Under the canopy of autumn leaves, Charlie followed the trail from the village to the river where she liked to fish. Across her shoulder, she carried a pole that had a rudimentary hook on it, and a basket of bait was in her left hand. She also had a heavy satchel on her back that was filled with things for her afternoon.
Five minutes later the sound of the river’s rushing water stirred Charlie’s excitement, and she increased her pace. The days were getting shorter with winter approaching, which left less time for fishing or anything else. Whenever Charlie finished her chores for her human foster parents, she would collect her things and rush off to find solitude and see her secret friend.
Charlie neared the riverbank and watched the racing water, knowing there had to be fish. As the temperatures dropped in the Kardos province, food would become scarce, including the river fish that Charlie brought home. She set all her items down by the large boulder, then went in search of wood and kindling. Once she had made a small fire, she prepared the fishing line with bait, sat on the boulder, and started to cast her line while waiting for her company.
An entire hour passed before Charlie spotted her friend on the other side of the river. She perked up and waved at the older girl. Dorlon is so cute, Charlie thought. Dorlon was an Omega from Melitt, the neighboring Kalmar village. The river separated their two villages and provided an intentional buffer between their cultures. But ever since the day Dorlon and Charlie met at the river, their friendship flowed stronger than the water’s current.
Climbing off the boulder, Charlie propped her fishing pole against it, then hurried to the fallen tree that joined their worlds. She hopped onto the tree and watched Dorlon do the same, both meeting halfway across, suspended over the river. After the fateful day they first crossed paths, Charlie had taught Dorlon how to swim, but despite Dorlon’s new skill, Charlie didn’t like Dorlon crossing the tree alone.
Dorlon followed Charlie the rest of the way and eyed the rushing waters under them. “The ice is coming,” she said, pointing at the tiny crystals clinging to the rocks in the river.
Seconding Dorlon’s thoughts, Charlie didn’t look forward to the deep winters in Kardos. At the end of the tree, she hopped off, then helped Dorlon down. Charlie scooped up her friend in a firm hug, laughing at Dorlon’s playful snarl.
Dorlon returned the hug. “How are you?” For over a year, Dorlon had devoted their time together to teaching Charlie how to speak, read, and write Kalmarese. In return, she was learning bits and pieces of English, which had proven difficult for her. Charlie seemed to have a natural ability to learn new languages, and Dorlon admitted aloud she envied her friend’s skill.
“Great now.” Charlie beamed and walked her friend over to the side of the boulder where the fire was burning. “How have you been?” She hadn’t been sure if Dorlon would show up, and she couldn’t stop smiling now.
Dorlon shrugged and leaned against the boulder next to the fire. She wore a long fur coat, which kept away the early winter chill.
Charlie frowned and tucked her hands into the leather jacket that her mother had given her. It was still too large for her, but it made it easier to layer underneath it. “What’s wrong? Did something happen at home?” Over time, she had learned about Dorlon’s upbringing and her different relationships with each of her family members. Dorlon and her father were too much alike, and it caused minor explosions that ended with Dorlon hurt.
“Joh.” Dorlon stared at the fire, features icier than the cool air.
Charlie neared her friend and touched her shoulder. When Dorlon flinched, Charlie jerked her hand away and said, “He hurt you.”
“He did.” Dorlon crossed her arms, then looked at Charlie. “Because I tried wearing pants again.” She indicated Charlie’s own jeans. “Father warned me what would happen if I did it again.”
Charlie opened and closed her mouth a few times. She failed to imagine her own father being angry with her for wearing pants or anything he deemed masculine. He had encouraged her to be herself, to dress in a way that made her comfortable. “They’re just pants and….” She dropped the argument after Dorlon’s glower. She hated that Alphas received an automatic pass when it came to their treatment of Omegas. The only way for Dorlon to receive protection from her father was if another Alpha sided with her, such as a mate. But Dorlon was still a few years away from being given to an Alpha mate.
“Father does have a point.” Dorlon licked her lips and slouched against the boulder. “We’re not humans.”
“It’s not about that,” Charlie argued. “It’s about—”
“Charlie, we’re not like your people.” Dorlon held her friend’s gaze and reminded, “We’re Omegas, not females.”
Charlie shook her head and gathered Dorlon’s larger hand into her own. “You’re more than an Omega. You’re an individual, like me or anyone else.”
Dorlon sighed and squeezed their hands together. “Maybe one day it’ll be like that.” She gave Charlie a bitter smile. “But probably not before I die.”
Charlie wished she could save Dorlon from the Kalmar lifestyle and the expectations of an Omega that went with it. One day her friend would be mated to an Alpha, who would knot and breed her like a horse. Her heart fractured at Dorlon’s pending future, wanting to change it and knowing she was too small and too human to do it. In the future, their friendship would be buried under the planet’s soil because the Kalmar would kill them otherwise.
Inching over, Charlie hooked her arm across Dorlon’s back and pulled her in closer. “I’m so sorry, Dor.” Dorlon’s head rested on her shoulder, and it felt like the weight of their combined people on her. Charlie’s bones shuddered under the pressure, but she didn’t break. Her friend needed her. She turned her head and kissed Dorlon’s crown, whispering, “Perka gi.”
They stood together for some time, finding comfort only in each other’s company. Their friendship was special and a rarity among their people. The Kalmar loathed the Earthlings, while Charlie’s people kept the “mongrels” away from their lands. Nobody was able to broker peace, and the only thing holding the stalemate was the advanced weaponry the Earthling brought with them.
Charlie stirred when a distant sound caught her ear. She lifted her head and narrowed her eyes toward the direction of the unfamiliar noise.
“What is that?” Dorlon whispered.
“I think someone is coming,” Charlie replied, her voice low. “Get behind the boulder.” She glared at Dorlon, who stayed at her side. “Go!” she hissed and shoved her friend to the river side of the boulder.
Dorlon caved and tucked herself around the backside of the boulder.
Charlie reached behind her back and produced a bowie knife she pointed toward the oncoming stalker. “Come out!” she ordered in English. She flexed her grip on the handle and continued to creep closer to the source that was hidden behind a few bushes. “Come out or I’m going to attack you with my knife.” She held her breath and prayed the person showed themselves before she had to make good on her threat.
“Wait! Don’t! I’m coming out.”
“Raine?” Charlie asked, straightening up but still pointing the weapon. “What are you doing here?” She neared her sister and asked, “Did you follow me?“
Raine came around the shrubbery and tucked her hands into her coat pockets. “I just wanted to see where you go all the time.” She peered over Charlie’s shoulder, then tilted her head as a furrow creased her brow. “Who is that?“
Charlie groaned at Dorlon’s natural curiosity and turned around, confirming that Dorlon and Raine had seen each other.
Dorlon was standing tall next to the boulder, her features tight with interest. “Who is she, Charlie?”
Charlie sheathed her bowie knife behind her back and sighed at her human friend and Kalmar friend crossing paths. It was something that was never meant to be, and the unexpected change created a ball low in her gut. Switching back to Kalmarese, she peered over her shoulder and replied, “She’s my sister.”
“Sister?” Dorlon frowned and approached them. “She has darker skin, curly hair, and brown eyes. She looks nothing like you.” She remained a few steps behind Charlie, but her attention locked on Raine.
“Not my sister by blood,” Charlie replied in Kalmarese.
Raine placed her hands on her hips and glared at Dorlon before she turned her displeasure on Charlie. “You can speak Kalmarese?” She pointed at Dorlon and asked, “How long have you been friends with an Omega?“
Charlie bit her lip and glanced away until Raine snapped at her.
“How long, Charlie?“
“About a year,” Charlie whispered, flinching at Raine’s furious gaze. “Raine, I—”
“You’re a total dickweed!” Raine launched forward and shoved Charlie, who stumbled once; then Raine rammed harder and sent Charlie down. After sitting up, Charlie watched everything unravel between her two best friends from different worlds.
Somehow Dorlon managed to snatch Charlie’s bowie knife, and she surged forward, swiping at Raine. But Raine jumped away and backed off, hands at the ready, as Dorlon waved the knife and continued to growl.
“Rojoh!” Charlie scrambled to her feet and grabbed onto Dorlon’s outstretched hand, attempting to keep her at bay. As a human she was weaker than Dorlon. “Don’t hurt her.”
Dorlon remained still but kept the blade between her and Raine. Her long canines were on full display while she snarled and continued protecting her friend.
Raine glanced from the blade tip to Charlie, slight fear shining in her eyes. She opened her mouth but faltered and stumbled a step when Dorlon held her position.
“Stop, Dorlon.” Charlie implored and latched onto her friend’s arm, willing her to listen. “Raine is my sister. She’s hurt that I’ve been lying to her.” Ever since landing on Kander, her and Raine’s relationship grew more strained by the war humans waged against the Kalmar. Whereas Raine had stood up against the Kalmar’s mistreatment of Earthlings, Charlie hid from it and waited for it to pass. “Krafka,” she pleaded with her friend, her voice shaking.
Dorlon lowered the knife and huffed before she held out the handle to Charlie. She leaned in and whispered in Kalmarese, “She touches you again, and I’ll throw her in the river.” She released the knife to Charlie, then went over to the fire. She busied herself with putting firewood into it.
Charlie sheathed the blade and looked at Raine, who remained standoffish after the escalated fight. “I’m sorry, Raine.” She caught the shine in Raine’s honey-brown eyes and cringed at how ugly things were between them.
“It’s cool. I get it.” Raine looked over at Dorlon and nodded once. “You got yourself a new bff.” She focused on Charlie again and said, “I hope she’s better than me.” She turned and started to leave, but Charlie grabbed her wrist.
“Don’t go.” Charlie squeezed her friend’s arm and shifted closer. “I can‘t replace you. I just miss you.” Her voice continued to tremble, but she didn’t want to lose Raine. The distance between them had grown over the noreds, and she hated it. Her friendship with Dorlon was the only solace she’d found after arriving on Kander. “Do you have to go back right now?” Like Charlie, Raine had been given to a foster family after they landed on Kander.
Raine shook her head and glanced away, seeming to hide her open emotions.
“Stay with us,” Charlie said, need heavy in her tone. “Please.”
Raine fidgeted and bit her lower lip, denial crossing her features.
“Just give her a chance.” Charlie searched her friend’s eyes. “Please, Rae Rae.”
After a sigh, Raine nodded and allowed Charlie to tow her by the arm to the tiny campsite. Once she released Raine, Charlie folded her arms and stared at the fire. Charlie smiled at Dorlon to try to ease her nerves. “Is it okay if Raine stays with us?”
Raine lifted her gaze at the mention of her name and looked between Charlie and the campfire.
Dorlon shrugged and replied, “Ja.”
Charlie took the opening and said, “So this is Raine.” She indicated her sister, then pointed at Dorlon next. “Raine, this is Dorlon.”
Raine eyed Dorlon, then said, “Not like we can talk.”
Charlie grumbled at her sister’s flippant attitude. “True, but maybe we can teach you some Kalmarese.”
Raine narrowed her eyes. “Why would she teach me? Most Kalmar don’t—“
“She’s not like most Kalmar.” Charlie smiled, turned to her friend, and asked, “Will you help me teach Raine some Kalmarese?” At Dorlon’s mock glare, she smiled bigger and batted her eyes; she knew the trick would work.
Dorlon snorted and a slight grin pulled at her lips, until she looked at Raine. “I can teach her a few curse words without telling her that they are bad.”
“Dorlon.” Charlie shot a sour look to her friend and said, “Be nice.” She chuckled at Dorlon’s dramatic sigh when she agreed to help Charlie. Beaming again, Charlie turned to Raine and started with the simplest of things. “You know how to say ‘hello’ in Kalmarese?“
“Turen,” Raine replied.
Charlie nodded and said, “And ‘yes’ in Kalmarese is…?“
“Ja.” Raine shifted closer to the fire, which forced her farther into Charlie and Dorlon’s space. “And ‘joh’ means ‘no.'”
Charlie suspected that Raine had a few words down already, like most Earthlings, but so few had the opportunity to learn Kalmarese. The Kalmar seemed to want to keep their language a secret from the Earthlings. The only mutual language that the Kalmar and Earthlings had was what they could spell in blood. “Okay, so do you know how to ask ‘how are you?’ in Kalmarese?”
Raine shook her head.
Just as Charlie spoke the first word, Dorlon cut her off.
“You should teach her how to say ‘stop’ in Kalmarese,” Dorlon said. “It’s the most important word among our people.”
Charlie hesitated and frowned at the weight in Dorlon’s words. “I forgot.”
Dorlon had a brooding look and held out her hands over the fire for warmth. “You shouldn’t forget that lesson, Charlie. It could save your life one day.”
After a sigh, Charlie agreed, then looked over at her sister. “Dorlon wants me to teach you the word ‘stop.’ It’s a really important word in their culture.” She recalled what Dorlon had explained to her once they were able to hold conversations. “It has a lot of weight and strength to it.”
Raine’s features became taut and her brow wrinkled with lines. “Why?“
Charlie picked up two pieces of wood and placed them in the flames. “It’s kinda hard to explain, but when you tell a Kalmar to stop, they will stop whatever they’re doing or saying. They will stop and listen.”
“But what if they don’t?“
Charlie recalled what Dorlon had taught her about the Kalmar’s culture and why the word was so powerful. “If the Kalmar doesn’t stop, it’s a mark on their honor. They’ve broken the trust.”
Raine gazed over at Dorlon, who held Raine’s gaze for the first time since the earlier fight. Switching her attention to Charlie, she said, “You told her to stop.”
“Does it even matter for us? We’re humans.” Raine unfolded her arms and tucked her hands into her dark, lined canvas jacket.
“Dorlon listens to me.” Charlie had a slight smile and shrugged at her sister.
Raine snorted and said, “She shouldn’t.”
Dorlon surprised them both and said, “I agree.”
Charlie rolled her eyes, then gave Dorlon a playful punch to the shoulder.
Raine smirked at Dorlon’s teasing, then asked, “So what’s the word?”
“Rojoh,” Charlie and Dorlon replied together.
Raine pursed her lips and said, “Rojoh.”
* * *
“It’s like an hour from sunset,” Raine said.
“That’s plenty of time.” Charlie was carrying an armload of wood that she and Raine had chopped together. They returned to the camp where Dorlon was organizing a few snacks that Charlie had brought with her. “I think we can teach her in an hour. It’ll be fun.”
Raine released an exaggerated sigh, then grinned. “All right.” Like Charlie, she carried wood and unloaded it by the fire.
“Raine and I were thinking we could teach you to play a game.” Charlie put a few pieces of wood into the fire and returned to her earlier seat on a blanket. “I think Raine needs a break from Kalmarese.” The two hours of switching between English and Kalmarese had worn on Charlie.
Dorlon chuckled and sat down on the blanket with the other two. She placed the food in the center and looked at her friend. “All right. What’s the game?”
Charlie stretched, grabbed her satchel, and pulled out a worn set of cards. She shook the deck out of the box, revealing the comic book characters on the back of each card. Its vintage-looking artwork depicted popular female superheroes. The deck held special meaning to her, as it was a gift from Raine for Charlie’s sixth birthday when they were on the Liberator. She and Raine had passed a lot of time by playing different card games, but they both had one favorite.
“I’m not sure there’s a word in Kalmarese for it, but we call it Bullshit.” Charlie tried to hold back her grin, but it grew when Dorlon eyed her. “It’s fun!” She shuffled the deck several times and noticed how fascinated Dorlon seemed.
“What is that?” Dorlon asked.
“It’s called a deck in English.” Charlie held it up and said, “It’s made up of….” She searched her mind for the word that was close to the English word for a card. “Like paper.” She shrugged and inserted the card into the stack. She glanced at Raine, who was snacking on the food with a contented look. “Okay so here’s how this works.”
For ten minutes, Charlie explained both the deck of cards and how the game was played. Even with their language barrier, the game only required one word and the rest was all cemented in the players’ abilities to lie about their hands. As Charlie dealt for the first game, she heard Dorlon whisper the English word.
“Kulshet.” Dorlon grumbled and looked at Charlie for help.
“Bullshit,” Charlie said.
Raine swallowed her mouthful of jerky and looked at Dorlon. “Buuull.” She waved at Dorlon to repeat after her.
“The B sound is super hard for Kalmar,” Charlie whispered to her sister.
Dorlon sighed and attempted only half of the English word. “Kull.”
Raine shook her head and went slower this time, dragging out the B sound for Dorlon.
Charlie finished dealing and allowed the two to continue their lesson. She smiled at them getting along after the ugly first encounter. She hoped all of them could form a solid friendship. But Raine could still tell others about Dorlon once they returned to New Earth. On the walk back home, they would have to talk about it.
“Bullshit,” Dorlon declared, pride seeping in voice.
Raine laughed and nodded. “That’s good,” she agreed in Kalmarese.
Charlie chuckled at them, then scooted closer to Dorlon. “I’ll help you the first game. Okay?”
Dorlon nodded and mimicked Charlie’s motions with the hand of cards. At first, she was confused until they played a few hands. She lost the first game, but could play without help by the second.
“You just have to be a good liar,” Charlie reminded after she dealt the cards again. “Don’t let your facial expressions give away anything.” There were other clues or indicators when a player was hiding a card, but Charlie wasn’t about to give away all the secrets of the game. Dorlon had to learn a few things on her own. “Okay you’re first, Raine, since you won.”
Raine smirked, pulled a card, and called it before putting it down. She waited for anyone to call her out, but silenced passed. Dorlon went next followed by Charlie. They went a few rounds and called bullshit on each other. As the game heated up, Dorlon was the closest to winning and ahead by two cards. However, the stack of cards had built up, and as Dorlon prepared to put down her second-to-last card, Charlie noticed Dorlon’s hand curling in her lap—Dorlon’s tell.
She smirked. “Bullshit!“
Dorlon sucked in a breath, then her shoulders fell. “Vuk!“
Charlie laughed and picked up the stack for Dorlon. She heard Raine’s own snicker and traded a grin with her sister.
“I guess that’s a cuss word,” Raine whispered, grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh yeah.” Charlie chuckled at Dorlon’s continued swears and was pleased with her own hunch about Dorlon’s little tic when lying. Glancing toward the suns, she noted that the lesser sun was almost gone, while the primary one was inches above the horizon. “We should probably stop.”
Dorlon peered over her shoulder at the suns. “Ja.”
Together, the girls gathered up the things around the campsite and put out the fire with dirt. Without the heat, they shivered and buttoned up their coats to their necks. Charlie shared a long hug with Dorlon and promised to see her soon.
Raine stood away from the pair, watching them and waiting for Charlie. She started to turn when Charlie neared her, but hesitated at hearing Dorlon.
“Raine?” Dorlon was holding out her arm and offered a friendly smile.
Raine shifted on her boots, glanced at Charlie once, and then closed the short distance. She hooked arms with Dorlon and held it for a long moment. “Tah,” she said, but there was more written in her features that she spoke in Dorlon’s native tongue.
Dorlon dipped her head, then released her arm before heading to the fallen tree.
Charlie stood next to Raine, her gaze steady on Dorlon. She traded a final wave and waited there until Dorlon made it across the natural bridge. “Come on, sis.”
Raine took the fishing rod and basket, then led the way back to New Earth. “She seems pretty cool.”
“Yeah, she is cool.” Charlie followed her sister into the rusty-colored woods, using an animal trail to guide her. She noticed the slow, sly grin on Raine’s face and asked, “What?“
“She’s so cute too!“
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