Using Fejo: Chapter 16


Vanessa was panting, bobbing and weaving through the crowds and glancing up occasionally to make sure she was going the right way. Left at the roasted meat stand. Left at the roasted meat stand. Left at the roasted meat stand. She smelled the meat before she saw it and hurried forward. Turning left, she paused. The bakery should be somewhere on this street. In the distance, on the far corner of the block, she spotted a yellow door.

“Vanessa,” a deep angry voice called from behind her.

She froze, turning, though she already knew exactly who’d spoken. There was Fejo at the end of the street, hands in his pockets, staring at her as if this was the most casual thing he’d ever done.

Vanessa bolted. Maybe if she got into the bakery and spoke to Sulo, she could hide. Maybe the woman would help her. Alien women supporting alien women and all that.

She reached the door and pounded on it, heart beating out of her chest and skin buzzing. A burly woman with an extended nose and pointed ears greeted her. Her bushy tail flicked behind her, and Vanessa couldn’t help but think she looked like a mutant squirrel. The furry brown woman surveyed Vanessa up and down and twitched her nose.

“I need some place to hide, and I need a ride to a Class Four planet,” Vanessa blurted. There was no time for subtlety. She was surprised Fejo wasn’t here already, knowing how fast he could move when he wanted to.

The woman looked at her again, studied her face and her heaving chest. “I can’t understand you, girl.”

Shit! Vanessa took in a breath and peered over her shoulder. Fejo was sauntering down the street toward her, his steps slow and deliberate. His icy gaze bore into her.

With a weak nod, she faced the woman. Charades it is. She pointed to herself, then to the woman, and swept her hand around like a plane, hoping she’d understand.

Sulo seemed in sync with her because she nodded and said, “Credits?”

Vanessa let out a relieved breath and reached into her pocket. Her stomach dropped. She patted down her pocket again, digging through the fabric and turning it inside out. Nothing.

She looked in the lining and saw a thick silver sticker that hadn’t been there before. Lifting her head, realization dawned. Dread curling in her belly, she spun and found Fejo six feet away, grinning and holding up the credits Luka and Alice had given her between his middle and pointer fingers. He gave the black rectangle a small shake and canted his head.

He’d stolen it from her somehow. She thought back to the entrance of the tavern when he’d pulled her in close to ask about Uja. He’d straight-up picked her pocket! And she wouldn’t be surprised if the little sticker he’d put in her jacket was actually a tracker.

Apparently realizing she didn’t have any credits, Sulo silently stepped into her home and closed the door in Vanessa’s face. She stared at the yellow wood for a moment, blinking.

She’d failed. She hadn’t gotten away. After this, she doubted Fejo would ever let her out of the room again. Not until they got back to Clecania anyway. Frustration and anger shot through her veins like electricity. She turned toward Fejo again, facing off and scowling. He slipped her credits back into his pocket and frowned right back at her.

She didn’t know what possessed her, but at that moment, all she wanted to do was run. Whirling behind her, she bolted, skidding around the corner as fast as she could and, as luck would have it, ran straight into one of the purple slug people with a wet splat. It let out a high-pitched squeal, and she fell back, her face, arms, and body covered in a sticky pink substance. The purple slug retreated slightly, still making the high squealing sound and wiggling its arms around.

She started to get up but fell down, her legs going numb underneath her. Her heartbeat accelerated, thrashing against her ribs, and she tried again.

She couldn’t breathe. Her legs…they weren’t moving. She couldn’t make them move. Now her arms were going numb as well.

The slug person scooted away at record speed until they were out of sight.

Vanessa lay on the ground, looking up into the depths of space, completely paralyzed, though she could somehow still feel her body. Her skin was hot, and the cool stone of the cobbled port ground chilled her back.

Fejo stepped over her, blocking her view of the sky. He squatted down and tsked.

Hot tears she could no longer contain leaked from the corners of her eyes. She blinked, her lids the only part of her that seemed to work.

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it,” he whispered. She refused to look at him. “And on top of everything, you got yourself drugged.”

A painful sob gurgled in her throat and she continued to gaze past him, focusing on the dark view of space. It was still terrifying, but somehow, in this moment, it was easier than looking Fejo in the eye. He sighed and walked away. Her tears started coming faster. Was he going to leave her here? He might, and she might deserve it.

But then, after what felt like an eternity, he was there in front of her again. Holding a bioshifting suit and cloth. He wiped the slime from her body and face, then stuffed her dead limbs into the suit, leaving the helmet off.

Then he hefted her over his shoulder. She swung back and forth as he carried her through the port, her face resting against his back, the cold metal embroidery of his jacket like ice on her cheek.

People stared as they walked by. Her embarrassment threatened to level her. They started moving uphill, and the familiar metal ramp of his ship came into view under his feet. He was taking her back and was going to lock her up like he’d said. She’d never get home. Would never be able to make things right. A rock the size of a fist was permanently lodged in her throat.

“What happened?” she heard a male voice ask.

“She ran into a Boshie,” Fejo replied, and she thought she heard a grin in his voice.

She wanted to curl her fingers into fists or clench her teeth or anything, but her body wouldn’t respond. The other male laughed and passed them by.

Fejo continued walking. She recognized the hallway but internally frowned. It wasn’t the way to his room. Where were they going? He entered a small room she’d seen on their tour. The med bay.

“I need something for Boshie slime,” Fejo said to someone—she assumed the doctor on staff.

She heard a bit of shuffling before a rasping voice answered, “How long has it been?”

“Fifteen minutes, about.” Fejo grunted, gripping her thigh a little tighter.

“The slime should be inactive now, but it’ll take about an hour to get feeling back. You know how to use it?”

Her skin burned as if she were lying under a desert sun, and intense emotions continued to ripple through her, building like a wave before crashing and dissipating. Fury at being caught. Despair over failing. Amusement…she didn’t know why. They felt out of place, but they swelled inside her all the same. Was she having a breakdown, or was this a side effect of the slime?

It was as if she’d had too much to drink. Like all the emotions she kept inside, good and bad, were clamoring at the surface, waiting to explode out of her at the smallest impetus.

Embarrassment and defeat were at the forefront, and tears spilled from her eyes. A lifeless body. She watched as the tears dripped onto the floor. She’d never felt so utterly useless before. There had always been a way out of trouble. But now…she’d lost hope.

“I do know. Thank you.” Fejo turned, and she spotted the orange man with sharp teeth in the corner. He was the doctor? He gave her another pointy smile before Fejo exited, but his smile faded when he took in her face.

She slammed her eyes shut. She hated when people saw her cry. Now she was blubbering for anyone to see. Just a stupid human who didn’t know the first thing about space, poisoned and crying.

Squinting, she peered around and recognized their route. Back to her prison they went. Vanessa slid her eyes closed again. Her breaths hurt as they pushed through her constricted throat. Fejo remained silent as he entered his room and flipped her over, propping her on the magenta couch.

“We need to get the rest of the slime off before the medicine can work.”

She glanced at him from under her heavy lids and found him standing over her, scrubbing a hand over his jaw. He took off his coat and walked out of view. When he returned, his boots and knives were gone. He rolled up his sleeves and knelt, then began removing her suit. When it was gone, he worked on her clothes.

He lifted her shirt and glowered at the wrapped fabric holding the letters to her waist. Carefully, he undid the knots. She stared at his face. His full lips were set in a hard line, his brows drawn in concentration.

“I should just burn these,” he muttered while setting the letters aside and slipping off her pants and underwear.

Another choked sob stuck in her throat, and his gaze shot up to her. A muscle ticked in his jaw a moment before he let out a short exhale. Vanessa was fully naked now, and her skin heated further with humiliation.

He lifted her from the couch and carried her to the enclosed foam shower stall. With one brawny arm wrapped around her waist, he turned the unit on, rotating her this way and that to make sure the foam covered every inch of her body.

Her head fell back against his shoulder, and his body stiffened, his hands tightening where they held her. Though she didn’t hear him sigh, she felt his chest rise and fall against her back and wondered if even holding her this way brought him some kind of pleasure. She thought back to what Uja had revealed about Fejo’s lonely childhood, and pain stabbed through her heart, doubling the tears still dribbling from her eyes.

When she was clean, Fejo carried her up to the loft and propped her against the wall at the head of the bed. The cold metal of the wall stung her naked back, but she couldn’t move away. He produced a small green bottle from his pocket, then scooted toward her and tipped the contents into her mouth. The liquid burned as it ran down her throat.

Fejo released a long exhale, and for the first time, Vanessa saw how tired he was. He sat on the bed with his hands on his knees. His shoulders were slumped forward, weariness oozing from every pore. The hollow, queasy guilt that always filled her gut and made it impossible to eat or sleep or smile spread through the rest of her body as she took in Fejo’s defeated expression.

“Should be able to speak soon,” he said, removing his shirt, which had gotten wet in the foam shower.

Testing his claim, she swallowed and felt a bit of sensation come back to her lips, but it was awful. Like the worst case of pins and needles she’d ever experienced. She took in a shaky inhale and tried to move her mouth again. Fejo stared, bringing his knee up and turning his body toward her. She now felt as if she could speak but didn’t know what else to say.

“Why did you do that?” he asked in a quiet voice.

She gulped, lubricating her throat. Her words slurred at first, so she tried again. “I told you—”

“Yeah, you told me, but I think there’s more to it,” he interrupted.

Her hands tingled with the hellish pins-and-needles sensation, and she winced. His focus shifted to her fingers as she twitched them. Meeting her gaze again, he scooted up to her, throwing her legs over his thigh, and took her arm, rubbing her fingers between his hands. The pain lessened as he massaged her, but the ache in her chest increased. He didn’t have to do this, yet even after everything, he was still trying to ease her pain.

“How did you know about the money?” she whispered.

He peered up at her for a moment before refocusing on her palm. “I told you, I have a great sense of smell. I smelled the letters on you. Figured you’d try something. Took a guess.”

Vanessa studied his face as he kneaded her wrist and forearm. She’d hurt him again. Though she didn’t regret trying to escape, she hated the deep crease that now remained on his brow. It felt out of place on his normally smiling face.

She ached to see him smile again, fake or real. She’d take either at the moment. Anything but the sharp pain lingering behind his eyes. Maybe if he understood why she was so desperate, he wouldn’t feel as betrayed.

He couldn’t understand her willingness to use and abandon him because he was right—she hadn’t told him the full story. But she couldn’t bear to say it out loud. She hadn’t even said it to herself.

Maybe it was her heightened emotions making her resolve weaken. Or maybe she just couldn’t stand the thought of Fejo going through life thinking she didn’t care. But as he rubbed the life back into her limbs, her heart screamed to tell him what was happening. To tell him everything. He deserved the truth, even if it killed her to talk about.

She licked her lips and began in a croaky voice, “I told you about my sister.” He peered up at her, lowering her arm to the bed and taking her other hand in his large palm. His mouth tightened as though he thought she was about to say the same thing she had before, so she spoke quickly. “Before I left…before I was taken…we had talked. That’s when I found out she was sick.”

Fejo remained quiet, staring at her with such intensity.

Vanessa’s throat was tight, painful, but she pushed through. “She’d called me over to her house. I thought she was going to give me another lecture about getting a better job or going to school or dating. She was always doing that. Trying to make me better. She had her own problems, but she never talked about them. She only ever focused on my problems. It drove me crazy.” Vanessa frowned, thinking about all the stupid, pointless fights they’d gotten in.

Fejo moved down to her legs, and now that the feeling had returned to her arm, she draped it over her breasts. She was already vulnerable enough in this moment. She didn’t need to be completely exposed.

She opened her mouth but closed it again. Her chest felt like a vise had been placed around it. “Our father left when I was just a baby. He was an addict, so Mom said. And then Mom got sick. They found a tumor in her brain. She couldn’t take care of us, so we went into foster care.” Vanessa chewed on the inside of her cheek, the needling in her body a distant memory. “She died a few years later. Julie—my sister—and I were sometimes placed together. Sometimes we weren’t, but she was always there for me, even when I didn’t want her to be. Turns out she has a tumor too.”

Fejo’s palms ran up her thighs in slow, even strokes, relieving the painful reawakening of her body. His gaze remained fixed on her. Vanessa bit her lip hard and peered down at his hands. She couldn’t look at him and tell him the rest.

“Lovely,” he said like a caress, lifting her chin and running his thumb over her lip, soothing it. “What happened?” he whispered.

She took in a shaky inhale. “Years ago, she met this guy. A real piece of work. He had a lot of money, but he drank and was abusive. She got out of the relationship, though not before getting pregnant. She has a little girl. Mia.”

Vanessa shook her head. A small sob escaped her throat. She looked down and shook her head again. “When Julie told me she was sick, I said some things I shouldn’t have said. I was just so upset. She’s the only person I have in my life. The only one I’ve never pushed away, even though I’ve tried. She’s always stayed. She’s always been there for me, and I just couldn’t imagine life without her.”

She peered back up at Fejo, trying to keep her mouth from pulling downward with the emotion rising in her chest.

“She asked me if I’d take Mia when she died. She didn’t want her going to her ex.” Vanessa covered her face with her hands, her breaths coming in and out through sharp sobs now. “She begged me, Fejo. And I…I told her no. I told her…I told her she’d been selfish for getting pregnant. She knew how our mom died, and she still chose to take the risk and have a child.”

Fejo slipped a warm palm under her cheek and cradled her face. She jerked her head away, undeserving of consoling after the way she’d treated Julie, but he was too strong for her. He pulled her against his chest, and she broke down.

“I didn’t mean it,” she breathed between sobs. “I didn’t mean it. I would’ve gone back the next day and apologized. I would’ve taken Mia. I would have. I was just so scared of losing Julie. I was so mad at the universe for doing this again. I was so mad that out of the two of us, she got the tumor. It should’ve been me.”

Vanessa continued to weep while clutching Fejo’s shoulders and letting out all the shame and misery she’d been pressing down for so long. She felt like she was lost in space, floating out of control. She’d never been this vulnerable with anyone before. Naked and injured and crying and revealing just how terrible of a person she was.

He shouldn’t have been holding her. He should’ve been disgusted, yet he was there, stroking her hair and squeezing her tight to his chest as if she weren’t some useless cretin. She couldn’t fathom why, but she took advantage, gripping him as tightly as she could.

She continued to cry herself into exhaustion, mind going fuzzy. Distantly, she could hear herself repeating, “I have to go back. I have to get Mia.”

Eventually, she drifted into a fevered sleep. She kept jolting awake in a cold sweat. But every time she woke, Fejo was there, holding her shivering body.

***

Fejo lay with a fitful burning Vanessa wrapped in his arms and couldn’t get her story out of his head. This wasn’t about him. She hadn’t tricked him because she was cruel. She’d been using him, but he couldn’t imagine a more noble reason.

He ached for her and the pain she was feeling, yet the way she’d let him see all of it both thrilled him and made this monstrous jealousy rise in his chest. What he wouldn’t give for somebody to be that devoted to him. To cry and beg and steal and cheat just so they could get back to him.

Her fever from the Boshie slime was finally breaking now in the early hours of their self-imposed “morning.” He needed to get her clean sheets and a bit more medicine. Ensuring she was deep in sleep, he piled covers on her and left. After checking on their progress and ensuring all the crystals had been delivered, he gathered food and medicine and headed back to his room.

His way was blocked by Maladek, who appeared out of nowhere. The large male frowned at him, his red-eyed gaze hard and unrelenting. “Klinara is expecting a call before we leave port,” he rumbled in a scratchy, rasping voice.

Fejo eyed the deep scar running down the male’s cheek. He hadn’t given Fejo any trouble yet. Not like Capra had, but it was clear who of the two males was the leader. “I’ll call her,” Fejo said simply, stepping around the male.

“She wants us to move up our schedule. Head straight for her pickup.”

Fejo turned. “I’ve already altered my schedule enough. That’s not going to happen.”

“It’s what she’s asking for. I’d do it if you don’t want trouble.”

Fejo stepped up to the male, the fingers of his free hand itching to reach for a knife. “Is that a threat?” he growled.

Maladek shook his head, seeming unconcerned. “No. Not from me. I’m just passing on a message.”

“Just passing on a message,” he mocked. “But you’ll follow through on her threat if you’re ordered, won’t you?” he questioned. These males were dangerous. Fejo should’ve never allowed them to come on board.

“Nothing personal. Just a job.”

Fejo scowled at the male, then spun and stomped away. He took a detour, stopping at the communication room, and made sure it was secured before connecting to Klinara.

“Hello. Finally, you call.” Klinara’s smooth voice flitted through the connection. The sound grated on his skull.

“Hello, Klinara,” he said, his voice tight.

“I hope your trip has been smooth. How’s your wife?” she asked in a derisive tone. She’d heard, then. The news that Vanessa had tried to run away from him would surely bring her the greatest pleasure.

Fejo grunted.

“So touchy these days,” she admonished. “Well, I need you to change course and go pick up my package immediately.”

Fejo’s balled fist tightened. He had pickups scheduled, and it would be a stain on his reputation to cancel this late. “We only have two more stops before we head there. Can it wait?”

“No, it cannot,” she said, her words turning icy. “What’s going on with you, Fejo? You sound cross with me. What can I do to make it better? Is your marriage not working out?” she crooned. “You could always come home to me. I’ve missed you.”

Nausea roiled in his gut. Fejo couldn’t stand the idea of going back to Klinara. So many nights he’d wasted trying to make her love him. But she was broken. Damaged by her father beyond repair, and there was an oily sickness inside her now. There was no room for love there. He didn’t think she was capable.

This was the last time he’d need to deal with her, though, he reminded himself. All he had to do was play this right, and he’d finally be free. If the Queen kept her word, that is.

“I’m sorry, gorgeous,” he said, masking his tone. “This marriage is giving me a bit of trouble. I don’t mean to be short with you. Of course we’ll change course tomorrow. Not to fret.” There was no use arguing. She’d get her way in the end. He knew it, and she knew it.

“Good. I’ll let Capra and Maladek know.” Smugness danced in her voice, her offer to bring him back home forgotten in the wake of her victory.

She disconnected without another word, and Fejo scanned the room for something to break. After a second’s indecision, he decided not to call the Queen. He had no new information about what the package was, and he itched to get back to Vanessa.

The crippling bulk of his life at present weighed him down as he walked, but Vanessa was always at the forefront of his mind. Knots—multiple—had built in pressure all over his shoulders and neck, and he rubbed at them absently. What was he going to do with her?

As he strode the familiar path to his room, the world seemed dimmer. The flicker of hope he’d somehow always been able to keep lit in his chest had been snuffed. Uja had betrayed him. Vanessa was a glorious, loyal, fiery female who would never want him back, and soon he would cut ties with everyone else he’d ever known.

A few days ago, he might’ve seen that as a new start, full of possibilities. But now? Now a life without any ties, good or bad, seemed lonelier than ever.

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