Slow and Steady – The Velveteen Tortoise – Chapter Seventeen

There Be Mature Content Here

Please be advised that the following is intended for mature readers only.

Chapter Seventeen

(Finished – 10/9/2021)

Luna the Baby Bunny

“Heya, Luna.”

I glance up from the scattered mess of drill machine parts laying on my work bench. A Bjorn Brother is ducking his head through the trapdoor in the bolthole’s ceiling. 

“Oh, um…” With a tool in my hand, I fully turn to face the guy. “Heya, Bee—” I mumble the rest because I have no idea which Bjorn Brother I’m talking to. “Do you need something?”

I can’t keep the hopefulness from my voice. I’ve been struck in my bolthole with Pyx and Gary, plus Benny and a handful of ‘guards’, for over a week now. Maybe I’ll get to do something else somewhere else.

Because fixing the drill? Yeah. It’ ain’t happening.

“Yeah,” the Bjorn brother drawls out his reply, his voice scratchy with fatigue, “could use some bricks. The carts’re—”

“No more fucking bricks,” Benny snaps grumpily. “They stink.”

No, Benny. You stink. You’re napping through your guard duty shift on my freaking mattress!

I wave him off using the tool I’m holding. “The smell goes away in a day.”

Benny cracks open one eye and glares at me.

“Okay. Maybe like a day and a half.” Still gripping the tool, I point it toward the trapdoor overhead. “But I can whip up the batter—well, cement, and toss it into the oven—”

“No bricks,” Benny says firmly. He points to the Bjorn Brother. “You, go mine gold.” Then he points to me. “You, fix the damn drill. Then we all can get the fuck outta this hole.”  

Yeah, being closely confined like this is starting to take its toll. Benny spends his time either taking angry naps or leering at me. His guards, who used to actively watch us, have started gambling—and fighting—over some kinda game played with pebbles.

Me? I’ve now got some mad skills twirling my tools in my hands. I look like a badass gunslinger from Ancient Earth.

Still can’t name the dang tools I’m twirling, but I don’t drop them anymore.

The point is: we’re all bored. There’s nothing to do.

Gary stands up. “I can help ya out, Byron.”

Ah! Byron. Never woulda guessed it.

“Sit down, Gary,” Benny grumbles.

But Gary keeps drudging toward the ladder.

Benny swears and gets to his feet, his face flushed. “I told ya to sit!”

“I can hold a cart,” Gary says.

“No. Ya can’t.” Benny sweeps his arm wide, gestured to the squabbling guards. “All the guards are needed in here.”

“Send a guard. Don’t send a guard.” Gary shrugs then starts climbing the ladder without glancing at Benny. “Ya ain’t the ones keepin’ him here anyways.”

Collectively—like we somehow all agreed to do this ahead of time—everyone remaining in the bolthole shifts our gazes to Pyx. He’s standing by the abandoned tunnel’s hatch, staring at the broken buttons.

As I run my gaze over Pyx’s stance, my belly tumbles with alarm. He’s not leaning forward with his fist tucked under his chin, radiating rapt curiosity. Rather, he’s squared off against the buttons, starting down at them like he’s gonna rip them outta the panel’s sockets.

He’s furious with those buttons.

And this is where a colossal rockslide of anxiety obliterates my boredom.

Pyx isn’t acting like Pyx.

Benny’s the first one to shift his attention elsewhere. As if staring at Pyx too long is the same thing as poking him with a stick.

Benny stomps over to the ladder. “Get you’re fucking-traitor-ass back down here!”

But Gary’s gone.

The clattering of my tool hitting the solid-rock ground cuts through the echoing boom of Benny’s ignored order.

Benny retargets his glare onto me.

Whelp. As always, my timing is brilliant.

He jabs his finger at me.”Stop it with the tool jugglin’.”

“Twirling.” I retreat, my hands up. “Totally different. I’m only holding one—”

“Don’t care.” Benny stomps over to me, reaching down to snag up the tool. “Don’t bust up another damn too—fuck!”

He drops the tool and snatches his hand back.

I gasp, sounding all startled and whatever. “What? What’s wrong?”

Benny’s cradling his hand as I pick up the tool.

“Is it broken?” I’m turning the tool over in my hands. “Doesn’t look broken.”

Benny’s frowning at me. I’m making a big show outta handling the tool, ignoring its searing heat.

To think. I never thought to use my evil powers on evil jerks.

Benny’s still scowling at the tool. I bet he’s not sure what to do right now. His palm is turning red and blistering, while I’m back to twirling scorching hot metal around in my bare hands.

“Ain’t broke. I—” He tucks his hand behind his back. “Cut myself. It’s sharp.”

Sure it ain’t, Benny. “Need me to look at it?”

Right on cue, Pyx releases a low snarl.

This, right here, is why Benny’s been spending far more time taking naps rather than leering at me. Pyx may be staring at broken buttons, but he seems to know when someone’s about to cross over the figurative bubble that he’s designated around me.

And he always knows when Benny’s the one invading my bubble.

“No!” Benny jerks back. “No. I’ll…I’ll have Doc look at it.”

He blindly backpedals, pumping into the ladder. Swearing, he snaps a lame order to the other guards, then scrambles up the ladder only using one hand.

I stifle a chuckle.

Getting Benny to bolt has been the highlight of my time spent here in the bolthole. You know, when I’m not monkeying around with the drill or trying to not stress over Pyx.

I can’t help it. I glance back over to Pyx. He’s still standing there, glaring at those buttons.

I sigh and walk over to him.

I use my thumb to point over my shoulder. “Thanks for letting me handle that thing with Benny.”

Handle.

Sigh. I’m an idiot and the resulting silence is awkward.

Needing something to do, I start rooting around the crate next to him. It’s filled with our rations. I pick out a veggie-protein bar and one of the smaller, dehydrated nutrient packets.

I tap the nutrient packet against Pyx’s forearm that’s hanging by his side. “Hungry?”

There’s a spot on his armor that’s got this port thingy. All I gotta do is slide the packet in and his armor’ll do the rest. The stuff in the packet gets rehydrated into some kinda mash that he can sip from a straw built into the inside of his helmet.

Convenient, pellet-size meals for those on the go…

…and can’t take off their armor.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stashed the rations crate by Pyx—to give him easy access. The other reason is so that Benny and his goonie guards don’t take any. These rations are perfect for Pyx. Which they should be. They’re from Emys, and she’s the one who’s ordered Pyx to stay put.

See, Rogers has, unbelievably, backed Emys into a corner. If the Akupara still want access to human female egg donors, then Pyx has to stay in the settlement until the drill is fixed. 

But that’s a problem that’s got a pin in it for now. There’s a bigger problem to address.

I tap the nutrient port again. “You haven’t eaten yet today.”

Pyx isn’t the only one who’s sneakily keeping an eye on someone.

“I’ll eat later,” he grumbles.

“You said that before.” I tap the nutrient port for emphasis. “Now it’s later. Open up.”

“I’m doing something important.”

“You’re staring at buttons.” I tap him. “Eat.”

“I’m focusing on buttons.”

“Are they fascinating buttons?”

“No.”

“Fabulous buttons?”

He says nothing as I try to pry open his port.

I grunt. “Outstanding butt—”

“They’re broken buttons.” He turns to look at me. “Just useless, broken buttons. Please…”

He trails off and we’re left gazing at one another.

I don’t like this. Pyx isn’t acting like Pyx and that’s scaring me.

I kinda thought Pyx and I’d be an unstoppable team as we faked fixing the drill. You know, consorting with one another late at night and then tossing out clever distractions the next day. We’d keep everyone on their toes, while sharing knowing looks with one another, until Emys or Joia rescued us.

Well, we haven’t done a single late night, thrillingly risky strategy session that ended with us both naked and thoroughly spent.

Which is stressful and disheartening.

But I’ve totally learned my lesson after I’d uttered those asinine words, tell me how to fix him. There’s nothing about Pyx that’s gotta be fixed. But something has gotta be fixed. I just don’t know what.

So until I figure it out, I’m gonna keep my mate physically healthy.

“Eat.” I squeeze his forearm, the subtle plates of his armor ripple beneath my hand. “Pyx, plea—”

“You’re distracting me. I…”

Unbelievable. My mate doesn’t want to be distracted, so he’s tossing me over for something so…small.

I don’t understand. “Pyx?”

He gently tugs his arm outta my hands. “I really need to focus.”

“On broken buttons?”

“On broken buttons.”

I glance over at the buttons. Heck, I’m all out glaring at them, same as Pyx. I hate these stupid, useless things.

“Broken’s one thing. Useless is another.” Pyx lowers his voice. “Trying to not be both right now.”

“Pyx,” I bat my gaze between the buttons and his unreadable faceplate, “what are you talking about? Why do you gotta focus on the buttons?”

Pyx resettles his feet as he hefts a sigh that lifts his chest and shoulders. The alien—er, guy is trying to brace himself. “If I focus on the buttons, then I’m not focusing on ripping Benny to shreds.”

Okay. I can see where that’s helpful.

“If I keep looking at buttons,” he juts his chin sharply at them, “then I’m also not getting in your way.”

“Getting in my way?”

“By distracting you. If I went over there,” he cants his head toward the work bench, “I’d be a useless helper. You need to fix the drill. So I’ll stay here with the broken buttons.”

Ah. Okay.

I remember this. I do.

Pyx and I’d said stuff about broken and useless things when he’d first saw the drill. Being broken doesn’t mean something—or, rather someone—is useless. And useless people aren’t always broken.

Pyx is saying that he doesn’t want to be both broken and useless.

But that doesn’t stop the frustration—over my utter lack of talent for fixing any damn problem—from swelling inside of me.

I am useless because I can’t fix the broken drill.

My chest feels constricted, like it’s being squeezed.

“I can’t fix it,” I say softly.

“I’m sorry.” He rushes to say, his chin dipping to his chest. “I’ll try to focus harder. Distract you less.”

I shake my head. “Pyx, I’m telling you, I can’t fix the drill. I don’t know how.”

He turns to look at me.

“I never knew how.”

He keeps staring down at me.

I keep rambling. “I don’t even have a plan to get us outta here. Emys drops off supplies but doesn’t say anything or pass along secret messages or stuff. And when I go up to use the lav, Joia won’t respond to any of my foot thumps.”

I huff and cross my arms.

Yep. I’ve gone from earnestly apologizing to being kinda whiny. But still, Pyx and I are being hung out to dry by our friends and family.

It sucks.

So I give him a small shrug. “I’m kinda—”

No kinda about it.

I let out a dry laugh because I can’t cry. My tears’ve dried up days ago, shed in frustration as I fiddled with the drill. 

I wipe at my eyes. “I’m totally useless right now.”

Pyx stares down at me and I’ve got no idea what’s going through his head. Probably stuff about me being stupid. And an idiot. And a fixing fraud.

Suddenly, he snaps his head up and looks at the drill. “You need me.”

“I mean, yeah. Sure.” I shrug. “If you can get us outta here and all—”

He walks past me, just a little too fast but with a small hint of his usual enthusiasm.

Seeing that glimpse of my Pyx has warmth spreading through my chest.

But I’m also confused, because the guards and ladder are the other way.

Instead, I watch my mate pick up two random parts of the drill’s engine and click them together.

At a slow and steady pace, he does another set.

And another.

Pyx isn’t monkeying around either. He’s deliberate selecting pieces and connecting them like he knows—

Crap.

Like he knows what he’s doing.

At this pace, it will take him another day or so to finish. Which means my stomach will be churning with humiliation that entire time as I swallow down my failure, piece by piece.


Pyxis The Restrained

“Wait. Just wait a damn second,” Benny says from next to me. “Why’d those two pieces go together?”

His voice is laced with confusion and frustration.

Also, a tinge of outrage.

I don’t both answering him. The one and only time I’d responded to him—mumbled some stuff about bony knuckles connecting with soft nasal cartilage, I had to redo my last seven repairs to get him all caught up.

Instead, I glance over to Luna. This place— being in the abandoned mining tunnel—is not good for her. She’s looking as drawn and exhausted as all the miners.  So, fuck Benny and his complete lack of functioning intellect. My goal is to finish so that Luna can leave here. Not so that Benny can—as Luna’s called it—’copy my homework.’

Don’t know what that human phrase means. Sure. Luna’s here with me, but the bolthole no longer feels like ‘home’. I’d rather ‘work’ on her cabin in Briarwood than this stupid drill.

You know what? That’s not true. I’d gladly stay here if it means that Luna gets to be at her cabin. Her ‘homework’ jab at Benny—because I’m confident she was insulting him—was the last time that she’d had the energy to ‘handled’ the human male. For the past two days, my mate—er, Luna’s been sitting on the floor by the crate of rations.

Rations that she’s stopped eating because she says the taste is off.

I’ve thought about deconstructing my armor’s helmet to give Luna access to my suit’s nutrient tube. There’s something primal and possessive inside of me that craves to feed her personally. To hold her close, perhaps caress her skin as her lips wrap around my tube and suck—

“The fuck I’m stickin’ any of this shit in my mouth,” Benny grumbles as he rushes to draw a crude image of the components that I’d just connected. “Gotta be another way to fix ’em without sucking’ on ’em.”

I could care less that my mouth’s leaking my inner thoughts. What I care about is that Benny has lifted his gaze from his notes to Luna. The human male thinks that because he’s behind me and that I’m—outwardly—focused on the workbench, that it’s safe to leer at her.

His eyes darken as his lips twitch.

Yep. I very much am gonna kill Benny as slowly as I’m reconstructing the drill’s engine. I’ll rip him apart piece by piece.

But I don’t start ripping.

Yet.

As rage burns in my gut and flows through my blood, I hold my breath and hope that Luna will do something to ‘handle’ him. That she’ll show some sign of shaking off whatever fatigue has grabbed hold of her. That she’ll go back to burning Benny—cleverly using her heated touch and searing wit.

Only, I’ve not seen that Luna in days.

Picking up an assembled aligning cylinder, I turn toward Benny. “Here, take a closer look.”

I release my grip.

The cylinder hits the rock floor and cracks.

Broken.

But not useless.

A thick metal chunk ricochets up and smacks into Benny’s leg.

He howls, more startled than hurt, but my objective has been achieved. He’s no longer eye-fucking Luna.

My heart’s kicking in my chest as my hope rises. She’s gotta react. She’ll look over here. Look at me. Our gazes will connect. I’ll know she’s gonna…be the way she used to be.

I steal a glance at her.

She’s staring at the ladder. “Heya, Gary.”

Gary’s climbing down one-handedly while his other hand’s white-knuckling the handle of a clay mug.

“Heya, Luna.” Gary hops off the second rung and hustles over to her. “Here.”

He holds the mug out to her. 

However, Luna doesn’t take the mug.

Instead, I study her as she stares at Gary. He’s tucking his chin into his shoulder, trying—and failing—to shield one side of his face.

“Sorry I’m later than…” The poor guy clears his throat. “It just took a bit longer is all.”

Luna’s eyes narrow. I know my mate well. She’s…

Fine. I don’t know her as well as I desperately want to.

But I do know human females like Joia and Rez well. Whenever they narrow their eyes—glaring at you in such an adorably suspicious way—it means they’re seeing something that you don’t necessarily want them to see.

Luna sees what I see.

She reaches for Gary’s face and…

Aku’s damned me. I know what I’m seeing is a human reaching out to another in concern. However, my idiotic, feral mating instincts see the deeply intimate moment amongst the Akupara—cupping your mate’s face.

My vision goes red.

I pivot away from Benny, a snarl ripping from my throat as I square off with Gary.

Poor Gary. I’d control myself if I could, but my mating instincts demand—

“Hush, Pyx,” Luna snaps without looking at me.

Which should be laughable. Truly. Benny must’ve hushed me a dozen times while on patrol, yet my impulsiveness always overwrote his command.

Luna, though?

I jerk to a stop. As a mated Akupara, I’ll always be hers to command.

Luna pulls her hand back, away from Gary, and takes the mug.

“Who—” Her voice cracks as she heaves a breath. Her tiny, yet furious growl reaches my ears. “Who hit you?”

Gary starts shaking this head. “It ain’t nothing. Really.”

“Ain’t nothing?” Luna, finally, looks over to me. “Who hit him?”

Ah. She wants Benny to reply.

However, the male is still frozen—pressing himself against the tunnel’s rough rock wall—as he gapes at me with wide-eyed caution.

My mating instincts flare again, because getting Benny to talk is something that Luna wants.

And I can give this to her.

I rouse Benny, nudging him with one finger.

“Shit!” He flinches. “What, Akky?”

I tilt my head toward Luna. “Answer her.”

“Answer what?” Benny snorts while he laughs.

It’s as if he desperately wants to sound contemptuous but lacks the willpower to overcome his terror.

Honestly, he just sounds like a pathetic male. The noise is kinda grating, so I poke him again.

“Shit!” Benny squirms as my finger continues to pin his against the tunnel wall. “What, Luna? What’s yer question?”

“Not freaking ‘what’. I wanna know ‘who’.” Luna pushes to her feet. “Which one of your jerk-off guards hit Gary?”

“I’ve been stuck down here! How should I—fuck!” Benny howls as I twist my finger, like I’m turning a bolt.

Behind Luna, the guards jump to their feet. But they’re like startled prey, not sure which direction to run. Other humans—all probably fools—are scurrying down the ladder.

Despite the commotion all around her—humans shouting while Benny wails, Luna never turns around.

She points at Benny as she advances. “But you told them to do it, didn’t you?”

Truly. My mate’s simply breathtaking when she’s solely focused on the intention to kick some asshole’s ass. Her voice is low and hard. Her grip on the mug is punishing and cruel.

She reaches her free hand toward Benny—

Joia swats Luna’s hand down. 

“Yep, totally breathtaking,” Joia says, her casual tone barreling right over Luna’s startled ‘ouch’, and—

Shit. When the hell did Jo get here? How’d I miss her?

“Like you said,” Joia’s nodding yet rolling her eyes, “‘breathtaking’ and all that shit.”

“What the heck, Joia?” Luna’s shaking her arm, trying to get free of Jo’s grasp. “Let go!”

“Just gimme another ten—no, wait.” She glances over her shoulder. “Rez! Hurry it up! Clock’s a tickin’.”

Luna looks over her shoulder, and I track her gaze. Behind us, Gary’s still in the tunnel. He’s slowly getting to his feet, looking kinda confused and definitely like someone’s been beating on him. On the other side of the tunnel’s hatch, Rez and Emys are ushering Benny’s guards outta the bolthole by shoving them up the ladder.

My sibling locks gazes with me and nods. “Pyxis.”

I’m too stunned to reply. I don’t like that Jo, Rez, and Emys are here. I mean, I should think it’s fabulous. They’re a lifeline that’s come to rescue us.

Only, in my gut, this feels like the end of the line.

That my time is up.

“Thirty more seconds, give or take eight minutes,” Jo says as she turns back to Luna. “That’s it. Then you can get handsy with Benny, but it won’t make ya feel any better. Oh and,” she cants her head, gesturing behind her, “Rez’s here, too.”

“I saw her.” Luna glares at Jo. “Emys is also here.”

“No. Badass in Boots is over there.” Joia points to my sibling who’s holding a human up, off the ground, by the back of his shirt. “When she’s supposed to be over here.”

“This human is pulling others off of the ladder,” Emys says.

“Not your problem, B.I.B.” Joia points to Rez. “She’s the one on crowd control.”

My sibling releases the male. “B.I.B.?”

Emys repeats back—what I’ve come to understand—are individual letters of the human’s language.

“Badass in—” Jo glances over her shoulder.

She stares at the human on the floor and frowns.

“Now whaddya expect Rez to do?” Jo huffs as she gestures to the cowering male. “Deadlift him?”

“He’s not dead.” My sibling glances down at the male. “He’s merely defecating.”

“Well, shit.” Rez puts on hands—which are covered in our armored gauntlets—on her hips. “Literally. Shit.”

“There’s always shit.” Joia groans, then beckons to my sibling. “Em, get your badass butt over here before Baby Bunsen Burner goes inferno.”

Luna frowns, her brows wrinkling. “What’s a bunion—”

“Bunsen,” Jo says and looks pointedly at Luna’s mug.

Black tendrils of smoke are rolling over the rim. 

Luna gapes down at the mug, blinks, and glare back up at Jo.

“You know what, I don’t care.” She sweeps her free arm wide, using the smoking mug to gesture toward the ladder. “I’ve been sneaking up there, thumping out S.O.S. for freaking days, Joia. Freaking. Days. So don’t you come down here, slinging out ridiculous nicknames like—”

“Take that,” Joia says.

My sibling neatly snatches the mug away from Luna.

“Hey!” Luna turns to Emys. “Don’t take that! Gary got that for me!”

Emys looks from the mug—which now stinks like charred grains—to me.

I know my sibling well. She’s baffled as to why I’d let another male—even one as outstanding as Gary—provide for my mate.

“Yeah, Gary’s a trooper,” Jo says, then raises her voice. “Gary!”

Gary startles. “Um, yeah, Jo?”

“Be a real dear and help Rez with Shits-His-Pants, would ya?”

“You don’t have to do that, Gary,” Luna says, grunting as she’s trying to use her mug-free hand to pry outta Jo’s grip. “They didn’t help us.”

“I personally delivered food,” Emys says.

“You took my food,” Luna shoots back. “Food that Gary got for me.”

Jo scoffs. “Food that you’ve ruined.”

“Not my fault.” Luna breaks off prying at Jo’s fingers to point at Rez. “And she’s not doing a dang thing that requires any help.”

Rez, who’s still got her hands on her hips, nods. “I’m really not.”

“You’re ‘really’ supposed to be clearing the damn bolthole.” Jo glares and points from Rez to Emys. “This is why we had the secret meetin’. In fact, it’s the only ‘why’ for that whole damn meetin’.”

“Why?” Emys looks to Rez. “As in, the human letter?”

“Nah, ‘why’ as in ‘reason for the meeting’. To plan.”

“Meeting?” My sibling cocks her head. “You mean mission briefing?”

Rez shrugs as she toes the human on the floor. “Sure.”

“Of which I had no knowledge,” Emys turns to Joia, “because it was secret.”

Jo waves her off. “That was Rez’s idea.”

“Hey!” Rez lifts her hands from her hips and waves them about her in an oddly endearingly human way to convey ‘all of this’. “We’re kinda doing a prison break here. And wasn’t the plan, to talk about the plan, supposed to happen after—” she starts toeing the cringing human faster, “we cleared the fucking bolthole?”

“You botched the plan,” Jo says to Emys. “The least you can do is snap the guy’s neck. Get us back on track.”

“Ah, I can help!” Gary steps forward and holds up a hand. “I can do it.”

“Do it?” Jo arches a brow. “You’ll snap his neck?”

“What?” Gary pales. He swallows, but his voice comes out as shaky has his raised hand. “No. No, not that. Mean I’ll get Bennett on up and outta here.”

“That’s Bennett?” Rez bends down, wrinkles her nose, and straights back up. “I’ll take your word for it. I can never tell the Bjorn brothers apart.”

Gary mumbles something about bruised knuckles as he gets the other male onto his feet. As the male scrambles up the ladder, Gary silently follows, steadying him each time he fumbles.

“Wash your hands when you’re done, Gary!” Rez calls up to him. Then she looks over at the rest of us. “Should I’ve let him wear my gauntlets?”

“He is an Outbaler,” Emys says.

“So…” Rez arches her brows expectantly. “Is that a no?”

Emys just stares at her.

“Right. That’s a no.” Rez points to Joia. “Let’s get back to making with the plan.”

“Get making with the—” Joia rolls her eyes. “Fuck. Fine. Let’s get this shit done.” She looks at Benny. “Fanboy and Bunsen are leaving.”

 “Leave…?” Benny casts his confused gaze around. He even stops to look at me, but I honestly have no clue what these three have planned. “Ya’ll are escaping?”

“Leaving.” Jo over enunciates the word. “It’s called ‘leaving’ cuz there’s no way you fuck ups are actually capable of guard duty.”

Benny’s face flushes. “Hey, now—”

I twist my finger—just a quarter turn—and he stops speaking.

“Ya also,” Jo says, “ain’t capable of fixing the damn drill.”

Luna flinches, as if she’s been pinched. Fury starts burning in my gut again. Even though Jo’d kept her flat, no-bullshitting gaze on Benny when she’d spoken, I know she’d meant those words for Luna.

I let out a low, warning growl. Jo and I have been through this before. Jo’s my very bestest friend. Truly.

But Luna’s mine.

“And since ya never bothered listening to me before,” Jo says, her eyes still locked on Benny, “right now has just become the one and only real opportunity of your lifetime. Ya listenin’?”

“I…don’t…” Benny looks from me to Jo. “Are…Are ya talking to me?”

I twist my finger.

By Aku, this is way better than pressing broken buttons.

“Shit!” Benny nods frantically. “Listenin’! I’m listenin’ to ya!”

“Good,” Jo says.

The tunnel and bolthole being to pulse with anticipation.

Jo’s lips are pressed into thin line as she’s staring hard at Benny. I can hear Rez and Luna as they inhale and hold their breaths. Emys’s faceplate is riveted on the dying smoke from Luna’s mug, yet—because I know her well—she’s intently listening.

Me?

Each beat of my heart is pounding in my head like a pulse blast.

I brace.

Jo grunts and nods her head once—both sounding and looking satisfied with everyone’s attention. “Ya’ll keep takin’ shits in shitters.”

She turns and walks away, dragging Luna behind her.

“Like a damn snare, Joia!” My mates struggles as she’s being pulled along. “Let go!”

“What?” Benny’s gawking at Jo. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jo’s at the ladder now. She’s waiting with one foot on the bottom rung as Rez climbs with up Luna and doesn’t look over at Benny.

“I don’t get it.” Benny, once again—and for whatever fucked up reason—looks at me. “I don’t.”

I step back and let the hand that’s been pinning Benny to tunnel wall fall limply to my side. That fire in my gut? It’s gone out. Replaced by a spiky chunk of ice.

 “We know the lavs are broken,” Benny says, like he’s trying to both puzzle through Jo’s statement while also arguing against it. “It’s why we use the shitters. Where else are we supposed to shit?”

A firm hand grasps my shouldercop. I’m tugged back by one of the few people who’s physically strong enough to move me.

“Come,” Emys says. “You’ve stayed along enough.”

“Hang on a second, Akky.” Benny steps away from the wall. “But what about the drill?”

Emys is guiding me to the ladder, and I follow with heavy steps. By Aku, I wanna pull against her like a fish on hook. Once we’re up and outta the bolthole, it’ll be over. The eight minutes that Joia’d promised me have runout.

I’ve no time left.

“Hey!” Benny skirts around us because I’m forcing my sibling to haul me like wheelless cart. “What about the drill? He was fixin’ it.”

“And nows he’s done,” Emys says.

“But it ain’t fixed!”

My sibling stops walking and gazes at the human. “How will it aid you?”

“What do ya mean?” Whatever puffed up reserve of confidence that Benny had deflates. “Can none of ya just say what ya damn well mean to say?”

“I thought humans practice philosophy,” Emys says.

“Philo-what?”

“Pose questions for the other to reflect upon and find inner meaning.”

“Ah…” Benny trails off and mutters lowly. “The fuck?”

“Humans like Benny seek answers.” I say in a rare moment of actually giving an answer.

Emys may not have Jo’s ability to know everything, but she definitely knows a fuckton more than me. I hate to admit it but—like Benny—I really wanna to know.

Emys nods and I know she’s thanking me for the clarification. “The drill will not fix your problems. You are wasting resources, which I believe humans quantify as time and money. For the Akupara, we see it as a lost opportunity.”

Benny leans to the side, peering around us to look at the drill.

He straightens. “I don’t get it.”

But now I do.

“You can fix the drill.” I tell him. “You can interchange the parts until it works, then strip the mine bare. Fill your cargo containers with your bounty.”

Benny’s gaze is starting to glaze over with greed.

So I tell him everything.

“But transport ships no longer come to Warren’s, so the gold will just sit there.” That is why the Umara Bale is as good as stranded here, along with these humans. “Working on the drill has kept you from addressing other things. And those issues that you’ve ignored or flat out missed have stuck you in a cycle that’s spiraling down. You’re all just slowly grinding yourselves—”

I give my arm a sharp tug, breaking free from my sibling’s hold.

Emys turns to face me. “Pyxis the Restrained.”

My name is an order to stand down. I’d yanked free too quickly and the  spark of greed in Benny’s has turned cold with hate. Emys believes that I’m about to—as Joia’d suspected I would—get ‘handsy’ with Benny.

Joia was right. Killing Benny wouldn’t make me feel any better about how I’ve spent my remaining time as Luna’s mate. I just stood there, pinning some worthless human to the wall, and said nothing.

Those last eight minutes?

Just like last time, I’ve wasted them.

“You, and everyone who’s trying to help you, are being ground down.” I side step my sibling and start climbing the ladder. “Because fixing useless things is fucking pointless.”


Luna the Baby Bunny

I stand outside of my modular and glare at my best friends.

“Come on, Luna.” Rez nudges my shoulder. “We’ve kinda just shit all over our welcome. Time to go.”

I don’t move. “We’ve got time.”

Rez grimaces. “Not as much as you think.”

She starts adjusting her black matte armored gauntlets that fit her hands like a surgical glove. She’s getting ready, as if anyone needing a butt kicking will just come walking up to us.

Well, she needs to get in line. sI’m the one who’s gonna be kicking butts.

“What I think,” I say, really hitting ‘think’ hard because I do have freaking thoughts that aren’t idiotic, “is that you’re never more than a half-a-second sprint away from your mate.”

“Huh?” Rez wrinkles her brown. “I don’t follow Kin—”

I glare at her and arch a brow.

It takes her a second, but eventually understanding has her nodding her head.

“Oh.” Rez twirls finger in a circle. “It’s the other way around. He likes to shadow me.”

“He stalks you.”

She shrugs I know she can’t argue. Her mate is obsessed with her. 

Rez glances around. “So what’re we waiting for?” 

Jo just her chin toward our modular. “Baby Bunny’s stalker.”

She’s right. I am waiting fo my own personal stalker. I may not always get Pyx—like, understand why he likes stuff or wants to try things—but I’m sure I’m right about the stalking. There’s no way he’s gonna stay someplace without me. Not for long.

“But this isn’t the plan”, Rez says.

“It’s the plan now.” Jo presses her fingers to her temples and squeezes her eyes shut.

Good. I’m glad that I’m not the only one with a raging headache right now.

“Yeah,” Jo scoffs as gives me a one-eyed stare, “but my headache you can actually cure.”

“Cure?” I glare at her, making sure she know how ridiculous she sounds.

“Ain’t talking about ham, am I?”

“Ham—” I huff out a frustrated breath.

Jo’s always freaking doing that. She tosses out some random crap to distract me. Or, worse, she sends me off to do pointless tasks just to keep me outta the way.

Jo points at me. “To keep you safe. Big difference.”

I laugh a single, harsh chuckle. She does it because I really—so freaking really—can’t fix a dang thing. I’m useless when she needs to get stuff done.

“We’ve been over this.” Jo rolls her eyes. “You’re meant to heal—”

I laugh louder and harder. More bullcrap.

“I can’t heal anyone. Rez and Emys still can’t have kids. And now I’m getting sick, just like the miners.” Fatigue and headaches, plus my loss of appetite, have been plaguing my for days.

So it freaking hurts when I tell Jo, “But I can’t figure out what’s causing it.”

And other painful truth is that I’d tried to cure myself. I did. Which, when my symptoms started in the abandoned tunnel, I’d thought it would be a good thing. That I’d be able to heal the miners once I’d healed myself. Because ending the miners’ sickness should have been something that I could do.

Like the illness  is a problem that the universe created specifically for me to solve.

And yeah. I know. That kinda ‘I’m Their Only Hope’ thinking makes me sound like I’m glad the miners are sick. It’s also another example of me being so me…

Pathetic Luna…because I’m still trying.

Selfish Luna…because I don’t want to be humiliated anymore.

Desperate Luna…because I don’t what else to do.

My cheeks flush as shame sours my stomach.

“So,” I swallow back bile. “I suck at healing, too.”

Jo mumbles something, then sweeps her arms wide. “You suck at seeing shit for what it really is.”

I just huff and roll my eyes. I’m not in the mood for her shit analogies any more. Which is good. Because Pyx’s just stepped outta my modular with Emys following him.

“Awesome.” I snag Joia’s wrist and start dragging her butt toward Pyx. “Let’s get this shit done.” 

But she digs her feet in and manages to spin me back toward her. “I meant what I said down there, Luna.”

“Meant what?” I tug at her and—dang it—she’s stronger than me.

Jo grumbles, but then her irritated frown vanishes and she give me a soft, tender look.

I don’t like that look. She never looks…nurturing. 

“Luna,” she says gently. “Stop taking shit in shitters.”

Okay. That wasn’t—

Whatever. I don’t care what freaking expression Joia paints on her face. I’m gonna stay on point.

I look her in the eyes. “I heard you. That’s why I’m done with this shit.”

I tug her again, bu she won’t move. Fine. I’ll just pull the ace that’s always in my pocket.

“Pyx.” I call as I keep my gaze on Jo. “Get over here, would ya?”

Her shoulders drop. “Luna.”

She says my name like she’s trying to pity, scold, and reason with me all at the same time.

“Joia.” I fire back—hard, firm and final—because I’m not taking any more of this crap.

Pyx comes up besides me. I don’t even have to look know that his blank faceplate is tilted down, focused solely on me. My chest tightens. The hair on my nape tingle. I inhale and catch his distinct, crispy scent.

“Luna?”

The sound of his deep voice, saying my name like it’s he’s savoring it, warms my belly.

But what also hits me are my feelings of being betrayed, ridiculed, and humiliated. Pyx is fixing the drill with virtually no effort. For him, it’s easy.  For me? I’d been struggled and stressed over it for months.

Heck, it might be a full year.

But this is it. I’m done with it all.

“I’m done,” I say.

Pyx looks from me to Jo. “Done?”

“Done trying.” And to make sure they get it, I point to each of them. “Because when someone cares about you, they don’t do the shit that you do.” Wait. “Did.” Crap. “Have done.”

Even now? I gotta sound like an idiot right freaking now?

“Sure. Have done.” Jo’s nodding along encouragingly. “Go on. Get it all out.”

“That.” I jab my finger at her. “That right—You treat me like a toddler who’s gotta be occupied. Who’s gotta be shielded from what the grown ups are doing.”

Jo sighs. “No, I don’t.”

“You do. You mislead, manipulate, and lie to me.” I gesture at everything around us. “All those problems I’ve been trying to fix? You let me go off and—”

I stumble over the words. Because they’ve left me to fumble and ultimately fail. It’s so demeaning. I can’t say it out loud.

Instead, I say, “I always thought you were too busy for the small things. That it was best for your big brain to stay focused on the big problems. But the truth is, big or small, you could’ve fixed everything.”

I don’t wait for her answer.

“And you.” I turn to Pyx. “You hurt me, too.”

“Luna,” Jo says, placing her hand on my shoulder.

I shrug off her—dismissing her attempt to caution or temper me—as I keep looking up at Pyx. “When you took the drill apart in seconds, I think I knew but I just didn’t—You could’ve put it back together right then and there, couldn’t you’ve?”

I keep starting at his blank faceplate. It should be chilling, but it’s not. It’s breaking my heart.

“All that time we spent together? You just could’ve—” I swallow back tears and embarrassment. “Answer me.”

“Yes.” 

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because you wanted to fix it.”

“So, um…” I take second to absorb that. “Joia gives me pointless tasks. And you give me empty accomplishments.”

Jo slaps my shoulder. “He was givin’ ya what you needed.”

“What I needed was help! But you two let me—”

Struggle alone. Doubt myself. Hate myself.

I swallow all that back. “But you two let me down. I’m done fixing things. For good. I can’t do it and I don’t even wanna try anymore.”

Jo goes to speak, but Pyx talks right over her. “She’s right.”

He stares at Jo and waits.

Jo just stares back. No shrug. No eye roll.

Something’s passing between them, but I don’t get it. 

“You’re right, Luna.” Pyx turns to me. “I fucked up. I did what I wanted. Not what you needed. I failed to care for you.”

“Yeah. That’s what you—” Wow. He really nailed it. “That’s what you both did.”

Jo huffs. “Not me.”

She looks at me—as she always does—like I’m an idiot. 

Unbelievable. “Yes, you.”

“Whatever,” Jo says as she rolls her eyes and walks away. “Next time, rescue your own butt, Baby Bunny.”

“You always do this, Joia!” I shout after her. “And I am totally gonna save my own butt next time!”

Rez jogs past me. “I’ll go get her.”

“Why bother?” But Rez doesn’t turn around. I look to Pyx. “Seriously, she’s never gonna have a real talk with me about any of this.”

“If you want—” Pyx shifts on his feet. “Or, um, need to talk about this? I’ll talk about this.”

He doesn’t sound so sure about that. I don’t blame him. I don’t even wanna talk about all the ‘this’ right now.

“Later, alright?” I rub my forehead. “I’m not in the talking mood.” Check that. “Or the listening mood. I’m still really mad.” And mortified. And disheartened. “Let’s just find Gary and get outta here.”

“Sure, Luna.”

But he’s not moving and my head’s pounding.

“Do you…?” I look around.

Only Emys is left.

I sigh, feeling so completely exhausted. “Do know where he’s gone? Because if I go looking, I’m gonna kick, like, everyone’s butts.”

Every. Single. Last. Butt.

Except for Gary’s. I’d give the poor guy a hug.

Pyx nods. “He’s earned it.”

“Help me find him and I’ll hug you, to—”

“Gary!” Pyx bellows.

I finch. “Um, I meant go find—”

“I’m here!” Gary calls out as he trots outta a side alley between two modulars.

“Oh.” I rub my head again. “He’s here.”

Pyx places his hands on his hips and nods. “He always is. But…” His hands drop to his sides.

Which is too bad. For a second there, he was acting the way he usually does.

Pyx shifts on his feet again. “But you’ll take him with you?”

“Heck, yes.” I pump my voice with ‘what else would I do’ agreement. Which is better than sounding relieved. Pyx is just worried about Gary. That’s all. “I’m so not gonna leave him here for Benny to beat on.”

“Good.” Pyx nods his head once—just like he always does. “So you’ll go…”

Okay. He’s hesitating again.

“Go?” But then it hits me. “Right. Where will we go? Yeah. I didn’t think that through.”

Rez is the impulsive one. Jo’s the planner. I’m kinda in-between. Which doesn’t help me right now. But it does soften the anxiousness that’s twisting my tummy.

Pyx looks over his shoulder. “He can’t go to the Bale.”

“Yeah.” I gaze in the same direction as Pyx—outta Two-Four-Kay. “There’re still our boltholes in the forest.”

Pyx looks down at me. “Luna.”

Yeah, yeah. Seems Pyx has newly mastered Jo and Rez’s ‘you know better’ tone when he says my name.

“Fine.” I huff, like it’s no big deal. “There’s your cabin—”

“Your cabin.”

“Yours. You built it.”

“For you to use.”

“Right.” But I still don’t believe that.

It’s too freaking perfect a place for a disaster like me.

“Take Gary there,” Pyx says.

“Yeah. Sure.” Really, it’s our only option. “Come on, Gary. You’re with us.”

The whole time Gary has been standing by, being as silent as the War-naries used to be when in the mine. “Okay.”

Gary said that way too easily.

“Like, permanently with us.” I say, gauging his reaction. “So—” Crap! “I mean, you don’t wanna stay in the settlement anymore, do you? I didn’t even ask—”

“Yeah. Yep.” Gary rushes to say, nodding adamantly. “Wanna go.”

“Oh. Good.” Because if he’d said no, I probably would’ve had Pyx haul him out anyway. “I really shoulda asked first.”

“But ya are askin’.”

“Eh,” I roll my eyes, “kinda after the fact, but sure. Do you need to get anything?”

Gary shrugs. “Got nothing to get.”

Aw, my heart. I swear, I’ve only met one other person in my life who needed a hug as badly as Poor Gary, here. Which is Pyx. Who’s also here.

But I don’t hug Gary, because then that means I gotta hug Pyx. And I can’t hug Pyx right now, because my head still hurts. I’m tried. And my stomach is doing funky stuff.

And even though I’m so dang mad at Pyx right now, if I hug him, I’ll squeeze him for hours. And we gotta go.

I clap my hands. “Awesome.” Crap. “I mean, ‘awesome’ that we’re good to go.”

I have no clue how to recover from that, so I turn and start walking.

And we’re off. Outta the hostile human settlement and through the predator-filled forest, to Pyx’s cabin we go.

Good times ahead.

Actually, we’ve a long time ahead of us because Pyx and I can’t just zip to the cabin within a few minutes. We’ve got Gary to consider.

“Listen, Pyx. There’s no way we’re gonna get to the cabin tonight. We’re gonna have to stay at two or—” I start running calculations…and give up. My head hurts too much. “Like, stay at a handful to a crap ton of boltholes along the way.”

He says nothing.

Did I mess up my sorta math? “Pyx?”

“Uh,” Gary says, “he’s back there.”

I turn. Sure enough, Pyx is still standing where I’d left him—just a few steps away from my modular. He’s looks—

He looks wrong. His shoulders are sloped. His arms and hands are hanging limp by his side. 

“Pyx?” I spread out my hands. “You coming?”

Shades of a memory pass through my mind. Pyx and I have done this before. When I took him back to my modular for the first time, we had a back-and-forth misunderstanding before he realized that I was inviting him along.

Well, he’s not getting an invite from me to go to his own dang cabin.

I huff and stalk back to him. “Seriously, my headache’s getting worse and I’ll be lucky to make it to the first bolthole before nightfall. We gotta go.”

I reach for his hand.

Pyx steps back. “I’m not going with you.”

“Oh.” I let my hand fall back to my side. “Well, you don’t have to wait and then, like, meet up with us later or something.”

He says nothing.

“Really,” I say as my tummy tumbles and cramps. “We won’t be travelling any faster without you. I’m ‘dead-on-my-feet’ right now. That’s the absolute slowest Outbaler speed there is. On step lower and ya ain’t steppin’ at all. You’re standing. So, come on.”

I snag his wrist.

Well. I try. Pyx is massive everywhere and I can’t get a good grip on him. But, that’s never seemed to matter. I could lead him all around Warren’s just by holding his finger.

I mean, I’ve done it before.

I give him an encouraging tug. “We’ll all be crawling through the forest together, like a roaming pack of wild turtles. Oh! I call alpha turtle!”

I tug him again.

“Come on, Pyx. It’s gonna be a fabulous time. You don’t wanna miss it.”

I keep tugging. He keeps on not walking.

“Farewell, Luna,” he says.

I plant my feet and pull with all I’ve got. “You’re coming.”

I should sound all grunty because I’m exerting myself, but I don’t. I sound like I’m pleading. Like I’m desperate.

He doesn’t budge.

“I’m just tired, mad, and hurt,” my heart squeezes in my chest, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t want—”

Pyx reaches out with his long arm. His armored thumb brushes my cheek before he places his hand on my shoulder. He gently steadies me as he slowly twists his arm outta my grasp.

“I know you’ll do well.” He turns and walks away.

Oh god.

This is it.

I’ve feared this—Pyx walking away from me—but I’m not scared. I’m confused. I want freaking answers, and I… I wanna puke.

“Shit!” Gary shrieks.

“It’s just puke, Gare.” I’m bent over and wiping at my mouth. “Calm down.”

“Calm down!” Gary just keeps right on shrieking. “Pyx! He just…”

“Dumped me?” He sure did, Gary. He sure freaking did. And now he’s got some explaining to do. “Where is he?”

I look around. Pyx’s nowhere.

Literally nowhere.

Oh no.

He should still be here. Well, at least, ‘shuffling-around-at-Outbaler-speed’ here. There’s only one Akupara here in black matte armor, and Emys is staring at me—

No. She’s not just staring at me. She’s gutting me with her intense anger.

And I get it. I do. Pyx is so outta sorts—probably because of me—that he’s bolted away at his true speed.

In front of an Outbaler.

“Luna,” Gary says weakly.

I turn to him. His face is pale and his eyes are wide open.

“He vanished?” Gary says it like a question, but I’m not sure.

Is he telling me or asking me?

I open my mouth, and—

Emys drops my mug of ruined gruel and takes a step toward us. She looks like a War-wolf dismissing its kill because it’s spotted something better to eat.

This is bad. Really bad.

I snap my mouth closed and snag Gary by the wrist. Turning, I hightail it to the cover of Briarwood, pulling Gary along as fast as his normal human legs will go.

“Luna!” He shouts.

Nothing I say will make things better.

It’s all too broken.

This chapter is complete! I’ve enabled commenting and have added my own thoughts as well.

As always, thank you so much for reading!

xo Bex

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From Slow & Steady: The Velveteen Tortoise
Copyright © 2020, 2021 by Bex McLynn
All rights reserved

3 thoughts on “Slow and Steady – The Velveteen Tortoise – Chapter Seventeen

  1. Finally! They broke up! I never thought I’d get here…

    I know, I sound gleefully evil but the good news is that Pyx and Luna are now even closer to their Happily Ever After!

    What’s coming up next is the Dark Night. (They’re miserable, not relieved, that it’s over). I plan to couple it with the Wake Up beat. (They decide to kick the butt of their inner and outer demons because they want to choose each other.)

    Why am I combining these beats? Because, personally, I’ve written enough angst. In the course of the Retreat/Shields/Break Up, I feel that I’ve lost my handle on Pyx’s distinctive voice. Some of that can be explained by the innate angsty-ness of the Retreat from Love beats.

    However, the larger challenge is that keeping a naturally optimistic character ‘in character’ the entire time is freaking hard!

    If this were a true first draft and not a serial of my first draft, I would’ve been like: “Whelp, it is what is right now. Future Bex will fix it in the second draft.” I highly suspect that, when I publish The Velveteen Tortoise, Pyx will read much differently in this chapter.

    Story-wise, this chapter added a whopping 8400 words (wow!), bringing the total to 78,700. I have a new goal: to finish the story by the end of October. Hopefully I’ll be typing ‘The End’ by the end of next week.

    Thank you so much for reading!💜

    Like

  2. Hey lady! U really got me with this chapter I’ll tell u. I’m almost in tears! I truly love this story but can’t wait for more. They just Have to get back together, please!! Wow the feels are for real!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! And, yes, Luna and Pyx will get back together. I am very excited to write the next two (no more than three) chapters! Hopefully I’ll be typing “The End” the end of next week!!

      Like

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