Key 0. Fools Together.
The crew of the freighter that found them did exactly what they were supposed to do. No more, no less. Took them in, treated their wounds and their dehydration, put them in cryo, dropped them off at the next stop. Seems they had survived the nightmare planet after all.
The next stop was a drift. It had once been an orbital defense station for a once important world. Now, the world was dead, bombed back beyond the stone age, the station cannibalized. From time to time, new parts would accrete on; old parts would fail beyond repair and spiral down the gravity well to incineration.
It was one of many such useful crossroads around the galaxy. A site for trade, some of it legitimate, a place to shed old identities, a place to disappear. Intentionally or not. Pretty much perfect for Riddick. Not so good for the other two.
Imam, in wrapped in earnest conversation with the first officer, glided off the freighter without pausing. Overwhelmed by the crowds, Jack was quickly isolated. People swirled past, fast. She was drowning in a flood of humanity, seemingly unable to pick out individuals.
There were individuals who were having not trouble focusing on her, Riddick saw. Predators, checking out the fresh meat. No, scavengers, preying on the weak. . . Damn.
He'd halfway promised himself he'd slip away at this moment. The universe had finally done something right by him, bringing him someplace like this. Let the two of them figure themselves out. She was probably safer without him, he had told himself.
True most places. Not here. She might not even make it out of the docking bay.
He sighed, wondering where this sudden burst of sentimentality was coming from. Cute kid; brave kid; not his kin; not his problem. Still, he found himself striding forward, goggled eyes on the biggest of the men looking speculatively at Jack. He dropped an overtly possessive hand on her shoulder. "Hey."
"Hey," she replied, with such gratitude that he realized with a pang that she desperately wanted him to stay, but expected him to disappear. Made him feel funny inside.
"Stay close, sis. Don't want to lose track of you," he said, too loudly for just her ears. They kept walking. He kept his hand on her shoulder. Some of the would-be scavengers had wandered off, but not all. Wanted to signal something to those men. And it felt good to leave his hand there.
"Right." She gulped, looking down. Making a decision. "You dropped this." She handed him a wallet. He took it, bemused. Paris's wallet, it turned out. Full of cash.
"You holdin' out on me, sis?" he rumbled, amused.
"Maybe a little."
She looked down. "I thought you could do better than me."
Damn straight, he thought. Oddly glad they agreed she was better off with him. "Hey, Holy Man, wait up." It was an order.
The Imam paused, looked back, surprised. Lost in discussion, he hadn't realized Jack was not right behind him. And he'd assumed Riddick would already be gone.
Instead, he got them several rooms, loosely tied together. The Imam kept to himself. Riddick wasn't around much. That was okay, Jack thought. He came back every night. Most every night.
When he came back, if it wasn't too late, he'd hang for a while. Sometimes even wake her up. Ask her about her day. She usually told him banally untrue things. Did he know what she really did? She didn't know. She made sure they had what they needed when he didn't; that there was food, soap, whatever. She'd do what she had to do, and was happy to do it, she told herself. He'd saved her life. Didn't really feel like sharing the gory details.
Until one day. She'd been in one of the aging cafeterias, trying to figure if today was a day she paid for food, or scammed it, or . . .something else. The Imam wouldn't leave the rooms any more, slipping deeper and deeper into a depression or sickness or holy state, she didn't know. He'd mostly stopped talking. Riddick had disappeared again for several days.
Some guy was giving her the eye. Older man, soft, she thought. Good for a meal; maybe more. He looked at her wistfully. She talked softly, vulnerably, a motherless child. He reached for her face, stroked it affectionately. She let him believe that was what she wanted. Letting him slip into the fantasy of rescue; a possibility of more. They were leaving the hall together, her hand shyly in his. She was good at controlling these situations, she thought. Get what she needed, giving the minimum possible in return.
But once they were alone in the corridor, something felt wrong. She tried to pull away; to come up with a plausible reason to part company. And suddenly, he wasn't soft any more. His hands were insistent, hard. "I'll buy you ice cream," he breathed, "afterwards." It was a lie. He wasn't planning on there being an afterwards. And he knew she knew that. Things were escalating fast.
And then Riddick was there. In front of them, smiling. "Hey, sis, who's your friend?" he rumbled, hardly a glance for the man who's hands were still bruising her arms. As if he was not worth looking at.
The man stiffened, released her in near-horror. "Sorry, man," he whispered. "I – I thought she was alone. She seemed alone. Not safe. I--" he drifted off, not knowing how to finish without damning himself further.
Riddick's hand closed on Jack's upper arm, pulling her against him in an extravagant gesture of brotherly possessiveness. "No worries," he breathed, for the man's ears only. "Glad to know someone else is looking out for her, in case I can't find her some time; she does wander off . . ." He shrugged eloquently at a child's wanderlust. The man swallowed, nodded, suddenly seized with the possible futures; furious with this child for seeming to lack a . . .brother. Whatever he was.
Riddick didn't let go of her until they were back in their rooms, though he didn't say anything. There was food in their rooms from that point on. He also started spending time with her every day; mostly teaching her how to fight, how to walk silently, how to survey a room and pick the biggest threat; to find the weak spot, anything else he could think of.
He hadn't meant to teach her much beyond how to hit, block, and break a hold. But she soaked up everything he showed her, and, to his surprise, he enjoyed it more than anything else he was doing. Felt oddly proud as she mastered one thing after another; as she grew stronger and faster in front of his eyes. She was going to be a hell of a fighter, some day.
He still didn't talk to her much. Never mentioned he'd gone back and killed that guy who had dared to put rough hands on her, then cleaned out his cupboards of anything he thought she might like to eat. Even brought back some of the more nondescript of the disturbing amount of clothing the man had in her size.
But he thought about her a lot. Thought a lot about how to keep her safe. Decided the answer wasn't that hard. Decided not to think about why he cared. He interrupted the Imam's depressed stupor on one of the rare occasions Jack was both safe and out of earshot.
"I'll make you a deal. I'll get you and the girl to New Mecca safe and sound. In return, you take care of her. Get her a home, an education. Raise her right. Keep her safe."
The Imam considered. After an initial burst of optimism, he had wandered further and further into the paralyzing darkness since they had arrived. He realized with a pang he had stopped thinking of taking the child home. Realized he had stopped thinking about going home.
He felt like there was lightning here. He longed for home. But going back to the world without the boys was hard. And being responsible for a girl child teetering at the edge of adulthood daunted him. Not the gift he'd planned to bring New Mecca.
The quid pro quo was perplexing. For some reason, this man cared enough about the child to give her a chance at a normal life, at no little risk to himself; leaving the safety of the twilight areas at the edge of the civilized worlds for the beating heart at the center. "A generous offer. But if I may – why?"
Riddick stared hard at nothing in particular. He really had no idea beyond a generalized sense of obligation. "I figure I owe the universe one." He said at last. "One fuckin' good deed. Then you'll never see me again."
"I accept your terms," the Imam said, and meant it.
Riddick meant it too. They were in New Mecca very quickly, considering. And then he was gone.