Chapter 17: Burnout.

The Galbadian sun beat down upon an empty stretch of black asphalt, sending shimmers of heat skyward. Silence reigned upon the lonely road for a space of several heartbeats. Then a vibration started, making the small grains of sand upon the surface of the road tremble. The trembling increased as a low thrumming sound began. It grew louder, changing gradually from a low thrum to a growl. As the volume increased, so did its pitch, changing from a growl to a roar, and then moving from a roar to a scream. The source of the sound came into view and hurtled past like flash of black lightning, revealing itself briefly to be a low-slung, black sports car.

Anonymous in a similarly black, visored helmet and jumpsuit, the driver flicked deftly through the gears as the pitch of the engine changed in response. Approaching the turn, the car's driver, attention sharply focused on the feel of the car's tires upon the asphalt, the forces of friction and acceleration that it was subject to, bent the steering wheel slightly. The car's speed and the bank of the turn guided it into the "sweet spot", the place where all the forces combined to speed the car through the turn and around it, flinging it onto the straightaway like a slingshot.

As the road straightened, the driver increased the pressure on the gas pedal. The car leapt forward and raced along the stretch; approaching the pit area and the two figures that stood within, well back from the track.

Suddenly, one of the figures raised a flag and started waving it madly. The driver shifted downward with a sigh, decreasing speed, preparing to pull into the pit in answer to the summons.

The car pulled to a stop and the engine was cut as the flag waver, a middle-aged man wearing a slate gray jumpsuit emblazoned with the track's logo approached. A younger blond woman wearing sunglasses, cut off denim shorts, and a blue t-shirt with Balamb Garden's SeeD emblem screen printed on the front, followed him.

As they made their way over to the sports car, the driver opened the door and stepped out, removing the helmet and running gloved fingers through sweaty, jet-black hair.

The sound of an engine running at high revs caught everyone's attention and they watched as a motorcyclist took the track and raced down the back straightaway and through the turn, then accelerated up the track toward them, nearly popping a wheelie in the process. The rider slowed the bike upon reaching the pit and pulled in, parking well off to the side and out of the way.

"Well Mr. Nida, that car of yours just posted a lap time any pro racer would be proud of. She's fully stock, no modifications?" the pit boss asked.

"I rebuilt the engine to factory spec. Everything's as original as I could get it." Nida answered, smiling as Quistis joined them. She slipped her arm about his waist and he bent down to give her a quick kiss.

"Looks like our guest has arrived. Never expected him to turn up on a motorcycle," Nida observed as the rider got off the bike and removed his helmet, revealing a shock of close-cropped, brown hair.

"How's she running?" the man asked as he approached, blue eyes bright and interested.

"Fine. Mickey and I did a bit of fine-tuning before I put her on the track. No longer flat on the top end and she's in fine form now." Nida answered him, indicating the pit boss.

"Well…Nida is it? Is that your first name or your last name? I didn't see anything else on your ID when I saw it…" the man asked.

"To be honest, I'm not sure. It's the only name I've got. I'm a war orphan and they couldn't find my birth records. Just call me Nida." Nida explained. The man frowned slightly at this but didn't comment on it.

"Thanks for inviting me along Nida," the officer said politely, putting his hand out to shake Nida's in greeting.

Turning to Quistis, he asked, "And…is it Quistis? As in Quistis Trepe?"

"It is," She answered.

"I thought you looked familiar. The name clinched it. So you were part of that team out of Balamb Garden weren't you? You worked with Commander Leonhart to sort out that Sorceress business a few years ago, right?" he asked her, eyes widening in recognition.

"That's right. I still work with Commander Leonhart, as a matter of fact." Quistis answered him.

The man bowed slightly, hand to his heart, before extending it toward Quistis, saying, "Then I am honored to meet you, Miss Trepe." She took his hand and shook it firmly.

He returned his attention to Nida, his respect for the young man deepening as he said, "Thank you again for inviting me."

"You're welcome officer Jameson." Nida replied.

"Just call me Kenny. I'm not on duty today." The man grinned at them. "I can't wait to get that beauty on the track to see what she can do."

"Well, I can tell ya what this fella here made it do," The pit boss said. "He came within a hair of the track record with this little beauty. A twenty year old, stock sports car, and he was just a second off from the record!"

The officer turned his attention to Nida, eyebrows raised, and said, "Wow. That's impressive. Now I really want to drive her!"

"Be my guest." Nida said, stepping away from the car, Quistis still at his side, and handing the man his keys. "Clutch and shift are both on the steering wheel. Leave the windows down, there's no air conditioning in it and it's hot as sin today. You'll roast in the leathers and helmet. No power steering either, but she's in perfect alignment and once you get going you really don't need to muscle her around the corners. The forward momentum will power you through just fine."

Tossing the keys, the man nodded, saying, "Got it!"

Quistis, Nida and Mickey, the pit boss, walked back to the barrier and got behind it, leaving Kenny, the highway patrol officer, to get into the car, buckle up and start the engine. After putting on his helmet he gave them all a thumbs up and put the car into gear, pulling sedately away from them as he made his way to the track from the pit area. He picked up speed gradually; obviously working on getting a feel for the car and the way it operated.

The pit boss, Mickey, got his stopwatch out and held it ready, waiting for Kenny to make his first pass by the pit before starting the timer. They watched as the car, by now traveling at a good speed, sailed cleanly through the far turn and started up the straightaway behind them, the engine's roar audible even from the far end of the track. The sound changed as Kenny changed gears and the car leaped forward, the roar increasing in pitch to a scream.

"Did you want to take another run when he gets back?" Nida asked Quistis, who shook her head.

"No. It's getting on toward lunch, and I seem to recall a visit to the library being factored into our plans." She answered. "Perhaps we should invite our new friend along to lunch?"

Nida shrugged, "I'll ask him."

Kenny made several passes before they had Mickey flag him into the pit. He pulled up and stopped, cutting the engine before getting out of the car and removing his helmet, revealing a wide grin.

"That was awesome! What a rush!" He said, approaching them and handing Nida his keys. "Thanks so much for inviting me. She's everything I thought she'd be and more!"

"Yeah, she was the love of my life up until recently," Nida replied, giving Quistis a warm look.

She smiled at him and poked him in the side, saying, "Careful, you'll make her jealous."

"She still gets plenty of attention from me, so it's all good." Nida replied calmly.

"True enough," Quistis said.

Kenny chuckled, "you know, I've never thought of a machine as having a personality before, but after driving your car, I'm inclined to think otherwise. I could swear she was actually enjoying the chance to open up and run."

"As old as she is, she's no delicate flower. She does like to work." Nida said.

"Well, I'm just glad you decided to pull over that afternoon and not try to make a race of it. I hate to say this but she would have outpaced our Interceptors quite handily, and they're no kiddie cars either." He responded.

"Really? What do your Interceptors have under the hood?" Nida asked curiously.

Quistis watched the two men in amusement as they veered off into an intense discussion of the technical specs of Galbadia's highway patrol cars in comparison with Sally's capabilities and those of the newer models of sports cars currently available.

Seeing the two men deep in conversation, Mickey chuckled and turned to Quistis, saying, "They'll be occupied for awhile miss. I've got some cold drinks in a mini fridge in my office. Are you interested?"

"I could do with something cold to drink. It's gotten rather warm today." She answered.

"Well, standin' out in the sun like you've been for the past coupla hours will certainly take its toll. I'll give ya a couple more to bring back to the guys after you've had a bit of a break." The man said, adding, "Follow me."

Quistis did as he'd requested, leaving Nida to his rather animated conversation with the off-duty officer.

"Okay, I've got to ask, since the subject hasn't actually come up yet. What exactly do you do at Balamb Garden?" Kenny asked curiously.

"Well, pretty much anything they need me to, really," Nida answered. Out of deference to the heat, he'd removed the black leather jacket that he'd been wearing earlier, leaving just the white t-shirt and black jeans he'd put on that morning.

"Officially, I'm Balamb Garden's pilot. Which means if we need to go anywhere, I'm the one that gets it there. Unofficially, I'm also the Chief Engineer, though that's not an actual position within Garden that I'm aware of. That means I'm also in charge of Garden maintenance. It breaks, I fix it." Nida explained.

Kenny raised his eyebrows, impressed. He'd also removed his leather jacket, folding it and laying it across the seat of his motorcycle. Going over to it now, he reached into the breast pocket of the jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. After removing one and putting it in his mouth, he tilted the pack at Nida in offer, putting it back at the other man's polite refusal in the form of a headshake.

"Don't smoke eh? Can't say I blame you. Wife's always after me to quit." Kenny said, lighting up.

"Never cared for it, personally. Plus I'm training for the SeeD games. Seems counterintuitive to smoke when the bulk of my events involve running." Nida replied.

"There is that," the man said, nodding. "What events do you do?"

Nida's lips quirked in a half smile as he answered, "just about all of them. I'm doing the decathlon."

Kenny started chuckling, "Man, you are too much. You make me feel like a real slacker."

"How so?" Nida asked, wondering at the man's humor.

"What are you, twenty?"

"Twenty-two, actually." Nida answered. I think…

"Twenty-two. And you're a full SeeD, you pilot and maintain that big-ass Garden of yours. I've seen it; I have no idea how it even moves much less how you drive it. If that isn't enough for one guy, you've rebuilt the most beautiful car ever made to perfection and you've got a beautiful girlfriend…Quistis Trepe, no less. Nice work there, by the way." Taking a drag off his cigarette, Kenny added, "Me? At twenty-two I was just getting out of the army and trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do next. I'm thirty-three now, been married almost ten years to a wonderfully patient lady, got two kids, and I enjoy my job but I can honestly say that I haven't accomplished even half of what you've done. Hell, I'm not even a patrol supervisor. I am however, putting in for sergeant."

"I envy you." Nida said quietly. The man stared at him, stunned.

"Why?" he finally asked.

"The life you have now is the one that I want for myself some day. I grew up in a military academy. I have no family, no name; I don't even know the day I was born. Quistis is the same. All of us at Garden are orphans of the First Sorceress war. What I do now is what I've been trained to do. It's the only life I know. I didn't choose it. Neither did Quistis. And at any moment, for any reason, that life could end. In spite of that however I can't help hoping that I can somehow manage a future life like the one you have now." Nida answered. Then he added, "In my line of work, an exciting day can end in a fatality. It's not always a good thing, excitement."

Kenny sobered and said gravely, "same with mine. Boring is good. Routine is good. But sometimes shit hits the fan and it's on you to chase down and catch the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy dies. And sometimes it's the good guy that gets it instead." He finished his cigarette and dropped it at his feet, stamping it out. "Few months back, a buddy of mine went to pull a guy over for a broken taillight. For a wonder, the guy actually pulled over and stopped instead of running. Maybe he was playing it cool. Who knows? So, my friend calls it in, gets out and walks up to the car to ask for license, registration, you know, the usual routine. Before he could even ask the driver for it, the bastard pulls out a gun and shoots my friend in the face and takes off. Turned out he'd just robbed a mom and pop gas and go a few miles up the road, killing both clerks. Took awhile but we finally caught the guy and he's on trial now."

Nida sighed and studied the other man, asking, "Your friend wasn't aware of this guy's crime at the time he pulled him over, I take it?"

"No, he wasn't. The crime hadn't been reported yet." Kenny answered, studying his cigarettes as though considering taking another smoke. Finally deciding against it, he shrugged slightly and turned away.

"That sucks." Nida finally said.

"Yeah." Kenny said, and they lapsed into silence for a moment.

"Same thing happened to you, didn't it?" Kenny asked Nida.

After a moment's hesitation, Nida answered, "Yeah, it did. Routine day that was anything but, and it ended up with a good friend of mine dead."

The man tilted his head, studying Nida closely and seeing signs of still fresh grief. Signs that he'd seen in himself and his other co-workers for weeks after Danny's murder.

"This happened recently, didn't it?" he asked.

Nida nodded. "The day you pulled me over. It happened that morning. I was running away, you see. Running away from it for even just a few days, and Quistis? Well, she was coming along as a… as a distraction, though it wasn't how I thought of her then and it isn't how I think of her now."

"Did it help?" Kenny asked.

"Yeah it did. She understood and she knew what I needed. More than I did myself, actually." Nida answered.

Kenny chuckled, looking down at his feet for a moment but declining to comment. He'd already seen the signs himself and wasn't about to fox it for the young SeeD. A woman like that was the kind that a guy ended up marrying. If Nida hadn't already figured that out, he would eventually. He didn't look or sound like he was stupid.

His speculation was confirmed when Quistis reappeared, carrying a dripping bottle in each hand. Nida's expression softened noticeably, and he smiled as she approached, handing him a bottle.

"Here," she said, turning and handing a bottle to Kenny as well. "You guys have been sitting out here chatting away in the sun so long I'm surprised your brains haven't been baked."

"Well," Kenny said, opening the bottle when he confirmed it was nothing more than an ice-cold cola, "I can't speak for Nida here, but I'm already as crazy as a road-lizard. At least that's what my wife said when I told her where I was going this morning."

Quistis and Nida both laughed at this, with Nida commenting, "I guess the SeeDs haven't cornered the market on crazy yet."

"Nope," Kenny said, taking a long drink of his cola and sighing in satisfaction. "Though you come damn close."

Quistis came up to Nida then and slipped her arms around his waist. He pulled her close and smiled down at her.

"Thanks for the drink sweetie. You about ready to call it a morning and go get lunch?" He asked her, giving her a quick kiss.

"Yes," she said. Directing her attention to Kenny, she asked, "Would you like to join us?"

The off-duty officer smiled at them and answered, "some other time, perhaps. I've gotta get home so my wife doesn't think I've done something stupid and crashed your car."

Nida laughed at this, "Fair enough. How about we catch a beer next time I'm in town?"

"You got it. Call me any time you want if you need anything." Kenny said, putting his hand out. Nida frowned slightly and shook it, wondering at the man's phrasing, then handed the man his business card.

"Here's my card. Same thing. Call me whenever." Nida said.

Kenny put his hand out again and shook Quistis' hand as well, saying, "Thanks again for the invite. I never expected you to actually do that, but I'm happy you did. It was a lot of fun."

"Thanks for telling me about this track. I might be coming here on a regular basis, if my schedule allows me to." Nida said.

"Well, if you do, clue me in. I'd like another crack at your Sally." Kenny said, moving over to his motorcycle and picking up his jacket.

"You got it. Take care." Nida said.

Kenny nodded and put on his jacket, zipping it up, then his helmet. He mounted his motorcycle, then offered them a final thumbs up before starting its motor and pulling away.

The silence of the Deling City Public Library was nearly a tangible thing, contained within the pages of the stacks upon stacks of books that resided there. It breathed, that silence; it lived, and had weight and meaning granted to it by that dignified edifice.

Quistis strolled respectfully, quietly among those stacks, paying homage to the silence, appreciating its stateliness and its grace. Her progress through the library was not random; she had a destination in mind, and a purpose to pursue.

Nida, leaving her to her pursuit, had wandered off elsewhere, telling her simply that he'd catch up with her a little later. He knew, despite her never actually having mentioned it to him, what she intended to search for. He was of two minds regarding that search, and did not know if he could contribute anything. Furthermore, he didn't know how he would feel if she should find anything, or if her search proved fruitless.

So, unsure what he should do, he instead left it to Quistis and removed himself from the equation. And felt a coward for doing so.

He had told her everything that he could remember of his early childhood, not that there was much. He honestly didn't know if it would even help, but he did his best to provide her with as much information as he had to give.

Quistis didn't blame him for absenting himself from her quest; she would have felt the same way had it been reversed. But she wanted to at least try. She rather suspected that Nida hadn't. Certainly the orphanage hadn't; during the time that Nida had arrived there, so many orphans like him had come in a similar case that researching and recording their names and birth dates had fallen by the wayside in favor of simply surviving the influx.

So, here she was searching for the section of the library that was devoted to vital records: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and so on.

She marshaled the bare facts about Nida, as she knew them: he was between the age of twenty and twenty-three, and he'd been fairly certain that he was born in Galbadia. That fact was borne out when she, just to be sure, had researched births in Timber for that time frame and had turned up six boys, none of who had ended up in an orphanage. Winhill had only one male child born during that time; Squall.

Deling City had recorded forty boys born during the span of time that Quistis was searching for, and greater Galbadia, including all of the smaller outlying towns and communities, an additional sixteen.

Quistis sighed at this. Fifty-six boys. Not a lot, but still more than she'd expected. Grimly, she bent to the task of sorting them out even further, researching and thus eliminating any boys that had died in infancy or early childhood. Unfortunately, due to the war, the number was distressingly high: fifteen in all, the majority due to injuries.

Interestingly, she came across a couple of names that she recognized during her Timber search: Zone and Watts, learning that Watts was the same age as Rinoa, while Zone was about a year or so older.

The remaining children still encompassed a fairly long list of names, none of which immediately grabbed Quisits as possibly being Nida. The difficulty in determining this arose from the fact that neither Nida nor herself knew if his name was his given name or his family name. Or if it was even his actual name at all. That thought was enough to make Quistis consider giving up. Almost, anyway.

On the first scan of the list, Quistis had ordered them alphabetically by first names. Not finding anything that way, she switched to surnames, again ordering them alphabetically. She still nearly missed it.

"Nabina, Naranda, Nedar, Nelson, Nicholson, Nicos, Nida…." She stopped and double-checked the list again, wondering if she'd mistaken the name. Nida, Christopher A. Born February 2nd, three years before Timber's invasion, in Deling City General Hospital. She stared, heart pounding.

Was it possible? Had she found him? How was it that no one had thought to use Nida as his surname, rather than his given name? Quistis didn't know, but she needed additional information to confirm if this Christopher A. Nida was in fact her Nida.

A search on the name turned up a surprisingly long list; she'd have thought Nida more uncommon a name than it appeared to be. But there had been only one male child of that name born during the span of years that Quistis had been researching. The parents listed on the birth record were David Allen and Renee Elizabeth. Both deceased. Grandparents were also deceased. No other direct relatives living that Quistis could find. At least not without a more exhaustive search, which she didn't have time to do right at the moment.

Glancing at her watch, Quistis was surprised to note that she'd been buried in vital records for well over two hours. She wondered where Nida had gone…he hadn't made any comments for or against what Quistis had intended to do today, answering her questions and giving her as much information as he could. But she could tell he wasn't exactly comfortable with it either. She could guess why.

Looking at the name on the computer again, Quistis selected and printed all the information about Christopher A. Nida that she could. It would take a good bit more research to confirm if this was in fact Nida's real name and birth date, but Quistis had a strong feeling that she was on the right track.

She got up and retrieved the printed paperwork, folding it and putting it into her purse. She could continue the research in Balamb. Now that she had a direction to go, the resources she had to hand would make it much easier to track down and confirm the fates of David and Renee Nida, and of their son Christopher. It might even tell her what the boy's middle name was. Quistis rather liked that idea.

It would be easy enough to connect the dots; they already had a record of the orphanage that Nida had come from in Garden's personnel files.

Quistis left the vital records section and saw Nida's tall form striding down the aisle toward her. She smiled and simply admired him, heart fluttering in her chest as she watched his approach, his body lean and hard, and his every movement graceful and precise. An athlete and a warrior, whose body was his weapon; then she looked up into his face and met his hazel eyes. Warmth, intelligence and humor glittered in those multicolored depths; intelligence that provided an edge to the weapon he was. Warmth and humor to provide humanity to someone whose life and childhood could so easily have extinguished those finer qualities.

"Done?" he asked her.

"For now." She answered.

He paused, then took her hand. Frowning down at it, he caressed the backs of her knuckles with his thumb.

Taking a deep breath, still staring down at their hands as though afraid to meet her eyes, he asked softly, "Find anything?"

Quistis smiled gently. Yes. It meant something to him, something that he was afraid to acknowledge. Still, she hesitated. She wanted to be sure before she told him anything; she didn't want to get his hopes up only to have them dashed if it didn't pan out.

She squeezed his hand gently and answered, "maybe. I have to do a bit more checking to be sure."

He met her eyes then, swallowing then nodding. Licking his lips, he replied, "I understand."

Quistis' heart thumped painfully at the almost lost look in his eyes. He really was an open book, a far cry from Squall's deliberate inscrutability. Perhaps that was why Nida had really never done a field assignment; or perhaps he'd simply decided that in her case, he would hide nothing. She preferred to think the latter, knowing that Nida's skills wouldn't have gained him his ascension to SeeD if he'd been lacking in any way.

"You want to go get dinner now?" He finally asked her, deciding to focus on more mundane concerns for the moment.

"Yes." Quistis said.

"Dancing after, if you're up for it?" Nida asked, one corner of his mouth tilting up in a half-smile.

"Definitely." Quistis smiled back.

Lacing her fingers through his, Nida started toward the Library's lobby, asking, "So what are you in the mood for tonight, dinner-wise?"

"I don't know…nothing too heavy, not if we're going to be dancing afterward." Quistis answered.

Nida raised his eyebrows and said, "It's dancing Quiss, not a marathon. It's not that strenuous."

"It can be if you want it to be," Quistis responded.

"Well, let's get dinner figured out first, then we can argue about the dancing," Nida said with a quirk to his lips.

Quistis laughed softly at that, "I wasn't arguing, just wondering if I should limber up first. I mean, there are all kinds of different dance clubs in Deling. Just want to know what to expect."

"Well…I already know you can do ballroom. We can do that if you want to. There's a rave club we could go to if you're into that, or maybe a honky-tonk…" Quistis snorted at that and Nida grinned at her, "Okay, I'm guessing the honky-tonk's out?"

"Yeah, that's more Irvine's thing. Besides, I suck at two-step." Quistis said.

"Well, it doesn't matter to me what we do. I'm easy." Nida said, releasing her hand to slip his arm around her waist instead.

"I know," Quistis replied with a smirk.

Nida chuckled as he reached for the door handle and opened it for her, then he reclaimed her after they exited the library and walked out into the parking lot where Sally waited for them. The afternoon was well on its way to evening, the light taking on the golden quality that preceded dusk, promising a beautiful sunset in the next hour or so.

Opening the car's door for Quistis, Nida stole a quick kiss from her before closing it and coming around the car to slide into the driver's seat. The engine sprang to life in a throaty growl when he turned the key, something that never failed to thrill him. Then he glanced over at Quistis and she smiled brilliantly, eyes sparkling, and a different sort of thrill fluttered in the pit of his stomach.

"There's a really good seafood place on the waterfront," he suggested. "Care for some grilled seafin?"

"I'm actually kind of surprised that you haven't gotten tired of fish yet," Quistis commented with a smile. His diet while training, protein dense though it was, had been rather heavy on the fish lately.

"I like fish. And we do live on an island so it's a little hard to get away from." Nida said with a shrug as he steered the car out of the library's parking lot and into the flow of traffic, headed toward the wharf. "We could do something else if you'd rather, though I hear this particular place makes a really spectacular fisherman's stew."

"Sounds good," Quistis said, suddenly conscious of how long it had been since lunch.

"I thought so," Nida smiled at her.

They arrived at the restaurant shortly thereafter. Quistis wondered briefly, as they entered and were quickly ushered to a table, if she should have changed clothes or dressed differently. What she was currently wearing; a cream linen pencil skirt and peach colored sleeveless silk top, had been chosen mostly for comfort, as the afternoon had been very warm. As she had no idea what sort of dancing Nida had in mind, she didn't know if it would be appropriate or not.

The cut off shorts and tee shirt she'd worn at the track that morning had been soaked through with sweat and she didn't want to wander around the Deling City library in that getup anyway. Nida too had cleaned up and changed, and looked coolly casual in a white cotton shirt with the cuffs rolled up to his elbows, and blue jeans. To Quistis' admittedly prejudiced eye, it displayed his lean figure wonderfully, making her sigh at the corded strength his forearms displayed beneath the rolled up cuffs of his shirt.

She wasn't the only woman there who was looking either, and she hid her smile at the appreciative glances he received. It gave her a bit of a thrill to have someone so handsome and yet so unaware of it, whose attention was focused solely upon her.

Dinner was a low-key, relaxed affair, and they talked mostly of inconsequential subjects. Quistis knew that Nida was still thinking about her search and what she'd found so far, but had thus far shied away from mentioning it.

"So I was thinking," Nida said as he sipped at his beer. "There's this club I've been to a few times that you may like. Dark, loud, pulsing music, lotta sweaty people pressed close together…"

"Oh?" Quistis asked, intrigued. "Hard rock, techno-pop or rave?"

"Little bit of everything. Hell, I've even seen them put on a slow dance or two. Interested?" He asked, setting his beer down and waiting for her answer.

Quistis smiled, trying to ignore the flutter in her stomach. She wasn't one for dance clubs, particularly after she'd split from Sean. Of course, she'd been so frightened that he'd find a way to get at her that she'd literally hidden from the world for months. But…she felt safe with Nida. It would be all right.

That was what she told herself anyway, forcibly pushing aside the unsettling encounter in the bookstore just a few weeks ago.

She smiled warmly, firmly ignoring the cold frisson up her spine that the memory gave her, and said, "Sounds like fun."

There was something primal in the thumping bass pulse of the music that permeated the club. Nida had been right; it was dark, with periodic flashes of strobe lights, noisy, full of people…perfect. Most of the people were indeed pressed close together, the collective warmth and the sexually charged pheromones that they emitted adding to the atmosphere of aggressive sensuality.

Quistis didn't even care what music was playing. She spent the bulk of the time on the dance floor, pressed so close to Nida that she felt as though she was merging with him. Indeed, the uncertain lighting lent itself to covert trysts that Quistis was sure were occurring all around them. Certainly the brief clothing and suggestive movements that were largely in evidence did little to dispel that notion.

And despite the press of people and the very public location, the darkness and the surging crowd created an odd sort of intimacy, making it not only possible but also even probable that more than just simulated sex was taking place on the dance floor.

It was light-years away from anything that Quistis would have ordinarily done. Now however, she couldn't think of anyplace that she would rather be, right at that moment.

The music slowed from its frenetic rhythm to something slower, sweeter, and more sensual, and Quistis swayed with Nida, paying scant attention to the dance itself. She closed her eyes and leaned into him, letting her sweat mingle with his, inhaling the warm, clean scent of his exertions. His heart thudded beneath her ear as he caught his breath from the last, very energetic song that they'd danced to.

It was a moment, one of many that she'd had recently with Nida, that she wanted to stand still and simply savor. Let it sink into her memory and color her life. Become a part of her past and her future. Resting her head against his chest with her eyes closed, Quistis couldn't help thinking that she was a better person for having him in her life. A braver one, certainly.

She sighed deeply and let go of her tension and anxiety, letting it hiss out of her with her breath. Nothing was there that could hurt her, not while Nida held her in his arms. She felt safe there, protected. Raising her head from his chest, she met his lips and kissed him, a slow, lingering and wetly inflammatory kiss. He tightened his arms around her and simply held her, his warmth and the combined sweat from their exertions welding them together and making Quistis suddenly wish that they were both naked and alone.

Nida's mind was obviously running along the same track, evidenced when he pulled back and whispered breathlessly, "Let's get out of here and head back to our room."

"Yes." Quistis whispered back, seizing his lower lip gently between her teeth, drawing it in and sucking on it briefly before letting him go and stepping back.

Heat shot straight to his groin and Nida growled deep in his throat, giving her a look that was equal parts lust and frustration. She smiled back at him, a secret smile full of promise and allure, eyes glittering in the uncertain light. Slipping his arm around her waist, he guided her through the throngs of undulating humanity, the pulsing music thumping in time with his heart, with a tightening, uncomfortable echo in his trousers.

They slipped through the crowd, intent only upon each other, completely unaware of the hot, hostile glare of the tall man who had been watching them intently, hidden against the club's wall in deep shadow.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: WHOOO! At LAST! I don't know why it's taken me so long to finish this chapter...too many distractions at hand to draw my attention away from it, i guess. Those distractions are decreasing, so I SHOULD be able to concentrate more readily on this and my other stories. I'm not giving up on this one, despite the fact that it's not my most popular story and I take so long to update it. So, yeah, I'm gonna keep at it. Be patient with me.