Mixed Signals

Chapter 4

"Hey, Celica."

"Oh," she said softly, putting down her sandwich slowly and glancing around the restaurant. "Um... hey, Accela. What's new?"

"Well... not a lot in the past few days. But we haven't spoken much since then. You know, the day after..."

"Yeah," she said glumly. Privately, she was suddenly in mourning for the nice, uncomplicated dinner she'd been having. "I know. How'd you even know I was here, anyway?"

"Asked Sylvia." A long pause. "So, uh, if you wouldn't mind me joining you... we could. Talk now, I mean. If you want."

Celica hitched a pained smile into place. "Um... considering the kind of conversations we're having these days, are you sure it's a good idea to air grievances in such a public location?"

"No," she admitted, sliding into the chair. "But, well, I figure it's neutral territory."

"Good point." The waiter appeared magically, handed Accela a menu, and disappeared. "Um, it's on me, whatever you want. As long as you don't order one of everything."

Accela laughed, and it was genuine, not forced. Only the tiniest bit nervous. "I couldn't ask that of you."

"Only fair for all the times you make dinner. If I can't return the favor by cooking, I can at least pay for someone else to do it!"

"Very well," she ceded. "But this one dinner makes us even up until now."

"No way does it, after all the times you've-"

"Those are my conditions. Take them or leave them."

Celica grinned from ear to ear. How could she have been so worried about their friendship surviving? "Deal."

Once their waiter returned to ask for her order, she leaned over and said, "I'll have the chicken tikka masala with basmati, saag paneer, and naan. Oh, and a pakora platter to share with my friend." As the man vanished with her menu, she caught Celica staring at her and said, "What?"

"I have no idea what the hell you just said."

"Hey, I ordered off the menu," Accela giggled, sipping from the water glass. "Don't you eat here all the time?"

Celica blushed a deep shade of crimson. "I, um... I order the tandoori-and-cheese sandwich. Every time. Sorry, I'm kind of unimaginative."

"I know," she sighed, glancing at the bastardization of Indian cuisine on Celica's plate. "In the food department, anyway. But I meant it, I want you to try some of that pakora when it comes, it's delicious."

It was a touch surreal, but the two women avoided any darker topics all the way through their meal, and Celica did enjoy the pakora as Accela had claimed she would... but she flipped entirely over the gulab jamun. So much so, in fact, that she was still raving about it on her way home.

"It's freaking brilliant!" she exclaimed, hands locked behind her head as she walked along. "Boiling donut holes in pure sugar? Who's the genius who came up with this?"

Accela laughed. "Well, it's hazardous to your health to eat more than a few of them, but they are rich and exquisite."

"You're not wrong; I already feel like I'm going to pass out, just from the four I had."

"You really shouldn't have had four," she said with a hint of worry. "It's hard to blame you since you've never tried them before, but they're too heavy to suck them down like you did." They laughed together, and walked in silence for a few more minutes. "You know... my place is closer, if you want to grab a nap on my couch."

Celica nearly tripped over her own feet. "What? I mean... thanks, but I'll probably be okay. How pathetic would I be if all it took was one dessert to cripple me so badly that I can't even make it to my own house?"

"That's fine," Accela said with a shrug. "I just thought I'd offer."

"Unless you want me to come by," Celica hastened to say, heart triphammering. "Y'know... to kick it for a while. Because we could do that."

"I wouldn't want to impose if you're busy."

"I'm not. Let's do it."

Accela let a hint of a smile creep into her features, but her eyes remained worried - and Celica caught it. She caught it, digested it, and felt her stomach lurch. "Okay, it's a plan. There's a liquor store up this street and a few blocks ov-"

"No."

That certainly made Accela stop in her tracks. "Come again?"

"No, we don't need any," Celica said firmly. "I'm... let's hope this doesn't come back and bite me on the keister, but I'm quitting drinking cold turkey."

"What? But... Celica, that might not be the best way. Aren't you worried about relapsing? Maybe you should join a group, set up a network of support as you-"

"I don't need one. I've got your voice in my head, telling me to clean up my act. It's more effective."

Accela didn't seem convinced, though there was now a grin breaking out on her face. "What brought this on? If you don't mind me asking, I mean. You were defending your right to party 'uninhibited' tooth and nail so recently."

That made Celica blush. "Um... let's just say I was feeling pretty down after our fight, and I went out drinking... and I kinda got a wake-up call. It makes me do stupid stuff - and I mean, only because I let it get out of hand, right? Unfortunately, I'm now pretty convinced that I'm no good at the 'in moderation' crap, so..."

"What kind of wake-up call?" Accela pressed. "You didn't throw up on the bartender again, did you?"

"Of course not! Come on, that was one time - does everybody have to keep bringing it up?"

"Okay, okay," she laughed. "Then I'm guessing you went home with a random stranger whom you'd never give the time of day when sober. Am I getting warmer?"

There was a long, squirm-filled silence before Celica mumbled, "Scalding."

"Celica," she sighed, snaking her arm around her friend's neck. "What am I gonna do with you?"

"Take me home and ground me for a month?"

But hiding behind Celica's joke was a hefty dose of tension. Accela was very much showing every sign of 'forgive and forget', which was a beautiful thing - and more than she deserved. The problem was, Celica wasn't sure she could forget. Could she forget the warmth of her body? Could she forget the feel of her smooth skin, the taste of her lips? It was amazing; she'd only experienced each of those things for such brief, fleeting moments, but sadly they were more vivid in her mind's eye than all her midnight liaisons combined were. She'd give anything to burn those memories out of her head. Alas, they were there to stay, and would probably continue to color her outlook on this friendship for quite some time.

o o o

Everything returned to status quo over the course of the next week. Accela was obviously thrilled to have her best friend back, and that pesky ordeal behind them. So what if they'd made out one morning? Everybody makes mistakes. It's all in the past.

On the other hoof, Celica was going out of her mind. Each occasion they'd been out together (or stayed in, either way), there was usually at least one moment where she felt, as she began to semi-affectionately think of it, a "flame-up". This was her contraction of "flare-up" and "flaming gayness". For example, one night they were playing billiards in a local bar (and drinking sugary, non-alcoholic concoctions), and Celica hadn't thought about her friend as anything other than such all evening. So far, so good. Then, unexpectedly, she looked over as Accela concentrated on her next shot, leaning far over the table... and saw the beads of sweat clinging to her cleavage, due to her low-cut blouse. Try as she might to make her brain voice the more socially-acceptable opinion of, Ew, I wish she'd cover herself, that was easier said than done. Instead, it said something more along the lines of, Ooh, sexy. I wonder how her sweat tastes...?

Which would prompt her to smack herself in the forehead, then shake her head vigorously; the natural reaction when you're suffering from unwanted thoughts. And, of course, Accela would stop and ask if she was feeling well, and she'd beam at her in response and claim she was doing splendiferous. And nothing would get resolved.

Everything was fine - or as fine as Celica could have hoped. She even reached a point at which she could mostly ignore the weird flame-ups, bury them deep and concentrate on enjoying life and the fun they were having instead of dwelling on the fun they weren't. Her true-bluest gal-pal was back in her life, and if she had any say in the matter, nothing was going to jeopardize that.

Until that afternoon at HQ.

"Why did we have to scrub out the training room?" Accela groused as they trudged into the locker room.

"Because we trashed it," Celica grunted, placing both hands squarely in the center of her back and pressing hard. The loud POP! was scary to the ears, but a delight for her spine. "That's the rule around here; if you let training get out of hand, you don't leave the mess for the sanitation department. I only wish you'd thought of that before you started firing off-"

"I know, I know," Accela snapped without much venom. "You've already busted my chops enough, thanks. Oh, don't be mad at me, okay? I know it was my fault. I'll figure out a way to-"

But Celica was giggling. "Geez, listen to you. What's done is done, okay? Forget it. Sometimes it is nice to get down and dirty with some menial labor."

"Thanks, ladies," Sylvia announced as she strolled past them, decked out in civilian dress - which in this case was a dress. "It has been looking a little dingy in there lately. Integra's already gone home, so lock up when you leave, okay?"

"Where are you heading all dolled up?" Celica wanted to know.

"None of your beeswax," she said airily, moving her purse strap an inch back up her mostly-bare shoulder. "A gentleman caller is ushering me to a fine dining establishment. Film at eleven. Ta, girls..."

They both glared at their coworker's back as she sauntered out. "Showoff."

"I know," Accela sighed. "Whatever. Let's get cleaned up so we can escape this wretched building, too."

But once they got under the hot water, they found they didn't want to leave. For nearly thirty minutes, they stood under the streams, allowing the heat to wipe away the knots that had formed as they scrubbed and polished. It was heaven.

"Celica?" Accela asked from nowhere. "Do you... ever think about that morning anymore?"

The soap shot out of Celica's hand and careened around the inside of her shower stall before coming to a rest between her feet. Slowly, she squatted and answered, "You're bringing this up now? Why?"

"I dunno. You're right, maybe it's masochistic to pick it apart anymore, but it's just, I guess I can't help but ponder it once in a while. So... do you?"

"Not really," she said aloud. Just every hour on the hour, she added inwardly.

"Hmm. This is probably really awkward to talk about while we're showering, I know, but... well, I wanted to revisit the issue. Y'know, so I can apologize properly."

"You apologize? What do you have to apologize for? It was my fault!"

"No, no," she sighed, and Celica could hear the somewhat-rude noise of a nearly-empty shampoo bottle being squirted. "Sure, you did something that was... out of bounds. But I completely overreacted. Later, when I was thinking about it, I finally remembered how hard you were trying to apologize, and how freaked out you were, and... God, all I did was scream at you, and berate you, and I guess I just wanted to let you know that I do understand that. It wasn't just you in the wrong; I dropped the ball that day, too. And I'm sorry."

What was Celica supposed to say to that? Was she supposed to say all was forgiven? Or was now her opportunity to come clean about the unorthodox thoughts she'd been entertaining lately? Somehow, that seemed like a terrible, but terribly-tempting idea. Get it out in the open, cleanse her conscience! But would that really improve anything instead of destroying?

"Celica?"

"No, yeah," she blurted out, soaping her feet hastily; option one it is. "All is forgiven, don't make such a huge deal. But I don't see why y- AIHH- OW!"

"Omigod!" In scant seconds - ones that Celica could only half-remember - Accela was bent over her, both of them squeezed into the one stall. "Celica, are you - Celica, you're bleeding!"

"Don't... I'm..."

"Oh, no, you probably have a concussion," the redhead said, incorrectly guessing at why Celica couldn't speak properly anymore. It had a lot less to do with the bump on her head and a lot more to do with her would-be rescuer - and her lack of clothing. "Should I call medics? They're only two flights up, if memory serves-"

"No, don't do that," she gusted, squeezing her eyes shut to block out the scene she didn't want to enjoy too much. "Accela... you can go back to your own shower now, I can finish up-"

"You cannot," she said adamantly, hands on her shoulders. "I'm staying right here to make sure you don't pass out and- and drown or something. What were you doing, anyway?"

Celica frowned at her, making sure both eyes remained on her face. "Washing my feet, that's all, and I slipped. Come on - I'm not bleeding a lot, am I? There's barely any red in the water-"

"Your poor head," she cooed, reaching up and touching it. While examining her friend's scalp, she kept shifting from side to side, driving Celica mad. "Maybe the cut is small enough that there won't be any lasting dam-"

"You have to get out of here, okay?" Celica grunted, biting her lip when not speaking to lessen her sensitivity to what was happening to her own body. "This tiny shower... we're all over each other, it's mondo bizarro!"

"But I don't want you to go to sleep and never wake up," Accela whispered, lip quivering.

"And I don't want a repeat of the morning-after disaster! But we're winding up to one pretty darn quickly here if you don't stop writhing around on top of me!"

That finally drew her attention. Slowly, Accela's eyebrows knit, and once they had met in the center she glanced down at the flushness of their forms. Her cheeks filled with color, her breath came faster, and such an obscene level of pain crept into her normally-angelic features. Any moment now, she would begin crying, or screaming - or worse, she'd start beating Celica up for having impure thoughts while she was trying to ensure the continuation of her vitality. That was something Celica already felt guilty about, after all. But then, to Celica's amazement, she did the unexpected.

She didn't move.

"Accela, come on, I'm not playing around," she half-sobbed. "This... it's going to go south in no time flat if you don't get outta here. So go."

"Maybe... I don't want to."

"WHAT?"

Accela flinched, averting her eyes. "Th-that- it's not that I'm not scared, or a little grossed out. By what you're saying, that is. But... I'm too worried about your safety to leave you here by yourself, so I think I gotta stay put."

"Accela!" she gasped, shocked. "But... but I pretty much just told you that-"

"Don't say it!" she shouted. "Don't say it out loud, that's too much!"

"That I'm-"

"Shut UP!"

Celica whimpered, wanting nothing more than to push on ahead out of childish spite, but she felt too awful to allow herself to regress to that point. "Accela, please, I'm doing my damndest! I don't wanna hurt you, or lose you, or make you unhappy! But you gotta help me help you a little. You know what I mean?"

But Accela's arms were wrapping around her back, and the hug was so crushing that Celica felt her eyes bulging. "I'm not leaving. If you... if you have to start doing bad things, go on and do them, but I'm not leaving until I know you're okay."

Unbidden, Celica's hands began to glide along her friend's back. "Bad things..." Such smooth skin... but then she felt every muscle beneath that skin tighten, so she reeled both hands in to the shoulders, forcing her friend back a few inches. "No. No, Accela. Look at me, okay? I am fine. I've taken way harder knocks to the noggin and we both know it. So you can go. Please, go finish up your shower, and then we'll be on our merry way."

"I won't."

Warmth began to rise from deep within as she pondered her situation. The standing invitation to do 'bad things' to her friend... it excited her, it opened up whole new worlds. But they were ones she'd hoped to keep nailed shut. So she had to do something to drive her out of the shower before they ended up making the biggest misstep of their lives.

"Look," she said forcefully, holding her best friend at arm's length, glaring into her eyes. "I don't have a concussion, and I'm not even bleeding that hard. In no way am I in danger right now. So if you stay, at this point, you're only doing it because you want to cuddle. While we're in the buff. Is that true?"

"Of course not," Accela protested immediately. "Don't be silly, th-that's- that's so offensive-"

"So then go," she said, making it as simple as she could. "Back to your own water and your own soap."

"No!" she cried out, digging her nails into Celica's forearms. "I... I can't help it, all I feel is fear for losing you right now, and it's like... it's like if I leave, it'll be my fault if you die or fall into a coma, and so it's my responsibility to wait and make sure it doesn't happen. Yeah, that sounds kind of paranoid and loopy, but it's how I feel. I swear."

"But we both know I'm not all that hurt. So if you stay... I'm going to kiss you again. Maybe more than that. So you better bail if you don't like that plan."

"Oh," Accela whispered shyly, cheeks quite pink. "But... but I can't leave. My conscience won't let me, because you're my best friend. Come on, are you sure I can't stay without you doing that stuff?"

"No, you really can't," Celica warned, deadly serious.

The redhead nodded glumly, such embarrassment in her cheeks as she thought about what might transpire if she stayed. Finally, she whispered, "Alright, you win. But you'd better answer when I ask you something, so I know you're still awake in here."

"Fine," she snorted as they helped each other to their feet. For some reason, Celica felt like they were standing at the door of Celica's parents' house after a hot date, wishing for the night to never end - just like in all those sappy movies. Silly, such a thought. "Well, you'd best be running along now."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." But neither of them moved. A few seconds ticked by, and Accela tightened her grip on Celica's hands, squeezing them reassuringly. Arms swung to and fro, feet made muffled slapping noises as they readjusted their stance to keep from slipping and falling yet again. Then Accela whispered, "Oh, to hell with it."

Which was apparently all the warning Celica was going to receive before her friend stood on tippy-toe and mashed their lips together. It was a true explosion of sensations; even the tile under her toes had deeper grooves between them, every droplet of water that pounded against her back stood out in stark relief against the sweat beading on her forehead. Hands roved and explored - and not just Celica's hands. It took all the willpower she had - and about thirty seconds of saving it up while she relished such indiscretion - for her to fall back into the wall, holding her friend at what was a pitiful excuse for arm's length, and shout, "HEY!"

"I'm sorry!" Accela hissed immediately, hands at her mouth. "Omigod, that was so stupid, why did I do that when we're- damn me, why would I have done that?"

"You said you didn't want this," Celica said, angry - because she was excited. She'd never been this excited from any kiss before. Never. Not even with a guy. It infuriated her that her best friend could bring this about, and yet seemed so wishy-washy about whether or not that was appropriate. How much longer was she supposed to put up with this? "You said it was an 'unspeakable' thing and that you couldn't look at me anymore after I did it. And here you are... driving me crazy, and you don't get that... that I've been holding back, trying not to pounce on you, to take you beyond what you're prepared to endure! But what the hell have I been trying for, when all it takes is a bump on the head for you to throw the straight-girl manual out the damn window?"

"You've been holding back?" Accela gasped, horrified. "From what, making out with me? Or..."

"OR, honey. A hefty, gilded 'or' of epic prop'or'tions."

"Omigod, Celica," she blubbered, now so thoroughly freaked that she couldn't fight back the tears. The light bulb going off seemed to make an audible ping! "You're turned on! You're actually turned on by me, and it's so sick, and oh my GOD, how can this be happening?"

Celica chuckled, spreading her legs and planting them firmly against the corners of the stall. "Jump in anytime. You'll figure out how my anatomy's set up - a lot like yours, I'd say."

"No way!" she shouted, jerking backward. "I'm not going to- you can do that for yourself! How could you bear to request that I do something so, so depraved?"

"Because I warned you!" she snapped readily. "I told you if you stayed, we'd be dealing with whole new plateaus of strangeness, and you stayed anyway! You cannot - cannot say I didn't warn you!"

"B-but... but I didn't think... how was I to know...?"

"Accela... you have no idea how much I feel like the scum of the earth right now! But I can't help it! You set me off!"

"You're not going to... not in front of me," she said incredulously, one arm snaking around her own waist as she shivered, despite the warm water. "That's- no, you can't do that, I won't let you!"

"But you TOLD me to. When I asked for help, you said I could do it for myself. No take-backs."

Neither of them spoke for almost a full minute. Celica was within seconds of screaming at her again to get lost... until something unprecedented happened.

"What-"

"Shh," Accela whispered, tears in her throat. Slowly, she took a step forward and pressed her body into Celica's. This was not exactly Accela wrapping herself around her in a loving embrace, but desiring the closeness... even if she was standing stiff as a board, unable to relax due to her shame and uncertainty. "Just d-don't- don't make me hate myself for this, p-please, don't hate me, don't let me hate myself!"

And thusly, Celica lost touch with reality for a few minutes. Never before had she been so satisfied in doing so.

o o o

"Wow," Accela gasped as they slowly slid along the wall and down by the drain, breathless. "Y-you... you really... that was quite a performance!"

"You conducted," Celica giggled dreamily. "Mmm... God, I can't believe that just happened!"

Accela's hands drew into her own lap, fidgeting. "I guess, um, that maybe it didn't kill me. To help you out a little. But... that was so weird, and I'm not sure I understand all of it, or how I feel about it."

"You have no idea how sorry I am," Celica said, her tone earnest even if she was too fatigued to put much emphasis on her own words. "For all of this. I didn't ask to start thinking you were sexy, or to kiss you, or to get excited when I feel your skin. It just... it started happening. I don't wanna lose our friendship because I can't keep it in my pants, but asking you to hook up with me because I've gone insane isn't fair to you, not by a longshot!" A few seconds passed as they let the water flush away the lingering heat within the tiny chamber. "So w-what are we gonna do?"

"Well..." Accela's tear-streaked face pushed into Celica's neck. "We're not going to give up on each other. Not like we came so close to doing after the first time. We both know that's no good."

"Tell me about it. 'Fraid you're stuck with me, kiddo," Celica snickered as she wrapped both arms securely around her friend, kissing her on top of the head. Accela cooed contentedly. "I'll always be your best bud, even if I'm... if I might be turning into a, a..."

"Lesbian?"

"Don't say it like that," she breathed.

"I didn't say it like anything," Accela tittered. "But I get it, you dislike the label, so I won't use it. But hey, have there, um... been any other girls?"

"No." And it was only once she'd said as much that she realized it was true. "No, I guess it's down to you."

Accela nodded dismally, her finger tracing tiny circles upon Celica's knee. "So... if it's only me who makes you feel like this, than maybe... I'm lez-bait? Or... am I one, too, and I just don't know it yet? Oh no, am I gonna start f-feeling all these strange ways, and will-"

"Relax, okay? Geez, you spaz."

So she did. Accela quieted, but she did nuzzle against her friend, tiny squeaks of dismay issuing from within her throat every now and then. Thus, Celica made it her sworn duty to kiss the top of her head every time she heard one. It was meager payment for getting this much closer to her closest friend and still being able to call them that. Meager payment, indeed.

o o o TO BE CONTINUED o o o

AUTHOR NOTE: So yes, this is where things REALLY begin heating up. I'll be trying my level best to adhere to the site standards and toe that "Fiction Rating: M" line, honestly I will – but nobody's perfect. In light of that, I implore you, PLEASE send me a PM if I don't succeed BEFORE reporting the fiction. I'd rather be told what precisely is "going too far" instead of banned without explanation.

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