Mixed Signals

Chapter 7

It was several days before anyone saw Celica. She sequestered herself in her bedroom, only coming out to have dinner with her family - during which she was unusually reserved. The rest of the day, she didn't eat, and hardly slept. Mostly, she just screamed, cried, and stared at the wall. Sometimes all at once.

Finally, she woke up one morning and loathed everything she'd been doing for the past few days with such venom that she decided to go out. Thus, she did her morning exercises, then showered and dressed. There was still no possible way she could show her face at the office, but there had to be something else to do in the city. As she was out walking aimlessly, she got a call - it was Sylvia. She answered.

"Yello?"

"Are you okay?" Sylvia asked nervously. "I mean, geez, you don't even bother to show up to work for two days."

"Yeah, I'll be alright. Sorry if you guys had to pick up the slack."

A sigh. "That's not important. Accela told us what happened."

"She what?"

"Uh... she said you two had a fight, and that at the end of it you looked like you were having some kind of attack. She, um, guessed that might be why you couldn't come in to work."

"Oh." Celica found a nearby lamppost and leaned heavily against it. "That's the story, alright."

"Don't worry, she didn't give us any details. But, I mean, if you wanted t-"

"Forget it, you busybody," she half-laughed. "It's pretty damn personal."

"Whatever. But, um... I think Integra is going to want you to see a doctor."

"Oh, for the love of-"

"Don't shoot the messenger. Come on, Yayoi, if you're having attacks it might be your Proceed going haywire, or it could be any number of-"

"I'm fit as a fiddle," she protested. "And my next physical is in a month, anyway. I'm sure if I can manage to survive until then, they'll find out what's wrong with me - which will be nothing, I'm sure. So mind your own business."

There was a long pause as her friend and coworker tried to accept that she would in no way be able to force Celica to do anything about it against her will. Finally, she sighed and said, "Well, if you're going to be so bullheaded... when can we expect to see you down here again?"

"Maybe tomorrow. No, scratch that - I'll be in tomorrow morning, nine sharp. Count on it."

"Okay," she laughed. "That sounds more like the Celica we all know and love. See ya then."

"Later."

As Celica hung up, she wondered at that last part. "The Celica we all know and love". Did Accela still count among the "we", or had she withdrawn her membership? Maybe so. Despite all their bitter words, she covered for her, provided an excuse for her absence so she wouldn't lose her job just because she was wallowing in her own misery. The part she'd been agonizing over the most was that even while they were trying to tear each other's heads off with sound waves, the very instant a panic attack had started overtaking her, Accela rushed to her aid, trying to determine if there was anything she could do. And now, a part of her regretted sorely that she hadn't let her - hadn't accepted her care with open arms and buried the animosity of the moment before. But no. Too late for that alternate chain of events, now.

Still, getting the call from Sylvia proved that she wasn't scorned and despised outright. Better than nothing.

The day drifted by as Celica kicked around the shopping district. She did a few things she'd never bothered to before: listened to a street performer clumsily abuse the guitar, played on a jungle gym for the first time in eleven years, bummed a cigarette off a stranger and made casual conversation while they smoked. She took in a movie - a comedy she would typically have scorned for being yet another dumb flick and passed it over for something with a little more action. But it made her laugh, over and over she laughed. It felt good.

None of these could erase the ache in her heart, which stayed with her even as she returned home and ate dinner. Still, it did ease the ache, made it less overshadowing. She took a single sleeping pill late in the evening, and did not wake until her alarm went off. She felt refreshed, rejuvenated - like a brand new Celica Yayoi. One who didn't need alcohol, or vengeance... and maybe didn't even need Accela. However, that would remain to be seen.

o o o

"Morning, all."

"Welcome back, prodigal dork," Sylvia announced, not looking up from her terminal. "You back in functioning form?"

"Yeah," she sighed wearily. "I dunno, I was in a funk or whatever. But I feel great now - don't even know what was bothering me."

"Really?" Accela asked, also not looking up. But Celica didn't respond. She wasn't ready to get into all that yet.

"Eh." She pulled a few papers toward her and immediately launched herself into a few reports, started trawling databases. Normally, she'd have already been seeking ways to slack off, but she figured she'd been slacking for two days straight. It was time to make up for it.

For one day, at least.

Eventually, a call came in that four ne'er-do-wells with Resemble parts were terrorizing city hall, spouting off about unregistered citizens and taxpayer dollars and whatnot. No matter how much Special Security sympathized with their plight, they simply could not be allowed to put the lives of innocent people in danger to further their agendas. So it was time to go to work.

"Celica, I want you up on that roof to pick off escapees," Integra commanded, motioning with a ramrod-straight arm. "Non-lethal rounds unless the situation progresses. Sylvia, Accela and I will infiltrate."

"I should stay by Celica," Accela volunteered. "It might be wise to have an on-ground safety net."

"Noted. Keep your eyes peeled."

As the other two began moving toward the building's entrances, Accela and Celica made a beeline for the low building where Celica could set up her rifle and keep an eye on their target.

"So, you ready to level with me?"

"About what?" Celica asked. "And is your hailing frequency set to one-on-one communication?"

"Is yours?"

Celica let out a blast of laughter as she took a leap, using her rockets to alight upon the roof. "Point taken, computer expert. Level with you about what?"

"You know. What happened to you before I left the party. That was... scary."

"Oh, that," she said mildly as she zoomed the scope on the doorway. "Hey, make sure you keep both eyes on the wide-angle, since I'm narrowing my focus."

"Roger." A second passed in silence. "Does this mean you don't feel like talking about it?"

"What? It was no biggie."

"You looked like you were having a heart attack, Celica. That qualifies as a biggie in my book."

"Oh, stop pretending you're really worried about me and that you don't just want to be kept in the loop. Curiosity killed the cat, y'know."

Suddenly, Accela was kneeling beside her, one hand resting on her arm. "I was worried. I have been."

"We are on the job, officer," Celica barked, trying for authoritative and ending up with crabby. "This can wait."

"Tell me. Right now, tell me, because I want to know if I should be reporting it."

"Stop that!" she snapped. "Stop threatening to report me about everything! Is your first instinct always going to be tattling to teacher?"

"Celica," she hissed, voice breaking a bit, "I can't even sleep knowing you might have some kind of... some condition that could turn you into a vegetable at any moment. Can't you appreciate that? What if we could have done something, but we're too late because you refuse to be forthcoming about it?"

"Then I'll die. Now let me concentrate or I could miss the shot."

"No! No, no, I don't want you to die!"

It was all Celica could do to bite back the remark in her mind: Maybe if I did, you and Miss Galaga can make kissy-kissy noises all you want without fretting about how I'm going to take it. But bite it back she did. "I'm not gonna die. I'm fine, it was just... too much was going on. I took a few days to get my head straight. That's it, that's the whole sad story."

A minute stretched by as they heard a few ominous bangs sounding within city hall, crouching and waiting for their assistance to be necessary. Then Accela said, "Okay. But I have another question."

"Oh, for the- seriously? You seriously will not leave me alone about the stupid party?"

"Those things you said to me at the end. When you were- I mean, before I left. Did you mean them?"

Celica rolled her eyes - not that Accela could see that through her visor. "Like I even remember what I said. I was upset."

"You said that I make you sick," she sobbed, all too crystal clear over the audio feed in her helmet. "That you want me out of your life before... before I wind up killing you. Please tell me that's not how you feel."

"Accela-"

"Because if you do, I'll back off completely. I mean it, I don't want to b-be the one who- if you up and-"

"Forget it," Celica soothed, despite how little she felt like pampering her teammate. "I was freaked out, I snapped, and I started saying whatever I thought would get you to leave me alone. Because whatever I said or meant, that was what I needed. Alone time." She let a few heartbeats pass before adding, "And I'm sorry I got so nasty. You didn't deserve it."

"Apology accepted." There were a few loud sniffing noises, and then the audio link was severed. When Celica swiveled her helmet to cast a glance at Accela, all she saw was a soldier in a Proceed suit, gazing evenly at the target below. The picture of duty. Any outside observer would never know Celica was brooding and Accela was weeping.

There was another blast, and Celica turned to gaze through her scope. A man with a briefcase and a gun leapt through the door, Resemble legs gleaming in the sunlight. With barely a nanosecond's time to sight him, she squeezed the trigger and brought him down.

"Nice shot," Accela whispered.

"That's what they pay me the big bucks for. Um, thanks."

"Now I feel like I'm not earning my keep," she went on, half-laughing. "But... um."

"You do know I get that the only reason we're up here together is because you wanted a private word, right? I'm not a total airhead."

Another laugh; wow, she was feeling a lot better after their semi-productive chat. "I know. And... and I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Garabine right away, I'm sorry I've been all over the place, and-"

"Enough."

"And I'm sorry I kicked you and yelled at you." A few steadying breaths carried over the radio waves. "That was kind of... childish."

"No more childish than what I did in the hot tub. I... can't explain that away, not to make it sound rational or anything. I'm kind of a pig."

"You told me already. Remember? You s-said you were in pain. Because of me, because I changed the game on you all of a sudden."

Celica forced herself to chuckle. "Is that what I said? Man, what a whiny toddler I can be sometimes."

"Hey, don't do that to yourself. You have every right to be mad, to have feelings. But obviously I can't help you with them if you don't open up." The note of sadness lessened as she went on, "Of course, I'm not going to say you have the right to punish me for them. And I'd never say you can use that as a punishment, it's way out of bounds."

"I already apologized," she sighed. "And if you want to keep bringing it up all the time, then we're going to have a problem, because I already feel like a bucket of diarrhea for that. Stop rubbing it in."

"Last time, I promise," Accela told her softly. "As long as we both agree that it can't happen again. Not something like that."

A lump formed in Celica's throat as she tried not to think too hard about what she'd done. In the end, she decided the conversation had been grave for long enough. "Not unless you want it to."

"Oh my God, Celica, no way!"

"Come on," she said with a hint of humor in her tone. "Okay, I realize I should have asked in the first place, but you can't deny there was something... intriguing about it. Getting away with murder right in front of those two? Reminded me of when we kissed while working on the response unit; I mean, the danger of being caught made it so..."

"Gross," Accela finished for her, but she wasn't truly upset. It seemed the stalemate had reached an end for the two comrades. "For the record, I'm hoping you weren't contemplating taking turns or anything!"

"Would you have liked that? Next time, you can reach your own little toes across and-"

"CELICA!"

"No, perish the thought," she cackled, grateful that nobody else could hack their two-way communication. "Though toward the end, I started thinking about joining in... I mean, you looked so unbelievably appetizing; those red apple-cheeks, your body wriggling around like a worm on a hook..."

"I swear to God, Celica-"

"Ever think about getting frisky in our Proceed suits?"

The sharp reprimand that followed wasn't as effective when the embarrassment in Accela's voice made her stutter.

o o o

A pattern began to emerge in the following days. Celica could not bring herself to set foot in the apartment; she was up front about it, letting her friend know that she felt a reprieve from each other (outside work, at least) would be in their best interests. After all, it was these high-running emotions and instances of heartbreak warfare that had put so much strain on them in the first place. Maybe they could pick up where they left off eventually, but for now it was prudent that they get back to being friends before attempting anything else.

At the same time, however, Celica started what could only be called harassing Accela while they were on the job. Any spare moment that there were no ears around, she was whispering sweet nothings - or savory nothings. It was a wonder Accela's face was ever its normal hue instead of several shades ruddier. And while she playfully asked her to stop, and gasped in all the right places, she never again threatened to report her over it; this was merely the seedy underbelly of workplace banter. Until Celica tried to push her buttons at an inopportune time, it was an acceptable alternative to fighting... or making up before they were ready. Thus, the dirty talk continued.

Most frustrating for Accela was the fact that Celica used this as a device to divert the topic of conversation away from weightier concerns, like her health, or their fractured egos. Accela would bring it up, hoping to make some true headway, and would find her ear being blown on, or a decadent notion raised. It wasn't so much that Celica wanted to avoid discussing these things - though she did, desperately - but moreover, she knew that the minute she settled in to really examine what had transpired, to pick it apart and scrutinize, she might have another panic attack, or worse yet start screaming at Accela until one or both of them wound up sobbing in the corner. Was keeping the peace so bad? She didn't think so.

Eventually, Accela stopped trying. It was difficult for her, but she was forced to accept that Celica needed time to heal before she was ready to confront the dark places they had both gone to. But until such a point, what else was she to do?

o o o

I will go in, Celica was commanding herself. There's nothing stopping me; I am my own woman. I can do whatever I want. Just like now; one foot in front of the other...

But when she was within ten feet of the club's bouncer, she turned away. No! her inner voice shouted. Don't be a pussy! You can do it! Why should you require the company of a friend to venture inside a fine establishment such as this? Anybody is welcome. So let yourself cut loose for once, live in the moment.

Even so, her feet were heavy as she reached the man. He looked over her shoulder, shrugged, and stepped back to let her through. Now there was no turning back.

The music was loud and discordant, and the lights flashed in dizzying patterns. Neon lights led one straight to the bar, but Celica forced herself to ignore them; that was unnecessary. Alcohol was not a prerequisite for fun. With sheer determination, she guided her platform heels onto the dance floor, moving just enough to seem in the groove. Oh, Celica could dance - she could dance rings around all her friends without even trying. These days it just took a little prodding to get her limbs to do it when her heart wasn't fully invested.

A guy in a turquoise suit jacket was gyrating with her now. He was of the minimalist school; a few tried-and-true steps to get him by. When Celica really got a head of steam built up, he stepped back, impressed with her ability and knowhow; body parts wound up in positions that were theoretically impossible. After a few minutes, she settled into a more modest show of her talents, allowing him to slip in closer...

"So, what's your sign?"

Ugh, she thought. Well, that killed it. "Stop."

"What, what'd I do?"

"No - STOP sign. Get it?"

"That's pretty good," he laughed once he picked up on the joke. "I got another one for you. Why did the chick cross the road?"

"I give up," she said as she flipped around, grinding her shoulders into his chest. "Why?"

"To get to me."

She winced, but laughed for his benefit. As his hands glided over her upper arms, the fingertips brushed her chest, and she said, "Maybe you're new here, but that's not quite how we do it. Let me show you."

He let out an embarrassed gust when she darted around behind him, effectively turning him into the lady and her into the lead. Then, as her hands moved past his elbows, he turned and caught them. "Sorry, girl, but all this movement has got me ready to pop. Want to have our own private dance party?"

"Where did you have in mind, tiger?"

"My place. It's only two blocks down."

"I got a better location," she cooed throatily, fishing into her cleavage - and coming back up with her badge. "Lockup. I'll bring the handcuffs."

"Whoa," he said, holding both hands up in the universal sign for surrender. "Too rich for my blood."

"Hey."

Both of them turned to see a tall, Nordic woman with flame tattoos on her arms and a spiked mohawk glaring down at them. For a split second, Celica was sure they were both going to be forcibly ejected from the premises. Then, she turned to the guy and said, "I'm cutting in. Got a problem with that?"

"Uh, n-no," he said nervously; though he had an inch or two on her, considering he was no runt still put her near six feet. Even Celica found herself intimidated, especially with the added height of the mohawk. "She's all yours - if she's like that."

"I play interleague," Celica told him with a wink. "Don't worry about me, pal."

Though she doubted he got what she meant, he shrugged in a "can't win 'em all" fashion and pushed his way through the crowd, already in search of his next target.

"Tell me if I misread the situation, but you clearly wanted him gone, Miss Interleague," the Amazonian punker said as they resumed dancing.

"Good eyes," Celica laughed. "Thanks for the assist."

"You didn't really need it," she said, bending low and then running her jawline along Celica's torso as she stood - close enough to brush clothing without really touching. It was more intimate than Celica was prepared for, but not a true breach of personal space. Not out on the floor. "Just thought I'd speed the process. That was a badge I saw, right?"

"Yep; I'm RUC. Hope you don't have a problem with cops."

"Not unless they're on my tail," she laughed. "I get profiled a lot as a 'potential safety risk' or whatever. It's the hair."

Celica nodded as she allowed her partner to give her a twirl. "Plenty of prudes on the force. Not my fault, I'm not in charge of hiring or training."

"Bet if you were, this city would be less constricting and more exciting."

At this, Celica couldn't help but feel a blush coming on, but she stamped it out. No need to get overly flustered; she was just some girl in a club, and they were only dancing. Besides, she had enough baggage without taking on any more. "Maybe so. Um... look, I don't want to assume anything or act like I'm hot shit, but I, uh, I'm not here looking for anything other than busting some moves. Self-imposed dating sabbatical."

"Oh, don't even sweat it," the woman said, gliding her hands along Celica's arms the way it was supposed to be done - without fondling anything. "Part of me thinks that's a crying shame, but I'm actually here with someone."

"Yeah?" she asked, a smile of mingling bashfulness and relief playing across her mouth. How on earth was she giving off such a strong lesbian vibe when she was, for all intents and purposes, a straight girl? "Then why are you grinding with me?"

"She's in the can."

"Ah." SHE. At least Celica hadn't been off the mark in regards to the woman's orientation. Celica deftly donned the cap of the battle-hardened lesbian that she in no way was, intrigued at the possibility of becoming a temporary part of a culture she normally would never have experienced. Still, was it even a lie? After Accela, maybe she did have her honorary "trainee card". That thought gave her momentary pause, but she shrugged it off. The night was young; there was no reason the two of them couldn't flirt for a while. "Do I need to worry? Is she the... jealous type?"

"Even if she is, I've no regrets. It's just dancing. On the other hand, she's definitely not the type you ditch when the next shiny object passes by."

Celica blinked. "You sound kind of serious about her."

"Maybe." The music died as the DJ took a break to announce someone's headlights were on in the parking lot, so she stopped and wiped her brow. Celica's eyes automatically went to the droplets running down into the cleavage of her leather bodice, but she forced them up; that way lies damnation. "I dunno... sorry, I don't wanna drag everything down by sounding like a total girl, but..."

"But what?"

A quick shrug. She headed off toward the bar, and Celica followed; she could be near it without drinking. She could. And anyway, she was involved in a conversation with a potential new friend, so it was worth expending the additional resolve. As said new friend dropped onto a stool and rapped her knuckles on the counter, she said, "Sure you care enough to listen? I'm nobody to you."

"None of us are nobody to each other," Celica laughed as she started to hop onto her own stool. A fluttering at the back of her stomach came into being when she found her hand was being held; this imposing punker had helped her into her seat, almost without giving it a thought. The glow settling all over her was the glow of being doted on; it was nice and a touch exhilarating. "Um..." It was inevitable that she flushed, but she tried to hide it by tucking a strand of hair behind her ear - before she realized that was even more flirty. "Y-yeah, so you were saying?"

The woman flashed her a knowing smirk - the kind that showed she'd picked up on Celica's quickening pulse - before she turned to the bartender and held up two fingers. Since the man nodded and moved off to fetch the drink, Celica assumed she must be a regular. "Well, it's like this. I'm into this girl. Amazing, funny, smart, whole package; like I said, the kind you hang onto if at all possible. Don't know her that well yet, but we're making progress. It's just..."

"Let me guess; she's straight." Then Celica clapped her hands together. "Oh, wait, even better - married. God, I hate that one."

"Practically. Far as I can figure - since she won't come clean about it - there was this unhealthy breakup in her past, and she's been trying to hop back on the horse, but... I mean, it's not like we haven't been there, right?" The elbow that nudged hers told Celica that the punker was already assuming they had both burned their way through dozens of women and had seen it all. Mentally, Celica just substituted her experiences with men; they were pretty much all the same type of sleazebags, anyway. "Shit gets messy, and you kind of shut down so you don't get maligned again. I dunno. I wanna hang around her, hope she finds a way to move on, but she's shaping up to be the 'I'll never be over her' type."

Celica nodded. "Permanent crush on the ex. You think she was the dumpee instead of the dumper?"

"That would make sense. Not that I'm judging either way, but... there's only so long you can wait for somebody when you know it'll never be long enough, and you bow out gracefully. Sure hope this isn't one of those times, though; it'd be a real pity. It really would." Then, to Celica's surprise, two drinks arrived. "It's gee-and-tee. Unless you have a preference?"

"I, uh... I'm not drinking. Tonight."

The heavily-eyelined peepers squinted at her for a long moment, and Celica was just beginning to feel creeped out when she sat back and nodded. "What step are you on? Must be an early one, like three or four - since you're still pretending you're only not drinking tonight."

"I'm not in AA, actually," Celica laughed, amazed at how insightful this woman was. Maybe she had been wasting her time batting for the wrong team all along if gems like this were out there. "Personal decision, all by myself. Part of the 'Re-Inventing Me' campaign."

"Big girl," she said, impressed. "But then again, I get it; you're a cop. Used to handling the rough stuff without leaning on anybody for support. That's respectable." When the bartender passed again, she held up her thumb and middle finger, making a circle with them.

"What's that? You two seem to have your own lingo down."

For the first time, the stranger grinned, and Celica was dazzled by the whiteness of her teeth. "Bitter lime. It's 'zero', see? As in 'zero alcohol'. The two was for my favorite cocktail, which you now know - just in case you need to file that away for later. One is a beer. Three is a French Connection for when I'm waxing all bittersweet. And the middle finger is for a double-shot of bourbon, neat."

Celica was still trying not to be discombobulated by the "file that away for later" comment when she asked, "Why the middle finger?"

"Because that's what I drink when life sucks."

They were both laughing their heads off when the designated-driver special arrived. Celica had it raised to her lips when she thought she heard her own name, which didn't surprise her - until she remembered that she and her acquaintance had never exchanged names. As a matter of fact, she didn't know a single person at this club.

"Celica, what are you doing here?"

As she slowly lowered the glass, heart freezing in mid-beat, she only had enough time to register the sight of the redhead's outraged features before she heard the punker on the stool say, "Accela."

Three pairs of eyes shifted between each other, momentarily confused. Then, Celica put two and two together, coming up with five. All previous disorientation gave way to fatigue and discontent. This is it, this is the living end. I've been sitting here, cavorting and having a grand old time with the infamous Garabine, haven't I?

Crap.

o o o TO BE CONTINUED o o o

RESPONSE TO LILMAGI: You raise a very good point, one I did worry over when I was writing: "Should I specify any cultural origins of food within a colony that has no recollection of the true Earth?" Consider that they still think of themselves as being on Earth; therefore, I'm sure some cultural traditions survived, such as the name of the planet they THINK they're on. If that's the case, one could also argue that they would even remember the ethnic categories of their food... even if they don't remember that they used to refer to actual countries. Therefore, "Indian" in their minds is a type of food, not a place from which it originated. Of course, they could all be living on Soylent Green or using Replicators (a la Star Trek), but since they clearly show classic "Terran" dishes being prepared traditionally by hand in the anime, I figured their cuisine can't be too far removed from our own.

So... I figure that when writing a SoltyRei fic, you could go either way with it. They could still consume food much like our own, but it's equally possible that they've developed their own unique mash-ups of what was eaten by the original Colonists. Flip a coin, eh?

:rubs eyes: Oh, the pains of writing futuristic femmeslash...

Also, quick fun side note: I changed my FFnet avatar to a Celly pic. Yay, I suppose. Happy Valentine's Day!

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