"Wait," Garabine - if indeed that's who she was - said, turning to face them more properly. "Do you two know each other?"
"Why are you here, Celica?" Accela demanded in a less than kind tone. "Don't tell me you're stalking me!"
"Frig," Celica moaned, slumping against the bar. "Somebody just shoot me. Shoot me now."
"I can't believe this," she hissed. "Were you pumping Garabine for information?"
Bingo. Dead on the money.
"Accela, listen. I didn't come here to make a scene, or start anything, or anything at all. In fact, I'm not even here; I'm just a wad of gum stuck to this bar. Leave me in peace."
"And you're drinking," she sighed. "God, that didn't take long."
"It's only tonic water," Garabine said in her defense. Even though she didn't ask for it, and somewhat resented the person speaking for a myriad of reasons, she couldn't help but feel a pinprick of gratitude.
"Oh? W-well, that's not what's important right n-"
"You know what? Nevermind." Celica stood, extending a hand, which Garabine took with probably the most confounded expression any person had ever worn. "It was nice meeting you. Thanks for the drink." And then she turned to make her way out and away from the worst discotheque experience she'd ever been privy to.
"Wait a minute, you come back here and- you explain this!"
But she didn't turn, she didn't engage. Once she was outside, she took a few deep breaths to steady her nerves, leaning against the brick wall. That could have gone worse - not much worse, but at least no one died, and there weren't any blood smears on her silver microskirt. All in all, a swingin' time at the sock hop.
So Accela's the sweet angel my punker friend was holding out for, Celica reflected as she began to plod home at the slowest pace possible. It was so much easier to hate Garabine when I could picture her as some bulldyke with a thousand chippies on a leash, hoping to add one more. Before I knew her. Now...
"Celica, you stop right there!"
"Oh, for God's sake!" she shouted, spinning. "Can't you just leave me the hell alone for once?"
"Not until you tell me why you were at this club!"
It only mildly surprised Celica to find Garabine was still with them; from the look on her face, it was out of obligation. In case things turned ugly and she needed to bodily force them apart to prevent life-threatening contusions. She was standing off to the side, now wearing a leather jacket from which she produced a pack of cigarettes.
"Let me get one of those if you don't mind," Celica sighed.
"You smoke?" Accela gasped, which certainly didn't prevent Garabine from passing one over. "Since when?"
"Since I was four," Celica snapped as she was handed the lighter. "What are you, my babysitter?"
"Fine, I don't care about that," she said, trying to force herself to stop exploding over and over. "Please, just assure me that there's a rational explanation you ended up at the same club as us. One that doesn't involve a tracking device implanted somewhere under my skin."
"It's a club," she said with some bite on the last word, forcing a cloud into Accela's face which made her cough. "People go there to dance, or so I'm told. Which I was doing, until I got sucked back into this endless barrage of excrement."
"Dumpee," Garabine muttered just loud enough for Celica to hear - and to her chagrin, Celica had to force back a smile. In spite of the situation and her animosity toward the "other woman", it was a hilarious observational joke.
"It isn't..." The valiant efforts Accela was making to calm herself weren't having much effect, but it wasn't for lack of trying. "You were the one that said we needed a break. I tried to respect that, and I thought you were, too. So to see you popping up from the ether while I'm out with Garabine, it's... well, it's more than weird."
At that, Celica had to nod. "I'm sure it looks psychotic. Kind of like tearing off down the street after me would look psychotic to an outside observer. Seriously, man, I'm gonna see you at work tomorrow - it really couldn't wait?"
"Would you have waited?"
"Touché." Again, Celica nodded, staring down at her platforms and wondering what else they should say. "Right... so I came out for a little R&R, figured I might find somebody cute to flirt with for a few minutes. Get my mind off stuff. And hey, I did the not-drinking thing, that's progress, right? It sucks that I kind of crashed your date, but it wasn't on purpose, so I don't really see how I should apologize for that. Other stuff... oh yeah, my underwear is riding up a little, and I'd like to find a restroom so I can take care of that. I think that sums it up."
Accela nodded, running her hand through her hair. "Okay, then. Sorry I flipped out, I just... you must know how it looked to me."
"Crazy stalker-palooza, I get it, don't pop a capillary." Celica took a step to her aft. "You okay back there?"
"Just enjoying the show," Garabine half-laughed. "Better than daytime talk."
"Celica, Garabine, Gary, Celica," Accela said with the deadpan of someone who fully realized they were providing superfluous knowledge. "Um, now what do we do? I can honestly say I have never been in this situation before."
"I'm going home," Celica said with a shrug. "You two, go back to the club, go back to your place, whatever. None of my business."
"It is NONE..." It took her the length of the pause to convert her shouting into even, quiet tones. "...of my business. Kind of not in a dancing mood now, so I'm turning in early. Sorry I was so snide about her before, Accela, she's a real catch. Good work."
"You don't have to be all churlish about this."
"Hey, I actually wasn't being sarcastic at all." Her eyes were somber as she glanced between the two of them. "You two really are awesome. Individually, and as a couple. Honest to God, I mean it. All the best."
This seemed to genuinely catch everyone there off guard - especially Celica, who couldn't believe what she was saying. "Zany," Garabine said in an undertone. "It's a small, small world, with an even smaller queer community..."
As Celica set off down the street, puffing like a chimney, she could hear both of them talking animatedly to each other. That was fine. If she had to hand off her leading lady to another suitor, at least it was one she could wholeheartedly approve of. If, say, she was losing her to that dimbus who'd tried to drag her off to his hovel after five seconds of dancing, it would be another matter entirely. But this wasn't so awful - it was only awful for her.
"Celica, wait up!"
"NO!" she shouted without turning or stopping, flicking her spent cigarette into the gutter. "This time, I'm hailing a cab so nobody can impede my journey homeward for the umpteenth time tonight!"
But then two arms were sliding around her, pinning her own to her sides. "Don't do that! Just... I think we should talk. Right now, not tomorrow, not next week. We need to have it out, because I'm sick of pussyfooting."
"Did you get rid of your other girl? Because let me tell you, I gotta say... you might want to drop me like a bad habit. Me being the disaster area I am, I think you traded up - way, way up, she's amazing."
"I dunno," Garabine said, automatically turning Celica's face beet red - so she was still there. "You're not so bad yourself. For a cop."
"Take her off my hands!" Celica crowed, spinning to face the punker even while Accela clung to her midsection, allowing herself to be swung in a wide arc. This only served to exasperate her further. "Do you see this? I don't need this crap!"
"Yeah, you do," she laughed, grinning from ear to ear. "The past five minutes was plenty to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. So here's me, bowing out gracefully; she's all yours."
"But you... you said she was one you, y'know, wanted to hang onto," Celica said unadroitly, failing to make her voice sound any less weak and pathetic. "And now that I know you're kind of a big deal... how can I let you give up on your dream girl? That isn't right, either."
A nod as she stomped on her own cigarette butt. "Fair point. Here's another one. Do you know how galling it is to try and get to know somebody better... when all they wanna talk about is someone else? It's all-Celica, all the time; I know more about you than I do about her by now. Which is how I know I'm leaving her in good hands." As she turned to leave, she said over her shoulder, "Gotta go give a bartender the finger. Keep in touch, Interleague."
"Yeah," she said numbly, watching the dragon emblazoned on the back of her leather jacket fade into the night. "Wow..."
"Mm-hmm. Not that you aren't a dreamboat, too," Accela said in a soft voice, "but... come on. When I first met her, you could have knocked me over with a feather."
"Tell me about it." Celica let out a long, low whistle. "You, uh... up for a threesome?"
"Kidding, kidding. I kid - it's what I do." They both stood there for a while with Accela's arms around her sides, enjoying the closeness. Then Celica took a quick step forward, breaking the embrace. "You wanna talk? Let's talk. About...?"
"About you and me."
"What about us?"
"About the fact that we're stupid," Accela sighed wearily. "How is it we've been running around, acting like all these trappings and playground drama matter in the long run? We're better than that."
"Yeah. But... life isn't a breeze. Garabine was telling me something, and it kind of stuck with m-"
"Hey, yeah, there's a funny thing," Accela interrupted lightly, walking over to the low stone wall nearby and perching on it. "What are the chances of both of us zeroing in on the same girl?"
Celica couldn't keep from grinning. "Pretty good, considering the girl. I bet every chick-liking-chick within the city limits at least knows of and desires to be part of her inner circle. God, forget you, Accela Warrick - lemme at that Amazon!"
"Shut up, you dork." When Celica made to storm off toward the club again, Accela hopped over and tackled her around the ankles. They went down hard, but combat training has to be good for something, so they braced for the fall and rolled. Soon thereafter, Celica was running through the trees of a nearby park with Accela hot on her heels - her own heels in one hand as she ran barefoot - both leaping over small ponds and benches, but halfway through the park Celica tripped over the edge of a sundial and they both ended up in a bush.
"Let's go for broke," Celica panted as she stared up at her best friend, feeling her tankini cling to her chest from perspiration. "Right here and now. God, I've been aching for this..."
"Ah, ah, ah," Accela whispered, wagging a rebuking finger with one hand even as she petted Celica's stomach with the other. "We have got to talk our way through all the dross before we can enjoy the rewards at the end. I mean it - and stop laughing at me!"
"I can't help it," she giggled. "You get this little line in the middle of your forehead when- okay, okay, I'm sorry. Go on."
"All out in the open. I want no more secrets, no more misgivings. What's wrong with your heart, do you have a murmur or something?"
"Panic attacks." Now that she said it, she felt one coming on - just a tiny shadow of one, insubstantial and nonthreatening. "That's all. Um... wow, so I really told you. Don't feel like I was trying to withhold it out of spite or anything, I- this is so humiliating for me. It's a fancy technical term for 'I can't handle all my own shit like a grown-up'. There, m-make fun of me all you like."
"They aren't a laughing matter. Many people suffer from them, all over the world; they can pose serious health risks if you don't handle them properly." When she saw Celica's cocked eyebrow, she followed up with, "So I did some research, and I pretty much already knew that's what got you keeling over poolside. But I wanted you to tell me, to confirm and all that. Your health is my top priority, over all else, so if you don't like it then you can kiss my ass; too bad."
"I might kiss it anyway." That just earned her a slap on the arm. "Fine, that's one down. Anything else? Now's your chance to air all grievances."
They both thought for a moment before Accela fell over onto her side, lying so she could observe her friend's features without too much effort. "Well... I think we already set up the new rules for you not taking certain liberties without my permission. That's the next-highest priority after your well-being."
"You got it, Chief - I'll keep all hands, feet and objects outside your coach at all times."
"Not at all times. And if you're testing out pet names for my anatomy, that one is officially out. Coach?"
Celica rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. Next item on the agenda?"
"Next is your drinking." Celica's countenance grew a hint stonier and Accela sighed, shaking her head. "Mostly because I snapped at you in the bar like some harried housefrau, I'm officially abdicating that position of power from now on. If you ask me to help keep you accountable, I will, but otherwise I'm leaving it up to you. And smoking, if you're a smoker. Like you said, I'm not your babysitter."
"Yeah, thanks. But so you know, I could still use some encouragement in the booze department. It'd be a big advantage." They smiled at each other for a moment. "Now... is there something you might, maaaybe, want to admit to me? Come on, you can use the word."
"Ohhh, do I have to?"
"Yep. Let me get you started: 'Celica, it has come to my attention that I am in fact a...'"
"I'm a lesbian," Accela offered up, tears forming in the corners of her eyes as she shrugged her shoulders. "One who's trying desperately to get used to saying it. Go ahead and gloat; I know I really put up a fight, telling you I didn't want you, and... and that you weren't the type of human I could accept for a romantic partner. So all that time I spent pretending to resent you for 'dragging me into it' was a smokescreen for an aspect of myself that I didn't want to confront. You have every right to grind my face in it."
It stunned Accela that nothing of the sort came out of her friend's mouth. "Now we know. So you're sure, your panties are a no-guy zone from now on?"
"Pretty much, yeah. Between you and my brief, embryonic courtship with Garabine, I'm more than happy to be swearing off men for life. Even so... it's a big change, right? Knowing you're abnormal?"
"There's nothing abnormal about it, Accela; we just like what we like." She bit her lip momentarily. "And yeah, I think Garabine might have turned me permanently, too. Eh, I dunno... I still think men are hot. Some men."
"Really? Not me. They're pretty, in an aesthetic sort of way, but I can't say I really feel... you know."
Celica allowed herself a suggestive smirk. "No love lost between you and the phallus? Don't blame you; even I think it's weird-looking, no matter how useful it can prove in times of need. Now and again, though... mMmm."
"You have a pottymouth," she accused.
"All the better to put your hindquarters against, my dear. Oh, I suppose you also want to know how I feel about you or something."
Accela nodded. "That'd be nice, for starters. Because we seem to keep sending all these mixed signals, which only makes things-"
"I'm retardedly in love with you."
There was a tiny gasp, and Accela sat bolt upright; perhaps this was more blatantly unambiguous than she'd been anticipating. "Wh... I'm sorry, I must be, um... getting old. They say hearing is the first thing to go."
"No they don't," Celica said with a sheepish grin, placing her hands under her head to cushion it from the hard-packed dirt beneath them. "That's supposed to be the mind, not the ears; besides, lots of people get Resemble eardrums later in life, but the Resemble brain is still in testing stages, I've heard."
"Rewind, then - you're what?"
Celica's face was hot enough to fry an egg on now, and she looked away, feeling another panic attack coming on - a mild one, but one that would make it harder for her to finish this conversation. It scared her that her limbs felt numb, but she forced herself to whisper, "You heard me. I kinda, sorta, love you. Don't... don't laugh."
"I'm not laughing." There was a long silence as Celica dreaded how the rest of this would go. "Since when?"
"Always, maybe?" When Accela let out a panicked squeak, she grinned and said, "Or maybe just two seconds ago when I said it. Or maybe I'm lying. Take your pick."
"When, really? I mean... how long have you-"
"The day in the RUC response unit," Celica said immediately, eyes pointed off into the bushes as she struggled to get the words out. As it turns out, laying bare your heart's innermost contents was even more difficult than she'd expected - and she'd expected it to be excruciating. "It was r-right after you first, um... rushed to my aid in the showers, remember? That was when I knew."
"All this time!" she gasped out weakly. "Why then? Because of the showers?"
"You don't remember what you said to me, do you?"
"Not exactly. That was, um, a pretty tumultuous time for me."
A vague smile touched Celica's lips. Delving back into those memories was like slipping on a fur coat someone had been pre-warming for you; it dialed down the voracious fear that was gripping her innards. "We were talking about taking our first baby steps toward being... together, or whatever. There were two distinct things you told me in there that sealed the deal once and for all."
Tentative fingertips reached Celica's knee. The latter jumped, but stilled as the hand slid onto it more solidly. "Tell me."
"First you... you said you didn't require me to mutate into the 'top', the boy. Because you wanted us to stay the same. 'The way we already are', I think were your exact words. Which, hey, that's pretty romantic, whether or not you're not expecting romance. I can count the times someone's told me I'm a satisfactory individual just the way I am on one hand, and keep in mind that two of the fingers belong to my parents."
"Okay." There was a sniffling sound from Accela, but Celica couldn't bear to turn and face her yet. "Then what was the other thing I said?"
"That... oh, it's stupid. You were only spitballing, trying to figure things out for yourself, and it was a theory - a half-assed theory. I knew you weren't sure, so I don't know why it meant so much to me."
The vice grip on her heart tightened a few more notches as she struggled to force out what she needed to say. "Y-you... you said I could be... that there was a chance - and even a chance was so much..."
"Celica, you're crying," she choked out, still crying herself. "You d-don't have to go on if it's too hard for-"
"You said I might be the only human being you could allow to get that close to you." Celica couldn't even move her arm to wipe away the collecting moisture from her face; she wanted to, she knew she must look like a horrendous mess by now. But if she diverted attention to doing that, she'd lose the power to finish what she needed to say - must say. "First you told me I didn't need to change, and then that the me I was - the crazy, mixed-up, flawed idiot who can't cook and is addicted to video games, and has panic attacks, and has to watch her drinking so she doesn't go off the deep end - might be so freaking important to you th-that... that I could be your one and only. I'm practically gutter trash, and you'd even consider putting me in such a position in your heart? It was huge. It's still huge - even if it turns out I'm not the one. You'll never be able to see that how I do."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that."
Celica still couldn't turn around, though that tempted her. "But yeah. That blew me away, completely knocked me onto my tailbone. As soon as you said it, I knew nobody could ever be as important to me as you, before, after... nobody. I knew I wanted to keep you all to myself until the end of forever." She sniffled. "So that is how long I've been in love, to the day. Roughly a month, I think? Yeah... that's about- WHA-!"
Only now did Accela throw herself across Celica's frame. "A month. You've b-been holding all this inside for a month, you haven't said- I've been such a bitch! Why didn't you tell me to go fuck myself?"
Two chocolate-brown eyes shot wide. "Accela, where'd you learn to swear like a sailor?"
"You've known you were in love with me, that you needed me all to yourself like that, and... and the whole time I've been running around on you, I've been faulting you for complaining when I d-dated another woman! You had every right to if that's how you feel - no wonder you've been having panic attacks left and right! Oh, God, I wish you would have spoken up sooner or we- we could have avoided all this bickering and all the- and all this BULLSHIT!"
"I haven't been having attacks left and right," Celica sobbed into her shoulder as she wrapped both arms around her friend. "Just once or twice, okay? Geez, next you'll be forcing me to live the rest of my life in a bubble."
"A month!" she said again. "Jesus, I can't even imagine - I've been hurting you for four weeks, every day for twenty-eight! Why haven't you impaled me yet?" More tears flowed as she whispered, "The hot tub. I get it, now - it was awful, but I get why you felt like taking it out on me. Because I was so blind, deaf and dumb that I completely missed the message you wanted to get through."
"No, don't," Celica snapped, alarmed. "You're trying to make it sound like you earned that, and we both know it was too far, no matter what you did. Cut it out, you got me?"
Accela pushed herself up onto her arms. Teardrops fell downward onto Celica's face as she fell upward into twin pools of green - falling all over again. "This has been so long coming, since last time when I woke up next to you; it's way too long between. I love you, Celica."
Celica squeezed her eyes shut, the panic rising in her chest, stabbing into every region of her body and freezing solid where it reached. "Ah... sh-shut up, come on. D-don't say it just because I did; I won't rope you into something you don't really want because you feel guilty. If that's what you're doing, then I'll kick you to the curb, I swear it."
"I'm head over heels," she whispered back, laughing. "Maybe I needed to be rattled and shaken to wake up and take a good look around, but... all that worrying I did, about us being friends, about... about nothing, a boatload of nothing! You being how spectacular you are, this empty little red head of mine should have known from the very beginning that there's not a single thing that could mess up something so perfect as you and me! What else could we possibly need?"
"No," she breathed, uncertainty squeezing her heart to bits. "You... I don't deserve..."
"I am in love with you. I am. I really am, I've never been so sure of anything! All of me belongs to you!"
Her hands and mouth shot up at the same time, and Accela's own arms automatically slid in and around her back to support her - and the devils trying their best to destroy Celica's body and soul shattered into millions of bits, leaving her feeling lighter than air. Astoundingly, it had come to pass that she could be with Accela - her Accela. What could be more freeing? The lovers revelled within an hour-long kiss; one that deepened and grew, peppered with exclamations and sobs and laughter. They rolled, they petted and panted, but mostly they allowed their lips to remain center stage. Against the backdrop of the park's emerald greenery, under the shimmering of the Aurora Shell, it was terrifyingly beautiful.
o o o
A brief eternity later found them back at Accela's apartment, all but free of clothing and heavily immersed in the deepest of sensations. The bedroom reverberated with the sounds of love, the heat rose in waves, until they reached the cusp of unbridling all passion. Accela expressed some bewilderment when Celica sat back.
"Wahh... oooh... wait, what is it, why are you stopping?"
"I'm... nervous," Celica admitted, feeling shy. The shyness worsened when she realized the cause. "B-because- because since the last time we were together, you've had Garabine, and- God, I'm sure she's more experienced with this kind of thing than me. What if I'm not doing it right? That'd be a colossal disappointment for you now, I guess."
"Celica, I never slept with Garabine."
The brunette's eyes snapped up, wide as saucers. "You didn't?"
"No. I told you, we barely went on a couple of dates; I got a grand total of two kisses on the hand and one on the cheek - oh, and she technically goosed me, but only because I didn't look before I sat down. You know I'm not very impetuous. Things never progressed into the boudoir."
"Seriously?" Celica asked again, shocked. "Because, total disclosure, if the situation were reversed I'd have been all over that! She's like some kind of present-day goddess! Wow... what held you back?"
"Haven't we both figured that part out?" Accela said suggestively, reaching up with her foot to trace a line down Celica's cheek... which promptly blushed scarlet. "Now, where were we?"
"Right about... HHHHere."
"AIIIH! Celica, take me places!"
"Away we go."
There were no further interruptions. Many untested techniques saw the light of day that evening; before, Accela had barely allowed Celica within her defenses, and had expressed no interest in returning the favor. Not that Celica had even cared about that; just being intimate in any form had gratified her plenty. But it seemed like now that they had declared their undying love, all avenues were open to their intrepid explorations. It truly was a historic night.
For some reason, it was determined that Celica was the one with more lingering energy in her body, so she was given the task of fetching a large pitcher of water and two glasses to the bedroom. She did so merrily, skipping through the apartment wearing nothing but an afterglow. When she came back to the bedroom, Accela tried to hide a laugh, but would not elaborate until they were both leaning wearily against both each other and the headboard, quenching their staggering thirst.
"That's some handy tip you picked up, Celica; the mechanics of it seem impossible, but... wow! We went from novices to seasoned pros in one month flat, didn't we?"
Celica grinned. "What can I say? I'm a quick study."
"Tall, dark and handsome."
"Come again?" Celica asked as she poured herself more water - the first two glasses had barely made a dent.
"No thanks - thrice is enough." As Celica stuck out her tongue, Accela looked away shyly. "What I mean is, just now, when I saw you framed in the doorway... I had a minor epiphany. It's you."
Celica's eyebrows knitted. "It is me. I am it. And you are the walrus."
"No, silly." She set aside her water glass and slipped both arms around Celica's midsection, face coming to rest atop one of her mounds. "You're one inch taller than me. Your skin is the most delightful shade of amaretto. And, um... well, if we substitute 'handsome' for 'drop dead gorgeous,' well, then you fit the bill."
"Great, so I'm an ethnic girl of average height who isn't hideous. Sorry, but I'm not following-"
"I've always been waiting for my tall, dark, handsome prince to come along. Ever since I was small, that's been my dream; my stipulation for the one who could win my affection, who'd whisk me away and be one with me 'til death do us part. The wait is over, because here you are."
Celica snickered, even as a few tears of elation slid down her face. "You're weird. But I love you, anyway."
"I love you, too, Tall, Dark and Handsome." They sat there in silence for several seconds before Accela whispered, "Hmm... I think there's a hickey on your ankle."
"Yeah, about that," she half-laughed as she leaned forward. "Can you see those scratches you left down my back? Are they bad?"
"Not really; they're pretty light. Well, this one here..."
Thirty minutes later and they had showered, changed the sheets, and were curled up on crisp, clean ones, nude and encircling each other's bodies, reaching such a deep level of contentment that Accela was already asleep. But Celica kept herself awake for just a few more minutes to bask in such a fleeting, priceless moment.
Darling angel, I realize I dragged you into this same-sex nightmare, Celica thought, gazing at the peaceful features of the girl that had become the center of her entire world. I'm not so ignorant that I don't realize you never wanted to be with a woman. Even less with this one. So you can believe me when I promise that I'll be trying my best, my absolute hardest, to make you happy. You'll never have to feel a moment's regret. And someday, if we don't fall apart or I don't foul everything up, I'm going to follow through on that joke you made when I was washing your back: I'm going to marry you. Because you, more than anyone in this bleak metropolis, are worth a lifetime commitment.
I swear it, Accela... my best bud.
o o o THE END... OR IS IT? o o o
AUTHOR'S NOTE: It's not over YET! This, well, is AN ending; it is the finale of the main events of the story. The next two chapters could almost be considered an epilogue; we'll be flashing forward five years (much as the anime did; I thought it was appropriate). Are you up for all the heartache that might entail? If so, then I welcome you to read on. If not, then you can take this blissfully fluffy happy ending and run with it, and I'll not think any less of you for it. But to allay your fears, it will still have a happy ending either way; just maybe not the one you've anticipated.
Thanks to lilmagi and The 13th Knight for their dedicated readership! Sincerest apologies if you were expecting something of staggering length such as Libbrina, but... in the cases of both Libby and Lark, they had a lot further to go to first come to a point where they could tolerate the other person and perceive them as a worthwhile human being, THEN fall in love and the rest. In contrast, Celica and Accela start out as friends, which cuts to the romantic chase a lot more quickly. So while I know you must be shaking your head and thinking, "Only eight chapters and all the conflict is over?", on the other hand there are still two left! Don't abhor me?