Buck Rogers stood in his quarters on the Earth ship Searcher, staring out the viewport at his home planet rotating slowly below. After the forty eight hours he'd just had, he was wondering if he could ever look at it in quite the same way again.
It had been several hours since he'd been exonerated of the charges of genocide and treason that had stemmed from the finding of a 20th century video tape, showing his supposedly traitorous activities and his name vilified on the lips of his once-best friend. Once the charges had been dismissed he'd been swept up by a tide of well-wishers and deposited in the ship's rec room for an impromptu celebration, with seemingly everyone from the Admiral on down to the off-duty maintenance personnel turning out to congratulate him. He'd been pleased and grateful for all the support, but into the second hour of revel the stresses of the past days had caught up with him. Exhausted, he made his excuses and retreated to his quarters.
Yet now that he was here, he couldn't settle down. He felt tense and jangly, as though in the throes of a caffeine rush. He caught himself drumming his fingers on the bulkhead and stopped, turning toward the door. He needed to take a walk, clear his head.
He reached for the keypad, then hesitated. If he didn't try to rest, Wilma would kill him.
She'd kept him going though the entire nightmare. First steadying him after they had heard the charges, her firm disbelief a bracing shock of sanity in the midst of the unreality. Then gently insisting that he couldn't give up, even though the evidence against him was damning. Finally, undertaking with him a perilous journey to Mount Rushmore that, at the time, had appeared to every onlooker like a craven escape attempt. Through it all, her strength and loyalty had anchored him fast.
He hadn't even thanked her. The realization struck him like a slap.
That was it, he was going for a walk.
Colonel Wilma Deering sat at a table in her own quarters reviewing the new Defense Directorate protocols for alien contact, but her normally disciplined mind stubbornly refused to concentrate on the task at hand. Instead it played over and over again the events of the past two days, recalling the tides of emotion that had swept her from hope to fear and back again.
Even now, she could feel the wave of despair that had washed over her when the Admiral had come to Buck's quarters to warn them that the judges were about to render their decision, a guilty verdict that would bring the penalty of death. Buck was such a vital, vibrant man. Under no circumstances could she contemplate losing him.
She loved him with every fiber of her being. She'd known it - or at least, admitted it to herself - for almost a year now, ever since Buck had taken his dangerous solo journey into a new universe. She'd never experienced such feelings before in her life, and their rawness and power terrified her. So she retreated, waiting for the emotions to go away, to transmute into something less…intense. Only they hadn't.
That Buck didn't return her feelings was…difficult, although not as much as she might have imagined. The bond between them was strong, forged not only by a deep and abiding friendship, but also by the mutual respect and trust of warriors who have fought side by side and saved each other's lives on countless occasions.
What they shared wasn't the romantic relationship she wanted, but she was pragmatic enough to know that life wasn't about romance. The sure knowledge that he cared deeply about her as a friend and comrade was enough - at least most of the time. More than anything she didn't want to lose the important roles that she and Buck played in each other's lives. Because of that, she was more than gratified that he'd turned to her today, and let her help him as best she could.
And she'd been rewarded, too, in the most unexpected way. She thought back, her mind lingering over the details. The General had announced that the charges had been dropped, and she'd removed the OEI device from Buck's head as he rose from the chair. Forgetting herself in a moment of exuberance and relief, she'd thrown her arms around Buck and kissed him – and felt him immediately respond. The kiss lengthened into more than a filial congratulation, and when they'd pulled away he'd seemed as reluctant to separate as she.
Could it be that he was beginning to see her as possibly more than a friend? Wilma tried to examine the idea clinically. Back in New Chicago, there had been an endless parade of women on his arm. But he hadn't been seeing anyone – dating, as he called it – since they'd left Earth. At least, not that she knew of. And as second-in-command aboard the Searcher, if she didn't know about it, it hadn't happened. Wilma smiled to herself. There was a chain of reasoning Buck would appreciate.
A chime announced a visitor at the door. She slipped to her feet and pressed the keypad, wondering who it could be at this time of night. The door slid open.
"Buck!" she said in surprise, moving aside to let him in. "What are you doing here?"
He entered the room slowly, his steps lacking their usual energy. He looked drained, Wilma thought, and no wonder. "You should be resting," she said, taking care not to scold.
Buck, whose eyes were on the floor in front of him, looked up. "Hmm? Oh. I'm sorry, Wilma, I know it's late…" he trailed off.
"It's all right, Buck," she said, drawing close to lay a hand on his arm. "How are you feeling?" she asked softly.
Buck raised his eyebrows. "Me? Exhausted. Jazzed. Angry. Relieved. Like I've been on the biggest emotional roller-coaster ride in the universe."
He looked down at Wilma, seeing the depth of concern and caring in her eyes. What a magnificent woman she was, he thought. Commanding and powerful, yet gentle and compassionate. The sudden surge of tenderness he felt towards her caught him off-guard. And reminded him why he was there.
She started to speak but he cut her off. "What you did for me today – I haven't even thanked you."
Wilma smiled. "You don't need to thank me, Buck," she said softly.
"Yes, I do," he countered. "You risked your career for me today - you risked your life for me today!" Anger at his own blindness was building inside him like a volcano. "I don't know what I was thinking, I must have been out of my mind. I should never have let you go with me to Mount Rushmore."
Startled, Wilma felt her own temper flare in response. "My choices are my own to make, Buck, however risky or ill-considered. It's no business of yours," she said icily. Besides, she reflected, it hadn't been an ill-considered decision. She'd known – probably better than he did - precisely what she had to lose if they'd failed.
"It's my business when I'm the one getting you in trouble!" he blazed.
The harsh tone shocked Wilma and she turned away to hide the hurt in her eyes. Buck froze, suddenly realizing whom he was shouting at. He crossed the room in three strides, instantly contrite. "Wilma, I'm sorry," he whispered to her back. "I had no right to lay into you like that. I don't know what's gotten into me lately - I guess I'm still upset about the tribunal. I didn't mean to take it out on you."
Wilma took a deep breath, trying to will her anger away. No other man in the universe could make her lose her self-control like this. But she understood, she really did. "It's all right," she said, a bit unsteadily.
"No, it isn't," he replied swiftly. He reached out and turned her around to face him.
"I'm sorry," he repeated. "You didn't deserve that. No excuses."
Reaching out in mute apology, he gathered her into his arms. She went willingly, her anger forgotten, relaxing into his chest and letting the fatigue of the day wash over her.
"So, anyway," he said into her hair. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," she smiled. She started to take a step back before the embrace became awkward, then reached forward sharply as Buck swayed towards her. "Sorry," he mumbled as her hands locked on his wrists. "Tired all of a sudden…"
Wilma steered him towards the couch and he fell onto it heavily, closing his eyes and resting his head on the back. She watched him affectionately for a few moments, before realizing with a stab of amusement that he'd fallen asleep. He'd be very sore if he slept any length of time with his head at that angle, she knew.
She leaned down. "Buck," she called softly.
He woke and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Sorry, Wilma, ooh…" he said groggily.
"Ssshh," she whispered, gently rearranging him until he lay lengthwise along the couch. He was asleep again before she'd finished.
Wilma had already been up for an hour by the time Buck stirred the next morning. He groaned, wiping a hand across his eyes, then started to roll over, catching himself just before he went off the edge of the couch. His eyes opened fully as he realized where he was. The consternation in his face was comical, and she couldn't help but laugh.
"Good morning to you, too," Buck grumbled, working his way into a sitting position.
"Feeling better?" she asked, a little too brightly for his liking.
He took a deep breath, stretching a little. His clothes were rumpled and none too fresh, but otherwise his head was clear and he did feel more rested. "Actually, yeah, I am," he admitted with some surprise.
Wilma grinned. She was inordinately pleased with life today. What under other circum-stances might have been embarrassed awkwardness at having a man in her quarters first thing in the morning was more than offset by the happy knowledge that Buck had felt comfortable enough in their friendship to fall asleep in her cabin without worrying that she might be either annoyed or insulted. It might be a little thing, but it felt like another step forward.
"Can I get you something to eat, Buck?" she offered hopefully as he scrubbed his hands over his face and slid to his feet.
"No, thanks, Wilma, I'm – "
His words were interrupted by the vidcom. The Admiral appeared on-screen. "Colonel Deering, this is Admiral Asimov."
"Yes, Admiral," Wilma called as she strode to the unit.
"Colonel, the Directorate informs me that our departure from Earth is being delayed by four hours. I've been ordered to muster the ship's personnel at 1100 hours in the hanger bay to receive Dr. Huer and members of the Computer Council. I'll expect to see you in my day room in half an hour for a full briefing."
"Yes, Admiral," Wilma confirmed. Then she frowned, struck by a horrible thought. "Sir, this isn't – more from the tribunal, is it?"
The Admiral's stern countenance relaxed. "No, Colonel, this is strictly good news," he said with an enigmatic smile, then disengaged.
Buck let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "I wonder what all that's about," he said in puzzlement.
"I don't know," Wilma replied absently, mulling over the possible reasons for such an unusual occurrence. Nothing obvious sprang to mind. She looked up and caught the perturbed expression on Buck's face.
"Don't worry," she said, reaching out to reassure him. She touched his arm lightly. "Hey, the Admiral said it was good news."
Buck shook himself out of his worry. "Yeah, I hope so," he said. "Well, I'd better get going if I'm gonna be ready in time for the show."
She started to reply, then tensed in surprise as he took her arms and planted a quick kiss on her lips. "Thanks – for everything," he told her softly.
Wilma froze with shock, not at all certain how to react. She would have been more comfortable if he'd handed her a live grenade. She smiled shyly, feeling helpless, and then he was gone.
Buck stood in the hanger bay with the rest of the Searcher crew, trying to curtail his nervousness as Dr. Huer boarded the ship along with Dr. Theopolis and another council computer Buck didn't know, Dr. Gregoriev. Wilma and the Admiral entered the hanger bay from the bridge and met their guests in the center of the room. Characteristically, Buck thought, the Doc had brought with him only a couple of bodyguards – the council probably wouldn't let him go without them – rather than the entire procession that Commissioner Bergstrom had required. He was reassured by the thought, and by the look on Wilma's face. Though outwardly contained, he could see the eagerness that animated her eyes. The suppressed excitement in her pose relaxed him and he rocked lightly back on his heels, ready to watch the command performance.
The Admiral made the traditional greeting and then stood back, letting Dr. Huer and the two computers take the floor. Dr. Huer clasped his hands behind his back and addressed the assembled crew, his voice carrying clearly though the hanger bay. "Admiral Asimov, Colonel Deering, members of the crew of the Searcher, it is my privilege to come before you today to honor one of your own. I am sure you are all aware of the recent judicial council that convened here to try Captain Buck Rogers for his role in triggering the terrible holocaust that ruined our fair planet."
Buck looked down at his boots, puffing out a breath. The subject was still a little sore with him and he was beginning to wish everyone would just quit bringing it up.
Dr. Huer continued, "You are also no doubt aware that the findings of the council not only exonerated Captain Rogers, but also revealed his part in thwarting a plot to set the nations of the 20th century at war. Although this may be the first example of Captain Rogers' exemplary service to Earth, it has by no means been the last. On numerous occasions during the past two years he has used his singular fighting skills, his except-ional courage, and his remarkable resourcefulness and ingenuity to help defeat the forces that have threatened our survival. It is for this loyalty and dedication that we honor him today. Captain Rogers, please step forward."
Buck's eyebrows climbed in surprise. They were kidding, right? he thought. Half startled and half bemused, he stood without moving until the expectant silence reminded him he was supposed to be presenting himself front and center. He made his way to the little knot of officers and stood facing them, coming to attention.
Dr. Huer motioned to the quad bearing Dr. Theopolis around his neck, who scuttled forward holding a large pillow with something small and shiny on the crown. Admiral Asimov leaned down and plucked the object off the pillow – a major's insignia, which he then proceeded to attach to Buck's uniform in place of his captain's insignia. "With the authority vested in me by the Earth Computer Council and the Defense Directorate, I hereby promote you to the rank of major, effective immediately."
Buck was pleased and more than a little taken aback. He felt he should respond some-how, but was completely at a loss as to what to do. He'd never seen a Directorate promotion ceremony, and had no idea of the proper protocol. Letting instinct take over, he snapped a crisp 20th century salute.
Laughing, Wilma reached out and firmly shook his hand, followed by the Admiral. Dr. Huer raised his arms. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Major Buck Rogers."
Applause rang out from all the onlookers, which Buck acknowledged with a smile and a brief wave. The Searcher crew was then dismissed and began to disperse, returning to their regular duties.
Buck turned to Dr. Huer, who hovered with an uncharacteristic look of hesitation on his face. "Buck," he said carefully, his voice strained, "I hope you can understand why I couldn't interfere – "
"Of course I do, Doc," Buck said swiftly to this man who was something of a father figure to him. "Don't worry about it." He clasped the older man's hand then caught him up in a brief hug.
He stood back, gratified to see the look of immense relief on Dr. Huer's face. "I'm glad to hear that, Buck," his friend said. "And, well - you certainly deserve this honor."
Dr. Theopolis' lights flashed up at them from around his quad's neck. "Congratulations, Major Rogers," he intoned.
"Yeah, way to go, Buck!" Twiki said from his other side.
Buck grinned. "Thanks Theo, thanks Twiki."
Hawk clapped him on the back. "Congratulations, my friend," he said. "The recognition is long overdue."
Wilma bade farewell to Dr. Huer and then gave Buck a sidelong hug, her eyes shining with pride.
"From goat to hero in 4.2 seconds. You might have warned me," he complained.
She feigned shock. "And ruin the surprise?" she asked mischievously.
It was quite a party. One hell of a party, Buck said. A party to end all parties, he said, then had to explain what he meant. A party so big that you stopped throwing parties after it because nothing else could compete. Looking around the gleaming ballroom at the throngs of happy participants, Wilma had to admit it would indeed be difficult to surpass.
Three days earlier Admiral Asimov, on behalf of the Terran Federation, had signed the first-ever trade agreement with the Delithian peoples of the Eleventh Quadrant. The Delithians, descendents of an ancient Earth tribe Buck had called the "Irish", had thrown the party in celebration, inviting the crew of the Searcher as honored guests.
When they had arrived planetside, resplendent in their dress uniforms, it seemed as though every Delithian in the Quadrant had turned out to meet them. They were all tall and slender, all red-headed, and all charming.
A feast was served, dish after dish of galactic delicacies complimented with a warm, sweet wine that seemed to have very low alcohol content. Just enough, their hosts explained, to relax the mind without dulling the senses.
After the dining and drinking came the dancing. The music, while not familiar, was melodic and engaging, and the dance steps were very similar to what Wilma had learned as part of her deportment training back at the Directorate. She and the other members of the Earth delegation, which included the Admiral, the newly promoted Major Buck Rogers and other scientists and technical crew, found no shortage of Delithians eager to spin them around the ballroom.
At the moment Buck was dancing with his fourth Delithian partner, each one of which had been more lithe and beautiful than the last. The two cut a wide swath around the floor, moving together in such perfect unison it appeared as though a single mind controlled both bodies. Wilma, who had hoped to dance with Buck herself, knew when she was completely outclassed. But it was mesmerizing to watch, and for a time she couldn't take her eyes off the duo. Until, ultimately, the ache in her heart became too much to bear.
Withdrawing, she excused herself to their hosts and left the ballroom, looking for a quiet place to wait for the rest of the delegation. Eventually she chanced across a small, empty observation suite with a stunning view across the darkened landscape of a double moonrise over the horizon and a ringed planet hanging in the sky, perhaps a few light-minutes away. The suite appeared to be on the floor directly above the ballroom, as the music and accompanying laughter swelled up clearly from below.
For a long time Wilma stood at the observation window, content to set her polite, formal Earth Directorate persona aside and simply watch the rising of the multi-hued moons. Finally, she was woken from her reverie by the sound of footsteps – boots – on the marble floor behind her. She knew who it was without even turning around.
"Hey," Buck said, "I've been looking for you. Thought you might wanna dance."
Wilma turned to face him and shook her head, trying to hide the sadness in her eyes. "It's ok, Buck. You go ahead. I – I could never dance like that."
Buck moved towards her, smiling slightly. "No one can dance like that. But that's not the point. I want to dance with you," he said, deliberately placing emphasis on the last word.
The request caught Wilma completely off guard. It was on her lips to ask why, but the question would sound crass. And her heart told her it didn't matter – Buck wanted to dance with her, and she with him. Don't analyze it, she told herself sternly. Just go with the…what was it? The flow.
She smiled, happy she'd remembered Buck's phrase, and happier still that he was standing before her with a clear invitation in his eyes. She clasped his hands and they swayed together, moving in time to a gentle melody from the ballroom beneath them.
At first it was a bit awkward as Wilma's nervousness, both at dancing with Buck and at not being a perfect Delithian partner, came to the fore. Buck of course realized it at once, but instead of growing impatient he just tightened his grip and whispered, "Relax." With a touch of embarrassment she did as she was told, and shortly her natural grace asserted itself and they flowed together seamlessly.
The song ended and Buck slowed them to a halt, not releasing her hands. For a long moment he stood looking down at his companion, her face flushed with exertion and pleasure. She looked so beautiful, not fragile and breakable like the Delithian women but strong and vital and radiant. Watching her now, gorgeous in the moonlight, he felt a stirring of passion within him for the first time in a long, long while.
"What?" Wilma asked uncertainly, looking uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
Buck said nothing, not moving as the music started again. Slowly he lowered his head and touched Wilma's lips with his, raising one hand to her cheek in a tender caress. Her lips parted beneath his in surprise and he ran his tongue lightly along them. She responded immediately, with an eagerness that surprised him. He kissed her gently, tenderly, lingering as long as he could. As he ran short of breath he moved his lips with hers for a final time, then drew back to gauge her reaction.
She stood frozen for a moment, eyes closed. Then she slowly opened her eyes and gazed directly at him, a look of astonished wonder on her face. Apparently she hadn't seen that coming. To be honest neither had he, but he was gratified by the depth of her response. He stood for a moment with his hands resting lightly on her hips, letting her decide the next move.
Wilma scanned his eyes, and whatever she saw there seemed to reassure her. This time she took the initiative, putting one hand at the nape of his neck and drawing his head down to hers. As they kissed gently, Buck marveled at the warmth of her lips. He teased her teeth softly with his tongue, wordlessly requesting access. But she didn't open her mouth, so he withdrew and focused on moving his lips together with hers.
Finally Wilma relinquished her hold and leaned back, anxiously scanning his face. "Was that ok?" she inquired hesitantly.
Buck frowned at her. "Will you stop second-guessing yourself? There are still a few pointers you could pick up, but overall, it was first rate."
"Teach me?" she asked with uncharacteristic shyness.
Buck didn't need a second invitation. He brushed a hand gently over her hair. "Ok, this time when I knock, let me in."
Wilma gazed at him, perplexed, and Buck sighed. They weren't going to get anywhere if he tried to explain. Back to the original approach. He drew towards him again, initiating another kiss. It took a few more brushes with his tongue against her lips for her to understand his desire, but this time she opened her mouth and allowed him entrance. Buck immediately deepened the kiss, and she moaned softly when his tongue ran across the roof of her mouth. He kissed her thoroughly, tasting her silky sweetness, then gently withdrew just enough to let her come to him.
She was a quick learner, her tongue exploring tentatively at first then with increasing confidence. He was amazed at how good it felt, how good she felt against him. Their tongues dueled now, sending little currents of electricity back and forth between them. He ran his thumb up the back of her spine and she shivered with pleasure.
They came up again, gasping for air. Buck leaned his cheek against Wilma's forehead, feeling her trembling where his hands rested against the small of her back. If they didn't stop soon, the control of one or the other of them was going to break.
He didn't want to push her too far in one night. Well, ok, he did, but he wouldn't. She wasn't some teenager, a mass of raging hormones making out in the back seat of a car. She was a grown woman who had been trained in detachment since the moment she'd joined the military. It would take her some time to get used to being so close to someone, emotionally and physically. Especially since, judging by her responses tonight, he guessed she'd missed the whole 'making out' phase of life entirely.
With an effort, Buck took a deep breath and released her, ignoring her murmur of protest. As he drew back he saw the same look on her face as he had seen nearly a year ago, in the hanger at New Chicago before he left for the wormhole that would take him to Pendar. The bereft look that told him – although she would never say it aloud - that she didn't want him to leave her, that she was missing him already.
Buck sighed to himself. Even then he had seen the effect he was having on her, knew she could have the same effect on him. Unlike the women whom had he dated casually in his free time from the Directorate, he knew Wilma could never be a means to temporarily forget how much he missed his own world. Even if she could have accepted such an inconsequential role in his life, he couldn't have. She was too much his equal, and he admired and respected her far too much. A relationship with Wilma, he knew, would be all or nothing. So he fought the attraction, blocked it from his mind, stuck it in a box in his heart labeled 'ignore me'.
The past year, however, had altered his longing for his own time. He had loyal friends aboard the Searcher, good colleagues and a strong sense of purpose in their mission to find the lost tribes of Earth. And now that he knew what had transpired in his life over those last few months before his 500 year nap, he felt the powerful hold of the past loosening its grip on him. It was time to turn his full attention to the present, and to the possibilities for the future. Starting with the exquisite woman standing in front of him. Now remember, he told himself. Take it slow.
"We should get back," he whispered huskily. "They're going to miss us."
Wilma nodded slightly, reluctantly, and dropped her hands to her sides.
"More. Soon," Buck told her, hoping she wasn't taking this as yet another rejection. He could still feel desire plucking at him, and saw the need he knew must be in his eyes mirrored in hers. "Promise."
He took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers, then led her back downstairs to the ballroom. She was silent the entire way, and he stole a quick glance at her but the contentment he read in her face reassured him. At the entrance to the ballroom they stopped, Buck noting that the event seemed to be finally winding down.
He tightened his grip on her hand and then released it. "Remember," he said with a fleeting grin, trying to lighten the mood, "Practice makes perfect."
Wilma smiled at him, slowly, provocatively, and Buck almost forgot his resolve. Almost. Tomorrow, he promised himself. We'll revisit this tomorrow.
It was late on the evening of her thirty-first birthday and Wilma sat in Dr. Goodfellow's lab, helping him repair Twiki's damaged torso unit. A scheduled meeting in a spaceport bar the previous week had turned into a firefight, and Twiki had been caught in the crossfire.
Per 25th century Earth military custom Wilma had been relieved of her duties for the day, but after the traditional dinner salute from her friends and colleagues she found herself with little to keep her occupied. She missed Buck. He and Hawk were invest-igating some unusual seismic disturbances on the far side of the unnamed planet the Searcher was currently orbiting, and weren't due back until tomorrow, ship's time. Dr. Goodfellow had been scheduled to go with them, but Buck had bargained with him to stay and work on Twiki while the two younger men made a preliminary assessment. It was probably a good thing, Wilma decided, since the damage to Twiki's motor functions seemed to be more extensive than they'd previously thought.
"Ah, here's the problem," Dr. Goodfellow's voice broke into her thoughts. He pointed through the mass of circuitry leaking from the quad's chest with a probe. "The primary drive unit has been destroyed. See, here…"
Wilma nodded. "Yes, you're right, Doctor." Gingerly she fished the scorched drive unit out of Twiki's chest cavity, easing it away from the tangle of wiring.
"Well, that should be simple enough to replace. I believe I have a spare around here somewhere." He nodded in satisfaction and pottered off into the depths of the lab.
Wilma stretched in the silence, then jumped as her communicator activated. "Yes, Colonel Deering."
"Wilma, this is Buck," his voice came from what sounded like a very long distance.
"Buck, what is it?" she asked, surprised. He must be calling her direct from the planet.
"I can barely hear you," Buck said. "Listen, I'm on my way back to the Searcher. I need to talk to the Admiral for a minute, then meet me in my quarters at 2100 hours, ok?"
Wilma tried unsuccessfully to keep a grin from stealing across her face. "Buck, you know you're not supposed to use the sub-space communicator to contact individual officers," she scolded, though Buck doubtless knew her heart wasn't in it.
He just laughed. "See you later, Wilma. Be sure to dress – " The rest of the sentence drowned in static as the connection between them was lost.
Wilma sat back on the chair, her mind busily attempting to puzzle out his meaning. Dress what? Dress casual, dress formal, dress up, dress uniform? She checked the time. 1930 hours. At least she had a little while to decide. A warm glow of anticipation flaring in her chest, she called a farewell to Dr. Goodfellow and headed for her quarters.
Wilma stood outside Buck's door at precisely 2100 hours. She smoothed her dress nervously. In the end she had decided on dressing up, on the grounds that occasions when she could do so in a non-military context rarely presented themselves. Last year before they left New Chicago she had picked up a simple light blue dress that matched her eyes and accentuated her figure, and had brought it along just in case she might need it. Now she was very glad she had.
She took a deep breath, then raised her chin and pressed the keypad to announce her presence.
After a moment the door opened and Buck stood in the entrance, about to usher her in. Catching sight of her in the corridor, his jaw went slack. Instead of greeting her, his eyes traveled over her from head to foot, then slowly back again. Wilma colored, feeling self-conscious.
"You look fabulous!" Buck exclaimed.
This time she blushed in earnest, feeling a sudden jolt in her solar plexus. "Do you like it?"
"It's outstanding," he assured her, his voice clearly admiring.
"Thank you," she said softly, adding, "You look very nice yourself."
And he did. He was dressed in black boots, white leggings and a sleeveless black shirt she hadn't seen before, one that showed off his chiseled arms to perfection.
"Thanks. Uh, come on in."
Wilma ducked her head and entered, clasping her hands in front of her. She told herself there was nothing to be nervous about, but her heart was beating a shade faster than normal. As far as she knew the Admiral hadn't cancelled Buck's mission, and yet he had come back nearly twelve hours early. "Is everything all right down on the planet?" she inquired, hoping the question sounded innocent.
Buck shrugged. "Yeah, nothing much going on down there the after that last set of earthquakes. Hawk offered to take the rest of the measurements tonight, so…" He spread his hands. "I'll go pick him up in the morning."
Wilma bit her lip. She'd been right. He'd arranged to come back to spend the last few hours of her birthday with her. And it must have been with the Admiral's blessing. She felt a growing tightness in her chest – the earlier glow of anticipation transmuting into a painful surge of hope - and warned herself not to read too much into things.
Buck was at the food dispenser, pulling two dishes out of a concealed rack. "You've had dinner, I assume. Sorry I missed it."
"I know. It's alright, really," she said, not wanting him to feel badly about it. It was the nature of their jobs. "Oh, Buck – Dr. Goodfellow figured out the problem with Twiki's motor functions. He needs to replace the primary drive unit and some of the wiring, but it looks like he'll be, ah, "a-ok" again in no time."
"That's great, Wilma, thanks," Buck replied over his shoulder, as he took something out of a small container and carefully placed a portion on each dish.
The motion caught her attention. "Buck, is that what I think it is?"
He turned and held out the plates so she could see for herself. It was! A cluster of tiny orange galaxia berries, a mouth-watering delicacy from the Remmix colonies in the 7th sector. She'd fallen in love with them on Searcher's brief stopover there just after they had first left Earth, but had no idea that Buck even remembered.
"Wherever did you find them?" she asked, astonished. "I thought they only grew on the Remmix terraworlds."
"Uh huh. I picked up a few grams from Remmix3601."
"How on earth did you manage that?" she gaped at him. They hadn't been anywhere near Remmix3601 in months.
Buck grinned, thoroughly enjoying himself. "Simple - I talked to Lt. Wainwright, whose brother is stationed at Metebelis Four, who called up a friend of his on Theta Station, who sent a message to an old flight school buddy whose cousin is a cargo delivery coordinator in the 7th sector. She arranged for a special pickup from Remmix that Hawk and I met at the Sextia Fabis Spaceport and voila – here we are."
"Simple," Wilma echoed faintly. He'd gone to an absolutely enormous amount of trouble over this. For her.
Buck set down the dish that contained by far the largest portion on the table in front of her, then sat at the place across. "Eat."
Wilma nodded and took her seat. She ate slowly and deliberately, savoring the flavors and textures of each bite. The berries were every bit as delicious as she remembered, and she couldn't suppress a delighted smile at Buck's thoughtful, and at the same time characteristically outrageous, gesture.
"You look like the cat that ate the cream," Buck commented, watching her. His plate was already clean.
She raised the last berry to her lips. "If that means I'm enjoying myself to the utmost, then you'd be correct. Buck – thank you."
He smiled. "You're very welcome."
They sat in companionable silence for a few moments, and then Buck waved her over to the couch. He pulled two glasses and a bottle of vinol down from a wall cube and came over to join her, settling beside her with their knees nearly touching. He poured out and handed her a glass, raising the other in a salute.
"A toast," he proposed, "to the most beautiful, courageous, caring, sexy, remarkable woman I know. Here's to year thirty one."
They clinked glasses and Wilma brought hers quickly to her lips, turning her head a little to hide the sudden pricking of tears at the corners of her eyes. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. Not even Aram Duvoe, who once upon a time had told her some very pretty things. She clamped down hard on her suddenly volatile emotions, bringing them under control with an effort.
When she was certain she was back in command she drained her glass and set it on the table. Then she leaned back on the couch and took Buck's hand in hers, loving the fact that she could. She entwined her fingers with his larger ones and waited patiently for him to finish his own drink.
This was the part of the evening she was looking forward to the most. It had become a ritual with the two of them, ever since they had returned to the Searcher three weeks ago following their trip to Delithian space.
That next night, after their respective shifts were over, Buck appeared at her cabin with a bottle of vinol and two glasses. They'd had a drink together and then he'd shared a story with her, about the first time he'd ever flown an atmospheric mission. He told her of the mixture of trepidation and anticipation that he'd felt at takeoff, then the wonder and exhilaration of being untethered from the Earth, and the wistful sadness at having to finally return to the ground.
She remembered being so touched. Buck had never opened up to her before about his life in the 20th century, not like that. Sayings, yes, humorous anecdotes, tales about certain events or people, but not specific episodes from his life, and never the emotions behind them.
Not to be outdone by his gift she shared a story of her own. A visit to alpha.23991, what had once been known as the horsehead nebula, on a scientific exploration mission back when she was still a cadet. She tried haltingly to describe how astounded she'd been by the incredible beauty of the nebula when seen from close range, by the sheer scale of the gaseous clouds, and was caught completely off guard when Buck leaned over and gently kissed her.
"Practice, remember?" he asked, though she didn't need reminding.
From then on Buck would spend an hour or two in her quarters each night, except for the times that one or both of them was away on a mission. Some nights they just talked, sharing their pasts, some nights they also "practiced." Some nights they didn't talk at all.
"Penny for your thoughts," Buck said, yanking her mind back to the present.
"Sorry," she smiled. "I was just thinking…"
"Yeah, me too," Buck said, an odd look of hesitation in his eyes. Then he seemed to shake it off, slapping his hand lightly on one knee. He stood abruptly and went to the wall storage unit, keyed in his code, and retrieved a small box from the recesses.
Before Wilma could formulate a question he was back on the couch, pressing the box gently into her hands. He cleared his throat, a sudden shy, boyish look in his eyes. "I know it's no longer a custom to give people gifts on their birthday, but I – wanted you to have this."
Wilma slowly opened the box, wondering. Nestled on a cloth inside was a thin gold necklace with a round diamond pendant. From the workmanship she immediately identified it as pre-holocaust. She frowned. All pre-holocaust items were considered artifacts by the Terran Federation and were not permitted to be bought or sold. That meant - she caught her breath sharply. She looked at Buck, disbelieving.
He nodded. "All 20th century astronauts were allowed to bring a few personal items with them on their missions. One of the things I brought was this. It belonged to my mother, and her mother before that. At a guess I'd say it's nearly six hundred years old."
Wilma picked up the necklace with shaking hands. It was beautiful, perfect. "Buck, I can't – "
"Sssh." Buck slipped the necklace from her grasp and carefully placed it around her neck, clasping it at the back.
"There," he said, sitting back with a look of satisfaction.
Wilma touched the stone at her neck, amazed. To give her something that must mean so much to him…it moved her beyond words. Gratitude flooded her, mingled with more powerful emotions that she didn't dare to name. She leaned forward, capturing his lips with hers. She kissed him deeply and lovingly, trying as best she could to wordlessly convey how honored she felt, how precious his gift was and at the same time how precious he was to her. She held back only the depth of her longing and the intensity of her love. Buck had already given her so much – she respected him far too highly to ask for more. She promised herself she wouldn't rush him into anything he might later regret.
She let his lips go reluctantly and sat back. Asserting all the control she could muster, she forced herself to release her hold on his arms and settle her hands in her lap. "I – I should go. It's getting late and – I know you have an early day tomorrow."
Buck lips twitched as he nodded. "Just one more thing, then," he said with a look that she couldn't fathom. He took her hand gently and raised it to his lips, the old-fashioned gesture touching her as much as anything that had come before. Reaching to brush a stray hair from her face he whispered, "I love you, Wilma Deering."
The simple admission shook Wilma to her core. Her breath caught. Her heart gave a painful lurch and then began to pound, sending her pulse racing. She looked deeply into his eyes – saw love shining there, and knew that it was true. Her focus wavered as tears threatened to overwhelm her, then, as she blinked hard, snapped back into sharp clarity.
Once more she found his lips with hers. This time she held nothing back, kissing him with all the passion that coursed through her body. He moved closer, one hand brushing her cheek then trailing down her neck. She leaned into the touch and closed her eyes, then gasped as he began to place small kisses along her jaw and throat. She felt his fingers shift the fabric of the dress off her shoulder and shuddered as his lips brushed the exposed skin. A slow burn of desire licked its way up her gut as his fingers explored her, igniting pleasure with each touch.
They kissed now with more urgency. Buck shifted to one side and leaned backward, pressing himself onto the pillows and pulling her down on top of him. Of its own volition Wilma's hand moved to Buck's waist, slipping under his shirt and rubbing itself across the flat of his stomach. She felt his muscles clench beneath her palm and pressed forward even more, erasing the distance between them. The urge to mould her body to his was almost painful in its intensity.
Buck's hands slid down her back and over her buttocks, sending a ripple of desire rocketing through her. She pressed hot kisses into his chest, then paused as his hands suddenly stilled. Wilma tore her eyes away from his skin as he gripped her shoulders and levered her body a little away from his.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he whispered hoarsely, his blue eyes conflicted as rationality and ardor battled for ascendancy.
For the first time Wilma hesitated. Did she? Of course she did. She loved him so much she ached with it inside. But - if she went through with this, this level of intimacy she'd never shared with another soul - she would essentially be giving him her heart with both hands. If anything ever happened between them, he could destroy her with a word, a look. The thought of being that vulnerable to anyone was terrifying.
And yet – Buck wasn't just anyone. He was the most honorable, caring, magnificent man she'd ever known. She trusted him in every way. Her faith in him was unshakable, absolute. Not taking her eyes from his, she reached down and slowly slipped her dress down off her shoulders. Then she leaned forward and took his head in both hands, placing an almost chaste kiss on his lips.
His eyes lit with amusement and desire, and he yanked his shirt over his head. Her heart pounding in anticipation, Wilma drank in the sight of his muscular torso before he leaned forward and began to quickly unclasp the last stays of her dress. They kicked off their respective boots, and then she shyly helped him off with his trousers. Lost in a haze of mutual passion, they somehow managed to make it across the room to the bed and fall into it, limbs intertwined.
They began to move together, exploring each other eagerly. Wilma had thought she would be more hesitant, less certain about relinquishing control and letting emotions that were so powerful they swamped all reason carry her away. She'd worried that her detachment and inexperience would kill the moment between them. Instead she found that the moment went on and on and welcomed it, trusting Buck's experience to be her guide.
As their intimacy grew even thought became too much, and she abandoned herself to an ardent, sensuous world of taste and touch.
Wilma woke from a deep and restful sleep, finding herself nestled against Buck's side with one arm thrown over his chest. Her body told her it was morning, the ingrained habits of a lifetime pulling her into the day in anticipation of her duties. Buck stirred beside her and suddenly the events of the previous night crashed back into her mind. To her amazement she felt her pulse begin to race in remembrance.
"Morning," he greeted her, his hazel eyes soft.
"Good morning," she replied with a cozy smile.
Buck propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at her, tracing his fingers over her jaw. She leaned into the caress and placed a kiss on his palm. Gently he pulled her up into his arms, one hand cradling her shoulders and the other finding her left hand, bringing it to his lips and then lowering it to his stomach and holding it here, his thumb rubbing lightly over her fingers.
A look of infinite tenderness in his eyes stole her breath. She had never felt as cherished, as special, as she did right now. She closed her eyes and kissed his chest, hearing his heart beating strong and steady. Twining her fingers in his hair, she brought her head down and met his lips with her own, drinking in the tangy taste that was uniquely his.
She hadn't said it yet, but she wanted to, needed to. "I love you, Buck Rogers," she whispered huskily, tears shining in her eyes.
Buck smiled down at her, a feeling of profound contentment creeping over him. These last few weeks he'd barely been able to restrain himself from taking their relationship forward, but he'd forced himself to wait, wanting to make absolutely sure she was ready. He'd never begun to guess the intensity of her passion, nor foreseen how his love for her was coming to eclipse everything else in his life.
"I love you too," he replied, stroking her shoulder where she lay against him. "More than I ever thought possible."
Wilma squeezed her eyes shut, joy welling in her heart. Surely it wasn't possible to be so happy. She settled into Buck's arms, letting her eyes drift closed, but found she couldn't relax. There was one thing that was troubling her. Something she had to know. She lifted her head to look into his eyes. "Buck - did you really mean what you said, before?"
He continued stroking her shoulder. "What?"
Buck scratched his head, pretending to think it over. "Well, let's see." He tilted her chin up and kissed her softly. "Oh, yeah," he said as their lips parted. "Definitely sexy."
She smiled a little against his chest, still not quite able to believe him. "Remind me to thank Hawk when I see him later today," she said contentedly.
"Oh, believe me, I will."