Kain had to admit that Piata was a beautiful city at night, no matter how much he loathed its pretentious "east coast snobs" for inhabitants and the way they lived in the past, conjuring up nostalgia for its days as a bustling spaceport city. The residents made the daytime quite unbearable, and while tuning out the city, Kain often overlooked some of its finer features, such as the river walk and surrounding park. Piata's view of the sky was so clear; Kain could count many more stars than he could while living in crowded Paseo or polluted Lume, or even on Roron Peninsula, where the muggy air obscured much of the view.
Piata's river, really a man-made moat for beautifying the city and bringing revenue to the restaurant district, reflected the street lights of the cobblestone sidewalk next to the water, and strings of festive lanterns hung between lamp posts added a rainbow of bobbing colors reflected on the water's surface. Kain walked slowly, taking in the serene yet social surroundings, of couples stealing kisses on the quaint wooden bridges and canoodling on park benches away from the walk. It was so different from Piata during the day, when all of the austere government buildings would cast ominous gray shadows over everything, and the citizens would go back to complaining about what wasn't happening anymore in their once great city.
He looked at his walking partner, Nei, and was sure he saw the same contentedness he felt. At least, she appeared happy, and usually Kain could read Nei like a book. He hoped he would still be able to pick up on her emotional cues as the night progressed. If tonight kept pulling Kain into its romantic aura, he might just admit something to Nei that had been on his mind for a few weeks and counting. If he was lucky, the night would end in a mutual admission of feelings, or worst case scenario, Kain would have to dive into the river and swim back to the hotel to escape certain rejection.
Kain attempted to start a conversation, but the first words out of his mouth got lost somewhere along the way due to nervousness. He coughed. He tried again, starting with a deep, calming breath.
"Ya sure you're all right just hangin' out with me tonight? No hard feelin's about the others goin' to that fancy gala-thing to meet them Golds?" he asked.
Nei nodded her head and smiled. "Oh yeah, I'm fine. I think I'd rather be out here, anyway. Did you see the way they were all dressed up? Well, not Rolf and Anna, who were hired for security, but the others, wow! Dr. Sage was in that long dress, Hugh was in a… what do you call it? A torpedo?"
That was so much like Nei, and Kain found it adorable. He chuckled a little, but made sure to give her a quick, friendly squeeze around the shoulders to let her know he wasn't laughing at her. "You mean a tuxedah?"
"Tuxedah?" Nei repeated in Kain's accent.
"Ah, well, it ain't exactly the way it's supposed to be pernounced, I guess. Let's just call it a tux."
Ne grinned. "Okay, tux, then. Hugh was wearing a tux. He looked so nice! Even Rudo was wearing his old military uniform. He seemed sad, though." She furrowed her brow.
"Well, the ol' Captain mighta been thinkin' back to his days with Emily. The military has a lotta them snazzy balls."
"Balls? Like..." Nei gestured dribbling a ball.
"Naw, not like bouncy balls," Kain interrupted. "A ball is where people get all gussied up and celebrate important things. There's a lot of dancin', too. Some folks think they're mighty romantic, so Rudo coulda been recallin' happier times, missin' Emily."
Nei sighed. "That's awful that it makes him think of his family. Maybe he shouldn't have gone tonight."
Kain moved closer to Nei to make room for a couple walking in the opposite direction. "Sometimes it ain't bad to remember the loved ones ya lost, even if it makes ya feel a little blue at first."
Nei perked up. "I guess you're right. You know, all of my favorite memories are from meeting you and the rest of our group. I hope we'll still be friends even after the mission is over."
"Well, you're stuck with me, whether ya like it or not." Kain nudged Nei in the ribs. She giggled and pushed him back playfully. Kain was pleased that his joke went over well, since he already made plans to stay in Paseo near Rolf and Nei after their mission was complete.
The pair continued along the sidewalk in silence for a few minutes. It was a natural pause in the conversation and Kain didn't find it the least bit uncomfortable. She made it easy for him to forget he was ever nervous being alone with her. Sometimes, like this moment, her innocence was a blessing. Kain didn't have to change his mannerisms and put on a show for her the way he felt inclined to during other first dates.
A date? Was this a first date? Kain stopped and turned his attention to Nei. She probably had no idea that tonight could be considered a date, even though it fit a very traditional definition of one. It started with dinner and entertainment, and now it concluded with a moonlit walk along the river. Kain wondered if all Nei knew was that Rolf thought it would be best if she stayed behind and not attend the gala, where she might cause something of a stir due to her unusual appearance, and Kain had volunteered to keep her company for the night.
However Nei felt about spending the evening with Kain, it no longer mattered to Kain once Nei unexpectedly wrapped her hand around his. Kain felt a rush of heat in his cheeks and around his neck, and his hands grew clammy. He gulped.
Nei sighed contentedly. "I'm so glad it was you that stayed with me tonight. This will be one of my favorite memories."
They had halted their journey along the river some time ago, and it was a good thing, too, as Kain's legs had turned to jelly. He put his free hand on the decorative iron railing between the river and the sidewalk and leaned into it for support.
Kain stammered. "R-really? W-why me?"
Nei looked up to the sky. "You treat me differently than the others. They're all nice to me, don't get me wrong, but none of them treats me like... like..."
"Yes, that's it!" Nei moved closer to Kain and brought their entwined hands against her chest. "But it's more than that, I think. Do you really like being with me? You're not just being nice?" Her eyes grew wide.
"Nei, I'd rather be with you than just about anyone else on this planet, and that's the plain truth."
It was the perfect time for Kain to pull his companion in for a romantic kiss under the stars, but Kain was conflicted about boundaries, about what Nei did and did not know about intimacy, and about their future. He wanted a future with Nei, if that's what she wanted, but even if they remained only as close friends he would be happy. Would crossing the line into romance destroy their friendship? This was the gamble Kain was afraid to make. Until now.
He took his free hand and slid it delicately around her waist and waited for her reaction. She gasped but didn't recoil from his hold.
"Um, Kain? Do you know about those things people do together when they..." She looked away. "When they're..."
"It's okay; I think I know what you're askin'." He broke his hand away from hers and moved it to her cheek, directing her face back to his. She avoided his gaze and nervously chewed on her bottom lip. "What's the matter?" he asked, pulling away from her. She pulled him back, holding onto his wrist with both hands to keep his own hand against her face. Kain's heart gladdened.
Nei continued. "Well, I think I know about those things people do, too. I saw Rolf once-"
"Ohhhhkay, I'm gonna have to stop ya right there, sweetie." Kain cringed. "Let's not talk about what ya saw Rolf do, okay? Don't worry, it ain't personal, I just don't want to think about Rolf right now."
"Why not? He and Anna were-"
"Nei, you're killin' me, darlin'! I'll level with ya; folks usually don't like hearin' about... wait, did you say Rolf and Anna?"
"Yes. You didn't know?"
Kain roared. "And here I was, all concerned about what the rest of the group thought about..." He stopped, remembering Nei understood very little of any of this. "Aw, hell with it." Kain drew Nei's face close to his and pressed his lips against hers. When Nei returned his kiss with more passion than he could have hoped for, he felt like he had won the entire lottery.