I wandered up to the deck of the Celsius to drink in the evening. Dinner was over, my duties finished, and we had docked for the night along a quiet bit of northern coastline, ready to head for a fishing expedition on Mt. Gagazet the next day. Now I was out here, alone, seeking my the daily dose of solitude. The evening was peaceful: waves lapping against the shore, a light breeze carrying the chill of the nearby mountain air, the moon just risen in the distance. This last caught my attention — it was a deep yellow tonight, almost orange, and huge, with dark wisps of cloud drifting over its face.
"The poet's moon," my mother used to call it. I remembered that, suddenly, an expression of hers I hadn't thought about in years. We used to sit together, watching the moon from the porch of our cottage, where it would rise huge and partly obscured. "It's the poet's moon," Mom would say. "Inspiration for lovers and dreamers and madmen. Anything can happen on a night like this." And she would look at my dad and smile, a look in their eyes that I never really understood back then.
I understand it now, although sometimes I wish I didn't.
It's a beautiful sight, the poet's moon and the stars that surround it, almost close enough to touch. I thought I'd caught the stars once, during long nights under their glittering promise in the Bikanel Desert. And then another night brought me the stunning hues of a Mi'ihen sunset, the colors first lighting the sky, then fading from my world. My hands rose to cover the scar I would always carry, then balled into fists as if to defend myself from the phantom that haunted me now, the specter from my past that I usually found much easier to banish than this.
"Damn moon," I muttered, glaring at it. "Not everything is possible. If it were, I could turn back time. And then I'd…"
The eternal question, the one that kept me up some nights and woke me on others, sheets twisted around my legs and slick with sweat, my heart pounding, burning with the memory of desire. What could I have done? Could I have done something, anything, to stop it? To stop him?
My hands flattened again, fingers resting over my stomach, and against my will I remembered his hands, large and strong, one cool and heavy under the glove he always wore. My body longed for his touch even as my mind rebelled. How could I still want him, after what he'd done? He tried to kill me. He betrayed us all. And yet I still woke sometimes, looking for him, arms reaching across an empty bed. And I stood here now, trembling with need rather than the cold, feeling hands on my bare skin, keenly aware that they were mine and wishing they were his. Desire, rage, and disgust mixed in equal measures as I wrapped my arms tightly around my waist and squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the beautiful, terrible moon, and tried to drive my demons away.
"Paine? You okay?"
The girlish voice carried across the deck, and I stifled a groan. I had come out here to be alone; even if I had wanted company, Rikku probably wasn't the companion I'd have chosen. I needed silence right now, not the chattering and wheedling that would almost certainly come with her presence.
"I'm fine." I opened my eyes, then glanced at her; she had walked up to me and taken a place on my left. She didn't seem to be looking at me, though; she was gazing up at the moon with a faraway expression.
"Pretty," she murmured.
"Mm." As the moment stretched out, I realized that she was engrossed in the beauty of the evening and didn't seem any more inclined than I to strike up a conversation. Or had she somehow sensed that quiet was the thing I most craved? I stole a glance at her and was struck by the way the moonlight left a smooth, silvery cast over her tanned skin. Some impulse drew me to touch her, my hand reaching out and resting on her arm. Maybe I wanted to see whether I would discover the liquid metal that I imagined there. Instead, my fingers closed around a perfectly human bicep, delicate but with a core of wiry muscle beneath.
"Anything can happen," I murmured under my breath.
She turned to me and looked up, straight into my eyes. She was smiling, just a little, expression half-curious, half-confused, swirled eyes unreadable. "Hm?"
I just shook my head. Being this close to another human being under the light of the poet's moon was overwhelming, intoxicating. My other hand drifted up in slow motion, as if I were sleepwalking or pushing through heavy air, and came to rest on her smooth cheek. Stroking her cheekbone with my thumb, I leaned down, following the same impulse that had gotten me to touch her in the first place, and pressed my lips to her forehead, then an eyelid, and finally her small mouth.
There was no hesitation in her as she kissed me, a tiny hand snaking around my back and pulling me closer. The kiss deepened; she was unlike anything I had ever tasted before, a light, flaky pastry rather than a hearty meal. Then she sighed, and the sound of her voice broke the spell. Suddenly I remembered where I was, whose nimble fingers were working their way underneath my shirt, and I jerked back, stepping away.
Rikku caught my hand in hers, the grip oddly strong, before I could give in to my urge to run, to escape back into the depths of the Celsius, away from the girl, away from the moon, away from old memories and new desires that I hadn't even considered as an option before. I looked at her again, took in her shape, her size, remembered the feel of her lips and her slight frame, utterly opposite from the ghost of his memory — small, lightweight, fragile on the surface but backed by a core of steel. Yes, his opposite. In every way. Could she be exactly what I needed? Not forever. I didn't think any encounter with Rikku would withstand the bright light of day. But perhaps tonight, caressed by this breeze, watched by this moon….
I turned back up to the sky and let it the moon bewitch me again, hypnotizing myself by watching the clouds' gentle drift. As its pale light filled me, all the nagging questions and demons of my past drifted away as well, and I pulled Rikku back into my arms.
"Paine…" she murmured, her hands twisting around my neck.
"Shhh." I laid a single finger across her lips. "No words. You say a single thing and it stops. And you tell anyone at all, or mention it ever again, and I walk off the Celsius and never come back."
She nodded without hesitation. I had a moment to wonder whether she had demons to exorcise as well, and whether they were anything like me. Then our mouths met again and there was no more room for wondering, only awe.
I woke alone in my own bed. Rikku was awake, too, sitting up and yawning. "'Morning!" she chirped, just as she had every other day. She threw her blankets on the floor and stood up, pulling her clothes out from under her bunk.
As she began her usual routine, I lay back down, resting my hands behind my head and considered the night before. It already seemed like a dream, a memory that belonged to someone else, a story I'd once been told. I glanced over at Rikku and wondered what was going on behind those sparkling eyes. She looked back at me, and for just a second I thought I saw something new and different there, thoughtful and serious. Then she grinned, same old Rikku once again.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," she said. "Gotta get moving, Kimahri is expecting us soon, right? I can't wait for you to meet him. You'll get along great, I bet — he never talks either!" Before I could even glare at her, she was gone, bounding down the stairs and chattering at Barkeep, something about breakfast.
I sat up and stretched, content with the events of evening and morning, and got up to face the day, bathed in the rays of a perfectly ordinary sun.