He was late again.
Leia ordered a glass of turquoise beer which she knew from previous experience tasted like a home-made cleaning solution. The bar was grungy and hot and everyone sought to look tough. It was best not to sit empty-handed. Beside her, a reptilian alien made sucking gestures with his inner gums and tongue. She rolled her eyes away in disgust and cleared her throat loudly. After a recent bout of Cardooine Chills, she still sported a touch of chest cough and the smoke from cigarillos and spice wasn't helping. One of the never-described joys of interplanetary travel was picking up every minor illness that the inhabitants passed around. She had been inoculating herself against most, but some just had to be had once. With any luck, a good coughing fit would make her would-be-suitor think she was contagious.
A flash of red drew her attention to the flat Holonet screen anchored on the lustreless grey wall behind the bartender. A newscaster was busily reporting that in the early morning hours, the Imperial Ruling Council, in a secret vote of non-confidence, had voted that Emperor Palpatine was suffering from dementia as well as an undisclosed serious illness and no longer fit to serve the Empire. With the support of both the Imperial Senate and the Coalition of Grand Moffs, power had been quietly transferred to an interim committee made up of Palpatine's key advisors and top military personnel.
In the news clip, her unmasked brother walked alongside Grand Vizier Sate Pestage, Sarcev Quest and Chief Advisor Ars Dangor. Her heart pounded and an icy chill passed through her. All around her, patrons began cheering and clapping.
Idiots, she thought. Oh stars...
Just then, Han Solo fell onto the adjoining stool and slipped his fingers around her ankle.
"You're late," she grumbled distractedly.
"Better late than never." He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I like the new look. I almost didn't recognize you."
A tiny but potent thrill zipped through her body but she was too disturbed to enjoy it. As part of her latest effort to blend in with the spacer riff-raff, Leia had chopped her hair to just below her shoulders and dyed it dark violet. Her eyes were heavily smudged with kohl. She angled her thumb toward the Holovid screen, pausing to observe that he wore faded spacer's clothes and a wide a gunbelt curled unevenly like a snake around his hips. "Have you seen this?"
"I heard when I dropped out of hyper." He lowered his voice. "There've been rumours for months about Palpatine's health. Can't claim I'm surprised. He's looked to be on death's door for as long as I can remember."
Of course, Han wouldn't know that Palpatine was Force sensitive. He wouldn't know that Palpatine used the Force to keep himself alive. She set a hand on his thigh and leaned closer so that no one would overhear them. "I just saw Luke on the news reel. He's part of the interim coalition."
"Any promises of an election?"
"Not that I've seen so far."
"Wonderful," Han muttered between gritted teeth. "What the galaxy desperately needs is another psychotic dictator. Or two. Or four." He shifted and stroked his chin as a new thought occurred to him. "This is going to wreak havoc on the galactic markets. As much as I hate Palpatine, the longevity of his government has inspired a certain sense of economic stability."
"Don't worry; it'll be great for the black market, smugglers in particular." Han stole a swallow from her beer and made a disgusted face. "The more the Empire tightens its grip, the more valuable your cargo will become."
"I wasn't worried about that..." She hesitated. "Besides, what about weapons manufacturers?"
"We'll be flush beyond our wildest dreams. Everyone stocks up on firepower when there's a whiff of political instability."
That made sense. Leia digested the information with a grim nod.
They made small talk for a time until the Aqualish beer had disappeared. Finally, Han reached over and ran his thumb across her lower lip. He had that look again, as though he was a man who'd been released from prison or a teenager, as though she was a reprieve from his day-to-day life. "Should we blow this joint and find something more fun to do?"
"Yes, but just one second." She hopped down off the stool and glared at the reptilian humanoid to her right whose puckered tongue had been offending her for far too long. She withdrew her vibroblade and hissed, "Do that one more time and you're not going to have anything left to flap around. Understand?"
The humanoid's green scales flushed golden. It slurped his tongue back into his mouth and chattered apologetically. "No trouble, no trouble."
Han curled his lips in lopsided amusement as he followed her into one of The Wheel's long transport tubes.
The Wheel was aptly named. A space station located in the Besh Gorgon system, it had a long central axis with hundreds of docking bays that sat atop a series of massive engines. Four long tubes protruded from the axis and provided access to a circular observation deck and enclosed city. At any given moment up to one hundred thousand lived onboard. A myriad of lifeforms, mainly humans, came from all over the galaxy to try their luck at the casinos and trade on the black market.
Leia stopped at a series of shiny flickering lockers built into the wall and withdrew an oversized brown satchel. She'd docked the Spirit at a cheaper off-station buoy and taken public transport over to the hub. The primary docking bays were expensive and reserved for The Wheel's wealthier clientele – Han could easily afford them and she couldn't. Also, her smuggling compartments were jammed to the hilts with a chak-root shipment destined for Tatooine and her starboard hold contained three bacta tanks. She wasn't familiar with custom procedures or scanners on the space station and didn't want her ship to appear as though it had anything valuable on board.
"Where to?" she asked.
"The Luxury Towers at the North Pole of the station."
Leia set her hand on her hip, feeling prickly and paranoid after the newsflash despite the plain evidence that her brother was otherwise occupied on the other side of the galaxy. "You call that avoiding attention?"
"Why not spend a few credits?" he asked. "I have them and I like to spend them."
"You don't need to impress me."
"I like to impress me. Don't worry." Han held up his hand. "I used an old name and I paid in cash."
She rolled her eyes and reluctantly followed him toward the nearest skytube. They were virtually untraceable but she couldn't stop worrying. During their clandestine meetings, if they needed to be shipside, they stayed on the Spirit but more often than not, they chose nondescript, mid-budget accommodations. They sent each other encrypted transmissions under aliases. The money she transferred to him each month in payment for the Spirit was sent from a numbered account to another numbered account. Even Jasod didn't know.
No sooner had the skytube doors sealed behind them then Han seized her and kissed her, very roughly. Today he was a man starved for touch and pleasure. His fingers pulled at her clothes deliberately until the seams bit into her skin and she heard the rip of linen beneath her armpit. Abruptly, he let her go and she half-fell, half-relaxed against the thick windows.
In a voice several octaves lower than normal, he said, "I spent half the flight here imagining different ways to fuck you and make you come."
All she could do was swallow reflexively because the notion that a grown man had flown several hundred light years across the galaxy to hear the sound of her moaning thrilled her. "Well, I made six jumps in twelve hours to make it here on time."
"Yeah?" Han relaxed against the transparisteel and folded his arms across his chest. "I once made twenty-three in thirty-nine."
"Then you win."
The skytube slowed and the doors slid open. Leia followed him into a long horizontal tube that ended at a heavy, steel, numberless door. Han slid a hotel datacard through a computerized card-slot.
Leia stepped inside the room and set her satchel and jacket on the floor. The room was pristine and simply furnished but the view was spectacular. Deep space twinkled ominously outside but the system's primary star, Besh Gorgon was radiant.
Han stepped up behind her and pulled her shirt up over her head. She saw that indeed, the fabric of the armpit had been torn at the seam. Lips and teeth grazed the skin along the back of her neck. The shiver of anticipation that had been building between her legs released itself and jolted up her spine. Leia took a sharp breath and released a soft noise that sounded as though she'd just had the oxygen forced from her lungs.
"Time to get naked," he whispered.
Later, as they lay in a ball on the bed, Leia had to remind herself that they were lovers who met every few weeks and that they didn't owe each other anything besides the moment. It usually helped her resolve if she didn't look at him afterward.
Three months ago, when he had showed up at the outpost on Junction V, she'd been shocked into a stupor. I can't stop thinking about you, he had said and offered to buy her dinner. After she'd recovered from the shock of seeing him again, she'd smiled a touch seductively and said, seriously Captain. Did you think you could show up here, buy me dinner and I'd make a mad dash for your bed? Han had flexed his hands and confessed that he'd anticipated a little more finesse on his part, but essentially, yes.
In the end, naturally he'd been right.
It was past midday on the station's cycle when Han sat up on his elbows, looking dishevelled and devilishly adorable. "Let's get out of this room. We can go to dinner. Hit up the Grand Casino. Play a few hands of Sabacc."
Leia mulled it over for a moment. The bed had its appeal but it would still be here in a few hours. "All right."
It took Leia one hour to master the bare essentials of Sabacc and then she won six thousand credits during the next.
Over the last several years, she had spent countless hours practicing rudimentary Force skills in the privacy of her apartment, trying to improve her senses and manipulate still objects. She'd met with small successes, but for the most part, in private the Force often felt unruly and perpetually just out of reach. It had always been easier when her brother was her focal point. At the gaming tables, her opponents were so focused on their expressions that they left their inside feelings open to the nearest observer. She didn't need to know what cards they held, just whether they were excited, hopeful, frustrated or slightly frantic. With that insight alone, she was able to double or hedge her bets with precise accuracy.
Han was impressed. He obviously fancied himself a true Sabacc player and told her that several years ago he'd won a ship. They retreated to one of the curtained Sabacc alcoves where pairs of casino bigwigs could play and entertain unobserved. The chairs were large enough that all sorts of species could sprawl and share their laps with their companions. Han purchased a bottle of fizzy, fruity wine with gold flecks in it that cost nearly a thousand credits.
He said, "Either you have a strategy I can't figure out or you're having an incredible streak of beginner's luck. Or you lied. You played at the Ridge with the gang."
"No." She smiled mysteriously and sipped from her glass. The wine was sweet and burned the back of her throat, yet in small sips it was surprisingly addictive. "I'm very good at paying attention to details."
"And I'm a Gamorrean in disguise." He looked like he though she was pulling a fast one on him. "C'mon. You can tell me your secret."
Leia shrugged her shoulders and rearranged the skirts of her flimsy silver dress. A man like Han would probably panic if she explained exactly what it was she could feel. Or perhaps he had experimented with drugs like glitterstim, and knew how it felt to have a shared experience. Even when she longed to hate Luke, even when she had gone to his bed determined to be cold and steel, he had wielded his abilities against her so devotedly that she couldn't refuse him. "A man intoxicated by the game is not so different from a man in the throes of passion," she said simply.
"Can you read my mind?"
She shook her head. "Some men are easier to feel out than others. Most assuredly, you are not one of them." Luke had been a constant exception.
"You could make a lot of money playing the tables."
"I suppose I could," she said noncommittally, ignoring the twinge guilt that passed through her conscience. It hadn't been her intention to cheat the other players – she had discovered that purely accidentally. However, she did need the credits and most of the players here tonight were morally bankrupt in one way or another. The possibilities, depending on how she handled them, were intriguing.
He reached over and stroked her cheek absent-mindedly. "Lando won an entire city once. He sold it after a few years and used the profits to buy the weapons business on Coruscant. It's beautiful. We should go sometime. You'd like it. They have a few casinos."
Leia was trying to think of a way to say yes without sounding overly eager when his comlink began buzzing. "Is that what I think it is?" She slapped at his pocket. Comlinks had a range of about fifty kilometres. "Who would you know here on The Wheel?"
"Nobody." He keyed in a secured code. "It's a notification signal from the Holonet receiver onboard the Rrakktor. It's letting me know I just had an incoming message."
"That's an expensive transmission if it's coming for Coruscant."
"I doubt it's anything important," he reassured her. "It's probably Lando with final details for my meeting tomorrow." As part of Han's cover, each of their rendezvous coincided with a business meeting for Calrissian-Solo Munitions Inc. "Thought about how you're going to spend your winnings?"
"Not yet." Her thoughts lingered on the idea of a Holonet receiver and transmitter, but the pair would cost at least ten times her winnings. "The Spirit could use demagnetized shields for the smuggling compartments."
"Worried about the Imperial Security Bureau?"
Demagnetized shields were especially useful for hiding the energy signatures of radioactive weapons.
"Hm. I hope not, but one never knows." She arched an eyebrow. "A spacer girl can dream, can't she?"
"I hope you're not smuggling weapons." Han crinkled his eyes worriedly. "You're still small time. You don't have the experience to deal with the risks involved."
It seemed prudent to refrain from mentioning that her latest shipment was bound for a Hutt named Jabba. "I'll take your concerns under advisement Captain." Through a crack in the curtains, a Holonet screen showed a replay of the day's top political story. "Not to change the subject so abruptly-" She pointed behind him. "-but I still can't believe it."
Han craned his neck to see. "Which part?"
"All of it."
For the second time that day, Leia watched her brother's figure move across the screen. Han noticed him too - he reached back and pinched the curtains together.
Had it really been so long since she'd left Coruscant, since Luke had announced that she was to relocate to the Imperial Palace and abandon her performances at the Manarai? Palpatine had always maintained that she would betray her brother, but maybe her brother had seen her as a means to gather information within the walls of the palace and help him gain the advantage. Perhaps the Emperor had assumed that if she lived within the palace walls, Luke would be easier to manipulate. In retrospect, she would have been at the center of their power play and trusted neither of them. She shook herself gently. "I imagine this is what my brother has wanted all along."
"The idea of power." What he would do with it once he had obtained it was another story.
"Maybe this means he's too preoccupied to look for you."
"I wish I could believe that."
"But you don't."
"You don't know him." Leia scraped her fingernail against a fleck of sand fused onto the base of the glass. "If I could have brought myself to kill him when I had the chance..."
Han opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. "It's not an easy thing to kill in cold blood."
She didn't dare ask. "Han." She stretched her hand across the table slipped her fingers inside the cuff of his sleeve. His skin was warm and soft. "Tell me about the time you made twenty-three jumps in thirty-nine hours."
"Hm. I was carrying very special cargo and trying to avoid any Imperial checkpoints."
"Semi-sentient carnivorous plants from Ithor."
She braved another sip of wine with her free hand. "You're joking."
"I'm not, I swear."
"And could they actually talk?" she asked curiously.
"If they could, I didn't hear them. They spent the flight locked in one of the cargo holds. When their handlers brought them onboard, they looked harmless – fuzzy, red-barked trees about the size of a man, with roots all balled up at the base. The horticulturist told me they'd just been fed and sedated and wouldn't wake up until we reached our destination, but later, when I looked through the portal, their roots smashed against the glass. Either they were still hungry, or they'd miscalculated the amount of sedatives needed to knock out a tree. After that, the racket never stopped. We could hear them beating against the metal from the cockpit. We thought they were going to break the hatch down and come after us."
She set her drink down on the table with a clunk. "What happened?"
"Well, I plotted the fastest route I could, drank about fifty cups of stim-caf and showed up at the drop site fifteen hours early. The contacts weren't happy about it, but my co-pilot manned the belly gun and kept the cannons on them. We threatened to jump into the atmosphere and space the trees if they didn't get them off my ship right away."
Leia watched shadows scatter across his profile as he shifted his head. She slipped her hand further along his inner arm until he grasped her wrist. "I still don't believe you but I'll give you points for the story."
"Points? Sweetheart, it's all fact."
"This was back when you were flying with your Wookiee co-pilot."
"How did they get them off your ship if they were ready to eat the first thing that opened the cargo hatch?"
"They ate the first thing that opened the cargo hatch – only it wasn't us. After that, they were as docile as pittens. Hm. What else did Bracha tell you about me?"
Leia cursed softly. She'd inadvertently brought up a lead-in to topics better left alone. As an unspoken rule, he never asked about Bracha and she never asked about his wife. That meant he didn't know she had ended it with Bracha and left the Ridge.
Bracha had taken it very hard. Burning brightly in his eyes, veiled beneath the crags of scars, had been an all too familiar pain.
"He said that you could charm or seduce any woman in a dozen a star systems. I resisted my impulse to correct him. It was extremely difficult."
Han roared with laughter. "You're hot. Very sexy. I meant what I said about the new look."
Leia fervently wished she were drunk enough to tell him that he belonged with her out amidst the stars. Only she wasn't and couldn't afford to be. Instead she pulled him closer to her and leaned across the table. "Kiss me."