Queen of Ice and Fire

I don't own these characters; I'm only borrowing them.

Chapter 1: Save the Queen

Quistis glanced at the clock in her classroom, and then scanned the students working busily on the test she'd handed out.

"Time. Please bring your tests up and place them on my desk. Those of you who are not participating in the next field exam may leave. Those of you who are, or who hope to, please remain behind." Quistis instructed. She waited while the cadets filed up and placed their tests on her desk, some exiting the classroom, while others returned to their seats.

When all the tests had been turned in, Quistis straightened out the stack and placed them in a folder to grade later. Getting up from her chair, she came around to the front of her desk and leaned against it, arms folded.

"Which of you have managed to get to the fire caverns? I know Trey has. You did that yesterday, right?" Quistis asked the remaining students, focusing her final question on a dark-haired cadet, who nodded. Three cadets raised their hands, leaving two that didn't.

"Michelle, Kyle, the field exam is in two weeks, so you do have a little time to get that done, but not much. Let me know if you can't find an instructor to back you up when you go. Your pre-requisite scores have been pretty good, but you've still got to pass this final exam, all of you. If you do not, then all your preparations aren't going to matter and you'll have to wait until the next field exam to try and qualify for it." Quistis told them. The students all nodded and exchanged apprehensive looks.

"Does anyone have any questions?" Quistis asked, adjusting her glasses. When the students all shook their heads, Quistis nodded in satisfaction.

"You're all dismissed then. I'll email your scores directly to your student accounts when I've finished grading your tests." Quistis said, turning around to pick up the folder containing them. She followed the students as they filed out of her classroom and walked toward her quarters.

As she walked, she sighed, wondering if she should eat dinner first. She shook her head then, deciding against it. She wasn't hungry yet, and she really wanted to get those tests graded so she could give Squall a list of the cadets that had qualified for the field exam as soon as possible. She could grab something after she was done.

She was just entering the hallway leading toward her quarters when she heard Squall's voice over the PA requesting Nida's presence. He must want to talk to him about mobilizing Garden for the field exam, Quistis thought.

Despite having just returned from a short vacation with Rinoa, Squall was as focused upon his job as ever, if a little overwhelmed with the work that had accumulated in his absence. Quistis and Xu had done their best to keep on top of things that didn't actually require Squall's attention, but the things that did had been put aside for him. And having been gone for a week, those things had piled up.

Not for the first time, Quistis wondered if Squall would finally give in to necessity and hire another secretary. If nothing else, an assistant would help him do "triage" on his waiting work so that he could better prioritize it. Fortunately, they had already gotten the location for the field exam negotiated, and everything was ready and waiting for the cadets when they arrived in two weeks.

Distracted by her wandering thoughts, Quistis didn't see the dark-haired young SeeD that came out of a nearby room and turned to head up the hallway, running smack into her and sending her tests flying.

"Oh! I'm so sorry Quistis, are you okay?" Nida asked her, kneeling down to help her pick up the scattered papers.

Adjusting her glasses, which had been knocked askew by the impact, Quistis answered, "I'm fine Nida, I wasn't paying attention, otherwise I'd have seen you coming." She knelt down as well and began picking up the tests.

Giving her an embarrassed smile, Nida admitted, "I wasn't either, actually." Quistis laughed softly as he handed her a stack of papers that he'd picked up. Taking them from him, she smiled back, suddenly noticing how handsome he was.

He wasn't so good-looking that he attracted a lot of attention, and of course having Squall as a year-mate had tended to overshadow the young man, but Nida was in fact attractive in his own right. And honestly? Quistis found that pretty boys had left her cold.

But Nida wasn't pretty. Nor was he a boy.

He had thick, blue-black hair that made Quistis wonder how it would feel to run her fingers through, chiseled but very masculine features and his eyes…. Quistis had never noticed before that Nida had hazel eyes. Nor had she noticed before how beautiful they were.

She came to herself and realized that she'd just been staring stupidly at him when he cleared his throat and said, "well… I've got to go."

"Right," She said, starting to get to her feet. Nida helpfully took her elbow and gave her a hand up.

He walked a few steps down the hallway, then paused and turned back, asking hesitantly, "Um…do you want to go get some dinner later?"

Without thinking, Quistis answered, "Sure. I just need to grade these…"

Nida smiled and responded, " And I still have to go talk to Squall…. but, I could come by when I'm done."

"Okay. I'll see you later then." Quistis smiled at him and he gave her a sketchy wave, walking backward a few steps.

"Later." He turned and started up the hallway, breaking into a loping jog. Quistis snuck a look back as she continued toward her room, admiring his easy stride. The rear view wasn't too bad either.

It wasn't until she'd entered her apartment and put the tests on her desk to be graded that she suddenly realized that Nida had actually asked her out on a date.

As he loped toward the lift leading to Squall's office, Nida couldn't hold back a grin. He would have done a celebratory fist pump and a "YES!" to express his excitement but held back, not sure if Quistis was still watching him or not. He didn't want to come off as an idiot, even though her unfortunate impression of him after he'd run into her would be that he was a klutz.

Fortunately, it gave him an opening to ask her out, so he did it before he talked himself out of it. Wonder of wonders, she accepted.

Reaching the lift, he punched the button to the second floor and got in, leaning against the wall, sighing. He hoped he didn't mess things up, come on too strong. He'd had a crush on her since forever, it seemed, though he'd never officially joined the ranks of "The Trepies" as Quistis' fan club called themselves.

But Irvine, oddly, had provided some encouragement to him when they'd been returning from Squall's bachelor party, and Nida had finally seen a solid opportunity and taken advantage of it. He hoped he hadn't misread the moment, but he didn't think so.

He also didn't think she was dating anyone; at least not for the last several months. He'd heard a disturbing rumor about someone she'd dated and wasn't seeing any longer, and wondered about it. Why would both Squall and Irvine want to kill the guy? All Nida knew about him was the fact that the man wasn't a SeeD.

The elevator pinged, indicating that he'd reached the second floor and he got out, headed toward Squall's office. He smiled at Xu as she passed him, just leaving Squall's office.

Upon reaching the door, Nida knocked, waiting for Squall's invitation to come in. When it came, he entered the office.

Squall sat at his desk, glancing up at him from his computer monitor and saying, "sit down." His desk was uncharacteristically cluttered, a state which had likely contributed to the annoyed look on his face.

"How's everything going?" Nida asked, curiously.

Squall shrugged, gesturing at the chaos and saying, "aside from all of this, I'm fine."

"I'm guessing you called me up here to talk about mobilizing for the field exam, right?" Nida asked him.

"Yeah. I just wanted to go over the route with you and make sure we had everything prepared before we left. Check on food and water stores, that sort of thing." Squall answered him.

Nida nodded. He'd have his work cut out for him for the next two weeks. Even though Garden wasn't actually going anywhere yet, Nida was one of the few people there that knew it from top to bottom, having paid close attention to what the FH technicians had done to fix it. So he'd be busy down in the MD level for most of the next two weeks. Nida sighed. He hated it down there.

"Any preference on which SeeDs I take with me?" he asked.

"Whomever's available? Doesn't matter to me otherwise." Squall answered.

Nida nodded. They plotted out the course and discussed Garden maintenance, with Nida giving Squall his report on how things appeared to be running so far. It would take roughly a day of travel to get to their destination, and they would remain stationary at that location for the duration of the field exam, returning immediately afterward. Nida did have a backup pilot, so he could get some time off if needed, and he worked with Squall on scheduling the piloting duties.

Discussion finally finished, Nida commented, "You really need a secretary."

Squall grimaced, "everyone keeps telling me that, but every time I put it out there that I'm looking for one, I swear all I get are these…stripper wannabes or something. I even had one girl ask me if I could put a pole in my office. Does nobody ever bother to read the damn job description? I thought Secretary/Administrative Assistant would be clear enough on what I was looking for."

"What happened to that guy you hired, what was his name, Carl?" Nida asked, curiously. It had become a running joke amongst the staff that Squall simply couldn't keep a secretary for long. Either he ended up firing them, or more commonly, they quit.

Nida didn't understand why, it wasn't as though Squall was difficult to work with, quite the opposite. But he did not put up with any nonsense and was not what anyone would consider to be tactful when calling someone out on it. More than once, it had led to a hopeful secretary fleeing the office in tears. Squall was happy with Rinoa and had no interest in anyone else, and those secretaries that were hoping otherwise ended up bitterly disappointed.

Finally Squall answered flatly, "I fired him. I would have put up with him flirting with Xu, or Quistis, or even Rinoa. Hell, I wouldn't have turned a hair if he'd flirted with you. But, again, he seemed to think I was looking for more than just someone to file my reports and help me organize my day. I could have cared less that he was gay; I just wanted him to do his goddamn job and leave me alone. He wouldn't, so I fired him."

"It may not have bothered you if he'd flirted with me…" Nida muttered. But he understood Squall's meaning. The man's sexual orientation hadn't mattered as long as he'd done the job Squall had hired him for. The moment it interfered with that job, he'd been fired.

Then he suggested, "Maybe you should just hire Rinoa to help you?"

He almost burst out laughing at the horrified expression that crossed Squall's normally controlled countenance.

"Um…. no. Bad idea. Very, very bad idea." Squall said, shaking his head vigorously.

"Why?" Nida asked, trying to hide his amusement.

"Because, trust me, she is not organized. Plus, I'd never get any work done." Squall answered.

Nida started laughing finally, "No, I guess you wouldn't at that. Not even you can resist that temptation, huh?"

Squall finally chuckled, "No. I wouldn't even try. It does give me an idea though…"

Focusing his attention back to the reason for their meeting, he said, "let me know if there's anything that needs attention in the MD level."

Taking that as a dismissal, Nida stood, saying, "I will. Talk to you later."

Pausing at the door, he looked back at Squall and asked him, "Do you plan on working late tonight?"

"I'm going to have to, if I want to catch up with all of this." Squall said, gesturing to all the paperwork that had piled up. Then he added with a slight grin, "Don't worry, I'll have Rinoa bring me up some dinner."

Nida laughed again, catching the wicked glint in his eyes, and said, "Don't forget to lock the door. You know, just in case."

"Of course." Squall said, returning his attention to the computer screen.

Nida left him to his work, and headed back toward the lift. It was easy to envy his year-mate and yes, friend, all that he had accomplished and gained in the last few years. For a while, Nida had done just that.

But that was before he'd gotten to know the personality that had been kept so well hidden behind Squall's mask of indifference until recently. The person he was now was a marked difference from the one he had been before he'd met Rinoa. Nida didn't know how she'd managed it either; he'd known several girls, Quistis included, who'd tried to crack through that shell of ice without success. Even some guys, when they saw his apparent lack of interest in the girls, gave it a try, with the same results. He simply wasn't interested. Period.

It had angered and frustrated Nida by turns however to see Squall rebuff Quistis repeatedly when he'd have been only too happy to take his place. And he'd been embarrassed on her behalf when she'd just about thrown herself at him after their graduation ball, only to have Squall coldly tell her to go talk to a wall.

Nida had been with his date that night, snuggled in a dim corner of the secret area, taking in the sights, when they'd walked in. It had crushed him to learn that Quistis had lost her instructor's license and was just going to be a regular SeeD. She'd be out in the field, risking her life with the rest of the active SeeDs, a thought that left Nida feeling…. worried.

Then Squall had made that harsh comment and walked away, leaving Nida with the urge to beat some sense into him. Can't you see she just needs some comfort? A friend? She's in LOVE with you, idiot! Nida had wanted to yell it at him, and then he'd seen the completely empty look in his eyes and stopped. Squall didn't care. About anyone, not even himself.

It made him the perfect SeeD, someone able to kill or die without a second thought. But it also made him a horrible human being. Nida often wondered; if Rinoa had known Squall the way everyone at Garden knew him, would she have even bothered trying to connect with him?

Nida, and everyone else that Squall now counted as friends, a concept he'd slowly gotten used to; they all agreed that it was a good thing she had. Her influence, her love, had given their young commander a dose of humanity that he'd sorely needed. Seeing that, Nida couldn't help but be happy for the two of them, and hopeful that he might find that same kind of connection with Quistis.

With that thought in mind, he strode toward her apartment, trying to ignore the fluttering in his stomach as he did.

Quistis finished correcting the last of the tests and began entering the grades into her computer, posting them to the faculty and the individual students, working steadily with focused determination. It wasn't because she wanted to be finished before Nida knocked on her door. It wasn't.

Yes, it was.

Quistis sighed, trying to rationalize it. He was just being nice. It wasn't like he was actually interested. Right? So, she decided to take the invitation in the spirit it was given. It was just dinner, and they both had to eat anyway. May as well do it with someone to talk with.

But she couldn't ignore the fluttering in her stomach, the excitement and yes, the fear, which she was trying hard to shove aside and ignore. It had been so long since she'd even attempted to date. Months since Sean….

She shuddered, memories surfacing that she'd much rather were forgotten. But they'd left an indelible mark upon her psyche that even six months of intensive counseling hadn't come close to erasing. She didn't think those scars would ever fade.

It had started out innocently enough, and even as smart, strong and capable as Quistis was, she'd missed Sean's machinations. He had masterfully maneuvered her into such a vulnerable position, that he literally had her at his mercy. Before long, she had fallen so deeply into his lies, his manipulations, that she couldn't see a way out.

He never physically abused her, never laid a hand on her in anger. Not at first. He was too smart for that. But what he did do was much, much worse. He found and exploited her vulnerabilities, her insecurities. He isolated her from her friends, lied to her about everything. And constantly made her feel like she was the selfish one for wanting…anything… from him.

Chip by chip, bit by bit, he picked away at her confidence, her assurance, wearing away the essence of her being. Tearing her down until she felt completely inadequate. Trapping her until she was where he wanted her. Then, when the emotional and psychological abuse weren't satisfying him anymore, that was when it got physical.

It had gone on for months. Months of pure hell. Even now, Quistis didn't understand how she'd allowed him to do that to her. Her. She was a SeeD for Hyne's sake. She killed men as easily as breathing. But for some reason, she couldn't defend herself from the man she had thought she loved.

She had continued to work, continued to teach, but it became more and more difficult to feel as though she were doing a good job of it. But she had gone through the motions, clinging to what was familiar and safe to her, while everything outside of work became less and less tolerable.

I'm sorry Quistis. I'm sorry. I love you... I promise I'll change…

Empty promises. Lies. Getting her hopes up, letting her feel happy for a moment or two, then something would trigger him and without warning, another slap. Another punch. Sometimes, she'd fight back. She wasn't a complete pushover. Those were the days that she didn't come in to work.

The only reason he hadn't killed her was because she kept a supply of potions hidden; in her purse, in secret, hidden nooks in Sean's house, in her desk drawer at Garden… They healed her, erasing all signs of the abuse she suffered, leaving her friends completely in the dark about the sudden change in her personality and habits.

She was on the edge of a knife, balanced, waiting for a fatal slip. Feeling like she was out of options, she almost made the biggest mistake of her life.

"Quistis? What the hell is this?" Squall frowned, dropping the neatly typed letter onto his desk and glaring at her.

"It's a letter of resignation." She answered. Maybe Sean just needed her to spend more time with him. He was always so jealous of the SeeDs she worked with, particularly Squall. She should never have told him that Squall had been her first love.

"I know what it is. What I'm asking is what the hell are you doing this for? Your license has been reinstated, and you've been doing a great job. At least until recently." Squall said, arms folded across his chest, watching her closely.

"I… I just… can't. I can't do it anymore Squall. Am I teaching these kids anything at all worthwhile?" She asked him, flinging her hands up, and then hissing in sudden pain. The potion she'd just taken apparently hadn't gotten as far as deep-tissue healing yet.

Squall's eyes narrowed and he approached her, raking her from head to foot and seeing far more than Quistis had thought he would.

"I've noticed you stocking up on a lot of healing potions lately Quistis. And yet, nobody's seen you anywhere near the training center in weeks." Stepping closer, he added quietly, "it takes at least an hour for a mid-level healing potion to work completely, and bruises always fade last. Ordinarily, I would assume you knew that."

Quistis turned away, unable to hide the tears that started gathering in her eyes.

"I'm not accepting your resignation." Squall said flatly.

Gasping, Quistis whirled to face him, asking, "Why?"

"Because it's not YOU. Something's going on with you. If you don't want to tell me what it is, that's your choice. But until I'm satisfied that you are in your right mind and not under any duress, I'm suspending you pending a complete physical and mental evaluation. Until I get a full clearance from Dr. Kadowaki, you're on personal leave." Squall stated.

Swallowing, Quistis nodded, looking down at her feet. Sean would expect her to be home with him every minute of every day. The only reason that she'd escaped being imprisoned completely was because she hadn't moved into his apartment with him, despite his assurances that he'd get help, get better, if only she was there with him.

But now that she was on leave… a cold draft of fear traced down her spine. She didn't know if it was because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to visit her boyfriend, or that she would…and be unable to find the strength to leave.

She had just started to turn away, preparing to leave Squall's office when he added; "You are also confined to Garden property for the duration of this evaluation."

She had nodded and left, hoping he hadn't seen the relief that his terse statement had given her.

To this day, Quistis didn't know how long Squall had suspected what was going on, but the report that Doctor Kadowaki had given him had left him livid with anger. By that time, Quistis had found the courage to tell the whole sordid story to Selphie, with Irvine offering his solid support as well.

She still felt ashamed however that she, a SeeD, had failed to do something so basic as to protect herself. She felt certain that the cold anger that simmered in Squall's eyes when he'd learned the complete story from both her and Irvine was directed at her for being so foolish and weak.

She learned later that it was nothing of the sort. His rage had been focused solely upon the person who actually deserved it.

Sighing, Quistis entered the final grade into her computer and sent the file off. Glancing at her clock, she got up and smoothed her hands down her uniform skirt, wondering if she should change.

Going into her bathroom, she studied her reflection and dithered. Glasses? Or contacts? Hair up or down? Lipstick or gloss? Nervously, she brushed her teeth and went with the gloss, and was just deciding to put in her contact lenses and take the pins out of her hair when she heard a knock at her door.

Already? She thought, and then took a deep breath to try and calm the butterflies in her stomach. Then she went to go answer the door.

Its just dinner Quistis. Don't freak out. Its just…dinner. She told herself as she grabbed the doorknob and opened the door.

Nida smiled at her when she opened the door, and the fluttering in her middle intensified. Why had she never noticed before what a nice smile he had?

What's wrong with me? This is NIDA. I've known him forever. He's just a friend… Quistis told herself, and she was right. But still, something felt different. Something had shifted somewhere, causing her to see Nida in a different light. Suddenly, everything felt askew.

"Quistis? Is anything wrong?" He asked her, frowning worriedly at her distraction.

Shaking her head vigorously, she offered a tentative smile and stepped through her door, closing and locking it behind her.

"No, I'm fine. Let's go. I think I just need to eat." She said.

He nodded and they started toward the cafeteria. He'd debated with himself over that, wanting to take Quistis out on a real date. But he didn't want to do too much too soon. She seemed rather skittish lately, and he didn't want to come on too strong and scare her off. So, just dinner in the cafeteria, and maybe work up to something more special, say by Friday? If things looked like they were going to go that direction that was.

"So uh, how'd the tests turn out? Do you know who's going to do the field exam?" Nida asked her as they obtained their dinners and picked out a table.

"Yes. All of the candidates have passed that requirement, so we've got a good mix of students. I've already emailed the list to Squall and Cid." Quistis answered, taking a sip of her drink.

"So what's next?" Nida asked her, curiously.

"Well, a couple of the cadets still need to go to the fire caverns, so I'll probably be escorting them unless they request another instructor." Quistis answered.

Nida took a sip of his drink and smiled at her, "I can't think of any other instructor your students would want."

Quistis smiled back, liking the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. It was odd; she could sense his attraction, and she felt the same way. But there was no actual tension, instead just a comfortable camaraderie gained from their shared experience as SeeDs.

"How about you? What have you got going on?" She asked.

Nida shrugged, "Just working. Plotted the route we're going to take for the field exam. I'm going to be spending the bulk of my time in the MD level, checking on things down there before we leave."

"You are going to bring someone for backup, right? It's dangerous down there." Quistis said, worried.

"Of course. I'm rather fond of keeping all of my various appendages intact." Nida replied.

Quistis laughed, and Nida smiled in response. He really liked her laugh. It was a real laugh, not a little-girl giggle. It bubbled and burbled pleasantly, even musically. And when she smiled…. It lit up her whole face, making her beautiful blue eyes sparkle like diamonds.

He could have cared less about what they were eating; he was enjoying the company he was keeping far more than the food. He hoped Quistis felt the same way. It appeared that she did, she looked far more relaxed and at ease than he'd seen her for a long time. He didn't want the meal to end, but eventually they both finished eating.

Lacing his fingers together, elbows resting on the table, Nida rested his chin on the resulting fist and smiled at Quistis.

"You know, its really poor manners to have your elbows on the table like that." Quistis observed.

Nida shrugged, "I'm finished eating, and it looks like you are too. Dinner's over."

"Yeah," Quistis sighed. She didn't want it to be. She'd enjoyed Nida's company, far more than she had expected to. She had the whole evening free; she'd completed grading all of the class work she'd taken home that day. She'd been considering calling Selphie, Rinoa or Xu to ask if they wanted to go to the training center with her. She needed the workout, and had to have a partner if she was going to go there.

"Are you doing anything later?" Nida asked her.

"I was thinking about calling one of my friends to go to the training center with me. I need the workout." Quistis answered.

Nida raised his eyebrows, and asked, "Would you mind if I joined you instead?"

Quistis smiled and answered, "No, I wouldn't at all." Such a typically SeeD thing to do, she thought in amusement. Then she sobered. The possibility of death or injury resulting from a training center session, the heightened awareness and surging adrenaline that resulted from it sometimes led to…. other activities, once the secret area was reached. Also a typically SeeD thing to do.

Just a few months ago, the thought of being alone in that type of situation with a male would have pushed her to the edge of panic. Indeed, the mere thought of going out on a date had terrified her. But …much as she hated to admit it, the therapy she'd been receiving had helped. At least now, the thought of going out on a date with a good looking young man actually interested her, rather than frightening her.

"I'd better go get changed. Thanks for joining me for dinner. Meet outside the training center in fifteen minutes?" Quistis asked Nida, standing up and preparing to leave.

He nodded, "See you then."

Nida trailed along behind Quistis trying hard not to be distracted by the view he had of her shapely backside. It wasn't working.

When she'd said she wanted to change he figured she'd just throw on a pair of jeans or sweats, something you could move in and get dirty and not worry about. It was what he had done. Instead, she showed up in a knee length suede skirt, knee high boots, a brief vest that hugged her torso and thin leather sleeves that covered her arms from wrist to shoulder.

The sight of her in that outfit, with her whip hanging from her belt, threatened to melt Nida into a puddle at her feet. Despite the fact that, aside from the vest, it actually covered more than her SeeD uniform had, Nida thought it was sexy as hell. And just the thought of Quistis Trepe, wearing leather with whip in hand, taking charge of a training center session, was incredibly hot. Actually seeing it? Off the charts.

He was going to need a cold shower after this.

Unless…. He thought briefly about the secret area in the middle of the training center, and what tended to go on there. If things progressed to that point tonight, he'd be ecstatic, but he wouldn't push for it. As attracted as he was to her, Nida wanted more than just a hot, sweaty grope in the secret area with her. He wanted several hot, sweaty gropes…as many as he could manage. If cooling off and keeping his hands to himself tonight made that more likely later on, he'd behave, and wait.

And ache as he watched her leather encased ass sashay through the tropical foliage ahead of him.

Fortunately, they encountered enough grats and bite bugs to keep him focused and to work off his excitement. Sort of. But even that, watching as Quistis confidently snapped her whip at the creatures, cutting them to pieces with the wicked lash, fascinated him.

It distracted him enough that a grat that had come at them from the side nearly got him. Movement, barely glimpsed out the corner of his eyes, caused him to instinctively duck and strike out with his sword, slicing off the tentacle of the attacking monster. Dancing backward, he parried the remaining tentacles, slicing them off one by one before he slew the thing.

The monster toppled toward him with a dying cry and he leaped backward, slamming right into Quistis and sending them both tumbling to the ground in a tangle.

"Ugh! OOF! Nida!" She exclaimed, landing flat on her back.

Nida ended up landing awkwardly, halfway on top of her. At least he'd had the sense to drop his sword before he fell, thereby avoiding inadvertently impaling her with it. All the instructions he'd ever had as a cadet ran through his mind in that moment and he winced inwardly, embarrassed at just how many stupid mistakes he'd just made.

Fool! Idiot! What were you thinking? Too busy looking at her ASS to pay attention? Some SeeD you are, dipstick! Nida berated himself, feeling his cheeks warm with mortification. Placing his hands carefully on either side of her body, Nida lifted himself up off of her and sat up on his knees.

"Are you okay?" he asked, gazing anxiously down at her.

She shifted, giving Nida a tantalizing glimpse of thigh before she levered herself upright and sat up, brushing the hem of her skirt back down. Nida sighed softly in disappointment.

"I'm fine." Quistis answered, brushing grass off her skirt and reaching for her whip.

Swallowing, he looked away, saying, "I'm sorry, that was really stupid."

Frowning slightly, Quistis asked, "What happened?"

"I was… distracted." Nida admitted carefully.

"By what? You know you need to pay attention when you come in here." Quistis said severely.

By you. By that sexy as hell suede outfit and how hot you look in it. Nida thought privately.

Answering aloud, he said, "I know. Just so you know, I'm not normally this clumsy."

Quistis raised one eyebrow and folded her arms across her chest, saying, "I know. You seem to be having a problem with your focus today."

Tell me about it. Nida thought, attention caught by her beautiful summer-blue eyes. She'd left the glasses off, making them easier to see. Her creamy skin wore an attractive flush from their exertions, and the fine dew of sweat that had gathered on her brow and glistened in the hollow of her neck put Nida in mind of how she'd look in the afterglow of hot, steamy….

Shaking himself out of those very arousing thoughts, Nida stood up and reached his hand down, offering to help Quistis to her feet as well.

Clearing his throat, he looked away while she finished brushing her skirt off, replying, "Yeah. It's been a long week for me." A long seven months actually, if one counts the last time I actually got laid… Nida thought ruefully. That was most likely his entire problem. He was so damn horny he couldn't think straight.

All the more reason to find a big monster to fight to work off his pent-up energy.

Gesturing for Quistis to follow with his head, he continued up the trail, this time in the lead. Maybe if she weren't in front of him, he'd find it easier to focus. She followed for a few steps before catching up and walking beside him.

"What do you mean, it's been a long week for you? We haven't gone anywhere." Quistis said, glancing over at him.

Nida sighed, and then responded, "Just because I'm not piloting Garden anywhere at the moment, doesn't mean I've got all kinds of free time. Who do you think keeps this thing running in the first place?"

"You?" Quistis asked, interested. Nida nodded.

"You know, I hadn't thought about it before. After we got everything fixed up in FH, I just didn't think about it after that. But it makes sense; someone's got to maintain this garden and everything in it." Quistis mused, eyeing Nida with newfound respect.

"To be fair, I'm not the only one that does the maintenance. We actually have a crew that was trained along with me in FH, and there are a couple of backup pilots to take over when I'm not available, like for Squall's wedding. But I am in charge of Garden maintenance. Anything that needs to be fixed or isn't working right, gets reported to either Squall or me, and I make sure it's taken care of." Nida clarified.

"That's almost as important a job as what Squall does." Quistis commented.

"Almost." Nida said, warmed by her comment. A distant rumbling roar caught his attention and he glanced over at Quistis.

"Sounds like a T-rexaur coming. You up for it?" he asked her, drawing his sword.

Taking her whip out of the loop at her belt, she snapped it in preparation, and nodded. They both checked their junctions and discussed their strategy, then settled down to wait for the monster to attack. It didn't take long.

The monster burst through the foliage with a roar, charging straight at Quistis. Nida quickly cast a blind spell while Quistis beat the creature back with repeated lashes from her Save the Queen whip. It popped and cracked as she advanced upon the monster, each lash taking a strip of hide with it. The rexaur cried in pain and tried a similar move with its tail, but missed due to the blind spell.

While Quistis held the dinosaur off with her whip, Nida summoned his GF. Aeryon wasn't the strongest GF around, but it did help. And when it manifested, it never failed to incite comment. A distant shriek, a blur of feathers and talons, and the great, golden phoenix-eagle stooped down upon the hapless dinosaur, knocking it to the ground with its diving firaga attack. The guardian perched briefly upon its ko'd foe, magnificent wings spread wide, ruby eyes studying them both, before it shrieked again and leaped into the air, disappearing into the void from whence it came.

Quistis stared after it, asking breathlessly, "That's your GF? I've never seen that one before." Nida shrugged, sheathing his sword and starting to walk toward the secret area.

"It's registered under my profile. I came across it a few years ago after killing a huge elnoyle on a training exercise. It's pretty handy to have with me when I'm working in the MD level. It looks like a giant phoenix-eagle, but it's actually a fire elemental, like Ifrit." Nida answered her, breathing hard from his exertions as well. He had no idea how long they'd been in the training center but he was getting tired, and a break in the secret area sounded perfect.

Quistis also needed a moment to catch her breath, and agreed readily when he indicated the door to the secret area. He opened it for her, and followed her inside.

Nida noticed right away that they had the place to themselves as Quistis crossed over to the railing and leaned against it, still breathing deeply. He turned his mind forcibly from contemplating the obvious opportunity and instead leaned against the railing next to her, concentrating on the view from the overlook. Quistis sighed, prompting Nida to look over at her.

"That was fun," she smiled at him, breathing easier, heartbeat calming as she rested against the rail. She fanned at her face with a hand, trying to cool her overheated skin. The excitement from the battle, her racing heart and surging adrenaline was still with her. It made her more aware of the attractive young man that stood beside her, the warmth and weight of his body and his scent that the brief contact they'd shared in the training center seemed to have imprinted upon her mind.

The calm, rational part of her mind told her it was reaction from the proximity of danger that made her want to pounce on him and…. The visceral part of her that was reacting to the coiled tension low in her belly clamored at her to just do it. She wasn't so blind that she didn't see his interest, and didn't think he'd resist if she followed through with that urge. They were completely alone in this place, and there were enough shadowed corners that even if someone showed up, they could remain unobserved.

Quistis suddenly remembered that despite the length of time she'd spent at Balamb Garden as both a student and an instructor, the only time that she'd ever come to the secret area for any reason was when she'd come there with Squall the night of his graduation to SeeD. That night had not turned out as she'd hoped, and afterward, she'd been too busy with other concerns to have another opportunity. Not with Squall, certainly. Rinoa's appearance had made that impossible. And while Quistis had dated since, she had not dated anyone in Balamb Garden.

Nida leaned on his elbows at the railing, gazing at her and smiling, then he said, "It was. I'd like to do it again with you sometime. Let me know if you need a partner next time you come in here."

Quistis' smile grew wider at she said, "Certainly. Going by what I saw today, you look like you could use the practice."

Nida grimaced, "That was…. I was not at my best, that's all I can say about that. Trust me, I'm much better, usually. I wouldn't have been able to go down into the MD level so much and come back intact otherwise."

Quistis raised both eyebrows, considering that, and replied, "That's true enough. Practice wouldn't hurt though. I need to come in here more than I have been lately."

Nida nodded, studying her flushed and dewy appearance, and said without thinking, "You look hot in that." Then he groaned inwardly as he realized how it sounded and wanted to smack himself on the forehead.

Quistis blinked, surprised, then bit back a smile.

"The leather I mean. It looks hot…warm, I mean warm…" he stammered, cheeks heating up. He ran his fingers through his hair and groaned. God Nida, you are SUCH an idiot!

Quistis smiled at his discomfiture. His fumbling attempts to cover his verbal gaffe were actually very cute. And the slight flush visible along his cheekbones, even in the dim lighting of the secret area, made Quistis want to suddenly grab him and kiss him.

Taking pity on him, she replied, "It is warm, but more comfortable than you think. The leather's tougher and more durable than fabric, and it does breathe. It feels nice too, moves well with the body." Then she grinned, adding, "And it does look good."

Nida nodded in agreement, not trusting himself to say anything further. He'd already put his foot in it enough. But his hands itched to touch the leather that hugged her body.

Tilting her head to one side, Quistis added with a wink, "You look good too. I don't think I've seen you in anything other than your uniform."

"Thanks." Nida said. Suddenly, he was tongue-tied. He'd envisioned himself impressing her with his sparkling personality and making her laugh with his wit. Now, he was exactly where he'd wanted to be for so long, it wasn't even funny, and he couldn't think of anything intelligent to say. The only thing he'd managed was a stupid comment about her leather outfit. Brilliant.

Then, Quistis licked her lips, and Nida couldn't take it anymore.

"I'm sorry, but I have to do this…" Nida murmured before he closed the short distance between them and planted his lips onto hers. Soft. They were so soft. And sweet, and she fit him perfectly; he discovered that when he pulled her close against his body. Just tall enough that she was easy to kiss, lean and lithe, golden and gorgeous. His hands roamed the velvety soft leather covering her firm curves, the soft silk of her skin when he slipped his hand slightly beneath the bottom edge of her vest just above her waist. He was swept away in the contrast between warm leather and smooth skin, in her taste, texture and scent. Lost in her.

And suddenly elated that she not only wasn't resisting him, but actually kissing him back.

They came up for air with Nida's hands in her hair and his eyes locked with hers. He suddenly began to worry that he'd started off too fast. He'd wanted to take a bit more time with her, but now that he'd tasted her lips, he wanted more. So much more.

"Quistis, I…." He began, but the words died on his tongue as he began drowning in her blue, blue eyes again.

"Shut up and kiss me." she whispered. He wordlessly complied, devouring her mouth until they were both breathless, then turning his attention to her neck, tasting the salt on her skin and breathing in the mingled scent of leather and her.

He pressed her back against the railing, causing her head to fall back as he ran his tongue down her neck to the glistening hollow between her breasts that had been driving him mad all night. She combed her hands thorough his hair, her short, ragged breaths encouraging him to further exploration.

He worked a hand beneath her snug vest, discovering only then that she hadn't worn a bra as he caressed a soft breast. She pulled him close against her, close enough that she could feel how she was affecting him.

He groaned as she ground her hips against his and whispered, "You're killing me Quistis, I want you so badly right now."

"What's stopping you?" she whispered back breathlessly, nipping at his bottom lip before pulling him into another searing kiss.

What indeed? What about the fact that just moments before, he'd decided to back off, take it slow? What about the fact that as hot as it was to have sex with her right then and there, he wanted more than just that?

It was with great difficulty he pulled back, breathing hard and nearly trembling as he tenderly stroked her cheek, saying, "I want more than this, Quistis."

"What? What do you mean?" She asked, mind in a confused fog of desire.

"I want more than a one time fling. And I don't want our first time together to be here." Nida said, kissing her gently.

Rubbing his thumb gently across her swollen and well-kissed bottom lip, he added, "Come out with me Friday. I mean, actually out. Nice restaurant, fancy clothes, the whole bit."

Swallowing, Quistis nodded, saying softly, "Okay. I will." Nida smiled and Quistis sighed at the way it lit up his eyes.

"I think we'd better call it a night." Nida said.

"Alright." Quistis sighed, then asked, indicating his still evident excitement, "Um… what about…?"

Nida laughed ruefully as he pulled back from her and led her toward the door, "Cold shower. Don't worry Quistis, I'll live."