Mixed Signals

Chapter 6

Two weeks floated by. Despite their burning desires to enjoy more decadent pursuits, they united in such a fashion a mere three times during this period; Celica felt severely impeded, but she knew that Accela was evolving as fast as possible. In her mind, she was breaking every rule she'd ever held dear, such as "only date men", "don't do that to yourself", "mouths shouldn't go there". Celica had started with only the one taboo left unexplored (dating a woman), so once she shattered that barrier everything else was pretty easy. Therefore, it was her responsibility as the more experienced half of their whole to be patient and understanding. It was no cakewalk, but she was willing to endure.

Equally maddening was Accela's insecurity about their relationship status. The more they talked about it, the more Celica was sure that she wanted to remain "just friends"... or "friends with benefits", as the case may be. Not that Celica ever came right out and popped the question, revealing engagement ring on bended knee, but she would bring up the subject casually, as if it wasn't such a big deal. Accela would laugh and say she didn't know if she could ever court a girl, or that she still envisioned herself as a bride one day, marrying a tall, dark, handsome stranger she had yet to meet. Celica privately doubted this mythical boy would ever appear - and not just due to her personal investment in whether or not he did.

Then came the day in which Celica received the most abrupt and disquieting shock of her life.

"Hey," she said as she breezed in the door, a bottle of sparkling apple juice in hand. "Guess what? My parents are finally getting that pool renovated - should be done by Friday! So, y'know, I was thinking we should invite the girls over and do a little partying at Yayoi Manor. Any thoughts?"

"Celica... I want to see other people."

It took great dexterity and reflexes for Celica to reach down and catch the bottle she had just dropped before it hit the floor. Slowly standing back up, she laughed and said, "I meant related thoughts. Try that one more time?"

"Sorry," Accela whispered, spinning a wooden spoon in her hands nervously. "Oh... I didn't want to blurt it out like that, but I figured it would be the least awkward way to breach the subject."

"Good work," she grunted, setting the bottle down on the kitchen counter before she could drop it again, just in case Accela revealed she was also moving, or pregnant or something. "It wasn't the least bit awkward, not at all, thanks."

"Stop it," Accela pouted. "I knew if I didn't lead off with it, I'd never say anything."

"What's this all about?" Celica asked, leaning back against the counter as her vision began to blur slightly. Great, she thought to herself, I'm freaking. She barely mentioned seeing other people, and it already feels like I'm losing everything. How did I suddenly become so, so... CLINGY?

"It's not that I'm, y'know... breaking up with you, or whatever," she said, her voice trembling more than her body was. "I mean, from whatever this is. But hey, it's like... I can't help but think about what else is out there. Let's face it, I'm awful when it comes to dating, so the three dates I've been on in the past, oh, four or five years... that can't be all there was. I have to find out."

"So go," Celica said with a shrug, picking up a tumbler and filling it at the sink. Amazingly, she was able to hold it steady enough to avoid shattering the glass. "What am I, your warden? Have fun."

"You've gotta be okay with it, though," Accela pleaded. "I won't go if it's too weird, y'know... sharing me. I worried that you'd be more offended that I'm asking in the first place, since we're not, um... since we're just trying things out, instead of gay. Please, I apologize if all this is sounding really backward, I don't know what all the proper terminology is."

"Terminology?" Celica snorted as she lowered the glass from her lips. "You're trying to cheat on me, and that's your primary concern? Terminology?"

At this, Accela's face drained of color as she stared down at her hands, still twisting the wooden spoon this way and that. "You're mad. Crap, I- how stupid I can be, I knew it was cheating and I- can you ever forgive me? Celica, if you start hating-"

"Psych!" When Accela's eyes snapped up to her friend's, Celica was giggling. "Man, I really had you going there! Don't worry so much. If you want to see if there's some tasty fish out there in the sea, it's cool. Just don't forget you've got a real keeper in the freezer back home."

"You brat," Accela was laughing as she prodded Celica in the ribs with the spoon. "You seriously made me think you hated me for asking! God..."

"What are friends for?" Grinning, she turned and headed out of the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "Bathroom break, be back in five."

"Don't take too long, the roast is almost ready!"

But as soon as she locked the door of the bathroom, Celica slumped to the floor and began shaking, grasping with one hand at the tight pain in her chest. Panic attack, she said to herself, recognizing the symptoms. It'll pass. I just have to lie still and take deep breaths, let my pulse slow as I get oxygen to my brain. Deep, deep breaths...

Two minutes later, the panic attack was under control. She allowed herself one minute to cry, then spent the next two cleaning herself up and making it appear that none of it had ever transpired. Five minutes, as promised.

You can explode into tiny pieces when you get home, she told her reflection in the mirror. For now, Accela needs you to be okay with her decision... because Accela needs it. That's all the reason you gotta have.

So out into the apartment proper she went, where she plastered on a brave face and maintained pleasant conversation. However, when Accela started to indicate she might be up for a trip into the bedroom, Celica headed it off by feigning sleepiness, then remarked that she needed to be home in the morning to receive a phone call. Her feet couldn't carry her home fast enough, because until she reached it, she wouldn't be able to remove the facade of calm.

Which she did the minute she was inside. Clothes were shredded and small objects thrown. A pillow gradually soaked up tear after tear after tear. That night, Celica came dangerously close to reaching for a bottle, but changed direction and ended up with a bottle of pills instead. One, two, three sleeping pills. Then half an hour of uncontrollable sobbing until they kicked in, and she was out like a light until morning. Gratefully.

o o o

"Oh, hey Celica - tell them about your idea?"

"Hmm?" She glanced up from the report she was working on. "What idea?"

"Y'know..." As usual, Accela was not the type of person to steal someone else's thunder, so she merely said, "the one we discussed last night."

"What's this all about, Yayoi?" Integra asked, folding her arms.

Finally, Celica remembered, and nodded wearily. "Oh, right, that; sorry it took me a minute." She forced a smile into place. Really, she felt like moping around in bed all day - especially since she didn't get as much sleep as the pills demanded she get - but that doesn't pay any bills or catch any criminals. The party still might be fun, though, so why not? "Our pool is finally back on its way to working order - and that means the hot tub, too. So, ladies..."

"I'm game," Sylvia spoke up with a shrug. "I could use a nice soak. When would this potential shindig take place?"

"Friday night," Celica informed them. "Unless the contractor punks out, all systems should be go by then."

"Acceptable for me," Integra said mildly, as if it didn't matter one way or the other.

"Should we bring anything?" Sylvia asked.

"Leave all the food to me," Accela said excitedly. "Homemade garden salsa and fresh-baked chips work for everybody?"

"I'll man the margarita machine!"

"It's a dry party," Accela said automatically, then covered her mouth with her hands. "Oh..."

"Dry party?" Sylvia snapped, incensed. "What kind of oxymoron is that?"

"Shh," Accela whispered, "don't-"

"She's trying to make it an alcohol-free affair for my benefit," Celica said flatly, now feeling even more depressed than before, thus making it harder to feign cheerfulness. "Because I'm trying to go sober. Don't worry about it, you guys can drink all you want; I'll be fine."

Both Sylvia and Integra exchanged awkward glances. "Uhh," Sylvia began, "Hey, I was just offering to spring for drinks since Accela's got the eats. They don't have to be alcoholic; I can roll with frozen cherry limeades just as easily."

"I said don't worry," Celica repeated, growing more irritated now. "I refuse to drag down the party with my problems. You can shoot up, smoke up, do whatever, as long as you have a safe ride home."

"Let's please continue to speak as if RUC Security condones recreational drug abuse," Integra muttered sardonically.

Sylvia chuckled. "Okay, okay, just trying to help. Want me to pick you up some near-beer or anything?"

"Ugh," Celica laughed, imaging the putrid taste of the stuff. She also laughed because it was heartening to hear the genuine concern in her coworker's voice. "I'd rather drink cat urine. Seriously, I'm not gonna give in to peer pressure like we're at some lame frat party; I can sit around and sip virgin daiquiris with you guys and be peachy keen. Chill."

"If you're positive," Integra said with a kind smile, "then we won't say another word about it."

"Great," Accela said cheerily, shooting a brief apologetic look Celica's way before saying, "So, anybody have snack requests?"

Already, Celica could feel herself dreading Friday.

o o o

No matter how long the week seemed to last, it couldn't last long enough to keep the day of the party from arriving. It hung over Celica's head like a dark cloud all morning, and pressed in on her as she and Accela tromped back to her apartment to pick up all the necessary items. They were still packing up the food and hardware when Celica got blindsided by yet another startling revelation.

"So guess what? I kinda, sorta, got myself a date."

"HUH?" Celica yelped, spinning around so fast that she knocked over the salsa. "Oh, shit - shit, shit, SHIT!"

"Don't worry, hang on!" Accela squeaked, running over to join her. "Let's, um... you know what? These counters are still squeaky clean from before I left for work, so if we just..."

"I'm such a klutz," Celica laughed weakly, mind reeling as she held onto the container while Accela used her (hopefully clean?) hands to shovel as much salsa back inside as she could manage. She had a date. Accela had a date with someone - someone who wasn't her. "There - n-not too much lost, right? I didn't ruin it, right?"

"The girls don't need to know it spilled," she whispered as she rinsed her hands off. "The taste won't have changed any."

"Exactly. So, um... about this date. Give me the five W's, girlfriend - come on, out with it!"

"Well..." There was a pregnant pause as Accela wiped her hands on a towel, cheeks beginning to glow. "The where is Balaklava, that Ukranian restaurant. The when is Saturday night. The who is someone I met in a bar. And the what and why, sheez, that should be pretty obvious so let's skip that part!"

They both had a good laugh at that as they continued packing party supplies. "I think I can fill in the blanks," she tittered, trying to keep the mood light, be supportive. "So, do I get to know the name of this lucky lad?"

Accela opened her mouth to blurt it out excitedly, then closed it again, suddenly hesitant with the information.

"What? You think I'm gonna hunt him down and kick his ass or something? I'm bigger than that."

"I know that," Accela said, but there was a noticeable drop in her excitement. "It's... Garabine."

"What the hell kind of name is that?" she snickered. "Sorry, sorry, I'm not trying to be a bitch, but that one doesn't earn him any points."

"Celica..." Then she frowned. "I was afraid of this. That when I did get around to making a few dates, you'd start bashing them before you even met them."

Now Celica found herself shifting uncomfortably for a whole new reason. "Listen, uh... let's hope I don't meet them. I'm not trying to say I'll cause a scene or eviscerate them, I wouldn't, but... geez, ignorance is bliss, and whatnot."

Accela gave a small nod. "That kinda makes sense, I guess. Anyway, let's get going before the nacho cheese coagulates."

"Mm."

"Hey." As they walked to the door, arms laden down, Accela bumped her hip into Celica. "You don't honestly believe I'm gonna dump you like a hot potato over one date? We're friends for life. I'm stuck with Celica, if memory serves."

"Aw, shaddap," she said, unable to keep the smile from her cheeks - no matter how miserable she felt. Scant days, and she was being replaced. It seemed Accela Warrick's experimental phase had come to its inevitable close, and the time had now come for her to resume the previously-scheduled heterosexual dating. At least they'd always have their memories of trysts gone by.

This is going to be a swell party, she thought darkly as they strolled down the sidewalk. Swell.

o o o

Oddly enough, however, Celica had been wrong about the party. An hour stretched on with no fatalities or ambulance rides. Snacks were eaten, beverages used to wash them down, and some half-hearted swimming was attempted... though far more time was spent in the luxury of the hot tub. Sylvia and Integra had just enough liquor in them to unclench their retentive anuses, but little more than that. Accela was abstaining, out of consideration for the sober friend; in spite of her somber mood, Celica appreciated that. It was nice not to be the only girl poolside who wasn't sloshed. Yes, all in all it was turning out better than she'd expected.

"Listen to them," Accela said under her breath as she and Celica swam lazily. They both shifted their gaze to the hot tub, where the others were guffawing and clinking glasses. "I'd say your pool party is a success."

"Whoopty-doo," she grumbled.

"What's wrong? You're not having fun?"

"Eh," she said with a shrug. "Don't go all 'crusader of the righteousness' on me, but sobriety is a drag."

"Aw, Celica. Seriously, I'd rather you could have a drink or two, as well, but I mean... in the long run, what I'd really prefer is never to come home and find you..."

That was a scary place that they went to, so Celica cleared her throat and hoped to dispel the clammy chill that shot through her by diverting the topic of conversation. "Yyyeah. So, um, I've been meaning to ask, about you and this Garabine dude."

Instantly, Accela was warier. "What is it?"

"Since when do you go bar-hopping to pick up stragglers from the Lonely Hearts Club? I thought that was your least favorite way to mingle."

"Yeah, I totally didn't intend to. It was that night you had the dentist's appointment, remember? I was walking past this little place, and I dunno, it seemed like a quaint spot to check out, and then... oh, I've got goosebumps and it's not even until tomorrow!"

"Do tell. I mean, is he at least hot?"

There was a brief silence during which Accela began floating on her back. "After a fashion, I guess. I thought that part wasn't supposed to matter."

"You're right. Sorry. Just that he'd better be if you're trading in a perfect specimen like me for some cheap boytoy."

"Celica-"

"Okay, okay, shutting up. Wow, you really can't handle me busting your balls, can you?"

"Garabine isn't a 'boytoy', Yayoi," she snapped, still gazing up toward the shimmering curtain of rainbow that the Aurora Shell painted upon the backdrop of twinkling stars. After enjoying this for as long as she could, she followed up with, "And, um, that's because... she isn't a boy in the first place."

"Hmm? She's not? Wait- hold up a second, that means..." The moment Celica's brain caught up with her mouth, she felt her heart sink to somewhere around her knees. "You're going out with another GIRL?"

"Shhh!" she hissed as she righted herself, shooting a worried glance at their coworkers. There was no need; they were both too inebriated to notice. "Come on, keep your voice down; this is not the way I'd choose to come out of the closet!"

"Fine, yeah," Celica said, making sure she was whispering now. In truth, at that moment she could give a flying fig about whether or not Accela was outed - but she did recognize that it would probably lead to both of them being exposed with the same breath, which was undesirable no matter how you sliced it. "My bad. But come on, are you insane? After all the stink you've been raising about fooling around with me in the first place, because I'm a woman, and now here you go and-"

"Don't be so mad! I... like I said, I wanted to see what's out there. That is what I said, isn't it?" She considered her words for a moment before continuing, looking so uncomfortable that she might as well have been holding back a fart in a crowded elevator. "Look. I've dated guys. Lots of guys; I mean, most of them I never even rounded first base with, but let's say I've tested that option enough to know there's nothing there for me. But girls... you're the only one. Ever. What if we're only being intimate because it's a smooth transition, because we're already such good friends? I don't want to make some huge mistake, to taint our friendship just because I was, was... lazy."

This was some heavy stuff Celica was trying to choke down. Was she serious with all of this? In a flash of light, Accela went from being unsure that she could ever have a lasting relationship with a woman... to wanting to shop around for a few of them, to make sure the one she was with didn't clash with her shoes. In either scenario, Celica came up holding the short end of the stick. It boggled the mind. Would the day ever come when she actually won out against the odds?

"You're mad at me, aren't you? Dammit, but you said-"

"I'm not, Accela, I'm just... surprised," she lied, hoping to end the argument before it began. "Because you didn't tell me he was a guy, I... now I'm kinda caught off guard."

"I'm sorry, I really am," she said, touching Celica's arm briefly. "When you assumed it was a guy, I didn't correct you, because... I was afraid of how you'd react. That was cowardly of me."

It was taking every ounce of determination she possessed, but Celica was miraculously able to mask her frustrations, to keep from screaming bloody murder. "No biggie."

"Come on, let's, uh, let's go back to the hot tub," she offered. "They probably miss us."

"Yeah."

Accela started to paddle over to the side, but then turned back. "You're amazing." One fleeting glance toward the hot tub, and then she turned back and left a gentle peck on her friend's cheek. "I should have known you'd understand. You're such a good person."

And thus arrived the straw that broke the camel's back.

As she watched Accela climb the steps to rejoin their other friends, Celica's blood began to reach the boiling point. She was surprised the water around her wasn't turning to steam. How did the progression of events go again? First, she's not good enough to date, supposedly because she's a woman. Next, she's being changed out - and not for a guy, but another woman; so much for the theoretical reason she's not worth dating. And lastly... the Kiss of Death. Also known as the Eternal Kiss of Just Friends. A fleeting, childish peck on the cheek. The same kind you give to your grandmother. Oh yeah - true romance lies there. And when paired with a coddling phrase like "You're such a good person..."

How dare you, Accela Warrick, she fumed as she dragged herself from the blue waters. How dare you discard me. Or have you even figured out that's what you're doing yet? Probably not. Probably got your head so far up your own ass that you can't even see the hilt protruding from my back - the one attached to the knife you planted there. Why? Why can't I hold your attention? Why would you give me the brush-off?

And why would you do it for some tramp with a ridiculous name like Garabine?

o o o

"Celica, hey," Sylvia crowed. The difference in her demeanor when under the influence was the greatest among all four of them; all her snippiness and attention to detail from the office vanished without trace. "You've been missing all the fun!"

"Oh, really?" she replied, carefully slipping into the roiling waters so as not to spill her woefully-virgin daiquiri. "I'll just bet."

"We were just talking about my newest plan to bridle that elusive Lynx."

"Do tell." Her patience already worn thin from her anger at Accela, she asked in a saccharine voice, "And would this plan entail, I dunno... actually telling him how you feel this time?"

Sylvia missed the note of disdain. "If all goes as planned, I won't even have to. He'll be putty in my hands."

"Like we haven't heard that before," Integra mumbled.

"No, seriously, you should come right out and tell him," Celica pressed, leaning back and wishing the hot water would spontaneously cook them all alive and end this stupid party already. "Go up to him and spill, lay it all on the line. If he digs you, he'll respond. If not, at least you put it out there and you won't spend your whole life wishing you'd tried."

Everyone was blinking at her now. Finally, Sylvia coughed and said, "Yeah, easy for you to say. And... I have tried that. Okay? But every time I got him to myself for a minute, by the time I actually built up a head of steam to even approach the subject, he gets called away by this or that pressing duty. That's half the problem; he's a busy guy. And even worse, sometimes someone else charges in, wants to know what we're talking about. What else can I say but that I meant to ask him about some stupid report?"

"You could just tell him anyway." Celica felt so reckless that it was somewhat liberating. "Tell whoever's interrupting to buzz off, then finish your conversation."

"It's not that simple," Accela whispered, even though all four of them were within whisper-hearing range - and the next-nearest living body was behind the foot-thick walls of Yayoi Manor. "He's her superior officer, remember?"

"Big friggin' deal. Why let that stop you?"

"Not that I ought to need remind you," Integra said, mostly to Celica now, "but RUC has a strict no-fraternization policy; I mean, I wouldn't dream of turning in any coworker for it myself, but if some brown-noser with an agenda catches Sylvia and the director together in such a fashion..."

"Yeah, she has to be careful about who sees," Accela said softly. "She wouldn't want to get fired over something like this."

Really, now? Celica thought bitterly to herself. So... the pursuit of a true soulmate isn't worth getting fired over, huh? Of course not. Obviously, soulmates are a dime a dozen, but a JOB, oh WELL - those only come along once in a lifetime! Any chimpanzee with his thumb up his nose can see that! Maybe that's why you traded me in for Gara-whatever; I can't get you fired if we're not dating. How perfect! I'm glad to see you've found a convenient compromise, even if it means I have to suffer eternal loneliness. But don't you worry about that, because you not getting axed from RUC is all that matters!

"I know, I love my career. But to be honest... I wouldn't be too disappointed trading in the title of Officer Ban for that of Mrs. Lynx."

While the other three girls tittered, Celica felt her pulse surging through her veins as she fought to control her rage. How dare she lament her problems when she actually could become Mrs. Lynx, no social stigma to combat, no family to convince that this wasn't a whopping mistake? And there was Accela, nodding along as if this was all fine and well, as if Sylvia was right to put the typical heterosexual marriage above her livelihood and self-respect. Accela, who was so concerned with appearances, with how everyone would react if they turned up participating in an unconventional relationship - who worried about getting fired more than losing the person you value most. Everything and everyone was setting her off right now, and at the root of that problem was Accela. It was highly doubtful there was anything she could say besides "I love you" that wouldn't be inflammatory. Celica was outraged at having been treated this way - and after all her patience, after waiting around for weeks to have her feelings returned! Was this how she was to be repaid? She wanted justice for her broken heart. She wanted vengeance.

"You just have to pick your moment," Accela was reassuring the blonde. "If you pay attention, I'm sure you'll find a time when you can flip his switch - and sneak it in right under the other employees' noses."

A crafty, sinister smile played across Celica's lips. Why my dearest Accela, that's a fabulous idea. Right under their noses, you say? I love it - and I won't even have to wait for work on Monday.

She was about to get her vengeance. Right now.

Slowly, hampered by the displacement of the water molecules, she allowed her leg to drift upward through the water. Accela was directly across from her, wasn't she? This was going to be effortless.

"You're so right," Celica said in falsely nice tones. "Subtlety is best. Now... what was your plan?"

"Alright," Sylvia began as she swirled the contents of her drink. "You remember those silver chain necklaces Ashley gave us at the last Appreciation Day Office Gala, don't you?"

"Of course. We all got one."

"Yeah. So here's what I'm thinking. It'll be hard to pick a good time and place for this, but with enough research, it shouldn't be too difficult."

"Mm," Celica prompted as she sipped at her daiquiri. Ooh, how the strawberries set off the delicious taste of her pending comeuppance. Nothing could have complemented it better.

"I wait until I know he's on his way, and then I drop the necklace in the hall, right? Let's say I dart behind something, or maybe into an empty room. I lie in wait for him to happen by, like a tiger, crouched and ready to pounce on its prey."

"Oooh, prey; I like that." And by no coincidence was that the moment Accela's eyebrows shot upward. Neither Sylvia nor Integra noticed her glance down into the churning water, perplexed; the bubbles on its surface were too frothy and white for anything to be visible down there. Meanwhile, Celica pretended not to notice any of this, either. "What next?"

"I pray that Ashley picks it up; it'll be hard to miss, a shining silver piece of jewelery in a deserted hallway. When he does, I appear from wherever and run up and say, 'Thank God, you found it!'"

"Hallelujah!" Celica giggled. She was having plenty of fun now. "But you have to have something prepared to say, something better than that."

"Oh?" Sylvia curled her lip. "And what do you suggest, Miss Perfect Dating Track Record?"

"Well, let's see... 'I've been looking everywhere for it, you have no idea! See... when you lose something so irreplaceable, you never know how far you'll go to make sure it comes back to you.'"

Across from her, a slight touch of alarm slowly began to creep into Accela's features, and she again sent a worried glance down at the bubble-obscured surface of the waters before snapping her eyes up to the girl across the way. But Celica completely ignored the questioning looks, pretending to be fully absorbed in her conversation with Sylvia. Even though most of her responses were aimed in another direction entirely.

"That's not bad, actually," Sylvia conceded, draining the rest of her drink. "It lets him know how much I cherish his gift. Kudos. What else, anything?"

"Hmm... make sure you smile." She sent a huge beaming grin across the tub. Accela did not smile back. In fact, she looked far from happy. "Smile at him, but wait until the right moment. Timing is everything."

Just then, Accela spasmed, eyes widening as she glanced between Integra and Sylvia, hoping they would not notice. Luckily, they didn't. When she caught Celica's eye briefly, her hand appeared and waved back and forth - the universal sign for "cut that out and/or go away". Neither of which Celica felt like doing at the moment. She was enjoying herself too thoroughly.

"You think I should touch him at all? Or is that too forward?"

"No, by all means, touch - it should keep things interesting."

"Celic-UHT!" Accela had been about to try to dissuade her somehow, but an unexpected advancement of her plan had caused the redhead's mouth to fly open, her eyelids to flutter. Desperately, she shifted her weight from one hip to the other, hoping to escape this unholy persecution in such close proximity to innocent bystanders, but there truly was nowhere to run. In spite of her anger and the cold revenge upon which she dined, now a slight exhilaration found Celica. How could she not get worked up? Accela certainly was.

"Mmm," Celica moaned as she drained her glass. "Strawberries."

"Did you say something?" Integra asked Accela with some concern.

"No," she panted weakly, hands white-knuckling on the edge of the hot tub as she shuddered. "I, uh... nope, not a peep."

"Maybe you should get off," Celica said easily. The withering look she received from Accela only gave her more glee - especially because the poor thing was too distracted by other matters to really sell it.

"Huh?" Sylvia asked her. "Get off?"

"I meant, 'get out', of course," she laughed innocently, wincing slightly when she felt two legs windmilling around her one, trying to beat her back, stop her persistent assault. A futile effort. "Because of the heat. It's burning up in here, isn't it, Accela?"

Integra frowned at Celica as Accela shook as silently as possible, able to briefly drop her control while only Celica's eyes were pointed in her direction, safe from notice for the time being. "You did say 'get off' the first time."

"Sorry," she replied innocently, watching Accela's eyes grow wider and wider as her back arched; almost... "Slip of the... tongue."

Her tongue wasn't the only thing that slipped.

"AIIHH!"

Accela shot to her feet, swaying noticeably. A few seconds passed as she took deep, steadying breaths, ran the tip of her own tongue over her upper lip. When she noticed all three sets of eyes on her, she fidgeted and said, "I- that is- she d-didn't- I have to go."

"Where do you have to go?" Integra wanted to know.

"T-to the bathroom, silly," she laughed mildly, twitching. "Where, uh, where did you think? B-be right back."

As Integra and Sylvia were exchanging a mystified glance, Celica watched her best friend's retreating back like a hawk. The way it shuddered as her legs stumbled and nearly buckled meant the sniper had yet again nailed her target; Accela had not dragged herself from the hot tub early enough.

Too bad, she thought smugly. I wondered if you'd have the willpower to bounce in time to escape my wrath. Looks like you didn't. Sorry.

Unfortunately, when her friend didn't return from the bathroom for well over ten minutes and Sylvia voiced some concern for her well-being, Celica did begin to feel sorry. The remorse was like a bitter aftertaste in her mouth after a delicious meal; she'd truly enjoyed taking out all her pent-up aggravations that had been eating away at her for weeks - on the source of said aggravation, no less. Still... it was Accela. She'd done something she promised she wouldn't and perpetrated things on Accela without her permission. Maybe the fickle tart had earned a little taste of payback, but did it justify breaking a promise?

"Sorry, guys," Accela said as she slid back into the tub. "I think I ate something funny for lunch."

"That's too bad," Integra remarked. "Come up the wrong way?"

"Nah, nothing like that - just some discomfort."

And on that very word, Celica felt a horrible, stabbing pain - one so intense and sharp that it blotted out all pleasure from the initial contact. What on earth was that?

But when she met Accela's cold, burning eyes, she knew. That was her payback. Now so much more than before - and not because of the foot-jab in a sensitive area - she regretted her rash miscarriage of justice. Unable to stop it due to the combined physical and emotional agony, twin tears fell from her eyes. "Sorry," she mouthed, completely browbeaten by the steely gaze, utterly repentant. But there was no undoing the damage. It was way too late.

Accela then did the only thing that could have been worse than continue to glare at her friend: she turned her head and looked away. In fact, she did not look at Celica for longer than an instant over the remainder of the party. It was all both of them could do to keep up appearances and gossip with their other friends. Faking it now was like being dragged over hot coals, over and over and over.

o o o

"So."

It was the first thing either of them truly said to each other after the incident in the hot tub, and it was spoken by Accela as they watched Sylvia and Integra board the bus and disappear around the corner, still hammered.

"So," Celica echoed.

"Try it."

"Try what?"

"Go on, try it. Try whatever pathetic excuse you're going to try. I'm waiting."

Celica sighed. "What do you want me to say, here? Sorry? Is that gonna help?"

Accela shook her head from side to side as she stormed back through the gate toward the poolhouse. "Wow, I thought you'd do a better job than that, at least."

"Accela, there's not much that can be-"

"You took advantage of me!" she hissed, eyes streaming. "With people sitting right there!" When she flung her arm in the direction of the hot tub, Celica almost half expected to see herself and Accela sitting in it, to have to witness from afar what she had so heinously done. "What the devil was that? Some new step in my journey of womanhood, or whatever it was?"

"Shut up. You liked it."

The way her jaw dropped open spoke to the contrary, even before her words echoed the sentiment. "The hell I did! Since when do we have some unwritten understanding that because we've fooled around a few times, you can do whatever you want to me, whenever you want? Any second, they could have figured out what you were doing, and then what would we have said?"

Celica laughed weakly. "You know what? I don't even have the energy for this. So go home, Accela."

"You had damn well better find the energy, or I'll report you."

That statement echoed like the sounding of a bell at the fights. Round one. Celica turned slowly from the path she had slowly been following back to the main house, eyes sparking. "Say that again."

"I'll report you, I mean it. What you did counts as assault."

"Shove it, you floozy!" she snapped. "You're really going to get me on a technicality, just because we're both RUC and you can claim our relationship was non-consensual? We're on equal footing, I don't outrank you - we'd both get fired! Or weren't you paying attention to Integra's little refresher course?"

"You idiot!" It was dangerously close to a scream, and Celica flinched. "You really think I'd pull that kind of petty crap? I meant because you knew damn well it wasn't an appropriate time, when I was making it clear that I didn't desire what you were offering at the moment! You forced me to put up with it, I had no choice but to go along - and in front of an audience! You're lucky neither of them was sober enough to see what was happening!"

"So what if they did? Oh, wait, I forgot - it's much more important we not get fired than, oh, just about anything else!"

"Why?" Accela demanded, hands balled into fists. "Don't I get to know why? Tell me! Why did you do this? Why in God's name would you hurt me like this?"

"Because you're hurting me!" After several heaving breaths, Celica kept babbling, even though she knew she sounded like a whiny, petulant child. "Every day you ignore my feelings, you relegate them to the back-burner, while I'm being eaten alive! And then you pat me on the head and say 'good dog' and expect me to roll over and play dead while you run around playing matchmaker, banging girls named Garfield or whatever!"

"Garabine!"

"GaraWHOGIVESASHIT?"

"I DO!" she shouted back, a volume coming out of her tiny, redheaded body that blew Celica back a few feet. "This is my life, not yours! Stop trying to control me, like some pet project! 'Look, kids, grow your own lesbian in eight easy steps!' Well, congratulations - you made one, you succeeded in your tireless efforts! So don't act so surprised when she wants to go out and do what lesbians do - y'know, date women!"

"But you weren't supposed to date women!" Celica could feel her airways restricting, her chest closing up - another panic attack. "You were s-suppos- o-oh-"

The words that wouldn't emerge from her mouth echoed fruitlessly within her mind: You were supposed to date ME.

"Oh, what? What is it now, you selfish bitch? Got anything else you want to accuse me of, so you can feel all justified when you assault me with a stick in the middle of town?"

It was all too much for Celica; she couldn't simultaneously explain her frustration at being rejected, profess her love, and apologize for her odious deed in the hot tub. The fact that her body was shutting down also presented an obstacle. She stumbled, nearly fell, but managed to reach the side of the house and lean against it with her head and one arm. Finally, with her last ounce of strength, she wheezed, "Get off my property. Leave... leave me alone."

"Excuse me? Wait..." And then two hands were on her back. "Celica, you're- you sound like- what's the matter?"

"I s-said GO!" she half-growled, half-sobbed. The gentle touch that would typically have lightened every burden she carried now only seared her flesh. "Just... just leave me be. I can't even look at you right now, I... you make me sick. Get out of my life before my heart gives out completely. If you even care."

"Wha- what!" Those were more gasps than they were words. An agonizing minute passed with nobody moving, nothing happening, just Celica fighting for every breath that she could suck into her lungs. Then she felt herself being guided up the steps to the back door, steadily and with the utmost care. She was there for a long while before the thought broke through to the surface; she was alone.

"A... Accela?"

But Accela was no longer on her property.

o o o TO BE CONTINUED o o o

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