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

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Bahr wasn't at all surprised when Olivia popped into the shop. She looked well, the bags that rode under her eyes in Sanctuary now gone and replaced by a glow he'd never noticed she had before. It was nice to think that she'd managed to move on and find some peace amid the chaos that Sanctuary wrought. She was doing well for herself, just as everyone wrapped up in that wretched event seemed to be.

"No great loss, she was honestly pretty annoying."

Oh my god, right!?

"So do you want me to show you around?"

"Totally. Lead the way."

As they exited the shop, Benjamin offered them only a wave. It seemed he still had work to do, and it only seemed right to leave him to it. Olivia took the lead, confidence accentuating her swayed steps as she made her way to the blacksmithery. The interior of the shop seemed small from where they stood outside, but that didn't seem to bother the blacksmith, who had her kiln and equipment outside. An awning stretched over top, protecting the work space from any would-be rain. 

A small woman sat there. Dainty, feminine, with silver hair that belied her youthful appearance. Slender fingers gripped the handle of a hammer, which pounded away at her creation. A longsword? Sure looked like it. Her seemingly fragile frame spat in the face of typical blacksmith stereotypes, but the focus she put into her work was apparent. Varied weapons, armors and sculptures lined the wall - a display of her capability. They were ornate, sturdy and beautiful. Just as Benjamin was starting to make a name for himself, so too was Maya.

"This is Maya," Olivia explained. "She just got set up recently, but she's already very popular. We've had players of all sorts visiting."

"And I can see why! Looks like excellent craftsmanship,"
 Bahr replied, inspecting a particular claymore that had caught his eye.

Maya, who'd been ignoring them up to this point as she complete her craft, finally piped up. "Don't even think about it," she barked, a southern drawl bleeding into the command. "That one there's special." She inspected the warhammer she'd finished - wait, warhammer? She gave a stiff nod, then stood to address the others. "My hands only," she said as she extended one to Bahr. He took it, shook, and was surprised by the firmness of her grip and how calloused her palm had become. She wasn't nearly as dainty as she appeared. "Name's Maya, pleasure to meetcha." She then made her way around to Lessa, extending a hand in greeting to the blonde as well. "Ah, you've got rough palms, too. Blacksmith like me, or fierce warrior?"

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"Oh, wow." Awestruck, Lessa executed a slow three-sixty. The setup was spectacular. While the display lacked the polish of Benjamin's shop, Maya's work absolutely spoke for itself. One piece in particular caught Lessa's eye, and she leaned closer to examine it. The shield was stunning, polished to gleaming, and perfectly crafted. It's unique shape, startling bronze color, and masterful design-work intrigued her. This shield would have looked perfectly at home with Alexander the Great, or some other equally important figure. Truth be told, Lessa wondered briefly if she could fit it into her build.

The blonde turned just as Maya formally introduced herself. When it came her turn to shake, Lessa found herself startled by the girl's strength. Blacksmith or fierce warrior? "Both?" She hesitated, and with a quick grimace, corrected herself. "Neither? I used to be a blacksmith, but I haven't done any work in a really long time. And, I'm still building back up to the fierce warrior part." A shy smile replaced the pained expression. "I'm inspired to get back into crafting though, after seeing what you and Benjamin managed to do here. And in such a short amount of time!"

Pride puffed up the tiny woman's chest, the subtle shift betraying the still-stony expression. "It was hard work," she confirmed. "But we have a lot of lost time to make up for."

"I don't think it was lost," Lessa interjected. "You established a really tight-knit community. You can see evidence of that everywhere. I mean," she gestured with two plushie-filled hands, "you built a family."

"Which you're absolutely a part of."

Even as Maya nodded her agreement, Lessa turned to look at Olivia. The blonde's chest constricted, some impossible mixture of sweet happiness and bitter regret settling there. I finally have a family, but it isn't complete. I couldn't save you all. "That means a lot," she finally managed, her voice closer to a croak than she would have liked. But the other woman simply smiled, then closed the distance between them, and drew Lessa into a tight hug. It was Lessa's turn to be startled by the surprise embrace. 

"I lost my brother," Olivia whispered, the words meant only for Lessa. "But I kind of like to think I gained you as a sister. Is that okay?"

As the Guardian's legs began to tremble, Olivia held her tighter; this time, it was she who kept Lessa from slipping off the edge.

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It was a heartwarming scene. A budding family. A community that Lessa could really call her own. And as they embraced, Bahr and Maya could only stare on. It wasn't that they were uncomfortable with the display, just that they now found themselves left to their own devices. In the presence of a stranger, no less.

"Soooo," Maya began, "arm wrestle?"

"You're on."


They eventually departed the blacksmithery, Bahr winding his sore arm as they strode through the street to their next location. "Geez," he remarked, pain evident in his tone. "I figured she was tough, but I wasn't expecting that. I'll need to pump up my strength stat a bit before the rematch."

"Feeling a little emasculated, are we?" Olivia teased. "I'm not sure what you were expecting. Did you really think a tailor could beat a blacksmith, girl or no?"

"I'll have you know I'd be embarrassed if it was a guy, too,"
 Bahr proclaimed proudly, before realizing what he'd said. "I-I mean... I just know I can be tougher than anyone." Nice backpedaling. Not really. Quick, change topics. "Soooo where are we headed now?"

"Well, I figured I'd show you guys my shop next," she replied, stopping in front of a shop that didn't have a sign yet. "It's a bit of a niche profession, but it's full of its own rewards."

She slowly opened the door, bearing the fruits of her labor to the curious pair. The entire interior was decorated head to toe in a variety of plants, sprawling vines, and gorgeous flowers. Rows of earth contained in custom display cases were filled to the brim with virtually any form of flora imaginable. There were fruits, vegetables, bonsai trees, aesthetic plants, anything you could think of. Hanging plants filled every corner, their vines stretching out and hugging the walls, trying to return the man made structure to the nature from whence it came. There were massive windows against every wall, which allowed the gradually reddening sunlight to peek in and provide the flora with the sustenance it sought. This same scarlet glow hung in the humid air, captured by floating prisms of moisture that dispersed the light in a multicolored array. If it were possible to capture the very essence of the great outdoors in a single place, this was it.

"Woah," Bahr uttered as he gently elbowed Lessa, as though to say, "Are you seeing this?" But he knew she did. It was magnificent.

"Yeah, it took a lot of time, but I'm please with how it's turned out. I've been so busy putting everything together, I hadn't even bothered with a name yet." She turned to the blonde. "Do you have any ideas, Lessa?

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"Honestly, this place is like a dream." Lessa stated, awe plain on her face and in her voice. With wide, blue eyes, she drank in every inch of the stunning shop, committing it to memory. There was an incredibly beauty here, but also a really comforting nostalgic element she hadn't expected. Was it because the shop reminded her so much of the greenhouses back home? Summer afternoons spent wandering Christian's, the heavy, damp air warmed by the sun. The blonde drew in a deep breath, relishing in the smell earthy aroma of bursting blooms. No, not a dream. Heaven.

Perhaps a name to reflect that? Eden, maybe? They definitely needed to choose something that represented how enchanting the shop was. Something poetic, something-

"How about the Olive-Vine?"

Lessa blinked. "What?" she gaped. "No, that's-"

"That's perfect!" Olivia grinned back at Bahr, her emerald eyes wide and laughing. When she registered the lack of amusement on Lessa's face, the brunette released a rolling, melodic laugh. "Oh come on. It's hilarious. It's perfect!"

"It's goofy."

"Well maybe that's why it's perfect." Olivia reached over and clapped Lessa on the shoulder. "A little goofiness is going to go a long way around here."

The Guardian studied her two friends for a moment, then blew out a dramatic breath that sent her bangs dancing. "Fine," she conceded. Then she held out both hands, gesturing to the incredible urban jungle. "But your shop is just so pretty."

The willowy woman beamed, planting her hands on her hips as she looked over her work. "Yeah," she agreed on a heavy sigh. "Now it's pretty and has a totally perfect name." Only a beat of silence passed before Olivia looked to Bahr. One eyebrown lifted, and she asked, "So what's the next stop on the date, Romeo?"

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"So what's the next stop on the date, Romeo?"

The edges of his lips curled upward, and a single snowy brow raised. 

"That's for me to know."

But she was right. The sky had been painted orange, and it wouldn't be long before night descended upon the castle. It wasn't like they had a strict schedule to follow, but they probably couldn't afford to linger in New Sanctuary too much longer. Lessa seemed completely enamored by the space, though, so they didn't have to leave just yet. He lightly nudged her with his elbow, maintaining the same askew grin from before.

"We're totally getting our groceries here from now on," he asserted, the grin now stretching into his signature cheesy smile.

There was a moment of silence, and then, "Well, you might. I'm not allowed to cook anymore." Bahr stifled a laugh at her wry response, which ended up developing into an inadvertent snort. It was almost cute that she didn't yet believe he'd prepare her every meal if it made her happy. By the end of the day, she'd know.

"I guess we can get going. But we'll be back," Bahr assured, offering a nod. "This place is incredible. Wouldn't miss it for the world." He turned his head and looked at his blonde companion. "So what do you say? Should we let these people get to it?" With her nod of approval, they began their rounds to say goodbye. There seemed to be a sentiment shared by the majority of the former flock of disappointment that they had to leave early, but acceptance that it was getting late. Their swan song complete, they departed from the collection of shops and homes and began making their way toward the center of town.

"This next part's special, just so you know." Which, he imagined she did. "I put a lot of thought into it." Without another word, he slipped his arms out of his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. She'd need it where they were going, which she'd likely pieced together by now.

They sauntered through the streets. Into the town square. Up to the teleport gate. Then Bahr issued the destination he'd been waiting to get to all day. "Teleport, Snowfrost."

Their avatars deconstructed in a flash, and rematerialized on the fourth floor just as swiftly. Frosty vapor assaulted their lungs as snow wisped about in the wake of their arrival, but there was still a certain warmth that permeated the space as well. It was an ambiance unique to the air of Snowfrost; an intermingling of biting cold that was ever so subtly and smoothly assuaged by the dim glow cast by street lamps, smoke billowing from the many chimneys, and the sense that a contained inferno raged within a fireplace hidden beyond any given door. There wasn't anywhere else in Aincrad that captured the essence of heat and cold at once so neatly, and in a way, it reminded Bahr of home.

Places such as this had become a bit nostalgic for the pair - this place, in particular. Though their footprints from the time before had long been filled, they traced a path they knew well enough not to need them. The mellow soundtrack of the floor played out all around them as they strode through streets layered with undisturbed snow like icing atop a cake; the light squelch of the powder compressing beneath their boots, the occasional muffled laugh emanating from within one of the houses, the whisper of the wind as it jaunted between the buildings, slowed, then faded back into comfortable silence. 

The last traces of sunlight hugged the horizon by the time they'd arrived, a scarlet glow that touched both the edge of the world and the edge of endless darkness. Twinkles of light had started revealing themselves, but they were nothing compared to the view they'd shared in Manderly. Perhaps, if things went well, they'd get to take it all in again before the night was over. Bahr stepped forward, opened the door of the White Rabbit Tavern, and motioned gracefully for Lessa to step inside. Ladies first, after all.

Within was a sight neither of them had ever seen before. White Rabbit was never a place of extraordinary bustle, but it had loyal patrons that would fill its seats at any given time during business hours. But not tonight. The space within was quiet, empty, and dark, lit only by the candles that dotted its tables and the fireplace that never seemed to run out of fuel. Furniture had been rearranged, allowing Bahr and Lessa each their favorite armchairs, which were pulled up to opposite ends of a small, intimate table that rested in the center of the foyer. It wasn't conventional, by any means, but this wasn't about being conventional. This was about them.

Bahr would trail in behind her, changing into his more formal attire while she was preoccupied with the scene unfolding before her. By the time she looked back, she'd see a completely different man. A white button-up tucked neatly into black trousers, unbuttoned near the collar, with a black blazer tying the whole ensemble together. 

"I've been expecting the two of you. Welcome to the White Rabbit," a familiar voice would call. It was none other than Alexander, similarly dressed for the occasion. He wore what one might consider to be a stereotypical butler's uniform, complete with an ivory cloth that dangled from his forearm, which extended stiffly from his elbow at a ninety-degree angle and ran parallel with the ground. "Did you make a final decision, Bahr?"

"Yes," Bahr remarked, offering the man a smile and a nod. "We're going to go with what I cooked earlier." There was a certain magic to the way food worked in Aincrad. One could create a dish, convert it into an item, and populate it again months later so long as its durability didn't fully deplete. No matter how much time had passed, it would remain in a fixed state, and emerge just as fresh as when it was created. "If you wouldn't mind showing her to where she can change, then retrieving the food. We should be settled in by the time you bring it out." This was where the "something nice to wear" would come into play, but it didn't bear reiterating. Lessa knew what this was.

"Very well," Alexander replied. "Right this way, milady."

It was as he led her to an adjoining guest room that the aroma would start to play into the mix. There was more afoot here than Bahr's cooking, or the typical scents that usually lingered here. A batch of Alexander's cookies were waiting in the wings, no doubt kept warm in the oven at the perfect temperature until Bahr and Lessa were ready for them. As Lessa retreated into the room, Bahr settled into the impossibly comfortable chair and waited. One way or another, he managed to quell the incessant anxious bouncing of his leg and at least give the appearance that he was holding it all together. Despite his confidence, there was a nervousness that played through him as well.

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"This next part's special, just so you know. I put a lot of thought into it."

Lessa opened her mouth to reply, but was startled by a weight around her shoulders. A silly, girlish pleasure coursed through her as she instinctively pulled his coat tighter around herself. Without a moment's hesitation, she tugged the collar up to her face and breathed deeply; it was warm, and it smelled of him. While she suspected they were traveling to a climate where the coat was necessary, she would have worn it on the fifth floor. Regardless of how high-school-girl-with-a-crush it was, she loved being wrapped in something so undeniably Bahr. Of all the players on all the floors in all of Aincrad, she was the one he let wear it. And wasn't that remarkable?

"You say that like this whole thing hasn't been special." Finally, Lessa let the crimson coat fall away from her lips so she could smile over at him. "I know for a fact you've put thought into everything we've done today." No one has ever done something so thoughtful for me. But rather than saying as much, she simply smiled wider as she joined him on the teleportation platform. 

The sudden blast of arctic air left Lessa gasping, as it always did when she materialized in Snowfrost. Even more appreciative for Bahr's coat, she followed him down the streets she had walked hundreds of times. While she allowed him to lead her, Lessa knew where they were going from the moment they reached the fourth floor. There was something surreal about traversing a familiar path while in a different state of mind, like wandering the halls of an empty school after dark. Though she had been there countless times over the years, it all felt new with her arm hooked securely through his.

What was inarguably new, however, was the scene within the White Rabbit. Her entire body went lax, arm slipping like a limp noodle from Bahr's as she gazed at the dimly-lit tavern. Despite the many night's she'd spent there, she had never seen the place quite like this. The crackling fire and flickering candles set shadows dancing whimsically against every exposed surface. A cozy, private arrangement of round table and over-stuffed armchairs stood apart from the rest of the furniture. And the entire place was empty, save for Alexander, who stood stiffly just inside the doorway. Lessa blinked owlishly, taken aback by his dramatic change in appearance. Was that a butler's uniform?

"Hey Bahr, did you see-"

But when she turned back to him, all coherent thought simply vanished. The ever-shifting candlelight bathed him in warm light, but there was nothing soft about Bahr. The violent clash of white and black was striking, and the perfectly crafted blazer lay flush against his broad chest. Leave it to the tailor, she'd reflect later. In the moment, as the shadows moved across his body of long lines and sharp angles, Lessa could only gulp around the lump in her throat. Have mercy.

"-mind showing her to where she can change, then retrieving the food. We should be settled in by the time you bring it out."

Joining the conversation late, it took Lessa a moment to catch up. Rightchange. This was no place for blue jeans, especially when the musty aroma of horses still clung to them. Besides, she thought, gaze still glued to Bahr, I have no right to eat with someone who looks like that while I look like this. So she drank him in like a woman dying of thirst before following Alexander into the guest room.

"So," she began, rounding on Alexander once they were alone, "how long have you two been planning this?"

The NPC merely smiled knowingly, slipping Bahr's coat off her shoulders and draping it over his arm. "That's for me to know."

Lessa's eyebrows winged up, and she couldn't help but laugh. "You traitor," she accused. "Geeze, you're even starting to sound like him."

With a quick laugh of his own, Alexander bowed his way back out the door, leaving Lessa alone. It took only a few seconds for her to equip her purple dress, but as she stood before the body-length mirror, her frown clashed with the garment's cheery color. A quick knock came from the doorway, and before Lessa could answer, a figure slipped into the room with her. Anxiety flared at the thought that it might be Bahr, but her entire body relaxed as realization dawned. "Hey Margaret," Lessa greeted, gaze meeting Alexander's wife's in the mirror.

The kindly NPC smiled, but the expression faltered as she noticed the look in Lessa's eyes."What's wrong?"

"Oh, it's nothing," Lessa lied easily. But the maternal cynicism on Margaret's face so reminded her of her own mom's that Lessa had to sigh. "It's silly."

"Even so, why don't you tell me what it is?"

The player's hands moved to rub at her bare arms. The simple column of purple she wore offered little cover, and she suddenly felt incredibly exposed. At least in her armor she felt fierce. Now? She felt... silly. Like a child playing dress-up. "I just-"

Margaret held up a hand. "Just wait," she commanded, suddenly bustling out the door. Lessa was left staring dumbfounded at the spot where the NPC had disappeared. When she returned a moment later, she clutched a shimmery black shawl to her chest. "This is mine," she explained, unfolding the silky fabric which glimmered like the night sky in the candlelight. "But you should have it." After draping the square of stars over Lessa's shoulders, Margaret stepped back to examine her work. "You wear it so much better than I do."

Lessa gaped. "N-no, Margaret, no. I couldn't."

"You already have. And I insist." The plump brunette smiled at Lessa. Then, in a swift movement, scooped the shorter woman's hair into a quick pile atop her head. Securing it with a single gold pin, the innkeeper's wife patted the Guardian on the arm. "You've been so kind to us," she explained, voice a low, reassuring murmur. "We just want to return the favor."

What odd NPCs, Lessa found herself thinking as she finally joined Bahr once more. But as she slipped into the chair opposite him, and gazed across the table, nothing else mattered; her thoughts were once again reserved for him, and him alone. 

"Hi."

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And, of course, she was stunning.

A column of violet hugged her slim frame, accentuating features that Bahr had noticed before, but now couldn't seem to pry his eyes from. The way she had her hair secured, the subtle shine of her lips, her natural curves, and those hips. Part of him felt a little rude for ogling her like he was, but it wasn't as though she'd been subtle about doing the same only a few minutes before. He was almost disappointed that a shawl covered the rest, though it did wonders for leaving something to the imagination. By night's end, perhaps he'd see what she was hiding underneath.

"Hi."

He was completely hopeless. It was like he'd forgotten how to greet someone. "Wow," was all he managed to utter when she'd finally taken her seat across from him, still trying to wrap his head around the magnificence he was contending with. Then he cleared his throat, opened his mouth to say something, and promptly closed it. What could he even say? You're beautiful? Extravagant? Radiant? Sexy? None of them did her any justice. "You're everything," he finally said. Stupid. That was really stupid.

Luckily, Alexander had returned. Carrying two platters covered with round silver cloches, he strode from the kitchen, around the counter, and to the small table they shared. He placed the platters down - one in front of each - and wrapped his fingers gingerly around the handles of the lids. "Compliments of 'Chef Bahr'," he said with a grin before removing the cloches from where they rested. 

They revealed mac and cheese. Yes, mac and cheese. Albeit, of the gourmet variety. The noodles were large shells, which perfectly cupped creamy pools of the cheesy solution they marinated in. Of to the side was a smaller dish filled will a dollop or so of applesauce. To round out the bizarre meal was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Grilled. She'd off-handedly mentioned to him once that she enjoyed them, and he thought it was just weird enough to include with the other components of the meal. Alexander took a bow, and then his leave, offering the pair absolute privacy.

"I know it's not fancy. But it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up. I thought you might appreciate it."

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"You're everything."

The compliment was so sudden, and so unexpected, that Lessa simply couldn't formulate a response. Her eyes flashed to his, lips parting in answer, but no sound came out. Say something. Say anything. But was there really anything to say to a bombshell like that? 'You too?' 'So are you?' 'Thanks?' And what if he hadn't meant it like that? Or better yet, what if he had?

Her stream of consciousness had become more like a rapid, or a waterfall, thoughts tumbling haphazardly into each other. Fortunately, she was rescued by the sudden appearance of Alexander. "Compliments of 'Chef Bahr'," he declared, and Lessa again found her jaw on the floor. How many times was it that she'd been completely stunned today? Seventy six? 

"Wait, you made dinner?" she asked, flabbergasted. Was there anything the man couldn't do, or wasn't willing to do to make the day absolutely perfect? "I can't believe you'd do that, it's so-"

The shiny cloches were whisked away, revealing the decadent spread beneath it. Mac and cheese. Applesauce. Grilled peanut butter and jelly. Lessa simply stared.

"I know it's not fancy. But it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up. I thought you might appreciate it."

And then she laughed. The sound rolled like bells, rising and falling to fill every corner of the large, empty space. His silly surprise chased away every shadow of fear, and every ounce of doubt, until her face shone with the same brilliance as the fire in the hearth. Her smile, as it burst into being, was likely just as warm. "God, I adore you. I really don't know what in the world I did to deserve any of this."

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Did she really not think she deserved it? After everything she had done for him? He'd done all of this because he knew that she was worth it. Even the day they'd shared failed to communicate the intricacies of how he felt about her. What she meant to him. She absolutely deserved all of this, and more.

She deserved the world.

"All you had to do was be who you are."

The person he admired most.

Bahr slowly unraveled the ivory cloth that contained his utensils, picking the spoon out of the bunch and scooping up a dollop of the applesauce. "So how does this work, anyways? I just put it in here and mix it around?" he inquired as he hovered the spoon of mashed fruit over their cheesy counterpart, looking to Lessa for confirmation. When she gave it, he scrutinized the spoonful of liquidized apple, shrugged, and plopped it into the bowl. He then followed through, mixing the opposing solutions together until it was impossible to tell one from the other.

"I figured it would be nice to try out all of these strange meals you're always raving about," Bahr said as he brought a spoonful of the mixture to his lips. He deposited its contents into his mouth, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. "Not nearly as bad as I'd thought it would be," he admitted as a grin crept across his cheeks. "Pretty decent, actually. I could see myself getting used to something like this." So he took another bite. Then another. Then a fourth. He was about to go for a fifth, but stopped himself. It probably wasn't exactly impressive that he was pigging out on their first official date. He could probably afford to reel it in and make the dinner last.

"So," he began, "now you've seen how I thought a perfect date between us would go. I'm curious. If you were to plan a date day for us, what would you have us do?"

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Lessa couldn't help but laugh as Bahr delicately spooned up the applesauce. There was such concentration on his handsome face that it was almost comical. "It's not all that complicated," she informed him through her grin. "Seriously. If it were, I'd probably mess it up." To demonstrate, the blonde plucked up her own spoon. Her serving of applesauce was far more generous, more a shovel than a scoop as she piled it atop her still-steaming shells. She stirred the entire concoction together. Unlike Bahr's, there was no hesitancy in her first bite. How many times had Lessa had the unusual meal? Well, she could hardly keep track.

"My mom used to make this for me," she explained between bites. She paused to smile as Bahr began eating more enthusiastically, then continued. "She used to make mac and cheese like this all the time, with the shells. It was my dad's favorite, but my brother and I were weird about it." The blonde loosed a small shrug. "Not sure if we got tired of eating the stuff, or we were just doing the picky kid thing. But she started adding things to try to get us more excited about it. Ben actually really liked ketchup in his mac and cheese, if you can believe it." Amusement flashed in the woman's blue eyes. "My thing was applesauce. He grew out of it." Lessa lifted her spoon, gesturing to Bahr across the table. "I, apparently, never did."

The Guardian banked her spoon on the side of her bowl, and was reaching for the grilled peanut butter and jelly when Bahr lobbed his question at her. Her hand froze mid-air, then she slowly drew it back. "Well geeze," she muttered, blushing faintly as she studied him in the candlelight. "Way to put me on the spot." A companionable silence fell between them, broken only by the sound of eating and the crackle of the fire, while Lessa thought it through.

Finally, she said, "I guess I'd want to take you to places that are important to us. Except, not the Monument, because that would be kind of a weird place for a date. And maybe not the Defiled Church, because I'm not in a huge hurry to go back there. So, ahhhh." Her voice trailed, a hand reaching to fiddle with a loose lock of hair. "Hah, well, I guess you already covered the good ones. Like the White Rabbit, obviously. Maybe just hang out around Manderley? And-" Her eyes widened in sudden realization, then narrowed into conspiratorial slits. "And I totally just thought of one, but I'm keeping it a secret. I'll have to use it sometime."

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A secret, huh? Bahr couldn't bring himself to judge her. After all, he'd been pretty elusive about the destinations and activities of the day's outings. He'd had his fun with it, so it was only natural that he should give her the same privilege. Rather than pry, he finished hiss mac and cheese - which was admittedly not as horrific as he'd originally imagined - and move onto the grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Between mouthfuls of the sandwich, he caught glimpses of her happiness. It shone brightly in her eyes, rode the rosy hues that blanketed her cheeks, and played across her seemingly permanently upward curled lips.  She was happy. And he'd seen her happy before, but this was completely different. Their troubles seemed so far away from them now. Here, in White Rabbit, surrounded by candlelight, there was no darkness that could touch them. It was like they were in their own little world.

He finished up right around when she did. He slouched in his chair a bit, then patted his stomach enthusiastically. "I'm stuffed," he admitted, letting loose a long sigh. It had been the last thing he'd officially planned for the day and, now that it was over, he felt almost lost with what to do next. They had the whole place to themselves. They had the romantic setting. It was time to make the most out of it.

"So why'd you agree to come along today?" he inquired pointedly. "I know I'm not the only man in Aincrad who's interested. And I'm probably the only one that almost got you killed, too. So why pick me out of the bunch to go on a date with?"

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"Bahr with the difficult questions," she mused aloud, voice just above a whisper. In the silent, empty tavern, he was sure to hear her. But she was so focused on formulating her answer that she missed any reaction he might have had. Polishing off the last of her sandwich, Lessa washed it down with a long drink of water; the cup was empty, save for a few final drops that streaked down the glass, by the time she set it down again. She leaned back, her slouch mirroring Bahr's, before she tugged her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Why did this particular query, and the way he watched her, suddenly make her feel so vulnerable? It was as if his mismatched eyes took her apart, piece by piece.

A full moment of planning revealed that she simply could not organize a coherent answer. She was far better off simply starting, and seeing where she ended up. Hopefully it wouldn't be anywhere too embarrassing. "Well you're actually not the first guy to almost get me killed." Wow, very good start. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the beginning of a slow clap. The blonde shifted in the armchair, then tried again. "But even if you were, I- uh, well. You're just different from everyone else."

The smile still came, despite the unease that pricked the back of her neck. Her hand moved to rub there, even as she continued. "I know that's really cheesy, but it's true. I love talking to you, about everything. I don't think we could ever run out of things to say. I love spending time with you, even when it's just sitting on the porch or decorating a Christmas tree. And we've been through so much together already. I want to keep doing things with you, and making new experiences. Keep learning more about you." Her voice softened, again a back to a whisper as she concluded, "And being a part of your life."

Lessa brought her hand to her mouth, dragging the back of it across her lips distractedly. She wanted to look away, and she did so, but only for a few seconds. Nerves be damned, she could look at him as she spoke. After a day like this, it was the least she could do. Her blue eyes found his, held there, and her head tilted ever so slightly. Now or never. "So of course I picked you. There's no one else."

After a beat of silence, her smile went a bit goofy. “Anyway, yeah, that’s why.” She reached for her glass, remembered it was empty, drew her hand back again. Only then did she think to return the question. “So why did you pick me? I already know you have other female friends, and any one of them would have loved the chance to spend the day with you. I mean, geeze, who wouldn’t?” She blinked at him through the dim light, and asked again. “Why me?”

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He laced his fingers and rested his elbows against the table as he listened to her, attentive to every word that rolled from her tongue and even the most minute changes in inflection. She talked about how much she loved talking to him. How natural it all was. How they would never run out of things to talk about, or learn about one another. How much she enjoyed when they did things together. How much they'd gone through. She expressed how much she loved all of that, and how she wanted to experience more. Unending. To continue being a part of one another's lives.

"So of course I picked you. There's no one else."

So she felt all of the same things that he felt. It was such an unbelievable sensation hearing it out loud, as though the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. It made what would come next a lot easier.

"Why me?"

He cleared his throat. "Because not long after we met, this started happening," he stated as he unfolded his hands, removed his elbows from the table, and brought up his menu. He navigated to the messaging panel, then to the archived messages, and started to populate them. 
 

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To: Lessa

Hey. Want to hang out? I don't have anything planned today, and I'd like to see you.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

I'm really sorry to be messaging you out of the blue like this, especially at this hour.

Today was really rough. A lot rougher than I thought it would be, or really had any right to be. I don't want to get into the details, but I saw something that broke my heart.

And it was all because of some stupid NPCs. Can you imagine that? Someone like me getting worked up about it. You were definitely onto something when you said that they were more real than I gave them credit for.

Anyways, I just wanted to say... Don't do anything stupid. Don't go to a dangerous place without me. Don't fight something you can't beat without me. Don't ever feel afraid to contact me and ask for help, because I'll be there. In a heartbeat.

Don't leave me alone here to fend for myself. I couldn't do it without you. 

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

Do you ever wonder, 'Why us?'

I've been thinking about it a lot more lately. It just seems strange that, out of all of the people in all of the time humans have been around, we're the ones that got wrapped up in this hell.

I know, I know. I'm the one who told you that we should look for the silver linings in all of this. But sometimes it just gets to me.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

Something weird is happening with a friend of mine, and it's got me all twisted. A part of me feels like I shouldn't be worried, but the other part of me can't help it. 

I sat here for years and saw a "LOCATION DATA UNAVAILABLE" prompt under Zayne's information in my friend list. And now it's there under hers. Maybe I'm just conditioned to feel this way, but it's almost like I can't prevent myself from assuming the worst.

I could really use you right now. Do you want to meet up?

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

I've been thinking about you a lot more lately. I think we should hang out more often. I'd really like to get to know you.

Let me know when you're free.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

I'm seriously freaking out right now. I don't know what to do.

Have you ever had someone just disappear on you? Like, one day they're there, and the next day they're not?

And you keep making excuses for them. Trying to convince yourself that it's alright. But deep down, you know it isn't alright. And something is horribly, horribly wrong. And that your worst fears have become reality.

I really need to see you.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

I can't believe the nerve of this chick I'm partied with. One combat together and she thinks she knows me, digging into my personal life and calling me an idiot for the way I fight. She's driving me up a wall. She may as well have said I was going to get myself killed one day.

And the thing is, we won! Like, super easily! There wasn't a glimmer of danger in the entire scenario. But still she feels the need to sit here and chide me for having the gall to actually attack first. I've got half a mind to chew her out, but what difference would it make?

I'd much rather be hanging out with you.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

Alexander told me there's a conspiracy to kidnap Swine Bajesus. I'm onto you.

Best you'll get is sharing him.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

That kiss was incredible. It better not be our last.

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

Got my hands on this thing called Love's Respite? It's supposed to boost crafting or something.

I'm currently in my shop making snow angels in the fabric. I'm pretty sure Future Me is going to be pissed at Current Me.

F*ck you, Future Me.

- Current Me

 

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To: Lessa

Hey.

I can't stop thinking about the fight we had. I know that it's been 'resolved,' but I just feel horrible about it.

How can I make it up to you?

- Bahr

 

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To: Lessa

There's something I need to do. Might be away for a day or two. Don't worry - it's for the best.

I'll be back before you know it.

- Bahr


As each message populated, Bahr cast it into the air. They circled around the table and pair, one after another, until the dull glow from their panels filled the space with artificial light. "I just couldn't stop thinking about you, and trying to reach out to you," he explained, trying to ignore the heat building up in his cheeks. "These are messages that I've archived instead of sent to you, ever since Lich King." He took a deep breath. "I punched Alkor. Because he... made you cry. And I went back and killed the Lich King again for having the audacity to hurt you the way it did. And I made sure the Dominic is locked down as tight as possible, and with as few privileges as possible because of what he put you through." A brief silence, and then, "And I went and said goodbye to the woman I knew before I met you, because I met you. Not in the literal sense, since I haven't found her, but... More metaphorical, I guess."

...

"I'm telling you all of this because I don't want to hide anything from you anymore. I don't want to go into this keeping anything from you, because neither of us deserve that. I want you to know who I am at my best, and who I am at my worst. And if you see both sides, and still 'pick' me..." He dragged his finger across the final message flicking it over to hover directly in front of Lessa.
 

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To: Lessa

All of me is yours, if you'll be mine.

- Bahr


"So what do you say?"

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Like stars in a dark sky, the message windows lit the space around her. Awe shimmered in her wide eyes as she looked at each note from him. Though Lessa was an exceptionally fast reader, she spent considerable time on each line, savoring it like a dessert she'd never have again. Because deep down, she knew there would never be another moment just like this one. So each phrase, each word, was committed to memory. She relished in the way it made her feel, each new message fuel for the fire that burned in her belly. There were some that she could place, such as their first kiss, and their first fight, but others she could not. When had he composed them? Where had he been? What had he been doing, or thinking, or feeling, as he wrote to her? As he thought of her? She wanted to know. She wanted to know everything.

And still, there was more. He'd punched Alkor not out of stupid rage or petty jealousy, but to avenge her hurt feelings. He'd killed a respawning boss just because it meant something to him, and hell, it meant something to her too. He punished Dominic, and he dismissed his past, for her. Everything, for her. It was a miracle that her pounding heart didn't simply burst from her chest and roll across the scuffed wood floor.

"Bahr." His name was no more than a breath, a soft exhale on trembling lips, as she read the final message. 

And then she smiled. For the umpteenth time that day, he coaxed joy to the surface, setting her heart-shaped face aflame with it. But this time, there was something more to the expression; it was slightly whimsical, a bit dreamy, and more than a little tender. It was relief.

In one fluid movement, the woman eased herself out of the armchair. Four long strides carried her around the table, and to the front of the fireplace, where he'd stood to meet her. When she reached for him, as she'd done so many times before, her shawl slid like starry silk to pool at her feet. She did not stop to retrieve it, nor did she even notice it's absence. Instead, she stood on tiptoes in her worn black flats, her bare arms snaking around his neck. The woman hovered there for a moment, balanced against her best friend, her arms draped over his shoulders. But it wasn't until she'd finished fiddling with her messenger behind his head, and swiped the window around to his line of sight, that she finally clung to him. There she remained, her shaky breath warm against his neck, while he read.

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Archived

To: Bahr

Greetings! It is currently 7:25 am in the room decorated by someone's grandma. Seriously, this doll has been looking at me all morning. Anyway, I guess it's weird that I'm messaging you. You're sleeping right next to me. You're snoring a little. It's kind of cute. But yeah, I didn't really know any other way to get all my thoughts sorted out. I woke up this morning feeling like I was ready to burst, but you're not awake, so I can't tell you about it. Not that I would anyway. Let's be honest, I'm not actually going to send this to you, so I can just say whatever I want.

What I want to say is this - I'm sorry. I'm sorry for upsetting you yesterday. Honestly, I don't think I've ever been so sick to my stomach. I kind of wanted to throw up, just knowing I'd hurt you. And when I thought I'd made you leave - well, I didn't realize how much I needed you to stay. Because you mean the world to me. I'm sorry for that too, because it took me so long to figure it out. I need to do a better job of showing you how much you mean to me, and how important and amazing you are. I'll keep working on it for as long as you'll let me. I hope it's a really long time. I'm getting really, really attached. That's dumb to say, but it's just the truth. I don't know what I'd do if I was ever without you. I'm just not going to think about it, because it'll probably make me cry, and you'll think I'm a weirdo if you wake up to me gross sobbing or something.

And what the hell, you're never going to read this anyway. Last night you told me you wanted me. I want you too. Every part of you, the good and the bad. We saw each other at our worst last night, but we figured it out. I hope we can keep figuring it out together, because I think I might be falling for you. Or whatever. Sorry that sounds kind of stupid, but I mean it. I'm just feeling super mushy. Haha, I guess you just have that effect on me.

- Lessa

 

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Bahr watched as her wide blue eyes traced the contents of each message individually, carefully soaking in the information of one before passing her glance to the next. With each she read, her smile grew, casting its own light that the subtle luminescence of the screens paled in comparison to. Under ordinary circumstances, this bright glow would be enough to put Bahr at ease. But now, there was a linger anxiousness that he couldn't shake. It was the sharper half of the double edged sword; leaving himself vulnerable had been a relief, but so too did it inflict a nervousness.

"Bahr."

And then she stood. Strode slowly around the table toward him where he, too, tentatively stood in response. Allowed her shawl to slip from her shoulders and occupy the scuffed wood floor around their feet, before wrapping her slender appendages around his neck and balancing against him. Her eyes focused beyond, and he could feel the subtleties of the tendons in her arms as she fiddled with something. Still, he couldn't pry his eyes from her cerulean pools. That was, until she revealed what she had been working on behind his head, and rested hers against the nook between his shoulder and neck.

Much in the same fashion she had, his mismatched orbs trailed along the curves of each character as he committed the message in its entirety to memory. Each word read was like a step closer to enlightenment, punctuated by the touch of her soft skin and the heat of her breath against his collarbone. He willingly took these steps, one after another, further into utter elation. And when he'd finished, he would start it all over again, just to experience the sweet hormonal concoction it elicited. Oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and vasopressin whirling together into a palatable cocktail of pure bliss that set his every nerve on fire. 

So when he'd finally had his fill, he would dismiss the window. Lean back, gently tilt her chin upward. Meet his lips with hers, and pull her body impossibly close into his. He concentrated on the feeling of her frame pressed against his, the familiar aroma of lavender perfume, and the sweet taste of her lips on his. His heart throbbed in his ears as much as it did in his chest, banging against his eardrums like a mallet against a drum, becoming the only thing he could hear. Whether his every sense was filled with a blast of the same feelings from before, or Lessa herself, he couldn't tell.

He would hold them there, refusing to let go until the time felt right. Though, through the euphoria he was experiencing, time had become a distant and almost indecipherable construct. It felt like an eternity and the blink of an eye all at once; an experience that would be burned into his memory for as long as he drew breath, but left him wanting more. The perfect moment, however fleeting, in a world where they were scarcely experienced.

"So..." The word felt heavy and distant. As his senses gradually shifted from her and back to normalcy, things slowly came back into focus. "I'll assume that was a yes."

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She had hoped he would kiss her, and when his finger brushed her chin, butterflies wheeled in her stomach. Lessa's head tilted back slowly, smoothly, seamlessly meeting his lips with her own. It wasn't the first time he'd kissed her, not by a long shot. Yet the sensation had lost none of its shine. Her head was light, her heart was light, her entire body felt like it might drift away. Fortunately, he held her tightly, then pulled her closer still. For a fleeting moment, she thought her bones might break in his arms, but the hazy rationale of a woman mid-kiss figured that would be alright. There were worse ways to die.

How could she possibly grow tired of this? Those quick kisses she had swapped in high school couldn't hold a candle to what she experienced in the middle of that dark tavern. When he finally broke the connection, drawing back just a hairsbreadth, a soft hum of disappointment slipped past her tingling lips. Then his words registered, and a slow, lazy smile unfurled like smoke to light her flushed face. "Yeah," she replied slowly, eyes fluttering open to study his face. As the dreamy expression he wore perfectly mirrored her own, she added the next words on a soft laugh. "It's a yes. Of course it's a yes."

The urge to kiss him again swamped her, but Lessa resisted. She couldn't simply stand there kissing him all night. Or, perhaps she could, but it would be really uncomfortable for Alexander and his family. What were they doing, anyway? Just hanging out, waiting for the pair to stop making out and leave? The thought pushed Lessa's smile into a full grin, and her blue eyes gleamed as she gazed up at Bahr. Geeze, he's cute.

"So hey," she began, barreling forward before her courage left her. "It's getting pretty late. Would you be up for walking me home?"

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'Of course it's a yes.' He'd heard that right, hadn't he? Not like he needed to. Her body language told him everything he needed to know.

"Alyssa..."

"So hey. It's getting pretty late. Would you be up for walking me home?"

"Yeah. That sounds perfect."

When had he become so light? It almost felt as though he was levitating as they made their way out of the homely tavern, touched by the ethereal kiss of the clouds. Lessa's discarded shawl had been left behind, replaced by Bahr's jacket, draped over her shoulders to keep her warm as they took their time meandering through the streets of Snowfrost. The falling fractals of ivory, too, had a unique shimmer he hadn't noticed before. He felt the warmth in the streets more than the cold. Everything felt new; lighter, brighter, more detailed. He knew that everything about that night would be etched into his memory with perfect recall. There was no way he was letting a modicum of it escape.

He wouldn't let her walk alone, of course. Even a couple of feet between them felt like to much in that moment. He walked close, his palm against hers, fingers interlaced, keeping his strides short and slow as they gradually made their way to the teleport gate. When they finally arrived and were consequently deposited on the twenty-second floor, the air suddenly became more tepid. Warmer, certainly, and vibrating with an energy Bahr couldn't place his finger on. Or perhaps it was his own anticipation. It was difficult to tell for sure. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation, at any rate.

He knew the road to Manderly was long. It would be awkward to walk its entire length in silence. So he gently squeezed her hand as they traced the trail up the hill, back to the very same place they'd started the day's adventures. It felt like so long ago that they'd started, even if it was just earlier the same day. So much had happened. So much had changed.

Ah, so that's what was in the air. Change.

"I don't think I've been this happy in a long time," he admitted, abolishing the silence that had settled between them during their stroll. "Not even before Sword Art." He thought back to their first conversation at White Rabbit, where he had postulated that there unique moments and opportunities in the game that made the experience worth it on a certain level, despite its grim circumstances. There were things that neither of them ever would have experienced had they not gotten trapped in the game, such as meeting one another. Facing fierce monsters that almost stole their lives. Freeing people from the clutches of dictatorial cult leaders. Sharing their first kiss. Attending festivals together hosted by mystical apparitions. Holding philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, what constitutes it, and when it deserves to be respected as such. Sharing stories from their past beneath the impossibly clear canopy of night, where even neutron stars were visible and close enough that you swore you could reach out and touch them.

Back then, she had stuck to her guns. Being trapped in SAO was a horrible endeavor that had derailed her life entirely, and nothing that she gained here could possibly outweigh what she lost there. Though Bahr could see her point at the time, he couldn't help but shake the feeling that he'd found something within the game that had changed his life; awakened something that had laid dormant within him. He wasn't willing to let go of the idea that SAO had provided something very valuable and necessary, and even become a part of him to some extent. Especially now that he'd found her.

He wondered if her opinion had changed at all.

"Do you ever think about that conversation we had after we first started hanging out? It was right after the Lich," he began, nonchalant tone belying the uncertainty that rode just beneath the surface. "Back then, you seemed to wholeheartedly feel like being stuck in Aincrad was a purely negative experience. Even if you experienced things here that you couldn't hope to in the real world, you focused on the tragedy that was, and is, our reality. I've always wondered since we talked about that, whether or not you had started to see things a bit differently." They wouldn't have met if not for the circumstances of the game, after all. "Do you still feel the same as back then?"

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"I don't think I've been this happy in a long time. Not even before Sword Art."

The words carried tremendous weight, the notion apparent in the smile that burst across her face. It was easy, and perhaps even natural to separate the "before" and the "after." Being trapped in a virtual world slammed the door on one life, and began another, a fact everyone just somehow knew on a subconscious level. There were new best friends, new firsts, new hardships, and new habits. While she would go to the grave insisting Lessa and Alyssa were one and the same, she could see the disconnect. She could feel it. So if the joy she brought him had transcended that barrier... well, that was something remarkable.

"I'm really glad I could help bring about that happiness," she told him, and meant it. Somewhere down the line, his happiness had become her happiness. So many of her thoughts were for him - what he was doing, where he was, was he happy. He was. So was she. 

One hand held the heavy coat closed across her chest, and the other held his. As she spoke, she gave it a gentle squeeze, then let it swing easily between them with each step. "I'm really happy too. It's cheesy, but I'm not really sure how I made it through the last couple years without you."

She might have elaborated on that point, but his question caught her off-guard. "Oh," came her initial answer on a heavy sigh, followed by a soft hum of thought. Her gaze dropped to the road ahead, then lifted to study their surroundings. Fireflies blinked in and out of existence like twinkling stars in the night sky, weaving in and out of the foliage that whispered with the warm breeze. The actual stars burned even brighter, tossed across a dynamic canvas of planets and galaxies. These were not the stars in her astronomy textbook, and though Aincrad was stunning, there were days when she missed Mother Nature's creation.

At the same time her stomach turned, a vice tightened around her heart. How could she make him understand how she felt? Was it possible to do so without ruining a night too perfect for words? Is it worth the risk?

Of course it was. Being honest was worth it. He was worth it. So Lessa drew in a slow breath, and answered, "I remember that conversation. I told you I did enjoy meeting new people, so it wasn't all bad, but... yeah, I felt Aincrad was largely a mistake. It kept me from a life I really liked, and people I loved, and all of the opportunities I had ahead of me. I- well, there are still times that I feel that way. I want more than anything in the world to get out of here. It's a prison, and I hate it."

Her hand shifted in his, and her thumb began to absently stroke the side of his hand as they walked. "Is it all bad? No, it's not. Of course it's not, especially lately. But if I would have had the power to keep Kayaba from locking us all in, I'd have used it. There are a lot of people who would still be alive today."

Lessa slowed to a halt, then turned to him. The light of the waning moon bathed them both in silver light, softening Bahr's sharp features. She hoped it might soften any blow her words might deliver, too. "I'm really sorry. I know that's probably not the answer you were hoping for. But if it matters at all, I like to think we'd have found each other in the real world. Maybe ended up in the same lobby in a game, or met each other on a forum, or something. I really do think we're-" soulmates? "- a good fit. Maybe we were meant to find each other, and it just happened to be here."

The woman gazed up at her companion, eyes wide and searching for any clue as to his thoughts. Their relationship was so new, so fresh, so vulnerable. She hoped she hadn't just thrown it all away.

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In the end, she was right. Countless lives had been lost in the midst of this catastrophe, and it would be selfish to value what they had over that. Diabolical, even. Perhaps Bahr was just trying to rationalize what he considered to be a gift in all of this madness. There was a part of him that felt guilty for doing so, but he almost couldn't help it. Nothing in his life had ever felt so right. Fit so well. There had to have been a reason that, in the middle of all of this darkness, he'd found a light. That they both had. There was something to that he just couldn't ignore.

"But if it matters at all, I like to think we'd have found each other in the real world. Maybe ended up in the same lobby in a game, or met each other on a forum, or something. I really do think we're - a good fit. Maybe we were meant to find each other, and it just happened to be here."

Bahr had never really been the sort to believe in things like that. Destiny. It was a word that never sat well with him. He had always felt like it implied that his choices - and the choices of others - had no bearing on the grand plan put forth by 'fate,' 'God,' the universe, or whatever other way people chose to rationalize their existence. Bahr understood that there were things and forces that were beyond his control, but he hated the idea of surrendering his will to the whims of some Great Magnet that made all the decisions of his life for him. He'd always liked the idea that, with conscientiousness, perseverance, and determination, he could blaze his own path and select his own fate. If he were to deny that, then what was the point in all of this?

But he couldn't deny that he felt it, too. An indomitable attraction. Maybe one that could even transcend his own choices. He, too, felt like they were meant to meet one another. 

He felt her eyes on him. Tracing his features, looking for a sign. He wasn't sure what he was feeling in that moment, other than an intense desire to put her at ease. So he smiled. Pulled her closer, did his best to reassure her. "There's no need to apologize. I'm happy you're being honest about it," he responded truthfully, keeping his eyes on the dimly lit path. "You're right, anyways. Too many people have been lost. I'm just being a bit selfish, is all." There was a beat of silence, and then, "And we were meant to find each other. That much, I know."

A warm glow began to gradually light the dark path before them, shreds of light cast through the leaves of the trees ahead cascading toward them. He recognized them as telltale signs that Manderly was close. Right where they'd left it. Briefly, Bahr felt a compulsion to challenge Lessa to another race, and dash forward with the playful enthusiasm he'd displayed his first time visiting. But that would mean separating himself from her, and he didn't want to do that.

So instead he kept his arm around her, and maintained the steady pace they'd had the entire trek back. "Bringing me back to your place after the first date, huh? How scandalous," he teased, the grin we wore heard in his voice. "Can't say I can blame you, though. It was a pretty magical first date, after all. Just the first of many." His mismatched eyes flickered to hers. "You get to plan the next one, though."

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“And we were meant to find each other. That much, I know."

Lessa’s heart tripped, and she ducked her head to hide the grin that exploded with his words. The affirmation that he provided was something she hadn’t even known she needed. It was one thing to decide they were destined to meet, but it was another entirely for him to confirm it. Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all? Or she was, and so was he. Oh well - he was wonderful company.

Childish charm turned to flushed embarrassment when Bahr spoke again. “Listen,” she began hurriedly, but when she glanced up into his laughing eyes, her own expression relaxed; he was teasing, of course. After a few seconds, her smile mirrored his. “I don’t know what kind of girls you usually take out, but I’m not like that.” She snaked her arm around his waist, tugged him closer. “Sorry to disappoint, but I just didn’t want to make the long walk home by myself.” Her voice softened as she added, “I also really enjoy spending time with you. Everything is a lot better with you around.”

Before Aincrad, Alyssa had never struggled with her sense of worth. Raised by two incredibly strong people, she’d known how important she was even without a boyfriend to confirm it. But just as Sword Art Online had changed everything, it had seriously skewed her perception of herself. Because she’d felt best with Alkor, Lessa had convinced herself she needed him to survive. When he’d died, so had she. Though she had eventually recovered, her exterior had grown too hard; various players had attempted to scale her walls, but she’d resisted. Even Baldur, who she’d considered her closest friend, had been held at arms length. Like a pendulum, she’d swung from one extreme to another - from living for someone to needing no one. 

So where did that leave her? Lessa’s hand tightened against Bahr’s side, fisting a bit of the shirt’s smooth fabric. It was a possessive gesture, but it helped ground her as she focused on his next statement. “One of many,” she confirmed with a small nod. “And sure, I’ve got the next one. I promise that only...” Her voice trailed as she pretended to do a bit of mental math. “... half of the dates will involve horses.” With a wink, she amended, “Maybe sixty percent. But no more than seventy.”

They’d reached the front porch. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Lessa and Bahr had reached the finish line of a race she never wanted to finish. Her gaze flicked to the front door, her smile faltering as she recalled leaving it that morning. Was she ready to let a day so perfect draw to a close?

”Alright, look,” she began, turning into him and drilling her finger into his broad chest. “No funny business, but, uh-“ Lessa’s weight shifted from one foot to the other. “If you want to come in for something to drink, you can. I’ve got pop, hot chocolate, water....uh, milk.”  Who needed a nightcap when they could have milk? Who even drank milk before bed? Babies excluded. She offered him a shrug and a crooked smile. “You can have whatever I’ve got.”

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