Freedom's Wings

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

   

Ardala looked seductively over the rim of her wine goblet.  “So what is on your mind?”

Buck was well aware of what was on her mind.  Some things never changed.  He took a sip of his drink.  “Right now—you,” he replied, his eyes taking in the outfit that, like all of the others, accentuated her physical assets. 

“Glad you still notice,” she said tartly, taking a few swallows of her wine.  She motioned for Tigerman to leave.  

“Uh, Princess?  Could Tigerman stay for a few minutes?  Part of my visit concerns him.”  

She smiled.  “I assumed that you weren’t here for totally social reasons, despite what you said in the audience chamber.”  She glanced at the Rrilling.  “Stay.”  

“And you’re not angry?” he asked. 

“No.  Not anymore.”  She took another sip, watching his face.  When she saw his relieved look, Ardala smiled mischievously.  “Not much anyway.” 

“You seem to have regained your daddy’s favor,” Buck said, leaning back with the languid ease of one in the company of friends.  And despite all that had happened that first year after his awakening, he did consider Ardala as something of a friend.  One that had to be closely watched, but a friend nonetheless.  After all, she was responsible for his return to the world of the living; indirectly, that is. 

“Oh, yes.  Father was very impressed with the lucrative deal that I made on Bosk.” 

“Ah, good.” 

“I have to find some way to thank you for that,” she added.  

“We’ll see, but I’m not that worried about it,” Buck assured her.   “The newly freed prisoners on Bosk feel they got the better deal.  Especially after the antidote to garox was found.” 

Now she knew why Buck was so much more like his old self.  She wondered how he had pulled it off.  “But there is something you want,” she coaxed. 

Buck affected a hurt expression.  “Now, Princess, you cut me to the quick.” 

“There is precedence,” she said dryly.  

“Hm, I suppose there is,” he admitted sheepishly. 

“You’ve been busted, Buck,” Twiki piped up.  

“No comments from the peanut gallery,” Buck shot back and then returned his attention to Ardala. 

“By the way, you seem to be in much finer spirits than you were the last time we met,” Ardala said, taking another sip of her wine.  

“Yeah, you might say that I took care of a problem or two that was bothering me then.”  He glanced at her glass.  “You want a refill?” 

“No, thank you, not now,” she almost purred, her voice sultry and alluring.  “Perhaps later.”  She continued to gaze at him, her eyes seductive. 

Buck had to remind himself of his loyalties, although there was nothing wrong with artistic appreciation.  Adrala was certainly a Draconian work of art.  

“So why did you come?” she asked. 

“I need to borrow Tigerman.” 

Ardala had not known what to expect, but this was totally surprising.  “Why?” 

“Um, you just need to trust me on this one,” Buck replied, his voice holding a note of urgency. 

Ardala studied Buck carefully and then felt anger flaring.  He didn’t trust her!  Whatever he wanted, he didn’t trust her with the knowledge.   “Well, you do know that this is going to cost you,” she said irritably.  

Buck looked visibly nervous.  “And what is the price?” 

“When Tigerman returns, so do you.  As my consort.”  She watched him carefully to gauge his reaction.  

Buck took a deep breath, not surprised by her response, but still hoping that they would have been beyond that kind of thing. He had expected too much. Why the hell did everything have to come back to this matrimony crap?  How naïve to think that things had changed, he thought with a sigh.   “Well, then, whatever I needed Tigerman for, I’ll just have to try and accomplish myself,” Buck said tersely.  “The invitation to dinner is still on, by the way,” he added, standing up.  “You sure you don’t want another drink.  I do.  Unless that, too, comes with a price.”   He headed toward the bar.   He fixed a drink and there was no sound other than the clinking of ice cubes in his goblet.   Ardala was strangely silent.  

When she finally spoke, her voice was soft, almost plaintive and not the least bit sultry.  Buck turned his attention to her.  “No,” she said softly.  Then a brief pause, before she began again.  “I . . . I had hoped that maybe after all this time, you could learn to like me, even a little bit.”   

“Princess, I don’t have to marry you to like you.”  Buck gazed at her curiously.  Her lip was trembling almost imperceptibly.  He was wondering if this was an act or if Ardala was serious.  “I really can’t divulge the reasons for needing Tigerman because there are a great many people whose lives depend on secrecy right now.”  He paused.   “Just as there was when we were fighting the War Witch.  I came to you then in good faith.”  He sat back down and took her hand.  “I am asking you to trust me now.” 

Ardala gazed contemplatively at his hand.  She sighed, remembering that time on Pendar very well.  “I am sorry about that incident.  I thought I could win the war by myself; that I had the power to influence Serena.  I learned a lot during that time.  And I didn’t like everything I learned.”  She finished her drink.  

Buck thought a few seconds, studying Ardala carefully.  “Funny thing is, I did.” 

“You did what?” 

“Like what I learned,” Buck responded.  

She looked deeply into his eyes and saw respect there, something she had not seen in the early days.  

He turned and glanced at Tigerman before looking back at Ardala.  “Princess, I promise, it’s nothing dangerous for your father’s realm, but we have to protect the anonymity of some of the people involved in this project.” 

“Why?  Are they a threat?” 

“No, actually, I guess you could say we are,” Buck answered enigmatically.  “But Tigerman has the clues to solve this whole thing.” 

They both gazed at the Rrilling and somehow Buck knew that Tigerman was aware of what he wanted.  

“Who are these people that we are such a threat to?” she asked.  

Buck leaned over and nuzzled Ardala’s ear with his lips.  “Princess, it would still be better if you could just trust me on this.  But I can give you a few more details on the Searcher tonight if you want me to. Privately. 

“Oh? You mean that Colonel Deering will allow you to continue this on her ship?” 

Buck pulled back slightly and grinned.  “Touché, Princess.” 

“I have learned from a master,” she replied with a wistful smile of her own.  “But after all is said and done, how do you know I won’t still give away this secret if I figure it out?” 

Buck pulled away. “Ardala, we have done some pretty rotten things to each other, but even so, there comes a time when a person has to do things just because they are right.” 

Frowning, Ardala leaned back and favored Buck with a pouty look.  “You are taking all the fun out of this.” 

“Yeah, I guess it was much more enjoyable being sneaky,” Buck said with a laugh.  This was more like the Ardala he knew.  

“And you won’t consider taking up residence on Draconia?” 

“No, Princess, duty calls.” 

“No, Colonel Deering calls,” she retorted.  

“The colonel and I are not married yet, despite what everyone thinks,” Buck snapped, frustrated.  

“Then the colonel is stupid,” Ardala quipped, rubbing her hand across his chest. 

“I will take that as a compliment, Your Highness,” he said, his tone softer.  “But I will marry when its right for both of us and it isn’t yet.” 

“It isn’t for you, I would assume.” 

Somehow Buck thought that Ardala was right, in her own inimitable way.  

The princess got up and walked away from the couch.  “You have always played hard to get.”  She walked back and sat down again.  “But remember, you will always be welcome on Draconia, Buck Rogers.” 

“I know, Ardala.  And thank you.”  He leaned over and kissed her soundly before getting up. “I guess I’d better contact the Searcher and make sure they are ready for your arrival.” 

 

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Several days out of the Draconian system, Buck was in the workout room with Tigerman and Hawk.  “I know you wanted a rematch but aren’t you a little too eager?” he asked.  

Tigerman just grinned and shook his head.  Pointing to Hawk, he replied, “His people live high in mountains.  Very high.  You not ready.  You die there.” 

Buck pondered a moment, then it dawned on him.  The altitude would make breathing difficult.  Like climbing up Mount Everest.  “How high?  And we have breathing equipment.” 

Tigerman folded his arms across his chest and laughed.  “Breathing, climbing, you not ready.”  Then his arm jerked out, catching Buck across the diaphragm, causing the terran to double over when the air exploded from his lungs.  

Coughing and choking, Buck glared at the felinoid.  “What the hell’d you do that for?” 

“Prove you soft.” 

Buck sucked in breath and straightened up.  “Okay, you made your point.”  He looked at Hawk.  “How come he’s not picking on you?”

“Picking?” Hawk asked, then he smiled as he realized what Buck was saying.  “I am not soft,” he replied with a wry smile.  “You have been doing a great deal of laying around lately.” 

Buck groaned and then turned toward Tigerman.  “So what do I do?” 

“You work, Colonel work.  Work hard.” 

“We’re still going to need supplementary oxygen, though.” 

Tigerman nodded.  “Much climbing.  Hard where bird people live.” 

“Yeah, I get the picture,” Buck agreed with a sigh.  “Let’s get started.”  And they did.  Tigerman was a hard taskmaster; the first few nights Buck fell into bed, feeling every muscle in his body, including many that he didn’t even think he had and in places that he didn’t want to think about.   Everything ached.  He was beginning to think that perhaps the felinoid was trying to kill him before ever having that rematch.  

On the third night, just when he had lain down, his door chimed.  Without getting up, Buck called out, “If it’s Tigerman, go away.  Anyone else, make sure you either have a hot tub or very nimble fingers.” 

The door opened and Wilma walked in.  “Nimble fingers?” 

Buck sat up as quickly as his aching muscles would allow.  “Uh, a massage,” he explained sheepishly. 

Wilma laughed. 

Buck felt a quick flare of irritation.  Wilma didn’t seem to have any problems with the physical regimen.  But he couldn’t stay irritated for long.  He was well aware how out of shape he had become.  Everything since his time on Mendalis had conspired against him.  And even during most of his sojourn on the Searcher, he had not worked out as much as he should have.  Buck smiled.  “I’m just jealous.  You breeze through Tigerman’s workouts.”  He paused a beat.  “But I suppose it’s my own fault.” 

Wilma walked close and began massaging his shoulders.  “A little bit, maybe, but the mines certainly didn’t help any.” 

“Mmm,” was all he could say.  Her touch was like a balm in more ways than one.  Buck felt the tightness in his shoulders loosen and his whole body began to relax. 

“Better?” she asked after a few minutes. 

“Considerably,” he sighed.  “Thanks.” 

“And for what it’s worth, I have been sore, too.  That rock climbing exercise of his is hard!” 

“I’ll still feel better when I can at least keep up with you,” he said with a wry grin. 

Wilma laughed as her fingers traveled down his back to ease the soreness there.  She thought of the past month and she sobered quickly.  “It wasn’t that long ago when I thought I would never have the opportunity to do this.” 

Buck sighed as he enjoyed the warmth of her touch.  “Yeah, me, too.”  Turning, he took her hands in his.  “Thanks for not giving up on me,” he murmured.  Bringing her hands to his lips, he kissed them tenderly.  

She sat down next to him.  “That was too close, Buck.  Much too close.” 

“I know,” he concurred.  

They sat side by side for a few more minutes, not saying anything, simply comfortable in each other’s company. 

“Oh,” Wilma suddenly said and then colored with embarrassment. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“I was supposed to be coming to tell you that you will be part of the delegation going down to Mendalis tomorrow.” 

“I figured I would be,” he replied languidly, still feeling the effects of her ministrations.  “When tomorrow?” 

“Early.”  

Buck smiled.  “Good.”  He laughed when Wilma looked a bit puzzled at his exuberance.  “I so hate missing Tigerman’s workouts, but, well, if I must….” 

Wilma laughed with him.  “You are incorrigible.” 

“Yeah.” 

She got up.  “And you’d better get some sleep.  Tomorrow’s going to be a hard day even without Tigerman’s help.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” Buck said contritely.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen
Chapter One
Buck Rogers Contents
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