Leia Organa-Solo nestled contentedly beneath the arm of her bondmate as the Corellian eased their landglider along the road. "I can't get over how rapidly the city is expanding," she sighed, stifling a yawn. "The war's only been over a little less than a year, but our New Republic capital's already booming."
"Yeah, this place'll soon be another massive metropolis," replied Han, a hint of disgust in his tone. The vehicle gave a sudden lurch and he added, "Not that I'll mind seeing some decent streets for a change."
The princess-turned-government official smiled. "You're the one who insisted we live on the edge of civilization. If you hate the roads so much, we could always move into one of the new housing units near the Senate."
"No way," the Corellian answered swiftly. "In another year or so, the capital's going to swallow up all this land as it is. We owe ourselves whatever little privacy we can get, for as long as we can hang onto it. Besides, we're practically newbonders. The Alliance keeps you busy enough. At least while we're out here, we aren't bothered too much after hours."
"It isa long drive, though. Sometimes I wish I was a little closer to town. Being a good hour away from my work--"
"Assures you get the break you need," interrupted Solo stubbornly. "Any closer and it'd be too tempting to stay an extra hour or two at your desk. I know you, Your Highness. You'd work yourself into early old age if you didn't have me to take care of you."
The princess smiled. "Is that so?"
His arm tightened across her shoulders, momentarily squeezing her petite body against his. "Sure as those stars out there, it is." He paused, stroking her upper arm. "It can be a long drive out here sometimes, though," he said huskily.
Sensing her bondmate's romantic mood, Leia teasingly ran her fingers along his thigh. "Getting a place closer to town would mean getting to bed sooner after these late night receptions," she purred seductively.
Pulling his arm from around her, Han grasped her hand firmly. "Stop that. How am I supposed to drive?"
"There's no traffic out here this late," laughed the young woman, "and I have every faith in your piloting skills. Remember, I've seen what you can do with the Falcon."
"Yeah, well, this ain't the Falconand Chewie never distracted me the way you do," defended the Corellian, grinning. "I'm onto your tricks, lady. We aren't moving, so just hold those naughty thoughts of yours until we get home."
"Can I help it if you're so sexy when you're dressed up?" laughed Leia, sitting upright. "I know you hate these formal receptions, but you always look so handsome. It's not my fault I get excited before we get home."
"You've had a little too much Nusian wine. I warned you that stuff is potent. We're almost there. Just take a deep breath and keep telling yourself how good-looking I am."
A few moments later Solo pulled to a stop in front of the small house he shared with the princess on the outskirts of the capital. The little cottage sat at the end of a tree-lined lane, surrounded by a small manicured lawn and a low stone wall. A flower garden off the back patio wafted sweet perfume into the gentle night breeze. Beyond the residence stretched the woods that, several miles away, climbed the sides of Mt. Juros. The next nearest habitation was the one they'd passed ten minutes earlier; it belonged to a wealthy jeweler they'd never met.
Despite her weak protests about the long drive and the distance from her work, Han knew that Leia adored their getaway love nest. Its very isolation gave the overworked princess the respite she needed to replenish her energy and refresh her spirit with the beauty of nature she loved so well. Though few would have guessed it, the Corellian also found a sense of peace and belonging in this idyllic setting, not a little due to the joy he'd found in bonding with this remarkable woman. If it was selfish to seek time alone with her by living so far from the new government's needs for her, then so be it. He'd long ago decided that they were entitled to private lives, too.
As soon as the landglider turned onto the white graveled drive leading to the cottage, Solo felt the remaining arguments drain from Leia. Her body relaxed as she inhaled the fragrance of her night-blooming starblossoms and comet-glows. The soft yellow illumination from the cottage windows, combined with the pale white light of the full moon overhead, cast a dreamy serenity over her lovely face.
Impulsively, Han pulled her to him, happily kissing her. "We're home, sweetheart," he whispered needlessly. "Now, what was that you were saying about bed?"
Leia ran her hand along his thigh once more. "Let's get inside and I'll show you, flyboy," she promised breathlessly before sliding across the seat to the vehicle's passenger door.
The Corellian practically leaped from his seat behind the landglider's controls, racing around the front of the sleek little transport. Playing the gallant suitor, he pulled open the princess' door and reached for her hand like a polished court footman. She daintily accepted, placing her fingers on his and gathering the full skirt of her gown before standing. Solo bowed dramatically when she emerged.
"Thank you, my good sir," Leia smiled haughtily. "I may get you trained properly yet."
"Think so?" grinned Han, standing erect. He grabbed her by the waist, welding her body to his as he hungrily kissed her.
Pulling free to catch her breath, Leia laughed, "Then again, I think I like you just the way you are." Taking his hand, she led him the short distance to the door of the cottage. As she fumbled for the lock card to open it, a sudden chill coursed along her shoulders. Turning quickly, she pushed her bondmate away from her with all her strength. "Look out!"
The starlit night exploded with blaster fire as a shot glanced past Solo's arm, shattering the glass of the cottage door. Han pulled Leia down, scrambling for the safety of the landglider. The shot had come from the stone wall opposite them and the vehicle afforded the only readily available barricade. Pulling the princess behind him, the Corellian hastily crawled forward, ignoring the burning pain along his upper arm. Easing the 'glider's door open, he retrieved his blaster from the vehicle's storage box, where he always placed it when not allowed to wear it to fancy receptions. Leia had chided him for his seeming dependence on the weapon, but she was grateful for his foresight now as she huddled against the cool metal side of the landglider.
Another two shots sprayed past, striking only the thick groundcover behind them. A third blast rocked the 'glider as it impacted on the driver's side, but the muzzle flash pinpointed the whereabouts of the shooter to Solo's practiced eye.
"Stay down," ordered Han sternly, shedding his formal jacket to free his movements.
Rising swiftly, he began pouring shot after shot in the direction of the would-be assassin. Firing, he ran, crouching, around the vehicle and across the lawn. In the full moon's light, he saw a dark figure retreat deeper into the trees, driven back by his attack. As he ran, his mind unconsciously registered certain facts: The man was alone; he was not good enough to be a hired professional; he had not expected to miss; and, he was startled and panicked to find an armed adversary on his tail. This knowledge fanned the flames of fury burning in the Corellian.
Leaping over the low wall, Solo pursued the shooter with relentless determination. As Han's instincts took over, the stinging pain in his arm was forgotten. Moving silently from tree to tree, he searched for his target among the shadows. A blaster bolt chipped the coarse bark of the tree in front of him, sending flakes of the rough wood into his cheek. He fired blindly at the source during the seconds it took him to blink away the near miss.
The thudding sound of a body striking the leafy ground rang in Solo's ears. Cautiously, he leaned around the sheltering tree's broad trunk to peer ahead. There, sprawled face down a few yards to his right, lay a man's slight body. His weapon had slipped from his grasp, landing several inches beyond his open-handed reach. Racing forward, the Corellian kept his own blaster aimed at the intruder's head. Kicking the man's weapon well out of range, Solo suddenly whirled at the approaching sounds of someone else.
"Han?" Leia's anxious voice sounded.
Retraining his blaster at the unmoving figure on the ground, Solo called, "Over here."
"Are you alright?" panted the princess moments later when she reached his side.
He nodded, using the toe of his boot to roll the unconscious shooter onto his back. "Crite!" exclaimed the Corellian, stooping beside the fallen figure. "He's just a kid."
"Is he dead?" asked the young woman softly.
Quickly glancing over the youth's body, Solo shook his head. "He'll survive. Go call for emergency med-transport. I'll get him back to the road where they can pick him up."
"Be careful," warned Leia before racing back the way she'd come.
No sooner had she disappeared than the boy assassin groaned. Trying to sit up, he found Han's hand pressing flat against his chest. "Easy," threatened the Corellian, his blaster aimed squarely between the youth's dark eyes. "You aren't hurt that bad, but you're gonna need medical care. Why'd you try to kill Leia?"
The boy's eyes narrowed as he glared up at his captor.
"I asked you a question," hissed Solo angrily. "Why'd you try to kill Her Highness? Answer me or you can lay here and bleed to death, for all I care."
The youth groaned again as he strained weakly against the older man's superior strength. Collapsing back onto the ground, his chin jutted forth furiously before he grit his teeth against a fresh wave of pain and nausea. Solo knew the boy's side had to feel like a raging inferno and his head surely throbbed. Still, the youth made one final effort to escape as he kicked out at Han's legs.
"Have it your way, junior," sneered the Corellian, sidestepping the boy's feeble attempt. With a hard punch to the youth's jaw, Solo knocked the boy back into unconsciousness.
Tucking his weapon into the waistband of his ruined formal trousers, Han hoisted the wounded male over his shoulder. He wasn't particularly worried about being gentle as he carried the boy's unresisting body back to the main road. Leia was waiting when he finally got there.
Dropping the limp form to the paved surface, Solo began to feel the dull ache return to his arm. Daring to take his eyes off the shooter, he glanced at his torn shirt sleeve. The skin beneath it was raw and reddened from the blaster shot that had grazed him. Had Leia not pushed him aside, he knew he would not be standing there now.
Looking at his soiled and disheveled bondmate, her immaculately coifed hair now dangling loose, he asked, "What made you--?"
Before he could finish the question, the princess shrugged. "I felt him." She thoughtfully paused a second, then said, "Well, not him, but something.I guess it was the Force. I just suddenly knew you were in danger." She shuddered involuntarily.
"Me?" gaped the Corellian. He shook his head. "No, sweetheart. He only wanted me out of the way. You were his real target. I'd lay odds on that." He stepped closer to put his arm around her, holding his blaster in his other hand, once more aimed at the innocent-looking shooter.
"He's only a boy," observed the princess sadly. "Why would he want to kill either of us?"
"He wouldn't say," replied Han.
The roar of the medical transport ship halted any further conversation between the two as it appeared over the treetops. Settling like some gigantic mutant insect on the roadway, the transport's wide side door slid open. Two white-coated med techs jumped to the ground.
Carrying a flat hoverlift between them, the male and female team hurried to the fallen youth. With professional skill, they assessed his injuries and carefully placed him on the lift. While the female tech guided the floating hover lift and their patient back to the med-ship, the male turned to Solo.
"You're wounded," he noticed. "That needs looking after. You're welcome to ride with us. Security will need a report from you anyway."
"No, thanks. I'll come into the med-center on my own," replied the Corellian. "Just keep that kid alive. I've got some questions of my own for him."
"I'll tell emergency to expect you. Don't wait too long. You don't want an infection," advised the tech before running to board the waiting ship.
"I'll drive," announced Leia once the departing medical transport had lifted off. Her tone said she would brook no argument. "I didn't even see your arm. I'm sorry. Does it hurt much?"
"It's not bad," denied Han. "There wasn't a lot of time to notice it anyway."
As they walked back to their landglider, the princess looked closer at her bondmate. "Your cheek is bleeding too, you know."
"He clipped a tree I was behind," informed Solo casually. "Got a little close, I guess."
"Yes. I guess," sighed Leia. Looking at the charred driver's side of their vehicle, she added, "We're lucky he wasn't a better shot. I'll have to get in on your side. The metal's fused on this one."
"I can drive," the Corellian started.
"No, you're not," Leia scolded. Pushing past him, she slid behind the controls. "Now, get in and shut up."
Sinking into the passenger's seat, Han joked, "Is that any way to speak to a wounded man, Your Highness?" Yet now that the adrenaline rush of the battle was fading, his arm and cheek were beginning to hurt with mounting intensity. He closed his eyes and gratefully accepted the good fortune that was his as Leia took charge.
The princess made the usual hour-long drive in just over three-quarters of the time, taking advantage of the deserted road before entering the city itself. Even there, the lateness of the hour provided nearly abandoned streets and allowed Leia unaccustomed speed. She skidded to a stop in front of the med-center's emergency entrance.
"I'm sure glad we made it," Han panted melodramatically. "My heart couldn't have taken much more of your driving, sweetheart. Remind me to never let you pilot the Falcon."
In spite of his jesting quips, the Corellian was glad to have arrived. The stinging needles in his face told him some scraps of bark were still embedded in his cheek, and his arm had turned into a leaden weight of throbbing agony. Gritting his teeth, he climbed laboriously from the vehicle. Sweat popped along his brow, adding its salty edge to the pain of his facial cuts. He didn't protest when Leia ran to his side, assisting his walk into the med-center.
Three hours later, the Corellian was his old self again as he swore colorfully at the physician standing beside his bed. Leia smiled with relief as she listened to her bondmate threaten his doctor. Outside the room, Luke Skywalker also smiled. Han would be fine.
"Are you finished?" asked the princess sweetly, when Solo paused to draw breath. "Rant all you like, Han. You're going to do as Dr. Carou says. If she wants you to spend the next day and night here for observation, then you will. I have to go to work in a few hours anyway. I'll spend tonight at Luke's. He won't mind."
Her statement deflated some of the Corellian's bluster. "You're going to work? After all this? Dressed like that?"
Leia still wore her once elegant evening gown, but it was now stained with dirt and her bondmate's blood. The hem was torn from her race through the trees, and one sleeve was ripped from elbow to wrist. Her hair hung in loose strands and her face was streaked with dust.
"I can wash up in my office. I keep a change of clothes there," the princess replied flatly. "I have to attend to a couple of matters on my desk that shouldn't wait any longer. Then Security wants me to come in and make my report. I should be done in time to get back here and have evenmeal with you, ifyou're a good boy. Now, quit acting like a spoiled brat and do as the doctor says." Kissing the top of his head, she winked at the physician and quickly left the room.
"I'll have someone come move you to your room in a moment, Captain Solo," Dr. Carou said before following Leia, leaving a temporarily speechless Corellian behind.
In the corridor outside Han's emergency cube, the female physician met the princess and Luke. "Will you come with me, please?" she asked, leading the siblings around a corner to an empty exam room. Closing the door after them, Dr. Carou faced Leia and the Jedi. "Captain Solo's injuries are slight, but he does need to rest and let the bacta-wrap on his arm work. I've ordered a mild sedative be administered as soon as he's settled upstairs."
"Thank you," Leia said sincerely.
"Did you treat the man who shot Han?" asked Luke.
"No, that was Dr. Vaktor, but I did speak with him briefly about the boy. Security has an officer in with him now, but I'm sure Dr. Vaktor would be willing to discuss anything about the case with you, Jedi Skywalker. He should still be in his office."
"Was there anything else you needed to tell me about Han?" questioned the princess as Luke turned to go in search of the shooter's physician.
"No. I just didn't want you to worry needlessly," replied Dr. Carou, brushing her short grey hair behind her ear.
"I appreciate everything you're doing for us," Leia graciously told the older woman. "I promise I'll get Han out of here as soon as you release him and not a moment sooner."
Dr. Carou smiled impishly. "I'm certain that by tomorrow morning, Captain Solo--and the entire med-center staff--will be ready."
They stepped out of the exam room together, the physician returning to her duties after directing Luke to Dr. Vaktor's in-center office. Leia walked beside her brother.
"Why do you want to see the physician treating that boy?" the princess asked tiredly. "Han said he wasn't fatally wounded."
"I know," answered Skywalker slowly. "I've just got a few questions. I have a funny feeling about all this, but I can't nail it down. Maybe the doctor can help. You said you sensed Han was in danger and that's why you shoved him aside. Didn't you feel any danger for yourself?"
Leia frowned, trying to remember the odd sensation that had so unexpectedly seized her. "No, not really. It's hard to describe because I've never felt anything that strongly before. It was sudden and powerful and I just knew that if I didn't act quickly Han would be hurt. I just reacted without a lot of thought."
"Good thing for Han you did," Luke said truthfully. "Your Force senses aren't developed enough. I keep telling you that, but in this case, they were good enough. Still," he hesitated thoughtfully, "you should have felt your own risk."
They reached the door to Dr. Vaktor's office and Skywalker knocked. From inside, they heard a muffled voice say "Come in." Opening the door, the Jedi let Leia enter first. Inside, they found two walls lined with medical vid-tapes, two chairs, a battered desk equipped with a vid-tape screen, and Dr. Vaktor. He was a male Tilian, with pale green scales and slanted orange eyes. Rising gracefully to greet them, he extended his two-fingered hand.
Luke accepted the handshake, saying, "Dr. Vaktor, I'm--"
"You need no introduction, Jedi Skywalker, nor do you, Your Highness," interrupted the Tilian male with his race's peculiar sighing speech that bordered on a soft hissing whisper. "What can I do for you?" he asked, resuming his seat and waving for the twins to sit down.
"Dr. Carou told us you were treating the man who tried to kill Leia and Captain Solo," answered Luke. "I'd be grateful if you could tell me whatever you can about him."
"I see no reason why I shouldn't," the physician said after a moment of thought. "Security has placed him under arrest and he will face charges once his wounds have healed. Yes, what did you wish to know?"
"Do you know his name yet?" asked Leia. "Or why he wanted to kill us?"
"He had no identification on him, only a curious-looking necklace which Security has allowed him to keep. He hasn't spoken, in fact, except to demand the necklace. He is, by all physical characteristics and my own judgment, only a boy, perhaps sixteen, seventeen years old. As to why he attempted to harm you or Captain Solo, I'm afraid only he knows."
"How serious are his wounds?" queried the Jedi.
"Not very. He suffered a blaster bolt entry on his left side, but it missed all vital organs. His left leg was also hit, but again, not seriously. He has a mild concussion and a contusion to his jaw area, but he is young and healthy. We'll be releasing him to Security in a matter of days."
"Could he have been drunk or taking drugs?" wondered the princess aloud.
Dr. Vaktor shook his hairless head. "There was no evidence of any substances found during his examination. Security asked the same question. If you're looking in that direction for a clue to his attack, I'm afraid it's a dead end."
"Thank you, Doctor," Luke said, rising to his feet. "We appreciate your time."
"If I can help in the future, don't hesitate to ask," the Tilian man responded.
"I won't," smiled the Jedi, guiding his sister into the hall. Closing the door, he patted her shoulder. "You need some rest. We've done all we can here for now. You can stay with me."
Unable to hide her fatigue, Leia nodded. "I could stand a couple hours of sleep. Thanks, Luke."
"Don't worry," he assured her as they left the med-center. "We'll figure this thing out."
Later that afternoon, after the princess had completed her duties at her office and cleared her schedule for the next few days, Luke joined Leia for her visit to Security Headquarters. She had gotten little sleep, but in spite of that and her ordeal during the night, the princess looked astonishingly well. She'd changed into the slacks and blouse kept at her office, brushed and re-braided her hair into a bun at the back of her head, and discarded her ruined formal wear.
Yet as the twins entered the Security building, there was no disguising Leia's royalty. Even among the harried staff of Capital Security, the petite young woman drew instant recognition and respect. The siblings had scarcely approached the inquiry desk fronting the vast open room of tables, desks, and compunits when a portly man hastened forward to greet them.
"Your Highness, Jedi Skywalker, I'm Investigator Monz. I'll be handling this case. Please, join me won't you?" As he led the way, he remarked over his shoulder, "Don't let my appearance fool you. I may not be a heroic young hotshot, but I've had twelve years experience and I know my job. Please, have a seat." Picking up a disc on his desk, he inserted it into his compunit. While he waited, he self-consciously ran his hand over the shiny speckled flesh of his balding head. "Ah," he said, almost with relief, when the screen displayed the data he needed, "here we are. Now, a few questions if you don't mind, Your Highness."
"Not at all," the princess said readily. Seeking to put the man at ease, she added, "Please though, call me Leia. I'll be happy to help in any way I can."
Brushing the wispy strands of pale hair on either side of his round head with both palms, Investigator Monz continued to fidget. He was clearly uncomfortable and Luke didn't need the Force to sense it.
"I'd like to offer whatever assistance I can as well," the Jedi told the nervous Security agent. "We're certain your department can handle this matter, but we want to cooperate."
Investigator Monz visibly relaxed. "I do apologize for my unprofessional manner," he told both his visitors. "It's just that everyone knows, especially here in the capital, what we all owe you both. And Captain Solo, of course. Your achievements during the war are renowned. I'm just so flattered to have the opportunity to be of service to you."
"We appreciate that," the princess smiled, "but the war is, thankfully, over for the most part now. We did what we had to. So did a great many others less recognized for their efforts. Right now, we're just ordinary citizens, seeking your capable assistance."
Monz shook his balding head. "Hardly ordinary, Your Highness, but I understand what you're saying." Glancing at his screen, he turned to the matter at hand. "Actually, this case is more-or-less solved with the culprit under arrest already. There are just a few mysteries to try to clear up. Tell me, please, have you ever seen this young man before last night?"
"Not to my knowledge," Leia answered. "I meet a lot of people in my position, but I don't recall ever seeing him before."
"Did he say anything while you, Captain Solo and he were awaiting the arrival of the med-ship?"
"He wasn't conscious when I saw him. He might have said something to Han, but I never heard him speak," she said.
"You told Security officers last night at the med-center that you...yes, here it is, 'felt danger.' What did you mean? Did you just somehow sense the presence of a stranger nearby? Did you, perhaps, hear him make a noise of some kind?"
"Princess Leia has an acute affinity in the Force when someone she loves is involved," Luke answered for his sister. "I've encouraged her to let me train her, but her governmental responsibilities haven't allowed the opportunity. It's my belief that's what she felt last night, and that's why she was able to save Han's life."
Investigator Monz frowned a moment before keying in the Jedi's response to his report. "I see. I wasn't aware."
"You'd be surprised," elaborated Skywalker, "how many people have rudimentary Force skills. Some call it a hunch or luck or even instinct. Not everyone has it to Leia's degree, however."
"That's interesting," nodded the Security man, pursing his lips in thought as he continued to make his entries.
"Do you have an identity on him yet?" asked Leia, uncomfortable with the conversation. She and Luke had agreed to keep their sibling relationship semiprivate, including only a handful of confidants in on their secret. Yet her latent Force abilities were daily becoming more prevalent and difficult to explain.
"Not yet. We're running his image and med-scans through our systems now, but it's a big galaxy. It could take several days before we have a positive."
The investigator returned to his screen. "I questioned the suspect early this morning, but he refused to speak. Is there anything you can suggest as a motive, Your Highness? Have you received any threats lately?"
"No. I have no idea why someone would want to hurt me. Perhaps it's something to do with the war. A lot of people suffered."
"Maybe. He could be the son of an Imperial, I suppose, or, forgive me, but I understand Captain Solo had quite an, um, active life before joining the Alliance. Perhaps this young fellow wasn't after you, but seeking to settle an old grudge with the captain from that time. Or, again, maybe he was just an Imperial sympathizer seeking revenge against you, Your Highness. Unless he decides to talk, we may never know his motive, but he'll be tried all the same."
"Is there anything I can do?" offered Luke for the second time.
Monz stroked the top of his bald head again in thought. "There is something I'd like to try. It's a little unorthodox. You'd be welcome to come along, Jedi Skywalker, if Her Highness approves."
"What is it?" the princess asked, sitting forward.
"I'd like to get Captain Solo and you to confront this young man directly. I'm hoping that once he sees you both again, he might react; break his silence," suggested the investigator.
Leia nodded slowly. "I see. When did you want to try this?"
"Oh, not until he's had a day or two more to recover from his injuries," replied Monz. "Dr. Vaktor says he should be healthy enough by then. I don't want him on pain suppressors at the time of the confrontation. They might impede the very reaction I'm looking for. Do you think Captain Solo would be willing?"
"If I know Han," sighed Skywalker, "he'd like nothing better than the chance to question this boy. You're liable to see more of a reaction from him than your suspect."
The investigator considered that point. "You're probably right, but under controlled conditions Captain Solo may succeed in reaching this young man where others have failed. I will be there to prevent matters from going too far. Would you like to attend also?"
"Yes," agreed the Jedi.
"Thank you for coming in, then. If I think of any further questions or learn anything new, I'll be in contact with you, Your Highness. Will you explain my plan to Captain Solo?"
"Certainly. I'm sure he'll cooperate. We'll be waiting to hear from you." She shook his hand and thanked him once more for his efforts.
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