Title: Unbearable
Author: Tater Chip Girl
Email: taterchipgirl AT gmail.com
Rating: TEENS
Summary: On a New Mecca plantation, a woman has rebuilt her life after losing everything that mattered to her. Who is she, and what happens when the past isn't what she thought it was?
Disclaimers: Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick and their characters belong to Universal Studios. No infringement is intended, no profit is made.

 

"Okay, bring 'em in."

The woman spurred her horse forward to trot ahead of the advancing line of day laborers. It was just before sunrise, and she'd hired three hundred people for the final day of harvest. If things went well today, she could go home and relax for a few months until the next crop was ready. She lifted her wide-brimmed hat and repositioned it, then turned to watch the line of men and women walking behind her. She brought her horse around to face the group of workers and held up her hand for them to stop.

"Okay, here's the drill." She raised her voice so they all could hear her. "We're starting early, so there's no rush. I'm more concerned with getting undamaged fruit than I am with speed. I want *no bruising*. Is that understood?"

The workers nodded.

"There are water outlets every twenty meters, so if you get thirsty, stop and take a drink. Remember, no rushing. If you hurry, you risk damaging the fruit. Just take your time and be careful." She looked at her watch. "You'll break for breakfast in two hours, and break for lunch four hours after that." She pointed to the opposite end of the field. "Portable bathrooms are over there, use 'em when you need to. And people?" She held up her hand for attention. "I cannot stress enough the importance of not rushing this job. You'll get whatever you need to stay comfortable. Just take your time, and let one of the foremen know if you have a problem or your basket is full. Any questions?"

She scanned the workers once more; no one answered.

"Okay, then let's get started."

Spurring her horse, she trotted off to the side to watch as her seven foremen led the large group of laborers into the field of short, thick, fruit-laden bushes. There were those who said she was too easy on her people, what with the frequent water breaks, portable bathrooms and plentiful food, but she knew that happy workers meant unbruised fruit, which meant increased income and more time off for her.

Many of these people had worked here before, and made a point of showing up for every tanda harvest. They were always eager to work for someone who treated them well. A few even lived on her land and tended the fields nearest to their homes in exchange for housing and protection, both good things to have on a colony world like New Mecca. Especially out here, away from the cities and settlements.

The fruit was easy to grow and highly resistant to insects, weather and disease - the delicate part was the harvesting of it, something she'd learned the hard way during her first season here, after claiming the land four years ago. One partially rotted and unsellable crop had taught her what she needed to know; her second season profits had been so much better, she'd hired extra workers to plant more fields, bought more portable stasis units, and the rest had fallen into place almost effortlessly. Now she was the largest and most sought- after producer of tanda in this sector. Her logo, a planet circled by two rings and overlaid with her initials, was a familiar sight on many a produce shelf.

She surveyed the field again, watching individual workers as they carefully twisted the purple tanda fruit from the bushes and laid it tenderly into the baskets. Her foremen rode up and down the rows, now and then leaning down from their horses to speak to the workers. She'd hand-picked these four women and three men for their even temperaments - she'd never had to worry about any of them mistreating her crews, and all were well-rewarded for their patience.

Something in her peripheral vision caught her attention; a lone worker who'd stopped picking and was staring at her. She squinted at him, trying to figure out what made him seem so familiar. Maybe he'd been on one of her previous crews.

But I'd remember a guy like that, she mused. He's big. Really big.

The man wore a large red bandana knotted over his head and tied at the nape of his neck. Big sunglasses covered his eyes, so she couldn't really see his face. His work shirt was sleeveless, revealing huge, powerful arms. With a start, she realized she'd been running her eyes over his body, and looked away quickly. Wouldn't do to be caught ogling a field worker.

Stop it, she told herself. She squared her shoulders and walked her horse to another section of the field. You're the boss - now act like one, dammit.

"Hannah." She motioned one of the foremen over. "You take charge here. I'm going back to the house," she said when Hannah was close enough to hear her. "Anything happens, you call me." She tapped her ever-present earcomm.

"Right, boss." Hannah nodded and turned her horse back to the fields, her dark braids swinging over her shoulders as she rode.

The woman spurred her horse to a slow gallop and headed for the large, sprawling two-story house situated in the middle of her claim, about a kilometer from where she now rode. She'd had it built from scratch using the reddish native stone after her abundant second-season harvest - no prefabs for her. She deserved a real home, especially after all her hard work, all the shit she'd been through. After all she'd lost...

She shuddered a little, remembering, and the pain stabbed through her, for a split second as fresh as the day they'd told her. The day her world had collapsed, and she'd sworn that nothing short of planetary catastrophe would ever get her off solid ground and onto another transport as long as she drew breath.

A firm kick made her horse pick up the pace. There was no time, no room in her life now for remembering. She had work to do, a business to run, and people to take care of. The house loomed closer in the growing sunlight, and she could see the tiny figure of her head groomsman emerging from the stables a few hundred meters from the house.

She smiled and shook her head - Morrison was hard to miss, even at this distance. The Englishman's manners were impeccable, but his insistence on wearing his hair in a spiky red mohawk had barred him from employment in every other good stable he'd tried. However, once she'd seen how her horses responded to him, he was a shoo-in.

Their loss, my gain, she thought, watching as he moved towards the house to greet her and take her horse.

"Look like a bigger one this time," he said, nodding towards the busy fields when she reached him and dismounted. "Got your hands on some good plants, eh?"

"Yep - the best." She handed him the reins and headed for the front door. "Don't rub him down just yet," she called over her shoulder. "I might go back out later."

"Aye-aye, general." Morrison snapped her a funny little salute and began leading the horse away.

Laughing, she opened the door and took off her hat, hanging it in the entryway as she sniffed the air. Her cooks, Nina and Perry, were already busy preparing breakfast for the crew. Her boots sounded noisily on the stone floor as she made her way to the kitchen, her stomach rumbling. The smell of fresh-baked bread and spices filled the house.

"Hey, boss." Nina looked up from a large pot she was stirring. "Guess you wanna get fed, huh?"

"No way," Perry snickered from his seat at the large wooden table, where he was slicing bread. "Look at her - she's way too fat." He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue, miming a grisly death, when his employer pointed an invisible pistol at him and pulled the trigger.

"You're fired," she grinned, lowering her slim figure into the chair across from him.

"Good morning," a deep voice boomed from the hallway. The speaker came into view a moment later, adjusting his turban. "I see the harvest has begun." He breathed in deeply, savoring the aroma that filled the kitchen. "And I see that Nina has once again begun her temptation of the faithful."

Nina laughed and continued her stirring. "Hey, no one told you to come here during Ramadan."

"That is true," the Muslim agreed, sitting down beside his host. "But at sundown, I shall see for myself what I have missed during my fast."

Perry passed a plate full of warm bread slices to his employer. "There ya go, fatty. Eat up."

She made a face at him and took a bite of the bread, nodding her thanks as Nina set a cold pitcher of pandra tea on the table. Pouring herself a glass, she munched her bread and let her mind wander back to the fields. The bushes she'd planted had yielded beyond her wildest expectations, and this year's profit would be nothing short of phenomenal, even after paying all her workers. Maybe next harvest season, she could hand things over to Hannah, maybe take a vacation in the mountains. She'd always wanted to go. So had he.

Stop it, she told herself, closing her eyes. Stop torturing yourself. He's gone, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

"Are you alright, child?" The Muslim placed a concerned hand on her shoulder.

"Yeah, fine." She pushed her chair back and stood up. "I'll be back in a minute."

The others watched as she left the kitchen. When the sound of her boots had faded, they faced each other again with sober expressions.

"What is it, Abu?" Nina sat down in her employer's vacated chair with an exasperated sigh. "She gets like this every year, but she never talks about it." Nina threw up her hands. "I've tried asking her, but she won't tell me anything."

The Muslim took a sip of his pandra tea and said nothing.

"C'mon, Abu," Perry pressed. "You've known her longer than anyone. Does this time of year remind her of something bad, or what?"

Abu sighed and sat silently for a moment before answering. "Much has happened to her." His tone was that of a man trying to choose his words carefully, to not give away too much. "Much that was painful, and yes, this time of the year reminds her of it."

Nina nodded and studied the Muslim's face. "Were you there, Abu? Did you see what happened?"

"I saw...many things," he answered slowly. "Not all, but enough. And what I did not see, she has told me." He looked up at the concerned faces before him. "But I cannot break her confidence. The life she knew before this is over. This is her life now. And you must never question her about her past again. It will only bring her pain."

Nina nodded again and got up to check her bubbling pot as Perry cleared his throat and spoke. "But isn't there anything we can do to make it better? Can't we help?"

Abu smiled sadly at the young man. "We can be here when we are needed. That is all." He looked down at the table, his eyes misting a bit. "The only one who could truly ease her pain is...no longer with us." He raised a warning finger when Perry opened his mouth to speak again. "Ask me nothing more - I have said too much already."

 

Alone in her second-floor bedroom, the woman sat down heavily at her desk and looked out the window. From here she could see the distant figures of the workers as they bent to harvest the fruit, and the foremen as they circulated among the plants on their horses. By sunset it should all be done, the portable stasis units bearing her logo packed with fruit and on their way to the local markets and transport companies. The workers would celebrate in the huge room downstairs she kept for just such occasions, drinking and dancing until the wee hours, then fading away to their homes or their next jobs on the morning transports.

She liked listening to them - it made her happy, if only for a short while. Sometimes she'd join them for a few drinks, maybe dance with Perry to the funky East Indian rock songs he liked so much. She wanted happy people around her, since she couldn't be one herself.

Especially not this time of year, when images of a faraway sunset plagued her dreams, and the sounds woke her in the night. They were only in her head, of course, but that made them no less real. Abu came in from Mecca City and spent a few weeks every year about this time. She'd never asked him to, but then she really didn't have to. He just knew.

Sometimes the weeks would stretch into months, and that was okay with her. They spent many a night sitting wordlessly together on the porch, gazing out over her dark fields after the dreams had torn her screaming out of a sound sleep. He brought her cold tea and held her hand when she cried. Sometimes he cried too, the tears running silently down his dark face, as he relived his own losses.

The dreams this time had been less of that desert place and more of another - a place of cold metal and reinforced windows almost too small to look through. The place where she'd stood in silent shock as they gave her the news, their voices careless and casual over the tinny speaker, merely passing along facts as they waited for her to leave so they could get back to their daily routine.

When she'd finally found her voice, her screams had echoed off the metal walls, bouncing back to slap her in the face with their force. It had taken three large men to subdue her and carry her to the front of the building, where they left her crying on the sidewalk. She'd pounded on the door, but it was securely locked, and they'd refused to buzz her back in. They were through with her, just as they were through with him.

Over. Done. Case closed. No further inquiries allowed.

Over and over, she awoke to the sound of slamming metal and her own screams. She raised her fists in her sleep to beat on the unresponsive door, calling out his name, telling them they had to be mistaken.

The woman rubbed her eyes and looked out the window again. For some reason, she couldn't forget about that big field worker, the one who'd stared at her. What was it about him that drew her attention? She went back to the moment she'd first noticed him, and realized what it was - the arms. The man's arms looked just like...

No! She smacked herself hard on the forehead with the heel of her hand. Don't even *think* his name, you know what that'll do to you.

Something nagged at the back of her mind; something she was supposed to do, something about the fields, or the fruit, or the workers...

Ah, now I remember.

"Call Hannah," she told her earcomm, and waited until the foreman's voice answered.

"Yeah, boss?"

"Hannah, I'm gonna need a basket of fruit up here at the house. Nina's got some kind of dessert planned for tonight."

"Mmmmm..." Hannah's voice murmured. "Can't wait to sink my teeth into *that*."

"No kidding." Her employer gave a little laugh. "Listen, can you send one of the workers up here with a basketful? Make sure it's someone who won't trip over their own feet and screw up the fruit, okay?"

"You got it, boss." Hannah's voice paused. "Anything else?"

The woman thought for a moment. "No, that's it for now, thanks."

"'K, boss."

"End call." The woman listened to the earcomm's familiar double sign-off tone as she scanned the horizon.

Looks like rain. Not close enough to be a threat, though. Good.

She got up and headed back downstairs, her emotions somewhat under control now. Conducting business always helped when it came to that. Maybe she'd busy herself with financial reports or something while she ate, keep her mind where it belonged.

Abu met her in the hallway as she walked back to the kitchen. "Are you feeling better?" he whispered, touching her arm.

"Yeah." She nodded and shot a look down the hall towards the kitchen. "Just need to keep my mind busy, that's all." She gave him a weak, unconvincing smile. "I'll be fine, don't worry." Patting Abu's shoulder, she left him and walked past the kitchen to her office, where she snagged her portable computer off the desk. All her business records were in it; she'd look things over, check for market updates while she finished her breakfast. That'd keep her head clear of all the crap.

The kitchen was empty when she got there. Nina and Perry had taken all the breakfast food to the big room where the workers were fed, the same room where they'd celebrate tonight after the harvest. She could hear them as they moved tables and benches and set out containers of clean flatware. On the kitchen table was her plate of bread and a bowl of the cooked grain Nina had been making. Leaning closer, she saw that someone had drawn a smiley face on one of her bread slices with honey.

Perry, that goof, she thought with a smile. Oughtta be a circus clown, that one.

She sat down and grabbed a spoon for her grain with one hand as she fired up her computer with the other. Before long, she was absorbed in last month's profit and loss reports, barely noticing when the front door opened and a strange male voice spoke to the two cooks as they prepared the dining room, asking the way to the kitchen. She paid no attention to the heavy bootsteps approaching in the hallway, or the man who stopped in the kitchen doorway with a basket full of tanda fruit and waited for her to notice him.

The sound of polite throat-clearing made her jump, and her eyes flicked up just far enough to register a pair of male hands holding a basket.

Wow, that was fast, she thought. And the fruit looks intact. Good deal.

"Yeah..." she said absently, her eyes going back to her computer screen. "Over there." She waved her spoon in the direction of the pantry, and the man walked over and set the basket gently on the floor. A few moments passed before she realized that she hadn't yet heard him leave. She shot a look towards the pantry and noticed him still standing there, as if waiting for further instructions.

"Thanks, that's all," she looked back down at her computer. "You can go now."

The man didn't move.

Maybe he's shy. Maybe he doesn't speak English.

She set her computer down and raised her head to look at the man's face.

Holy shit. It's that big guy who was staring at me.

The man stood there, regarding her silently. His stillness was unnerving, almost predatory. And very, very familiar. She was unable to speak for a moment, stunned by the shock of finding herself this close to him.

"Somethin' I can do for you?" she said when her voice started working again.

The man said nothing, just tilted his head to the side a little and let a tiny, sad-looking smile play across his face. When he finally spoke, his deep, gravelly voice was quiet, but the sound of it hit her like a hammer.

"Yeah. How 'bout a kiss?"

The woman's eyebrows shot up as her mouth fell open in disbelief. His words had had their desired effect.

Maybe that was too much, too soon, he thought. Oh well - too late now.

The man stepped carefully towards her, his keen senses gauging her response. The woman was scared, but she was also stunned. Good - that would give him time to get to her before she started screaming. And he knew she would. She sat very still, only her mouth moving as it tried to decide what it should say next.

This whole scene reminded him of his childhood, when he'd creep up on butterflies as they perched atop tall sunflower plants waving in the breeze. One false move, and the butterfly would take off, fluttering madly in the summer wind. If not for the seriousness of his present situation, it would almost be funny. He couldn't afford to scare her too much, or she'd go fluttering away herself, alerting her staff to what he'd done before he had a chance to explain himself.

Surprisingly, she let him get about three feet from her before she shoved her chair back and stood up, her hand reaching to her side for a gun that (luckily for him) wasn't there.

"Stop right there," she said, her voice trembling. "I mean it."

Time to make his move, and hope to god she didn't bonk him with something. He stopped and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, then reached up and peeled the bandana off his head. A frown of confusion crossed her face. He dropped the bandana on the table, then reached up and very slowly removed his sunglasses, laying them on the table as well.

The woman's face went blank for a second; then her eyes flew open wide and began the frantic side-to-side movement that almost always preceded a good loud scream. He leaped forward, clamping one hand over her mouth and using the other to grab and hold her small wrists. Shoving her back against the wall, he held her there with his big body as she started to struggle, her scream muffled by his hand. He held on and let her fight, waiting for her to tire herself out. Finally, she relaxed and sagged against him helplessly, tears dripping onto the hand that covered the bottom half of her face. His eyes never left hers.

"Shhh, be still, be still..." he murmured. The sound of his voice set her off, and once again he endured a round of desperate bucking and writhing. He spoke again only when she was quiet.

"It's me. It's me. Shhh. Listen to me. Calm down, and I'll explain everything, okay?"

Her tears flowed more heavily, and she sobbed a little behind his big hand.

He tried again. "Look at me. Look at me." He shook her gently. She settled down a bit, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. If he let go now, she'd still scream and run. As far as she was concerned, she was looking at a bona fide ghost.

"Look closely," he continued, keeping his voice low and soothing. "There must be somethin' you can find that'll tell you it's really me. Look for it, c'mon." He gave her another shake.

Her eyes drifted away from his and ran hesitantly over his face, her body shaking uncontrollably against him.

"That's it, baby, c'mon," he said encouragingly. "You can find somethin', just keep lookin'."

She examined every inch of his face several times, finally coming to rest on a spot somewhere above his right eye.

"Find somethin'?" he asked her softly.

She nodded slowly, her eyes still fixed on whatever she'd discovered.

"Okay. If I let go of your mouth, promise not to scream?"

She looked into his eyes and hesitated, then nodded again.

"Good. Now I'm gonna let go, and you're gonna tell me what you see."

Another shaky nod.

Slowly, he eased the pressure on her mouth, then took his hand down. "Well?"

She swallowed and cleared her throat. "Um..." was all she could manage.

"C'mon, tell me. What d'you see?"

She swallowed hard again and opened her mouth. "Birthmark," she said in a croaky whisper.

"Where?"

She leaned her head forward and aimed her eyes at the spot she'd been staring at earlier. "There," she croaked weakly, her voice threatening to give out. "Um..." She sniffed and cleared her throat again. "Brown spot, just inside your hairline."

He nodded approvingly. "Good, good. Now, if I let go of your hands, will you stay put?"

"Yeah," she sniffled.

"Okay," he said warningly. "But if you try to run, I'll have to hold you down again."

"I won't."

He released her wrists, and she rubbed them where he'd been squeezing. Just to be safe, he placed his hands on the wall on either side of her in case she decided to run.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked softly.

"A little." She rubbed some more, then stopped and looked up at him. "They told me you were dead."

"I know."

A little sob escaped her. "But why? Why would they do that?"

"They had to." He heaved a big sigh and leaned his forehead against hers. "I wanna tell you everything, but I can't do it here. Where's your room?"

"Upstairs."

"Can we get up there without being seen?"

"Yeah, if we take the back way from my office." She sniffed again and wiped at her eyes with the heel of her hand.

"Which way?"

She raised one hand and pointed shakily to her left.

"Let's go." He took her hand and pulled her away from the wall. She followed hesitantly, cutting her eyes nervously in the direction of the dining room, where Nina and Perry were still busy readying breakfast for the workers. He stopped and turned to face her, holding her by the shoulders.

"Please don't." She flinched when he ran his hand over her hair. "Don't call 'em. Not without givin' me a chance to explain." Without warning, he cupped the back of her head and pulled her face towards him, kissing her firmly. His heart leaped when he felt her melt against him, her lips open and mold themselves to his. When he pulled back, her eyes were full of light.

"You remember *that*, dontcha?" he smiled.

She smiled weakly and nodded. Looked like she was starting to believe him. He let her go and took her hand again. "You lead the way."

Drawing him carefully towards the hallway, she leaned out to check for people, then pulled him down it and to her office in the back, where she'd picked up her portable computer earlier. They crossed the room to a door in the corner, which opened to reveal a narrow stone staircase. The door at the top opened onto a spacious upstairs balcony from which they could look straight down to the first floor. She tugged him along to a door at the far end, at the front of the house, and led him into her room.

He closed the door behind them and let go of her hand. She circled the large room a few times, her arms crossed protectively over her chest, looking at the floor. He let her. There was a lot to deal with here, and she needed to collect her thoughts.

Finally, she came to a stop, her arms still wrapped protectively around herself. She looked him up and down several times, taking in every detail, then sat down heavily on the end of her bed.

"It really is you, isn't it." Her words were a statement, not a question.

"Yeah, it's really me."

He waited as she nodded and looked back down at the floor. He wanted to go to her, wanted it badly, but right now he had to wait. She had to do the reaching out on her own. If he pushed her too far too soon, they didn't stand a chance.

A long moment dragged by as she sat there silently, staring at her boots. He could only imagine what was going through her mind right now. Maybe she thought he'd betrayed her somehow. Maybe she thought he was an imposter after her money. Whatever the case, he'd know in a few minutes - but the wait was killing him. It hurt almost as badly as watching on a grainy monitor as she went nuts, pounding the walls of the visitor's reception room when the detached voices on the speaker told her he was dead. Killed while trying to escape, they said.

Exactly as he'd asked them to.

One hour after three guards dragged her weeping out the front of the building, he allowed himself to be led in restraints out the back and onto a military transport - and that was the last he'd seen of any civilized world until arriving on New Mecca three weeks ago.

He gritted his teeth and forced himself back into the present, made himself focus on the woman in front of him. She was still looking at the floor, but her shoulders had started shaking. One of her hands came up and covered her mouth as her weeping grew more pronounced. His hands balled into fists at his sides.

Wait for her, wait for her, he warned himself. You've waited four years, you can wait a few more minutes. Don't blow this, you asshole.

At last, she broke down. Her overwrought heart and mind, unable to process what she saw before her, simply gave out and sent her sliding off the edge of the bed and onto her knees, where she crumpled into a tiny ball on the floor. Her sobs raged through her like a storm, lifting her body up and throwing it down again as her hands grasped blindly at the bare stone.

It was too much for him. He gave in and went to her, falling to his knees and gathering her up as he would a child, rocking wordlessly back and forth as she wept into his massive chest. She clutched and twisted handfuls of his shirt as years of pain, rage and desolation poured out of her. It was a good long while before she cried herself out and lay quietly against him, her face buried in his shirt as she glutted herself on his warmth like a starving person. He was hungry, too; he couldn't get enough of the smell of her hair, the feel of her breath on him, her weight draped over his lap. His fingers found and traced the single silky braid that hung down her back.

Really here, really here, he told himself over and over as he rocked her gently. She's really here, and I'm really touching her...

He closed his eyes and remembered his fingertips resting on glass, following her image around the monitor screen as she darted here and there in the small metal room, beating the walls and screaming his name repeatedly. Her voice came to him over speakers in the walls of the monitoring station. They'd allowed him there as part of their agreement - he had to make sure they really told her. They did. Her tortured screams had echoed in his head ever since, waking him in the night, haunting every step he took.

And now he held this broken woman, knowing he was the only one who could put her back together.

She's not the only one who's broken, he reminded himself.

The sound of her voice pulled him out of his memories. He stopped rocking and let the joy wash over him like a warm ocean wave as he heard, for the first time in four years, his name on her lips.

"Riddick."

Riddick sat still and held her, saying nothing, until she lifted her head to look at him, then up at the ceiling with a little laugh that was almost a sob as she sniffed and wiped her eyes.

"God, I must look horrible." She sniffed hard and rubbed her eyes some more. "I need to blow my nose."

She raised herself to her feet, carefully and shakily, using Riddick's shoulders for support. He got up and stood next to her as she coughed and smoothed tendrils of hair out of her red, swollen face.

"Bathroom's over there." She indicated a door in the corner of the bedroom and headed towards it, still wiping at her eyes. Riddick followed. He watched as she rinsed her face in the sink and blew her nose a few times, then poked at her hair with a brush.

"I look awful," she said, leaning forward to examine her puffy eyes and red nose. "First time you see me in four years, and this is how I look. It just fucking figures..."

"You're beautiful," Riddick said softly. She turned to face him with an awkward, lopsided little smile and sniffed again.

"You need eye surgery," she laughed. Suddenly, her face went serious, and she moved closer to Riddick, staring at his eyes. "You *did* have eye surgery," she breathed, reaching up hesitantly to touch his face. "You had the shine job reversed."

"Yeah." Riddick laid his hand over hers and squeezed her fingers. "Hurt like a son of a bitch. I was practically blind for two months til I healed up enough to go outside." He moved her hand to his lips and gently kissed the tips of her fingers. "But it was worth it."

She frowned and shook her head. "But why'd you do it? Why go through all that pain again? You could've been blinded for life."

Riddick ran his eyes hungrily over her face, taking in everything for a moment before he answered.

"I wanted to see you," he said simply. "Just once, I wanted to really *see* you." He reached out and pulled her to him, wrapping her up in his arms and burying his face in the curve of her shoulder. Her arms came up and coiled around his neck as tightly as she could make them.

After a minute, she pulled back, brushing wetness off her cheeks. "Now look, you got me started again."

Riddick kept his arms closed around her, and leaned his forehead down to touch hers. Their eyes met and held for a long moment.

"Do they hurt now?" she whispered.

"No," he smiled. "Not anymore."

"How long has it been?"

"Little over a year." Riddick raised a hand to cradle the back of her neck.

"So brown's your natural color?"

"Yeah."

She frowned a little as she looked closely as his left eye. "Is that little blue spot natural too?"

Riddick shook his head. "Nah. Side effect of the surgery. Sometimes it strips some color outta your eyes. I got lucky, had a good doctor, so I didn't lose much." He gave her neck a gentle squeeze. "You like it?"

She smiled and nodded. "Yeah, I do."

Riddick let go of her and cupped her face in his hands. "You're so much more beautiful than I imagined," he whispered. "Just can't stop lookin' at ya." More tears spilled down her face as she gazed back at him, her expression growing suddenly sober.

"Why'd they tell me you were dead?"

Riddick closed his eyes and heaved a big sigh, a pained look crossing his face. He bit his lip and looked at her again, wondering how to begin.

"Riddick?" she pressed, taking his hands down. "They *knew* you were alive, didn't they? They *had* to know."

He nodded, not knowing what else to do.

"Why?" She threw up her hands. "Why would they lie to me like that?"

"I told 'em to."

She blanched, and her face went blank for a moment, as it had in the kitchen when she'd first recognized him. "You *what*?" She started backing away from him, shaking her head. "I don't believe this...I don't believe this..." she whispered as she moved.

"Listen to me, I *had* to do it - " Riddick began.

"How could you?" she hissed. "How *could* you?" She advanced on him, getting right up in his face. "How could you do that to me?" She shoved him hard in the middle of his chest. "What were you thinking?" Her voice was raised now. "Running around out there doing god knows what while I cried my eyes out every goddamn night...do you have *any* idea what the past four years has been like for me?"

Riddick grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard. "You know what it's been like for *me*?" He growled through clenched teeth, shocking her into silence. He released her and shoved her roughly away from him. "You think I *wanted* to do it?" Riddick's fists opened and closed, his chest heaved with his rapid breathing as she stood before him, still stunned.

"Then why? Tell me *why*!" she shouted at him.

"I will!" he shouted back. "I will, if you'll just calm the fuck down and listen!"

Squeezing her eyes shut, she clapped her hands onto the top of her head and stood still, breathing deeply. When she'd steadied herself, she lowered her hands and leaned back against the counter.

"Ok," she breathed, opening her eyes to look at Riddick. "Tell me."

Riddick walked over to face her, leaning his back against the opposite wall and blowing out a breath. He stared at the floor for a long time before he started talking again. She waited tensely, her knuckles white from her tight grip on the edge of the counter.

"They were gonna hold all of you," he said quietly, his eyes still downcast. "They struck gold with us, y'know. A prosecutor's dream come true. They had me, o' course..." He gave a sarcastic little laugh. "Then they had two other adults to throw the book at for aiding and abetting, corrupting a minor and harboring a fugitive, plus one underage ward o' the state." He looked up to find her watching him intently. "I tried to tell 'em you didn't do anything. I told 'em it was my show all the way, and you three were too scared to cross me." Another little laugh. "'Course, they didn't buy it. So I cut a deal."

She regarded him silently, turning over in her mind what he'd just told her. "Deal?" she finally said. "What kind of deal?"

"Pretty simple, really. I say what they want, go where they want, do what they want, and they let all o' you go. With certain conditions."

"What conditions?" She reached up and wiped away a stray tear.

"All charges dropped, for starters. And a legal statement of adoption." Riddick raised his arms and looked around him. "And this. The land."

"*You* did this?" Her tone was incredulous. "*You* got them to grant a claim this size?"

"Couldn't have you guys livin' in the streets." He let his arms fall. "Believe me, it was no big deal for them. Colony world like this one, whole continents waitin' to be settled - this was a drop in the bucket."

"And, uh..." her voice wavered a bit. "The cash? That too?"

Riddick nodded. "You needed somethin' to start over with. Trust me, it was a bargain, 'specially considerin' what they got in return."

"Which was?" She swallowed hard, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.

He went very still, his face hardening and his jaw flexing as he looked back down. "You don't wanna know."

She watched him for a moment, then sighed and looked down too. "No, I guess I don't."

"Doesn't matter anyway. It's done. And I'm here." Riddick pushed off from the wall and went to her, running his hands down her arms and pulling her to her feet. He tilted her head back and kissed her tenderly. "All I've thought about for four years is gettin' back here and findin' you."

She searched his face, her eyes tinged with hope. "So they're done with you? *Really* done? They let you go?"

"Well..." Riddick answered slowly. "Not exactly."

"What do you mean, *not exactly*?" She pushed him away from her. "You broke out, didn't you?"

"Sorta." Riddick shrugged.

She laid her hands over her face and rubbed hard, then pulled them away and fixed Riddick with a hard stare. "Look - don't fuck with me, ok? The last thing I need is the authorities crashing in here looking for you."

Riddick shook his head and smiled. "They won't."

"How do you know?"

Riddick's face spread into a mischievous grin that, considering the circumstances, seemed very out of place. "You're gonna kill me if I tell ya."

"Please don't do this to me..." she whispered, closing her eyes.

"You sure you wanna know?" Riddick's grin grew wider.

"Riddick!" She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him.

"Ok, ok..." He raised his hands in surrender. "You asked for it."

"Will you *please* just - " She was quickly losing patience with his sudden and unseemly good humor.

"They think I'm dead, ok?" Riddick slowly lowered his hands. "They think I'm dead."

Her mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for breath, and her eyes got very big. "They think you're..."

"That's right."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute." She waved her hands at him. "That still doesn't explain why you had them tell me the same thing four years ago. Why would you want *me* to think you were dead?"

Riddick grew serious again. "It was the stuff they wanted me to do," he said quietly. "Stuff no one expected me to live through. I didn't want you to waste your life waitin' for a dead man, so I went ahead and killed myself off."

"But..." she shook her head helplessly, unable to continue.

Riddick laid a finger on her lips. "It was the best thing for everyone, includin' me. You guys had the money and the land, and a whole new life ahead o' you. I felt a lot better about dyin' when I knew you were taken care of." He cupped her face in his hand and watched a single tear roll down her cheek and onto his thumb. "You were so young and beautiful and healthy. You still are. How could I expect you to put everything on hold for a guy you'd prob'ly never see again?"

"I would have." Her voice trembled with the threat of more tears.

"I know." Riddick nodded as he stroked her face. "That's why I had to let you go."

She lunged forward and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. "Don't you dare try that now," she whispered fiercely. "Don't you dare let me go again."

Riddick could see himself in the mirror over the sink as he folded her up in his arms and held on. "I won't," he said firmly, fixing his reflection with a determined stare. "I'll never let go. I promise."

Her arms tightened around him for a second, then she pulled back to look at him. "You're stuck with me, mister, promise or not. You know that, don't you?" She smiled up at him, all doubt gone from her eyes. "No way you're gettin' rid of me now."

"Why would I want to?" Riddick let his face relax into a big smile as he touched her hair.

"Hey." She grabbed his hand and turned it back and forth, examining it. "You're bleeding."

"Really?" Riddick looked at the wound and shrugged. "Hm. Musta cut myself on somethin' outside." He stepped past her to the sink and washed his hands. When he finished, he turned around to find her waiting with a small towel and a container of synthaskin, which she applied after drying him off.

"There," she said, patting his hand. "All better."

"Thanks." He flexed his injured hand, watching as the synthaskin warmed up and molded itself to him. When he looked up, she was watching him with a hesitant expression, as if she wanted to say something.

"What?"

"Um...well..." Her hands clasped and unclasped nervously as she searched for words. "While you were gone..." She looked down and blushed.

"While I was gone..." he prompted. "Go ahead."

"Well, was there ever...anyone else?" She glanced up at him, then back down again. "I mean, it's not really my business or anything, I just wondered, you know..." She shrugged, embarrassed.

"'Course it's your goddamn business." He leaned on the counter with one hand. "You wanna know if I fucked anybody."

She glanced up and nodded quickly.

"No."

Her startled expression was almost funny. "Are you serious? In four years, you never...had sex? Not even once?"

Riddick shook his head. "Nope. What's the point, when I'd just be pretendin' it was you?" He took his hand off the counter and stepped closer to her. "If you want the whole truth, I did pay an occasional whore to suck me off when I had the cash."

She blushed furiously and looked down again.

"What can I say - I have needs I can't ignore. But to answer your question - no, I never fucked anybody." He raised her chin until their eyes met. "What about you?"

"No." She held his gaze steadily. "Never."

"And you thought I was dead, too." He shook his head in amazement. "What were you gonna do, spend the rest o' your life without a man in your bed?"

"What's the point," she said, her eyes filling with light, "When I'd just be pretending it was you?"

They stood inches apart now. Riddick's hands trembled as he touched her hair, her face, her mouth. When he spoke again, his whispered words trembled too.

"We don't have to pretend anymore."

Her bed was soft. Their lovemaking was not.

Yet even intensified as it was by their long-denied hunger, it wasn't rough or abandoned. The beast inside awoke, tried to take over and have its dark way with her, as Riddick knew it would. As it had done so many times before, with her eager cooperation.

But now was not one of those times. Now was a time of tasting, of feeling, of relearning the curves of a body and the subtle meaning of a breath. No room for dark demons here.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you, he told the thing inside him. I need this. And that means you need it too.

The beast, denied its release, retreated, grumbling and switching its tail. It knew his words were true. It knew, too, that its time would come, and she would welcome it as she always had.

They lay quietly afterwards, twined together like the roots of a tree, still not quite believing the solid reality of touch. She closed her eyes and replayed everything they'd just done, shivering when she remembered the sound of Riddick's voice whispering her name over and over as he moved inside her. He said it again now, his lips brushing her ear.

"Carolyn."

She shivered harder and molded herself even closer to him. "Mmmm...I just can't get enough of that."

Riddick kissed her ear, sending a shock through her still-sensitive body. "Plenty more where that came from."

Carolyn turned on her side so she could look into his eyes. That little blue spot simply fascinated her; she'd seen blue-eyed people before with tiny brown flecks in their irises, but never the opposite. The effect was almost as captivating as his shine job had been.

"Mind if I just stare at you for a few hours?"

"Not at all," Riddick grinned at her. "Lotta starin' to make up for." His smile faded into an expression of gentle wonder as he traced the curves of Carolyn's face with his fingertips. The same fingertips, he reminded himself, that had traced her blurry image on a monitor four years ago as he'd watched her go out of her mind with grief.

She saw the pain that flickered over his features for a few seconds, then just as quickly was pushed away. "What's wrong?"

Riddick sighed and gave her a small, tight smile. "Nothin'. Bad memories." His fingers continued their exploration. "Don't worry about it."

Carolyn kissed his fingers as they moved lightly across her lips. "Yeah...we should be remembering good things right now. Happy things."

"Like what?"

"Oh...let's see..." She rolled her eyes up as she thought for a moment. "How 'bout that water fight you had with Jack?"

He chuckled at that, the unexpected laughter sending a joyous tingle through him. "Oh, man...forgot about that."

"Jack didn't." Carolyn paused and watched his face. "Matter of fact, she still has both those water pistols in her apartment somewhere."

Riddick's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "She has her own apartment?"

Carolyn laughed and shoved at his chest. "She's nineteen, Riddick. Been living on her own for almost a year now. Did you think she'd stay a little girl forever?"

"Wow..." Riddick laughed again. "Nineteen, huh? Guess I kinda lost track. Damn..." His face grew thoughtful. "How'd she, uh...how'd she take it?"

"Slightly better than I did." Carolyn pressed her lips together with remembered pain. "She ran away right after Abu told her. I wanted to look for her, but Abu made me wait. Said she'd come back on her own. And she did, the next day."

"What happened after that?"

"Well..." Carolyn rolled away from him onto her back and stretched. "She was a real handful for about a year or so, and then just settled down on her own. She's been pretty much ok ever since, except for the nightmares." She thought for a moment before going on. "I've tried really hard to hold it together and help Abu make a stable life for her. She deserved that. Hell, we all did."

Riddick rolled onto his back and stretched too, then lay looking up at the play of sunlight through the curtains on the cream-colored ceiling. "You've done pretty well for yourself." He laughed and shook his head. "I had no idea you'd turn into a farmer."

"That's 'produce magnate', thank you very much," she laughed back, slapping his arm.

"C'mon, Carolyn," he said playfully. "You grow fruit, you pick fruit, you sell fruit. *And* you have horses. You're a fuckin' farmer."

"Bite me." Carolyn slung her pillow from beneath her head and whapped Riddick firmly in the chest with it.

He grabbed it and whapped back. "Gimme somethin' nice to bite, and I will, baby."

"Watch it, pal, or I'll send you back outside to pick fruit." She tried to snatch the pillow, but Riddick held onto it. They struggled over it for a minute, snickering like children. Suddenly, Riddick tossed the pillow away and rolled himself up to straddle Carolyn's body.

"I bet you're still ticklish," he said with a sly grin.

"No, I'm not," Carolyn answered a bit too quickly. "I outgrew it."

"Liar." Riddick grabbed her ribs with both hands, making her shriek. "I knew it." He stretched himself out on top of her and clapped a hand over her mouth as he tickled her with the other. She screeched and struggled as she tried to push him off, her tears of laughter wetting Riddick's hand.

 

"Boss?" Hannah walked into the kitchen and looked around. Funny - Abu had said she was in here. Oh well, it wasn't that important. As she turned to leave, something bright caught her eye, something that hadn't been there before. She turned back and walked over to the table, noting Carolyn's portable computer, half- eaten breakfast and pushed-back chair. On the other end of the table was a knotted red bandana and a pair of big sunglasses.

Where have I seen those before?

A basket of freshly-picked tanda fruit sat by the pantry door. Hannah's eyes went from the basket to the bandana and sunglasses, then back again. Finally, it came to her - that's what that big worker had been wearing when she sent him up here with the fruit.

Where the hell *is* he, anyway? she thought. And what's his stuff doing on the kitchen table?

She didn't remember seeing him go into the dining room with the other workers. Maybe he was in the bathroom. For the second time, she turned to leave the kitchen, and was stopped by something red. Something else that hadn't been there before.

No, no, no... she told herself. I've gotta be seeing things.

Hannah advanced slowly towards the wall behind where Carolyn had been sitting, shaking her head in disbelief. The red thing on the wall was exactly what she'd thought it was - part of a bloody handprint.

A big one.

Oh, fuck...

She drew her pistol and cocked it, holding it up by her shoulder to point at the ceiling. Her eyes went to the floor, noting the muddy boot prints. Those were big, too. Leaning into the hallway, she traced the mud to the front door, where the worker had obviously come in (contrary to her instructions), and followed it to the kitchen. More of it went into Carolyn's office. Hannah stepped carefully into the hallway, checking for people, then tiptoed to the back and into the office, where the traces of mud were lighter, but still visible. Carolyn's desk was undisturbed.

The mud led to the little door in the corner, the one Carolyn used to get to her upstairs room. Hannah moved silently to it and waited, listening intently. She heard nothing. Grabbing the handle, she twisted it and threw open the door. In the same motion, she landed in a crouch at the foot of the narrow stairs with her pistol pointing upward towards the second-floor exit. No motion, no sound. Hannah raised herself cautiously to her feet and moved towards the first step, then froze in horror.

On the shiny metal door handle was a smear of blood.

"Fucking bastard," she whispered. Returning her attention to the stairs, she started up them, placing her boots carefully so they made almost no noise. A few seconds of listening at the top told her no one was moving around on the second-floor balcony, so she turned the handle and pushed the door open. The balcony was empty, as she'd thought, but noises were coming from the direction of Carolyn's room.

A muffled scream brought her to attention. That had *definitely* come from Carolyn's room. Hannah ran to the door and listened; it sounded as though some sort of struggle was going on in there. Then two things happened in quick succession that galvanized the foreman into action.

From inside the bedroom, she heard Carolyn's voice screaming, "No! No! Please, stop it!"

And she saw a smear of blood on the bedroom door.

With her gun in one hand, aimed at the ceiling, Hannah reached out with the other and closed it around the door handle. The struggling sounds went on, and now she heard a male voice as well.

Keep your cool, she told herself. He's a big guy, but remember - you've got the gun.

With the same swift motion she'd used downstairs in Carolyn's office, Hannah turned the handle and pushed open the door. She ran into the room, holding her pistol with two hands and aiming it in front of her. She was just in time - the big worker was naked, and had an equally nude and struggling Carolyn pinned beneath him on the bed with his hand over her mouth.

"Don't you fucking move." Hannah was beside the bed in the blink of an eye, her gun inches from the top of the man's bald head. He froze, as did Carolyn. They hadn't even heard her come in.

"Get up," Hannah barked at the worker. "Now!"

Riddick took his hand slowly from Carolyn's mouth and pushed up off the bed, finding himself face to face with the dusky East Indian foreman who'd sent him to deliver fruit to the house. "Hey, it's ok - "

"Shut up!" Hannah yelled at him. "Get over there by the wall. Keep your hands up." Hannah walked around the foot of the bed, her gun aimed now at his crotch.

"Carolyn - " he started again.

"Don't you talk to her!" Hannah spat. "You ok, boss?" she shot a quick look towards a stunned Carolyn, who sat up and pulled a sheet over herself.

"I'm ok." Carolyn finally managed. "Hannah, it's ok. Don't hurt him." She got up and hurried over to stand beside Riddick, who looked quickly back and forth from her to the gun-wielding foreman.

"Did he hurt you?" Hannah asked, her eyes back on Riddick's.

"No, Hannah..." Holding the sheet to her chest, Carolyn cautiously approached her and took her by the wrist, bending her arm back so her gun was once again aimed upward. "It's ok, really. He didn't hurt me. I brought him here."

She *what*???

In the three years Hannah had worked for Carolyn Fry, she had never known her employer to consort with men - or women either, for that matter. And certainly not with field workers. She turned to Carolyn, her face a mask of confusion.

"I don't understand..." She shook her head. "You're telling me you brought a *field worker* into your bedroom? On purpose?"

"He's not a field worker."

Hannah's eyes went to a still-naked Riddick, who stood with his hands in the air and his eyes focused tensely on Hannah's upraised gun. "Well, who *is* he, then?" she asked, looking back to Carolyn.

"Rick Adams, at your service," said Riddick. "Hi," he added with a little wave when Hannah returned her gaze to him.

"Hi..." Hannah's voice was faint and uncertain.

"Can I put my hands down now?"

"Yeah, sure..." Hannah turned to Carolyn again, her eyes full of questions. "If he's not a field worker, what was he doing in the fields?"

"Well..." Carolyn began, glancing over at Riddick. "Rick and I haven't seen each other in a really long time, and uh...he was just playing a practical joke on me." She laughed nervously. "Good one, too."

Riddick's hands were down, but he still had his eye on the foreman. She didn't look too convinced, and she was still holding a gun.

"So you two are..." Hannah raised her eyebrows and gave Carolyn a significant look. "You're...*together*?"

"Yeah," Carolyn answered quietly, looking at Riddick with a little smile. "We're together."

Riddick looked back, his eyes softening when they met Carolyn's.

That was good enough for Hannah. "Ok, then." With a quick, efficient movement, she uncocked her gun and flipped it back into the holster at her side. She stood still for a moment, looking Riddick up and down slowly, taking in every inch of his nude body.

"Nice catch, boss," she said, nodding approvingly. "'Bout damn time, too."

"Hannah!" Carolyn rushed to Riddick's side and held out part of her sheet to cover his lower half.

The dark-skinned woman walked over to Riddick and stuck out her hand. "Hannah Ghandi, senior foreman."

"Nice to meet ya - I think..." Riddick said, shaking her hand.

"Sorry 'bout the confusion," Hannah said apologetically. "All that blood kinda got me suspicious, and then the screaming..."

"Blood?" Carolyn looked confused. "What blood?"

"In the kitchen," said Hannah. "On the wall, a big bloody handprint. There was more on the door handle to your stairs, and then some on your bedroom door."

"Ohhhhh...." Carolyn nodded, understanding. "Show her," she said, elbowing Riddick. He raised his injured hand so Hannah could see the synthaskin bandage.

The foreman nodded too, then looked down with a little laugh. "All this shit over nothing." She looked back up. "I'm really sorry, you guys."

"Don't worry about it." Carolyn smiled at her foreman. "It's good to know we can count on you."

Hannah straightened her shoulders and beamed back at her employer. "Thanks, boss." She stood there for a moment as an awkward silence descended on the little group.

Finally, Carolyn cleared her throat. "We should, uh...get dressed."

"Oh, right. Of course." Hannah raised one hand in an embarrassed wave and started backing out of the room. "I'll uh, see ya later, I guess..." She turned to go, but stopped when Carolyn spoke to her.

"Hannah..."

The foreman turned back around. "Yeah, boss?"

"Not a word." Carolyn raised a finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. "I mean it. Ok?"

Hannah's face grew serious. "Sure, no problem." She threw them another little wave and left, closing the door behind her.

Riddick and Carolyn stayed where they were, naked, with a sheet draped in front of them. Neither of them moved or spoke for a few seconds. Finally, Riddick broke the silence.

"Well...*that* was interesting."

"To say the least," Carolyn agreed.

"Am I gonna meet *all* your employees like this?" Riddick's voice had a playful tone now. "'Cause if I am, then it'd be a lot more efficient if we just had sex on the front lawn."

Carolyn burst into helpless laughter. "Stop it!" she giggled, swatting at Riddick with her sheet.

"No, really, think about it," Riddick continued, starting to laugh himself. "They could all just file past and point their pistols at us..."

Carolyn turned to face him and pushed him back against the wall. "You're crazy, you know that?" she said, laughing harder.

"And then we could have a nice picnic under that big tree in front of the house," he finished, a big grin on his face.

"Shut up!" Carolyn poked him in the ribs on both sides.

"Make me."

Carolyn let her sheet fall and wrapped her arms around Riddick's neck. "Okay, I will," she whispered, and covered his mouth with a kiss.

 

"Abu?"

The Muslim turned at the sound of his name softly spoken from the doorway of his room.

"Carolyn. Where have you been? Are you alright?" He rose from his desk, where he had been writing a letter, and met her in the middle of the room. She was different, he saw that right away. But what had changed since he'd seen her in the hallway not more than an hour before?

Carolyn took his hands and gripped them tightly. "I have to show you something." She trembled with barely-contained excitement.

Abu studied his friend's flushed face. "What is it?"

"It's a surprise," she giggled, squeezing his hands. "C'mon, c'mon..." She was practically bouncing up and down with eagerness.

"Carolyn." Abu squeezed back and looked hard at her. "Be still for a moment." She complied and stood with a mischievous little half-smile as he once again perused her features. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her smile this way.

He shook his head in amazement. When had he ever seen her look like this? It seemed a flame had been kindled deep inside, and was spilling out through her eyes, making them shine as they never had before.

But they have, Abu reminded himself solemnly. They did once, when *he* was alive...

Suddenly, Abu felt as if a giant hand had grabbed his heart and squeezed it almost to the bursting point. He concentrated on breathing normally as his mind began to whirl.

No, it cannot be...

Abu's sudden stunned expression gave him away, and Carolyn's smile widened in response. She gripped his hands more tightly, flicking her eyes back and forth over his face. Abu stared back, his mouth open to speak, but could think of nothing to say except that which could not possibly be true. Finally, with great difficulty, he made his lips form the words. His whisper was barely audible, even in the quiet room.

"He is...alive?" No name was needed - they both knew of whom he spoke.

Carolyn nodded and waited. There was more.

"Here?" Abu's eyebrows raised as he mouthed his one- word question.

Another nod from Carolyn, then her insistent tug on his hands as she urged him out of his room to follow her. They moved silently together down the length of the big balcony to Carolyn's room. She turned the handle and opened the door, pulling Abu in after her.

He stopped just inside the doorway to study the tall, broad male figure that turned from the window to face them as they entered. Carolyn closed the door, went to him and curled her hand around the man's muscular arm, smiling back at her friend.

"Come in, it's ok, Abu."

He stared at the big man beside Carolyn, taking in every detail of his appearance - his height, the way he stood, the shape of the clean-shaven head. But the eyes - those were different. Darker. Normal.

This couldn't be him.

"Hey, Imam. Been a while, huh?"

All doubt was removed when the man spoke - no one else had a voice like that.

"Mr. Riddick..." Abu's eyes welled up with tears of happiness as he rushed over to stand before his old friend. He took Riddick's hands in his own and pressed them to his forehead as he wept with silent joy. Suddenly, he opened his arms and flung them around Riddick, laughing and crying at the same time. "Allah be praised!"

Riddick gave Carolyn a nervous glance as he tentatively patted the the Muslim's shoulders. It was pretty clear he wasn't used to this kind of greeting, especially from a man.

"Good to see you too, buddy." Riddick gave Abu's shoulders a quick squeeze and pulled him off. "How ya been?"

"We were told you died during an escape attempt." Abu scanned Riddick's face, still holding him by the arms. "What happened?"

Riddick shook his head and sighed deeply. "It's a long story." Letting Abu go, he stepped over to the bed and sat down heavily on the edge of it.

"He cut a deal," said Carolyn, with a smile of admiration at Riddick. "They let us go and gave us this land because of that."

Abu looked confused. "But what did you do in return?" he asked. "Did they send you back to Slam City?"

Riddick's jaw tightened. He took a few breaths before answering. "I don't wanna talk about it. Not yet." His eyes went to Carolyn. "I just wanna...be here, that's all."

Abu wiped his eyes and nodded in understanding. "But will you tell us someday?"

"Maybe." Riddick's expression softened as he looked at Carolyn. "Just not now. I have better things to think about."

"Does Jack know you're here?"

"I haven't called her yet," said Carolyn, taking a seat beside Riddick and sliding her hand into his.

Abu paced a little before them, his steepled fingers tapping his lips as he thought. "We must be careful," he mused, stopping to give Carolyn a significant look. "We cannot forget how hard it was for her."

He moved his eyes to Riddick. "When we told her the news, she ran away and did not return for almost two days," he explained. "She did not fully accept the situation for a very long time, and often imagined you had truly escaped and would come back to us someday."

"Yeah, Carolyn told me." Riddick sighed and looked at the glowing woman sitting beside him. "Where is she, anyway?'

Carolyn pursed her lips. "Mmmm...I dunno..." she muttered thoughtfully. "She's been taking classes at the university, but they're on break for a couple of weeks right now. She could be anywhere, really. Prob'ly doing something with her friends." She looked back up at Abu. "I don't wanna tell her on the comm. Better to do it in person."

Abu nodded. "I agree." He paced a bit more, then stood still and continued. "She will be here for the harvest celebration tonight. We can tell her then."

"I need to get her room ready." Carolyn stood and touched Riddick's shoulder. "C'mon, you can help me."

As much Abu wanted to talk to Riddick, he could see that now was not the time for deep conversation with his long-lost friend. They would have their chance later. "If you will pardon me, I have a letter to finish," he said quietly. With a slight bow and a smiling glance at Riddick, he turned and headed back to his room.

Riddick followed Carolyn out onto the balcony and into the large room next door. It was bare of possessions, except for basic furniture draped in sheets and a few pictures on the wall. Riddick stepped up to look them over as Carolyn started opening windows. Two were of a smiling Carolyn, Jack and Abu sitting together on the front porch of the house. One was of Jack and Hannah, the foreman - their arms were around each other, and Jack's eyes were comically crossed as she held one of Hannah's black braids under her own nose to simulate a mustache. Another was Jack in a Stetson, seated on a large, shiny brown horse. The picture in the center, though, really got Riddick's attention.

It was his own face laughing back at him as he sat on the couch of the apartment they'd occupied for a short while in Mecca City, before the authorities caught up with them. He remembered Jack snapping the picture after surprising him with a squirt from one of the water pistols he'd bought that afternoon.

"Ha! Gotcha!" she'd yelled, running away giggling with her camera as Riddick followed, shooting jets of water at her back with his own pistol. The battle had raged all over the apartment, with Carolyn laughing and ducking out of the way, ending in the kitchen when they used up all their ammunition. When Jack tried to refill her pistol at the sink, Riddick grabbed it and took off through the living room. She caught up to him and leaped onto his back, locking her arms around his neck and laughing breathlessly as he pretended to be overwhelmed. He couldn't remember having that much fun since he was a kid.

"That's her favorite picture of you." Carolyn's arm went around Riddick's waist as she came over to stand beside him. "She has a copy of it at her place, too. Says it's the only one she ever got of you smiling."

He pulled her closer. "I'm not surprised. I didn't smile much then."

"You did for me." Carolyn leaned her head against his shoulder.

Riddick pressed his lips against the top of her head, his eyes still on the photos. "That's different," he said into her tousled hair. "You gave me a lot to smile about."

Carolyn kissed his arm and gave him a little squeeze before she moved away and finished opening windows. "She hasn't stayed in this room for about six months, but I keep it ready just in case." She nodded towards the furniture. "Wanna pull those sheets off for me? Do it slow, they're kinda dusty."

Riddick uncovered a desk and its chair, a small table with two more chairs, a couple of shelving units, and a big, old-fashioned oval floor mirror framed in dark, fine-grained wood. Carolyn helped him fold the sheets, then carefully uncover the bed, which matched the mirror.

"Didn't know Jack was into antiques," Riddick commented as they folded the big sheet together in the middle of the room.

Carolyn gave a tight, sad little smile. "She's not, really. She found these by accident in the Mecca City market district. Part of an estate sale." She nodded towards the mirror. "I didn't have to think twice about buyin' 'em. Go look on the back, near the top, and you'll see why."

Riddick did. In the spot she'd indicated was a small metal stick-on plate engraved in fancy script: "Paris P. Ogilvie, purveyor of fine antiquities and rare vintages." The dead man's contact information was listed underneath that.

"Damn..." Riddick shook his head. "Damn..." He hadn't thought about Paris in years, and suddenly he could practically see the guy standing in front of him, complete with cracked glasses, bandanna tied over his sweaty head, and wine bottle firmly in hand.

"He was an annoying little shit, but...well, it just seemed right to have something of his here, ya know? With the rest of us." Carolyn shrugged forlornly, holding the pile of folded sheets.

"Yeah." Riddick stood back and looked at himself in the mirror. He still wore his work clothes, and noticed a spot of blood from his cut hand on the front of his shirt. He ran his finger over it thoughtfully. "I need a shower."

"Not a problem." Carolyn was glad to switch gears and concentrate on something other than her worry about Jack's reaction to seeing Riddick alive. "You have a change of clothes with you?"

Riddick shook his head. "Nah. Left 'em in Telmar. I rented a room there."

"Well, that's not far - only about twenty kilometers." She walked slowly over to look at his image in the big mirror. "We could go there now and get *all* your things." Carolyn's nervous eyes darted to Riddick's reflected face, then back down to her armful of sheets as she swallowed hard. "If you want to, I mean. If you wanna stay here instead of Telmar."

Riddick turned and regarded her for a moment, his face softening as he watched Carolyn bite her lip and look up at him. She looked like a little girl, for chrissake. A scared little girl. She really thought he might choose not to stay with her.

"You know where I wanna be." Riddick reached over and tilted her chin up when she dropped her eyes again. "Look at me."

She did, still biting her lip, which was starting to tremble a bit.

"As long as I've been tryin' to get back here, you really think I'm gonna take off now?" He searched her face. After a moment, she shook her head no. Her eyes were wet again. "Hey, knock that shit off, willya?" Riddick thumbed away a couple of escaped tears that slid down her cheeks. "You're gonna get *my* waterworks started."

Carolyn smiled and gave a little laugh, reaching up to wipe away another tear. "We better get going, then, before anyone sees me like this." She sniffed and coughed a bit, drying her hand on her shirt.

"Good idea." Riddick stuck his head out of the room and peered around cautiously for more armed employees. "How we gettin' there?"

"I have a little two-seater. Should take us about eight minutes." Carolyn laid her pile of sheets on the floor outside Jack's door. "Key card's in my room."

It took them four, with Carolyn pushing the little shuttlecraft to its top speed. Riddick's room was in a tiny, but clean, boarding house in the center of the small rural community, its population temporarily swelled by the influx of seasonal workers. His belongings fit into one duffel bag, which in turn fit easily into the cargo compartment of Carolyn's vehicle. They re-entered her house through the back, as they'd left it, not wanting to attract any attention.

"So where's my room?" Riddick asked as they took the private staircase up from Carolyn's office.

She reached back and whacked his arm, hearing the playful tone in his voice. "Where d'you think, silly?"

Riddick grinned and tweaked Carolyn's butt as she moved up the stairs, making her jump. "So I get to sleep with the boss, huh?"

She laughed as they made their way to her room. Their room, now. Riddick dropped his bag on the floor by the small table and lowered himself wearily into a chair.

Carolyn sat down across from him and leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. For a few minutes, she said nothing, just sat there and stared at him with a little smile.

He looked back, his own smile growing as her eyes traveled his face again and again. "What?"

She laughed and dropped her face into her hands, then looked back up at him. "I just...I dunno..." Another little laugh. "I just wanna keep looking to make sure you're really here." She grew suddenly serious. "It's like...I'm afraid if look away, you'll disappear. Like a dream."

Riddick's smile faded too, but his eyes didn't. "I know what you mean." He slid his open hand across the table, and Carolyn reached out and clasped it, squeezing hard and looking down at their intertwined fingers. She seemed to be wrestling with something in her mind.

He gave her hand a little shake. "Whatsamatter?"

Carolyn glanced up, then back down at their hands. It took her a moment to begin speaking. "I, uh - guess I should have mentioned this before we, uh..." She blushed, darting her eyes to the disarranged bed.

Riddick frowned and waited for her to continue.

She sighed deeply and bit her lip, steeling herself to continue. "I'm not on birth control." Her thumb moved repeatedly over the back of Riddick's hand. "I never got another hypo after the last one expired, the one I got before the Hunter-G took off." An uncomfortable shrug. "I mean, I didn't see the point, since I never..."

"Yeah...and?"

"Well..." Carolyn swallowed. "I just thought you should know that. I'll go and get checked tomorrow, and if I'm - you know...I can get it taken care of." Her nervous eyes went from the table to Riddick's eyes and back again. "Then I can get another hypo done."

"Why?"

Carolyn looked up, confused. "What do you mean, why?"

"I mean, " said Riddick, leaning forward and taking her hand in both of his, "Why d'you think you hafta do that? You think I'd be pissed if you got pregnant?"

"Well..." Carolyn swallowed again. "I mean...you just got back, you know? You need time to get used to things. You don't need to be tied down like that."

Riddick sighed and shook his head. "You just don't get it, do ya?"

"Get what?"

He leaned forward, pulling her closer so their heads almost touched. "You have any idea how hard I fought to get back to you?"

Carolyn just stared at him, wide-eyed, unsure what to say.

Riddick pressed her hand firmly between his. "Lemme lay it out for ya, okay?" He stared intently into her eyes. "You get that hypo only if *you* want it. 'Cause I won't ask you to." He waited, searching her stunned face. "Understand?"

Carolyn nodded wordlessly. Riddick let go of her hand and got up, planting a kiss on the top of her head. "I'm gonna take a shower." He lifted his duffel bag and carried it into the bathroom. From where she sat, Carolyn heard the sound of it unzipping, then the water being turned on.

In a daze, she got up and walked over to her bed, kicking off her boots before curling up on her side with a pillow clutched to her chest. She lay facing the half- open bathroom door and listening to Riddick's shower as her mind played his words over and over, hardly able to believe what she'd heard. They'd never talked about having kids when they first got to New Mecca. They hadn't talked about a lot of things, actually. When they weren't doing odd jobs for cash to support their little "family", they did their damndest to keep their minds busy, keep from dwelling on what had happened to them. Or on the fact that Riddick was in very real danger of being found. Which, of course, he eventually was.

Carolyn's thoughts drifted back to the nights she and Riddick had lain awake in their bed, holding each other silently, afraid to fall asleep and let the nightmares back in. Then there were the other nights, the ones ruled by passion instead of fear. Her eyes were closed now, and a smile touched her lips as she went back even further, back to the desert planet where they'd met. As she'd done in her dreams so many times, she saw Riddick again now as she'd seen him all those years ago, as she turned to face him in the small, hot interior of the skiff. Back when he'd been just a convict with an imposing presence.

"You scare me, Riddick," she'd said. "That's what you wanna hear, isn't it?" She'd stared him down defiantly as they stood mere inches apart. "Now can I just get back to work?" He'd stopped her when she tried to turn around, holding her still with one big hand clamped around her arm as he reached up with the other and slowly removed his goggles.

A sudden motion jerked her awake - Riddick was sitting beside her with a towel around his waist. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you." He ran his hand tenderly over her hair. "You were smiling. Nice dream?"

Carolyn blinked and sighed, pulling the pillow closer to her chest. "You might say that," she yawned. "It was about our first time, in the skiff. Remember?"

"How could I forget?"

They looked at each other for a moment before she spoke again. "I always wondered..."

Riddick raised his eyebrows and gave her a quizzical look. She rolled onto her back, letting the pillow she held slide onto the bed.

"Why *did* you go in there? I mean...did you plan to do what you did?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Completely spur-o'-the- moment." He looked down and thought for a few seconds. "Guess I really just wanted to see what you were made of."

"So what made you kiss me?"

"What made you kiss me back?"

"Well, you know me," Carolyn yawned, stretching a bit. "I can't resist you rich, powerful tycoon types."

'Yeah, right." Riddick grinned down at her and tweaked her nose. "You need a nap. Want some company?"

"Hell, yeah." Carolyn scooted over and patted the bed beside her. Riddick pulled off his towel and let it drop to the floor as he stretched out beside her and pulled the covers over himself.

"Aren't you a little overdressed?" He grabbed the waistband of her jeans and gave it a tug. Carolyn sighed heavily and rolled off the bed to stand on the other side as she lazily removed her clothes, tossing them in a pile at her feet. She was just settling herself beneath the covers when she groaned and smacked the heel of her hand against her forehead.

"Dammit, I knew I forgot something." She sat up and looked around. "Where's my earcomm?"

"Over here." Riddick pointed to the little bedside table next to him, but made no effort to pick up the comm and hand it to her.

"Well?" She smiled down at him and waited.

"Well, what?" Riddick said, putting his hands behind his head and relaxing into his pillow. "Get it yourself."

Rolling her eyes, Carolyn leaned across him and stretched her arm to reach the little device, pressing her body against Riddick's in the process.

"Mmmm...that feels nice," he murmured as her breasts brushed his chest. He smiled up at her seductively as she sat up and put on the earcomm.

"I *knew* you had an ulterior motive," she smiled back. "Activate," she told the earcomm, and waited for the tones to sound, indicating its readiness. "Call Morrison."

"Morrison here," the Englishman's voice said after a few seconds. "Your wish is my command."

Carolyn laughed. "Then I wish you'd rub Billy down and turn him out. I won't be needing him anymore today."

"Right away, your worship," he replied, his tone comically formal. "You'll be pleased to know, by the by," he continued in a normal voice, "that his spouse will likely be giving birth this evening. She's been rather restless today, looks ready to burst."

"Good. How long you think it'll be?"

"Shouldn't be more than three or four hours, by the look of things."

Carolyn nodded. "Okay. I'm gonna take a nap, so my earcomm'll be off for a while. If you need me for anything, send Hannah up."

"Right. Sleep well, then."

"Thanks. End call and deactivate." Carolyn waited for the tones, then took off the earcomm and reached behind her to place it on the table by her side of the bed. With another deep sigh, she flopped back down and snuggled under the covers. Riddick had turned onto his side, and they lay facing each other.

"I've been lookin' forward to this," he said after a moment. He slid his hand over and grasped hers. "This'll be the first really good sleep I've had since I left."

Carolyn lifted his hand to her lips and kissed his fingers. "Same here."

Riddick smiled and gave her hand a squeeze before letting his eyes close. Carolyn lay watching him, listening as his breathing slowed, feeling his hand gradually relax in hers as sleep took him. His face looked so different now. It was easy to read the signs of a man who'd been through hell and back. He had a new scar, too, a thin line by the right side of his nose. Funny, she hadn't noticed that before.

His breathing was deep and even now. Carolyn thrilled at the sound, one she'd never thought to hear again. Its hypnotic rhythm finally sent her tired eyelids fluttering down, her last waking thought the sensation of Riddick's fingers intertwined with hers.

 

"Carolyn. Hey, wake up."

A female voice, whispering. A hand gently shaking her shoulder.

"What is it?" Carolyn rubbed her eyes and blinked up at the shadowy figure standing over her. "Hannah?"

"Guess again." The figure sat down on the edge of the bed, her familiar herbal perfume wreathing them both in its fragrance.

"Oh..." Carolyn groggily rolled onto her side to face her. "You just get here?"

"Yeah. Morrison said you were up here. You have a new foal, by the way, and the party's starting in about an hour. You comin'?"

"Yeah. Just lemme wake up first." Carolyn yawned. "What time is it?"

"'Bout seven."

"Wow, that was a long nap. Guess I needed it." Carolyn yawned again. There was something important she needed to tell her guest, but it escaped her sleepy mind at the moment.

"Hey." The young woman gripped Carolyn's wrist. "Shhh. What's that?" She sat tensely, listening.

"What's what?"

"That breathing sound. Is someone in here with you?"

Oh, shit. Riddick.

Carolyn sat up, holding the covers to her chest. Dammit, this wasn't the way she'd wanted it to go. "Listen, Jack, I have to tell you something."

"I didn't know you were seeing anyone."

"I wasn't." Carolyn sighed. How to begin...

"What, you just met this guy today or something?"

"Well...yes and no."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Look...we need to talk, okay?" Carolyn patted Jack's thigh. "But not in here. I don't wanna wake him."

"Who is it? Do I know him?"

"Yeah. Get up and lemme get dressed." Jack complied, standing back to wait as Carolyn felt in the dark for her discarded clothes. She hoped their whispered conversation hadn't roused Riddick from his slumber. That would really complicate things.

"You go ahead and I'll meet you in your room," Carolyn whispered, standing to pull on her jeans. Best to get Jack out of here as quickly as possible. A sudden rustling noise from the other side of the bed froze her in position.

Oh, no. Not now. Please not now.

The room was too dark for her to signal Riddick to be quiet. Carolyn bent down carefully and stuck a foot into her jeans.

"You gettin' up?" Riddick's voice, deepened by sleep, boomed out in the quiet room. "What time is it?"

Shit. Here we go.

Carolyn heard Jack's sharp intake of breath.

Riddick heard it too. "Carolyn? You ok?"

"Who the fuck *is* that?" Jack demanded, no longer whispering.

"Who's there?" Riddick asked, sitting up and squinting into the darkness. Right now he really missed his shine job - it would have come in handy. He just hoped whoever was in the room with them didn't have a gun.

"Carolyn..." Jack's voice wavered. "What's going on?"

"Shit!" Riddick jumped out of bed and felt for his towel, quickly wrapping it around his waist. "Who's there? Carolyn, where are you?"

"I'm here, next to the bed." Riddick heard the sounds of her hurriedly pulling her clothes on. "Don't worry, it's ok."

The darkness disappeared abruptly as a bedside lamp came on. Riddick saw Carolyn tugging her shirt on, and a slender, dark-haired young woman standing next to her. The woman's eyes widened when she saw Riddick, and she started backing away from the bed, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Jack, it's ok." Carolyn went to her and grabbed her arms, stopping her backward movement.

"Jack?" Riddick stared intently at the woman and walked cautiously around the end of the bed towards her, tucking his towel in. "Jack, is that really you?"

Jack's lips were trembling now, and a tear spilled over and ran down her face. "No..." she croaked, shaking her head. "You're dead." Her fingers dug into Carolyn's arms as she clung to her for support. "What's going on? Who *is* that?"

"It's him, Jack. It's Riddick."

Jack turned her eyes back to the towel-clad man before her. He stared back with an expression of wonder, apparently every bit as stunned as she was. "But how...?" Jack said weakly, looking at Carolyn again. "No, no way...his eyes...that can't be him."

"He got the shine job reversed. C'mon, sit down." Carolyn backed towards the bed, gently pulling Jack with her and wrapping a comforting arm around her shoulders as they sat down together. Riddick remained standing, turning to face the two seated women. Jack stared at him for a long time, clinging to Carolyn as she gradually calmed down. Finally she let go and reached up to wipe at her eyes.

"How do I know you're really him?" She was scared, but still bristling with suspicion. Carolyn said nothing, letting Riddick choose the best way to deal with this.

He shrugged. "What kinda proof you want?"

Jack thought for a few seconds. "Tell me something only Riddick and I would know."

Now it was Riddick's turn to think. He wracked his brain for something, anything - then it came to him. "Remember the times I sang you to sleep?"

Jack blanched and sat very still.

"He *sang* to you?" Carolyn turned to Riddick, her mouth hanging open in surprise. "I didn't know you could sing."

"What did you sing?" Jack asked weakly.

"My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," he answered without hesitation.

"Sing it," Jack commanded, her face still doubtful.

Oh, boy. This was getting out of hand. "Look, Jack - " Riddick blushed and shook his head.

"I wanna hear you sing it. Right now." Jack's expression made it clear she wouldn't budge until he did as she asked. With his eyes, Riddick silently begged Carolyn for help.

"Don't give me that look," she said, waving a finger at him. "I gotta hear this for myself." She gave Riddick a prompting gesture. "Go on, we're waiting."

Riddick closed his eyes and sighed, running a hand over his bald head. I can't fuckin' believe this shit, he thought.

After four years of running, hiding and struggling his way back to New Mecca, the last thing he expected was being awakened from a sound sleep and ordered to sing in front of two women while wearing only a towel.

He turned his appeal to Jack now. "C'mon, don't make me do this."

She said nothing, just crossed her arms and fixed him with a determined stare. Carolyn was trying hard not to laugh.

"Aw, fuck," he breathed, letting his head fall forward. He stood quietly for a few moments with his eyes closed, mustering his courage. He had no choice, really. If this is what Jack needed to convince her, then so be it. Finally, he raised his head, took a deep breath, and began. He sang softly, but his pleasant baritone still filled the room:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean My Bonnie lies over the sea My Bonnie lies over the ocean Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me

Bring back, oh bring back Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me -

Riddick's voice stopped abruptly as Jack leapt up and launched herself at him, her arms gripping his neck like a vise. He held her as she laughed and wept loudly, her body shuddering against him. Carolyn still sat on the bed. - she wasn't laughing anymore. Eventually, Jack calmed down and pulled back to take a close look at Riddick's face before planting a couple of big, sloppy kisses on his cheek.

"I can't believe it...it really *is* you." Her chest hitched with another sob as she gazed adoringly at him. With a shock, Riddick realized the girl - the woman, he reminded himself - was as tall as he was. They were literally eye to eye.

"Why'd you make me do that, Jack?" Riddick sighed. "I felt like an idiot."

Jack laughed giddily and gave him another tight hug. "I know you did," she giggled. "That's why I know it's really you." She gave his cheek another big smack. "Only *you* would do something like that for me."

Riddick felt his towel come untucked and begin to slip. "Hey, Jack, you gotta let go for a minute, okay?" He tried to grab the towel and push Jack away at the same time, barely managing to catch it and hold it in front of him just as she stepped back and saw what was happening. Carolyn started snickering.

"You look great," she grinned at Riddick. "Maybe you should wear that to the party." Jack's laughter joined hers as he fixed them with what started as a severe frown, but dissolved quickly into an embarrassed, lopsided grin.

Jack laughed and wiped her wet face with her sleeve. "I wish I had my camera with me right now." She shook her head in amusement at Riddick's discomfort.

"I'm glad you don't," said Riddick, carefully maneuvering the towel back around his waist. "Be right back. I need some pants." He disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door. Jack watched him go, then sat down on the bed beside Carolyn again, her face suddenly sober.

"Why'd they tell us he was dead?"

Carolyn finished her quick explanation just as Riddick emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed and carrying his boots. He sat down at Carolyn's small table to put them on. Jack took the chair across from him, watching silently as he finished fastening them.

"You got us out," she said simply.

Riddick sat back and looked at her. "Yeah."

"We have all this because of you."

"Pretty much."

Jack looked down, deep in thought for a moment. "Whatever they made you do, it had to be pretty major. Am I right?"

"You could say that."

Jack nodded. "But you're not gonna tell us what it was."

Riddick shook his head. "Not now."

"Musta been somethin' shitty." She watched Riddick's reaction, noting the sudden tenseness of his jaw, the tightening of his lips. "Don't worry, I won't bug you about it," she said softly. "I guess you'll tell us when you're ready."

"Yeah. I guess." His reply was almost a whisper.

"Hey, you guys - we have a party to go to," Carolyn broke in as she walked over to the table. She stopped behind Riddick's chair and placed her hands on his shoulders. "We can talk about serious stuff later, ok? I think we all need to unwind and have a little fun."

Riddick laid one of his big hands over Carolyn's as she leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "I prob'ly shouldn't go," he said, rubbing her hand. "Don't wanna call too much attention to myself."

"Yeah, good point." She nodded thoughtfully. "But I have to at least make an appearance - that's expected. I won't stay long, though."

"Want us to sneak some beer up for ya?" Jack grinned. "Or whiskey - we have plenty of that, too."

Riddick laughed and leaned his head back to look up at Carolyn. "Girl's got her priorities straight, that's for sure."

"You gonna stay in here?" Jack continued. "They play really loud music and dance outside, too, so you can open the window and listen if you want. It's pretty cool. They even have a bonfire."

"Yeah, what the hell, why not." Riddick laughed again and looked over at Jack. "Bring me some o' that whiskey. Been a while since I had any."

Jack stood up and rubbed her hands together. "You got it! Want some food, too? You better say yes if you know what's good for ya - Nina's cooking kicks ass."

"Hell yeah, I'm starvin'."

"Good choice." Jack started towards the door.

"Hey." Carolyn stopped Jack before she could leave. "Don't say anything, ok?"

Jack gave Riddick a long, affectionate look. "Not a word. Promise." Then she was gone, closing the door quietly behind her.

Carolyn took Jack's seat. She and Riddick sat quietly for a while, lost in thought. Her eyes moved towards the window, then back to the floor.

"Night's not a good time for me."

"Yeah. Same here."

She sighed and looked up at him. "Abu comes to stay for a while every year."

Riddick nodded. He didn't have to ask which part of the year, or why. She took a deep, somewhat shaky breath and bit her lip - she was trying not to cry.

"I'm glad you're here," she whispered.

"Not half as glad as I am."

Carolyn smiled at that, and a tear escaped and ran down her cheek. "I really don't wanna go down there. All I can think about is staying in this room with you and not coming out for a really long time." She wiped at her face and sniffed, still trying hard to maintain her composure.

Riddick reached out a hand. "C'mere." Carolyn got up and settled herself into his lap, sliding her arm around his neck as he pulled her close.

"Tell ya what," he said, giving her a squeeze. "Have a drink with me, then go down and play hostess for a while. When you're done, come back up, and we'll watch the rest of the festivities from here. Sound ok to you?"

Carolyn nodded, resting her forehead against his.

"You'll need shoes, though." Riddick snuck a finger down and tickled one of her feet, making her jump and squeal.

"Stop it!" She laughed and grabbed at his arm. "I got more than enough of that earlier." With an evil grin, she slid her fingers onto his ribs and tried unsuccessfully to tickle him back.

"Sorry," he shook his head with an exaggerated expression of mournfulness. "Still doesn't work."

"Damn. You're no fun." Carolyn punched him lightly in the chest.

Riddick laughed and hugged her tighter. "Yeah, I know."

Both of them jumped as a sudden, monstrous burst of noise reverberated through the house, followed by a woman's voice yelling.

"What the fuck - " Riddick began.

The door opened, and Jack entered bearing a whiskey bottle, three glasses and two plates of food on a tray.

"What *was* that?" asked Riddick as she set the tray on the table.

Jack rolled her eyes. "Just Perry checking the sound system. I think he hooked something up wrong." She started laughing hard and had to sit down. "Scared the shit outta Nina. She's down there cussing him out right now. Almost made me drop the tray, too."

"Did they ask why you wanted the tray?" Carolyn gave Jack a nervous look.

"Nah." Jack grabbed a fork and tasted the food on one of the plates. "They're both in the party room, so they didn't even see me in the kitchen."

"Good." Carolyn got up and stretched, then went to Riddick's side of the bed, where she'd left her boots earlier, and slipped them on.

His hands now free, Riddick filled the whiskey glasses and gave her one when she came back. "What should we toast?"

"Hmmm..." Carolyn pursed her lips and thought about it.

"I know." Jack broke in quietly. "Family. We should toast family." A long silent moment ticked by as they all looked at each other.

Finally, Riddick nodded approvingly. "Sounds good to me."

"Damn good." Carolyn's eyes met his.

He raised his glass. "To family."

"Family," Jack and Carolyn said together, touching their glasses to Riddick's.

 

 
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