Only One Worth Kissing
Copyright © Emmi Lawrence
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.
Serial: Part 2 of 2 (Approx. 4200 of 8600)
“Is something wrong?” asked Harmony in greeting as her brother advanced on them.
“Wrong?” said Cantin, his voice loud, shattering the mood. He looked straight at Derik, all but ignoring Harmony’s presence. “You must have something wrong with you. I told you to back off!”
Derik put his hands up and stepped back unconsciously as Cantin advanced. “I know, but don’t you think it’s her decision?”
“What are you talking about? Cantin, stop.” Harmony scrambled to get her second boot on.
Cantin didn’t stop. Continuing to advance on Derik and Derik continuing to fall back, trying to keep some sort of space between them. “And you touched her! You’re a pig, Derik. Thinking with your cock. If you really cared about her, you’d know there are better men for her to end up with. Men who might actually go somewhere with their lives.”
“Cantin!” shouted Harmony. “That’s none of your business!” Her boot was on now and she chased them toward the pond.
“See,” said Derik a little desperately. “Maybe I’m not the best, but she likes me regardless that you don’t.”
“Did you manipulate her? Did you force her into sex with you.”
Surprised, Derik stopped short. “What? Of course not!” Anger now coursed through his veins, giving him all the power he needed to shout back. “I would never hurt Harmony.”
The anger didn’t give him better reflexes though, so when Cantin’s fist came out of nowhere, Derik only managed to turn far enough away that it clipped his cheek instead of hitting him full force. He stumbled against the bank of the pond, grass crunching under his feet, the wet soil sucking at his boots.
“Get off him!”
Derik turned to face Cantin again, knees bent and ready to dodge, but Harmony had flung herself between them, her whole body vibrating with fury.
“Don’t touch him again,” she snapped. “I don’t care what you think, it’s not your place.”
“I’m in charge of the family, Harm, now get out of the way.” He pushed at her lightly, but she shoved his hand away.
“Not if you’re just going to swing at him again.”
“Harm—” Cantin broke off threateningly, but his eyes were on Derik, not Harmony.
“Harmony,” said Derik softly, touching her side with a hand. His head hurt, but it wasn’t bad. He doubted he’d even have much of a bruise, if any. The anger was still there though, burning hotter when Cantin had tried to push her. “Don’t touch her again.”
“Me?” raged Cantin. “You’re the one who keeps fucking with her mind. And now you’re fucking her as well!”
“Cantin!” Harmony surged forward, the palm of her hand landing on the center of Cantin’s chest. “No one’s manipulating anyone. He’s not after the family’s money.”
“Bullshit,” snapped Cantin. “Someone came into town talking about how he’d been looking for Rallisa Gaorilho so that he could try to marry into an even larger fortune.”
Derik sucked in a horrified breath. “I didn’t—” But technically, he had. He hadn’t been truly serious though. If he had found Rallisa he had no clue what he would have done. Not ask to marry her though, that was for sure.
Hells, if he’d been serious about finding the Gaorilho woman he wouldn’t have asked Harmony to come with him so he could spend time with her away from eyes and wagging tongues.
“Please,” scoffed Harmony. “He’s not like that.”
“Isn’t he?” demanded Cantin, eyes finally on Harmony. “You don’t think all that flirting was real, do you? He’s manipulating you, Harm, and you’re letting him.”
“No—” Derik choked on his words, having trouble forming a defense that wouldn’t make him sound like a liar. He met her eyes as she looked over her shoulder. “Harmony, that’s not true. All of it was real, everything.” He tried to show her how much she meant to him. Put everything he felt out there, let it hang in the open so she could read it on his face, see it in his eyes. “Harmony…”
Cantin leaned over the hand Harmony still had pressed to his chest. “Don’t listen to him, Harm. It’s a farce. Derik’s only ever nice to people to get what he wants. He’s just a façade.”
“That’s not true,” Derik protested, but he couldn’t look away from Harmony, horrified at the shred of doubt he could see there and desperate to do anything to remove it. “You know me, Harmony. You know what I’m like. I’m not cruel. I might be selfish sometimes and I’ve been told I can be…inconsiderate, but I’m not cruel and I’d never hurt you, not on purpose, never on purpose. You know me,” he said again, putting every ounce of feeling he could in the words.
When Cantin make a disbelieving sound, Harmony’s gaze flicked back to him, leaving Derik feeling adrift, his heart sinking as the doubt only grew on her face.
“Cantin, what makes you think that?”
Before Derik could stop himself, his mouth was already running, doing what it did best in shitty circumstances. “Because he’s an asshole who wasn’t good enough for the last girl he wanted. Didn’t she leave you for some guy who makes three times as much as you and owns a house in the city?”
Shock rippled over Cantin’s face, quickly replaced by absolute rage. Derik had time to draw breath and start to dodge out of the way before Cantin had flung Harmony aside and thrown another punch. It caught Derik in the shoulder, sending him spinning. As he turned he saw Harmony stagger, heard her surprised scream and watched her expression go from confused to terrified as she tipped over backwards.
Vaguely conscious that Cantin was pulling back his arm to swing again, Derik lunged forward, catching Cantin hard in the chest with his shoulder as he stretched out a hand.
“Harmon—” He gasped, his voice cutting out as his fingers grazed her sleeve. “No!”
As she splashed into the pool, her body fogged out and disappeared. Derik didn’t react, didn’t even blink, as droplets rained against his face. He landed hard on his knees, the soggy ground seeping in through his pants as the drops tracked their way down his cheeks. Like tears.
“No,” he said again. His voice sounded too high, too far away.
The ripples in the water bounced off one another, folding into the bank and disappearing. Within moments, the surface stilled. No evidence that Harmony had ever existed, let alone been in his arms less than an hour ago.
As the first stages of shock began to clear, he caught sight of a brown lump on the bank, its throat expanding as a loud riibbbiit echoed in Derik’s ears. His limbs went from numb to over-energized and before he knew what he was doing, he’d lurched off his knees and grabbed the frog, pressing his lips to its back. When the fog cleared, a youngish woman with expensive jewelry intricately braided through two braids, stood before him. Big amber eyes blinked owlishly.
Not Harmony. He turned away without a word and scooped up the next frog. Behind him, the woman made a soft, disturbed sound as he kissed another frog. This one turned into an older man with a cheerful countenance, but Derik just turned away from him as well.
He kept moving, ignoring the questions raised behind him. His breath came fast and his vision focused, tunneling once or twice as he stooped to catch a new frog. He left a trail in his wake. People, whose voices grated on his ears until he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Standing straight, he spun, snarling as he snapped at one of the men who’d materialized. “Shut up! If you’re not going to help, then get away from the pool.”
“Help?” asked one of the men.
“Excuse me,” said the first woman who’d materialized. “My name is Rallisa, of the Gaorilho House. I can pay if you’d guide me back to—”
“Do you people not listen! I said get away from the pool!” He shoved at the man who’d spoken and scooped up the frog that had hopped from the water. “You idiot! You almost stepped on it. Get away from the pool!” As he finished speaking, he kissed the frog, turning away before the fog had fully disappeared because he could already tell it wasn’t her.
A hand landed on his shoulder. “Derik. Derik, stop.”
Fury. White, blazing, blinding fury pulsed through him. He’d landed two punches on Cantin before the other man could get his defenses up. That didn’t stop him though. Derik’s arms kept moving, his fists closed tight and his wrists held steady as he landed blow after blow on Cantin’s forearms and shoulders.
Somewhere, he was aware of shouting, some telling him to stop, some incoherent as people moved away from him. His own voice had joined the cacophony.
“Stop? You want me to stop? You threw her into the pool! How can you say you care about her when you don’t even want to help save her!”
He stumbled as Cantin dropped to his knees. Almost fell on top of the other man, managing to stay on his feet by pulling back his punch. Something, maybe Cantin’s sudden lack of desire to fight back or maybe numb exhaustion, caused Derik to wind down, his voice losing strength, the anger fleeing as the realization that Harmony was truly gone ate through his mind.
“She’s…she’s a frog, Cantin. You turned her…you turned her into a frog. Help me…” He glanced around, then turned back to the water, eyes already scanning for the next frog. He kissed it and turned away as the fog blew away. “Why aren’t you helping?” He demanded.
The woman who’d materialized must have thought he was addressing her because she gave him a puzzled expression and asked, “Helping with what?”
Derik ignored her as he kissed another frog, grinding his teeth when that frog ended up being some young man in fifty-year old Imperial garb. He didn’t have the desire to berate the man for being on the wrong side of the war though. As he stepped around the water, he paused and looked expectantly to Cantin.
Still on his knees, a trickle of blood on his chin from where the first of Derik’s punches had split his lip, Cantin stared at the pool, seemingly oblivious to anyone else. When he answered, his voice sounded dead. “She’s in the middle of the pool, Derik. You’re never going to find her.”
“I’m going to fucking try!” shouted Derik. “Instead of sitting there like an incompetent idiot. If you cared you’d be helping.”
Cantin lifted his gaze. “We need a net.” He nodded and repeated himself. “We need a net.” He pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to get one. We’ll get her out, we’ll get her back. Don’t leave her,” he commanded, an edge of that older brother coming back into his tone.
Derik narrowed his eyes. “I won’t,” he said in a low, dangerous voice, one he’d never have dared use on Cantin before. “I’m not the one who pushed her in.”
Cantin had the decency to blanch, but still he insisted, “Just don’t leave her,” before turning to weave his way through the confused people still milling about the pool.
Derik had the perverse thought—that probably only proved just how inconsiderate he was—that he hoped Cantin fell through the Acid Slide on his way back to town. Harmony wouldn’t have approved. She might have given him a light shove and tsked at him. But she’d have done it with a smile and a shake of her head that told him she wasn’t truly mad, that she knew he wasn’t as mean as his outbursts might seem to a stranger. That they only covered up fear and nerves and an inability to tap into his empathetic reserves.
His hands shook as he chased after the frogs and he was conscious that he probably hurt more than one as he pressed his lips against them one after another. People came and went. Their murmured, irritating conversations buzzed at his ears worse than the insects. The random drops of rain had him jumping at ripples, thinking he was seeing Harmony poking her head up above the surface. The gray of the sky darkened considerably, the far off roll of thunder telling him that it was conceivable he’d be out here in the pouring rain in the middle of the night. A minor issue, his mind supplied.
As the people came into being, filling up the grass and spilling into the tree line, they ceased trying to speak with him when it became apparent he had no intention of answering. He ignored them all unless they stepped too close to one of the frogs. Someone laughed, the sound deep and wry, causing Derik to send a scathing glare at the man. He caught sight of the Imperial soldier looking out of place and extremely disturbed by his surroundings, but didn’t have any empathy to share.
His world became crowded. Too crowded. Every frog seemed to croak directly into his ear. Telling him he was searching for someone who was already lost to him. Every murmur of human voices had him ready to yell.
Then, as the grayness of the sky settled into a deep purple, only the frail glint of light to the west showing any inkling that the sun hadn’t quite set, he staggered to a halt. The wetlands stretched far and wide around him, but the brown smudges of wet frog no longer riddled the edges of the pool. He cast about, searching for another, but the only ones he could see were the dark heads poking from the surface of the water.
“Excuse me,” said a female voice.
He blinked away sweat, shocked at how chilly it’d become. Turned toward the voice in a daze.
The woman with the diamonds strung through her braids tilted her head in expectation. “Your name is Derik, correct?”
He stared at her, his mind a million miles away replaying the first kiss Harmony had planted against his lips.
“Derik, we—” And here she indicated all the people filling the area under the trees. “—are curious whether you can give us directions. A few people seemed to have known their way home, but I’d feel safer if someone a little more…shall we say, oriented, could tell us the way back while there’s still light.”
Derik looked past her at all the expectant faces. A hodge-podge mess of people who had little in common but a misfortune to have fallen into a pool leftover from a witch’s trap.
The woman laid her hand against his arm, the touch obviously meant to be comforting, but failing in that because she couldn’t commit to the touch wholeheartedly, her palm barely touching him, her arm held stiff. “I can assure you of reward, Derik.” She said his name coaxingly. Not seductively, just…as if she was negotiating something.
“You’re Rallisa,” he stated.
She inclined her head. “Yes. Of Gaorilho. My word is good.”
“It is,” he agreed quietly. He stepped back, effectively removing her hand and then pointed at the lightest part of the sky. “That way. Follow the tree line. Skirt the water. When it ends, go northwest around the wetlands. South would take you straight into the worst part of the Addled Bog. You should be able to see the town after that.”
Rallisa followed his fingers and nodded at his instructions. “Thank you, Derik. Be assured, I will reward you for helping us all.”
He waved a hand in dismissal as he scoured the edge of the water for a frog close enough to grab.
She hesitated, then said, “If there’s anything I can do to help—”
“Hey!” He bent and grabbed a hunk of dirt, his heart thudding painfully hard as the crane he’d seen lifted its beak from the water on the opposite bank. “Get away from here!” He lobbed the mud as hard as he could. The crane pulled its head back and spread its wings. “Get. Away!” He ran along the edge, stooping to grab handfuls of peat to throw at the bird as it lifted off. He caught it in the wing, causing it to dip before it flapped enough to get some height.
As he slowed to a stop near where the crane had been standing in the tall grasses, his chest heaved and insides churned at the thought of Harmony being a made a meal. By probably the same crane from earlier, no less.
He scrubbed at his forehead, then his temples, pretending he didn’t notice the glances sent his way as the people began to file westward through the trees. With a tired, frustrated groan, Derik fell to his knees. He watched as the insects grew in number, occasionally waving a hand to steer them from his face. The grasses bent in the wind. Wind that cut right through his shirt and made him shiver. The raindrops became more frequent, landing like cold snaps against his face. The far off thunder rolled gently in the distance, any lightning hidden by the thick cloud cover.
When the people were long gone and the pool sitting quiet but for the random thick plops of raindrops, Derik let out a shuddering breath. He should head back. The Addled Bog, while not so dangerous during the day, became a death trap at night. He couldn’t bring himself to care though. Because leaving felt like giving up. As if he were admitting to himself that Harmony was gone for good.
The blackness of the water shifted as the frogs swam. One of them perched upon a thick piece of mud rising out of the center of the pool. Brown algae grew under its hind legs and stretched into the water in a loose, broken ring. It seemed to be staring at him, its head held steady and straight, its throat silent.
“Harmony?” asked Derik.
The frog didn’t move. Why would it? It was a frog. Saturated with liquid meant to steal away a person’s being, let it lie dormant while an animal brain took over. The witches during the war had been just as callous as the illusionists on the opposing side.
He sank back on his heels, defeated and tired. “Harmony,” he said again. “If you’re in there, if you can possibly understand any of this…I’m sorry I was a coward. I’m sorry it took this long to show you that I wanted you. I’m sorry if I hurt you with all my…” He took a breath, letting it out in a sigh as he continued speaking softly. “If I hurt you with my inability to…”
The pond lay quiet and unconcerned. Uncaring of his words or if he ever finished them. The frog near the center of the pool gave a croak and then disappeared into the water. Insects touched down on the surface, hundreds of tiny ripples fading into the darkness. The light dimmed, his eyes adjusting to the muted glow of a moon struggling to be seen.
“I love you, Harmony,” he whispered. “I have for a long time. Just too scared to admit it.” Too scared. Not of Cantin, though he’d been a part of it. Mostly of her, of what she would say, whether she would want him.
He ran his fingers over his calluses, feeling them in the dark, remembering what it had felt like to have these hands running over her body. Feeling her mold to him.
When he saw the bobbing light a moment later, he almost laughed, holding it down because he didn’t want Cantin to hear his hysteria. The yellow light shifted from a bouncing glow to a more pronounced lantern as Cantin approached.
“Here,” he said quietly.
Cantin swung around, the lantern squeaking as it rocked. “I’ve got a net.” He picked his way over to where Derik knelt in the tall grass and handed the net over. “You fish her out, I’ll hold the light.”
“Still so bossy,” he muttered as he stood, hefting the net. “You going to be this bossy when she’s back with us.”
When Cantin didn’t answer, Derik looked at him. A strange expression had fixed itself upon Cantin’s face, something midway between irritation and resignation. “I’ll butt out,” he said in a firm voice. “But if you hurt her, I swear I will drag you through the Addled Bog, chop you up into pieces and let the bugs feast on your remains.”
Derik smiled gamely, finding something to be happy about in this dreadful situation. “I’d expect no less.” Then he stepped forward and dipped the net into the pool, searching for the frogs.
The net came up empty, time and time again. Nothing but the drip-drip of water slipping off the metal and hemp. Until he leaned further and grazed right past the thick sprout of mud jutting up in the center of the pool. When he lifted the net again, a frog sat caught in the netting, kicking its legs in a vain attempt to escape.
“Don’t hurt her,” warned Cantin.
“It might not be her.” But Derik took great care in untangling the frog from the net before he lifted it to his mouth to plant yet another kiss on wet skin.
This time when the fog spread through his fingertips and puffed up against the bank, it looked eerie and dark, the shadows cast from the lantern making it seem ethereal instead of real. The shape only served to cement that impression, as if she was still far beyond his reach. Unattainable.
Then the moment passed, the fog blew away and he was throwing his arms about a confused Harmony before she could even open her mouth. He buried his face into her neck, controlling a sob of relief. Then he held her face between his hands, kissing her. Against her lips, across her cheeks, planting kiss after kiss upon her skin as affirmation that she was here, she was back, she was real and he wasn’t going to spend the next fifty years of his life wondering whether she had been eaten or whether she’d one day be herself again.
He was vaguely aware that Cantin had thrown his arm around Harmony’s shoulders as Harmony ran her hands along his arms as if to calm him down. He just gave her another kiss, this one deeper, his tongue sweeping into her mouth to dance with hers to prove to himself that he hadn’t lost her as thoroughly as he’d thought.
“Derik.” Harmony gasped as she pulled free from his kiss. “What’s going on?”
“You were a frog,” muttered Cantin. “Come on, we need to get back. I don’t want to be out here all night.”
Derik laughed and kissed Harmony again. “I love you, you know that right? I love you.”
Harmony’s hands slowed to a stop, her face orange from the glow of the lantern and her blue eyes sparkling so darkly they almost seemed black. “I didn’t.”
“I do,” said Derik. “I love you.”
“Idiot stayed out here kissing frogs until he found you. He better love you. You can talk about it when we get back. Come on,” said Cantin. He tugged on Harmony’s elbow, but lightly, as if the insistence in his voice wasn’t matched with the way he felt.
Derik didn’t care regardless. He just swept Harmony back into his arms and clutched her so tightly she gave a omph as the air expelled from her lungs. He laughed and relaxed his hold slightly, but didn’t apologize and didn’t let go.
“Well,” said Harmony, her voice still strained from his hold. “I love you too, Derik.”
It took Cantin a few more attempts before he got them both moving in the right direction—away from the Frog Pool. Derik refused to let go of Harmony’s hand and she seemed perfectly happy about that, her thumb stroking the back of his as they walked, and that made his heart do a flip and his cock give a pulse that he’d have been following through on had her brother not been with them.
“I meant it,” he whispered to her when they’d fallen behind Cantin.
She squeezed his hand and whispered back, “I meant it too. Thanks for not leaving me a frog.”
“I was tempted, I admit,” he lied. Then he winked. “But then I realized you were the only one worth kissing.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” muttered Cantin. “The two of you are vomit-worthy. I hope you’re happy together.”
“Thank you,” said Harmony sincerely, her smile cheerful and unaffected.
“Thank you,” repeated Derik, knowing his own tone had a thick dose of sarcasm.
Cantin tossed a narrowed glance over his shoulder, his suspicion obvious. “You just remember what I warned you.”
As the raindrops became more frequent, Derik dragged Harmony closer and kissed her temple. “Don’t worry. I will.”