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Lessa

[PP - F3] Sanctuary

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"I am terribly sorry that you feel that way. In fact, I might challenge you to reconsider. Why not spend an evening with us? Look around, speak with my family, live as we do. You may find your initial impressions were incorrect."

Bahr narrowed his eyes at the invitation. Even though there hadn't been anything outwardly malicious about the compound or its "flock" yet, Bahr still found himself unable to put any trust in this man. He had already lied to them once - what was stopping him from doing it again? Bahr nudged Lessa with his elbow before saying, "Excuse us for just a moment."

"Of course," Brother Dominic replied with a cringy bow, which earned an eye roll from Bahr.

He gently tugged Lessa to the side, huddling with her away from Dominic and Olivia. He kept his voice low and steady as to avoid being overheard. "I'm getting some really weird vibes here. Like, cult vibes. What do you think?" he asked, his inquiry meant to gauge whether or not staying would be worth it.

"Yeah, it's definitely a little culty," she responded thoughtfully, offering a nod toward Bahr. "But this place is a safe zone, so I don't think we're in any danger. Plus, we haven't found Rainey yet." She then shrugged, before continuing, "Aren't you at least a little bit curious? I mean, about what's going on here?"

He thought about it for a moment, before responding, "I guess, maybe, to some extent. I'm more than happy to let these religious freaks sort themselves out in a place like this. Isolated from the rest of the castle." He cast a wary glance to Brother Dominic out of the corner of his eye before continuing. "Either way, you're right. Looks like we might need to jump through some hoops to find Rainey."

"Yeah, might as well try. That way, if we go back empty handed, we don't have to feel too guilty because we did our best. And I guess there's worse places in Aincrad to spend the night."

Yeah, but there are better places, too...

"Guess we're in agreement, then."

They broke their huddle and walked back over to the pair, skepticism still playing in Bahr's eyes as he delivered their decision. "Alright, we'll play along. Spend the night here. But if we do this, we expect you to follow through and show us to Rainey."

"Splendid!" Brother Domingo exclaimed with another clap, the smile he wore somehow stretching even further than before. "You won't be disappointed. Dinner should be ready soon, please make yourselves at home while we finish the preparations." With that, the bizarre goon turned on his heels and exited the room, each of his steps every bit as deliberate as his every word an action. Once he had departed, it left Bahr and Lessa along with Olivia, who simply stood by awkwardly. 

"I guess we should, um... take a look around."

 

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"So," Lessa began conversationally after Dominic had walked away. She offered Olivia a warm, inviting smile. "Does he pretend that you're someone else often?" When the other player merely gazed back, Lessa blinked a few times. She hooked her arm through Bahr's and led him toward the roof's entrance. "Do you think she's mute?" she whispered conspiratorially into the man's ear. "Or deaf?" Together, they left the garden behind and descended back into the dim stairwell. Finally away from not-Rainey, Lessa spoke a bit louder. "That would be pretty cruel. Using the girl who can't do anything about it." 

It took only a couple of minutes for the pair to reach the main floor. Just as they stepped into the main hallway, another player materialized beside them. The woman simply exuded warmth, warmth radiating from the smile that dominated her plump face. Her cheeks were rosy, and her hazel eyes shifted from Lessa, to Bahr, and back again. "Hello you two!" she exclaimed, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and making her brown bob sway. 

You two? That was an oddly personal greeting, considering they were just two players who...

Lessa glanced down, and saw with horror that they were still arm-in-arm. Whoops. Slowly, so not to be obvious (or insulting) she slid herself free. "Uh, hi."

The woman gave a knowing chuckle that made Lessa's skin crawl. "So you must be Lessa and Bahr. I'm Sister Nancy."

You look like a Nancy. "Wait, how do you know our names?"

"Word travels fast around here." Nancy extended one hand, motioning to their surroundings as she spoke. 

Lessa saw an opening, and quickly asked, "Would you mind explaining to us what 'here' is? Where we are?" At Nancy's polite yet aloof expression, the woman tried again. "We don't quite understand what's going on here."

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"Do you think she's mute? Or deaf?"

Bahr's conspiracy senses were tingling. He was so wrapped up in all of the possible implications of what Lessa had just said that he didn't even notice her arm snaked around his own. 

"That would be pretty cruel. Using the girl who can't do anything about it."
"That would be so messed up, using her like that when she can't do anything about it."


He eyed Lessa incredulously as they practically jinxed one another, his attention stolen by the plump woman that very suddenly accosted the pair in the hallway.

"Hello you two!" she beamed, prompting Lessa to slink away from Bahr. "So you must be Lessa and Bahr. I'm Sister Nancy."

Nancy.

"Wait, how do you know our names?"
"... You know our names?"


Another glance stolen from Lessa as they delivered almost identical inquiries. This was starting to get weird.

"Word travels fast around here," she responded with a rather grandiose motion with her hand to a brick wall. Was she saying that the walls had eyes or something?

"Would you mind explaining to us what 'here' is? Where we are?" Bahr held himself back from speaking this time when Lessa began. "We don't quite understand what's going on here." Good thing, too, because he was basically just going to say the same thing.

"Well, we're a guild, of course! But more than that, we're one big family. One by one, Brother Dominic has shown us the Light, and we have all felt the majesty of his council after having become one with his flock. In a time where we felt directionless, he stepped in to act as a Shepherd for us all."

Bahr's eye began twitching as he listened to the woman gush about Brother Dominic, using much of the same terminology that he had before. Again, Bahr's eyes uncomfortably found Lessa's as he tried to telepathically convey how freaking weird the entire situation was. 

"Yyyyyyeah," he began, eyes flickering back to Nancy. Nancy. What a name. "Gotcha. But what is the 'Light?'"

"Keep hanging around, and you might just find out!" she responded with a massive smile before clasping her hands together. "I'm sorry, but I've really got to be going. Make yourselves at home!" With that, she squeezed past them and went on her merry way.

"... What a Nancy."

As they made their way through the labyrinth of hallways, Bahr nudged Lessa's elbow to get her attention. "What do you think they do for, like... recreation? Or is having a fun a sin around here?" There was a beat of silence as he rubbed the back of his head. "I just can't imagine being cooped up indoors all day with nothing to do for fun. I get that there's work to be done and all, but I'd like to think that with all these people there has to reach a point where there's nothing more to do, realistically."

No sooner had Bahr shared his concerns than they made their way into a courtyard area of sorts, where a grouping of younger players all the way down to kids were playing together. They had baskets with hollowed out bottoms affixed to beams that stood high into the air on either side of the yard, with the two teams competing for control of a ball in the middle. From the looks of it, they'd set up a makeshift basketball court.

Bahr's instincts were screaming at him to go join in the fun, but he needed to be more measured about their involvement here. "Now this is what I'm talking about," he simply said instead, folding his arms as he watched the game unfold. At some point, the youths lost control of the ball and it bounced over to where Bahr and Lessa were, prompting the Crimson Marauder to unfold his arms and catch the sphere. A young boy approached him, smile wide and light in his eyes as he silently extended his hands toward Bahr, beckoning for the ball back. With a smirk, Bahr tossed the orb into the boy's clutches, and the game resumed.

"Lot more kids here than I realized," he admitted somberly, the grin that still clung to his face betraying the concern in his eyes. "A little weird to think they're being raised in a virtual environment like this, indoctrinated into the cult of Dominic. It kinda makes my skin crawl. But at least they have a safe space to enjoy themselves and spend time with their..." He hung on the last word for a moment. "... Family."

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"... What a Nancy."

"Do you think they're on drugs?" Lessa hissed as she watched Nancy's retreat. "I mean, I get that drugs aren't supposed to have an influence on us in-game, but... they've got to be on drugs, right? You have to be tripping if you're chasing the 'Light.'"

At Bahr's question about fun, she shrugged. "I've got no idea, but I agree with you." She would absolutely lose her mind were she stuck indoors like these people. Even at the height of her hermit days, Lessa had still chosen spots with a view. Wide open spaces helped her feel less trapped, something that made a world of different in Sword Art Online. She was already literally trapped, so there was no need for the metaphorical too. "I need to be able to wander," she explained. "Go from floor to floor. Have some variety. I don't know how these people do it. They must really believe in something, to follow it so completely."

A beat of silence, and then, "Or they're on drugs."

But all thought of drugs left her as Lessa entered yard. The sight was so natural, so earthly, that Lessa's throat clenched. This was the sort of thing she'd see wandering her college campus, not within the confines of Aincrad. There were no mobs to slay, no swords to cross, no threat of death, There was just the game, and the laughter, and the light-hearted taunts. For a moment, she couldn't find the words to explain what she was thinking. Relief chased the tension away as Bahr spoke first.

"Don't tell me you were a basketball player." She looked him over, then added, "Well, actually, I guess I could see it."

His musings mirrored her own, and she nodded. "They seem really happy. A lot different than most of the people I see back in the Town of Beginnings." As her thoughts moved to little Oliver, she drew a quick breath. "And I'd rather see kids in here than... out there."

She planted her hands on her hips, gaze following the ball as it moved from one end of the makeshift court to the other. "I wonder how many of the people here are actually related. Probably not many. I can't imagine that an entire extended family would dive into the game together." Despite herself, and the concerns she had with Dominic's guild, she smiled softly. "It's nice that they were able to find a family in a place like this."

"Hey man." So distracted by her own pondering, Lessa nearly missed the young boy from before as he jogged over to them. He flashed Bahr a toothy grin. "Nice toss back there." He glanced toward Lessa. "You guys new here?"

"Sort of," was Lessa's answer. "We're just looking around."

"Aw, yeah." The boy nodded wisely. "I get it. But you'll want to stay. This place is so much better than the Otherworld."

Confusion bloomed across Lessa's face, but disappeared as she asked, "Oh, you mean the real world? Outside of the game?"

"Nah, the Otherworld. You know, outside. Away from the church." He shrugged as if this was common knowledge, and Lessa and Bahr were just to slow to keep up. "Where the bad stuff is."

 

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Otherworld?

The kid's nonchalant explanation sent a chill up Bahr's spine. It was like they were on their own little planet inside the church. While it was a lot different from anywhere else in Aincrad, the terminology that kept getting naturally revealed to them one conversation at a time just made the whole situation weirder and weirder. Maybe Lessa had been onto something when she postulated they'd been drugged.

Flock. Light. Otherworld. They had their own terms for everything. 

"What did you say your name was?" Bahr inquired, leaning toward the kid a little bit as though to get a closer look at him.

"Uhh, Benjamin," came the youth's response, taking an instinctive step backward.

"Benjamin," Bahr echoed thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "I'm Bahr. This is Lessa. What do you guys call safe zones like the Town of Beginnings?"

"Well, they ain't exactly 'safe,' are they?" Benjamin retorted very matter-of-factly. "Cardinal could just decide to make 'em unsafe at any time, for any reason. We don't really have a word for 'em, but we use the phrase 'safe zone' very loosely." Finger quotes accompanied the words 'safe zone' as Benjamin spoke. "At least here, nobody can get in without solving the riddle."

Preposterous. The entire idea of safe zones were to provide spaces where players and NPCs alike wouldn't need to worry about mobs, or fighting, or their lives being in danger. It had been that way since the start of the game. Before then, even, when everything was in beta testing. Or, at least, that's what Bahr had heard. There was no way the system would just up and decide to strip players of the one thing keeping them sane.

Right?

Bahr resisted the urge to counter that Cardinal could also choose to open the doors to this church permanently on the same whim, but didn't want to startle the boy. Instead, he continued with another question. "How was everyone here chosen to become a part of the flock? Dou- Dominic said that he was the only person who had ever solved the statue's riddle, but there's a lot of people around. So how did you all end up in here?"

"Oh, that's easy. Only people who have accepted Brother Dominic's Light are allowed inside. It's actually, uhh, a little weird that he's letting you guys walk around. Seeing as it doesn't seem like you guys get it yet. Say, how'd you get in, anyways?"

"We solved the statue's riddle."

In that moment, it was like someone had hit pause on the entire courtyard. All eyes were on Bahr and Lessa, every face wearing the same expression. One of disbelief, questioning. Benjamin, too, seemed perplexed by what Bahr had said. As though it were blasphemy to suggest that they were capable enough, or smart enough, to venture within the walls of their own accord. After a few moments and just as many blinks, the edges of Benjamin's lips curled upward into a grin, before laughter bellowed from his lungs.

"Oh wow, that's a good one," he boomed, wiping a fake tear from his eye. "You had me going there for a second. Everyone knows that nobody but Brother Dominic is clever enough to beat the statue." Bahr's eyes narrowed as he inspected the youth's expression, but he didn't find any hints of deceit. He really believed what he was saying. Slowly but surely, the bustle returned to the courtyard, but people still stole glances at Bahr and Lessa out of the corners of their eyes. "They're, uh, waiting on me," the boy said as he motioned with his head toward the rest of the kids who were still playing. "Gotta go. But if you guys want to play with us sometime, we could always use more players. Especially ones so tall!" And just like that, the boy was gone; back to makeshift basketball with his pals, eager to back out of the uncomfortable situation he'd found himself in.

Bahr turned toward Lessa, doing his best to ignore the prying eyes taking shots at them from around the yard. "Yeah, drugs," he declared with a nod, moving in a bit closer to her so they wouldn't be overheard. "But seriously, they've been totally brainwashed. I still feel like we barely knew more than when we got here."

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"Right?" Lessa whispered, turning into Bahr to avoid being heard. "I have more questions now than when we got here. I mean it's..." she lifted both hands helplessly, "... surreal. They're like some strange hive mind. I mean, did you see them all staring when you said we beat the riddle." She shook her head slowly, then cast a look over her shoulder. While the majority of the room's occupants had returned their attention to the game, stray glances still drifted their way. Occasionally, two player would put their heads together, sharing a confidential word that Lessa just knew was about them. "They're kind of acting like we're freaks. They're too nice to say it, but they don't trust us. And they think we're lying about how we got in here."

The woman's jaw clenched, face hardening with a mixture of concern and frustration. "They just have such a hard time believing that their Brother Dominic might not be the only genius in this place." The basketball players thundered down the courtyard, laughter and lighthearted trash-talk chasing their every step. Though it was a joyous sight, one of the happiest she'd seen in Aincrad, Lessa frowned. "He's lying to them. That's not right."

The sudden chime of a bell echoed through the courtyard. The athletes slowed their hurried pace, pausing to slap each other on the backs before proceeding toward the entrance. The onlookers joined them, falling into step as the stream of people fed back into the hallway. Lessa had seen this scene before - students filing back into the school at the end of recess. The thought chilled her.

"I guess we follow?" she asked him, already moving before he could answer. The small parade moved through the hallways, taking a few turns before emerging into what Lessa could only describe as a mess hall. The roof towered high above them, amplifying the crowd's raised voices. Long, rectangular tables dominated the space. A head table, positioned against the far wall, was loaded with steaming plates. "Geeze," she hissed under her breath. "It really is like a school. This is basically the cafeteria."

The pair moved through the line, for the most part remaining silent; it was enough to simply look around, and listen in on the conversations taking place. The general atmosphere was largely upbeat, the laughter from the courtyard making another appearance. The longer she watched, the longer she listened, the more conflicted Lessa grew. But the time she was scooping steaming mashed potatoes onto her plate, she had to put voice to her thoughts. "They're all really, really happy," she whispered to Bahr over the salad bowl. "It's, uh, different."

They sat down at the end of a table, secluded from the rest of the "flock." Lost in thought, Lessa poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher in the table's center. She sipped, studied, sighed. "It's nice," she admitted finally. "It's nice that they're so happy."

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As they followed along behind the rest, further unease settled into Bahr's core. Herded along like farm animals, single file, each step filling the footprint of the person before it. Bahr had picked up on a general vibe in this place, that the denizens believed that they were enlightened. The rest of Aincrad was filled with foolish pawns, sheep. They were blessed by Dominic's Light, and had cultivated an understanding far beyond anything the rest of the herd could comprehend. As they were not a herd, they were a flock. "Different." Destined to soar, above and beyond the rest of their peers who didn't know any better.

From where Bahr was standing, it didn't look that way.

While the rest of Aincrad was undoubtedly trapped, the majority of which forced to fight for their survival, their options limited by the virtual construct that had been progressively built around them, Bahr felt more jailed here than out there. Out there he had the freedom to do as he saw fit. Each and every day unfolded at the whim of his input, and what he decided to do. There were uncontrollables, certainly, as there should be in such a system. It was complicated, but liberating, all things considered. Here, the system seemed much simpler. Follow the rules. Keep your head down. Do not venture outside the church. Do not communicate outside the church. Do not concern yourself with making decisions, that has all been thought about for you. Do not question the word of Brother Dominic. 

Bask in the "Light."

"They're all really, really happy." It came as a whisper, hushed so that they might not be overheard by the people they were talking about. Bahr didn't know why she even bothered anymore. It wasn't like they hadn't already been ostracized. "It's, uh, different." Different. That was one way of putting it. Bahr looked back over his shoulder at the rest who filled the cafeteria as he scooped salad into a bowl with tongs, studying their chatter and general demeanor. Their happiness truly did seem genuine, albeit naive. They had all been duped. Strangely, Bahr felt that there was no way that everyone here actually believed everything Dominic had told them. They were simply content to remain willfully ignorant if it meant sharing a simple life in a safe space. They wanted to be subjugated this way. 

They desired the structure. To be led around like mindless animals, formed into lines, told what to do, and eat whatever the hand of their prophet provided for them. It was simple, safe, effective. Made them feel like they had a purpose, contributing to something larger than themselves. They cared not about 'destiny,' nor their part in deciding it. They wanted to turn off their brains to the catastrophe that had unfolded all around them. Bahr understood the situation, but he couldn't bring himself to agree with it.

"It's nice," she relented as they sat down at the table. "It's nice that they're so happy."

"It's a sham," he fired back, perhaps a bit more crass than he had meant to. He lifted a fork full of salad to his mouth, but stopped just before taking in the bite. He was skeptical that ingesting this wouldn't somehow turn him into some mindless zombie. He felt ridiculous putting any stock at all into the drugs theory, but he almost couldn't help but believe that there was some other force at work here that was making everyone so complacent. After a moment of consideration, he placed the helping of salad into his mouth and chewed, choosing his next words more carefully. The food was bland and uninspired, just like everything else in that hellhole. "There's a lot of able-bodied people here," he stated very deliberately after he swallowed, waving his fork accusingly around the room as he squinted. "The kids shouldn't have to fight, of course. I wouldn't even force a pacifist. But these people could be contributing to something out there. Anything. Pushing the Frontlines. Making weapons, armor, potions. Peddling information. Instead of sitting in here and shutting down, doing nothing. Even the people holed up in the Town of Beginnings know better."

He didn't bother keeping his voice down, and a few people that sat around them cast glances of disapproval. At the far end of the room, where Dominic sat facing his flock, surrounded by what Bahr presumed was a 'council' of sorts, there was a flicker of something else in that eternally smug expression of his. A tinge of disappointment, doubt, worry. It seemed that he had taken notice of the distrust the flock had started showing to the alien pairing. A sharp ringing permeated the space as he tapped a fork against his glass, standing as the bustle of the room rapidly diminished to pure silence. Everyone in the room had their eyes on Dominic as he slowly lowered the silverware to where it would rest on the table. 

"My brothers and sisters," he began graciously, opening his arms as though to invite them all into a metaphorical hug. "Thank you all for being here today. As I'm sure you've all noticed, we have guests today. Brother Bahr and Sister Lessa." He gestured toward the pair with an open hand, palm facing the ceiling. Bahr's eyes narrowed as he fought off a shudder at being called a "Brother" to this fiasco. He filled his mouth with another bite of the salad, chewing thoughtfully as Dominic continued. "Some of you have met them already, surely. As I know my flock, I'm positive they have shown the two of you the finest hospitality that Aincrad has to offer. And from what I've gathered about our guests, I'm sure they've appreciated it. Isn't that right? Brother Bahr? Sister Lessa?"

Again with that sh*t. Bahr leaned back in his chair, a smirk of half amusement and frustration creeping across his face as he continued to chew. He didn't respond. He didn't even issue a gesture. He just chewed, slowly, his eyes glued to Dominic's as the man stared back. Bahr wasn't about to allow a man like this - a liar - exert his authority over him. Bahr was a free man.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Dominic pressed on. "They still have yet to realize the Light, but with time, I'm confident I can lead them down the right path, just as I have led all of you. So say we all."

"So say we all," the entirety of the flock echoed, the room falling back into the same deafening silence as before immediately afterward. 

"Yeah. Alright. That's it," Bahr muttered as he quickly stood, his chair loudly scraping against the floor as it was pushed back by the stiff action. "I'm not your 'Brother,' Dominic," he spat before pointing to Lessa. "And she's not your 'Sister.' We have nothing to do with you or this entire sh*itshow." The looks of disapproval were universal now. Everyone in the room was staring at Bahr in absolute disgust. Seemed he had ruffled all the wrong feathers, but it was too late to turn back now. "You might have everyone else in here fooled with your promises of safety, purpose, and unity. But you won't fool me. These people could be doing something with their time in this floating hell, but instead you've got them sedated with delusions of grandeur. Complacent. They and you should be contributing something to this horrendous science experiment that Kayaba put us all up to. Instead, you're all wasting away here and not living up to your potential. You know it, and even some of them know it."

"It's pathetic, really. Manufacturing an environment like this so you can feel important, superior. But what you've accomplished is stealing away skills and resources that could be put to better use. I won't be a part of it."

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The moment he shoved his chair back, Lessa's heart plummeted into her stomach. This was the equivalent of boss battle music starting in a video game, or Ash turning his hat backwards. [censored] was about to go down. Or it was about to go up, and hit the proverbial fan. Or both.

"Bahr," Lessa began cautiously, her voice a mere whisper. Her hand reached for him, but when the man jabbed a finger at her, she flinched back.

"You know it, and even some of them know it."

"Bahr," she stated again. The hesitancy was gone now, her blue eyes sparking with anger while it and mortification warred on her face.

"I won't be a part of it."

Her chair tipped as she propelled herself out of it, clattering too loudly in the stunned silence Bahr left behind. "THAT IS ENOUGH." Both hands were placed on either side of her half-empty dinner plate, and she leaned forward in a power pose she likely wouldn't even recognize. There was no anger now - that was too mild an emotion. What burned white-hot on Lessa's red cheeks now was pure, unadulterated rage. "They are the ones trying to act important? Are you kidding me?"

She looked as though she might say more, but Dominic materialized beside them. "Sister Lessa," he began, his voice soft silk as it wove through the noiseless room. He placed unnecessary emphasis on the word 'sister,' which Lessa was distantly conscious of. What she didn't notice, however, was the intensity in Dominic's emerald eyes as they found and held Bahr's gaze. "I appreciate your efforts, but your friend is allowed to speak his mind. It is one of the many freedoms we enjoy here."

No longer 'brother Bahr,' but 'your friend.'

Tch.

"He lost that freedom when he started acting like a pompous asshole." There were a few gasps and murmurs - did I just swear in church? she wondered - but most simply stared in silence.

Brother Dominic, on the other hand, gave a soft chuckle. "It was you who said it, not me." She was suddenly aware of his hand on her shoulder, thumb rubbing reassuringly as he added, "Why don't you two sit, return to you dinner?"

"No," Lessa replied, shaking her head, and finally pulling herself away from his touch. "We should go. We've overstayed our welcome."

"Oh, of course not! This was not the first spirited outburst we've had here, and with the number of children we have, it won't be the last." He chuckled again, and this time, the studio audience joined in. Despite the fury still tinging her vision red, the sound made Lessa squirm. "If you must leave dinner, at least stay the night with us. Sisters Olivia and Nancy will show you to your room."

"Fine," came her snapped answer. She would not even dignify Bahr with a glance as she fell into step behind the two women. A moment later, they were being led down yet another winding hallway.

Nancy bustled - and her gait could only be described as bustling - as words spilled from her painted lips. "Brother Dominic has offered you his most favorite room. We have very few visitors, as I'm sure you can understand, but Brother Dominic once used this room as his personal study. It was only recently converted into a bedroom." The plump woman glanced over her shoulder at the pair, completely unabashed as she stated, "I do ask that you two keep it down though, since some of us older folk have to sleep. We don't have the energy like we used to." The sly look in her eye, the slight wiggle of her eyebrows, the thin smirk-

Oh my god.

Lady, I'm more likely to kill him than-

"Fine," Lessa said again, keeping her voice as bland as humanly possible. What was Nancy thinking? And why didn't Olivia say anything? Maybe she really was deaf. Or drugs.

Nancy prattled on about something, and it was likely inappropriate, but Lessa simply fell back on her anger. It cocooned her, a thick blanket that only made her hotter rather than smothering the flames of her rage. Being furious with him was easier than having the conversation she knew they were destined for. Had the man shown his true colors, slashing into strangers' happiness in their own home? It was as if he was personally affronted by their peace of mind, their sense of safety. Things I wish I had.

"Here we are!" Nancy announced, extending her arm in dramatic fashion. Lessa half expected the woman to conclude with 'we do hope you have enjoyed your ride, please watch your step as you exit the cart.'

"Thank you," the swordswoman stated before opening the door and stepping inside. Despite the heat rolling off her in waves, the familiar warmth was completely absent from Lessa's voice. Later, she would regret her poor treatment of sweet Nancy. But in the moment, she couldn't think of that.

It was a miracle that she waited for the door to close behind them before Lessa rounded on Bahr. "How dare you?"

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"How dare you?"

The words echoed through his mind as everything slowly shifted into focus. How they had gotten there was all a blur to him. Hell, it was still a blur. Finding Lessa's face against the mosaic of softened shapes and muted hues was a task in and of itself. Trying to rationalize her words, or how they had even gotten to this point, was an exercise in futility. To understand, he'd need to play catch up. Dial it back and piece together what had happened before rage had snaked its crooked fingers around his senses and squeezed them until nothing remained but a curtain of red.

"THAT IS ENOUGH."

His eyes snapped to her the second her voice boomed through the dining hall, as did the orbs of everyone else there. He blinked owlishly at her as he tried to decipher what was going on, not yet allowing himself to belief the truth of the situation. 

"They are the ones trying to act important? Are you kidding me?"

It took a moment for the words to register. Had she thought he was including the entire collective in that? No, that had been directed at Dominic specifically. Sure, the rest of the 'flock' was annoyingly smug about how enlightened they were, but it was a consequence of his manipulation. The expression he bore toward Lessa was a mixture of confusion, disappointment and hurt. He'd been misunderstood by the one person he thought would have his back.

"Sister Lessa."

Until a mask of frustration slipped over the pain as Dominic appeared beside them, locking eyes with Bahr as he ran his hands over Lessa's shoulders. It was a very knowing look. I've got my hands on her, and there's nothing you can do about it.

"I appreciate your efforts, but your friend is allowed to speak his mind. It is one of the many freedoms we enjoy here."

"He lost that freedom when he started acting like a pompous asshole."

So that's what she thinks of me. Nothing more than a child. A "pompous asshole." "That's enough. Go to time out. The adults are talking." One of his damn hands still remained on Lessa's shoulder, thumb stroking away as he continued to stare directly into Bahr's eyes. She was staring at him too, the rage evident on her expression, not even trying to resist Dominic's grasp. Everyone was staring at him. It was one thing to challenge an entire hierarchy when you knew someone you trusted had your back. But what happens when you find out very abruptly that that trust was misplaced, and now everyone in the room hates you? 

He suddenly became very aware of how deep his breathing had become. A fight or flight response. Only here, he didn't have the option of either. He couldn't very well leave Lessa behind with Doctor Feelgood and the Cult of Anti-Personality. Neither was fighting an option, given these people were nothing more than victims, and his blade would prove ineffectual anyways. He just had to sit there while the entire world ruminated on what a f*ck up he was. 

Dominic simply chuckled. The smug pr*ck. "It was you who said it, not me. Why don't you two sit, return to you dinner?"

"No. We should go. We've overstayed our welcome." Dominic's hand finally slid from her shoulder as she made a motion to exit, but he still wasn't done with them. Let's get real here, he wasn't done with her. He saw vulnerabilities. Like her sympathetic sentiment toward their plight. He probably figured he could probe that part of her until she finally cracked and let the Light agenda start pouring in. Who knows what other parts of her he thought he could worm his way into.

"Oh, of course not! This was not the first spirited outburst we've had here, and with the number of children we have, it won't be the last."

The hive mind laugh track that followed was absolutely horrendous. Compared to a child yet again, as it seemed that Dominic had picked up on the parallels at this point. Which, why wouldn't he? Anything to make himself look like the most glorious bastard to walk the face of Aincrad, and Bahr nothing more than the grime he plucked out from between his teeth with a pick. His aim was to chew Bahr up and dispose of him, then take Lessa as the main course.

"If you must leave dinner, at least stay the night with us. Sisters Olivia and Nancy will show you to your room."

Please don't agree to this.

"Fine."

And then Dominic winked at Bahr. The motherf*cker actually winked at him. Surely nobody else had caught it. But Bahr knew. In that moment, Dominic had really shown his true self. Shown that everything Bahr had interpreted up to this point was correct. It was a game to Dominic, and he was winning. The grandiose gestures, drawing the parallels between Bahr and a child, putting his hands all over Lessa. Every bit of it was an odious display of dominance. And yet again, Bahr wasn't in a position to do anything about it.

This was where the memory ended. Bahr couldn't bring himself to recall anything beyond that point. He'd remained silent through all of it. The betrayal. The infantilization. The revocation of rights. The name-calling. The gross dominance display. The long walk through the dimly lit hallways, led by the world's most annoying woman and the world's most silent one. All of it. Why even bother talking anymore? It would have been about as productive as attempting to drain an Olympic swimming pool with a hair dryer picked up from Ulta. If what he had said had resonated with anybody there, if he had gotten anyone closer to seeing the truth of the situation, all of that was completely stripped away the moment Lessa turned on him and Dominic turned him into a laughingstock.

It seemed that they had made it to the room safely, at the very least. His presence of mind snapped back to the present, he found himself standing before Lessa within the privacy of their room yet again. How long had he stood there staring at her while he ran the scenario through his head? Thirty seconds? A minute? Two? Five? Did it even matter? What was the point in even trying to discuss this with her? She'd probably just yell over him, try to boss him around some more, and go on about how morally bankrupt he was for having the audacity to try and save these people from Dominic and themselves.

So what options did he have? Walk out of the room and have her give him sh*t later for running away? Remain silent and piss her off more for not engaging? Fight it out and be seen as nothing more than a stubborn jackass? There was no winning play here. There hadn't been one since the moment she flipped on him.

She still bore down on him expectantly, like a mother waiting for her toddler to explain why he had torn up the blocks of styrofoam that the computer had come packaged in and paraded it around the house. She wanted an explanation? He'd give her an explanation.

"So I guess I have the 'right' to talk again, then?" he seethed through clenched teeth, his chest rising and falling with each deep breath he sucked in and forcefully expelled. He didn't even know where to begin with this whole fiasco. So many things had happened in such rapid succession that his head was still spinning. 

"You summon me out here," he started, taking a step forward. "Get me involved in some cultish sh*tshow." Another step. "Build me up by agreeing that things weren't right here, that something was off, that it seemed like the people are on f*cking drugs." One final step, and now he was a mere foot from her. "And when I get fed up by Dominic trying to assert that we're now to be subjected to the same brainwashing bullsh*t that he's inflicted upon the rest of those poor people, you turn on me?" He leaned back and motioned toward his chest with rigid fingers, all outstretched but clenched together to the extent that the knuckles had turned white. His expression adopted the same confusion, disappointment, and hurt that it had before. 

"Talk to me like I'm a child? Try to tell me what rights I have or don't have? Start calling me names while ganging up on me with the same guy we both have a problem with?" With each point he delivered, his hand gestured more and more frantically toward his chest and the expression become more and more exacerbated. Finally, he let the hand fall and did his best to release the tension that had built up in his body. He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, his other hand finding his hip. "We came here as a team. We were supposed to have each others' backs. I-" he sighed, trying to drain the chagrin from his voice so that what he said could not be misinterpreted. "I trusted you."

Silence.

"Out of all of the things that could have happened back there, the last thing I expected was for you to drive a knife into my back, twist it, then let Dominic hold your hand and help you twist it some more. How dare I? How dare you?"

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She took his hits, letting them bounce off of the shield her anger afforded her. He was mad, but so was she. Lessa was willing to give him his time, just as she would take hers. They'd get it all out, get to the bottom of this new chasm that had formed between them. And maybe they'd climb out, maybe they wouldn't. She had hope that they would make it. Until - 

"I trusted you."

She took a stumbling step backward, his statement lancing through her shield and straight into her heart. Her lips parted in an expression of stunned mortification, cheeks stinging as if he'd just slapped her. Frankly, she wished he had. The physical blow would have been much easier to deal with, respond to, and eventually recover from. A bruise on her face would heal. The gash left by his voice as it lashed across her, that was a more lethal wound.

Everything he said after delivering those fatal words found their mark. It was as if Lessa had removed her heavy armor and offered herself up to a floor boss. The pain was unbearable. 

Where was her anger? That mad that she'd fostered, fueled, flaunted - where had it gone? The woman grabbed for it, and though it was slipping through her fingers, she leaned on the fleeting fury. There were worse negative emotions she could give herself over to, a few of which lurked nearby. 

"Turn on you?" she echoed, squaring her shoulders. "You'd have preferred, then, that I just let you keep insulting these people? Allow you to stand there, in their home, after they've been so hospitable, and accuse them of 'not contributing?' Hell, you'd have asked me to back you up?"

Her jaw worked as she studied him, searching for the words. They weren't coming as easily as she'd hoped, but she knew that she had to get it all out. "You were out of control. I tried to stop you, and you just kept talking. You spoke for me, which I never asked you to do." She spread her arms wide. "Of course I have concerns about what's happening here, but I'm smart enough not to berate dozens of people like that. What would you do if they turned on you? You can't defend yourself here."

She drew a deep breath. "Besides, it's not up to you to decide who is and isn't contributing enough. If they want to live like this, following someone who makes them feel safe, so what? You don't agree with it? Then don't do it."

The final spark of rage flared and died as she spat, "But don't you talk like Dominic and I somehow schemed against you. It's unfair, and it's insulting."

Lessa's chest rose and fell, sweaty hands dropping to her sides to clench into fists. "You could have kept your mouth shut. We're here to look around, aren't we? We never discussed some big, public scolding. You lost your temper, and I... I lost mine. But what would you have me do, Bahr? Stand behind you even when I disagree with you? Pat you on the back? Just ignore my own opinions and applaud you because we're a team? Because of my feelings for you?" Her breath hitched, but she added, "I don't do that anymore."

She scrubbed at her face with both hands, then raked them through her hair. The rollercoaster left her feeling completely wrung out. Why did he always make her experience everything with such intensity? He amplified her emotions, left her feeling impossibly vulnerable. She didn't care for it.

"I shouldn't have called you a pompous ass, and I shouldn't have been so condescending. But I'm not going to apologize for speaking up."

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She was using the smash technique. Layer point after point after point on top of him until he felt too overwhelmed to deal with any of them, as though there was no way he could address them all. That's fine. Bahr made a list. He insulted them. He shouldn't have expected her to back him up. He kept talking when she was trying to interrupt him. He spoke for her, even though what he had said was objectively true unless she's actually planning on drinking the koolaid with them. She's smart enough to not berate people, he isn't apparently. They could have turned on him in a safe zone, the horror. It wasn't up to him to decide who was or wasn't contributing enough. Better not have an opinion then. Don't act like they schemed together, because now it's being flipped back on you as an insult, as though that somehow compared to what Bahr had just been put through. We were here to look, not interact, which is just false. 

And then she pads the end with a half-assed apology. Not even a full one. She didn't even say the word "sorry." As though it somehow took the edge off after smashing literally nine points for him to reply to on top of one another without a chance to respond to any of them. So he'd make her wait for a 'softer' conclusion, just as she'd made him.

"You're actually just wrong, you know," he began, voice no longer heavy with anger, but flat with contempt. "Everything that I said was directed straight toward Dominic. I understand that some people may have been offended by what I said, but nothing I said was a direct attack toward them. They're victims here. And the thing about being offended is that it makes you think." He pointed toward his temple with an outstretched index finger. "Really think about the points that were being made, especially if they're issued in a way that isn't a direct attack against you. And the reason that they need to do that is because something bad is going to happen here. I don't know what it is, or when it will happen, but this little colony isn't going to stay like this forever. Happy and jubilant. Any cult that leads its people through manipulation and willful ignorance has something bad happen, and often abruptly. I would have liked to have gotten them started on thinking about their situation and how they had ended up there, because if they can get out before things turn bad, they should. But that's all been evaporated now, which I'll come back to in a moment."

"I kept talking because I didn't hear you. And I didn't speak for you, I spoke of what I assumed were objective facts. Unless you're actually planning to stay here and become another one of Dominic's puppets, I don't think I stepped out of line there. If you are thinking about doing it, don't."

"Sometimes people need to be berated. Dominic needed to be berated. I wasn't berating everyone else. I was berating him. Because I can only handle so many displays of dominance before I come to the conclusion that the guy needs to be knocked down a peg so it can stop. You might think you're smarter than me for not doing so. Hell, it's obvious that you think you're smarter than me. But just as you felt compelled to rip my heart out in front of a hundred people because you don't want to 'ignore your own opinions,' I felt compelled to not be a coward by keeping my opinions to myself after getting a feel for things around here, and how dangerous they are for its denizens."

"And let's talk about that some more. About you and Dominic ganging up on me. I understand that the two of you didn't scheme beforehand, it wasn't some premeditated event, but what happened there wasn't you sharing your opinions. You were personally attacking me. You were ripping into me, not my arguments, and when Dominic used the opening to turn me into a f*cking laughingstock, his hands all over you while the two of you both stared intently into me, there was absolutely no other way it could be interpreted. You didn't pull away from him. You didn't do sh*t to defend me, in fact I'd wager that in that moment, you thought I deserved the public crucifixion I received. You sided with him and you both worked together to push me further and further into the mud. Interpret it however you want, but that's my interpretation. And when you did that, everyone who had come even an inch closer to seeing the truth about their situations in this hellhole took two giant steps back further into the abyss, because the person who challenged those concepts just became the village idiot. Even the girl that came with him is publicly screaming obscenities and insults at him. She's so pissed, she's basically letting our leader cop a feel while looking right at him. He must being the biggest fool on the planet."

"As far as whether or not people were contributing enough and that's my place to say or not, I sat in the Town of Beginnings for two whole years doing absolutely nothing with myself. I watched the world go by, the players clear the floors, and remained at base level with nothing to my name. And I absolutely despise that I wasted so much time. I could have been doing anything to help the community at large. Picking up a profession, guiding people through the floors, completing quests, anything. Instead all I did was help out with the local orphanage. And a task like that has its own importance, but it doesn't tackle the root of the problem. People are stagnating here by the dozens because they don't like the problems outside the walls, rather than taking up the responsibility of fixing the problems outside the walls. People need something heavy to pull against, a responsibility or burden that gives their life purpose. Without that, a feeling of meaninglessness is going to seep into them. I wonder what kind of attitude comes along with that?"

"And for your last point, we're not here to just look. We're here to get Rainey. You think we were going to pry her out of a safe zone without implanting some sort of doubt in this place first? No. I was trying to create that doubt, because I knew she was in there somewhere and it's starting to look like they might never actually show us to her. If that's the only way we were capable of reaching her, that's ruined now. So thank you for that."


He sighed. Too much talking. But there was still more to do.

"I'm never going to tell you not to speak your mind, Lessa. I don't feel betrayed because you have a different opinion. I feel betrayed because you didn't convey a different opinion, you just attacked me and let others join in. I still don't know what your opinion is, because you haven't articulated one. All you've articulated is a deep, seething rage toward me in the form of verbal abuse and relentless condescension. Having my back doesn't mean you need to agree with me, it just means you'll help defend me from sh*t like that. Not be the one shoveling it at me. So I don't want you to apologize for speaking up, I want you to apologize for that."

"I'm sorry that I, I don't know, embarrassed you? Is that the root of the issue here? What even is it, exactly, that you're angry about? Whatever it is, I want to apologize for it and work through it with you. I just don't know what it is or where to start."

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He rained hell on her.

There was really no other way to explain the onslaught. Her explanation, her confession, her attempt at an apology, none of it mattered. Until that moment, Lessa had never really recognized how much taller Bahr was. Not when she had pulled him to his feet at the base of the Monument. Not when they'd spent the evening talking to each other in the White Rabbit. Not even when he'd placed himself between her prone form and the approaching Lich King. But as Bahr towered over her, his contempt so cold that it burned, she had never felt smaller in her entire life.

She stood there and took it, her eyes free of tears, her face bereft of emotion. He countered every point she'd made, or thought of making, and even some that had never even crossed her mind. He had an answer for everything, and delivered them in a way that made her feel... well, like a child. A child who had tried, and failed, to fit into shoes far too large for her. And now she was being humiliated, apparently in the same way she had humiliated him.  It was justice, Lessa supposed, as she forced herself to stare at his face. Don't look away. Don't take the coward's way out.

One dying ember of anger flared to life at his mention of Dominic's touch, but there simply wasn't the kindling to stoke the flames any longer. His words continued to fall like a winter rain, drops so sharp that they might as well have been bullets. But as she listened, she became distantly aware of another noise, a macabre soundtrack to Bahr's malicious monologue. Is that actual rain? It seemed that their room was near enough to the surface that rain rolled along the roof. A sound that had always calmed Lessa now seemed somehow foreboding. As the man fell silent, leaving only the sound of the storm, a chill ran through her.

Considering that her eyes never wavered from his, Lessa knew that Bahr was waiting for her to speak. It was her turn, after all, but she simply could not find the words. It was as if his speech had stolen them all, leaving Lessa with nothing but a dull ache. To buy herself a bit of time, she dropped onto the edge of the bed. Finally, she let her gaze drop to her lap, where her hands lay clasped; surely she would get no comfort from him, so she would have to make it herself.

"I misunderstood," she stated after a long, pregnant pause. There was no use trying to sugarcoat it, as the crow would taste bad regardless. "I didn't realize you were speaking directly to Dominic. You'd been talking about the guild as a whole, and the room was so quiet when you spoke, so I thought... well, it doesn't matter what I thought, because I was wrong. About everything, apparently."

She was teetering on the edge of pettiness, so she reined in the excuses that danced on the tip of her tongue. I'm out of practice when it comes to people, I don't know what came over me, I was trying to stand up for them, apparently I'm just trash anyway. It would be so easy to play the victim here, but she had decided a long time ago that she was done with all that. There was no strength in feigning injury to avoid difficult conversations. Like this one.

"It looks like you and I don't see eye to eye on this," she began, "at least, not anymore. I'm still concerned about what's happening, and I still think Dominic isn't being truthful. But they're happy. They have a family. They have a place where they can feel safe, and welcome, and wanted. I'd have given just about anything to have those things over the past few years." She loosed a weak shrug. "Go ahead and blow holes in that belief. That it's only an illusion, that they're living a lie, that they should be more worried about beating the game. Yeah, maybe that's all true. But I think even fake happiness is better than feeling trapped, alone, and unwanted."

Was now the time to address an issue that really perturbed her? Probably not, but there likely wouldn’t be a better one. “As for Dominic… I mean, for Christ’s sake, it’s not like had had his hands down my pants. He touched my shoulder, and honestly, I didn’t even realize he was doing it because I was so focused on you.”

Lessa shifted her weight, the queen sized bed with its pretty floral quilt creaking in protest. Everything about the little room was pretty, from the framed sketches of gardens to the stained glass lamps. The faint, colored light that was thrown on the windowless walls was too cheerful for the tension that hung like smog in the air. 

Enough stalling.

"I don't know why I did that. Sure, I guess embarrassment was a part of it. I couldn't believe that the person I was with would act that way. I thought you were more compassionate than that. More compassionate than to put people on the spot, and make them feel bad about themselves.” She winced, visibly uncomfortable with the words coming out of her mouth. “I should have trusted my first impression. You’re better than that. I, uh, I wasn’t.”

She paused to drop her head in her hands, where it stayed for a few beats, before she heaved a windy sigh. There was no dismissal in the sound, but only exhaustion, and disappointment. “I screwed up. I’m sorry. I misread everything, and handled it all wrong. I shouldn’t have thrown you to the wolves like I did.” When her hands fell away from her face, and her gaze found his, she wore a wry smile. “I’m sure I missed something you said, because… well, there was a lot of it. Just tell me so I can try to explain myself the best I can, okay? I want to make this right. I don’t want to lose you as a friend, but I wouldn’t blame you at all if that’s what it comes to.” Okay, so a little bit of pettiness bled through, but truly, she wouldn’t blame him if he was done with her. She’d been abandoned for much less before.

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The fire that remained in Bahr's eyes was all but extinguished the moment she plopped onto the bed, defeated. He realized all at once that he'd been too careless with his words. He was so caught up in how he had felt about everything that he hadn't stopped to consider how his words would affect her. There she sat, eyes on her lap, hands clasped, looking completely dejected. He'd gone too far. 

He slowly traversed the room as she explained that it had been a misunderstanding. That Bahr had been correct in his assessment, and that she had been wrong. He'd thought it would have felt good to get that sort of validation, but in the way that it was delivered, he derived no satisfaction. She was hurt. He had hurt her. It no longer mattered that she had hurt him moments before. An eye for an eye was never what he'd wanted for them. 

She continued on to something a bit more obvious; the fact that they didn't have the same opinion on this place or its purpose. About how Dominic wasn't being genuine. But there was a part that stuck out to him. 

"But they're happy. They have a family. They have a place where they can feel safe, and welcome, and wanted. I'd have given just about anything to have those things over the past few years."

That cut straight to the bone. It wasn't just that she perceived their situation as pleasant, she envied it. How had Bahr failed to notice this? That she still felt so depressed and alone in this world? He was supposed to be her friend. Hell, he'd hoped to be more to her than that, at this point. But here he was, off in his own little world while she wallowed in hers. 

The rest went by quickly. Bahr was listening, nodding along, but he didn't say anything. He wanted to give her the opportunity to get it all out. And when her apology came, her genuine apology, a sad smile halfway perked across his lips. It was nice to hear, but how he felt was the furthest from the forefront of his mind.

"Is that really how you feel? Unhappy? Like you don't have a home? Nowhere to feel safe and wanted?" he asked, resisting the urge to place a comforting hand somewhere on her. Her back, her shoulder, her hand. They all beckoned to him, but he doubted whether or not she'd want it. 

“It’s how I felt for a really long time,” she answered. “It’s been different since I met you.” There was no blushing, no flirtatious giggle, no fluttering of lashes. Instead, there was plain truth delivered in a flat tone. This wasn’t a pass at him, or an attempt to pad his ego. It was something far more genuine. “I was in a bad place until recently, and I might have done something really stupid to get out of it. A community like this might save someone the same way you saved me.”

How? How could he have been so stupid? His face scrunched up sourly before he let himself fall backward onto the bed, feet still planted on the ground as he cast a forearm over his eyes to cover them up. Despite his best efforts to hide his disdain, his mouth was still forced downward into a stiff frown. "Jesus. I really screwed up." The voice carried a deep and somber baritone, croaking with exhaustion and disappointment. Not just with the situation, but with himself. "I should have realized it the moment I said you were wrong. You're the smartest person I know. If even you could misread what I said, how many of the rest of them did?" He'd probably done much worse for his cause than he originally imagined.

She was right. He'd been the one in the wrong all along.

But there were more pressing things to deal with than his chagrin. He lifted his arm, dual-toned eyes peeking up at her from the soft shade it cast. "I'm an idiot," he stated flatly before heaving himself back up into a sitting position. "But even so, you know that you're wanted, right? I... want you." The words had spilled before he could stop them. Hopefully she didn't take it the wrong way. He swallowed the lump in his throat and pushed past it, not letting the silence linger on that note for too long. "I want you to feel safe around me. Like you have a home in me. And I never, ever want you to feel like doing something like that to get out of this. If you start having thoughts like that, please, come talk to me." There was more he had to say. He was just having trouble getting through it. Humorous in a way, considering the tangent he had just gone off on. "I'm not foolish enough to believe that just existing around you will make you happy, but maybe... Maybe we can work together to find that happiness for you."

"I forgive you,"
 he said dumbly, fumbling from one topic into the next without much rhyme or reason. "For what you said, and how you acted. I didn't know there was so much emotion behind it. And I'm truly sorry. For my behavior in the cafeteria, as well as just tearing into you like I did a minute ago. You didn't deserve any of it."

"And Dominic..." 
Oohhh Dominic. How Bahr would love to get his hands on that smug charlatan. "You couldn't see it. The way he was looking at me. It wasn't just the fact that he had his hands on you, but the way he was doing it, and the look he gave me while he did. The asshole even winked at me when you agreed to stay. I probably just blew it all out of proportion because I was feeling... jealous..."

Jesus. I can't believe I just said that out loud.

"I just-" He cut himself off, then sighed. "Look, I know I don't have any 'claim' over you, or whatever," he grumbled, averting his eyes. "But he was doing it specifically to piss me off. And it worked. And the thought of someone like him taking a pass at you just makes my skin crawl. Given how he acts around you, I can't imagine how many people here he's broken down until they would willfully do anything for him. It makes me sick."

There was still something else. Something she had said that he needed to address. But everything was blurring together. The stress that he'd ridden throughout the day was starting to get to him, and he was losing focus. 

"You would never lose me. Not over something like this." The words sprang forward of their own accord, jolting his memory. "Yeah, I got pissed off, but... I'm loyal to you."

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Lessa was prepared for round two. Her hands clenched and unclenched in her lap, each muscle drawn as taut as a bowstring. He’d out-argued her at every turn, building a prison out of paragraphs to trap her in her own stupid justifications. No doubt her explanation had been insufficient, and he would soon send another volley her way. She was so sure. As such, when she was met with calm concern rather than hot anger, it was like being plunged into a frozen pond. She blinked owlishly up at him, and when she answered, Lessa told the full truth.

A community like this might save someone the same way you saved me.

But why had she said that last bit? Granted, it was entirely true, but the emotion behind it seemed out of place. She opened her mouth to say more, but was interrupted by a sudden shifting of the mattress beneath her. After convincing herself that he wanted nothing to do with her, she was violently aware of his nearness. He sat up a moment later, and Lessa fought the instinctive urge to lean into him.

Jesus. I really screwed up.

For the umpteenth time, she found herself shocked by him. Wait, what? She had assumed he would see her explanation as mere excuses, and that he wouldn’t buy in. The fact that he was actually taking some of the blame absolutely floored her. 

I... want you.

Not like that, she immediately corrected, but her heart still stumbled at the statement. She would let him get the rest out before saying anything, giving him the same courtesy he’d shown her. Lessa just nodded along, her fingers worrying a stray thread on the quilt as she listened. By the time he finished, there was so much she wanted to say to him, the words darting like fish in a muddled pond. She would need a few moments to organize all of her thoughts, to build coherent sentences that would do his admissions justice. She would-

“Don’t do that.”

Whoops.

His gaze was still elsewhere, which was likely why she had the courage to reach over and place a hand on his forearm. He was hot beneath her touch, still worked up from the heated exchange. They both were. But fortunately, the air between them was beginning to cool. “Don’t say I didn’t deserve it, because I did. Don’t put the blame on yourself. But if you were wrong, then so was I. We both were. We both screwed up. We just didn’t communicate well. That’s something we- something we can work on.” 

Bahr had said so much, and she wanted desperately to respond to all of it, but the words were growing jumbled in her head. She took a deep breath, then dove back in. “I guess it’s worth considering what people would do for this peace of mind. What is Dominic asking of them? What do they have to believe in order to stay? Are they actually buying in, or just pretending? Do they even know the difference anymore?” She was getting serious North Korea vibes when she really considered it. “So I don’t blame these people for wanting to stay. But I worry about the cost. Maybe that’s what we really need to figure out. I mean, if you’re still interested in getting to the bottom of all this.”

She went to draw her hand back, but at the last second, thought better of it. How would it look, to stop touching him as she spoke of Dominic’s contact? Besides, she didn’t totally hate the physical connection with the man seated beside her. “About Dominic. I didn’t see any of that,” she confirmed, somewhat hesitantly. “You know I would have said something if I’d noticed, right?” She tried to keep the pleading edge from her voice, but it was still in her eyes as she searched Bahr’s face. “That I’m not like that? I’m not okay with mind games. Besides,” she concluded with a weak smile, “he’s not my type.” It was a genuine statement, padded with her poor attempt at humor. Or, at least, that’s how she meant it.

There was still so much more to be said, but the wind had left both their sails, leaving Lessa drifting. Or was that just the fatigue? “God I’m tired,” came her confession as she finally closed her eyes.

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Bahr nodded as she spoke, not responding much beyond that. He allowed his body language to speak more than anything. As her hand found its place on his forearm, he placed his reassuringly over it. It was what he'd wanted, more than being proven 'right' or prying an apology out of her. After everything that had happened, her touch was all he needed. To feel close to her. Maybe it was the sleepiness talking, but he didn't even want to talk about it anymore. He just wanted to curl up with her and sleep.

But they couldn't do that. Not quite yet, anyway. 

"Yeah. We'll put that on the agenda for tomorrow. Figure out where Rainey is, and get to the bottom of what's going on here. Something tells me Dominic won't allow me to stick around much longer, so we'll probably want to start early." His eyes drifted around the room in search of a clock, though he wasn't sure why they did. Their HUDs had all the information they'd needed. It was one of those habits he'd never quite shaken from the real world. But as he searched for the circle with hands, he finally took notice of just how cute the room was. Like, disgustingly cute. Flowers and pictures of scenic environments everywhere, with a tiny ornate light that dimly lit the space. It was adorable, in the sense that an actual grandma had probably pieced it all together. Few others would have this sort of taste or caring attention to detail. "I'm willing to bet that you'll wake up before me. When you do, please wake me up so we can get started. And, uh, don't be afraid to shove me around a bit. I can be a deep sleeper."

There had been a reason he'd started with that, instead of directly responding to her questions, or what she had most recently said. He didn't want to seem like he was getting all of that out of the way, only to circle back around to business. It was the other way around. He wanted the business talk out of the way, so they could really delve into everything else. He opened his menu and selected lighter garb; a plain black T-shirt with shorts to match. It was only after the fact that he'd considered he just changed right in front of her, still holding her hand. Not like it mattered, considering it was a flash of light and then done. It was just strange to think about.

The panels dismissed, he connected his eyes to hers and took a deep breath. "I know," he exhaled. "About Dominic, I mean. I know." He traced his thumb gently along the soft skin on the back of her hand. "And I'm honestly too tired to talk about it anymore, so don't worry about it." A silence settled between them like a weighted blanket, causing his eyelids to droop. Would it be weird to ask her to cuddle? Probably. It felt so off to him that he even desired it, anyways. "We can tackle this all again tomorrow with fresh, rested eyes. For now, though, I think it's time to lay down."

And then he hesitated, casting his eyes to the neatly arranged pillows at the head of the bed. It was large enough to let them both sleep comfortably with some distance between them, but Bahr didn't want that. He wanted to be close to her. He just didn't know if she felt the same way. His eyes flickered to meet with hers once more, and he decided it would be best to just see what came naturally. So he stood, still holding her hand, and guided her from its quilted surface. God, I really don't want this to be weird. Was it even going to be weird? In the end, he didn't know. It was probably the unknowing that was getting to him, in the end. 

He released her hand and pulled back the quilt before climbing into the bed. His exposed skin glidied across the unnaturally soft surface, both the quilt and sheets wrapping themselves around him in a soothing embrace. Staying awake in this thing would be impossible. Once he'd settled, he released a content sigh, allowing his eyes to slowly droop until...

They snapped right back open. What if she didn't follow him into the bed? He'd already 'claimed' it, so to speak. What would he do if she just slept on the floor? He'd never be able to forgive himself for that. "Okay, time to sleep. I'll take the lush, comfy bed. You can just hang out on the cold dank floor, yeah?"

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Bahr confirmed her initial plan, and she nodded. Good. It seemed like the pair was on the same page again, at least where Rainey was concerned. She actually hadn't considered how Bahr's actions might strain their relationship with Dominic, and potentially threaten their mission. It was such a silly thing to overlook, and the possible fallout should have been the first thing on Lessa's mind. Apparently, she was a tad preoccupied. If the Big Brother did decide to kick them out, how would they be able to help Lilik's friend? Maybe Lessa could pull on her ties to Dominic, leaning on their shared disapproval of Bahr's behavior? The thought nearly elicited a shudder. That felt so incredibly slimy. But what if it was their only option?

Suddenly, he was talking about her waking him up. Lessa was yanked back to the present, leaving the less savory thoughts behind, as she stared at him. Add one more thing to the "things she really should have thought of but didn't" list - how were they both going to sleep in this quaint little room? A quick glance confirmed that there was only the one bed. No couch, no big, overstuffed love seat, not even a bench. If there had been two chairs to push together, she might have - 

Wait a second.

When did he change?

He looks good in black.

I've never actually seen his legs before.

Lessa shook her head violently, like a child trying to clear their Etch A Sketch. She needed to CTRL + SHIFT + TAB these thoughts before they got the best of her. Besides, it was late, they were both exhausted, and they'd just spent a pretty decent chunk of time being furious with each other. It didn't quite spell romance, and the creepy church cult didn't help matters. Neither did the tiny porcelain cat wearing the floral bonnet, which observed in silence from the nightstand. It would totally judge her if she tried any funny business. It already had a pretty disapproving look on it's little painted cat face.

So she simply let Bahr tug her off the end of the bed, and she watched as he climbed back into it. Then she stood there. Now what? The floor wasn't carpeted or anything, but if she put a pillow down, it probably wouldn't be too bad.

Just get in bed, a voice chided her. It's not like this will ever have to leave the room. Besides, it's not the nineteenth century. You're both grown ass adults, and it's a really big bed.

Right. With that thought, Lessa called up her own inventory. After sneaking a peak to make sure Bahr was facing the opposite direction, she changed into a pair of purple shorts and an oversized white t-shirt. Honestly, it was probably more modest than her typical attire, but it still felt odd wearing her PJs with him around. Pausing to swoop her hair back into a long ponytail, Lessa then flipped off the light and carefully climbed under the quilt herself.

Somehow, it was the most comfortable bed in all of Aincrad. Sleep should have taken her quickly, but instead, she stared up at the shadows on the ceiling. Then she shifted her head on the pillow, glancing at the mop of white hair that peeked over the blanket. He was sleeping, just like she should be. She needed to let him sleep. She needed to pretend like he wasn't there, and just fall asleep herself. She needed to not be saying the words that she heard coming out of her own mouth.

"I kind of assumed you'd sleep in the coat."

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He'd been facing the wall, his back turned to her. He figured it would offer the privacy she needed to get ready for bed. And when she, thankfully, crawled into the bed and laid beside him, he felt relieved. After so many years of sleeping alone, it was truly bizarre to have a woman laying next to him. Particularly one he had become so taken to. He'd spent his time in Aincrad couch surfing and staying in inns, to sleeping on a futon in the back of his shop, to being a full fledged home owner. But never once had he shared those places with someone else.

It was... nice. More than that, really.

Despite having every urge to turn around and face her, he resisted. They really did need to get some sleep if they wanted the following day to go smoothly. Well, as smoothly as possible, anyways. If they stayed up all night chatting, they wouldn't-

"I kind of assumed you'd sleep in the coat."

He almost laughed. Almost. Instead he shifted, peering back at her through the darkness over his shoulder. He could barely make out the features of her face from the faint glow cast throughout the room from the tiny night light plugged into the adjacent wall, but he could feel that she was staring straight at him. He shifted some more, turning his body so that he faced her, scooching a bit closer, tucking one of his bare arms beneath the impossibly plush pillow upon which his head rested. 

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he teased, the smile playing at his lips virtually invisible in the dull lighting. "I know you're fond of it. Here." His free hand extended into the air and fiddled with the menu that appeared for a moment, before the coat burst into existence through ribbon of light and fell right on his face.

Smooth.

After a bit of convincing, the coat allowed itself to be pulled away, and he snapped it toward the end of the bed to allow the fabric to open before it settled over Lessa's frame. It was dense and heavy, much like a weighted blanket. Not that she needed it, given the thickness of the quilt they'd burrowed their way under. And then, without even really thinking about what he was doing, his arm came to rest over her and the coat. His eyes connected with hers, and there was almost a sense of "Is this alright?" in them. But when it felt so right, he figured it probably was.

"I'm happy you sent that message," he admitted. "The one asking me to come here. Even with everything that's happened. It's worth it."

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It's true, she was fond of the coat. Considering Bahr wore it everywhere, she had come to associate the garment, and it's fiery red color, with her best friend. And she'd liked it even more when he'd draped it over her shoulders that night on Manderley's porch. As such, when he spread the jacket over her, Lessa automatically tugged it up over her chin. Very charming, Bahr, she mused, staring up at the ceiling and grinning into the rough fabric. Even with the flop in the darkness that she assumed had been his summoning the coat, it was a pretty smooth move.

So focused on her new blanket, Lessa felt more than saw him draw nearer; the shift in the mattress, the arm that now draped over her torso. She drew in a long, slow breath, waiting a few seconds before looking back at him. When she did, his closeness caught her off-guard. He was right there, his face only lines and curves in the shadowed room, but his eyes seemed to glow with their own light. There was an intensity in the mismatched gaze, and it seemed to search hers for... something. Though she had no idea whether or not he could see the expression, as half of her face was still hidden by his coat, a shy smile bloomed.

"I'm glad I sent that message too," she told him. "I wish things hadn't happened the way they had though. I hate knowing you were hurting, and that I caused it." Even as she spoke the words, her stomach twisted, and that vice tightened around her heart. No, it wasn't worth spending any more time on it. Don't ruin whatever this is.

So she let them plunge back into silence, the only sound the rolling staccato of rain on the roof. It was hardly uncomfortable, and she would have been content with just his company. Words paled in comparison to the security she felt with him beside her.

Like you have a home in me. 

Exactly.

"You're wrong, you know," she stated suddenly. "When you said just existing around me wasn't enough. It is. Even on the days I don't see you, just knowing you're out there somewhere makes everything a little easier." Lessa paused to yawn, then snuggled deeper into the plush pillow. The weight of his coat, the pressure of his arm, the warmth of his breath - it was just what she'd needed to usher in sleep A distant dreaminess drifted in and out of her voice as she mumbled, "You make me so happy, Apollo."

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"You're wrong, you know." Her voice pierced through the silence that had settled between, stirring Bahr from his half-asleep stupor. It seemed eerily reminiscent of his lambasting of her a little earlier. He instinctively tensed a bit, not sure whether to expect a sudden second round of arguing, or something else. "When you said just existing around me wasn't enough. It is. Even on the days I don't see you, just knowing you're out there somewhere makes everything a little easier."

Oh.

That hadn't been what he was expecting, but it was nice to hear. It made him feel... wanted. Needed. Almost like, in some sense, he was contributing more just by being than by anything he was doing. That he didn't need to push the Frontlines in order to make a difference in this world. He still would, because he felt it was his duty. But did he really need to play things so risky in getting there? Up until now, he'd felt like it wouldn't matter if he were to die, so long as he made a difference. He'd be happy to sacrifice himself so that other people - more important people - could make it to the end. 

But what would happen now? If he suddenly passed. How would Lessa handle it? Would it plunge her back into the darkness they'd been working so hard to claw her out of?

"You make me so happy, Apollo."

Even after all of that... He was still good enough for her. He didn't need to do anything other than be there with her, and he was good enough for her. The thought sucked the air right out of his lungs, preventing any sort of audible response. And even if he could say something to her, there just weren't any words for it. Instead, the arm that had draped around her waist pulled on her, drawing him nearer to her, and her closer to him. Until he could feel the soft touch of her skin against his, and fully wrap his arm around her and keep her close. He pitched his jaw upward slightly until his lips met with her forehead, offering a small and comforting kiss before he rested his own forehead gently against the very same spot.

There didn't need to be any more words. The shared silence and her touch was enough. And slowly but surely, they lulled him into the black.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

He slept like a rock. As he slowly stirred and pried his eyes open, he found a pair of blue orbs staring back at him. He blinked a few times as everything came into focus. He wasn't sure if they'd shifted, but they were in the exact same positions they were when they fell asleep. Wait, no, that wasn't true. His arm had found its way under the blanket, the tension it had held during their embrace from the night before lost as the appendage lay limp. He'd later reflect on how he'd hoped he didn't try to cop a feel in his sleep, but in that moment, all he could focus on was her.

"Hi."

"Hi."


How long had she been watching him? Not that he minded. What time was it, anyway? The corner of his HUD read 7:52 AM.

"We should probably get up and moving," Bahr began, "But if we hang out for another eight minutes, we can make it a clean start at 8 AM sharp." A poor excuse. She'd probably see right through it. But he didn't want to crawl out of bed yet. He was content right where he was.

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There were no windows to let the sun in, but when Lessa woke, she was bathed in warmth. Her eyes fluttered lazily, but all trace of sleep left them as she focused on Bahr's face. He was so close to her. She could feel each of his measured breaths, and see the small, drowsy smile that ghosted around his lips. Had they been that close the night before? She didn't think so, but surprisingly, there was no instinct to draw away from him. Somehow, without Lessa even noticing, she'd grown comfortable with him. She'd grown used to him. She'd found a home in him.

She was smiling when he finally opened his eyes.

"Hi."

"Hi."

Wait, eight more minutes? Would that tiny sliver of time actually make any difference in the long run? She didn't care one bit whether it did or not. "Starting at eight sounds perfect," she answered. What she really wanted was for them to just stay as they were, exchanging sweet nothings and whatever else came naturally. But they did have a job to do, and last night demonstrated what happened when they went in half-cocked. Lessa refused to let that happen again. Even if the conversations were difficult, they were were necessary. He'd already promised that she wouldn't lose him, but if it had to happen, she'd rather it not be in the middle of a needless argument.

"So, uh, hey," she began slowly, propping herself up on her arm as she studied him. It wasn't enough movement to dislodge his arm, but she didn't want to discuss Dominic while snuggled deep in the pillows. Bahr had to know that she was taking the issue seriously. "Its a very real possibility that Dominic is going to kick you out this morning. If he does, but allows me to stay, should I? Do you want me to?" Tension enhanced every angle of her face, and her lips drew into a thin line as she watched for a reaction. "I'll do whatever you think is best." With her eyes locked on his, she concluded, "I'm not making any more decisions without you."

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