Ardala sat on the edge of the bed pensively. Buck slowly crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed beside her.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked.
She paused for a moment before nodding once. "Remember when I told you that I had run every scenario in my head about the conclusion of this hunt?"
She hesitated again, then lowered her head and eyes. "I didn't."
Buck placed his arm around her shoulders. "I know it's hard, killing your own father."
She looked up into Buck's eyes. "I had a choice, you know? It was either him… or you. Something inside my head and inside my heart told me what to do."
"I'm sorry you have to live with the guilt of killing your father… but inside I'm really glad you chose me."
"Two weeks ago I don't know if I would have."
Buck nodded. "You have definitely changed in the past week, Princess." She looked at him. "Sorry; Empress!"
"I think I've grown up," she admitted.
Buck grinned slightly. "I like it!"
"Really?" she said hopefully.
"Yeah. I like what you've become. I truly believe you will become an excellent queen, or empress, or whatever they call you."
She shook her head. "I don't know. I still need help; a lot of help. I want you to stay with me, Buck. I need you to stay with me."
"Is that an order from the empress?"
She shook her head again. "No. It's… a request from someone who loves you."
Buck shrugged. "I don't know if I'm cut out to be royalty."
"You don't have to be royalty," she offered. "You can stay how you are right now. I just… need you by my side. I need your wisdom, your judgment, your sense of justice, your guidance,…"
"My body," Buck added.
Ardala grinned like a school girl. "Yes, there's that too!"
"I don't know. All that palace living, royal balls, dealing with nobles…. I might lose my boyish figure."
Ardala lowered her eyes and turned partially away. "Buck," she said so softly that he almost didn't hear. "I…please tell me something."
"What?" he asked in the same low hush.
She turned to look deeply into his eyes. A single teardrop formed in her eye and dropped onto her cheek. "What do I have to do to put a hole in that wall of yours?"
Gently Buck raised his hand to remove the tear as another one formed. He grinned at her sincerely. "Believe it or not… you already have."
Her face brightened. "Really?"
He tried to look away but she held his face with her hand. "Yeah. I told you I liked the change I've seen in you. You no longer are the spoiled little princess who is determined to get her way. Now you are a woman who knows what she wants… and is willing to fight for it."
"And you like that?"
He nodded, grinned. "Having a beautiful woman fighting for my life and affections? Who wouldn't appreciate that?"
"It's not an act."
"I know. But I don't know if I'm ready to settle down, yet."
"So you're not going to stay with me." It was not a question.
He shook his head. "Sorry. I can't. At least not yet."
She looked up hopefully. "Well that sounds more promising than usual!"
"Yeah, I guess it does."
"So what will you do?"
"I don't know. I've got things to take care of before I can even think about settling down."
Ardala sighed heavily. "Running away again?"
Buck hesitated to think for a moment. "No, I don't think so. Not this time. Although you may have been right back on Remian. I do have a lot of memories that haunt me when I let them."
Ardala grinned seductively. "We can make a lot of new memories to help with that?"
Buck chuckled. "Yes, we could. Don't get me wrong, Princess, uh I mean Empress. The thought of… making memories with you is definitely intriguing. But I'm just not ready yet. I met a wise man once who gave me a piece of advice. He told me that I carry with me a great deal of sorrow. He said that I carry with me unfairly placed blame for my past, and if I don't deal with it somehow, it'll eat me up inside."
"That bartender on Remian?"
Buck's eyes widened. "How'd you know?"
She smiled. "I'm not as stupid or naïve as you think I am. I knew you two were talking about some heavy duty stuff. What else did he say?"
"He said life is short. He said if I don't deal with my self-placed blame, it'll eat me up and make me a bitter old man who loses everything."
"Did he say anything about me?"
Buck cocked his head to one side. "No, I don't think so."
She smirked. "You liar."
"Okay, maybe we mentioned you once or twice."
"Did he tell you that I would be willing to give up my throne for you?"
Buck was taken aback. "Do you have super hearing or what?"
She didn't smile. "I would, you know."
"Give up my throne… for you. I would give up everything just to be with you, Buck. We could find a quiet little planet, live on an island somewhere a million miles away from everything and everyone. Just you and me and the stars above us."
"As tempting as that sounds, I could never ask you to give up the throne of Draconia for me."
"You wouldn't have to ask."
"Yeah, I know. But I've seen who the next in line is after you. I really don't want to see your sister on the throne."
Ardala nodded knowingly. "Yes, you are right. Anderia is too much like my father. I just can't stand seeing you go. Will you at least come to my coronation?"
"It'll take about a month to organize. I'd really love to have you there by my side, if just for the day."
Buck smiled, nodded. "I wouldn't miss it for the universe."
Ardala smiled broadly. "Did your wise man say how long it would take for you to find yourself?"
Buck shook his head.
"Just promise me one thing."
She paused for a moment. "Don't take too long. Remember what I told you earlier. When I become Empress, I have only one year to marry the man of my choice or lose my throne. And you already said you don't want my sister to become empress. And I've already made my choice of men."
"I'll see what I can do."
Buck stood up. "I'd better get going. If I don't leave now, I may never leave."
Ardala quickly stood up. She wrapped her arms around his neck and passionately kissed him. When their lips parted, she smiled.
"I have something to give you before you go."
"As long as it's not a shrinking necklace!"
"No, it's not," she giggled. She went to one of her dressers and opened the top drawer. She pulled out a small box and returned to Buck. She handed the box to him. Buck opened it and smiled as he pulled it out.
"Hey, great!" he said sarcastically. "You gave me a gold watch!"
"This is a subspace communicator," she explained. "This will give you unparalleled access to me anytime you want, day or night. All you have to do is touch this button and start talking. Anytime you need my help… or if you just want to talk, you can use this. And I have one too, so anytime I need help, I can contact you… as long as you have your communicator with you."
Buck immediately placed it on his wrist. "I'll never take it off. Is it waterproof?"
Buck gently kissed Ardala. "Thank you. I better be going."
She nodded sadly. "I know. I'll miss you."
"I'll be back."
He paused a moment before nodding and grinning. "Promise."
He turned to leave. Just as the door opened, he turned around. She waved once. "I love you Buck."
She shook her head. "You just can't bring yourself to say it, can you? Or to admit it to yourself, can you?"
He smiled. "See you around, Empress Ardala."
The door closed. Buck lowered his eyes and head. "No, Princess. I can't admit it to myself just yet. You were right. I… maybe I am just running away."
He started down the hallway when all of a sudden he heard, "Beep-be-de-de-beep."
He turned to see Twiki running toward him. He waited for the droid to catch up before heading toward the hangar.
"Beep-be-de-de-beep: I was afraid you were going to stay."
Buck tapped him on the head. "If I did, you'd stay with me, Little Buddy."
"What do you say we go home?"
"Beep-be-de-de-beep: I call the window seat!"
Buck laughed to himself. "You can have it, Little Buddy." He turned to take one last long look at Ardala's door. "Let's go home."