As the evening crowd melded into the night crowd, caf and tea was being served almost faster than it could be brewed. This late, nobody asked for the frothy, tooth-aching concoctions that turned the morning and afternoon hours into hellscapes from which Aphra wanted to run from screaming. They just wanted a hot, liquid stimulant as fast as it could be delivered to them. And if it wasn’t to their taste, there were walls of crystalline sweeteners and additives from over a dozen worlds to choose from.
It was why Aphra always took the late shift when she could. As often as she hauled ass around the café for beings yelling for another carafe of liquid stimulants, at least it was interesting and fast-paced and just a little bit dangerous if you looked closely enough at the clientele.
There’d been talk of Imperial crackdowns, raids on businesses, new laws to curtail public assemblies. All in the name of safety, of course, but Aphra would have to be the most unobservant person in the galaxy to miss the handful of tables in the back where the same few people bent their heads together, the occasional rabble-rouser, generally not associated with the back-table dwellers, declaring the Empire a tyranny in tones far louder and freer than you’d find anywhere else on Imperial Center, and the exchange of datacards, credits, and furtive glances, and not come up with ‘the Empire is losing its grip and they don’t like it.’
Aphra was a student of archaeology. She knew the signs of failing civilizations when she saw them. And the Empire? The Empire was on its way out.
Or she hoped anyway. It would be nice to get back to her research. Well, no. That wasn’t entirely true. Not exactly. If she was being honest, though why she’d ever be that was anyone’s guess… it would be nice to get back to doing illegal digs in places the Empire didn’t want people going. If she could call it research after the fact, that was just a bonus. Sadly, the heat was just too great to risk it these days. Even for Aphra.
But that was a thought for another day perhaps, because one of those ducked heads in the corner raised itself and caught her eye. And a hand belonging to that head lifted and pointed at one of the pots of freshly-made caf. Shadows obscured most of the dark skin of the woman’s face, but a smile graced her lips, just a little bit dangerous, too—the best kind of smile, Aphra thought, pleased, a thrum of excitement working through her—and when she mouthed, “you mind?” at Aphra, Aphra found herself not minding in the slightest.
Especially when this was new. Usually it was Blond Kid who came up to the counter, a bit of pleasant small talk in his mouth, to order their drinks.
Grinning back, Aphra hauled herself and the caf to the corner in question, and got a good eyeful of the strangest bunch of characters you’d ever see arrayed around four tiny tables pushed together. Whenever they arrived separately, they all seemed so normal. There was Blond Kid, brown-haired rake, ostentatious cape-wearing businessman with more style than everyone else put together and his bald-headed, cyborg friend, pretty brunette, pretty brunette number two, quiet, stubbly guy, black-haired mustache man, and dignified older redhead—who was also very pretty. And Aphra’s favorite: ‘You Mind’ of The Best Kind of Smile. It was only when they were next to one another that anything seemed unusual about them.
Whatever they were doing, Aphra had half a mind to try getting in on it.
“Hey,” she said, placing the carafe on the edge of the table closest to her. If it just so happened that it was also the table that her favorite sat at, that was just the Force working in mysterious ways. “How’s it going?”
Smiles—it was easier to think of her that way—pushed her hair out of her face and arched her eyebrow. Up close, she didn’t seem quite as friendly, but that was okay. That just intrigued Aphra more. “Oh, you know,” she said, taking hold of the carafe and pouring a cup for herself before handing it down. “It’s just great.”
“Sana,” Blond Kid said and oh, if Aphra were inclined, she could’ve kissed him. It probably wasn’t the smartest move he could’ve made admittedly, but she couldn’t hold it against him in this case. Keeping names out of the equation was usually a good thing when you weren’t dealing on the up-and-up, but Aphra wouldn’t tell. And no one else could’ve overheard. She made sure of that on a daily basis.
Maybe she ought to suggest they get ahold of an soundscrambler. She knew a guy who could help them out.
Still, Sana—and what a lovely name that was—glared at him for the trouble. Her brown eyes caught the scant light that emanated from the light overhead and reflected it back and Aphra wouldn’t ever have admitted it, but she was a little bit mesmerized.
“It’s okay,” Aphra said. With a wink, she leaned toward Sana and curved her hand over the side of her mouth. “I didn’t hear anything.”
Sana’s focus was like sunlight itself, unavoidable and growing hotter the longer it lingered and at risk of giving Aphra a burn if she let it. A metaphorical burn anyway. Or at least a red face. Because already that focus was warming her cheeks and probably giving her what she’d once been told was a becoming flush. “Who are you?” Sana asked, not quite dismissive, yet not quite willing to concede her interest either.
It was, Aphra knew, a win. And the best kind, too, the kind that actually meant something. She thrust her hand out for Sana to shake. “Aphra.”
“That a first name?” Sana asked, slow to complete the gesture, though complete it she did. Her palm was softer than Aphra expected, but her grip lingered long enough that Aphra could count the callouses—and they were in all the expected places.
So Aphra was right. Sana was just the littlest, teensiest, tiniest bit dangerous.
“I don’t go by my first name.”
“Now is that a challenge?” Sana asked, the corner of her mouth twitching. Her features softened slightly and Aphra liked that almost as much as she liked the danger—which was… new. And a little uncomfortable. But nice, too. Yeah. Nice. That was, huh, probably the word for it.
“It could,” Aphra answered, breezy, ignoring all the warning sirens going off in her head because that was half the fun, too. “If you want it to be.”
Sana lifted her pale, porcelain mug to her mouth. “It might be I do. I guess we’ll find out, won’t we, Miss Aphra?” Then, she raised the mug in what could almost be classed a salute. “Thanks for the caf.”
Thanks for the smile, Aphra thought. “It’s actually Doctor Aphra,” she replied, teasing, purposefully mysterious as she bowed forward slightly and knocked her knuckles against the table. Besides, Doctor Aphra just sounded so much cooler than Miss Aphra. Stepping back, she pressed her palm against her abdomen. “Enjoy your drinks, everyone.”
She felt Sana’s eyes on the back of her neck the entire walk back to the counter—and beyond, even as it reached closing time and the lot of them were filing out, one and two at a time.
Sana was the last to go and sauntered up to the counter before she did, causing an entirely appropriate thrill to climb Aphra’s spine and then pool in her stomach, heated and pleasant. Slapping her hand against the brushed metal, Sana left behind a square of flimsy. “My comm address,” she said as Aphra plucked the thin piece of plastic up.
“Your comm address?” Aphra asked, running her fingertip over the edge of the card again and again. “Or a comm address?”
“Find out for yourself.” Sana threw the answer out over her shoulder as she left, Aphra’s last image of her being her profile thrown into silhouette by the harsh streetlamp outside. “Ask me out on a date sometime.”
“Sure thing!” she called after her, unable to keep another wide, happy grin from stretching across her lips as she pocketed the contact information.
She might not have been sure how yet—thought it was only a matter of time until she figured something out—but she was determined to do Sana one better than a date.