"Still so eager to be up and about?"
Alicia inhaled a spray of sweat as she gasped for breath, but she welcomed the teasing malice in Lieutenant de Riebeck's voice. The physical therapist was a fellow Cadreman, without a trace of the semi-awe her drop commando reputation woke in ordinary medics. He was even remarkably impervious to the fact that she held the Banner of Terra, which was even rarer. Both of those things were refreshing, and his complete indifference to her mental state was even more so. Alicia had agitated so noisily to get out of bed that even Okanami and Tannis had finally given in, but de Riebeck had been their revenge. His sole interest lay in getting one Captain Alicia DeVries not merely ambulatory but fully reconditioned, and his was clearly an obsessive personality.
"Looking a little worn to me, Captain," he continued brightly, and cranked the treadmill's speed control up a bit. "Care for another five or six klicks? How about another five percent of grade just to make it interesting?"
Alicia moaned and collapsed over the handrails. The still-moving treadmill carried her feet from under her, and she twitched with a horridly realistic death rattle and belly-flopped onto the belt. It deposited her on the floor with a thump, and she oozed out flat.
Lieutenant de Riebeck grinned, and someone applauded from the training room door. Alicia rolled over and sat up, raking sweat-sodden hair from her forehead, and saw Tannis Cateau clapping vigorously.
"I give that a nine-point-five for dramatic effect and, oh, a three-point-two for coordination." Alicia shook a fist, and Tannis chuckled. "I see Pablo is being his usual sadistic self."
"We strive to please, Major, Ma'am," de Riebeck smirked. Alicia laughed, and Tannis reached down to pull her to her feet.
"You know, I never thought I'd admit it, but this is one part of the Cadre I've missed," she panted, massaging her rebuilt thigh with both hands. The repaired muscles ached, but it was the good ache of exercise, and she straightened with a sigh. Despite her reactivation, she refused to cut her hair, which had escaped its clasp once more. She gathered it back up and refastened it, then scrubbed her face with a towel.
"I think I'm going to live after all, Pablo."
"Aw, shucks. Well, there's always tomorrow."
"An inspiring thought." Alicia hung the towel around her neck and turned back to Tannis. "May I assume you arrived for some reason other than to rescue me from Lieutenant de Sade?"
"Indeed I have. Uncle Arthur wants to see you."
"Oh." The humor flowed out of Alicia's voice, and her forefingers moved in slow circles, wrapping the towel-ends about them. Her success in so far avoiding Keita made her feel a bit guilty, but she really didn't want to see him. Not now, and perhaps never. He was going to bring back too many painful memories … and Cadre rumor credited him with telepathy, among other arcane powers. He'd always made her feel as if her skull were made of glass, at any rate.
"Sorry, Sarge, but he insists. And I think it's a good idea myself."
"Why?" Alicia demanded bluntly, and Tannis shrugged.
"Look, you never told me why you quit the Cadre." There was a trace of remembered hurt in her eyes, but her voice was level. "One thing I do know, though, is that whatever your reason, it wasn't just to avoid Uncle Arthur, and you've been hiding from him long enough."
She held Alicia's gaze, and Alicia heard the "and from me" as clearly as if her friend had spoken the words aloud.
"It's time you faced up to him," Tannis continued after a moment. "Whatever your reason, he knows you didn't 'fail' him somehow by resigning, but you're never going to feel comfortable about it till you talk to him in person. Call it absolution."
"I don't need 'absolution'!" Alicia snapped, jade eyes flashing with sudden fire, and Tannis grinned crookedly.
"Then why the sudden heat? Come on, Sarge." She hooked an arm through Alicia's. "I'm surprised he's let your debrief wait this long, so you may as well get it over with."
"You can be a real pain in the ass, Tannis."
"True, too true. Now march, Sarge."
"Can't I even clean up first?"
"Uncle Arthur knows what sweat smells like. March!"
Alicia sighed, but the steel showed under Tannis' humor, and she was right. Alicia couldn't keep pretending Keita wasn't here, however much she dreaded reliving that decision. Yet there was a reason she'd cut every contact with the Cadre-even with Tannis-and if the pain had scarred over, it was still there. Reestablishing the ties she'd cut might rip those scars away … and under them, she knew, the wound was bleeding still.
There was a limit to how much pain she could endure, even with Tisiphone standing between her and it and -
A heat which was rapidly becoming familiar tingled in her right arm, radiating from its contact with Tannis' left elbow, and she felt her friend's thoughts. Amusement. Pride in the way she was bouncing back from her wounds. Carefully hidden worry over the upcoming interview. A burning curiosity as to the reasons for her dread over meeting Keita and concern over their possible consequences, and under it a deeper, more persistent worry about Alicia's stability-and what to do about her if she was, in fact, unstable.
Why? She is your physician, and we need this information.
Not from Tannis-not this way. She's also my friend.
A mental grumble answered, but the information flow died, and she was grateful. Stealing Tannis' thoughts was a violation of her privacy and trust-almost a form of rape, even if she never felt a thing-and Alicia hated it.
Not that it hadn't been useful, she conceded. The first time Tannis had hugged her, Tisiphone had plucked a disturbing suspicion from the major's mind. Alicia's monologues had gotten just a bit too enthusiastic, and Tannis knew her too well.
Forewarned, Alicia had tapered off and allowed her manufactured dialogues to run down as if she were tiring of the game. Tannis had written them off as a sarcastic response to the people who mistrusted her sanity, and thereafter Alicia had restricted herself to occasional verbal responses to actual comments from Tisiphone. That worked much better, for they were spontaneous, fragmentary, and enigmatic yet consistent-clearly not something manufactured out of whole cloth for the sole benefit of eavesdroppers-and their genuineness had turned Tannis' thoughts in the desired direction.
Alicia hated deceiving her friend, but she was having those conversations. It was always possible she truly was mad-a possibility she would almost prefer, at times-and if she wasn't, she certainly wasn't responsible for Tannis' misinterpretations of them.
She squared her shoulders, tucked the ends of the towel into the neck of her sweat shirt, and walked down the hallway at her friend's side.