Damien finished a day's work in the forge before going over to Ashlyn's house in the early evening. He refused to admit that he felt shaken and nervous. Still, he wanted to honor his agreement to meet with her. He knocked on the door and was a bit surprised that Ashlyn had answered it so quickly. She was dressed for an outing, and her face flushed as she stepped onto the deck.
"I'm ready to go," she said, moving down the steps and onto the grass.
"Ash..." Damien paused, feeling his chest go tight. "I-- We don't have to leave here if you don't want to. You're probably busy with other things, I understand."
"No." She looked down. "I'm not busy. It's a beautiful day to go to the river. There's a spot I want to show you."
That gave him a bit of relief. "Alright. Let's go."
Damien was grateful that Ashlyn took the lead whenever they traversed the woods. For all his years living in Gumber, Ashlyn clearly knew the woods better. She was familiar with all the bends and twists in the paths. Once they arrived at her favorite spot along the river, Ashlyn took off her shoes and tied up the hem of her dress.
"Come on," she pulled him toward the riverbed. "It's over here."
"Just give me a moment," he said, removing his shoes and shirt. He followed her into the riverbed and splashed water on himself to adjust to the temperature. It was nicely cool for a spring day. "So, where is this spot you like so much?"
"Over here," she said, leading him downstream.
They came to a gentle waterfall. An idyllic surrounding of rocks and boulders accented the fall with grandeur. When the light hit them, their surfaces sparkled against the dripping water. At the base of the fall was a sizable boulder, most suitable for sitting. Here the tide was well-raised and the current was thick at the bottom.
"Be careful," Ashlyn warned, watching the slippery ground as she moved. She climbed up onto the boulder and sat with her legs curved to the side, facing the scenic fall. Damien joined her there, his shoulder brushing up against hers. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"I'll admit this is...interesting." Damien smiled. "A bit more than I expected."
"Well, I know you don't find much pleasure in gathering river stones like I do."
"Not particularly, no."
"If only you could see it at night," she said, gesturing to the fall. "Sometimes I just sit here and watch the dragonflies come out."
"You spend a lot of time out here, don't you?"
"As often as I can, yes. I don't think I've ever brought anyone else."
"So, why me?"
"Because I'm tired of enjoying these moments by myself," she said, craning her head to face him.
The soft color of her lips teased him. It took a great amount of restraint to not lean in and kiss them. Before his imagination got the better of him, he blinked back into focus.
"What do you want to do?" he asked, hoping her answer would be something that involved getting off this rock. But instead, Ashlyn rested her head against him. It was striking the way her body perfectly fit into his side. Her curves were much softer than he imagined they would be. Instinctively, his arm wrapped around her, and he felt her warm fingers weaving into his.
Ashlyn breathed out calmly, content to say nothing.
"Uh." Damien already felt too nervous. He wanted to stay, to hold her close, but his fears chipped at his mind. What if he couldn't offer what she wanted? What if her feelings were different than his own? Too many questions stirred, making him doubt.
"This is nice," Ashlyn said after a long while. She leaned in, stretching her neck to meet his lips.
Damien pulled away, unclasping his hand from hers. "Uh, I-- I'm sorry. I can't do this."
Ashlyn frowned while giving him more room. "No, I'm sorry," she said. "Perhaps I misread the situation."
Damien rubbed his forehead, silently cursing at himself. "You're not misreading anything, I'm just-- Argh, I'm stupid!"
"No," she said gently. "Don't say that."
"I shouldn't have invited you here."
Her face fell. "I wouldn't have come if I didn't want to. I like you, Damien."
"That makes one of us," he said.
Climbing off the boulder, he trudged upstream to gain some distance. It gave him a bit of relief to put a good amount of space between him and Ashlyn. He could think clearly, listening to the thrumming drive of the river as it beat against his ankles. At the same time, he wished to be close to her. Just not too close.
"Oh, stupid!" He cursed at himself again, picking up a stone and chucking it across the width of the river.
"Are you alright?" Ashlyn called to him from downstream.
"I just...hate myself!"
"Why do you hate yourself?"
"Gah." He brushed his frustration away and headed further upstream. Once he was out of ear shot, he stopped at another giant boulder and leaned against it. Folding his arms, he thought of how today might have gone differently if he hadn't allowed so many doubts into his head. "What is wrong with you?" He wiped his brow. "Why is it so hard to--"
His ears picked up an odd sound. Damien peeked out from his solace to investigate. "Ash?" he called, hopping back downstream to check on her.
She wasn't sitting where he had left her.
"Ash?" Damien trudged further, looking for any sign of her near the fall. Then a scary thought occurred to him. "Oh, no."
His feet carried him swiftly down the river as he chased. The current wrestled with him, threatening to take him along with it. Rather than succumbing to its will, he pushed on, crashing along rocks and stones that left bruises on his legs.
He stumbled downstream until he spotted Ashlyn gripping a deeply rooted boulder. Her body was helpless against the current as she hung on. Her fingers were slowly slipping.
A few meters downward there was another waterfall, but this fall did not look as gentle as the one further up. This fall was heavily laid with rocks and much steeper.
"Ash!" Damien shouted to get her attention. "Hang on, I'll be there!"
He heard her screams above the roaring river, making him push faster. When he got to her, he jumped onto the rock which she clung to and took her arm. "I got you," he said, pulling her toward him. "Let go."
When she let go, however, his own feet slipped. He couldn't recover his balance in time. Damien fell forward, splashing into the riverbed with Ashlyn. As the current carried them downstream, their bodies rolled over the edged rocks.
The waterfall was approaching, and there was little time. Desperate, Damien swam toward a tree that sat along the bank. "Over here!" he signaled Ashlyn to do the same. He clashed against the current at an angle and reached for the lowest branch. After a few tries, he caught onto it and turned to see Ashlyn struggling.
"Here." He reached out with his free arm. When Ashlyn gripped it, he locked his fingers around her wrist and pulled. "Urrg..." his teeth clenched as he reeled her from the stream and onto the bank.
Ashlyn coughed out water once her hands gripped the dry land. "Damien!" She panicked as Damien struggled to get to safety. She stretched out, trying to grab hold of him but he was just beyond her reach. Ashlyn couldn't risk falling in again. "I don't know what to do!" she cried.
Damien hoisted himself to the next branch above him, his feet now dangling above the water. After creating some momentum, he swung onto the bank, landing a few inches beside her. His body thud against the ground, all wet and dripping.
"Oh, goodness," Ashlyn rasped, letting herself retire on the damp grass. Her legs curled in as she rolled onto her side. Her eyes grew wet with tears. "I'm sorry."
Once Damien recovered himself, he moved into a sit. "Why are you sorry?" he asked, confused.
"I was chasing you," she said timidly, more tears running down her cheeks. "Before I slipped."
Ashlyn expected his reaction to be condescending, but instead she found him staring at her with tenderness and humility. He moved closer to her, holding his arms out. "Come here, Ash."
Ashlyn turned sheepish. "Why?"
"Just come here," he said, more gently this time.
Ashlyn was grateful for his warmth as she sat in his lap. His arms covered her, clasping her tight. It was what she needed, to be still against him. She felt his chin crowning the top of her head and smiled. "I was...so scared," she confessed after a while. "I've always had good footing. Until now."
"I know," he said, turning her chin to see her eyes. "I wouldn't have let you fall."
Her breath stopped when Damien bent his head and kissed her. It was a simple kiss, yet it carried the weight of a thousand. When he pulled away, she gripped the back of his neck and pulled him in again to steal another. After a moment, she laughed against his lips.
"What?" he asked, sharing her smile.
"You," she said.
"I don't understand."
"You don't need to." She closed her eyes, kissing him again.
Ashlyn laid back, resting her head on the grass. She guided Damien down to meet her lips again. His chest brushed up against hers as they feasted on each other.