“You are Sumner,” Charlie repeated in a breathy voice and squeezed Kal’s hands. No, they were Sumner’s hands, completely controlled by Sumner and no longer the Spirit of Kalatas. The play of emotions across Sumner’s face and the soul lingering in her green eyes sent Charlie into a tailspin.
Not only was Sumner free of the Spirit of Kalatas, but so was their bond, which whipped through Charlie like a summer storm. It howled and thundered deep inside of her, stealing her breath. Everything started to dim, then Charlie felt her muscles slacken. Sumner called for her, but it was so distant. She wanted to hold on, to stay close, and to smile in reassurance. Just as her body collapsed, a strong grip clutched her forearm and kept her from hitting the ship’s deck. Within a few ticks, she was hauled into Sumner’s lap and secured in strong arms.
“Breathe,” Sumner whispered and caressed Charlie’s face. After a minute, her rumble filled the air and comforted Charlie. “We’re okay. Come back to me,” she murmured next to Charlie’s ear.
“Sumner,” Charlie muttered and threaded her fingers into the dark mane of hair above her. The rush in her head settled down but left her a little breathless. “What happened? Are you okay?”
Sumner withdrew her head and smiled at Charlie. “I am. Are you?” She smoothed her hand against Charlie’s cheek.
“I think so.” Charlie sat up better in her lover’s hold, then gathered herself. She wiped the sweat from her brow and whispered, “The Spirit of Kalatas is gone.”
“It’s not gone,” Sumner said. “It must remain with Kander. It is Kander.”
Charlie opened and closed her mouth a few times, then shook her head. “Did you descend? From the spirit, I mean.”
“Joh. It’s a temporary separation,” Sumner said, eyes bright and searching Charlie’s face. “The god spirit will return to me when we come back to Kander. It’s waiting for me.”
Charlie’s lips turned down the more she thought about the new, unexpected situation. “You knew this would happen,” she whispered and narrowed her gaze at Sumner. “Why didn’t you tell me?” The days of jumpiness in their connection now made sense. It wasn’t Kal’s anxiety; it never was Kal whom she felt in their bond. It was always Sumner, who was being watered down by the Spirit of Kalatas. Without the god spirit, their bond was alive and felt almost tangible inside Charlie’s chest.
“You’ve been exhausted from training and stressed from preparing for this mission.” Sumner brushed several golden strands from Charlie’s face. “I didn’t wish for you to shoulder the worry.”
Charlie tightened her arm across her Alpha’s back. “You should have said something.” Her scowl deepened when Sumner grinned at her. “What?” she asked in a snappy voice, trying to keep her glare.
Sumner traced Charlie’s jaw line, then parted the small opening in Charlie’s leather jacket. Her earlier rumble returned, but it was twinged with hunger. “You are so beautiful.”
Flustered, Charlie fought to handle the unexpected compliment from her Alpha. Before she could come up with a snarky response, Sumner continued to whisper to her. “And gorgeous. I can feel the fire in your spirit so much more clearly now.” She pulled the zipper down, opening Charlie’s jacket. “You are my true mate.”
“Sumner!” Charlie was convinced someone was going to walk in and catch them. She halted the sweet assault before she could start writhing under Sumner’s touch. “We’re on the bridge. Andren and Raine will be back any minute.”
Sumner huffed, then nuzzled Charlie’s ear. “Perka gi.” She lifted her head and schooled her features. “This will be difficult.”
Charlie could feel her blush creeping down her neck. They needed space right now, so she scrambled off her lover’s inviting lap and nearly fell; except Sumner righted her. “I guess it’s easier when the Spirit of Kalatas is between us.”
“Mmmm.” Sumner stood tall in front of Charlie. Her eyes roamed over Charlie from head to toe, causing Charlie to put more space between them.
“Okay.” Charlie circled the air around her Alpha and said, “Whatever this is. You need to get a grip on it, quick.” She dropped her eyes to Sumner’s crotch. “Especially before you give yourself a hard-on.”
Sumner cleared her throat, but her voice still came out rough. “Everything is very intense at the moment.”
Charlie took pity, realizing Sumner had spent the last eight years cloaked in the Spirit of Kalatas. “Is there anything I can do?” She came back to her lover. Her hands itched to touch Sumner, but she didn’t want to distract her further. “Maybe Dorlon’s training can help?” She prayed Sumner could remember those teachings. Did this mean that Sumner had her memories back? Charlie’s heart fluttered at the idea.
Sumner dipped her head in agreement, then swallowed hard. “I’ll be fine.”
Charlie returned the nod. It occurred to her that Sumner’s speech patterns were less formal than when she was Kal. “We’ll talk about this more later. I just need to get the ships on track for Lerto.” She edged closer and asked, “Okay?”
“Ja,” Sumner replied.
“Betty May, is everything all right over there?” Landon called over the comms.
Charlie groaned and touched her ear to reopen her comm. “Yes. We had a small situation, but it’s okay now. We’re going to prepare to travel in a moment.” She switched to the ship’s internal comms and hailed Raine, asking for her to return to the bridge. She regarded Sumner again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine, Charlie.” Sumner appeared more normal, at least similar to Kal.
Even with the assurance, Charlie’s hackles were raised now. She struggled to reconcile what happened moments ago when they broke away from Kander’s orbit. Even though Sumner explained that the Spirit of Kalatas was waiting for her return, it left an ugly pit in Charlie’s stomach. Without the god spirit, Sumner wasn’t Kal, and it was showing right now. Would the Kalmar soldiers recognize the difference, then revolt? Charlie shoved down the rampant questions and focused on the first problem: getting to Lerto for hyperfuel.
Raine and Andren emerged on the bridge and asked if everything was okay. Charlie allowed Sumner to handle the question, unsure whether or not Sumner wanted to reveal what happened when they broke orbit. Sumner remained guarded and assured she was fine.
Raine said nothing, but her suspicious features weren’t soothed by Sumner’s response. She followed Charlie back to the cockpit and took her seat. Her voice held a slight roughness, but she was focused on her job as a copilot.
“Terdel, we’re ready to depart the solar system,” Charlie relayed over the comms. After they received confirmation, she nudged the throttle and tried ignoring the knot in her left shoulder. She tensed and held her breath as the Betty May crawled through space. Unlike last time’s dramatic departure, the bridge was quiet but too peaceful. For Charlie, all the noise was inside herself now that her connection to Sumner was wide open. She pushed it aside rather than allow it to derail her. She needed to focus on the mission, piloting, and keeping both crews safe. With her mental barrier in place, Charlie increased the ship’s throttle.
“Touching a quarter of a leed,” Raine said. “We’ll leave the solar system in seven minutes.”
“On your three, Betty May,” Landon reported over the comms.
“When we exit the solar system, we’ll go to leed two first, then push the ships to leed two and a half.” Charlie watched the navigation chart in the upper left-hand corner of the touchscreen. The journey to Lerto would take them about three hours. It was a short ride but enough to work out any kinks in the ships’ systems. Charlie prayed it was enough time to figure out their new situation.
“Two minutes,” Raine said. “Estimated time of arrival for Lerto is still three hours and ten minutes.” She glanced over at Charlie. “How long will it take to fuel up?”
“The tanks are pretty low,” Charlie replied. “It’ll depend on how busy the fueling station is. I’d say anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours.” She chuckled at the sudden smile on Raine’s face.
“Then we have time to go to the market?”
Charlie was accustomed to stopping at the bar on Lerto. On occasion, a walk to the market was necessary, but she had promised Raine they could pick up a techbit there. “Ja.”
Raine was beaming and returned to the console.
“Terdel, let’s set up the link between our ships,” Charlie said, hands dancing across the console. “Initiating link.”
“We’re receiving the link,” Will said. “Link achieved.”
Charlie let her hand hover over the throttle and said, “Are we clear of the solar system, Raine?”
“Clear,” Raine said through the comms.
“Terdel, go to leed two on my count.” Charlie tapped the throttle, inching it up to push more power to the engines. She gave the countdown, then both ships tore through outer space together. For a few minutes, she remained in the pilot’s seat and made certain that everything was still operating normally. They had tested the light speed capacity of the new engines, but it didn’t hurt to study the outputs. “Report, Terdel.”
“All systems are operating normal,” Landon said. “And may I say this is fucking awesome! So much better than piloting the Liberator.“
Charlie chuckled and replied, “Welcome to real space travel.” For another ten minutes, she watched and checked the ship’s responses, and a measure of strain left her body. The Betty May was in perfect working order. She made a mental note to message Sres and thank him again. “Let’s go to leed two and a half,” she ordered. As they increased the power, Terdel the Swift matched it.
“Solar winds are in our favor,” Raine reported to the team.
Charlie nodded, then said, “I think the Betty May can handle it from here.” She undid the buckle across her lap. “Your controls, Betty May.” Over the comms, Landon echoed the same command to Terdel the Swift‘s flight system.
“Acknowledged,” the Betty May responded.
“I’m going to check some reports on the charts,” Raine said to her sister without looking up.
Charlie squeezed Raine’s shoulder, then went to the bridge and stood near Sumner. “I’m going to rescue Kaden from our quarters, take her to the garden, and then grab a bite.” She ate a quick breakfast this morning, but she hoped to get alone time with Sumner. They had a lot to discuss.
“I’ll join you.” Sumner freed herself from the captain’s chair, but she turned to Andren. “How are you feeling?” She had struck Andren by accident when the Spirit of Kalatas separated from her.
“I’m okay, Kal.” Andren released the chair’s lap belt and stood next to her ruler. “Tah.”
Sumner clasped Andren and said, “Perka gi.” She withdrew and departed with Charlie. In the hallway, they were quiet and their boot steps filled the void.
Charlie led the way to their shared quarters and smiled when Kaden bounded over to her. “Survived, huh?” She knelt, petted Kaden, and ruffled her poufy mane. Their closeness distracted her from the heaviness in her chest. Her shared link with Sumner reminded her of rushing water beating against a sealed compartment of a sinking ship. If she opened it, she was certain she would drown. “Do you want to go to the garden?”
Kaden wagged her fluffy tail and hurried to the closed door.
Charlie took the positive response and ushered them out the room, heading for the garden that Sres had to replace during repairs. The plants were unable to survive long in the bitterness of the Snowlands without the ship’s systems to regulate the temperature. As a result, the former garden had been unbolted, removed, and replaced with a new unit. It could have been converted to something more practical like a gun turret, but it was the one deck meant for Kaden. Charlie did admit to herself that she, too, enjoyed the terrestrial plants.
Kaden followed her nose to her favorite place but often peered back to ensure Charlie and Sumner were with her. Once there, the glass door’s sensor detected Kaden and opened for her.
Charlie entered after Sumner and traveled the stone path through the grass to the single wooden bench. She sat on one end and waited for Sumner to take the other spot.
Kaden busied herself with sniffing and trotting around the garden. A few times she rolled on her back in the grass between two trees.
“How are you feeling?” Charlie asked her Alpha. She wiped her damp palms against her jeans, then met the brilliant green eyes above her. Kal was gone, evaporated into thin air as if never existing in the first place. Next to Charlie was a stranger, at least at first glance. This new person had the same body, familiar movements, with a softer countenance. At one time, Kal had said she was walking around Kander with a full suit of armor. With the armor stripped away, it was purely Sumner who remained.
“I’m okay,” Sumner said. Her voice was firm, yet her eyes darted in every direction. She gazed about the garden as if seeing it for the first time, even though Charlie had given a tour of the ship. “For eight years, I have been asleep.”
Charlie swallowed and clenched her hands. Eight years ago, Sumner had ascended to become Kal and sacrificed everything for her people. As much as Charlie admired Sumner’s devotion to Kander, it also wrenched her heart.
“But you woke me up the moment we met,” Sumner said. “Since that day, I have been watching and listening to everything I have done or said as Kal.”
“You said the Spirit of Kalatas is like armor,” Charlie whispered, studying her Alpha’s profile. Her heart was racing, like her thoughts. Inside her, their bond was loud enough to leave an ache in Charlie’s bones. Charlie suspected that Sumner’s awakened awareness influenced Kal’s decisions. Kal had indeed changed, even to Charlie.
“Ja.” Sumner breathed in, as if it was new to her. She met Charlie’s stare and said, “Now it’s stripped away and everything is alive.” She lowered her gaze to her lap, opening and closing her hands. “Everything is noisy, intense, and a little confusing.” Her lips thinned into a line, then she closed her eyes.
“Hey.” Charlie turned on the bench until she faced Sumner, then she covered her lover’s hands with her own. “We’ll get through this.” She squeezed, but shuddered at the distraught glint in Sumner’s dulled eyes. “We’ll figure it out. Together.” Her confident smile was back, and she hoped Sumner took strength from her.
“Ja, I know.” Sumner pursed her lips and watched Kaden stretch out across the grass next to a bush. “Perka gi for not telling you. I was concerned you would scrap the mission if you knew I would no longer be Kal.”
Charlie sighed, but Sumner’s honest concern needled her in the right spot. A part of her was freaking out, even if they worked through this dilemma. Right now, it served no purpose to lecture Sumner for withholding the information. They were forced to move forward with both their decisions. “I knew something was up,” Charlie said, a waver in her voice. “But I didn’t say anything either.”
Sumner studied their linked hands, grazing the length of Charlie’s fingers. Her touch was delicate and affectionate while something in her features whispered uncertainty and distance. For Charlie, it was strange to watch the shift of emotions on Sumner’s face, which had always been so stoic.
“We can still go back to Kander,” Charlie said but frowned at Sumner’s somber state. “We can find another way. Maybe get the Grand Marshal to come to Kander.”
“Joh. The Grand Marshal will refuse to come to Kander.” Sumner took a deep breath and straightened her back. “We must continue. I must forge an alliance with Serrato Corps. To do that, I cannot cower on my planet.”
“How is remaining on Kander a weak thing? It would be safer.” Charlie gripped Sumner’s shoulder and whispered, “Maybe we should go back.” If Sumner returned to Kander, then she would be rejoined with Spirit of Kalatas, who would shield Sumner from risk, injury, and death. But as Charlie’s insistences hung in the air, she sensed her mistake, hollowing out doubt in her earlier promise that they could handle the situation.
“You don’t believe I can do this,” Sumner said in a growly tone, then sprung up from the bench.
Charlie scrambled and cut off Sumner’s escape from the garden. “Wait.” She held back Sumner’s retreat and said, “Krafka, Sumner.” Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. The panic was evident on her face, causing Sumner to step back. “I don’t think you can’t do this. I know you can. But that doesn’t mean I think you should be doing this. We have a limited number of soldiers and resources to protect you. And now, you don’t even have the god spirit to protect you.” The first tear fell, then her throat started to lock up, but she kept blurting out what was in her heart. “There are so many dangers out here. Dangers you can’t even grasp because you’ve never been in outer space.” She seethed as her frantic mind taunted her, plucking at her heart with harrowing images of Sumner’s death. “I could lose you! So fucking easily!”
Sumner lowered her shoulders and clenched her jaw. Her eyes were glassy from the flooding intensity in their bond. “Charlie…”
“The real reason why you didn’t tell me that you’d lose the god spirit was because you’ve been trained so well to sacrifice yourself. You knew I’d stop this mission to protect you.” Charlie edged closer to Sumner and narrowed her eyes at her. “Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that they haven’t drilled the self-sacrificing bullshit into your head because you’re the finna.”
Sumner was trembling and held out her hands, but Charlie avoided her. She was flushed and nearly panting as Charlie exploded on her.
“If you don’t come back from this mission, it’s no big fucking deal, is it?” Charlie snapped, her voice growing louder, causing Kaden to whine. “Kalatas will just merge with the next finna and things will continue like normal.” She snarled and tried withholding the rest of her tears, but they fell onto her reddened cheeks. “But you know what? You’re important!” Charlie’s throat was raw, her chest aching and her limbs weakening the more she yelled her truths. “You’re important to me!”
Sumner advanced on Charlie, caught her tumbling body. But she was as weakened by the agonizing turmoil, collapsing to the stone walkway. She pulled Charlie into her lap and curled her body over Charlie, who hooked her legs around Sumner’s waist. Charlie’s soft sobs were matched by Sumner’s mournful howl that further stirred Kaden.
Charlie clung to her Alpha, who fought to shield Charlie from the storm within their connection. But her tears continued to wrack her body. She curled and twisted her fingers into Sumner’s jacket while she shook. “I c-can’t lose you, Sumner.”
“We’re okay,” Sumner murmured and rocked their joined bodies. “I won’t leave you.”
Not yet, Charlie’s mind taunted her. She reached and tangled her fingers into Sumner’s mane, then turned Sumner’s head until their lips brushed together. “That’s a promise you c-can’t keep.” Sumner was a finna and destined to sacrifice herself for her people at any cost. To do anything less was a dishonor to Sumner’s calling. For a moment, Charlie studied Sumner through her blurry vision, willing the tears to dry. “But I will do everything I can to protect you.” The wild pace of her heart started to ease a fraction. She joined their lips again and shared a salty kiss that ended Sumner’s death grip. Their kiss was desperate and long, calming pieces of Charlie.
By the end of it, Sumner was purring, which calmed them both. She then wiped Charlie’s face dry and murmured, “I will follow your lead on this mission, Charlie. I will do everything you ask.” She cupped Charlie’s face in her hands. “I want to return to Kander. My intent wasn’t to sacrifice myself on this mission.”
“I know.” Charlie combed her fingers through Sumner’s hair. “But you’re so willing to throw yourself into danger.”
“So are you,” Sumner whispered and traced Charlie’s bottom lip. There was no argument; Charlie faced the same amount of danger at every turn. At first, the danger was inherent in the pay she received for the jobs. The risk earned her good money. But now, Charlie wasn’t that person anymore. The mercenary in her scoffed at the silly, selfless actions and decisions she made lately. Charlie ignored that condescending voice that continued to fade away.
“You’re right,” Charlie said after a drawn silence, then sniffed. “It’s kind of ruining my Galaxy Master image, honestly.” She smiled when her joke paid off and Sumner chuckled.
“I think I prefer Starfighter anyway,” Sumner teased. The earlier heaviness from their mutual outburst fell away from them.
“I noticed at that last alping with Vaal-da.” Charlie lifted an eyebrow and tried a mock glare that failed within a tick. “Starfighter is kind of more badass sounding anyway. I think I can live with it.”
Sumner rumbled and ducked her head, nipping and tasting the skin along Charlie’s neck. Her attempt to further calm Charlie worked until Kaden distracted them.
Charlie peered over at Kaden pressed up against her thigh. “It’s okay, Kaden.” She petted Kaden and considered what was ahead of them. At least she had time to adjust for Sumner’s unexpected change before they arrived at Serrato. But right now, she couldn’t plan for the near future without understanding how it affected Sumner, besides losing her godly powers. She placed a hand over her stomach and said, “I’m still hungry.”
Sumner smiled in response and nuzzled Charlie. “We have time to eat before Lerto.”
“Ja.” Charlie tilted her head and leaned back until she had a full view of Sumner. “So, do you remember your old life?”
“Ja. I remember.”
Charlie untangled herself in a rush, then helped Sumner stand with her. Kaden bounced on her paws and went to the glass door, which slid open. “I have a hundred questions.” She grabbed her Alpha’s wrist and dragged her from the garden. “Come on. You have to tell me everything.”
* * *
Charlie and Sumner had taken up a spot in the corner of the mess deck. Charlie was curled up on the bench’s side that was against the ship’s hull. To her right was a panoramic window that stretched from one end of the mess deck to the other. The table was large enough for four humans or two Kalmar. Sumner took up all the space on her side. There were several tables spread out in the mess, but no one else was there. Their table had a few dirty dishes and a fruit bowl, which they plucked bite-size pieces from while they chatted about Sumner’s life before Kal.
“How do you say your village’s name again?” Charlie asked. She had been close to touring the village, and would have, if it hadn’t been for the Sworne’s arrival.
“Pirra,” Sumner repeated. “It’s in the western region of the province.”
Charlie recalled the drive when they left New Earth. If only she’d had a chance to see it for herself. She wanted to learn everything about her Alpha. “Fairlee is your twin sister, right?” Even though Fairlee was an exact, tinier copy of Sumner, a shred of doubt was there.
“Ja. Fairlee is two minutes older than me,” Sumner replied with a tiny smile. “We had an older brother, but he died when we were about six.”
Charlie startled at the news and drew a leg up onto the bench, hugging herself. “Disease?”
Sumner rumbled, stretched out her legs, and pressed the boot soles against the bench. “His name was Artin. He died from infection after an accident on the farm. My parents didn’t have enough money to purchase the necessary herbs to fight the infection.”
Charlie cringed and shook her head. “Perka gi, Sumner.” She reached across the table and rubbed her lover’s wrist. For noreds she had wanted to learn more about Sumner, but Charlie hadn’t considered what bad memories might resurface. It was the very reason the Spirit of Kalatas boxed away Sumner’s memories from her old life.
“It was a slow death,” Sumner whispered, eyes shining with emotion. She shook it off and focused on Charlie. “Fairlee and I visited his remembrance shrine nearly every day. It was on the family farm.” With her hands folded over her lap, she said, “My parents’ names are Thane and Elora. They would probably be in their late forties now.”
The special details about Sumner’s life warmed Charlie. She craved to learn everything about her Sumner, no matter how small. “Who do you look like more? Your mother or father?”
“Possibly my mother. We have our mother’s eyes and father’s hair. Perhaps my father’s nose.” Sumner tilted her head and seemed lost in thought about her parents’ appearances. “Certainly, my mother’s stubbornness.” She grinned at Charlie’s chuckle. “I have my mother’s talent for drawing.”
“Can Fairlee draw?” Charlie asked.
Sumner snorted and shook her head. “She can barely draw stick figures.”
“Your hand drawings are beautiful,” Charlie said after another laugh. “So is the mural in the bathroom. Did Lurain say anything to you about it?”
“Joh. I have caught her admiring it, but she has never spoken about it.” Sumner paused, then grabbed a piece of fruit from the bowl. “I sketched it one evening, then painted it the next. It was one of the few moments that the Spirit of Kalatas allowed me to breathe.”
“Maybe it knew you needed an outlet, like the sketch book.” Charlie played with the cup of water and considered Kal versus Sumner. They were similar people, but Kal was far harder and stern. Even now, Sumner was relaxed in her posture, stretched out, a little slumped, and body language open. Sumner’s speech pattern had altered slightly; she used more contractions than when she was Kal. Charlie was certain Sumner could be stoic, but it wasn’t necessary right now. It was just the two of them, hiding away from everyone else on the ship. “What’s your favorite color?”
Sumner smirked and replied, “Yellow.”
Charlie rolled her eyes and argued, “You mean gold like my hair.” She melted at Sumner’s smugness and tried to hold back her body’s automatic response. “Is blue your second favorite?”
“You’re impossible.” Charlie smacked her lover’s calf under the table. She drew up her other leg and sat cross-legged on the bench. Leaning forward, she narrowed her gaze at Sumner and asked, “Are you scared of heights or is that a Kal thing?” Her jaw slackened at Sumner’s sudden blush, which was adorable. Charlie was certain she could swoon over her Alpha’s gentler side surfacing now that the Spirit of Kalatas was gone.
Sumner fidgeted once and leaned against the table, but she peered over her shoulder to ensure they were still alone. With a bashful smile, she replied, “I am terrified of heights.”
Charlie melted another degree and struggled not to climb into Sumner’s lap. She curled her fingers around her pant leg and considered how Sumner developed such a fear.
“I don’t comprehend how you are so comfortable to board a ship, travel through the air and into outer space,” Sumner said and held Charlie’s gaze. There was admiration and a hint of wonder glowing in her emerald eyes. “Even here in outer space…” She paused and gazed toward the window. “We could die instantly if the ship’s systems fail.” Outer space was less safe than flying in an atmosphere. Sumner was right that if the ship’s oxygen system failed or if there was a fire, then they were doomed within minutes. However, an in-flight emergency while in a planet’s atmosphere offered more time, a chance to land and survive.
“I love flying. And I was fascinated with outer space, ever since I was a kid.” Charlie flashed a grin, then went serious and said, “It scares me too, but not enough to paralyze me. It’s just enough fear to make me respect it.”
Sumner pursed her lips and nodded, seeming to accept Charlie’s explanation. “When Fairlee and I were small, we played with each other often. One of our favorite games was Hunter and Prey where one had to hide while the other hunted them.”
Smiling, Charlie pictured the twins enjoying the Kalmar version of hide-and-seek. The game was probably more challenging since Kalmar had a strong sense of smell and could track someone.
“My father’s farm is fairly large and there were a lot of great hiding spots. But most of the time, the best place to throw her off my scent was in the barn.” Sumner had a mischievous smile that took years off her features.
“All the different smells, right?” Charlie’s guess was confirmed with a soft nod.
“Especially the horses,” Sumner replied. “I usually hid in a stall or around the equipment. After a while, Fairlee started to figure out my pattern, so one time I decided to try something different. I climbed up into the hayloft and buried myself under the loose hay.”
Charlie snorted low and shook her head. She could picture Sumner as a child, tucked under golden hay, a pair of green eyes peeking out. “Did she find you?”
“Of course.” Sumner sighed and drummed her fingers against the table. “We are twins and have always shared a connection. I knew she would find me at some point, and I planned to scare her.”
Laughing, Charlie swatted her Alpha’s forearm and said, “You were so mean to your sister.”
Sumner rolled her eyes and argued, “She won most pranks. This was one of my best ideas at the time.” She grinned at Charlie’s soft laugh. “I stayed underneath the hay for quite some time. I might have even dozed off. But eventually, I heard Fairlee climbing the ladder to the loft and calling for me. She knew I was there.”
Charlie leaned closer, enthralled by Sumner’s story about the two sisters. Her heart ached for them and how the Spirit of Kalatas kept them separated. Not long ago, Kal had been outside of Pirra and minutes away from seeing Fairlee again. “Did you scare her?”
“Ja. I jumped out of the hay when she was close enough. She screamed while I tackled her, then we started to wrestle.” Sumner shook her head. “There was a lot of pushing, shoving, and growling at each other. Then I tried to rush her, missed, and went off the side of the loft.”
“Oh gods!” Charlie touched her forehead and gawked, even though she knew everything turned out okay. “You fell to the ground?” Now it made sense why Sumner would hate heights.
Sumner shook her head and replied, “My father had a rope on a pulley and rail attached to the ceiling. I was lucky and grabbed it before I hit the ground.” After Charlie blew out a breath, Sumner smirked and said, “But I was holding onto both sides of the rope. I was too scared to grab the side that would let me go down.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Nothing,” Sumner admitted. “I was frozen.”
Charlie reached over and laid her hand on her Alpha’s forearm. She ran her fingers along Sumner’s warm skin and listened to the last of the story. “What happened then?”
“Fairlee climbed down from the loft. At first, she tried to get me to let go of the one side of the rope, but I couldn’t do it.” Sumner sighed at her younger self. Her cheeks were tinted with a light pink from the embarrassing childhood story. “Somehow, Fairlee managed to push one of father’s carts underneath me. It was full of straw for the horse’s stalls. After a lot of convincing and threats, I let go and fell into it.”
After a chuckle, Charlie squeezed her lover’s muscular arm and said, “It’s no wonder you’re freaked out by heights.”
“Ja.” Sumner sighed, shook her head, and muttered, “Fairlee was mad at me for several nineths.” She grinned at Charlie. “She also called me an idiot numerous times. I was rather uncoordinated as a pup.”
“That’s so hard to believe,” Charlie said and indicated her lover’s physique as an argument. “I mean you kicked my ass during our challenge.” She hated to admit it, but Kal had beat her with ease and would have defeated her faster if it weren’t for the Galactic Hammer. The mention of the challenge triggered Sumner to preen like a prized rooster.
“I warned you that I would.”
“Okay, stud. No need to kick a horse while it’s down,” Charlie said but secretly enjoyed Sumner’s Alpha nature rearing its head.
Sumner chuffed and pretended to table the challenge win, even though her eyes were bright. “It took me many, many years of training to achieve such skills as a fighter.”
“I can believe that.” Charlie had recently started training. So far, it was demanding and tore down her confidence as a fighter, but she hoped in time it would rebuild her confidence. She was amazing with a handgun and decent with a bowie knife. However, if she lost those weapons, she was at a great disadvantage against someone who could use their hands, feet, and teeth. After clearing her throat, she asked, “So, were there any cute Omegas back in your village you had a crush on?”
A rumble rolled through Sumner’s chest, then she revealed a dangerous grin. “At a young age, I was betrothed to the baker’s daughter.”
“What!” Charlie would have fallen to the floor if she weren’t seated. Her heart lurched at the thought of her Alpha being mated to someone else. A romantic crush as a child was one thing, a betrothal was another matter.
“It was many years ago, Charlie. Before my family learned I was the next finna.” Sumner shifted in the seat and a slight frown played across her features. “Because I’m a Carnec Alpha, it is difficult for me to find a mate. Because of my brother’s death, I stood to inherit my family’s farm, and therefore, I was valuable as an Alpha.”
Charlie groaned, propped up an elbow on the table, and leaned on her hand. “That is so old-school.”
“Didn’t your people wed for money or status?” Sumner asked.
“Ja.” Charlie sighed because her lover was right. Their traditions were similar, but also quite different. The Kalmar didn’t hold elaborate weddings or call it a marriage. They had unions that were represented with claim marks, something more animalistic in nature but crucial to their culture. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around you being mated… to someone else. How different your life would be right now if you hadn’t become Kal.”
“Ja. I would be growing crops, mated, and perhaps have a few pups right now.” Sumner gave a growly noise, but she shook her head and muttered, “Perhaps.”
Charlie fiddled with her pant leg after the mention of children. She parted her lips, but her question about children fell flat, so she swallowed it down. She boxed away the idea of having a child with Sumner because of the possible war coming at them. Charlie cleared her throat and said, “Maybe you would have ended up in the army, especially with the civil war in Kardos.”
“It is quite possible,” Sumner said. “Fairlee and her Alpha could have taken over the farm.”
“Do you think they have now?” Charlie asked.
“Joh. Her Alpha is a cartwright. He learned from his sire and took over the business.” Sumner grinned at Charlie’s suspicious look and said, “I inquired.”
Charlie huffed at her Alpha’s obvious protective streak about her sister. It warmed her to know that Sumner, even as Kal, continued to keep an eye on Fairlee. Still, it pained her that the twin sisters were kept separated by Kalatas. “How is Dorlon related to you?”
“Dorlon’s mother is a sister to my mother,” Sumner replied.
Charlie grumbled and whispered, “Your uncle was an abusive prick to Dorlon.”
“Ja, I know.” Sumner fisted her hand, then her lip curled back in a soft sneer. “He kept our families separated after my aunt passed away. I never met Dorlon until the day she came to take me.”
“Wow,” Charlie murmured and played with her hair, picturing Dorlon riding into Pirra to collect Sumner from her family. As adults, Sumner and Dorlon worked and fought side by side for many years. They were ruler and commander, soldiers, and friends, but not family. “You both look so different. I wouldn’t have pegged you two as cousins.”
Sumner nodded and remained quiet, then asked, “Any more questions?”
Charlie grinned, then nodded. “Plenty more. What did your parents say or do when they found out you were a finna?”
“They were both proud and sad. I remember Fairlee crying and trying to hold onto me.” Sumner bowed her head and cleared her throat. “Twice a year, Dorlon would allow me to spend an afternoon alone.”
“Like that time you met Raine,” Charlie said, receiving a nod from Sumner.
“Ja. Often one of those times was in a large enough town that I could send a letter to Fairlee.” Sumner picked up her cup but paused from taking a drink. “I sometimes wondered if Dorlon knew, even though she discouraged me from thinking of my family.”
“Because a god has no family,” Charlie murmured and rubbed her brow. She hated what Dorlon hammered into Sumner’s head as a child. As kenna, Dorlon had a duty to prepare the next Kal, and she had done well. Here and now, however, Charlie was left with the shell of her true mate. As she looked over at the seeming stranger across from her, she recognized that these next days were precious. It was her chance to truly know her Sumner.
With a hard swallow, Charlie dared to test Sumner, to prod fate, and to find out the truth. “Do you regret becoming Kal?”
“Joh.” Sumner’s answer was final and powerful, defining herself. Then there was hesitation after a beat, her lips tugging with a frown, and her eyes reflecting sorrow. “But…” She straightened up and shook her head. “I do regret what I cannot give you as your true mate. That I cannot give you all that I am.” She growled low and whispered, “I feel your longing in our bond. I feel as if I have betrayed you by becoming Kal.”
Charlie hissed from the return of tears, swiping at them. She had been the one to open this door, and it stabbed her. Their bond continued to hammer at Charlie’s self-control. Its insistence was powerful, even overwhelming. But Charlie had too much on her plate to allow herself to indulge or to be overtaken by their connection. To be a strong leader, she needed to focus and bring Sumner home safely. Yet, she followed her instinct, slid off the bench, and neared her Alpha.
Sumner pushed out her chair and pulled Charlie into her lap, then drew them together. Charlie curled into Sumner’s body, chasing off some of the cruel ache in their connection. “Perka gi, Charlie.”
“Joh.” Charlie shook her head, not wanting Sumner to berate herself for her choices in life. “Don’t apologize.” She pulled Sumner’s head down, then leaned her brow against Sumner’s temple. “You didn’t betray me. Your sacrifice to your people is an amazing gift.” Charlie caressed her lover’s cheek. “Ja, I may long for you. I may even be a bit disgruntled with Kalatas for your fate.” Charlie cursed herself for her mistakes. For being angry that Kalatas took Sumner. For hating Sumner’s destiny. For sometimes wishing Sumner was never Kal. “I am the one who’s betrayed you, Sumner. I should be supporting you as Kal. But I’m a selfish asshole.”
Sumner threaded her fingers into Charlie’s hair, pressing their heads closer together. “Joh. There is no dishonor in wanting your mate.” For a few minutes, they remained quiet, but coiled into each other as their bond calmed.
Charlie breathed deep until her lungs were full and exhaled the pressure that had built up in her. She continued caressing Sumner’s cheek and snuggled into her. Too much time had been wasted on her selfish desires. Maybe Sumner had a point that a person had a right to need all of their mate. But for them, that wasn’t their story.
“This is your calling, I know that.” Charlie lifted her head, but nuzzled Sumner once. “I’m going to do better to support you as Kal.” Her voice was rough and shaky, but it didn’t stop her from making her promises. “I’m not leaving your side.”
“You already support me,” Sumner said. “You accept me as Kal, or you would have left long ago.”
Charlie shook her head and murmured, “But I’m going to be better.” She refused to let her negativity feed into their bond anymore. “I promise.” She kissed Sumner with determination and fever until they both gasped for air.
“I wish to be closer to you,” Sumner said in a hushed voice, then her hand snuck under Charlie’s jacket. Her touch sent a hot jolt through Charlie’s trembling body.
Charlie grumbled, then glared at the dirty dishes, which she needed to clean first. Plus, they would be near Lerto soon. “After we leave Lerto, I promise.” She yelped when Sumner pinched her nipple.
Sumner growled and leaned into Charlie’s neck. “Your scent,” she whispered between hungry snarls. “It always makes me so hard.” She scraped her canines along Charlie’s neck, so close to biting down. “I want to taste you.”
Charlie was convinced Sumner would fuck her on a table in the mess deck if she didn’t get a handle on the situation. The door beeped a warning that someone was entering. “Shit!” She scrambled and toppled from Sumner’s lap, but bounced back on her feet and faced her sister. She felt her face ablaze, and she had to grip Sumner’s shoulder for support. “Turen, Raine.”
Raine stood past the doorway and eyed the couple for a moment. She placed her hands on her hips and said, “No fucking on the mess deck. We do have to eat here.” She laughed at Charlie’s slack-jawed stare. But Kaden appeared around the corner, startling Raine. “Turen, Kaden.”
Kaden sat in front of Raine, still not within reaching distance. She followed Raine over to Sumner and Charlie, then hopped onto the bench and sat in Charlie’s earlier spot.
“We’re not far from Lerto,” Raine said to the couple.
“We were just finishing up lunch.” Charlie hooked the back of her neck and fought with the heat in her face.
“And getting ready to have dessert,” Raine taunted, eyes glowing with mischief. She pulled out the chair near Sumner and sank into it. She lifted an eyebrow when Sumner chuckled in response.
Charlie groaned at her Alpha’s lack of filter.
Raine pointed at Sumner and said, “You’re acting strange. I know it has to do with whatever happened on the bridge.” She drummed her fingers once on the empty table next to her. “Plus, something else weird happened.”
“What?” Charlie asked, gripping Sumner’s shoulder. “Did something happen on the ship?”
Raine moved her head in disagreement, then sighed and whispered, “I remembered your old name, Kal. It just popped into my head when you both left the bridge.”
Charlie squeezed her lover’s stiff shoulder but held her tongue. Without the Spirit of Kalatas, the barriers or gaps in Raine’s memory about Sumner were restored to normal.
“What was my name?” Sumner asked, wonder threaded in her voice.
Raine swallowed and looked from Sumner to Charlie, then back. “It was Sumner, wasn’t it?”
Sumner smiled, confirming the truth. “Ja. That was my old name before I became Kal.”
“You told me in Gaular, after I shot you.” Raine stared at Sumner, but appeared distraught by the realization. “I don’t understand why I forgot. How could I forget? After everything we went through that day.”
Sumner reached across and touched Raine’s knee, the same one that was healed by Kal. “It’s okay, Raine. You were meant to forget, just like all the others.”
“But why now do I remember?” Raine asked and curled her fingers into her pants. She was bothered by the strange occurrence and looked to Sumner or Charlie for help.
Charlie nudged her Alpha in silent suggestion to tell Raine the truth. Both Raine and Andren were trustworthy. They were, after all, part of the Zodiac Pack. She released a tight breath when she felt Sumner opening up.
“You remembered because I was separated from the Spirit of Kalatas,” Sumner replied. “I am no longer Kal.”
Raine choked on her own spit and started coughing, bent over. She cursed between coughs, then Sumner patted her on the back. Charlie appeared at her side and offered water, which Raine gulped down. She smacked the cup onto the table. “What does that mean?” Raine patted her chest and pinned Sumner with a worried look.
“It means our job got a lot more fun,” Charlie joked and folded her arms as she returned to Sumner’s side.
“Wow,” Raine whispered in a rough voice. She shook her head, then straightened up and studied the pair. “I mean is this going to still work? Getting the alliance, I mean?”
“Ja.” Charlie glanced at her Alpha and said, “Sumner is still the High Commander.”
Raine blew out a breath and pushed back several strands of coiled hair. “Well, it’s not like Serrato Corps is going to know the difference, right?”
“Exactly.” Sumner grinned at her friend.
Raine shrugged and said, “We’ll fake it ’til we make it.”
“Just keep this to yourself,” Charlie said to her sister. “We’ll probably tell Andren too, right?”
“What about Laken?” Raine asked.
“It’s not necessary,” Sumner replied, then a beep interrupted them.
Charlie fished out her techbit and studied the alert. “We’re about twenty out from Lerto.” She tucked the device back into her jacket. “We better get on the bridge.”
“I’ll take care of this,” Sumner indicated the dishes on the table, “then meet you on the bridge.”
Charlie stole a quick kiss and said, “See you up there.”
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