Using Fejo: Chapter 11

Vanessa didn’t know how long she dissolved into a state of panic for. She paced and cried and sat on the couch with wide, unblinking eyes. Her brain was in a buzzing fog and her breakfast kept slithering up her throat, threatening to evacuate at any moment.

After a while, she finally calmed and her thoughts focused on the problem at hand. It stood to reason she still had a ride—just not in a place she could get to. But Vitash had a ship. So all she had to do was somehow get in contact with him and ask him to meet her somewhere else.

It couldn’t possibly be as easy as it sounded, but Vanessa had to believe it was. She couldn’t fall apart. This was just a bump in the road. She’d make it back to Julie in time. She had to.

Her gaze strayed to the door. How much time had passed? When would Fejo be back? She glanced at her suitcase, deactivated and sitting innocently in the corner. There was no telling how long it would be before she could meet up with Vitash. She had to hide those letters.

She rushed around, lifting furniture and peering into every cabinet, but there were so few places on this ship to hide anything. He had too much stuff occupying every spare inch. Would it be safer to keep them in the suitcase and unpack everything else? Would he check to see that it was empty? If he thought it was empty, would he keep the suitcase in here or stow it somewhere else on the ship?

There were too many unknowns to leave the letters where they were. She spotted a low bench with drawers in the loft by her bed and remembered where she used to hide her journal so Loretta, a childhood enemy from one of her foster homes, wouldn’t find it. She removed one of the drawers and laid the letters flat on the space underneath where the drawer slid into place. It wasn’t perfect, but it would work for now until she found some place better.

Vanessa rushed through using the bathroom, cleaning up and unpacking her things. Not knowing where exactly to put her belongings yet, she laid them out on the bed and made a mental note to ask Fejo where she could store them later. Then she raced to the screen, still lit with information about their port stops, and took notes on a few that sounded interesting in case he asked.

When her breathing finally returned to normal and she found herself pacing with nothing to do, she decided to use a few of the beauty products she’d bought back on Clecania. She applied a soft, oily liquid to smooth her hair and make it shine. She began putting on makeup to give herself some color, but midway through her application, she frowned and vigorously wiped it off.

Her instinct to look a bit more human and less like someone who’d just seen a ghost battled with her logical mind. Fejo might see her effort as some lame attempt to flirt or something, and she couldn’t have that.

She’d accomplished step one of her plan. They were away from Clecania. Step two was proving more difficult than she’d anticipated. What if it all fell apart? She needed a backup plan in case she couldn’t get to Vitash.

Was there any conceivable way she could convince Fejo to take her to Earth if she had no other choice? She still knew so little about him. She didn’t even know if he actually did illegal things. So far, all of his stops had been above board. That didn’t sound like the way a pirate did things, but she couldn’t be sure.

Maybe she should learn as much as she could about Fejo and this ship while she tried to contact Vitash. Try to see if there were, in fact, illegal things happening on this ship—and if there were, figure out if he’d be willing to do one more illegal thing and take her home. How angry would he be? He hadn’t done anything to make her think he was a bad guy. But he’d also been trying to get into her pants, so it made sense he’d be on his best behavior.

She sat down on the couch he used as a bed, not knowing what else to do but wait. The coat he’d been wearing yesterday lay across the arm of the couch. With a quick glance at the door, she lifted it and inspected the beautiful embroidery.

Holding it close to her eye, she suspected it wasn’t embroidery like she was used to. It didn’t seem to be sewn with thread at all. The delicate gold looked like actual thin metal that had been worked into a tiny intricate pattern and somehow attached to the jacket. How much had this cost?

She examined the inner lining of the jacket and found the satiny fabric had many hidden pockets and holsters, all empty. She brought the jacket close to her nose and took a deep inhale. The lingering smell of Fejo invaded her senses and made her scalp tingle with awareness. She heard the door slide open and immediately pretended to be inspecting the embroidery again.

She could feel her face heating, and she prayed her blush would go away. She wasn’t doing anything untoward, just examining the jacket, nothing else to see.

Luckily, he must’ve not noticed her because he just stood in the doorway and asked, “Ready?”

Vanessa nodded, her stomach in knots, and joined him.

“Did you find any ports you’d like to visit?” he asked as he led her through the dark halls.

Vanessa listed off a few she’d memorized, along with her reasoning for each. Her answers sounded rote to her own ears, but Fejo didn’t appear to notice anything odd. He just nodded as though taking mental notes.

“Also,” she began, keeping her voice even and curious, “I was wondering if there was any way for me to contact my friends back on Clecania. I’d love to tell them about the ship and the ports and everything.”

Her breath caught in her chest as she waited for an answer. If she could contact Alice, maybe she had a chance of meeting Vitash somewhere else. After all, it wasn’t suspicious of her to want to talk to her friends, right?

“Not on here. We’re relatively cut off out here in space.” He grinned down at her apologetically. “But once we get to port tomorrow you can. Most ports these days have communications systems in place to allow inter-world connections.”

The knots tying Vanessa up loosened. All was not lost. A weight lifted off her shoulders, and her mind hummed the way it did after finishing a hard workout or riding a roller coaster.

They spent the next few hours exploring the ship. She noted a large cafeteria, where some men were sitting at long tables and eating. Upon entering, they all stared at her for just a moment before catching Fejo’s eye and turning away again.

She both hated and loved the effect he had on the other men. She hated it because who was he to say who could and couldn’t talk to her? But on the other hand, it was a show of dominance she couldn’t help but find sexy.

Before he showed her the next room, he typed on a pad on the outside of the door. When they entered what looked like a recreation space full of couches and game tables and booze, they were greeted to the raucous sound of men complaining about the windows being shuttered. He promised to open them again when they left, and the crew calmed.

A shiver of pleasure spread through her. What a thoughtful gesture. He hadn’t even asked. He’d just made sure it was done before she’d gone into the room.

On their tour of the next room, a sizable gym, he did the same thing. The men in this room didn’t seem to mind as much. They were too busy doing various kinds of exercise. She spotted Uja doing an odd weight-lifting regimen with his wings. A few other guys ran on the ground, which moved under their feet as though a treadmill had been programmed into the rubber matting itself.

She continued to ask questions as they wandered through the ship, and he seemed all too happy to answer. He showed her how to navigate her way through the halls by using the pads to bring up a map. And he casually explained that though there were many large merchant ships out there, his was the best.

She scoffed at his smug tone but inwardly wondered if he wasn’t exaggerating. The ship was incredible. The many large rooms were all decorated and comfortable yet functional, and the men on board appeared to be content and occupied. It didn’t seem like such a terrible place to live.

An errant pain sliced through her chest, knowing no woman had ever chosen to be married and live here. If she were actually in the market for a real husband, she wouldn’t mind living in the ship Fejo had so lovingly built.

When they ventured deep into the center of the ship, he showed her the med bay, but to her dismay, she didn’t see one of those healing tubes. If she got back and found Julie still alive, her first order of business would be to try to get her off-world and healed. If Vanessa could convince her to leave, that is. And if she was still alive.

They’d just stopped at a large room near the med bay, housing a full-size pool, and Vanessa’s curiosity couldn’t take it anymore. What kind of space freight truck had a fucking pool? He had to be making buckets full of money somehow.

“Do you do anything illegal on the ship?” she asked after working up the nerve for a few silent seconds.

He’d been staring at the water with such intensity that her question seemed to catch him off guard. He turned to her with raised brows but quickly masked his surprise with a grin. Not answering her right away, he just stared, searching her face and trying to decide something. Finally, he nodded. “Yes, we do.”

Vanessa gulped. Having confirmation didn’t make her feel as relieved as she’d thought it would. If all else failed, he might not mind making an illegal trip to Earth, but if that rumor was true, what other rumors might also be true?

“What kind of illegal things do you do?”

He shrugged, still staring at her as though curious to see her reactions. “A little of everything. Is there something specific you’d like to ask about?”

“Are you dangerous?” She didn’t think he was, but she couldn’t really read Fejo. She got the feeling he hid a whole other side of himself. What if that side was dangerous? What if that dangerous side was what all the crew saw when they looked at him?

His grin turned seductive, and he reached out to sweep her hair over her shoulder. His light touch skimmed her neck, and goose bumps raced over her body. “Not to you, lovely.”

She followed him on the rest of the tour in a bit of a daze. What did that mean? Did it mean he wasn’t dangerous to her simply because she was his wife? Or did that mean he wouldn’t be dangerous around her because he liked her or because she was a woman? Would the statement still stand if he knew why she’d married him and what she was planning?

“Can I ask you a question now?” he asked as they strolled through yet another new area of the ship.

“Sure.” Her anxiety spiked a fraction.

“Why did you choose me?”

She’d planned for this. Had already thought ahead, wondering if he might ask at some point. She recited the answer she’d decided on. “You were the only one out of the group I’d ever met, and although you were a little presumptuous, I still liked that we’d at least spoken.”

He took that in but didn’t seem too thrilled with her answer.

“And why did you choose to get married at all? You don’t seem to want anything that a husband normally provides.”

“I…I was lonely.” She stared at the ground and let a bit of truth slip into her lie. Vanessa was lonely. She’d been lonely for as long as she could remember. “I had my friends at the Temple, but they all have their own lives, and I just wasn’t able to merge into Tremantian society as easily as they did. People tend to not like me very much.” She looked up at him and shrugged, as if it didn’t really bother her. In reality, she hated that she always pushed people away but didn’t know how to stop.

“I understand,” he said in a tight voice as he guided her to a door and punched something into the keypad.

“Really? You seem like…” How to say what she wanted to say without being offensive?

“I seem like I have a lot of friends.” He emphasized the word, and she knew they were both thinking of Gheelia and all the other women who’d tried to enter his room during the testing.

“Yeah, friends, and also your crew and all the people you must meet while you’re traveling.” She looked around the dark room they’d entered and saw it must’ve been near the top of the ship because the shielded glass extended to the ceiling, curving around the whole exterior wall of the room. The view of space must be magnificent from here.

Heaps of pillows, mattress, and cushioned squishy areas of floor covered the room, and a faint calming floral scent perfumed the air. This room must be used as a sort of relaxation area. If she were one for meditating, this would be the room she’d choose. That was, if she didn’t have a ridiculous fear of actually looking out the window.

Annoyance at herself invaded her mind. She had to learn to get over her fear. Once she did, she was sure the glittering sky would be her new favorite view.

“I’m always surrounded by people, that’s true. But I know what it feels like to be lonely.”

Vanessa peered up at him and saw a glimmer of true pain behind his eyes. It took her aback.

“I was raised in a place where there was no one like me. I didn’t have a family, and most of the people in my city thought I was odd.” The words seemed to be pulled from him, but it felt like he was really trying to get them out. He walked over to a sunken area of floor piled high with pillows and settled onto them, then gestured for her to join him.

“Were you an orphan?” she asked.

His jaw tensed and he looked away.

“It’s okay—you don’t have to tell me,” she assured, though she was burning with curiosity.

He let out a sigh and shrugged. “Can you be an orphan if you never had parents?”

Vanessa stared at him, far too intrigued for her own good. “What do you mean?”

“I was one of the few successful fetuses grown in an artificial womb in my city. Scientists have been trying to perfect the technology for centuries, and sometimes it works but a majority of the time it doesn’t. The combination of DNA from whoever my donors were was special in that it was an experiment. The lab that grew me found an ancient cache of DNA samples from the old planet, and they’d been mixing them together for years, hoping different combinations of races would create a viable fetus. And it worked, but only once.”

“They made you.” What an odd way to be brought into the world. Her heart ached for Fejo. At least she’d had Julie growing up. He’d had no one.

“The races I was created from don’t exist anymore. Either they never made it to the new planet or they landed somewhere else and went extinct. Any parents I may have had are long dead. I don’t know what that makes me.”

Vanessa wanted to comfort him. It was clear from the soft tone of his voice that he didn’t enjoy talking about this. Didn’t enjoy being vulnerable. The arrogant, charming pirate she’d come to recognize didn’t exist in this part of his history.

If she were braver, she’d share her story with him. Tell him how their father had disappeared upon hearing his girlfriend was pregnant. And then how their mother had gotten sick and died when they were young. It might make him feel better to commiserate over their shitty childhoods. But she couldn’t bring herself to be vulnerable. It was something she’d struggled with her whole adult life. Being vulnerable was giving somebody a weapon to use against you.

“Thank you for telling me.” She didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to push for more, but if she wasn’t reciprocating, it didn’t seem fair.

“What do I get for sharing my sad story?” He leaned toward her, making his meaning clear, and gave her another wide, glowing smile. His dimple popped, and she bit her lip to keep from grinning back at him.

Nothing. That was what her answer should’ve been. You get nothing for having a conversation. Instead, she found herself asking, “What do you want?”

His grin widened, and he let out an exaggerated sigh. He looked her up and down, and she held her breath, knowing what was about to happen. But he surprised her. “I want you to sit here with me and let me open the windows.”

Vanessa’s smile faded and her palms grew sweaty. Her eyes shot to the windows, heartbeat picking up speed in time with her breathing. She’d only caught a glimpse yesterday before running to hide under the loft, but it’d been terrifying enough. It was like watching a movie with a deep-sea diver. There was just so much nothing around them. Her skin crawled.

“I know you’re afraid, but I’ll be here. I promise nothing will happen. The sooner you try this, the easier this trip will be. I can’t always be around to close the windows for you, and the next port we’re going to isn’t quite as enclosed as the Clecanian port.”

Looking back at him, she tried to control her breathing. With a dry gulp, she nodded. He moved in front of her so his broad back was facing the windows. She stared down at the floor and saw him pull a rectangular pad from his pocket. He must have access to the whole ship at all times. Interesting. She watched closely as he pressed a little button that had four squares on it, then another she wasn’t quick enough to see.

The changing light in the room told her the shades were being lifted, and she kept her eyes glued to the floor. Her lungs suddenly felt too small. He scooted closer to her and lifted her chin so she was looking directly in his eyes. Using his hands as blinders on either side of her face, he ensured she could only see him.

“Ethereal, glorious Vanessa,” he said, smiling and staring at her mouth.

The compliment flicked at her irritation and she furrowed her brows at him. His grin widened.

“I’m going to remove my right hand, and I want you to just try to see from your peripheral vision.”

Her nod was embarrassingly shaky. He lowered his hand, and blackness leached in from his right side. She couldn’t make out much. Just dark sky…though it wasn’t really sky.

Okay. This was okay. She could do this. No longer concerned with hiding her reaction, she inhaled deeply and let Fejo’s soothing, crisp scent calm her further.

“Now I’m going to take off my left hand.” He lowered his other hand, and she focused on his eyes, needing an anchor. They were dark, but they were beautiful and not nearly as brown as she’d thought. They were actually deep purple. Almost black, they were so deep but with an unexpected warmth.

The view through the window teased the edges of her vision. She needed to get over this. She’d have to look sometime—might as well be now. With another deep inhale, she gathered her courage. Her eyes shot to her lap when Fejo reached out and gripped her hands, giving her an encouraging squeeze. She didn’t normally like people comforting her, but she could admit that in this moment, she needed somebody strong and capable and competent. Fejo was all those things and more.

She angled her body slightly and looked out the window. The first view was overwhelming. The deepest black she’d ever seen made her mind stutter, and she squeezed her eyes shut, giving her brain a moment to comprehend. When she opened her eyes again, she forced herself to look. Fejo moved away and scooted next to her. He pulled her arm onto his upturned forearm, which was resting on his leg. Gently, he ran his fingers from her wrist to her elbow.

Her gaze remained focused on the incredible sight before her. It was just so…big. There were stars everywhere, bright and hard and unlike anything she’d ever seen before. No colorful nebula or glaring black holes broke up the view. Only darkness and millions of bright pinpoints of light. She hadn’t been able to look at it before, and now she couldn’t seem to blink.

“What do you think?” he questioned, still running his fingers over her arm in a way that was much more soothing than she’d have imagined.

She didn’t know how to put into words the awe and terror she was feeling. All she could manage was, “They don’t twinkle.” She tore her gaze away and turned to him. “The stars. They don’t twinkle.”

He looked out into space too and shook his head. “There’s no atmosphere to distort them. They only twinkle when you’re looking at them through the atmosphere of a planet. Are you disappointed?”

She let out an odd laugh. Disappointed? “I feel…guilty.”

His fingers stopped tracing her arm for a moment. “I wasn’t expecting that answer. Why guilty?”

“I’m not important enough to be seeing this. I’m too scared to fully appreciate it. It’s wasted on me, and I feel guilty that I don’t love it more. Out of all the humans who could’ve been picked from Earth and fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing space, they picked me.” She focused on the stars again, her throat tight with a ridiculous spike of emotion.

He turned her chin to look at him. “You are important. You’re smart. And you’re honest. You’re important to me.”

A different kind of guilt swelled in her chest at the sincerity in his words. These were genuine compliments. Not like the overblown ones he tossed around so easily. Each real compliment he gave cut her a little deeper. She said nothing, just stared back out the window and let his statements lie. What could she say at this point?

She wanted to tell him the truth. But she also didn’t want him to know what kind of person she really was. She didn’t want him to stop looking at her the way he was looking at her now. Coward.

Her throat clogged with emotion, so she tugged her arm away and rose. “Can we go somewhere else now?” She gave him a weak, forced smile. “I think that’s about as much of a glimpse into the universe as I can handle for one day.”

He returned her smile and nodded. “Absolutely.”

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