The next day, Riddick and I leave the girls in the care of my parents and go to the IIA office for debriefing. We're ushered into separate rooms, so I have no idea what his is like. Mine is a panel of six agents. None of them are Mason, which lightens my mood right away.
It goes about as well as I could have expected. I get a lot of grilling about my decision to ghost my target. He'd had information the agency needed.
"He was deadweight," I say flatly. "Wouldn't have lasted a week. I did him a favor."
I have to say it about a hundred times before they finally let it go. Then, I'm questioned incessantly over my decision to involve children.
"Funny," I say. "I kind of thought the rioters were the ones that involved the children. I was just looking out for them."
The thing is, interrogators only break you down when you have the slightest sliver of doubt in your actions. And I don't. Don't regret killing my mark, don't regret saving the girls. The only thing I do regret is not saving more of them.
It goes on for hours. In the end, I'm free and clear. I'm actually commended for my actions in saving the girls and gathering such clear intelligence as to what's happening on Borilia.
"It'll help the authorities when they go in and take charge," one agent says.
"Someone actually planning on doing something?" I snort.
They shrug. "No one had actionable intel on the planet before. Now we do."
Well, better late than never. There are still children on the planet that need help. With any luck, my intel will get them that help.
The debriefing lasts almost six hours. After, I am escorted to medical and given a thorough check-up. The diagnosis is that I am still undernourished and have lost a least a quarter of my muscle mass.
"So," my handler says after I'm dressed and getting ready to leave. "A few more months of rest. You'll train. You'll eat and replenish your body."
"I'm not his handler, but what I'm hearing is they want to keep him around for awhile to train, too. Is that going to be a problem?" Her eyes narrow. "Or is your eventual separation going to be the problem?"
I run my hands over my head. My hair's grown back somewhat; I'm going to have to get it clipped into something manageable, so I don't look like a bush. "Let's just say, the more Riddick's and my jobs align, the better."
"He's an assassin. You're an agent."
I smile and clap her on the shoulder. "And I'm picturing a little ship, maybe two, three cabins, a galley. A planet with an extended night period, no monsters. We'll live there, get our assignments, be ready to take off."
"So, is this serious?"
"As a heart attack. Let them know that Riddick and I will be living together and that's non-negotiable."
She sighed, pulled out her tablet, and started tapping. "You're lucky you're the best."
"I'm only what I am because of Riddick. And they'd do well to remember that. See you later."
Riddick's waiting in the front hall. He's wearing his goggles and has his head tipped toward the handler standing next to him, who is yammering away while he taps on his tablet.
"Oh," he says, face changing as I cross the hall to them. "I just got a message from Jack's handler. Says that you're going to be living with her?"
Riddick's lips twitch. "For better or for worse."
I bark out a laugh.
The handler looks up. "Hi Jack! Heard about what you did on Borilia. Any idea what's going to happen to the girls?"
"I want them to stay together."
"It's five girls. That's a lot to take on."
"There's got to be someone."
He shrugs. "I'm sure the system will do its best, but you have to be realistic."
Riddick slides his hand over my shoulder. "Come on, Jack. We done here?"
The handler nods. "Make sure you're on time tomorrow."
"Or what? You'll fire me?" Riddick says.
He laughs. "Okay, try to be on time tomorrow. But, really, it's your time. See you, Jack."
Riddick and I leave. We walk in silence down the street, and it is so strange to be able to walk, in daylight, in a nice part of town without having to worry about Riddick getting caught. We can go anywhere now. Oh, there might be a merc or two that hasn't gotten the memo yet, but the IIA will take care of it.
The novelty quickly goes away as reality settles back over me. "What am I going to tell the girls?" I ask.
"It's going to kill them. They're sisters."
"They don't always keep blood siblings together in the system. The little ones might be taken together, but the rest…" He falls silent.
"We'd be terrible parents."
I nod. "I know. And I told them that. But I wish…"
He stops. "Jack. You did right by those girls. And we'll continue doing right by them. Between us and your parents, we don't have to let them go to anyone not good enough. It'll be fine."
I nod again, but I feel like I'm broken inside. It's not a great solution, but it's something.
I'm quiet when we get home. The girls… aren't. They're in the yard, screaming in delight as they run through the sprinklers. Karina and Tasha are sitting on lounge chairs near my parents, drinking ice cream floats.
Mom and Dad look at us anxiously when we enter the yard. I go over to them and give them both hugs.
"Well, you got your wish," I tell them, smiling. "I'm grounded for a few months, until I've got my muscle back."
Mom breathes a sigh of relief. "And Riddick?"
Riddick sits in an empty lounge chair. "They want to train me some. Make sure I can meet their standards." He sounds amused.
I sit with Riddick and lean against him.
He puts his arms around my waist and holds me close.
"I guess, next, we'll have to start looking for a home for the girls," I say.
Mom and Dad exchange looks.
"What?" I ask warily.
"It's simply that we were hoping to keep them," Mom says, sounding a little embarrassed. "We've been talking about it since you first contacted us." She smiles and lifts a shoulder. "They're your family."
A lump comes to my throat. I blink my eyes rapidly. "Mom, I can't… I'm not like you. I'm not cut out to be a mother."
She moves forward until her legs brush mine. "I understand," she says, taking my hands. "But you are cut out to be a sister. You've done so much for these girls, and I think it will hurt you very much for them to go to other families. They belong here. Your father and I have discussed this. All we need is the girls' approval."
"Wait," Karina says, putting her float down. "You want to keep us. All of us?"
Mom nods. "We think it's important that you stay together. And Imam and I have always wanted a big family." She looks at me with a cautious look. "When you were younger, and training, we didn't think it was a good time to bring another child into the family. But since you're grown, it's something we've been considering."
"And I'm not a kid," Karina says. "I'm not… I can take care of myself."
"You should not have to," Dad says. "You've been so strong for so long. It's time to let someone else take your burden."
"But…" Karina's eyes are bright. "But this can't be real."
"Why not?" Dad asks.
Her face crumples. "Because things like this can't happen to someone like me," she sobs.
Dad gets up and goes to her. He puts his arms around her, and she collapses against him, crying.
Ellie starts crying too. She leaves the sprinkler and runs to me, climbing onto my lap. "What's wrong?" she wails.
I stroke her hair and kiss the top of her head. "Nothing, Ellie. My parents want to adopt you girls. They want to be your mom and dad. Karina's happy."
Ellie pulls away. "They want to be our mom and dad?"
"Yes, darling," Mom says.
Her tears dry up and she beams. "Mommy!" she squeals. She scrambles out of my lap and into Mom's. Her smile stretches across her face.
"All of us?" Laci asks, standing at the edge of the grass and clutching Regan's hand.
"Yes," Mom says. "All of you. If you like."
They exchange looks. Then, they nod.
"Yes!" Regan shouts. She runs to Mom, pulling Laci behind her.
"But you can't get too excited," I say, feeling alarmed. "What if you can't?"
"Jack," Dad chides. "We wouldn't say anything if we hadn't already talked to the government. There are still formalities, paperwork and the like. But I'm a highly respected citizen and these are refugees. There should be no problems going forward."
I close my eyes and slump against Riddick. "Are you sure?" I say. "It's going to be crazy."
"We can use a little crazy in our lives," Mom laughs, juggling the three little ones.
Dad's still holding Karina, and now has his arm around Tasha, who's crying on his other shoulder. He beams at me. "I think this calls for a celebration," he says. "Why don't we get cleaned up and go out for dinner?"
"Can I wear my pretty dress?" Ellie asks.
"You can wear whatever makes you happy," he says.
She goes to him and gives him a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Daddy."
He smiles at her, unable to do more with the two sobbing teens in his arms.
"Okay, girls," Mom says. "Let's go get cleaned up and ready to go out for dinner." She stood and began ushering the girls inside, Dad following with Karina and Tasha.
Once they're gone, I turn to Riddick. "Okay, then," I say, a little bewildered.
"You really didn't see that coming?"
I shake my head helplessly. "I thought… I don't know. Maybe they might try to keep Ellie or Laci. Or… help find a home for them. But I didn't see…"
He laughs. "I was pretty sure this was the way it was going to go. Imam's always liked taking in strays."
"Thanks," I say wryly. "You could have told me."
He shrugs. "I've been wrong once or twice in my life. Didn't want to get your hopes up."
I roll my eyes. "Yeah, okay. So. You still willing to work with the IIA after today?"
"I can't say it's going to be a comfortable fit, but the pros outweigh the cons. Get my named clear. Get to satisfy the animal on occasion. Get to stay with you."
I smile stupidly. "That's a pro?"
He leans forward and kisses me. A long, languorous kiss that curls my toes and sends a heavy, slow heat through me. "I left you once," he says in a low rumble when we break apart. "Ain't planning on doing it again."
"You better not. If you do, I'll track you down and beat the shit out of you."
He laughs. "I think you just might do it." He kisses me again.
I want nothing more than to sit with him and keep kissing. But, reluctantly, I pull back. "We should get ready for dinner."
His lips twitch. "Can't believe I'm going out for a family dinner. Never thought I'd see the day."
"Me neither. But your records clear. No mercs, no law, no one's after you. You're free."
"Free." He looks at me, a look of wonder on his face. "Never thought… Never thought any of this could be in the cards. Freedom. A life. Someone like you."
"Maybe Dad isn't all wrong. Maybe it's not a bad thing to have God on your side."
Riddick snorts, but then says, "Maybe." He reaches out and puts his hand on my neck. Rubs his thumb over my bottom lip. "When I went back for you, I thought I was signing my death warrant. Never though I might be saving my life."
My stomach does a slow somersault. "Well. It's only fair I return the favor." I take his wrist in my hand, feeling his slow pulse under my fingers. "Just in case… something ever happens…"
"What could ever happen in a job as safe as ours?"
I laugh and shake my head. "I just… you know how when sometimes you get this pain in your side? That's how it felt. When you left me. Like there was this constant pain in my side. An ache. And when you showed up on Borilia, it went away. Even with the hole in my shoulder and blisters on my feet and being half starved, that pain just vanished, and I was whole again."
Riddick swallows. "When I left, it was like tearing out a part of me and leaving it behind. I didn't feel right until I saw you."
My eyes prick and my whole body grows warm. "Really?"
"Don't know how a runt of a girl got to be so vital, but you did." He tugs me close and kisses me. "No matter what happens, I'll always find you."
"No matter what happens," I say, "I'll stay by your side."
He gives me a lopsided smile. "Till death do us part."