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[Multifloor - PP] A Kiss to Build a Dream On

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When the light is running low
And the shadows start to grow
And the places that you know
Seem like fantasy

There's a light inside your soul
That's still shining in the cold
With the truth...
The promise in our hearts
Don't forget
I'm with you in the dark


From: Lessa

No need to be a dick about it. <3

- Lessa

It was funny how, when he'd read the original iteration of this message, he'd scoffed at it. There was so much attitude behind it, but Bahr knew he had deserved it. That was the sort of response one got when they had been callous and offensive, pretending to know a person and prod at their perceived insecurities. He'd simply shrugged and dismissed the panel, before walking them straight into a deathtrap. What happened afterward had surprised them both.

Yet when he saw it now, it made him all giddy. It had become one of their things. A tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of how silly they'd been toward one another in the beginning. When they were still feeling the situation out, and uncovering new things about one another. While the situation between them had been made gloriously evident by now, one of the things that Bahr loved about their relationship was how they were always still discovering new things about one another.

He'd had it open, staring at it the entire trek up the trail toward Manderly. Heavenly rays pierced through the foliage above in thick, ethereal sheets, their rich golden hue attributed to the distant ball of fire that was still rising. In contrast to the afternoon, the forests of the twenty-second floor were relatively quiet at this time. The usual bustle generated by the insects and woodland animals of the area were sparse and hushed, hardly audible over the soft whisper of the gentle breeze rolling through the leaves. Occasionally, on a particularly spirited gust, one would hear the skittering of dead leaves as they tossed and tumbled across the forest floor. The nostalgic scent that emanated from them filled Bahr's nostrils before being released on a content exhale. Since he was getting close now, he dismissed the panel and pitched his eyes forward. 

He hoped she felt the same way that he did, about enjoying discovering new things about one another. Because he had big plans for today. Their first date. An actual date. Not a quest they embarked on together, not a casual chat at White Rabbit, not a wedding reception he'd dragged her to or a cult they'd infiltrated on the whim of a total stranger. A real, true date. A day just for them. An opportunity to get closer, enjoy themselves and the company, do fun things together. 

To share a kiss to build a dream on.

He rapped his knuckles against the door the moment he approached, eager to get things started. "Hope you're ready!" he called, "It'd be a shame to have all this fun by myself!"

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Lessa checked her reflection again. There was little point in the action, considering her appearance had not changed in the slightest from when she'd checked three minutes ago. Still, she leaned in closer to better examine each blonde flyway, and each faint freckle on her cheek. Next, she gave her long, loose hair a fluff, as was mandatory when looking in a mirror. She paused to smooth out the wrinkles in her pink blouse, and hike up the white camisole riding beneath it. This was a first date, after all.

After stooping to adjust the way her brown boots lay over her blue jeans, Lessa straightened, primped again, and glanced at her clock. Bahr would be here at ten, right? And it was.... seven.

"Gah," Lessa exclaimed on a dramatic expulsion of air. She threw her arms wide and fell backwards onto her bed. She bounced once, before coming to rest among her heavy quilt and pastel pillows. 'Why had she woken up so early' might have been the logical question, but that would be assuming she had slept at all. Which she hadn't. She plucked a purple pillow, pressed it to her face, and gave another wail of frustration against the soft fabric. A better question was probably 'why was she acting like a hormonal, love-struck middle schooler about to go on her first date?' The answer? Because that's kind of what it felt like.

But smothering herself would not make time pass more quickly, so she traded the pillow for her HUD, and did a little reading. She cleaned up her already clean room. She tried to play with Riker, but his low growl of annoyance signified he preferred to be sleeping at this hour. So she paced instead. She had just begun reflecting on the meaning of life when, finally, a knock came at her door. Her heart knocked louder against her chest, which was a pretty dumb response considering she'd seen Bahr just a couple of days ago. But this morning was different. She could feel it.

She reached the front parlor just as he jokingly threatened to leave her behind. Lessa grinned, laughed, and answered, "Yeah, it'd would be no fun if you had to do it by yourself!"

Then she smacked her forehead against the solid wood.

Really settin' the mood here, aren'tcha?

When she finally drew the large door back, opening herself to the sun, the breeze, and him... she forgot all about the blunder. "Hi," she greeted dumbly, before giving herself a mental shake. "I, uh, yeah, I'm ready." Reaching back, Lessa pulled the door closed behind her. "I hope you don't mind," she began, fumbling with the lock before turning back to him, "I'm not really sure what 'dress to impress' entails, so I just threw a few things into my inventory." She held her arms out to her sides and motioned to her current attire, then asked, "Does this work for now?"

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"Yeah, it'd would be no fun if you had to do it by yourself!"

Bahr would have laughed, had he not heard the loud thunk from the other side of the door. He leaned up against the door, bringing his ear close to the solid oak and listening for movement on the other side. "Er... Everything alright in there?" That felt weird. Why did that feel so weird? But almost as though on cue, the door flung wide open, and there she was. A loose fitting blouse draped over her gentle features, pink in coloration, illuminating the threshold with a coral hue as it refracted the glowing sunlight. It was such a simple garment, but she made it look marvelous. Bahr was suddenly very aware of his own garb, feeling a bit silly for having worn his typical attire. Maybe he could sneak away at some point to chan-

"Hi." Her voice was high and sweet with subdued excitement.

"Hi," Bahr replied, standing up straight and slowly slinking away from where he'd been standing when he was listening in. 

"I, uh, yeah, I'm ready," she said as she stepped forward and closed the door behind her. There was an aroma that followed her. Perfume? No, it was the same lavender he'd noticed before. Did she just naturally smell so alluring? "I hope you don't mind. I'm not really sure what 'dress to impress' entails, so I just threw a few things into my inventory. Does this work for now?" 

Bahr nodded enthusiastically in response. "You look perfect." No, he was supposed to say, "It's perfect." Why did his mouth do that? But rather than get all flustered and nervous, he didn't skip a beat, extending his arm for her to wrap hers around. When she did, he took dramatic steps forward, leading her off the porch and onto the trail leading downward. "We've got a bunch of fun stuff on the agenda today. Hope you slept well." Not that he had. Or at all. Something about meditating under a waterfall for over a day leaves a person feeling simultaneously refreshed and exhausted. Even if he hadn't been so excited for the date, he probably wouldn't have slept a wink. 

The first destination was the third floor. They'd shared experiences there before, namely the horrendous Defiled Church fiasco and that horrible Treant quest. Today was an opportunity to make new memories for the floor. Happier memories. But he wouldn't tell her that until they'd reached the gate. "I've already got quite the list prepared, but I figured I'd ask. What would you like to do on a day like today?"

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Lessa hooked her arm through his and gave it a quick squeeze. Her cheeks warmed to a shade not entirely unlike her blouse, but she grinned through the pleased embarrassment. "You look pretty perfect yourself," came her answer, good-natured humor weaving through each word. "I really like this coat." With her free hand, she tugged gently on the fabric of his well-worn crimson garment. "Have I seen it before? It must be new."

Amused, and just a tad smitten, she pulled him a bit closer. "I can't believe you planned a whole day," she admitted as they walked. Leaves skittered across their path on a breeze not yet cold enough to be troublesome. The sound could easily fit into a spooky suspense film, but it didn't bother her at all. She refused to let anything poke holes in her good mood today. To be honest, she wondered if anything could. "I would have been content with just food at the White Rabbit or something. You didn't have to go through all the trouble." Of course, the twinkle in her blue eyes suggested she didn't mind it.

His next question made her think, and she gave a soft "hmm" to demonstrate it. "On a day like today," she drawled, "I'd probably go for a walk. It's so gorgeous out. The snow will probably be here soon, so I'd want to make the most of the nice weather." She drew a deep breath of the chilly air, simply enjoying the way that it cleared her mind and spiked her senses. "I'd probably drag Riker along with me, though he'd pout the entire time. For a wolf, especially one programmed to be my familiar, he's incredibly moody. And lazy."

The thought made her grin, but the gleam dulled as she considered his query from a different angle. "Outside of SAO though? I'd go riding. I mean, that would be my answer no matter what day it was. I rode in every season. Actually, launching yourself off a horse and into a snowbank is pretty fun." Her expression wasn't sad, per se, but a bit distant. She spoke as if she were describing childhood, or an event that she could never possibly relive. When was it that I'd started thinking like that?

"Anyway, yeah," she continued, shoving the thought aside and focusing on Bahr once more. "On a day like this? I'd spend it in the saddle."

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"It is new, actually!" he expressed genuinely, holding up the lining as though to illustrate. "I've only been through three levels with this bad boy. It's still stiff and everything." It was a little weird to be wearing it though, right? She didn't seem to mind it, at the very least. He'd keep it on for now, unless she kept taking jabs at him for it. Even then, her teasing was something that he'd learned to appreciate. 

Bahr had the hugest smile on his face as she described what she'd do, both in Aincrad and in the real world. It reached from ear to ear, the sort of mischievous grin that could guide ships to port. But, with a grunt, he managed to tone it back a bit, not wanting to give anything away. "Oh, that's right. You're really into horses. I almost forgot." Such a lie, and he managed to deliver it with a completely straight face and even tone. He'd never been great at fibbing, so he was almost impressed with himself for managing to not spill the beans for once in his life. It almost felt dirty. But seeing the look on her face as he slowly unraveled the day's events would make everything worth it. Of this, he was certain. "I know, I know. Chide away. If you give me hell, I might just remember it this time."

The trail leading to and from Manderly was such a pleasant stroll. A bit easier going than coming, if Bahr was being honest. But he noticed something new every time. A family of rabbits emerging from a burrow he'd never caught site of before. Squirrels sat on high in a tree branch quarreling with one another over the last acorn. The occasional ominous rune visible through the thicket from a particular angle, all seemingly connected though they stood alone, their purpose lost to time and atrophy. He wasn't really one for long walks. But this? He'd never get tired of it.

Especially in the company of an attractive woman. No, not just any woman. Lessa. Alyssa. He could walk the trail a hundred times just to spend time with her, hear her voice, be an audience to her enrapturing smile, and feel her tug at his arm as hers interlinked with it. He'd convey all of this to her soon enough, after the day had ran its course. And while he would have loved to have walked the trail with her for hours, they'd miss out on all the fun.

Eventually, they reached the base of the trail. Then Coral. Then the gate. Bahr turned to her before they stepped on, his eyes carrying a strange mixture of softness and confidence. "Trust me, alright?" He gently took her hand in his and stepped back onto the platform, guiding her along with him without breaking that eye contact. "Teleport, Flora." And in a flash, they were gone.


It was a bit risky coming back to this floor, given their history here. Even so, the reward was greater. Flora was a settlement they hadn't had the pleasure of perusing together, and would help to set the mood for what was to come. Immediately after they arrived, the first thing they would see was an explosion of color. In every direction they looked, they'd find flowers overgrown through the small town, encroaching on everything that existed there. Next would be the soft aroma of the fresh vegetation, dancing flippantly around them as they took their first steps from the platform. If one focused, they might pick up hints of the nearby lake's scent wafting about on the breeze, fleeting amidst the flowers which easily overpowered it. 

There was an NPC waiting for them there. A young boy excitedly holding a bouquet of flowers, varied in their appearance and coloration. He proudly held it up to Bahr as they approached, which the Crimson Marauder accepted graciously. "Thank you very much, Sean," Bahr said with a warm smile and a slight bow. The child giggled bashfully before running off, leaving the two of them behind. "For you," he said, his eyes shifting to the woman still holding his hand as he offered the assortment to her.

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Lessa's eyebrows winged up as Bahr admitted he'd forgotten her equine obsession. "Really?" she asked, tone dripping with skepticism. She stared at his face for a while, then shrugged. In fact, the whole thing elicited a quick laugh. "Guess I should be grateful that I have a life where I'm not 'the horse girl.' I'm pretty used to having my reputation revolve around riding." It really had consumed her through most of her teenage years, especially once school was out. Hot summer nights were spent bathing, trimming, and banding her mare for show after show. Then, when slinkies were on and stalls were cleaned, she would crowd around the campfire with her 4H family. She loved staying up late, sleeping in the trailer, then stumbling to the barn in PJ shorts and muck boots because the horses had to eat before she could. 

That had been my whole life, she thought to herself. Realizing she was staring at Bahr, she turned to watch the trail again. Now my life looks a little different.

Companionable silence followed them to Coral. When her friend finally spoke, he offered her his hand.

Trust me, alright?

It was as if he was her Aladdin, the platform their magic carpet. Bahr beckoned to her, promising her mystery, surprise, exploration. And whatever else they happened to find along the way.

Trust you?

Of course I do.

Lessa took Bahr's hand, and allowed him to lead her into their next adventure.

As they materialized in Flora, Lessa fought to keep the hesitation from her face. Why did he choose the third floor? Their last two trips there hadn't gone well. One, in fact had left her wondering if she'd lost him forever. The mere thought of that night, and the insults they'd spit at each other, chilled Lessa's blood. If they never came to blows like that again, it would be too soon. Here's to hoping we can communicate better.

The young boy who waited for them bounced energetically on the balls of his feet. The grin he wore gleamed with excitement, mischief, and sheer, childish innocence. Though this was an NPC, judging from the color of his cursor, he reminded Lessa of little Oliver. Her young friend had been abandoned in SAO when his mother was killed in the first few weeks. He ran with the other orphans, but took a shining to Lessa, and spent as much time with her as possible. I'll have to tell Bahr about Oliver, she mused, returning the NPC's smile. The expression grew when she realized the bouquet meant for her.

"Thank you," Lessa murmured, burying her face in the flowers. She breathed deeply, filling her senses with the sweet aroma before she surfaced again. "You're really going all out," she told Bahr.

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"You're really going all out."

You haven't seen anything yet, was what he wanted to say. But why ruin the fun? He'd let it continue building and building as the day went on, each surprise as meaningful and heartfelt as the last, if not more so. Going all out with flowers? Lessa, you're in for a wild ride.

"So how about that walk?" he inquired, gesturing with his head for her to follow. He led them through the streets of the small town, through the gate, and out into the field. It was the perfect day for what he had planned. The sun hung high in the air over their heads, its glow illuminating the vibrant colors of the third floor as well as providing a soft warmth that made the stroll ever more pleasant. The first thing that they would see upon making their way outward was the sprawling lake that accompanied Flora, its tepid surface shimmering as the sunlight refracted across it. 

"I thought you might like a place like this," he started, keeping his eyes forward while a persistent grin remained on his lips. "It's got a little bit of what we both love. A huge lake that's as clear as a sheet of glass, with towering mountains looming overhead." He couldn't hold back anymore. He just had to drop a hint. "There's something else, too," he admitted as his eyes found hers. "Something a little more special. It took a long time to find it. I had my info broker scouring Aincrad for days in search of it." He felt like he was perhaps laying it on a bit thick, but he didn't care. "The journey there will take awhile. But it will be quicker on the way back. Gives us a chance to enjoy that stroll you were talking about."

They carved a wide arc slowly around the lake with their boots, headed north toward the mountains that jutted up from the floor below. It was one of the few places in Aincrad where you could interact with a different floor from the one that you were on, and though the mountains hung off of the edge of the floating castle, they were stable enough to allow for travel. It was awe inspiring and exhilarating all in one fell swoop.

The lake was busy, too. Floors like the twenty-second and twenty-fourth had a wider selection of these massive bodies of water, but the one on the third floor was a bit more accessible. Particularly for the lower leveled players. There were kids frolicking about, splashing one another as their excited screams echoed through the valley. Their parents or caretakers sat offshore in the chairs that had come to litter the expanse, enjoying the time of leisure their childrens' horseplay provided them by sunbathing, reading, taking naps, or any other variety of relaxation techniques. The more rambunctious adults stood along the water's edge, participating in the water fights by splashing or picking the kids up and chucking them into the water as they squealed with glee. Bahr's eyes traced the shoreline as he witnessed the heartwarming display, not bothering to point it out. He was sure she saw.

It wasn't long before they reached the base of the mountain, which practically hugged the water's edge at its northernmost point. There weren't as many people around here. Perhaps it was due to the risk of rockslides, or the fact that the other side of the lake caught the sunlight better. Here, the looming rocky edifice imposed itself on the horizon, casting the area below in soothing shade. "It's just a little bit further," he assured her, "You'll know it when you see it."

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Despite the horrors of being trapped within Aincrad, the floating castle did have a few perks. One thing Lessa actually quite enjoyed was the ability to shift seamlessly from season to season, depending on which floor she visited. She could have balmy or blistering summers, dry or wet springs, and even determine how cold she wanted her autumn and winter to be. The real world never would have allowed her such luxuries, unless she had a private jet to travel to various places. 

And in the real world, she didn't have mountains. Oh sure, she had lakes, just like the one she and Bahr strolled around. It was actually a familiar sight: children splashing, parents lounging, chairs sprouting like multi-colored flowers at random intervals. Northern Michigan summers were something she would never tire of, but they certainly didn't have majestic mountains rising all around them. The blonde tilted her head back, squinting against the morning sunlight to study the nearest peak. "It does have my lakes and your mountains," she agreed. Her gaze shifted back to the frolicking players, and the grin burst, unabashed, onto her face. "It's always great to see people so happy. I love that its possible, even in a place like this."

When Bahr's eyes found hers, and he mentioned a different destination, Lessa's head tilted. "You had info brokers looking for it?" she repeated, confusion plain in her tone. So was it possible that he'd show her something she'd never seen before? The sheer notion pulsed excitement through her like NOx through a car's engine. "Okay, now you've definitely gone all out." Not entirely unlike the NPC with the flowers, Lessa bounced a bit as they walked.

Her mind swirled with the possibilities as they followed switchback after switchback. It was probably a good thing that Bahr wasn't engaging her in conversation, as her attention would definitely be split. When he assured her she'd know it when she saw it, her incredibly intelligent and wildly smooth reply was, "huhwhat?"

Lessa blinked once, twice, then began to look around them. She'd know it when she saw it? Well where was it? What should she be - 

She knew that smell.
That musty mixture of wood, hay, dust, sweat, leather, and manure.

At the same time her throat constricted, her heart expanded to press against her chest.

"Bahr," she gurgled, her arm tightening around his. Lessa clung like a drowning victim to a life preserver, nostalgia swamping her as her legs began to shake. "Bahr."

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All at once, the realization struck Lessa. The look on her face, and the inflection in her voice, were almost exactly how he had imagined them. But the trembling? That was a surprise.

"That's right," he said proudly, giving her hand a soft squeeze. "Let's not waste any time, right?"

The path leading around the next switchback opened up into a sprawling pasture. The expanse was littered with a myriad of farmland animals. Cows, horses, alpacas, emus, goats, chickens, and a lone rooster. Despite the beautiful scenery, Bahr's eyes stayed glued to Lessa's face the entire time, his smile growing with each passing moment that the reality of the situation sank into her. If pure love could be described in a single expression, it would be the one she wore. She seemed almost paralyzed in time, completely awestruck by the scene that was unfolding before her. 

"C'mon," prompted Bahr as he lightly nudged the stupefied blonde. "There's someone I'd like you to meet." With a slight tug, he began walking again, leading Lessa by her still interlinked arm toward the large house that existed on the property. Resting on the porch was an old man slowly rocking back and forth in his creaky wooden chair, very obviously an NPC, while a dog matched in age laid snoozing idly beside. He was a rather plump man. Jolly, as some might say. With a white man of hair and a long, scraggly ivory beard to boot, one could swear he was the country Santa Claus. His hands sat folded in his lap as he chewed at the end of a stem of wheat, patiently watching the animals as they frolicked through the field. He had nothing to do, and nowhere to be. And you could tell he reveled in it. "This is George."

"Well howdy there, young lady,"
 George greeted with a tip of his hat. "You must be the 'Lessa' this boy wouldn't quit yappin' about. Hear you like horses?"

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"I love horses."

The words were as soft as a prayer, a husky whisper that George still miraculously heard. Even if he hadn't, he likely knew her answer. It had to be evident from her awestruck child-on-Christmas-morning expression. The NPC rocked back in his chair, unable to hide the smile that lifted his bushy mustache. "Well now," he drawled, crystal blue eyes twinkling, "I 'spose that's something we have in common."

But by the time he'd finished the statement, she had already turned away from him. Fortunately, the shock was beginning to wear off. What remained was sheer, unabashed joy. Like George’s, Lessa’s blue eyes simply shimmered with unbridled excitement. “That buckskin over there,” she asked, lifting a finger to point at a golden-brown gelding. “What’s his name?”

George nodded appreciatively. “Got a good eye, miss Lessa. That there’s Dessel.”

Lessa cocked her head, gaze never leaving the horse, and asked, “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“It’s the name of a town just over yonder.” Though she couldn’t see it, George motioned north with a wave of his calloused, working-man’s hand.

“Ah, right.” There was a hesitation, before, “Would it be alright if I pet him?”

The NPC’s answer was a deep, rolling belly laugh. “Go right ahead,” he finally managed, and smiled to himself as he watched the girl approach the pasture gate.

She wanted to sprint. Every single molecule of her being begged her to run, to get there faster, but a lifetime of horse sense wasn’t so easily forgotten. Instead, she approached the fence slowly, with both hands raised in an ‘I come in peace’ gesture.

“Hey handsome boy,” she murmured soothingly. As slowly and silently as possible, she opened the gate's latch, slipped inside, closed it behind her. “You are so beautiful. Look at you.” The last came on a reverent gasp as the gelding lifted his head to watch her. Dark, amber eyes regarded her with an intelligence she never tired of. Those bottomless pools of whiskey reflected her face as Lessa carefully approached. Now she extended one hand, palm upward, for the horse to sniff. He tossed his head once, twice, shaggy black forelock flopping into his eyes. But then he lowered those paper-thin nostrils to her hand, flaring as they tested her scent. Her legs began to shake again.

“Hi Dessel,” she said on a sob as velvet lips began tickling her palm. “Sorry I don’t have anything for you, buddy. Do you forgive me? I promise, I’ll bring treats next time. Do you like peppermints? All good boys like peppermints.”

She wasn’t even aware of what it was she said anymore, the words spilling like water from a broken faucet. Her hand moved to Dessel’s cheek, her thumb stroking along the rigid jawline. Then she was running her palm down his neck, and the muscles rippled beneath the butterscotch coat. The sight of him swam as tears filled her vision, but none fell until his thick skull nudged her shoulder. A concerned nicker rumbled in his chest, and as he lifted his head again, she finally gave in. Snaking her arms around the horse’s broad neck, she buried her face against him. She breathed in the familiar scent, screwing her eyes closed as tears tracked down her now-dusty cheeks. “I missed you,” she whispered to a horse she didn’t know, and Dessel’s head lowered to complete the embrace.

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Bahr remained alongside George as he watched Lessa trail off, slowly making her way to Dessel with practiced deliberation. His smile, as well as George's, grew as they witnessed her forget herself, locked in a trance with the buckskin of her choosing. Her coos of admiration and soothing speech were more akin to how one would talk to a treasured companion and partner, rather than to a horse. Though, for someone like Lessa, the line was thin, if it existed at all.

Bahr, who was far less experienced with the wise animals, mimicked Lessa's approach toward the fence as she embraced the horse, resting his elbows against the worn wood while he waited for her to be finished. George remained seated, though watched the display of affection diligently from his perch, grin remaining persistently slapped across his face as he took in the view. After she had gotten a few uninterrupted moments with her steed, and the timing felt right, Bahr finally spoke. "He seems to really like you." His voice was measured and steady, taking care not to spook anything milling about the pasture. "Feels like a good fit from over here. What do you think?"

Though he put up a front of being calm and collected, there was an underlying nervousness that roiled beneath the surface. Alyssa had spent her whole life around horses, so getting back in the saddle would be like riding a bike for her. But Apollo? He'd ridden only a handful of times throughout the years, usually separated by a year or more between excursions. He'd never had the time to cultivate his scattered experiences into actual skill, which would surely show when they began their ride. But the warm, soothing summer breeze. The concoction of relaxing, earthy aromas. The fact that he was experiencing it all with her. These facets of the adventure all worked in tandem to put Bahr more at ease.

He unlatched the gate, tiptoed in, and slowly closed it. It was a tad creaky, but didn't seem to bother the animals that had become accustomed to it. He strode with feigned confidence to take his place beside Lessa, running his fingers down the neck of the gentle beast she had chosen. It seemed to be protective over her, as though it understood not Bahr's motivations. It could probably sense the hidden nervousness wafted from him. Good, Bahr thought. A perfect partner for her.

"So what do you say?" Bahr finally piped up, his eyes trailing to the caramel mare George had been kind enough to lend him for a practice run the day before. After all, it would have been silly to go riding with a pro without getting so much as a refresher. As he snapped back to Lessa's doe-eyed orbs, he took a deep breath before he asked, "You wanna ride, or what?"

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"Well," she answered, "I really like him." Slowly, she pried her face from Dessel's neck, turning to look at Bahr. Her arms remained wrapped around the horse, her fingers climbing to twine in his wiry black mane. "He's absolutely perfect. Everything about him." In all her time in Aincrad, and even beyond it, Lessa couldn't remember ever being so happy. She felt she could simply float right of the ground, and might have, were she not tethered to the patient gelding.

As her date moved closer, Dessel's head lifted. He regarded Bahr with a sideways glance, his ears first swiveling, then melting backward. "Hey now," she murmured, adopting the tone of a doting mother scolding her child. "None of that." Her arms unwrapped themselves from Dessel's neck, and she took a slight step sideway, placing her body between Bahr and the gelding. "Where are your manners?" She reached forward to give the buckskin's shoulder a quick pat. "Bahr is our friend, Dessel. He's... one of the good ones."

She looked over her shoulder, intending to give Bahr just a quick glance, but something made her gaze linger. It was in those mismatched eyes of his, an unease that she couldn't remember ever seeing before. Was he nervous? Of course, it was entirely possible he wasn't as comfortable around horses as she was. Hell, it was incredibly likely; most didn't share her soft spot for the massive creatures. 

Yet here he stood. He'd arranged this for her, despite any concerns he harbored. Once more, her heart swelled as she looked at him. "Yeah," she finally answered, reaching to give his arm a quick squeeze. She needed to thank him, but didn't know how. She didn't know if she could, for the gift he'd given her. Swords, pins, all of it fell by the wayside as grinned at him. "I really, really want to ride." 

Lessa turned to George as he approached, a bridle draped over his broad shoulder, a saddle and pad propped on his hip. "Here y'are, miss Lessa. Should warn you, though. Dessel here is a bit spirited."

"Good," came Lessa's answer as she accepted the equipment. "So am I." Carefully, and murmuring soft nonsense the entire time, she eased the headstall into place. When Dessel refused to accept the bit, she made a sharp tsk sound, and slipped her finger into the side of his mouth. She only had to tickle his tongue for a few seconds before his jaw dropped open, and she slipped the snaffle into place. "Amateur," she snickered. She made quick work of the rest of the process, positioning the saddle and pad, and bending to reach for the girth. As she tugged it under Dessel's stomach and began to knot the excess, George approached leading a fully tacked mare.

"Looks like we're ready to go then," she announced. It appeared Bahr's stirrups had already been dropped to accommodate his long legs, but she gave them a quick tug just in case. She also checked the mare's cinch before looking to her companion. "Do you want a leg up?" Then, realizing it likely put the much larger man in an awkward position, she amended, "Or we can use the bottom rung of the fence. Whichever works."

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"Do you want a leg up?"

Bahr knew he didn't have any room for pride about this. He knew it. But still, he couldn't bring himself to take Lessa up on an offer like that. He knew that it wasn't a jest, or in any way meant to embarrass him. She was the more experienced out of the two, by a dramatic margin, and all she wanted to do was help. But he had to see what he could do on his own, first. He was willing to take the risk of utter embarrassment if it made him appear at least a little more in control. Though, his attempts at hopping in the saddle the day before hadn't been too promising.

"Or we can use the bottom rung of the fence. Whichever works."

She could sense his apprehension. She was giving him a way out. And as much as he appreciated it, his pride got the best of him. 

"Nahh, I've got this," he managed through a forced, goofy smile. One of his boots found itself within the stirrup and, with a bit of unflattering grunting and at least one failed initial hop, he managed to heave himself up and into the saddle. Albeit awkwardly, given the strange almost-prone position he found himself in for a brief moment upon coming to a rest atop the graciously patient creature. At the very least, he hadn't found his face smashed into a puddle of mud, so he had that going for him.

He snapped quickly into an upright position, weaseling his free boot into the other stirrup before turning his attention to Lessa. In a fluid, practiced motion, the gracefully swung herself onto Dessel and, with a shake of her head, adjusted her own golden mane from her face. Bahr's eyes stayed glued to her in admiration, and would have stayed there, if not for the tap he felt on his knee.

"You be careful with Dolly now, y'hear? We don't need any repeats of yesterday, now."

Bahr chuckled nervously in response, rubbing the back of his head as his other hand took the reigns. "Yeah, thanks for the reminder. I promise, I won't get bucked off this time." 

George nodded with a smile before turning his attention to the more experienced of the pair. "These are my babies. I'm trustin' you to take care of 'em. And yer little boyfriend here."

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"Hey, nice work!" she called, genuinely pleased to see Bahr find his way into the saddle. It was far from graceful, but it could have been so much worse. She'd seen riders climb up one side, only to go tumbling over the other. And okay, yeah, it was a pretty funny thing to watch. But she really didn't want to have to rescue Bahr on their first date. No doubt he would be mortified, and that didn't really set the romantic tone they were hoping for.

She made quick work of her own mount up, relishing in the feel of the saddle beneath her as she settled. Shoving her hair back, she tipped her face to the sun and simply let herself feel: the horse shifting his weight from hoof to hoof, the thick leather against her thighs, the horn pressed to her palm. She was back where she'd needed to be. She was home.

George's voice drew her back from her reverie, and she tuned in just in time for the exchange with Bahr. Curious, Lessa collected her reins and nudged Dessel forward. "Repeat of yesterday?" she echoed. Then, registering Bahr's words, her eyebrows winged up. "Wait, you rode yesterday? And you were thrown?" Concern and amusement warred for control of her face, and she settled somewhere in between. "I'm really glad you're okay, but don't worry about your unplanned dismount." She flashed him a grin, then stated, "it's practically a rite of passage."

She leaned back in the saddle, propping her wrist on the horn as he watched him. "I've been bucked off so many times. Once, my horse spooked after a class. She took out the entire line of riders waiting for placings, threw me, then dragged me along the fence." She beamed, absolutely engrossed in the memory. "The green paint ruined my cream chaps, but they gave me a shoutout the next night at the rodeo. It was worth it."

Only then did George's final statement register. "He's not really my boyfriend," she corrected, "but I'm still going to take really good care of him. And Dolly and Dessel too, you've got my word."

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Bahr stared blankly at Lessa as she described one of her own experiences being flung off of a horse, wincing when she mentioned being dragged along the fence. She hadn't been joking about her dedication to riding whatsoever. If Bahr had gotten dragged like that, he probably would have called it quits right then and there. He hadn't yet developed the deep love that Lessa held for riding, though, so perhaps that outlook would change with time. He had a feeling they'd be coming out here a lot from now on.

"He's not really my boyfriend,"

Oh, we'll see about that.

"but I'm still going to take really good care of him. And Dolly and Dessel too, you've got my word."

"I trust ya," the older gentleman chortled, running his calloused and weathered hand against Dessel's neck before giving him a pat. "Get on, now. I'll be 'round when you get back."

Bahr let Lessa take the lead, the pair and their trusty steeds exiting the pasture through the gate that George opened up for them. The mountain was now their oyster, and Bahr fully expected that Lessa would intend to explore it in its entirety, possibly multiple times. There was no harm in this, as Bahr had carved out the majority of the day's time for their first endeavor together. He'd probably need to warn her about the restrictions, though. 

"So, about yesterday," he sounded as he brought Dolly up alongside Dessel, struggling for a moment to find an agreeable pace that kept them side by side. "Turns out there's a limit to how far these guys can go. I, uh, found out about that the hard way." Rosy hues infected his cheeks, but the words continued to tumble forward regardless. "Dolly and I were heading down the switchbacks, and I got a little overconfident. I encouraged her to speed up, but lost control pretty quickly. With enough distance, I might have had the time to calm her down. Well, maybe. I honestly don't know. I think she can sense my inexperience." He gently patted her neck, and a short snort huffed through her nostrils in response. "Aaaaanyways. When we reached the perimeter, she didn't slow to a stop. She just stopped. Full stop. I, uh, didn't."

Again, he found his palm nervously rubbing away at the back of white mop, cheesy grin betraying the embarrassment he felt. "It was about halfway down. Figured I'd warn you so the same thing didn't happen to you."

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Dessel's plodding four-beat gait lulled Lessa into something of a trance. A dreamy smile rode her lips as Bahr spoke, and only the faintest concern edged it's way in at the story's conclusion. The image of Bahr flying Super Man-style played out in her mind. It was like a kid on a bike whose front tire hit a pothole, sending him sailing over the handlebars. It wasn't graceful, and it was definitely embarrassing. "Been there," she assured him. "I was at a summer camp at Albion, which is this college near me. They're basically world renowned when it comes to their equine program and facilities, so it was a huge honor just to be there. The entire time, we were preparing for this big showcase. Our families, students from the college, even community members came out to watch."

Her eyes were wide and dancing as she put voice to the memory. "I was the first one up, and I was riding Ann toward this double oxer, right? And even though we'd done that same jump dozens of times, she decided she just wasn't feeling it that day. Just slid to a stop from a pretty lively canter. Sat right down on her butt, and threw me out of my two-point and over her head. I landed draped over the oxer like wet clothes hung to dry."

She was grinning by the time she'd finished her story, but a sudden hesitation had her looping Dessel's reins over the horn. Now with the use of both hands, she was able to make vague hand gestures. Lessa brought her two flattened hands side by side, and explained, "A double oxer is basically two jumps right next to each other, meaning I managed to wedge myself right between the bars." She thought for a moment, then added, "And two point is that pose people jump in, when they sort of lift their butts out of the saddle and lean forward. It's also called forward seat." She shifted her weight a bit to demonstrate. "It's harder in a Western saddle, like the one we're in. English saddles are what you'd normally jump in, anyway. They don't have the horn, they're a lot flatter, and-"

A sudden flutter of wings erupted from a bush to their left. Spooked, Dessel side-stepped directly into Dolly, bumping shoulders like a pair of polo ponies. After the initial jolt, it took Lessa only a split second to pick up her reins and collect her gelding. "Hey," she murmured. "It's fine. You're fine. Just a bird. A big, scary bird." All the while, she watched the tiny winged creature flap its way toward the wispy clouds overhead.

Once she had her own mount under control, Lessa turned to Bahr. "You okay?"

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He absolutely adored how into this she was. Her story didn't leave much room for Bahr to get a word in, especially because he wasn't nearly as familiar with the subject matter, but he didn't mind. The enthusiasm swaying from her smiling lips to his eardrums and the subtle light in her eyes was what he really wanted. The last time they'd spent an extended period on this floor, Bahr had wondered if he would ever see something like that again. The events within Sanctuary had left her so distraught, and Bahr feared that it would create a chasm that would swallow her into the darkness once more.

But this place, this little slice of heaven, a reminder of home, seemed to be just what she'd needed. For how long was anyone's guess, but Bahr secretly reveled in knowing that he had been the one to provide it for her. The important thing was that she was happy, of course. But the fact that she was made him happy, as well.

This pleasure gave way to brief terror as the horses collided, Dolly handling the exchange much better than Bahr had. Overcompensating for what he had assumed would be a rough hit, he found his rear end nearly slid entirely off of the saddle, jilting his position with a bizarre lean that almost had him going sideways on the horse. With a couple of scoots, he managed to shift back into position, the graciously patient Dolly seeming almost none the wiser from her lack of a reaction. Bahr knew, though. Knew that she knew. This horse must think I'm the biggest-

"You okay?"

"Uhhhhh yeah!' he responded with another forced smile, setting his embarrassing blunder to the side. "Dolly seems to have a really patient temperament. Certainly makes things easier for a noob like me." The cheesy smile faded, but a soft grin was still left behind. It contrasted his hesitant body language. Hunched over a bit to lower his profile, one hand holding the horn as the other held the reins so tightly his knuckles had gone white. 

"It's honestly amazing how much experience you have with this sort of stuff," he admitted. "Seems like you've got a story for everything. What other crazy antics have you gotten up to on horseback?"

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"Crazy antics," she echoed before pursing her lips in thought. "Hmm. Well, there was one time in high school. It was an equestrian team meet, and I was running down and back with a partner. Essentially, one person runs to the end of the arena, hands off a section of hose to their partner, and the partner runs it back. The teams with the best times win points for their school." Despite the unseating she'd nearly received just a moment before, Lessa again looped the reins over the saddle's horn. Her now-freed hands gesticulated as she spoke. "I don't really know what happened. I think I was just leaning too far forward, but I rolled right out of the saddle. Just fell onto the ground. There was an ambulance onsite, so they loaded me up even though I kept telling them I was fine. They tried to drive away but Annie pulled herself free of the kid holding her reins and she followed after the ambulance. It stopped until someone caught her again, and by that time, my mom had showed up to take control of the situation." 

Happiness shone on her flushed cheeks as she retrieved her reins again. She expertly adjusted them with a few flicks of her wrists, gaze never leaving Bahr's face. "So Ann saved me from an unnecessary ER trip. Basically, she's a pretty cool horse." Even as she said the words, her hand was moving to her own mount's neck, where she scratched affectionately. "And Dessel is a good horse too," she cooed. When she finally straightened again, shifting in the saddle with a creak of leather, she gave a small sigh. Her head tipped back, eyes moving to the robin's egg blue sky. "You know, I could stay out here all day, talking about the glory days." She cast her companion a quick glance. "And I bet you'd let me. But this isn't just my day."

Her smile was as warm as the midday sun as it bloomed. "And I'm excited to see what else the day has in store for us. What do you say we head back to George's place. Wouldn't want him to think I stole Dessel. Of course, I totally would. I've definitely thought about it more than once."

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Bahr's eyes widened as she recounted falling off of her horse. Absently, his mismatched orbs flickered to the ground, which appeared far further away than it actually was. Though he knew he would be met with nothing more than a muted, numb thud should he fall now, the idea of falling still had all sorts of uncomfortable sensations settling into his gut. And in real life? That sort of thing had to hurt. But she was so nonchalant about it, like it was just another thing. Bahr may have been the more durable of the two in Aincrad, but on the other side of the veil, Alyssa must have been made of steel.

"You know, I could stay out here all day, talking about the glory days. And I bet you'd let me. But this isn't just my day."

Right. They were sort of having a conversation. As much as Bahr wished he could have 100% of his attention on her, he was too out of his element to not divert some of that focus into simply not falling off of the horse, or bugging out. But as his eyes shifted to meet with hers, he caught her smile. God, that smile. Every time he saw it, it was like it was just her and him. Like, suddenly, they weren't riding horseback, and Bahr wasn't subconsciously freaking out about this whole ordeal. 

"And I'm excited to see what else the day has in store for us. What do you say we head back to George's place. Wouldn't want him to think I stole Dessel. Of course, I totally would. I've definitely thought about it more than once."

A stifled laugh. "Yeah, that sounds a bit like you. I actually checked to see if there was an option to purchase horses from George, but it turns out there isn't." He loosely clutched his chin and looked up, pondering. "If I were a game developer, I would leave something like this here as a teaser. I wouldn't be surprised if, on higher floors, we get access to mounts or something. There may actually be something that people haven't found yet. As tenacious as the info brokers are, even they don't know everything about this world yet. There's just too much content. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten lost on the tenth floor just trying to map out my own neighborhood." 

Wait a second. Was there only one hand on the reins? There was only one hand on the reins. His hand hastily left his chin and snatched the leather cord, taking care not to spook poor Dolly as he did so. The sensation of both hands having some sort of control over his bearing made him feel a bit more centered, and a sigh of relief escaped his lips. "Yeah," he exhaled. "Anyways, I don't mind if we end up visiting George regularly. I know riding is a huge part of your life, and I'd like to get better so I can experience more of it with you."

A bit of a sheepish grin crawled across his face. It wasn't often that he found himself in such a position of inexperience around a tried and true master of a craft. But it wasn't exactly a bad thing. The idea that Lessa could show and teach him things that he didn't know was exciting. An opportunity to grow together. He had no problem letting her "take the reins," as it were.

"You're right, though. There's a lot more in store for today. But are you sure you don't want to ride a little longer?"

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Lessa nodded, reaching up to rake fingers through her golden mop of hair. "Mhmm, yeah, I'm sure. To be honest with you, I'm probably going to spend most of my time here from now on." She pursed her lips in thought for a moment, then muttered, "I wonder if I could just rent a room from George." Whether or not she was joking wasn't entirely evident. Giving a quick shake of her head, Lessa turned back to smile at her companion. "Anyway, yeah, I'll be riding a ton. So I don't want to take up the whole day. Our day."

Her eyes shone as she clucked to Dessel, nudging him into a lively jog. Once she'd put a few horse lengths between herself and Dolly, she settled back in the saddle with a commanding "whoa." The buckskin gelding sat back on his haunches, executing a quick one-eighty so he was looking the opposite direction. Face flushed with excitement, happiness continuing to simply beam from her, Lessa motioned to Bahr. "If you want her to turn the left, put your left leg forward and your right leg back. Squeeze with both, while pulling the left rein back. She'll take it from there."

The ride back to George's was uneventful, but no less wonderful. Lessa kept catching herself glancing at Bahr, each look sending a pleasant spark through her. By the time they'd pulled up in front of the barn and dismounted, she could hardly contain herself. Three long strides brought him to her, Dessel and Dolly momentarily forgotten as she snaked her arms around his waist and tugged in in for a fierce hug. There was nothing delicate or romantic in the gesture, but she clung to him for a few seconds before stepping back. "I will never be able to thank you for this," she told him. "But I have to try. So.... thanks." Her hands, which had moved to his forearms, squeezed. "You sort of filled this hole inside me. This is what I'd been missing. And you did it even though you're not as comfortable around horses as I am. That's just," she blew out a breath, unsure of how to finish the sentence. "Well, it's just really amazing. It's the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me." Tender sweetness softened her voice, her hands relaxing on his arms as she gazed up at him. "You're amazing." Then, with a laugh, "I'm sorry I can't stop saying the word amazing."

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