Into The Briars

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Part 2: Briar King

“Wuh th’hell are yah doin’?”

Piper whipped around at the voice, ready to start swinging even as her heart froze in terror.

The man standing roughly four feet from her was definitely not Aaron or one of his goons, but that only made her relax slightly.

He was tall - over six feet for sure, since even at this distance she had to tilt her head back to look at him straight on - with broad shoulders and a long, almost lanky frame. His hair was pitch black - short and choppy, semi-spiked - and harsh eyebrows were drawn low over startlingly blue eyes, cold and steely as he stared at her. There were long, white scars on his face - two on his chin (running through perma-stubble), one over his lips, on his cheeks, another crossing his left eyebrow - and she could see several on the bare parts of his arms, to, marring the tattoo sleeves covering the skin, vines and thorns and tribal designs peeking out from under the rolled up arms of his leather jacket, also visible above the neckline of the white shirt he wore beneath the jacket.

Ragged jeans, biker boots, black belt and a black leather cord with what looked like an amber pendent around his neck completed the ‘bad boy’ look he had going on.

His scowl deepened, and Piped realized she had been staring, fighting back a blush of embarrassment as she returned his scowl with a sneer of her own.

“What’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Tryin’ta kill yerself.” tall-dark-and-brooding growled back, words tinged with a clear Scottish-accent that she would have appreciated if not for the obvious distaste lacing his voice, “How th’hell d’you expect t’get somethin’ that heavy inta th’house yerself?”

“I’ll figure it out.” Piper sniped back, clenching and unclenching her fists, “Why do you care, anyways? Where the heck did you come from?”

“I generally try’ta keep my neighbours in one piece. I was comin’ ta check out who was in th’house.”

“And why would you do that?”

“Cause ahve been lookin’ after it fer years. Yer mother didnae tell yah?”

Piper’s retort died on her lips, eyes going wide in surprise. Wait. Neighbour. This was the neighbour down the road, the only other person on this street? The person her mother had written about in her letter, the one looking after the house?

Piper squinted, peering at him more closely, lips pursed. He did look very vaguely familiar, like she’d met him once or twice as a child or something. And she probably had, if what he was saying was true.

“Who are you?” she questioned suspiciously, examining him more closely, noticing the wide flare of his nose, the sharp line of his jaw, the slight point to his ears - that was the only strange thing though, he looked human, please God be human...

“Briar King.” the man grunted, arms crossing.

“Briar?”

“Nickname.” ‘Briar’ motioned to his arms with a vague flick of his wrist, “’Cause o’the tats.”

“What’s your actual name?” she felt like she should know it, but drew a blank when she tried to think of it.

“Y’don’t remember?”

“No. What is it?”

Briar stared at her for a moment, blue eyes calculating, “Yer Piper, yeah? The eldest kid?”

The fact that he remembered her unnerved her slightly, eyes shifting to a murky brown, “Yeah, I’m Piper. Grace is the brunette.”

“Y’look like yer mum.” he atoned, “S’why I recognized you. I half thought y’were her, at first; she’s th’only one that’s been around in years.”

Piper’s heart thumped painfully at the confirmation that her mother had been coming to the house all those times she’d gone away. “Yeah, no, it’s just me. Needed... an escape, for a while.”

“Where’s yer mum? I haven’t seen’er in almost a year.”

“What’s your name?” Piper blurted, hoping to surprise him into dropping the topic.

It seemed to work, because Briar lifted his eyebrows and gave a smug little smirk that was both annoying as hell and strangely alluring, “Ah’ll let ye remember it yerself, Piper. Now, I repeat; wha th’hell‘re you doin with that punchin’ bag?”

"Trying to get it into the house so I can set it up.” hands planted on her hips, she lifted an eyebrow, eyes flashing amber in the mid-afternoon sun, “And since you think I’m going to kill myself doing it, how about some help, Briar?”

Briar King. Piper realized suddenly, Is he the Mr. King I heard those men talking about?

“Fine.” Briar snorted, striding forwards suddenly, “If only so yer mum doesn’t skin me fer not helping ye.”

Piper had to bite her lip from retorting, getting out of the way when he was suddenly there, towering over her and holy crap he was tall like, 6′6 or something stupid like that. She felt like a midget next to him, she didn’t even reach his shoulders...

Briar surprised her even more when he grabbed the punching bag and hefted it over his shoulder like it weighed nothing, carrying it back towards the house. He paused and looked back at her with a raised eyebrow when he reached the porch, seeing she hadn’t moved.

“Ye comin?”

“Show off.” Piper muttered under her breath, slamming the back hatch before hurrying to catch up, unnerved by how he watched her the entire time with those ridiculously blue eyes.

She reached the front door and pulled the Briar keychain from her pocket - Briars, she realized, what the hell - pausing before opening the door, whirling around to glare at him.

“What’s my mother’s name?” she demanded.

Briar lifted his eyebrows, mouth screwing up, “Why is this important righ’now?”

“So that I know you’re not lying about who you are.” Piper retorted, “What. is. my. mother’s. name?”

“Jeanette Connors.” he shot back, lips twitching at the way her shoulders deflated, “Aw, didnae expect me t’be tellin’ the truth, princess?”

“Don’t call me that.” she spat, turning back to the door and unlocking it with jerky movements, throwing it open in agitation, “And no, excuse me for being careful around strangers.”

Briar only chuckled behind her, heavy footsteps indicating he was following her through the foyer, biker boots and all. Piper couldn’t be to annoyed; she was still wearing her muddy runners, since her new pair was still in the bag.

In the SUV. With the mounting equipment for the punching bag.

“Oh, for fucks sake.” she swore, spinning mid-step and nearly colliding with Briar, head jolting back to glare at him in annoyance, “Oi! Careful!”

“Ahm not th’one turnin’ round with no warning.” he countered, shuffling to the side to let the fuming woman pass, “Forget somethin’?”

“The stuff to mount it to the wall. Gimme a minute.”

Piper trotted out to the Trax and yanked the hatch up again, snatching the forgotten bags and slamming the door once more, stalking determinedly back into the house.

This time, she remembered to take her muddy ass shoes off, dumping them in the garbage on her way and ignoring the bemused look Briar wore as she passed him to the basement door.

Pulling the door open and flicking the light on, she jogged down the steps without a word to her strange accomplice, knowing he was following by the creak of the wood behind her.

Hitting the concrete floor, Piper crossed to the middle of the room and set her bags down out of the way, turning to watch as Briar easily carried the package over and swung it to the ground, keeping a hand on one end so it wouldn’t topple.

“Ahm gonna say y’need help puttin’ this thing up, princess.” Briar drawled, continuing with the hated title and grinning smugly when her shoulder stiffened, “S’usually a two man job t’hang something like this.”

“If you’re offering.” Piper hated to admit it, but she would need the help. Her old punching bag had, had a stand of its own. She’d wanted a free-hanging one this time, but hadn’t really considered how she was going to get it up there.

Briar’s scarred lips twitched, the man already working at opening the end of the punching bag’s box, “I’d rather not give yer mum a reason ta kill me, like I said before. Let’s get t’work, shall we?”

Piper only nodded, biting her lip to keep from making a snappy comment that would likely send the man packing.

She’d come out here to avoid people, to be by herself and hide out and just... disappear. Now she had a not-cat - where the hell was Imp, anyways? - and her neighbour-who-had-been-looking-after-the-house helping her set crap up and fuck, this was not going how she had intended it to!

Plus his accent was doing strange things to her body and this was not happening god dammit get control of yourself.

“Where are yer tools?”

“Huh?” Piper stopped sorting through the things in the bags to look up at her uninvited guest, blinking murky brown eyes at him.

“Tools.” Briar had finished unpacking everything that came with the punching bag and the box lay discarded to the side, the man resting on one knee with the other propped up, again wearing that smug smirk that made her want to scream, “Y’know, screw drivers? Hammer? Wrench?”

“I haven’t looked for them yet.” she snapped, finishing with the bags and standing, “I remember there used to be a tool box in the garage, though, I figured it would still be there...”

Briar considered that for a moment before standing as well, his height making it so he almost brushed the ceiling with the top of his head, “Should be, I dorn’t remember it ever bein’moved. Let’s go look.”

He started up the stairs without another word, Piper forced to follow him less he be alone in another part of her house.

The house he had been looking after for years, and probably knew better than she ever would.

Tamp it down, Piper, fuck. she chided herself, shoving the flare of jealousy and longing away, Not his fault your life went to shit. Be thankful he was looking after the house and it wasn’t left to rot.

But he doesn’t know mom’s dead. How does that make any sense? If she was visiting those five years, wouldn’t he have found out...?

“He returned a year ago, stronger than ever.”

The thought jolted her, eyes flaring amber as she stared at the man walking in front of her, jacket shifting over broad shoulders, He came back a year ago, those men said. Mom died roughly a year ago. It was sudden, unexpected, and none of us knew about Briar. Maybe... maybe no one out here knows...?

She should tell him, she knew. Surely he had been wondering where she had gone? It was only fair, he should know-

“Oi, princess, hurry up!”

Piper’s shoulders tensed, a snarl on her lips. Or I could not because he’s a total dick!

Silently fuming, she crept after him, finding him stopped at the front door waiting for her. Still smirking, he pulled the door open and made a mock-bow, his height meaning he still towered over her even bent at the waist, “After you, princess.”

“You are seriously asking for a fist to the face.” she muttered irritably, nonetheless heading out the door and then freezing on the porch, remembering that hey, she had thrown out her muddy running shoes and hadn’t opened her new ones yet. “Jesus fucking christ.”

No wonder Briar thought she was some prissy little city slicker, shit.

“Problem?” he enquired, watching her nonchalantly.

“I have no shoes.” she grit out between clenched teeth, “Or, rather - I haven’t opened my new ones yet. I’d rather not go traipsing through an unfamiliar garage in bare feet, thanks.”

“Shouldna be anythin’ta hurt ye in there.”

“I’ll pass on the chance I might step on something rusty, thanks.” reluctantly, Piper retrieved the Briar key ring from her pocket and held it out to him, “Here, the skeleton key for the house. Mom left- well, she said it would open all the doors to the place.”

The way Briars eyes locked onto the little thorny dream catcher made her hiss out a startled breath, the blue almost growing brighter as his pupils dilated and his breath caught.

“She just gave you this?” he questioned, sounding suddenly hushed.

“Uh, yeah, kinda. About six months ago.” Piper swallowed, throat suddenly dry as she continued to hold the keychain out, confusion rising, ”Why?”

Briar’s eyes snapped up to hers briefly, pupils still blown wide, before they darted to the drive way, head jerking towards the Trax, “What about that?”

Piper’s eyebrows lifted, “What about what?”

“The dream catcher in your window.” he grunted, eyes catching hers again, “The one that matches the keys.”

“It... it came with the keys, at the same time.” she twisted her lips, catching the bottom one between her teeth out of habit, “I just... hung it in the car to add some personal flair, it seemed to... fit there...”

Briar ran a hand over his face, closing his eyes and breaking the spell, “Bloody fuckin’ hell.”

“Why is that important?” Piper questioned, suspicion rising. Her complete devotion and adoration for Aaron had disappeared with her mother’s death - and her miscarriage - a year before, but her mind had seemed to clear even more when she’d received her mother’s secret will. The will that had brought the information about the summer house, the access to the bank account, the key, keychain and the dream catcher...

Mother, what the hell were you trying to tell me? Were you like me? Could you see things like I can? Am I supposed to find something here?

“Nothin’. It’s nothin’.” Briar seemed to have snapped himself from his stupor then, snatching the keychain from her and leaving her feeling suddenly cold and lost. He seemed to notice her shrinking into herself, because he softened, muttering “I’ll be right back.” before turning and stalking off towards the garage.

Piper watched him go, eyes muddy brown as she shivered from a sudden chill, wrapping her arms around herself in an attempt to combat it. A breeze had kicked up, blowing strands of dull copper red around her face, loosed from her braid over the day. She needed to eat - could feel the rapid drain of energy that always accompanied low sugar, the subtle dizziness that came and went - but that would have to wait until the punching bag was mounted and finished and Briar had left.

“Found’em.” the man’s voice cut through her thoughts, accent slicing like a knife, “Here.”

Piper looked up, eyes latching onto the briar keychain lying in his outstretched hand. She had to force herself to take them gently rather than snatching them, warmth returning to her the second she had them in her hands.

“Thanks.” she muttered, shuffling awkwardly, “So, uh... let’s get that thing set up, yeah?”

“Lead th’way, princess.” Briar mumbled, gaze soft and disarming and Piper all but fled back into the house, startled and alarmed by her heart thumping.

The trek back to the basement was silent asides from their feet on the stairs, getting to work on hanging the punching bag. Even though they barely spoke, they worked efficiently, going by the instructions and slowly but surely getting it mounted to the ceiling.

About an hour later they finished, Briar securing the last screw and motioning to Piper to release the bag, both stepping back as it swung gently in place, suspended from the ceiling.

Briar eyed where it was mounted for a moment, watching the movement with a scowl before nodding, spinning the screwdriver in his hand, “Looks good. Should be safe, but I’d rather put some extra support innit.”

“I didn’t buy any extra support pieces.”

“I’ve go’some at home.” he put down the screw driver and rolled his neck, making a rough sounding crack as he stretched, “Ah’ll be righ’ back.”

“Sure.” Piper watched him go, both glad and anxious as he disappeared up the stairs. Her head was spinning a little - she definitely needed to eat soon - but she eyed the punching bag longingly, wanting to take her annoyance out on something, to get back into the routine she’d built for herself to keep in shape and in control.

“Fuck it.” she grumbled, grabbing the new boxing gloves she’d bought from the bag and ripping the packaging off them, “I’ve got time.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“She just gave you this?”

“Uh, yeah, kinda. About six months ago. Why?”

Briar’s lips twisted in an ugly snarl, eyebrows furrowed as he loped back towards the house he’d been looking after for the past year, a pale shape in the distance between the properties.

Dammit, Jeanette, ah gave ye those years ago fer Piper. Ye said she needed th’protection; why th’bloody hell did ye not give’em t’her till now?

The whole situation had him riled up and pissed off. Only slightly at Piper herself, since the girl - woman, he corrected himself, she was no little girl anymore - had shown up literally out of nowhere and set off all his alarms that first night, barging into the house like she owned the place.

Which she does, technically.

No, mostly he was mad at Jeanette. She’d been his mentor for five years, helping him learn the things his father hadn’t had time to teach him, providing him with energy as she had his father. Being there for him while he was struggling to make sense of things.

Then a year ago, when he’d returned to Maynooth to take back control of the Briar’s and Jeanette had once more returned to her family, that had been it. No more letters, no word from or sight of her. Nothing.

He’d figured she was just spending time with her family, since he’d known Piper was engaged - Jeanette had hated the fact and her daughters fiancé, but would never quite say why - and he didn’t have any way of contacting her anyways, since she’d wanted to keep the visits secret from her husband and daughters.

Now Piper was here, claiming she wanted to be alone, no ring on her finger - he’d checked out of habit when she’d held the key out to him and nope, no rings - and an air of someone who was guarding her heart from the world, with no sign of Jeanette.

A familiar weight on his shoulder brought Briar out of his thoughts, blue sliding over to meet endless black.

“Dorn’t let’er see ye with me.” he warned the Imp gruffly, giving the thing a scratch under the chin anyways. The creature purred and nodded, tail flicking in amusement.

To say the Imp was his familiar was pushing it; the thing was just a more-clingy fae creature then most of the others that lived in the Briars. It came in handy, since the Imp had been staying in the Connor’s house to keep an eye on things and had been the one to alert him when Piper showed up that stormy night.

Reaching the house, Briar discarded his boots inside the front door - figuring he wouldn’t be in danger of having a punching bag dropped on his feet this time - and headed for the basement stairs, giving the Imp a pointed look and waiting till it had dropped to the floor to head down.

He paused midway down the stairs, the clear sounds of the bag being beaten and panting breaths catching his attention.

Dammit, woman, y’shouldn’t be hittin’ that thing till I’m sure it’s secure.

He was pretty sure it was fine, of course, he was just paranoid. Jeanette really would kill him if he let anything happen to her daughter, after all.

“Oi, y’shouldn’t be doin’ that-”

Briar cut off when he hit the basement floor, staring in surprise.

He’d thought Piper had bought the punching bag in some sort of attempt to seem tough - he didn’t know much about her, Jeanette had never gone into detail - but now it was clear that she knew exactly what she was doing.

Not only was she wearing proper boxing gloves and settled into a proper fighting stance, there was a rhythm to her punches, a pattern that she had sunk into easily, face a mask of concentration and mouth open to breathe more steadily.

Slightly entranced, Briar kept silent, just watching, trying to figure out just what drove this young woman who was steadily breaking his first impression of her to smithereens.

Piper paused in her punches to bark out a growl and swung, catching the bag hard with first one foot and then the other, pivoting as she landed both kicks and then resumed her punches, still steady in her rhythm.

Blue eyes narrowed as her hair suddenly shifted from the dull copper it had been the entire time to a fiery, burning red, eyes flashing brilliant amber as she swiveled around the bag, pure energy radiating from her as she moved.

Magic.

So she did inherit that from Jeanette.

Entranced as he was, Briar noticed the sudden pallor to Piper’s face, the way her eyes slid in and out of focus, and COUGHED as loudly as he could, needing to break her concentration.

Piper faltered in her next punch, catching the bag in her chest with a startled ‘oof!’ as her hair faded to much less brilliant red, eyes still amber as she caught his gaze. Briar’s eyes took in the now obvious muscles in her arms, the easy way she’d caught the bag, and realized she had been doing this for a long time.

“Sorry t’interrupt...” he drawled, trying to not sound as terribly amused as he felt, “But ah do need ta’make sure th’damn bag’s secured properly. And y’look like yer about tah faint.”

“I feel like it, too. Thanks.” Piper wiped her arm across her forehead, scowling at the ground, “I tend to lose track of time when I get into it, and I need to eat - oh, Imp, there you are.”

Briar nearly jumped when he heard her refer to the creature as Imp, Piper holding her arm out casually and letting the white creature climb up it to drape around her shoulders like a living, purring shawl.

She’s a magical battery, like’er mother. She can probably see th’damn thing fer what it is.

“-allergic to anything? Hello? Briar? Helloooo?"

The man snapped to attention when he realized Piper had been talking to him, scowling, ”What?”

If she was surprised by his snap, she didn’t show it. “I said, since I need food and you’ve been helping me, I’ll make us both dinner. Then I asked if you’re allergic to anything.”

“Ah. No, ahm not allergic t’anything.” he relaxed slightly, glad it wasn’t anything overtly important that he had missed, “Ah’ll get this extra mounting on while ye work on that, then?”

“Deal.”

Piper pulled the boxing gloves off and dropped them on the bag they’d come from, reaching behind her head to pull out a hidden bobby pin and let her long braid swing free, flashing fire in the light. He’d thought Jeanette’s hair went bright when she was brimming with energy, but Piper’s was on a completely different level, dull one moment and brilliant the next.

Briar hadn’t realized he’d been staring till Piper scowled at him, eyes flaring amber as she stuck her chin in the air and strode past him, so like her mother that he sucked in a harsh breath in surprise.

Did he admire Jeanette? Hell yeah. Did he respect her? Duh.

Had he ever been attracted to her? Fuck, no. So why the fuck was he having such a hard time keeping his eyes off the short little spit-fire that had come crashing into his life?

Careful, Briar. he cursed himself, turning his attention to the mounting of the punching bag, Ye’ve been down that road b’fore and ye swore never again. ‘Sides, she ain’t lookin’ fer nothin’ asides from some peace.

Though he was annoyingly curious as to what exactly had turned the woman from the over-the-moon-love-sick, devoted fiancée her mother had ruefully described into this angry, untrusting little she-demon.

It really only took him ten minutes to add a couple more supports, wanting to make sure the bag wouldn’t come crashing down on Piper when he wasn’t around to help. She was strong, obviously, but if it happened to hit her head or disable her in someway...

Well, he’d rather not risk Jeanette’s wrath. That’s th’only reason I care.

He spent another ten minutes simply avoiding going upstairs, even when he heard music start up and the smell of something delicious made his stomach rumble.

After so long with his heart barely moving, this strange little woman was making him feel things and he did. not. like. it.

Just avoid her when possible. She’s only feedin’ yeh cause yeh helped’er out. That’s it. Ye’ll barely see’er after this.

Finally, his stomach rumbling loud enough for the Briar’s to hear, he grumbled and headed up the stairs, flicking the lights off and rounding the corner to the kitchen. Then he froze, eyebrows lifting.

Piper’s phone was on the corner of the island counter, the source of the music he’d heard; Imp - maybe she had the right idea in just using the word as its name - sat right beside it, watching it intently with wide black eyes, tail swaying.

Piper noticed him, waving vaguely over her shoulder as she peered at something in the oven, “Have a seat, food’s almost done. Hope you don’t mind soy cheese.”

Briar entered the kitchen at her beckoning - only hesitating slightly - and took a seat on one of the new bar chairs tucked against the island, the fruit of the woman’s shopping. She’d already thrown together a quick salad and set it on the counter, napkins and utensils present as well.

Even with the thick scent of whatever was in the oven in the air - almost smelled like pasta sauce, but you didn’t put that in the oven - he could catch the wafting aroma of coffee, the addict in him hoping she’d made enough to share.

Piper must have seen the look on his face, because she smirked and extracted two mugs from the cupboard, “I know it’s like 7:00 o’clock or something stupid like that - 7:30, look at that - but I need coffee after all that work. You game?”

"Fuck yes.” Briar rumbled, catching the way she stiffened at the words, lips twitching. So he wasn’t the only one out of their comfort zone, joy.

“How do you take your coffee? Black like your humour?”

“Not nice, princess.” he shot back, smirk widening at her venomous glare, “Black with 2 sugars, please.”

“You know that word?” she snorted, dumping the requested amount into the mug before filling it with steaming coffee, giving it a practiced swirl with a coffee spoon before sliding it across the counter to him, “Mind blown.”

Briar snorted back, gladly accepting the mug and downing a long gulp despite the heat of the liquid, grinning wickedly at her startled look, “Ah was raised a good Scotsman, thank ye.”

“Scotsmen have manners?” she mumbled teasingly, the edges of her eyes amber as her lips quirked, drawing his gaze for a moment before he realized what he was staring at.

“Some of us.” he muttered back, sipping more slowly on his coffee as she prepared her own, curiosity piqued when he noticed she was using soy creamer, “Ye can’t have dairy?”

“Tiny bits on occasion, but otherwise I mostly want to kill myself the day after. Not worth the pain.”

“Ye always been intolerant?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t as bad when I was a kid. I kind of ignored it after after I met Aar-” Piper’s mouth snapped shut suddenly, the harsh click of her teeth more than audible, “Well. About six months ago, it got bad again.”

Briar said nothing, as much as he wanted to pry. It wasn’t any of his business. Not at all.

Dammit, stay outta it. Ye dorn’t wanna get hurt again, either.

The timer going off with a shrill buzzing noise thankfully diverted their attention, Piper popping on a new pair of oven mitts and - after shutting the annoying thing off - opened the oven and pulled its contents out, sitting it on the stove to close the over door.

The smell hit him instantly and Gods above, he hadn’t realized how hungry he was until then.

“How th’hell did ye throw all’o this together so quick?” he questioned, eyeing what was clearly a lasagna with ravenous hunger.

“I’m a chef, it’s kind of what I do.” Piper snorted, cutting and shoveling a huge piece onto a plate, turning to slide it across the counter to him, “Mom didn’t give you many details, did she?”

“Nae, she did not.” Briar was only half focused on the conversation, to engrossed in the steaming pile of meat and noodles and probably soy cheese but whatever it was still melty and smelled amazing - “I’m surprised she didnae come with ye, t’be honest. How’s she doin’?”

It was meant to be casual conversation - nothing heavy, or involved, just honest curiosity about how Jeanette was doing, why she wasn’t there, surely Piper had seen her recently-

Briar didn’t notice the way Piper froze, her posture going stiff and silence falling. He was too busy carefully cutting a chunk off his lasagna, balancing it perfectly on his fork and lifting it to his mouth, the taste exploding when he bit in. Dear Gods, this was-

“Mom... died a year ago.”

The world froze, the food in his mouth suddenly tasting dull and flavorless. Steel blue eyes stared at Piper’s back, pinpricked in shock.

She hadn’t turned, still stood staring at the lasagna on the stove, shoulders stiff and lose bangs blocking his view of her face. Her voice had been quiet, strained, as though even uttering the words hurt.

They likely did, judging by the hole that had just been ripped in his own chest.

Briar swallowed the suddenly bland food, voice rough when he spoke, “Ye... ye’re not serious?”

“I am.” Piper turned then, the deep, melancholy chocolate of her eyes telling him everything he needed to know, “Mom’s gone.”

“How?” Jeanette had always seemed invincible, even though she couldn’t wield any of the magic she carried within her, “Why? She was perfectly healthy las’time I saw’er.”

“Car crash.” she set her plate down on the island counter, looking like she may have dropped it otherwise, “She... she was gone before the ambulance even got there.”

“Drunk driver?” Briar growled, voice harsher then he’d intended.

Piper shook her head, red strands flying, “No, it was weird. They said... something happened and the car just... went out of control, like something had taken over and just...” she paused, sucking in a shaky breath, “I think... she was on her way back from... here.”

Briar’s heart froze, eyes pinned on her, ”Wut?”

Piper nodded, staring down at the plate, “We hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks - she disappeared a lot, never told us she was coming here... the rest of us didn’t even remember this house - then... the last we heard from her, she was on her way home.” her mouth thinned, lips white from the pressure she was putting on them, “Then the police called, and she was gone.”

Briar stared at her for a moment - the utter despair on her face making her look very, very young, and he wondered again how old she was because he couldn’t remember but - fuck, Jeanette was... how could she be... that was why he hadn’t heard from her...

“I’m sorry.” he said softly, voice rough with emotion. The words were lame, but they were all he could offer her, even as he listlessly lifted another piece of lasagna to his mouth and chewed, the food both delicious and dull.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I’m sorry.”

Piper’s eyes shot back up to Briar’s face, edges bleeding amber in surprise. He wasn’t looking at her; rather, he was staring intently at his food, eating in a sort of mechanical fashion.

“Thank you.” she mumbled back, absently passing Imp the small piece of soy cheese she’d saved for it, picking her plate up to move to the counters side, slipping into the second bar chair, “For everything. You... took good care of the house. So, thanks.”

“Ye’re welcome, princess.”

They ate in silence for several minutes, Imp occasionally stealing a piece of meat or a slice of cucumber from them both, mostly sitting at the corner near her iphone and watching them intently.

It was strange. Piper hadn’t been able to talk about her mother openly since the accident, always drowning in the painful memories when she tried. Yet here she was, talking to a complete stranger and feeling... fine, sad but not overwhelmed by it.

Briar didn’t feel like a stranger, and that terrified her. She’d just had her heart broken and ripped to shreds; the last thing she needed was another man in her life.

He’s just a family friend who didn’t mind helping me out. she told herself, sneaking a glance at his profile as she chewed on a mouthful of lasagna, And... he deserved to know about mom. Whether he’s a jerk or not.

A thought struck her, eyebrows drawing down. “Briar, you said mom was visiting for those five years, yeah?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you... like her...?”

"Gods, no!” Briar gave her an incredulous look, the scars on his face further accented by the pull of his mouth, “Bloody hell, woman, why th’hell would ye think that?”

“It was just a thought!” she snapped back, unable to help it as her temper returned.

“Ugh! Yer mother was like an aunt t’me, always had been. She and me’mum were close.” Briar sobered a bit then, “I’ll have tah tell her Jeanette’s...”

“Your mother’s name is Serah, right?”

Those blue eyes were pinned on her again, steely lasers that seemed to stare right through her. “Ye remember my mother’s name,” he deadpanned, clearly un-amused, “But ye dorn’t remember mine?”

“It’s not my fault, okay?” Piper muttered, stabbing angrily at her salad, “My memories from before I was 19 are kind of fuzzy.”

“How so?”

“It’s like... certain parts of my life are blurred out. I don’t know how to explain it. The five years I spent with Aaron-” Piper had to swallow back bile just from saying the name, “-seemed to do something to me. When Mom... died... I started to snap out of it, come back to myself. When her will showed up six months ago, memories started to come back more quickly, sometimes a bunch at a time, sometimes small things.”

“Somethin’ else happened, dinnit?” Piper forced herself to meet his gaze, searching for anything beyond curiosity. Finding nothing, she shrugged her shoulders wearily, picking at her food much less violently then before.

“I caught Aaron cheating on me the night before Mom died.” she muttered, not going into detail, “The shock from both his betrayal and mom’s death made me have a miscarriage. It was the only good thing that came out of the situation.”

“How is that good?” Briar chocked out, looking grim.

“I didn’t even know I was pregnant.” she grumbled, “We’d only had sex once, and I wasn’t far enough in to notice a difference. Didn’t want kids anyways, still don’t, especially not his.”

“How old are ye?”

Red eyebrows lifted, amused despite the severity of the conversation, “Twenty five.”

“Fuck, ye’re still a bloody kid...”

Piper snorted, “How old are you then, old man?”

“Thirty five. Ah’ll be thirty six in a couple o’months.”

“Man, you’re a freaking old geezer.” Piper snickered, feeling the weight of the thoughts leaving her as Briar gave her a glare that would have had her face down on the floor if looks could kill, “You alright, grandpa? That punching bag was heavy, d’you need to go lie down...?”

"Ah’m not that old!” Briar actually sounded offended, which made the situation all the more amusing.

“Hush up and eat your lasagna, pops,” she teased, grinning around a mouthful of salad.

“Behave, princess.” he shot back, and she could see his lips trying to quirk even as he hid behind his coffee mug.

It was only in the back of her mind that Piper realized that - after barely knowing him for a day and yet somehow baring her soul to this strange, sarcastic jerk - they already had nicknames.

Imp purred happily.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It was only after Briar had departed - letting her know that despite his age, he was around if she ever had any issues with the punching bag or any physical work around the house - that Piper had the chance to think about what had happened, running over the day in her mind as she tossed the dishes in the dishwasher.

Okay, it was fine. She was allowed to be snarky as hell with an old family friend. It had made her feel better, if only temporarily.

She’d probably rarely see Briar - fuck she still needed to try and remember his actual name, no matter how well Briar suited the thorny jerk - and she would get the solitude she wanted.

For fucks sakes, Piper, control your fucking hormones.

Dishes cleaned up and leftovers put away - not that there was a lot, Briar had really liked her lasagna - Piper scooped Imp up and headed for the bedroom to change.

She tossed the white creature gently onto the bed and changed into sleep shorts and a tank top, letting her hair out of its braid and running her fingers through the messy locks as she headed for the bathroom to get washed.

Nightly routine finished, Piper pulled the blankets back and crawled under, chilled due to the still breezy-may weather. Imp curled up on her spare pillow, blinking sleepy-black eyes at her before yawning widely - again showcasing those sharp as hell teeth - and snuggling down further.

“G’night, Imp.” she muttered, feeling herself following after as soon as she turned the lights off, thoughts drifting as she sunk into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Dreamless asides from startlingly blue eyes, watching her from the depths of a Briar patch...

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