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

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With all that she had said, Bahr almost felt like her tight grip was the only thing actually holding him together. The one thing preventing him from melting into a nondescript puddle of ooze. It was strange - actually, not strange, he decided, that he felt much the same way she did. He wasn't sure if she was talking about him or the horses when she talked about the hole that had been filled. Maybe both, he reasoned. But he knew for sure that he felt that way about her. 

No, you're amazing, he wanted to say. But was that too cheesy? Perhaps. But not in comparison to the other things he had planned with the rest of the day.

"You're amazing." Why not? Let the cheese ride throughout the day.

One of his hands lifted upward to meet with hers at his sleeve, grasping it before he started to walk. As their fingers interlaced, he started to explain his plan. "I figured we'd have lunch next. Hope you worked up an appetite. It's a bit of a walk, so if you're not hungry yet, you will be by the time we get there." He was beaming as his mind ran through the motions of what came next, but he'd vowed not to give it away. No spoilers, he reminded himself.

They made their way back down the switchbacks. Into the field. Around the lake. Past the beaches filled with families and jubilance and laughter. All the way back into Flora. It was as they approached the gate that Bahr realized the flowers he had given Lessa had gotten lost along the way somewhere. Probably when she saw the horses, and everything else got put on the back burner. He didn't mind - their journey to George's place had set the tone just right. He'd known she'd find it enrapturing.

He plucked a stray lilac from one of the walls as they rolled through the threshold into town, passing it over to the blonde whose hand he still gripped. "Figured you might like a replacement. Haven't seen that bouquet in awhile." There was no ill-will or sarcasm in his voice as the words rolled from his smiling lips. More so, a tone of understanding. Who could blame her? He certainly couldn't.

The teleport gate was exactly how they'd left it hours before. He led her onto the platform, just as he had before, taking a peek at her before declaring their destination. "I really, really think you're going to like this one. Teleport, Athenaia."

And just like that, they were whisked away.

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"You're amazing." 

Her heart soared.

At Bahr's mention of lunch, Lessa nodded. "I'm always up for food," came her easy answer. "Besides, I didn't have breakfast." I was way too nervous to eat. Of course, that wasn't a detail her companion needed to know. Would he tease her about it? Maybe. But even if he didn't, she still felt goofy as hell about how much this date was affecting her. 

Might as well just keep it to herself, and let the events of the day play out. He'd already completely blindsided her once. Was there really anything that could top horses? Months ago, she would have sworn there wasn't. But Bahr had a way of surprising her. She'd never met someone so unpredictable, which might have frustrated her once. Now? She relished every inconsistent interaction. It kept her on her toes, and as cliched as it was, it made her feel more alive. Rather than waking up every day to the same old grind, she was left to guess what he had planned for her. And that was really... amazing.

What am I getting myself into? she thought to herself, gazing up at his handsome face while they walked. She'd wondered the same thing that fateful morning in the Black Iron Palace, when she'd helped a broken boy find his feet again. Every day since, he'd gone on surprising her.

Like the lilac. As Bahr offered Lessa the pastel purple blooms, surprise married pleasure on her flushed face. "Thanks," she breathed, bringing the flower to her nose and inhaling deeply. Only after his words registered did embarrassment make an appearance. "Uh, yeah," she answered sheepishly. "I think I dropped them. I'm sorry. I was just so excited."

When he drew her onto the teleport platform, Lessa's eyebrows winged up. "Seventeenth floor?" she asked him as their new surroundings came into focus. "Yeah, I don't spend a lot of time up here. I really have no idea."

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Gigantic marble edifices slowly came into focus all around them, staining their eyes white in stark contrast to the color that had surrounded them only moments before. Athenaia was beautiful in its own right, but different from Flora. The third floor relied on a naturalesque aesthetic, whereas the seventeenth was a monument to the architectural accomplishments that thrived in the days of old. Buildings served not only as shelter, but works of art. Just as nature could create beautiful things, so too could man bend nature to its whims and create something even more.

"Seventeenth floor? Yeah, I don't spend a lot of time up here. I really have no idea."

"Perfect," Bahr chirped, stepping from the teleport gate and into the ivory array that surrounded it. "It wouldn't have been disappointing had you figured it out beforehand, but I do think that the surprise will be a bit more fun."

Almost as though on cue, a creature of some sort materialized before them. Cloven hooves announced the arrival against the smooth surface of the sculpted flooring, attached to fuzzy legs that ran up to a more humanoid body. Slim, with a bit of a belly (which was exposed), thick beard, with curled horns atop a mop of unkempt chestnut hair.

"Right on time."

"Awwwright, let's make this quick," came the satyr's gruff response. "If they found out I let anyone up there who wasn't on the list, they'd have my head."

"Technically speaking, my name is on the list, even if I've already been there. I'm sure hers is, too. Somewhere."

"That's all fine an' good, but I've got a schedule they want me to keep."

"Yeah yeah, whatever you say Goat Doofus."

"We've been over this. I have a name."

 He turned to Lessa, his mead motioning toward the satyr. "This is Fergus. He'll be taking us somewhere special today."

"And like I said, we gotta make it fast,"
 Fergus responded, turning his back to the pair and fiddling with his fingers. A moment later, a small portal opened. "Let's get moving."

"Ladies first,"
 Bahr mused with a grin, gesturing for her to follow the satyr through the portal. Walking through wouldn't be anything particularly spectacular, as this was a separate ordeal from teleportation. The mystical properties of the ethereal threshold folded the space between where they were, and another location, pinching them together in a single point. It was what lied beyond that would blow her mind.

Clouds. All around them. Under them, as they were above. In every direction. And marble, not unlike the plaza they had just exited, but still different. Stained a muted gold from the amber rays of sunlight diffused through the sheets of floating moisture. For now, it was simply a staircase. A long one. But that wasn't what Bahr wanted to show her.

He guided her to the edge of the cloud they'd arrived on, and pointed out into the distance. "You see that?" he questioned as a distant, gigantic floating pod was revealed by parting clouds. It was Aincrad, in all its glory. Everything that they'd experienced in the game, everything they had done together, had all been there. Not here. This was completely new. And, though Bahr had seen it from this angle before, it wasn't any less powerful than the first time he'd witnessed it. A surreal sensation of calmness washed over him as he took in the view. There was no fighting here. No risk of violence. None of the typical strife associated with being trapped in the game. That was there. And they were here.

"Figured you might like getting away from Aincrad for a little bit," he explained, eyes affixed to the distant hovering castle as his hand found hers and gave it a squeeze. "The staircase is big. A little bit of a walk, like I said. But it's worth it."

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Perplexed, Lessa observed the interaction between her date and the horned creature. This was an NPC? That was silly, of course it was. How could it not be? And yet, Bahr spoke as if the being was as real as any other player. Look at that, she mused, adoration tugging at her heart as her gaze tracked to his face. He's come a long way. So wrapped up in her thoughts, she nearly missed the quick introductions. "Pleasure to meet you, Fergus!" She might have gone on to share her own name, but the conversation raced ahead without her. So she instead rocked back on her heels, a soft gasp escaping her as the portal appeared. "What in the-" she muttered as the satyr vanished, and Bahr motioned for her to follow.

Follow the mythical creature. Into the portal. Which goes... somewhere. She eyed her best friend dubiously, then stood a bit taller, squared her shoulders. Bahr wouldn't send her through a rip in space in time without knowing what would happen. He knew she'd come out safe. Unless this is all just a plot to kill me. She blinked a few times, then her blonde brows knit in thought. But why go through all the trouble of making it romantic? Nah, if he'd wanted to kill her, he could have just pushed her off the stage while grappling with Dominic.

Convinced, and secretly amused, Lessa strode through the rift with Bahr on her heels. Only a handful of steps carried her from the cheerful Grecian city to another world. Before she'd even emerged entirely, the girl was sucking in a startled breath. They were in the clouds. Without a plane, or a helicopter, or a freaking air balloon, she and Bahr hung suspended in a cerulean sky. Much like the pillars of granite, columns of fluffy cumulonimbus clouds circled the platform where they stood. Instinctively, Lessa reached out to grasp for Bahr. When her hand found his jacket, she clutched a fistful of the fabric, holding tight to the solid as she observed the surreal.

Still clinging, she let him lead her to the edge. The soft intake of air was her only response when he encouraged him to look, and she did so for quite some time. Her entire world was down there, hovering amid the clouds the same way they did. Her home, her life, the source of so much pain and so much loss - and she was separate from it. For the time being, she and Bahr existed in a different place entirely. It was as close to an out of body experience as she ever planned to come. 

"It's..." At a complete loss for words, Lessa could only shake her head. "Nuts. It's absolutely insane. I just - I've never seen anything like it before." Distantly, she felt his hand brush along hers. She took it without thought, muscle memory she wasn't even aware of as her gaze remained glued to the castle. "I don't mind walking," she answered finally, coming up from her trance like a diver for air. "Definitely not, with views like this."

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"Then I guess we should get started," he mused, pulling himself away from the fluffy edge. Lessa wasn't exactly resistant to his pull, but it almost felt as though he needed to pry her away from the view. No judgement, Bahr had been much the same his first visit. 

They made their way up the stairs at their own pace, ignoring the grumbles of the impatient satyr and instead pitching their attention toward the heavens. There was a certain sensation to walking along the firm marble here that couldn't be matched elsewhere. A subtle, drifting sway. One might liken it to being out at sea, but even that wasn't quite right. Here, everything was lighter. Easier to adjust to, less jarring. You could tell that the pieces were shifting beneath you, but there was no fear or apprehension in that. The clouds had supported the weight thus far, why would they give now?

When the reached they summit, they were graced with a peculiar sight. Various scattered monolithic buildings, each resting upon their own cloud, but with nothing connecting them. To the inexperienced, it would seem confusing. But Bahr had been through this before. "You'll need to trust me again," he said as he stepped forward and off of the ledge. But rather than falling, his step found its footing against a sledge of ivory that had floated up from below. As did the next step. And the one after that. Each piece of marble that drifted up in response to his stride interlinked and created a walkway. Should he go further, the pieces he'd used already would fade back into obscurity below.

"No traps. Nothing to be worried about. Our destination is that tree."

He pointed to a lone tree in the center of the plaza, poking out of a marble bowl that seemed to hover in the air. Its roots had outgrown the basin it rested in, having crawled outward in search of nourishment. Their quest had them dangling off of the floating dish and into the clouds below, from which they gleaned moisture enough to keep the vegetation growing. Lining the base of its trunk was a medley of various flowers, a splash of color amid the endless white, but they were too far away to make out from where they were standing.

"Come on. First step is the sketchiest. After that, it's a lot of fun."

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Climbing the steps had been easy enough. The granite had felt sturdy beneath her boots, and the security of her hand in Bahr's had kept Lessa secure. In fact, you might say it helped her stay grounded, even at such great heights. As he'd led her higher, she'd simply marveled at the way the sunlight filtered through the cottonswab clouds. By the time they reached their destination, she'd been lulled back into that same trance once again. The woman had hardly noticed the number of steps, or the time it took to climb them. It wasn't until they slowed to a stop that she offered him a dreamy smile.

Her gaze swept back over the scattered buildings, perched atop their own unique clouds. They floated freely, like tiny oases in a desert of blue. Blame the romantic sight or the unearthly experience as a whole, but each enormous structure seemed to beckon her closer. Lessa was drawn to them, and she nearly stepped past Bahr to move toward the nearest levitating location. Then she realized the complete lack of walkway.

Reality crashed down around her with the force of tumbling ruins. Two massive stumbling steps backward yanked her hand out of his. She hardly noticed her own head as it shook stubbornly, blonde bangs flopping into wide, terrified eyes. 

"You'll need to trust me again."

Of course I do warred with oh hell no as she stared at him. His hand remained outstretched, unwavering patience undeniable as his warm smile became a fun-house reflection of her worried frown. Her jaw tightened. 

"Look," she began slowly, after swallowing around a newly formed lump in her throat. "This is probably the worst time to tell you that I'm actually deathly afraid of heights."

She had trusted him with her life when the Lich King had nearly stolen it. She had trusted him with her secrets that night on Manderley's porch. She had trusted him with her fragile emotions after the reunion with Alkor, and if she were honest with herself, she was beginning to trust him with her heart. It appeared she would go on doing so, as her hand found his once more.

Then he took his first step, and though he didn't plummet downward, her stomach certainly did. "No traps," he assured her. "Nothing to be worried about. Our destination is that tree."

"Ah geeze," she choked, screwing her eyes shut to avoid looking down. Chest puffed with pent up breath and a racing heart, she took her first step off the ledge. Then the next, and the next, and when she was certain she wasn't actually going to fall to her death, she cracked open one eye. It remained on Bahr's face the entire time, which was still a pretty nice view.

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Bahr had never considered that Lessa might be afraid of heights. His stomach churned at the thought of putting her in a position that made her so uncomfortable, especially when this whole ordeal was designed with a little dazzling in mind. But still, she took his hand and, eventually, even opened her eyes. This reassurance was enough to keep his expression confident despite it all, and gradually lead them to the tree. The pieces that materialized around the basin revealed that it was intended to rest upon a thick slab of rock, something that was thankfully quite a bit more than the scraps they'd made it there upon. A perfect hole was cut close to the dish, allowing the roots the space they needed to reach below.

"Here, maybe this will be better," he assured her as they climbed aboard the slab. Rather than standing, he took a seat cross-legged, hoping she would join him. From his inventory, which was summoned in a flash and dismissed just as quickly, he produced a pair of sandwiches. It was basic, but then again, Bahr hadn't opted to be a master chef in this world. The real treat was the venue, anyways. It was just a shame that it didn't have any restaurants. Wasn't like the gods needed one. Wait, wasn't there a god for each crafting profession up here? They could have gone to whichever one overlooked cooking. Then again, they probably wouldn't have been too keen on serving mortals.

"If I'd known you were afraid of heights, I probably would have selected a different venue," Bahr admitted as he handed one of the sandwiches to Lessa. "Or, maybe not. This is a pretty special place. You won't believe what I've gotta do for Fergus after all of this." He stifled a laugh, but also frowned. Bahr's end of the bargain was... undesirable.

"Since you told me one of your fears, I'll tell you one of mine." He took a bite of the sandwich. Chewed, swallowed. "I'm really freaked out by honey badgers. I know that's super specific, and totally irrational, but they're terrifying. A single bite can kill a man. Beyond that, they can run at speeds of up to thirty-five miles per hour. They're so badass that there are no natural predators for honey badgers - other than other honey badgers. Terrifying."

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"It isn't something I normally tell people," she admitted, dropping down beside Bahr on the solid slab of stone. Still wary of the edge, she folded her legs underneath her with far more caution than her companion did. She even kept her arms out to her sides, a pitiful attempt at balance, as she lowered herself into a cross-legged position. "I mean, I'm definitely not proud of being afraid of heights. It seems pretty lame." She accepted the sandwich with a quick, easy smile of thanks. After peeking between the slices of bread, she gave a nod of approval, then bit in.

It's not a bad view, she mused while she chewed, gazing across the ever-shifting landscape. In fact, as the sun emerged from behind a fluffy cloud and bathed them in warm, golden light, she decided it was one of the best she had ever seen. Yet despite their stunning surroundings, Lessa kept feeling her gaze tugged toward Bahr, as if drawn by some invisible force. It would be rude to stare, and she knew that. Besides, why waste the opportunity to look down on a world that so frequently made her feel insignificant? Up here, she was bigger than her troubles, her fears, her doubts. In this place of gods, she could act as one, scowling down at the suspended castle.

So yeah, it would be silly to look anywhere other than out over the cloud-covered abyss. She kept telling herself that, right up until she finally gave into the urge. His wind-swept white hair was at home among the muted colors, but the crimson jacket screamed like a slash of paint across an otherwise pristine canvas. Just one more reason why everything else pales in comparison, Lessa found herself thinking.

"You can't say it like that and then not tell me what you have to do for Fergus," she informed him, taking another bite of her sandwich. She thought for a moment, swallowed, then stated, "I won't judge you about the honey badger thing though. They sound terrifying. If it's any consolation, you wouldn't have to outrun one if you saw it in the real world." She flashed him a cheeky grin. "You'd just have to outrun me, and that wouldn't take much effort at all. I'll lift anything you want, but cardio?" The woman made a very unladylike scoffing sound. "No thank you."

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There was something peculiar about what she'd just said. The real world. As though it was already predestined that they would meet again there, beyond all of the strife and woes of Aincrad. Introduce themselves again, go on their first adventure together again, explore new places and do new things together again. Hold hands for the first time again. Kiss for the first time again. Their first real kiss. It almost felt silly to think about it that way, but it held a certain reassurance that Bahr hadn't known he'd needed. It brought an uncontrollable, beaming smile to his face, as well as an all too familiar warmth to his heart.

Strangely, though he knew they resided in the virtual, it had never felt like any of the kisses they had shared weren't "real."  They'd carried with them an almost divine electricity. And as his eyes perused their surroundings, jaw working thoughtfully against a bite of his sandwich, he decided that here was the perfect place to experience that sort of energy again. Not now, though. It would be rude to do that sort of thing in the middle of a meal. Though, probably no more rude than doing it while discussing poop branches.

He would do it before they left, though. This, he vowed.

"Nah, I don't think I'll tell you," he remarked after swallowing. "You can ask Fergus, if you feel so inclined." They'd sworn a pact of secrecy, but Bahr wasn't entirely sure that the satyr would hold up that end of the bargain. Speaking of... 

"Wonder where he got off to, anyways?" They'd lost him somewhere on the stairs. Not that Bahr minded. He was enjoying the alone time. It would be weird to have a lunch date with a goat man breathing down their necks the entire time, waiting for the moment he could kick them off of Mt Olympia. It was better this way. "Ahh whatever."

Fill the space with something less mundane.

"So," he began, lowering the sandwich from his lips. "Tell me something I don't know about you."

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Lessa had just brought her sandwich to her lips when Bahr asked his question. Eyeing him over the top of the half-eaten PB&J, she considered. "That's a tough question," she admitted after a moment's pause. She took a bite, then lowered her lunch to her lap as she chewed thoughtfully. "I feel like there's so much you already know about me. We've spent so much time talking about random stuff, I don't even know how many little facts I've dropped." The blonde's thumb and forefinger picked at the seam of her pants, an act she was entirely unaware of while she considered his question. Suddenly, she gave a short laugh. "Yeah, I guess you know more about me than pretty much anyone else. Not to mention the fact that if I say something you already know, and pretend like it's some big reveal, I'll look dumb."

Silence settled between them again, broken only by the soft whisper of the wind. It was impossibly serene, but Lessa wondered if she could spend much time in a place like this. Despite it's incredible beauty, the woman longed for noise. Nature noises were preferable, of course, but even the roar of a city was better than the suffocating quiet. No, a place like Mt Olympia was better reserved for special occasions. Like this one.

"Hmmm," Lessa hummed through pursed lips, mind swirling with far too many thoughts. Nature, cities, dates, quiet- "Oh, oh, okay. I've got one." She sat up a bit straighter, readying herself for the presentation. "So my family went to Mexico years ago. We didn't have the money for many trips, but we saved up for this one, and it was a big deal. Unfortunately, the super cheap all-inclusive was kind of a bust. The food was so bad we actually lost weight. None of us were old enough to drink, and there really wasn't anything to do. So we all signed up for scuba certification." Her momentarily-forgotten sandwich resting on her leg, Lessa motioned with both hands as she continued, "So if you can imagine a bunch of teenagers in Mexico, sitting through lectures, filling out worksheets, doing practice dives in the pool. For five days straight, we worked on the requirements. Then we took the test, and when we'd passed, finished up with a two-tank dive. The first one was really deep, like 90 feet. Then we came up, swapped tanks, and went down for a shallower one."

"That one was actually a sunken tugboat. Lincoln was my buddy, and he got distracted and moved on to a different part of the boat." She shrugged, rolled her eyes, then muttered, "And yeah, that's when my tank decided to stop working. I drew in one breath, and the air was really weird. Then when I tried to breathe in again, nada."

She blew out a hard, exasperated breath, her lips humming not unlike a horse's might. "What did I do, you ask? Grab my buddy? Use my octo? Stay cool, and motion for help?" Her grin was goofy and self-deprecating as it bloomed across her face. "Nope! I panicked hard-core and shot straight to the surface. Almost died. Definitely would have, if that had happened on the deeper dive."

Lessa retrieved her sandwich, and it was almost to her mouth when realization dawned. "That was kind of morbid," she stated. "But hey, it's something most people don't know. I don't talk about it because one," she ticked the point of on a finger, "I was stupid. And two, it's still sort of freaky to think about. But if I can't tell you, who can I tell?"

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Bahr simply blinked. Then blinked again. 

"So you almost... drowned."

The scenario as she described it flooded his mind's eye, playing over and over again like a revolving door that led to the same destination no matter where you got off. The idea of being trapped underwater and then suddenly having to go without air was a fear Bahr hadn't even realized he had. Simply the thought of it hitched his breath and made him feel clammy. He was sure the color had drained from his face. Probably fair, considering Bahr had made Lessa face her fear of heights just getting to their lunch destination. At least diving wasn't on the date agenda.

Was that something you could even do in Aincrad?

"That's... insane," Bahr uttered in exasperation. How could she be so nonchalant about something like that. "We could have never met. All because some scuba gear decided to go haywire. That's just nuts." Which made Bahr wonder. Could he miss someone he never actually met? The thought of her not being around made him miss her, eve though she sat right beside him. But of course it did - he knew her, and knew what he would be missing out on without her. If he'd never met her, would he be able to sense that something was off? Missing from his life? An absent element of balance. Surely, without it, he would be a completely different person by now. But he didn't want to think about that.

"I suppose the important thing is that you're here. And we did meet. Otherwise, we wouldn't be enjoying such a fantastic outing." As though all at once, he was brought back into the majesty that surrounded them. He'd lost himself there for a moment thinking about what-ifs. But that's all they were. And they were here. It would be foolish to squander what little time they had.

"Guess it's only fair I share a story with you, then," he remarked, snatching a quick bite of his sandwich before setting it down on his lap. "Have you ever gone ghost hunting? Some buddies and I did it, once. There's an abandoned sanatorium not far from where I live in the real world." Absently, his eyes shifted upward, as though fondly recalling a memory from the sky. "Place is called San Haven, and it's on Native-owned ground. To hype us up prior to the search, one of my buddies made sure to inform us that if you're caught trespassing there, the Natives have every right to shoot you on sight."

His eyes fell, then shifted to the side. They connected with her cool blues, and instantly he could recognize the wonder that rested within them. He wondered if she could recognize the excited mischievism playing in his. "So long story short, we park far away, enter the Native-owned land, walk about a mile to where the facility is. Place is in shambles, but there was a lot of it that was still standing. We explored every floor, whatever rooms we could, traversed the roof, found the body chute, everything. We weren't overly loud about it, but didn't do much to mask our presence either. Had lights going so we could see, laughter, things like that. Were someone out there paying attention, they'd have caught us for sure." A chuckle escaped his lips, light and humorous. There was a tinge of melancholy to it, the oh-so-familiar reminder that he was in here, and his friends were out there. But the memories were happy ones, and there was no way to sit there and brood while thinking about them.

"So we're in one of the rooms, and we hear rustling outside. He turn off all of the flashlights, as though it would matter if someone had seen them already. Cresting over the hill just outside the window, we saw the silhouette of a lone figure slowly approaching. It grew nearer and nearer, and we all sat on in astonished silence, sort of just hoping that whoever or whatever it was hadn't seen us. And then..." The corners of his lips curled upward into an amused grin. "It snorted."

"Turns out, it was a horse. But because it was lower than us on a hill and we were looking at it straight on in the dead of night, it was impossible to make out. I don't think I'd ever felt so relieved in my entire life. But, yeah, that's the time I thought I was going to get shot by a Native during a bunk ghost hunt in an abandoned insane asylum."

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By the time Bahr had finished telling his tale, both alarm and amusement mingled on Lessa's face. The uneasy marriage resulted in something akin to disbelief, with raised eyebrows and a small smile. "Well dang," she stated once he'd fallen silent. "That's a hell of a story. I can't believe Apollo was so wild and crazy. I mean, trespassing, risking being killed," she motioned with the last bite of sandwich, "literally laughing in the face of fear." She popped the last bit of crust into her mouth, swallowed, then broke out in a grin. "But y'know, it's fun picturing it. And you can bet that I love any plot twist that involves a horse."

The woman lifted her hand, and with a twinkle of chimes, summoned her HUD. A few practiced finger-flicks later, and two cans poofed into being. Lessa studied them for a moment, slanted Bahr a sideways glance, then offered him the orange pop. The purple can she kept for herself. "Hope that works for you," she told him. "I should probably carry around some normal stuff too, but I'm partial to the crazy flavors. They remind me of drinking Faygo back home." Nostalgia ghosted across Lessa's expression, her smile losing it's hold at the edges. Curled up in plastic Adirondack chairs of all colors and states of disrepair. A bonfire crackling away, smoke and embers drifting high into a canvas of white on black. The Saturday Night retro show on the radio, and Dad and Benjamin serenading Mom with a terrible rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Her eyes closed, then after a deep breath, opened again. She popped the tab on her grape pop, toasted him with it. "To your health," she joked, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

After a long swig of the sickeningly sweet drink, she lowered the can to her lap. Cupping it with both hands, she looked at Bahr. "So," she began, "I'm scared of heights, and you're scared of diving." This time, the quick flash of humor was genuine. "And honey badgers. What would you say is the scariest thing you've ever done?"

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"What would you say is the scariest thing you've ever done?"

He had to ponder the thought for a moment. Which was perfect, because he was chewing on the last of his sandwich at that point, anyways. Right around the time he swallowed, the thought occurred to him.

"Alright, you're going to have to bear with me here, because this is outrageously stupid," he began, patting the crumbs off of his hands and shifting his body to face her. "So in my freshman year of high school, graffiti art became really popular. Not wanting to be behind the trend, I got into it as well." A hand rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he continued. "It very quickly became one of those, 'who's done the craziest tag' sort of situations. And a buddy and I figured out how to steal all of the clout."

He sighed. Placed both of his hands parallel in the air in front of him, and practically squeaked as he began to explain, but stopped himself. Then cleared his throat. Then, finally, blurted out, "We tagged a moving train." He cleared his throat again, then continued. "Yeah, uh, there was this train yard. We hopped onto one of the side ladders of a train, waited for it to start, then started throwing our tags up once it picked up a little speed. Then we jumped off before it got too fast to do any real harm, except it had gotten really fast." He could feel the rosy hues riding high on his cheeks, so he pitched his visage downward and pinched the bridge of his nose. "The ground was, uh, rocks. Yeah. I don't think I broke anything, but my shin hurt for a long time after that."

He'd have to look at her eventually. He turned his face back upward, and before she could respond, concluded with, "So yeah. There's the scariest, and probably the dumbest, thing I've ever done wrapped up into one story."

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Disbelief again took up residence on Lessa's sun-washed face. From trespassing to graffiti, and so quickly the woman almost had whiplash. Had the Bahr she knew really done those things?The simple answer was no, Bahr hadn't. Apollo had, and really, how well did Lessa know that guy? They were the same person, in the literal sense of the word, but they existed in completely different worlds. Stupid things like tagging moving trains made a lot more sense when a person wasn't fighting for his life in a death game.

"My brothers would love hanging out with you," she finally stated. "Seriously, Ben in particular. He loves that crazy stuff." Shifting her weight, Lessa leaned back and planted her elbows among the pretty white flowers. They tickled her warm skin as they bowed beneath the gentle breeze, and the sweet scent of real flowers rose above her lavender perfume. "But I wouldn't have pegged you as the train-jumping sort." Or the destruction of public property sort. But the blonde wasn't so petty to allow a decade-old vandalism story to tarnish her opinion of him. So she was content to simply roll her eyes at his foolishness. Boys would be boys, or whatever.

A moment of silence passed before she loosed a small sigh. "Guess it's my turn. So yeah, you might think the whole diving thing was scariest. But honestly, I wasn't even scared. It was just one thought, 'get air,' and that's it. I didn't have room in my head for fear." Lessa paused, inhaled, exhaled. "That, uh, wasn't the case with the Lich King." Her shy smile bordered on sheepish as she met Bahr's dual-toned gaze. "I really, truly thought I was going to die. I had all the time in the world to reflect on the fact I was about to bite it."

The shiver that ran through her took Lessa by surprise, and she instinctively sat up again. Folding her legs beneath her, she clasped her hands in her lap. And she laughed. The noise wasn't humorous, or even pleasant, and sounded entirely out of place in somewhere as beautiful as Mt Olympia. "I've never, ever been so scared in my entire life. It was completely paralyzing. I honestly don't know if I could be that scared again."

But as she looked at him, really looked at him, the memory lost its hold on her. Her broad shoulders slumped, the block of ice settled there beginning to melt beneath Bahr's warmth. He had that effect on her, and she was grateful for it. "That was my scariest thing. Probably my dumbest thing, too." This time, when the small laugh escaped her lips, it was genuine. "I mean, geeze. I go months avoiding combat, but I'm all like 'yeah, totally,' when some random guy invites me on a pretty serious quest." Lessa paused to shake her head, and her smile grew with each pass. "I wouldn't change a thing though. If I did, I might not end up right here, with you."

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Bahr's expression, too, soured a bit at Lessa's mention of the Lich King. Sure, that adventure had ended as best as it possibly could have, with the two of them sharing food and getting into thought-provoking discussions. But it still turned his stomach when images of the fight started flooding in, especially now that the connection between them had grown so much. Picturing her laying on the ground with the Lich King towering over her, pushing its massive sword further and further into her stomach as Bahr strained every muscle fiber to the brink to reach her in time was something he would never be comfortable with. She'd almost died, and it was his fault.

So why had she continued to put up with him, anyways? It should have been clear to her after that that Bahr was a terrible influence on her life. A possibly deadly one. Yet, she didn't seem to think so.

"I wouldn't change a thing though. If I did, I might not end up right here, with you."

He wasn't sure why she had chosen to hold him, of all people, in such high regard. But he appreciated it, and the warmth that settled into him alongside it. And he appreciated her. Her laugh. Her smile. Her intelligence. Her deep, blue eyes. Her golden locks. Her wanderlust. Her seeming inability to cook anything edible. The way she made him feel. The influence she'd had over his life. The edge she'd pulled him back from without even realizing it. But Bahr wasn't the only person who appreciated her in that way, and she deserved to know it. To that end, they'd need to wrap things up here.

"I guess I wouldn't change anything either," he remarked, expression finally softening. "I really, really wish you hadn't needed to go through that. And it's still heart-wrenching to me that you did, and I was the cause of it." A pause, albeit brief. "But the thought of ending up in any alternate timeline without you here next to me right now is even worse."

But it was time to go.

"I'm sure Fergus is chomping at the bit to get us out of here, actually. You listening in, Goat Doofus?"

"Yup," came the gruff response as Fergus produced himself from behind the slab they rested upon. "And that's Fergus. Fergus. F-E-R-G-U-S, assuming you know how to read."

"Ah, right. I'd actually forgotten your name for a minute there,"
 Bahr chortled as he kicked off from the slab, his feet finding their mark against floating debris that conjured from below in the blink of an eye. 

"You just said it. Just a minute ago. Right before you called me out."

"Did I?"


"I think you're fibbing."

Fergus remained silent, but his face was beginning to turn red with rage. Were this a cartoon, he'd surely had steam billowing from his ears.

"Say, can you teleport us anywhere in Aincrad?"

"Anywhere from the seventeenth floor and down," the satyr sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose before taking a deep breath. "Why? Where you headed?"

"The first floor. Town of Beginnings, if you don't mind."

"Not at all. Bout time I got you the hell out of here."

"What was that?"

Rather than actually responding, a portal cracked into existence beside the half-beast, half-man.

"Your chariot awaits."

Satisfied, Bahr turned to Lessa and offered his hand. Slowly, he guided her from the platform and onto the bits of marble that floated up to kiss her feet. He guided her to the portal, but stopped abruptly before it.

"Oh, right." Without any warning, he pulled her into him. Naturally, as though two pieces of a puzzle clicking together, their mouths met. Tenderly, yet deeply, all wrapped into a single loving embrace between their lips. He held her closely, then closer still, not releasing her until he'd had his fill. And once he finally had, he stole another. Quicker, like an afterthought. "I thought I was done, but I wasn't." The words didn't need to be spared, as the action did all of the talking for him. "There was no way we were getting out of here without that first," he admitted, a wry grin riding along his visage with a slightly dreamy haze.

He walked through the portal, and pulled her along behind him. Once they'd gone, the portal snapped shut, and the plaza in the clouds was left empty once more.

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"You just said it. Just a minute ago. Right before you called me out."

Lessa blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it again. If the satyr knew that, was it because he'd been eavesdropping? How much had he heard? Lessa felt heat behind her cheeks, and glanced away from the pair as they continued their exchange. Had Fergus heard her being mushy? Geeze, she hoped not. It wasn't as if she always talked like that. It had sort of have been reserved for Bahr.

With a small sigh, the woman tuned back into the conversation. Her companion seemed as amused as ever, and his NPC pal was just as annoyed. What an odd dynamic, she mused. What was it that Bahr owed Fergus? Given the satyr's distaste for him, it was likely pretty extreme. Col? Items from his shop? Indentured servitude? The thought conjured up an image of Bahr in a tiny black maid's dress, which she promptly appreciated, then dismissed.

"Thank you, Fergus," Lessa said, smiling at him. The goat-man simply uttered a dismissive tch sound, horned head turning to gaze anywhere that she was not. So she simply took Bahr's hand, and allowed him to lead her toward the portal. Town of Beginnings? What could there possibly be to surprise her with? She had covered every inch of the floor, and -

With a soft squeak, Lessa was tugged against Bahr. Her head instinctively tilted back, opening to the kiss her lips found even before her brain could compute. Then she melted into it, into him, completely oblivious to Fergus' disgusted snort. The second kiss came, as fast and blinding as a camera flash, and she was dazed when he finally drew away from her. "Yeah," was all she could manage, and she grinned like a fool as he drew her through the portal.

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The teleport plaza in the Town of Beginnings was bustling, as usual. No matter how much time he spent away, it seemed as though this place never changed. There were always noobs afoot. Darting from shop to shop. Collecting items. Vowing that today would be the day they would venture into the fields and start their climb to the Frontlines. The enthusiasm was almost annoying, but Bahr couldn't blame them. Had it not been him in their shoes, just a little over half a year ago? He was an example of how quickly one could soar, so long as they first took the leap. He hoped that many of these people would reach the front just as he had, and in comparable time.

"It's not far from here, but you know how the Town of Beginnings is. It might take a little bit to reach it." Not that it mattered. She'd seemed content to follow him around all day, so why would it be any different now? And she was almost certainly curious as to what he had in store.

They made their way out of the teleport plaza. Down the winding streets, into the less busy areas of town. There were still people running around, but without the frequency, volume or bustle of the town square. Which was a relief, because just as Bahr could hardly tolerate Walmart in the real world, he'd found that the center of the Town of Beginnings had much the same energy. If you weren't paying attention, you'd surely run into someone, because god knows they won't.

Finally, they reached it. "We're here," was all Bahr said, because it was all that he needed to say. It was a market of sorts where there hadn't been one a month or two prior. All manner of shops existed here. There were blacksmiths, tailors, cooks, alchemists, merchants, artisans, and performers. But beyond that, there were the less combat-centric professions. Woodworkers, decorators, sports enthusiasts, florists, and even those who seemed to be trying to figure out how to make machines work in Aincrad. A noble endeavor, even if Bahr didn't have much faith in it.

To the ordinary onlooker, it would look like just another market. But to the trained eye - to the eyes of Lessa and Bahr, particularly - it was something much more.

"Woah! Bahr, Lessa!" Benjamin called out as he emerged from a nearby tailor shop before rushing to meet with them. "I'm so glad you came! We've still got some work to do here... Er... We were hoping to have it all ready by the time we showed you."

"What're you talking about? Looks marvelous. You guys have done excellent work. And in such short time, too!"

"Yeah, well..."
 The youth rubbed the back of his head nervously. "We were excited to start our new chapter. Some people went their own way, but we all decided we wanted to come here and do our part for the people."

"And you're doing great. I appreciate that you guys have some professions around here that are for just improving quality of life - I think that's something that gets overlooked a lot by people on the Frontlines who take professions. How's the tailoring life treating you?"

"Oh man, you were right. It's tough at first, but once you get going, it's really addicting. I've never made so many things out of cloth in my life. I actually had something made for the two of you! Hang on a sec, I'll go get it."

As the boy dashed back into his shop, Bahr's hand found Lessa's and gave it a squeeze. By now, most everyone in the market had taken notice of them. Familiar faces from Sanctuary, all pleased to see the woman who'd saved them. They offered waves, and the occasional, "Hi, Lessa!" Some of them even seemed happy to see Bahr. Likely because of the work he'd done getting them placed here. More than a string or two needed to be pulled.

"You did this," Bahr reminded her, keeping his eyes glued to the market's denizens. He gave them a wave with his free hand. "They're here, alive, doing something with their lives because you were there. And you protected them, and motivated them. All of them admire you so much." Finally, his eyes flickered to meet with hers. "You're their guardian, and they all appreciate you so much. I just figured you should know, and see it for yourself."

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 "We're here."

But where was 'here,' exactly? As Lessa's gaze combed over the market, the hodgepodge of tents, tables, and storefronts, her initial reaction was confusion. Where had all of this come from? She had walked through this same block right before Christmas, so about two months ago? Back then, there had been nothing but boarded-up windows and empty booths. Now? Now there was a community.

Community. The next phase was realization, a spark as sudden and vibrant as flint meeting steel. As the understanding dawned, driven home by the sight of Benjamin's boyish grin, Lessa's blue eyes widened. Nearly every profession was accounted for, and some she had never even considered. It was a mural dedicated to the group's resolve, and their ability to overcome what might have left others drifting. Here was purpose, and direction, and lives not wasted. And community. And love. And all of the things that Lessa had promised them they would find in the 'Otherworld,' if only they took a chance on each other. All of the things Lessa had herself longed for only months before.


He took her hand.

Well, now she had it all.

The emotion that swamped her was so heavy, and so complex, that she felt weak. But unlike the crushing pressure of drowning, the sensation was far more comforting, like a tight hug. Or a heavy jacket in a dark, unfamiliar room. "No," she finally responded, her voice a mere whisper to be carried off by the sound of the market. "We did this. I couldn't have done it without you, Bahr. Any of it. I just-" She tried to speak around the lump in her throat, but it was difficult enough just to swallow back the sob. So Lessa focused on those Christmas eyes, and the infinite patience that burned there. He steadied her, just as easily as he rocked her to her core.

"But you did this. This place. I can't believe... I can't thank you..." She squeezed his hand, and as she clung to him, she looked out over their small miracle. 

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"You don't have to," came his steady response as he pulled her closer to him. It would be clear to anyone that the sight of the flock gathered here had had an emotional impact on her. And that was okay. He wouldn't have been so cryptic about it if he'd felt it wouldn't affect her at all. There was a certain magic here that didn't exist anywhere else in Aincrad, and only they could feel it. There was something special about that. "C'mon. Let's see what Benji's up to."

He led her through the door of the young boy's shop, and was pleased with what they found. It seemed the youth had taken Bahr's advice to heart on the merchandise arrangements, but had added a flair of his own. Rather than contemporary lighting, he'd gone with crystals from the tenth floor that really sold the mellow ambiance. Natural light flooded the space through the open window, a far cry from Bahr's shop which was always kept in relative darkness. But as the sun would set, and the luminescence of the peculiar minerals would set the room aglow with a signature hue only they could produce, the unique glamour of this place would really start to take hold. Bahr was a little disappointed they wouldn't be around to see it. 

Bahr whistled, then said, "Damn. Kid's got me wanting to renovate my own place. Those mahogany display cases? Perks of having a woodworker nearby, I suppose." He was a tad jealous, but mostly proud. "Benjamin's become somewhat of a pseudo-protege of mine. I'd love to take credit for what he's done, but all I did was give him a few pointers and help him with his first craft. Everything afterwards is all him. It's pretty amazing what he's accomplished in such a short time."

As though on cue, Benjamin emerged from the back of the shop. He carried with him a pair of plushies, sewn together at the hand. It was Bahr and Lessa. "Sorry it took so long! I had to add a few finishing touches," he explained as he gingerly pressed the dolls into Lessa's hands. "This is the prototype, but I'm making them for everyone. A reminder of the ones who gave us the strength to make it here and start anew."

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The shop was simply stunning. The rich wooden masterpieces put the standard plastic display cases to shame. Had Lessa even had display cases in her shop? Or just slabs on the wall, masquerading as shelves? As Bahr whistled his appreciation, she nodded in agreement. Benjamin had done an amazing job. Had had taken a space and made it his own, splashing his unique personality across every nook and cranny. The shop was a testament to who he was as a person, much like how Manderley stood for her. Despite the emotion that had choked her moments before, seeing the Sanctuary-survivor thriving had an oddly relaxing effect. "Kid's got me considering opening up my shop again," she told her snowy haired companion.

As Benjamin returned from the depths of his store, Lessa meant to tell him as much. "This place looks incredible," she stated, "and- oh." The words escaped her as her gaze settled on the plushies in his hands.

"This is the prototype, but I'm making them for everyone. A reminder of the ones who gave us the strength to make it here and start anew."

"You're their guardian."

"You watch over them, like a guardian.The Violet Guardian. I wish I'd been able to know you better."

Even as Benjamin attempted to hand her the plushies, Lessa stepped into him. In one swift motion, her arms were around the boy's neck, and she hugged him fiercely. "Thank you."

"Uh heh, yeah, sure," the boy mumbled, against her shoulder. When she drew back, he smiled, but crimson rode his cheeks. It colored hers, too, but rather than embarrassment, Lessa's was sheer happiness. 

"This was so, so thoughtful, Benjamin." She grinned, and held up the tiny Bahr. "I think you captured his likeness really well. He's awfully cute."

A sudden figure in the doorway rescued Benjamin from crafting a response. "Are the rumors true?" The striking brunette tilted her head, emerald eyes wide with good humor. "Have the heroes returned?"

"Olivia!" Lessa nearly bobbled the plushies in surprise. "Oh my gosh, hey."

The thin woman loosed a light, airy laugh. "What? You seem shocked to see me. You think I'd just let them build a place like this without helping? After letting my brother wreck their lives like that, this is the least I can do."

"Well, no, it's not that," Lessa replied, shifting the toys to one hand so she could rub at the back of her neck. "You just look so different. You're practically glowing."

Now Olivia beamed. "Love had that effect on people," she answered, without a beat of hesitation. "And I love my new family." Her gaze flicked to Bahr, then back to Lessa, and something devilish flashed in her medicine-bottle eyes. "It's definitely working for you two."

A jolt ran through her. "Anyway," Lessa drawled, wondering distantly just how red her face actually was. If the heat was any indication, they were approaching #ff0000. "So who else is here? Nancy?"

A shadow finally darkened Olivia's pretty face, like a cloud blocking a brilliant sun. "No. She lives near the jail where they're keeping Dominic. She's visits him a lot, and writes him all the time. They're practically best friends. Or at least, she seems to thinks so." The darkness dissipated, and the woman rolled her eyes. "I think she just watched a lot of those crime dramas, and wants to be his groupie or something." With a shrug, she concluded, "No great loss, she was honestly pretty annoying. So do you want me to show you around?"

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