... I dunno, nevermind. See you tomorrow." And she made a hasty exit before she could make an even bigger fool out of herself.

o o o

Two more days passed with Celica blowing Accela off for some undisclosed "business". Each night, Accela spent hours curled in a ball under her bedsheets - not feeling comfortable spending an evening alone with Sylvia, and too intimidated to ask their other coworker to join them - wishing Celica would stop avoiding her after they finished punching the clock. Once upon a time she had convinced herself that living alone in such a big, spacious apartment was a luxurious lifestyle, but now it just felt... lonely. The nights Celica came by for dinner, even if she only stayed an hour or two, were much more tolerable.

Maybe I should get a pet, she thought to herself as she flipped through the channels. A big, wet-nosed dog to flop down on my feet and keep me company. Yeah. If Celica ever decides I'm worth her time again, maybe we could pick it out together.

But thinking about Celica only made her more depressed. Sighing, she got up to see if there was any dark fudge ice cream left in the freezer...

o o o

Okay, Celica thought to herself at the end of another work shift. This is it; I've been kicking it around for long enough, and I can't stand looking at Accela's mopey face anymore. Time to face the music.

"Celica!"

"Accela, hey," she said as she yanked on her non-regulation sneakers and shoved her dressy flats into her locker. "God, I'm so glad we're through with all those reports - I can't believe the director dumped all that on us at the last second. Thought we'd be here until Appreciation Day."

"Yeah," she laughed. "Um, so..."

"Hmm?" Oh, crap, she lamented inwardly as she noticed Accela's face. She's nervous. All she's going to do is ask me to come over for dinner again, but now she's NERVOUS about it. God, why did I have to take so long to get over it?

"So I'm thinking about whipping up a souffle tonight," she said, staring at her shoes. "If... that doesn't sound good, I can change the menu. But let me know before I go shopping. Unless..." Then her fists clenched as she prepared herself for a big let-down.

"Sounds awesome," Celica said with extra cheeriness. "Can we do one of those super-extravagant side salads you're so famous for?"

The huge grin now lighting up Accela's made the stabbing pain in Celica's heart tinge yet more. "O-of course! Yeah, whatever you want! Did you want the raspberry vinaigrette or something special?"

"Whatever's easiest. I'm sure it'll knock my tastebuds for a loop no matter what." She knew she was laying it on thick, but her friend deserved it.

"Great," she said, clapping her hands. "Okay, I'll adjust my shopping list. You coming with?"

"Nah, I have to see a man about a thingy," she sighed. In point of fact, she had to pick up some liquid courage, but she didn't want Accela judging her vice - or for her to have to even worry about it. "Won't take long; I might even beat you to your place."

Accela was on cloud nine; it was gut-wrenchingly obvious. "Sounds like a date, then. See you!"

"Y-yeah..." But Accela was already gone. Celica clutched at her chest. DATE? Did she really say that? Maybe she IS into me! This can't be for real, I... I can't go on a date with her! No, hit the brakes, don't be an idiot; it's just an expression, she didn't mean for it to sound like anything. Pull yourself together, Yayoi!

And pull herself together she did - with the help of a few spirits from the local public house.

o o o

Celica was feeling warm and contented as she waited outside her friend's apartment. There was just enough alcohol sloshing around in the bottom of her stomach to make her feel at peace with the world, but not enough to make her stumble-down soused. After all, she didn't want a repeat of the last time where she was so far gone that the events didn't even commit themselves to memory.

"You did beat me," Accela laughed when she came around the corner, bags and bags of foodstuffs around her wrists. "You wouldn't have if they'd had the laurel leaves I wanted - had to go to two other places before I found them."

"Aw, you didn't have to make that big of a fuss. It's just me."

Accela's lips pursed as she pressed her thumb to the scanner. "None of that, you know how serious I am about my cooking. Do it right or not at all. Now, let's get down to business."

The meal was superb, the company and conversation equally so. On the downside, Accela had considerately picked up another bottle of wine and insisted on pouring most of it into Celica's glass - seemingly to make up for what she assumed had been a too-stern lecture on the perils of drinking following the last occasion they had dined together. Without the several shots she'd had before coming over, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but in combination... things got a little out of hand.

o o o

Celica woke in the morning with no idea of where she was or how she got there. Vague memories of the evening prior flashed through her mind; delicious food, drinking, movies. A lot of talking... and she had this strange, unsettling notion of déjà vu...

Holy crap - tell me we didn't...

But when she looked to her right, there was Accela, snoozing away. How could it have happened twice in a row? In her half-awake state, she decided the most important think to deduce first was what truly lay beneath the sheets... and to her immense relief, she saw she was wearing a t-shirt and panties. Even better, Accela was in her nightgown, fully dressed for slumber. An improvement over last time, even if they still ended up sharing a bed.

But I have no clearer picture of what I did to get myself to this point than I did before, she berated herself. Maybe I should start curtailing my habit just a teensy, weensy bit...

Briefly, she debated slipping out of bed and heading home without disturbing her friend, but that was unlikely to go over very well; they had the day off. Where did she need to be in a hurry? Leaving a note about some long-lost great-aunt dying would be a huge slap in the face. No, she had to suffer through the morning after and hope things didn't explode and make a mess.

"Hmnh," Accela said as she rolled over and flung her arm around Celica's stomach, face nestling into her armpit. She did not wake.

Perfect; now I have to cuddle with her, whether I want to or not! She tried to make herself go back to sleep or ignore the feeling, but it was completely impossible. It had been forever since she last cuddled with anyone (except Accela) and the feeling was too foreign to pretend it didn't exist. Foreign, and not altogether unwelcome.

Do I... like this? Am I supposed to like it? I mean, it's one thing when we kind of curl up together on the couch while we watch a movie, but this is in bed, and I'm half-naked... and last time I could feel her legs, and her- her-

"Hmnh?" The pale, sleepy face was yawning as it rose from her armpit. "Celica? What's going on?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," she whispered gently.

"Mmm," she said blissfully, laying back down, this time her cheek resting upon Celica's shoulder. "This is nice."

"It is? I m-mean, sure it is."

Accela's arm stayed where it was, but tightened, and her leg draped over one of Celica's. "We're lucky that we're this close, I think. There's probably lots of people in this city who don't have a single friend they can be so... unguarded with."

I think she really does like me, Celica couldn't prevent herself from considering. LIKE-like. How am I going to undo this? But there wasn't much she could change at the moment, so she answered honestly. "A damn shame."

When her head rose, her eyes were still half-closed, but her smile was more awake than before, somehow. "You don't think so? That we're lucky?"

"Oh, yeah, we are," she agreed hastily, grinning like a buffoon. Uncertainly, she placed her hand in the middle of Accela's back, and the girl laid back down. "To have a friend like you... I know I am."

"Your heart's pounding."

"Huh?"

Accela's head moved to rest within Celica's ample cleavage, and she twitched, then settled. "Yeah. What's the matter? I wouldn't think your pulse would be up like this so early in the morning."

"I... dunno," she conceded, stumped by this herself. "Guess it could be the alcohol."

"Yeah, that was something else entirely," she sighed as her head returned to its position at her shoulder. "I've never seen you get that drunk off just red wine before."

Celica chewed her lip. "Well, I have a little confession to make: I kind of... pre-gamed."

"You what? Wait - you mean you got drunk before you came over."

"Yeah, that."

"Why?" Now she was propping herself up slightly, though her arm was still around Celica's midsection. "Why do you do that? You don't need all that liquor to have a good time, do you? Or is it... that without it, you can't have a good time... with me?"

"No, no!" she protested, moving her hand up to the base of Accela's neck. What was her hand doing that for? "Don't think- I mean, I like to loosen up when I'm off duty, and some libation aids in the process, that's all. Don't take it personally, please?"

"I want to spend time with you," Accela whispered, a tear forming in the corner of her eye. "Not with what's left of you after you drink yourself into a coma. Can you do that for me next time?"

Celica hesitated before speaking her true feelings. "Well... maybe... maybe I don't think the sober version of me is any fun. Did you ever think of that?" But when she caught the shocked look in her friend's face, she smiled and swept it under the rug. "Kidding. I'm totally jerking your chain. I can dry it up a little for my best gal pal."

"Why don't I believe you?"

"No, I swear I will," she promised, meaning it ten times more now. "You can even switch from wine to grape juice for meals, and we'll drink it out of the wine glasses and pretend we don't know the difference."

"You know what I meant. I don't believe you were kidding." Accela's hand raised up and cupped Celica's cheek, and Celica unconsciously leaned into it for a half-second before she caught herself. It felt nice there - but why was it there to begin with? "Come on, you don't think you're any fun without being intoxicated?"

"Please, don't go there right now. It's nothing, I swear."

"I had such a blast with you last night," she went on doggedly, the tear finally coming loose and zig-zagging its way down her cheek. "But I do every day at the office, too. You're a barrel of laughs no matter what state you're in, so... you don't have to worry about it with me. Because I love you for who you are, not your blood-alcohol level. Okay?"

Celica couldn't dismiss it. She tried, valiantly, to let it pass and just assure her friend that she understood, but what came out of her mouth was, "You... love me?"

"Of course. How could I even begin to imagine life without you?"

"Accela..." She was completely dumbfounded. Didn't this confirm all her worst fears? Yet at the same time, it was like a healing balm, rocketing through her system and touching every cell, filling them to bursting with joy and happiness. There was so much she wanted to say, to ask, but her mind was blank as a new blackboard. What is the appropriate response to something like that? "I..."

"So take better care of yourself," she whispered wetly, thumb moving lightly along her friend's cheek. "Because I'm gonna need you around for a long, long time. Get me?"

With her heart exploding, Celica tried to make herself nod, or to say a word in the affirmative - any word at all would have been good enough, to be honest. But the slight after-effects of the alcohol and her unpreparedness for such a revelation robbed her of her ability to control her own actions to achieve the desired results.

So instead of doing something that made sense, she kissed her.

There was an initial frightened squeak within Accela's throat, and then she went completely still, unable to respond. After their lips made contact and there was no immediate backlash, Celica threw herself into the union blind, every feeling that had welled up due to Accela's vitalizing words gushing out as actions. This was the only way to prove she felt the same, wasn't it? Accela's hand fell limply to her friend's chest as her head was cradled in the strong grip behind it, holding both mouths together. Another hand appeared on her back, clutching wildly, desperately. Accela whimpered again, and Celica let out a sound somewhere between a grunt and an anguished scream. But it wasn't until Accela felt the very tip of a foreign tongue reaching her lips that the fog of confusion lifted, and she fully reacted.

"What the HELL?" she shouted, pushing herself backward so hard that she tumbled head-over-heels and landed on the floor.

"ACCELA!" Celica yelped, immediately up and clawing her way to the edge of the mattress. "Are you alright, are you hurt?"

"What are you doing?" she asked again as she pushed herself backward until she reached the wall. "What was- why would you do that to me?"

"Do what?" Then she got past her worry over her friend's safety and remembered what had been going on a moment before the clumsy fall. "Uh... I, uh... how should I know?"

"Well if you don't know, then who does?"

As the seconds stretched on, Celica started to absorb the implications of her own actions. She'd kissed Accela. Not even a kiss that could be shrugged off as a little peck between friends - a real one, a deep one full of passion. But where on earth had the passion come from?

"Are you even going to answer me?"

"I don't know, okay?" she said, squeezing her head with one hand as she clutched the edge of the mattress with the other. "It's... we were holding each other, and you said you loved me, and... it was just a reaction."

Accela let out a weak laugh as her hand went to her chest. "That was some reaction!"

"Nobody's ever said that to me before. Not like that... just my parents, and not like that."

"Like what? Did you- come on, did you think I was telling you I..." She let out such a gasp that Celica wondered if her lungs would pop from the sudden influx of air. "No WAY!"

"Wait, just wait a freaking minute!" Celica burst out, sitting back on her feet. "Don't try to turn this around on me! You were telling me how much fun we were having, and- and the last time! Yeah, the morning after last time, you said I had spent all night putting some moves on you, and you sounded cool with it! Then later, you said I would be embarrassed and that my 'secret' was safe! So I figured... I don't know!"

"You put moves on me? Wait..." Accela's face was beginning to look less than enthused about the whole situation. "Let me see if I get this. You don't even remember what you did that night at all, do you?"

It was time to face up to her own hindrances. "I don't. Is that what you want to hear? I got so drunk that I can't even remember. And I wish I could, but it's too late now."

"Well, let me set you straight on something." Slowly, she stood, chest heaving as she braced against the wall for stability. "You didn't try any moves like the one you did a minute ago. When I said that, I meant in the video game."

"Video game?"

"Dune Race 3! Tell me you at least remember playing it, even just a little!"

Now she could. With Accela's prompting, she could revive flashes of guiding the digitized car around the curves with effortless ease, thanks to her Proceed ability. "Moves." First place every time. "Dune Race 3."

Accela scowled. "And you know how you want to maintain this reputation of being 'super cool', so you're always afraid somebody's going to find out what a gaming nut you are and label you a nerd. Which is why we always hide the games when Sylvia and Integra come over."

"Oh..."

"What, 'oh'? Is that it? Now that you realize we didn't get drunk and... and do unspeakable things, that's all you have to say?"

"What do you want me to say?" she snapped, at her wit's end from trying to deal with all these new problems. "That I'm sorry? Okay, yeah, I'm sorry! I am dead freaking sorry about all of it! But when you said... when you told me you..."

"What?" Accela's jaw dropped, and she swayed for a moment. "Now hold on just a minute. You're not going to try to twist my words around! All I meant was that we're friends, just good friends! I'm not one of those girls!"

"One of who girls? You think I am? Hell no, I am not one of them!" But she knew the level of redness in her cheeks wouldn't support this claim, so she said, "That wasn't- I didn't mean to kiss you, or anything, I didn't! I'm not into you like that, I swear!"

There was a distinct frostiness in Accela's voice when she said, "Could have fooled me."

"No, no, this wasn't supposed to- I thought you were into me, and I've been so worried about it that-" But she broke off, realizing that she was ranting and raving. "Um... I... oh God, I'm so sorry, I can't believe what I did..."

"Neither can I," she hissed, glancing around as if worried there were casual observers in the apartment looking down on the two of them. "God, just thinking about it - how can I ever look at you again?"

And now there was an entirely new facet of this encounter that reared up and slapped Celica in the face: she might lose Accela. All at once, her heart felt like it was made of lead, like it was no longer able to fuel her body properly; her head swam. "No... wait, please don't do that to me, I- you can't be like that, not when you just told me-"

"That's when I thought we trusted each other, that we were on the same page! But if you're going to start... forcing yourself on me-"

"I won't!" she promised fervently. It wasn't too late - it couldn't be. They could banish this incident and start fresh. Celica clung to that hope as she leaned forward, reaching a hand toward her friend, imploring. "Never again, ever - I didn't even intend to do it this time! There won't be anything else to worry about, we'll be fine! You gotta believe me!"

"How can I when I can still feel your tongue on my lips?"

The starkness of that statement was followed by a weighty silence as they alternately stared at each other and then away. Celica couldn't help but now feel that she had broken something too fragile to be repaired. She had done it - she had done it with her own hands, with her own mouth. "But wait... this isn't... this isn't happening, this can't be happening!"

"Well, I'm pretty sure it already happened! God, can't you ever just stop and think for a moment before you do something?"

That wasn't fair. A tiny corner of Celica's brain cried out that it wasn't fair, because she'd spent a lot of time thinking before she reacted. Two days, to be precise - two days full of wrestling with the problem. But the rest of her mind now understood there had been no "problem" at all; it was all in her head. Crashing at her friend's place and showering there was normal, unless you read something darker into it. "Some pretty fantastic moves" could mean anything - she was the one who chose to interpret it as sexual. So it was entirely possible that Accela had in no way contributed to this dilemma.

Perhaps Celica was just plain screwed up.

"Okay," she sighed, angry at the catch in her voice. "I'm going now, then."

"Oh, that's even better," Accela snapped. "Run away from trouble, like you usually do. Sometimes you're so strong, but other times-"

"I'm weak," she finished for her as she began jerking on the jeans she had found on the floor. "Weak and pathetic, and stupid. So, sooo stupid..."

Accela now released the wall to take a step forward. "Wait... so you're really going before we can finish hashing this out? You're just going to- to plant one on me and leave me to deal with it by myself?"

"Yes."

"But that's not right! That has to be the absolute worst thing you could do to me!"

"Maybe I don't trust myself!" The shouting rang within the small room as both girls stood perfectly still. "Maybe I can't figure out why I did this in the first place, so I don't want to- to... geez, what if I suddenly start crawling all over you? No, I should get out of here, I should... I need to think about this. Figure out what's wrong with me."

There was a distinct desperation creeping into Accela's tone. "Celica-"

"I'll call you."

And within minutes, Celica Yayoi was out the door and down the street.

o o o TO BE CONTINUED o o o

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