Chapter 17- The Kennedys

Erica woke wrapped in James' arms. He pulled her closer when she moved. He felt good behind her, warm, strong. "Lo," she whispered and then noticed her headache.

"Lo," he whispered back. "How did I end up here?"

"Elsbeth. Your parents want your barracks."

"Oh…"

They lay together for a while longer. He kept his nose at the nape of her neck. "This is nice," he murmured sleepily.

"So," she agreed with a warm smile. She pulled the blankets under her chin and they both fell back to sleep.

A resounding pound on the door woke them. "Jump you lumps!"

Erica and James bolted upright and held their heads.

"Son-of-a-bitch!" James cursed. "I hate that when he does that."

"Somebody beat me," Erica moaned and fell back on her pillow. "Everything hurts."

He got up and stumbled into the bathroom. She fell back to sleep.

He returned with a glass of water and a few pills. "Get up." He kissed her cheek. She took the pills then rolled over and fell back to sleep once more. He gave her a few more minutes and then shook her again. "The shower is ready."

She groaned but struggled upright. She hobbled into the bathroom. The shower helped. Or the pills did. Anyway she felt better when she came back into the room braiding her damp hair. She found James still wasn't dressed. He wore only his pants and socks.

"Elsbeth hid my things," he grumbled as he looked under the bed. He looked in the nightstand then felt between the mattresses. "If I go out there without my full uniform I'm dead." He stopped to look at Erica with pleading eyes.

She helped him. She found his captain's insignia in the pocket of her pants and his shoes in the suitcase Marcus had loaned her. He cursed Elsbeth until they found his shirt folded neatly in her sweater. "Does she try to tell you something?" Erica asked as she pulled his shirt out.

He took it roughly. "Whatever the hell it is I'll brain her," he growled through his teeth. By the time he had finished dressing Erica waited for him with her arms crossed, her eyes closed, and leaning against the bedpost. He kissed her to let her know he was finally ready. They went into the sitting room together.

"Good morning Claimants!" James' father barked.

Jesse winced. "John please, have some compassion. The Moises are right next door."

He didn't care. He remained loud. "Take a seat. We bought breakfast."

Erica constructed a cheese sandwich then edged away from John.

John continued to serve his family from the dining table, repeating everyone's orders loudly at least twice as they leaned away and downed aspirin.

Erica sat on a sofa. The agent she had met with James the night before sat in the chair next to her. She tried to remember his name. She thought it was Paul.

"We met but I'm Paul," he said and still grinned. It was as if he didn't have a headache. He pointed out the other agents in the room. "I don't know if you met everyone last night so the red head is Charlotte. She's new in the SDD. She's a private." Charlotte turned when she heard her name and nodded to Erica. "The tall, dark girl is Lynsey," said Paul. "She's a major." He leaned closer to Erica, teetering his eggs and bacon on his knee, as if he meant to speak in a whisper but he did not. He spoke louder. "James is jealous of that. He's taken the major's exam twice now. He's stupid but we don't mind."

"Don't believe anything he tells you," James countered as he sat next to Erica and pulled the table closer. He set his plate down and began to eat. "I have only taken it once."

Paul pointed out another brother who looked like James but with big, wild eyes. "That's Ron. He's a lieutenant."

Ron sat on the chair across from Paul. "Nice to meet you, Claimant," he nodded to Erica with a handsome grin and started to eat.

Erica nodded back. He sounded like James too.

The generals came over with plates and sat on the opposite sofa. "We measure success by bars and stars in this family, not acres," James' father told Erica.

"Yes sir." She curled up on her cushion. "I've always measured it by quid myself."

He gave her a long, cool, calculated stare then bit off a chunk of sausage from a link.

Lynsey came over with a plate of eggs and toast. "I didn't' have a chance to talk to you last night." She put out her hand, which Erica ignored. "So it's true. You won't shake hands." She raised an eyebrow as she smirked. She sat in the last chair that was next to Paul. "By the way, you can call me Lyn."

Erica couldn't help but pause with her sandwich at her lips. Lynsey, Charlotte, and Ron laughed. James' mother cleared her throat. Lynsey glanced at her quickly then ducked her head and ate. The others continued to smile.

"Claimant Kinsley," John called to get her attention. Erica lowered her sandwich and turned to him. He nodded to her and added seriously. "I want to say up front, I appreciate the way you jumped up yesterday to put James back together."

James grunted slightly.

"He looked fine. He was off duty," Paul defended irritably.

Jesse glowered at him. "He should respect the uniform on duty and off duty. No SDD officer should be leaving his cap in a pile of debris and letting himself get in a state of disorder."

"Yes ma'am," Paul replied stiff backed.

James straightened and quit eating. Erica uncurled to sit up as well.

"On the other hand, it isn't every day a person signs claimancy papers," John added. He looked at Erica. "I understand you aren't too happy about having to do so. I saw Claimant Weir at your party. He said you refused at first."

Erica dropped her eyes. "They're idiots."

"Isn't becoming a claimant supposed to be an honor?" Ron asked no one in particular.

"Better to be in the SDD," said Lynsey as she threw James an accusatory look.

Erica noticed. "He will be in the SDD. We intend he stay SDD."

Lynsey's eyebrow rose slightly. "You are a firebrand like Claimant Mois described."

Erica scowled which made Lynsey laugh again.

"I'm sorry, Claimant, but it's a treat to finally meet you. I've heard a lot and you're measuring up to the tales already." She raised her hand in front of her nose to indicate Erica's below average height and then chuckled. "Not many people talk back to SDD."

"I be at a disadvantage," Erica bit back. "I didn't know James had a sister with your name. Seems you weren't worth mentioning."

"Ooooo," Ron, Charlotte, and Paul teased and shook their hands as if they were burned. They looked back to Lynsey for the reply. Lynsey shrugged and ate but she grinned too.

John mopped up gravy with his biscuit. He stuffed his mouth and almost couldn't close his lips he smiled so wide. He flashed Jesse a stuffed grin and received a glare.

"Be careful, Lyn," James warned as Lynsey bit off a piece of toast piled high with eggs. "Erica is always looking for sparring partners."

"Sparring?" asked Erica. "You know how to fight?" she asked Lynsey.

"You were serious that she can do that too?" Lynsey asked James then took another bite.

James nodded for both of them

Lynsey swallowed. "Are you any good?" she asked Erica.

Erica smiled wickedly. "'Tis only one way to find out."

A sly smile crept onto Lynsey's face. "I'd be happy to take you on, Claimant." She finished the last of her toast. "But right now I'd like to use your shower if I may?"

"Go right ahead," James told her.

Lynsey nodded to Erica and left.

"So? She be any good?" Erica asked the family.

"'Tis only one way to find out," Charlotte mocked her.

Erica raised an eyebrow at the young woman who smiled so sweetly Erica didn't mind being mocked at all. She smiled in return.

"You are not the only firebrand here," John remarked.

Jesse sipped her coffee. She lowered her cup. "No, unfortunately she is not."

The family laughed.

"The women in this family are more likely to be found in trees than in dresses," John added and sounded proud of that fact.

"You are in good company," Paul told Erica.

Charlotte finished eating and rose from her chair. She gave her mother and father a kiss. "I have to report for duty." She nodded to Erica, saluted her brothers and then left.

Ron and Paul finished eating as well. "We would like to talk to James and Erica alone," John instructed. He held out his plate. Paul and Ron rose from their chairs and returned the plates to the table. With a few nods and 'good byes' they left.

Erica watched them go. That left Jesse and John. These people were going to be her in-laws. He looked serious. She almost looked angry. "'Tis a thing?" she asked.

"No, nothing is wrong." He smiled. He crossed his ankle over his knee and laced his hands across his lap. "I want to say, Claimant, I think you will be a good wife for James. We will be proud to have you in our family but there are certain details of our relationship that will come out in the future and you should understand them now before you commit to marriage or commit James to the position of co-claimant permanently." Erica's eyes narrowed as he continued. "We are a few of the highest ranking generals of Quirni and we are part of the group that decided to bring you here from Marril."

Erica sat still, absolutely still. She fought the impulse to snarl an angry reply.

"You were getting too ill from the thayanite so you were brought here before we were actually sure we wanted you," explained John. "General Desante was in fact the motivating force. He saw you on Marril a number of years ago and he hatched the plan. He kept an eye on you. When you became too ill to stay on Marril he told us and we made sure you got off the planet."

Jesse continued. She spoke in a matter of fact, emotionless tone. "When you left Marril we had no idea what kind of person you were. We only knew you had been in jail and in the MSDD mental institution. Desante didn't give us a clear understanding of why you were hospitalized. He only said you were well enough for our needs. John and I wanted better answers so as soon as we learned you were on a ship coming here we put John on a ship to Marril. Until we knew more about you we intended to keep you away from Matilda. General Burk's orders when you arrived on Mois claim were to take you into custody if there was any sign of instability. At that time we hadn't learned enough to chance having you there."

Erica deflated into the cushions. These were the people who had caused her so much trouble. Her hands clenched in fists.

"One thing we knew for certain when you first arrived here is that you were openly hostile towards the SDD," John continued. "You spoke to SDD agents on the ship whom you thought were simply other passengers. You told them how you felt."

"We didn't want someone who was that antagonistic towards us trying to help Matilda," Jesse explained. "Nor did we want a scam artist and thief so at first we decided to let you go on your own to see what you would do. We wondered if you would resort to your old ways or make a new life. We allowed you to leave the Padt City on your arrival without an escort and without any SDD contact because of this. That, we admit, was an unfortunate decision."

"Because they dragged me through Cluny and poisoned me with the bacillus," Erica told them and her voice quavered.

John nodded. "Yes," he replied simply without emotion and without remorse.

Erica noticed James looked at her. She returned his gaze. He studied her but his face didn't give any indication of what he was thinking. He had to know all of this she realized. He had been part of the plan, the field agent, he and Elsbeth. Her brow knit then she took a long breath and relaxed. Her hands relaxed. Of course he knew how they used her. He was SDD and he was an officer. He had helped them use her. She swallowed hard to push down the rising sickness.

"James and Elsbeth are two of our most trusted agents," John told her but now he spoke with a note of softness. "When you left the Padt City the second time we decided to give you an escort for your safety. They made reports each week about your attitude and mental health. They told us you were not antagonistic, immoral, or insane. They said you hated the SDD but your feelings were directed toward past events. They said those events made you wary of associating with us but you didn't hold every agent responsible. Elsbeth reported that you treated them with kindness and respect.

"While they were learning this about you I was on Marril and learning other things about you and it was much more than I expected. A nurse in the MSDD clinic confided in me. She told me General Desante had used drugs that were not part of a proven therapy for people with your sort of disorder and she alleged it had ruined your previous therapy."

Erica's mouth fell open in astonishment. She thought the trip had done that.

John nodded, as if he understood her surprise. "I knew about your disorder. You told General Burk more. Once we knew what Enzus meant we had an idea of how the SDD traitors wanted to use you. I believed they had failed only they hadn't. They brought out Sal. Your father did it while you were in Nigh. James recognized her."

"You knew Sal was in control when I left Nigh?" she asked as she glared at them and then at James. She leaned away from him squinting in confusion. "You let me return to Mati's as Sal?"

"I didn't return to the ranch with you," James explained. "I was gone for a week. I recognized Sal when I returned."

She closed her eyes. "No."

"I was on leave," he explained.

"I was with them as Sal for a week without you around and Bruce…"

James took her hand. "I'm sorry but no one had any idea you had changed. When I came back I knew you weren't yourself."

She shuddered.

He looked uncertain about speaking.

"What then? Weeks went by not just one. Why? If you talked to me you could have brought me back. She lifted her eyes to his. "You have before. Why couldn't' you then?"

"I know," he said quietly. "I didn't try."

"What?" She blinked back tears.

"James convinced us to leave Sal in place," Jesse told Erica. "He told us he had met her twice while you traveled. He thought he knew her well enough to know how to use her. We were ready to take you away but he convinced us not to. He devised a plan to use Sal instead."

Erica's stomach rolled. She could taste her cheese sandwich in her throat. She pulled her eyes from James to his mother.

'Erica,' Zoe called.

She blinked in surprise. When Zoe called her name and didn't add any insults Erica was getting way too upset. James squeezed her hand.

"We had no way to prove who in the SDD worked against us," John added. "We had a good idea but we couldn't accuse Desante of anything. He was a three star general as are we. We had no authority over him and his plan to use you to help Matilda was widely accepted as genius. We were not in a position to question him. James knew this and thought of a means to identify who worked against Matilda. He convinced us Matilda should give confidential documents to Sal. She would act as if she believed Sal was Erica and she confided information about the North in you. James expected Sal would give the documents to Samuel and Samuel would give at least part of those documents to his SDD cohorts. We could track them as they were passed along and that is exactly what happened. That is how we identified Desante and Grund as the traitors."

Which meant Erica had been alone with her father. She tried to not think of what probably happened. She stared at the table between the sofas. She held her stomach.

"We caught Grund and Desante because of James' plan," Jesse told her proudly. "Sal ran to Samuel with the papers Matilda provided just as James predicted."

Erica closed her eyes and swallowed back her sickness. She was unable to hold back her tears. "Didn't know he was here. Would have stopped her if I had known."

"It's all right," said James gently. "She helped us."

Erica shook her head and faced him. "How could you let her stay out? How could you let me go with Bruce?" She swallowed hard. "With my f-f-father?" She put hands over her mouth.

"I'm sorry, but you were here to be used." James sounded pained as he spoke but continued. "That was the plan all along. That is what my parents are telling you. I used you too. I used Sal. The opportunity arose and I took it."

'Accept it,' Zoe ordered loudly.

Shut up. Erica shot back at her. She leaned forward.

'You idiot.'

She tried to take a deep breath but she felt too sick. Shut up Zoe.

'Idiot. He loves you!'

Erica flinched.

"Are you all right?" John asked.

Erica nodded. She put her hand on her temple. "Just a headache. Betty's pills don't fix everything."

"Zoe," James told them knowingly.

Erica dropped her hands. She sat up and gaped at him like he was a mind reader.

He laughed gently. "I've seen that expression on you before. I figured it out that it meant Zoe was speaking to you when I heard you reply to her. I already knew about you hearing her because I read your medical records. You released them remember?"

"To the Council?" she asked quietly. "To Lord Byrne at the trial?"

"No, by becoming a tenant to Claimant Mois. He showed me because he realized how I felt about you."

Erica took a slow breath. "He wanted to stop you from getting involved with me?"

"Maybe or I think he actually wanted to make sure I knew who I was getting involved with. He didn't want me to start something only to find out you weren't like the rest of us and then hurt you by leaving you."

Erica couldn't quite believe that. "He didn't try to stop you."

"No. He only explained things."

John uncrossed his legs and sat forward on the sofa. "Erica, your old psychologist spoke to Claimant Mois at length. Mois asked him to speak with us and he did. We know you hear Zoe and we know you don't allow her to run your life. We know what the others are like too; Lynn, Sal, Noel. Your condition worked to our advantage rather than Desante's. Perhaps you can try to appreciate that?"

He didn't look at her with pity or disapproval. There was no derision in his voice. He smiled slightly, the same little smile James had.

"I lost a lot of time. I don't know what happened." She took a deep breath and spoke lower. "The other day, my father told me I helped him. I didn't know… I – I can't imagine having done that to Mati."

"You didn't do anything to Mati," James assured her.

"I helped him. I betrayed her."

"So he thought," John replied calmly. "But you didn't. Despite trying Sal couldn't betray your friends. Matilda, Roger, and the Moises know you never ask for any personal information. You never asked Matilda about the scans. You never even asked about the North. You never asked about anything. Sal did. You don't pry into people's lives. Sal does. She asked a lot of questions. Matilda became suspicious immediately. They all did, Roger, the Moises, and even the ranch hands. They never told Sal anything of value. Your very nature stopped Sal. They didn't know why they reacted to you differently but they did. It is just unfortunate Sal claimed to be you and they believed it was you when she acted the way she did."

"They hate Sal," Erica told them.

"Perhaps," John agreed, "but they kept her close because they care about you."

"No," Erica disagreed. "It hurt them too much to be around Sal. It always does. They kept me because I couldn't leave. You made me stay there."

'Erica,' Zoe called again.

"If that is what you chose to believe, you may," Jesse agreed. "We are telling you about our involvement because you are engaged to our son. We do not tell you in order to mend ties with your family members or the Moises. Our choices will be public record someday. We don't want you to learn this when it's too late. We want you to know we made the decisions that caused you a great deal of pain. We aren't apologizing. We think we made the right choices but before you two get married we want you to know these facts."

These people were going to be her family. That alone numbed her.

'Erica!'

"What!" Erica gripped her head then immediately regretted it. She had to look insane. The generals stared at her in surprise. James slowly pulled her hands down. Tears rolled down her face. She shook her head. "I be feeling stressed I think."

"It's all right, Doll."

She felt that change, that sudden solidness of being. She looked at him, hardly seeing him for all the thoughts she had in her sore head. If he hadn't called her 'Doll' she could have remained scared and alone after her father brought out Sal. She could have ended up on Kinsley Claim with Samuel permanently. If James hadn't cared for her and called her 'Doll' and given her and Lynn both a reason to live, she wouldn't exist any longer. Lynn wouldn't, couldn't have fought like she did without hope for a home, for a future that was worth the fight.

He wiped the tears from her cheeks. Erica sighed. Everything was all right. He was with her. She willed herself to relax. "My pardons."

"We understand," John consoled. "You're fine. You are under a lot of stress but you're fine."

"Although you might not want to drink so much," Jesse suggested.

Erica half laughed. "Really."

"Really," John told her.

"Thank you for telling me all of this," Erica said quietly. She pressed her fingers into her eyes for a moment to stop her tears then drew a long breath. "Will you answer this; why did you attack me in Nigh?"

Jesse shook her head. "We didn't. We believe you and James that it was SDD but we may never know if it was Desante or Grund's men. There were definitely civilians involved too."

"Our best guess," said John, "Is Grund did it."

"Grund?" asked Erica. "Not Desante?"

"They were working together but unlike Desante, Grund didn't care about getting the scans. She believed she could send a private firm north to find the underground route but if Matilda started using the information, handing it out like she did in Pey, Matilda would be that much closer to going. Grund wanted to stop you from helping her, which is why we think she attacked you in Nigh."

"Grund ordered the white vest?"

"Burk ordered it but someone else had it made from sub grade fiber and simple plastic," John told her. "Perhaps that was Grund. Being that it was the only white vest constructed it was easy to get those changes made to just that vest. You saved Matilda's life the moment you put that on."

'Erica.'

She kept a straight face despite Zoe and sighed. "So what will happen to Desante and Grund now?"

"They will have court marshals. After that we will learn what we can from them."

"With Reagent 10?"

John nodded. "If they are found guilty."

"I would witness that."

Jesse frowned. "Why?"

"Because I want to know firsthand why they attacked me in Nigh. It makes no sense that either of them would. They wanted to use me. They couldn't do that if I were dead. Was before I even saw Mati. They did not know what would happen."

John's face became blank. "Civilians, even claimants, are not allowed to witness questioning of an SDD officer."

"Make an exception," Erica told him.

Jesse stiffened slightly and glanced at John. "The SDD has jurisdiction over the cases, Claimant. You can't witness the questioning."

"General," Erica said curtly and looked her in the eye. "Desante's actions caused my dissociation to return. Grund's actions got me shot. Either of them or neither of them may have poisoned me with red clay and nearly killed me. I have a case against them. I will press charges if necessary to get answers about Nigh.

"I don't accept your explanation. It makes no sense for either of them to attack me and since you say you didn't attack me, well, who else could have done it? They might know. I would know who this enemy be. They attacked me in Nigh for an unknown reason. Seems I should worry about that. I don't understand what happens with all the damn politics. I need to know. 'Tis just the North? Just Mati and her work? If so then why not attack her? Why me? More happens than just an attempt to stop me from helping her. That much I understand. I would know who to watch. They might tell me."

John drew a long breath. "You think there could be someone else involved someone we haven't caught?"

Erica held his eye. "Yes," she answered simply.

His brow knit as he studied her.

'Erica thinks!' Zoe exclaimed with a shrill laugh.

Erica rubbed her temple. "Damn, shut up."

John chuckled. "We'll talk about this later. In the meantime I'll see what I can do to get you into the interview."

Erica looked up, surprised.

His eyes narrowed. "I have a feeling you are going to be one hell of a claimant. Not too many people will badger the SDD and we are soon to be your in-laws as well." He shook his head. "And all this while you have Zoe badgering you."

"Zoe be a pest." Erica dropped her hand and sighed. "I just need to put her in her place."

Jesse raised an eyebrow. "How would you do that?"

"Do something she doesn't like," Erica answered. "As Mati would say, 'tis unladylike but before I do that I have one more question if you will. What do the Moises and Mati and Roger know of this, of Sal and how my father used her?"

"Matilda and Roger know all of it," Jesse answered. "She guessed most of it when we asked her to give you the documents."

"What sort of documents were they? Calculations?"

"Some were," James answered.

Erica smiled, remembering the day Mati had taken the documents from her. All of her attitude had been an act in order to make Sal think the documents were important. Erica had nearly shot herself over it.

"We felt an explanation would dismiss her fears," added John. "But the Moises didn't need to know. They don't know how we used Sal or how your father could use her except for what they may have figured out, which I must admit seems to be most of it."

"Could use her?" Erica repeated in surprise.

He frowned at her slightly. "Of course, you proved he couldn't do that anymore. He tried and failed. Even with drugs he failed. You are undoubtedly feeling the remnants of those drugs today. That could be why Zoe keeps bothering you."

"Zoe is just taking advantage," James told them. "You'll feel better soon, Doll." He pulled her close.

"I hope you are right." She rested her head on his chest. "Don't see how anything can get better with a claimancy."

"You are busy enough to keep up with a claim," John told her. "I have never seen anyone do as much as you have, illicit or otherwise, by the time they are nineteen."

Lynsey came from the bathroom with her short hair slicked back. "Did I miss anything?"

Erica stood and faced her.

Lynsey's head cocked to the side slightly as she looked down at her. "Claimant?"

"I have an armband of rings and thorns," she stated. "That means-"

Lynsey's eyes widened. "I know what that means. Elsbeth told me. I'm up to rings myself but I have the advantage of height, reach, and weight."

"Lynsey, I think you might want to be careful," James cautioned. "I wouldn't trust that look in her eyes. She's good."

"She knocked a man's head off in Pey," John added.

"Pardons?" Erica asked.

"You broke his neck," Jesse told her. "He's paralyzed until they can get him off Quirni and to the right sort of treatment. He'll be dead if they can't do it soon enough. We haven't the means to care for someone in that condition here."

Erica stared at Jesse in shock.

Lynsey whistled long and low and got Erica's attention focused back on her. "I guess you are good," she said. "I can always use the practice. Right now?"

Erica smiled ever so slightly. The prospect of a fight would always bring Noel around and Zoe didn't like a fight. She would leave.

Erica nodded hopefully.

"Claimant!" Jesse scolded and stood. "That is hardly acceptable behavior for a woman in your position."

Erica turned. "You asked how I shut up Zoe."

"It is unladylike," Jesse admonished. "Matilda is right."

"But it's fun to watch," James said.

"You quit goading them!" Jesse scolded with a pointed finger. "Now that you found the little devil you always wanted you can at least try to make her act like a lady!"

"Mother, that's a lost cause."

Jesse glared at James until John wrapped his arm around her.

Erica grinned at them then turned back to Lynsey. "Started training when I was ten."

"I was fifteen," Lynsey replied. "But we have longer years."

Jesse drew a harsh breath and crossed her arms over her chest. "I swear if you two start fighting it will be the death of me by embarrassment."

"Sparring!" Erica and Lynsey corrected together and both looked hurt.

Jesse closed her eyes and shook her head. "By God, James, one of these fighters in the family was quite enough and you bring home a second. And I'll be damned but she enjoys it more."

James and John both smiled proudly.

John crooked a finger towards Erica and Lynsey. "The base gym is open," he offered with a wild gleam in his eye. Jesse glared at him in disgust. "Just don't leave any obvious bruises you two. Especially you, Lynsey, she's a claimant."

Erica and Lynsey nodded.

"How's your headache?" Erica asked her.

"It hurts," Lynsey said.

"Well, I hurt from that and the Reagent 10 business leaves me sore all over so can we call that even for my thorns?"

Lynsey put out her hand. Erica shook it then Lynsey led the way.

"You will both wear equipment!" Jesse told them severely as she followed.

Erica turned. "You're coming? Thought you didn't approve?"

"I will enjoy seeing either one of you get your bottom whipped," Jesse told her sternly.

Erica smiled. She took James' hand as they left the building.

The sky had turned blue after a night of rain. The streets were wet. Erica took a deep breath. These people had brought her here. They brought her here without wanting her because she had been sick. That thought struck her and it made her happy. She squeezed James' hand. He squeezed back.

They encountered Matilda and Roger skirting around the puddles on the sidewalk when they turned the corner towards the base.

"Erica! James! You are up already!" Matilda greeted loudly. Roger shook hands with John and Jesse as Matilda looked at the group quizzically. "Where are you going?"

Matilda frowned at Erica's hesitation. She glared at James. "Well?" she asked him but he only blinked.

"We go to the SDD gym," Erica finally answered.

Matilda looked suspicious. "Why?"

"So we can spar," Lynsey answered.

"Erica!" Matilda yelled. Erica winced. Matilda sounded like Zoe. "And I thought having SDD around would make you behave!" she declared scornfully then turned towards Jesse. "She is a claimant now!"

"You're telling me?" Jesse said in disgust. "As if I could stop them."

"I've had stressful days, Mati. This will help me dig out from under."

Matilda stiffened. After some thought she relaxed and sighed. "May I come?"

"Of course," John told her. "Both of you are welcome."

Matilda gave Erica a weak smile. "You will be careful won't you?"

"Of course," Erica agreed. "I always am."

"You?" Matilda laughed.

"We'll look after her," John assured Matilda with a big smile.

Matilda didn't know how to reply to that since it came from a three-star general of the QSDD. Before she could, John and James led Erica away.