Chapter 136 – Troubling Thoughts
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Sam did her best to fade into the background of the memorial ceremony. When the official portion ended, everyone migrated to the banquet set out for the reception. Sam glanced around for Jess and frowned. Her friend was hip to hip with Srinivas again. She couldn't pinpoint when exactly it had happened, but some time after the battles in Pittsburgh and D.C., the two of them had become inseparable. Which would have been great if it didn't leave Sam with no one to talk to.

Feeling like a creep, Sam stood on the outer edge of a circle of the former National Guard guys and nodded along as they complained about the way the news talked about the EDA. She sipped coffee and nodded and pretended she belonged there until she overheard something more interesting behind her.

"Your secret admirer looks to have moved on," Kendra said.

"Good," Mike said. "Srinivas deserves some luck in the romance department."

"You're taking it well."

"Why wouldn't I? Srinivas finally moved on from you. Jess gets a boyfriend. I don't have to deal with awkward kid crushes. Everyone wins."

Kendra huffed. "Then who is it?"

"Who is it? Get off it already, Varanelli. All I need to make my life complete is to beat Nallit."

"You stopped drinking. You're getting back into shape. You have been making extra efforts with your personal grooming. Someone caught your eye, Ski."

"Or maybe I am trying to live up to my new role," he said.

"Is it Spencer?"

"Of course not."

"Is it . . . ?"

"You can't be serious," Mike grumbled.

"I'm just asking."

Sam resisted the urge to turn around and catch the full context of the conversation happening behind her. Who were the two of them talking about? A figure appeared at her side, causing Sam to glance over. Tracy stood with arms crossed, not looking at anything in particular. "Figured if the two of us are both pretending to be part of this group, we might as well stand together," Tracy said.

"What do you mean pretending to be part of this group?"

"I mean we've both been standing around the ex army circle like we actually belong here. Truth is, we're just enduring enforced social time until we can escape."

Sam blinked. This was more words than Tracy had ever exchanged with her at one time before. "Of course we belong here. We're all soldiers now. I just can't add anything when we talk about Woodrow. I didn't know him very well. You came from the same city as him, didn't you?"

"I worked the bar where he used to day drink back in Buffalo. I knew his name, knew what he liked to drink, knew he was too poor or too cheap to tip." Tracy hunched her shoulders. "Barely knew any details about the guy, to be honest, but he was a regular in my life for years. Out of everyone here, Woodrow was probably the person I had the most in common with."

"What about Jimmy?"

"Oh, you think I have so much in common with him since we are the only black people here?"

Sam winced. "Well . . . you're both in really good shape."

"Cody is in good shape. Joe and Greg could be considered to be in good shape. Hell, Mike is almost in good shape," Tracy said.

Kendra stuck her face between the two of them. "Who is checking out Ski's muscles?"

Tracy rolled her eyes. "No one is admiring the infamous building catch guy. I was just saying half the people in the EDA are fit. Even Cassandane has got a solid build."

"Cassandane?" Kendra's expression showed what she thought of that suggestion. "She's skinny, I'll give her that much, but I don't know if I would call her fit."

"I train crossfit," Tracy said. "And I do just about every mud run or obstacle race that comes around. I can spot a good build from a mile away."

Kendra grunted. "If you say so."

"Tracy knows what she's talking about," Mike said, joining their conversation. "The imperator might not have a lot of size, but she's athletic."

"Oh, really?"

"Calm down, Varanelli," Mike said. "I might not have hopped in the ring more than a couple times, but I lived in the gym training and teaching and coaching. I know how to size up athletic potential."

Sam shrugged. "I was Cassandane's room mate for a few weeks. She's got abs."

Kendra shook her head. "Of course she does. I'm the only plus sized woman around here."

The awkward silence that followed prompted Sam to keep talking. "I'm growing muscles from the pushups." Conscious of the eyes on her, Sam pulled her shirt sleeve up while she flexed.

Mike widened his eyes. "Whoa, Sam, are those guns licensed?"

"Oookay," Sam said, "I'm never doing that again."

Tracy rolled up her sleeve. "Not after you see what I'm packing."

"This just keeps getting weirder," Sam complained.

"Welcome to my life," Kendra said. "I don't think I could even handle normal anymore. Speaking of weird things, don't you have an abduction mission to get to, Ski?"

"Recruitment mission," Mike corrected. "I'm only taking the kid if he agrees to join."

Tracy held up a hand in a stop gesture. "Who are you recruiting?"

"Some kid that was on the news last night," Mike said. "Varanelli saw the story and told Cassandane, then they let me know I was breaking him out of detention as soon as the memorial was over. Which I guess is now. Let me get Spencer up to speed on what's happening before I take off."

"Do you know where you're going?" Kendra called after him.

"I'm just following the Ohio River until it merges with the Mississippi, then following that upstream to the big arch. I've got the exact address pinned on my phone."

As Mike left them behind, Kendra turned to look at the other two women. "Route seventy would be a straight shot," she said. "Does it make any sense to follow a river?"

"You can fly higher and faster navigating by terrain features than you can using road signs," Sam said.

The look of consideration Kendra directed at Sam made her nervous for some reason.