Into The Briars

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Part 7: The Reunion

Piper spent the entire two weeks leading up to the dreaded BBQ panicking, as much as she tried to hide the fact.

Martha could tell, and just patted her reassuringly on the shoulder every time she saw her, offering a cheery “Don’t worry, it won’t be that bad. You made things easier on yourself by saying yes, trust me.”

“Did you know she was going to demand I come?” Piper had groaned, continuing to stir the pancake batter she’d been taking her frustrations out on.

“I had a hunch, but I didn’t know for sure, especially since Serah hadn’t been aware that you were here, originally. Brennan told me the day after.”

His family had been calling him Brennan instead of Briar lately, Piper noticed; whether it was because they knew she remembered his name now or because his mother was in town, she didn’t question it.

“Is... Briar happy I’m coming?” she had questioned hesitantly, unsure and still so used to calling him by the nickname that she didn’t even notice her continued slipups.

Martha only smiled, “You’d have to ask him that, sweetheart. And don’t worry about the Inn that weekend; we always shut down when Serah’s in town for the family BBQ, so there won’t be any guests or work to be done.”

Dammit. That was going to be her next question, and Martha had clearly been waiting for it. So much for claiming work got in the way, ugh.

Her one consolation was that Kristy was going to be there, and her boyfriend Carter would also be attending for the first time.

“I’m super excited you’re coming!” the blonde waitress had gushed, all but bouncing in her enthusiasm, “I’ll have someone to hang out with that doesn’t have kids, for once! And it’ll help Carter, to, since he won’t be the only newbie this time around. This is great!”

Piper had met Carter once – he had dropped Kristy off at the Inn for a morning shift after she’d spent the night at his place, and they’d exchanged some small talk while he waited for Kristy to come back to bid him farewell.

He was a nice kid and, hey, if she could hang out with the youngsters and avoid everything else, she’d be happy.

It took her a week to remember to drive out to Bancroft in search of a bathing suit, since she didn’t have one and Wal-Mart suits had never appealed to her. Kristy had suggested a little boutique that carried some nice suits in downtown Bancroft, and there she headed, not wanting to give Serah a reason to be any more invested in her attendance then was strictly necessary.

She left with a suit that fit her nicely and wasn’t super flashy or revealing like most of the suits these days, despite the saleswoman’s pouting that ‘she wasn’t showing off her awesome curves’. No, thank you!

Finally, July 25th rolled around and Piper stood in the kitchen digging around in the bag she’d prepared, fighting the panic as she tried to make sure she’d packed everything.

Imp perched on her shoulder to watch her dig through the bag, making little noises of amusement and swinging its tail behind it.

“This is all your fault.” Piper grumbled at it with a half-glare, only earning a grin in return.

The Kirin nudged at her elbow and trilled hungrily, feathers ruffling in delight when she handed it an apple, heading back out to the mud room to devour it with a satisfied coo.

So much for it returning to The Briars. Piper couldn’t be to upset, though; she’d gotten used to having both fae creatures around at this point, and the house would seem empty if either of them left.

Okay, focus. You’ve got your swim suit, a towel, sunscreen and sunglasses. A pair of PJ’s, panties and a clean shirt for tomorrow – these shorts should be okay for two days. Lactose pills – somehow I doubt Serah managed to make everything dairy free – Tylenol...

It was official. She had everything, and stalling any longer would surely just have Briar sent to retrieve her.

Or Serah coming to drag her there herself.

Well, let’s get this over with, I guess.

She kept reminding herself that it was just his family¸ people she’d met before and that she got along well with, I wonder if that other cousin is coming? Though probably not, if he and Briar had a falling out...

Completely out of excuses, Piper sighed and hefted the bag onto her shoulder, popping the sunglasses on and surveying the kitchen one last time before heading for the front door.

“Don’t get into any mischief.” She warned Imp as it jumped from her shoulder and darted back towards the mud room, the creature merely giving a loud prrrrrrrrrr as it disappeared. Watching the door for a moment, Piper grimaced and forced herself out the front door, locking it and trudging to the Trax.

The bag was tossed into the passenger seat as she swung herself in, yanking the door closed and doing up her seatbelt with jerky movements. Then she through the vehicle in reverse and backed swiftly out of the driveway, switching to drive and taking off down the road.

Serah’s summer house was just a bit further into the backwoods of Maynooth, Briar had explained, drawing the route out for her since street signs were hard to catch in the back roads. It was off one of the bigger lakes, and took up a good chunk of land.

Elephant Lake, she remembered him calling it, naming her street as, ironically, Primrose Path.

Everything is about flowers with these people, isn’t it?

It wasn’t a long drive; the weather was beautiful, and she didn’t encounter any other vehicles. The back roads were basically deserted, which she didn’t mind at all.

Then she turned left onto the ridiculously named street – which actually had a big sign marking it, freaking weird – and nearly slammed the breaks in panic, shock rising as she stared.

Cars, everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but – what!

Serah’s driveway – which was by no means small – was full of cars, only two of which she recognized, and at least three were also parked on the road.

Small family BBQ my ass! What is this, a family reunion?!

Dread settling more firmly in her stomach, Piper forced herself to drive past all the cars and make a three point turn, parking at the back of the line on the edge of the road. Then she sat there for several minutes trying to calm herself down, hands nearly shaking where they still gripped the steering wheel.

Okay, you’re here. Maybe... maybe it’s not as bad as it seems? Maybe everyone just took... separate cars. It’s plausible. Fuck, Briar isn’t even here yet, I hope Kristy is. God help me...

Taking a deep breath, Piper forced herself to turn the Trax off and climb out, grabbing her bag and throwing it over her shoulder as she reluctantly made the trek to the house. Pausing at the end of the long drive way, she stared at the house and had the thought that, like hers, this was not a cottage. It was a summer house, meant for year-round living.

It was also huge, and if it hadn’t been obvious that Briar preferred his privacy and that his mother sometimes - always - wore on his patience, she’d have wondered why he bothered living on his own.

There were also primroses everywhere. Seriously, what the hell?

Piper could hear music now, realizing that the garage door was open and that it seemed to lead straight out to the back yard.

There was also a closed gate to the left of it that was short enough she could probably glance over it, and she snuck forwards quickly, doing her best to not be seen.

Reaching the fence she took a breath and then lifted onto her tip-toes to glance over, heart freezing.

Serah, you liar! That is more than Martha’s brood! Holy crap, I don’t know like any of those people! What the fuck!

She could see the Smith’s amongst the gathering of people, mingling and conversing easily. Eve and Hailey were with men she hadn’t met, possibly their husbands, and Hailey had a child balanced easily on her hip.

There were more children than just that, they were everywhere! She hadn’t known Hailey had a kid, did any of the others? Is that where all these kids were from? There were other adults as well, and a couple of elderly men and women and fuck my life, I can’t do this. Sorry Kristy, I’m out!

“Piper, darling! I thought that was your Trax I spotted pulling in!”

Piper froze at the sudden voice to her right, guilty gaze going to the older woman standing maybe four feet away.

Serah was all bright smiles and knowing eyes, the open front door indicating she had come from inside the house. She was probably watching for me, the old hawk. Dammit!

“H-Hi Serah.” She managed, throat suddenly dry as she tried to swallow, “Um, there’s quite a few more people then I was expecting, I thought you said this was a small BBQ?”

“Oh it is, darling, no one from Brennan’s fathers side is here. They’re all over in Scotland, you see; can’t exactly come travelling over to Canada all the time.” Serah was at her side in an instant, hooking her arm through the younger woman’s so she could steer her back towards the house, “Come, come, let me show you around, introduce you! Brennan isn’t here yet, the silly boy, but he has a tendency to be late to these things.”

Probably avoids it as long as he can. Piper bit back the thought, since she’d been doing exactly the same thing. And now she was caught. Life, why do you hate me?

Serah led her in through the front door and gave her a quick tour of the main floor – you don’t need to worry about the upstairs for now honey, I can show you that later – which, as she’d expected from the exterior, was spacious and beautiful.

The front door led into a foyer much like her own, with a roomy sitting area and front closet to the left and the stairs to the right. Past the stairs was the main living room, with a fireplace and several plush couches, bookshelves full to the brim.

Following the main hallway led to a small half bath to the left and the kitchen directly ahead, all white marble and cabinets with a breakfast bar and lots of counter space, appliances all gleaming stainless steel. A door at the left wall of the kitchen led out into the garage, and the furthest right wall was entirely open and led into an elegant dining room that opened back into the living room.

At the back of the house was a mud-room much like Piper’s, though slightly bigger and surrounded by a full, paved deck.

The back yard – which Serah led her out to through the mudroom doors – was huge, going right out to the shore of Elephant Lake as Serah had said it did. The water was so clear she could see right to the crystal sand at the bottom, a floating dock out near the middle signaling that it got much deeper further out.

Satisfied that she knew the rough layout of the house, Serah then started leading her around to people and introducing her, Piper wondering if her frozen, terrified smile looked as fake as it felt.

Where the hell is Briar?!

Serah introduced her to Eve and Hailey’s husbands, as well as their children – five between the two of them, all younger than six – and Tanner’s partner, a shy architect named Eric who warmed quickly to Piper, if only because she probably seemed just as terrified as him.

There were people there from Mason’s side of the family as well, though not as many – Piper realized she had mostly been seeing the children running around and thinking there was more people, though a lot of the unfamiliar faces had been Martha’s children’s other halves.

The few elderly people there were Briar’s great-aunts and uncles on Martha’s side, mostly there to see the younger generations that they didn’t see the rest of the year.

“Martha and I’s parents passed years ago,” Serah explained, steering her away towards another group of children whose names she knew she wouldn’t remember, “And Keir’s – Brennan’s fathers – father passed a few years after we were married. Strong man, very careful with his family.”

“What about Briar’s grandmother?” Piper couldn’t help but ask, cautiously curious.

“She passed before I ever met Keir. She’d been sick for a long time.” Serahs gaze seemed far off for a moment before she snapped out of it, smiling again, “But I heard she was a lovely woman, just as fierce as Keir’s father when it came to her family.”

Piper had frowned at that, forcing her fake-smile once more as she was led to the last group of children – who were honestly more interested in trying to steal cake off the sweets table then meeting some random person – and then starting when Serah gave her a pat on the back.

“I think that’s everyone, darling. Now, Brennan is being ridiculously late, as usual. I know Kristy and Carter were looking forwards to you coming, however; last I saw they were by the drinks table.”

Gaze flicking in the specified direction, Pipers eyes slid to amber when she spotted the familiar blonde girl, “Yeah, I see them.”

“Good girl.” Serah grinned wider and winked before heading off to play hostess some more, chatting and laughing with everyone as she went.

Piper couldn’t help but chuckle a little, shaking her head and making a beeline for the familiar woman, grip on her bag still tight.

“Piper!” Kristy was all smiles when she spotted her, arms flailing excitedly and drink almost dropping from her hand.

Carter caught it with a patient smile, sharing an eye roll with Piper. “Hey, Piper. Glad you could make it.”

“Not going to lie, I tried to sneak away. Serah caught me.”

“Aunt Serah was waiting for you.” Kristy quipped, nodding to emphasize her point, “You and Brennan, who still isn’t heeeeere...”

Piper’s lips quirked, eyebrows lifting, “Kristy, are you drunk already?”

“Nope! Just very tipsy! Woo!” Kristy danced in a little circle before sobering slightly and winking, “Gotta have some fun, Piper! Especially with this many kids around, yeck!”

“Not a fan of kids?” Piper grabbed herself a can of Pepsi, figuring having one pop wouldn’t kill her, “I’d have thought you were just as baby-crazy as the rest of your family!”

“Hah! Nope. Being the youngest was cool sometimes, but you get a loooot of hand-me-downs!” Kristy pouted for a moment, throwing her arms around Carter and giggling impishly when he turned red, “Anyhoo, Eve and Hailey have the grand-kids department taken care of. Like, I might have one, eventually, but more than that? Hah! Nope!”

“So she says now.” Flint drawled, approaching with a rather fancy looking bottle, the contents of which were freaking purple, “But just wait till you see her making gaga-eyes at Eve’s youngest. Two or three, I’m thinking.”

“Oh, please, like you’re any different!” Kristy retorted hotly, still clinging tightly to her blushing boyfriend, “I see you playing with Hailey’s oldest boy! Regular daddy-material in Goth clothing, right here, people!”

“They always like this?” Piper mumbled to Carter who, despite being flushed pink, seemed fairly at ease in the situation.

“Mostly. They are the two youngest, right? Makes sense they annoy the hell out of each other.”

Flint snorted, setting the distracting bottle down at the back of the drink table, almost hiding it behind the mountain of other drinks, “Please, we’re the mature ones, remember?”

“Says the guy who threw pancake mix at me last week-ooooo!” Kristy noticed the bottle for the first time, green eyes going wide with mischief, “Is that...?”

“Mom said to bring it out, but don’t touch it yet.” Flint tried to look imposing – not easy when he was the same height and build as his sister – lips pulled tight at her longing looks, “Kristy, seriously, no.”

“But Fliiiiiint! One little taste!” Kristy whimpered, an impish look aimed at Piper that made her skin crawl, “And Piper’s never had any!”

No.”

“Why? What is it?” Piper asked, incredibly suspicious. She’d never seen anything that color in the LCBO, that was for sure, and not in such a decorative bottle.

Kristy took on a look of glee, opening her mouth to answer at the same time as Flint’s gaze shot to the back door.

“Brennan’s here!” he cut her off loudly, shooting her a glare even as Piper’s heart simultaneously froze and jumped.

Even as she turned to look, Piper realized just how deeply in shit she was, if her bodies reaction to just his name was any clue.

She’d barely seen him in the two weeks since that awkward dinner, and now she’d actually been looking forwards to seeing him, to making sure he was still okay and real, not some fantasy her depressed mind had conjured up.

But no, Briar was very real, standing on the back porch and grimacing in the sunlight, blue gaze searching over the heads present.

He wasn’t wearing his leather jacket for once – instead just a grey tank-top that showed off the full expanse of his broad shoulders and strong arms, tattoos writhing in the sunlight as though soaking it in. The flowers had changed again, but this time to something that didn’t even really look like flowers.

Piper frowned, squinting to try and see what it was, green leaves almost blending with the vines... absinth? Was that what it was?

Suddenly, as though feeling her gaze, Briar’s head turned in her direction, bright blue and startled amber meeting and locking, and Piper realized he had been looking for her.

His features relaxed, an almost smile tugging at scarred lips as he watched her, eyebrows lifting as though to say You alright?

Piper felt her own traitorous lips twitch in response, lifting a hand even as she felt her cheeks burn. This was the power the man had over her, and it still terrified her.

Briar’s gaze suddenly dropped as he was swarmed by the children of the gathering, surrounding him and jumping on him and demanding attention with shouts of ‘Uncle Brennan!’ ‘Uncle Briar! You’re here!’ ‘Unca!’

Kristy let out a ‘feh’ noise, nose scrunching up, “Figures, as usual all the kids loooooove him! Can’t figure it out!”

“Brennan’s always been good with kids.” Flint smirked, “Including us, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. How the guys still in such good shape at almost 36 kills me.”

Including me. Piper remembered, biting her lip. She didn’t remember everything, but she did know that Briar had been at the summer house to visit several times during her childhood, probably babysitting while their mothers caught up.

He would have been fifteen when she was five, a baby to the teenager. How times change.

“It’s too bad he can only have one.” Kristy sighed, the words catching her attention, “He’d probably love a big family.”

“Why can he only have one?” Piper questioned, eyebrows up. Kristy looked suddenly sheepish, like she hadn’t meant to say anything. Carter looked just as confused as Piper, and Flint had covered his face with his hand, mumbling under his breath.

Then he lowered his hand and moved to say something only to freeze, green eyes going dark as he stared at something past her shoulder and practically bared his teeth, “What is he doing here?”

Kristy followed her brothers gaze and had a similar reaction, grip on Carter tightening as though to balance herself, voice a whisper, “Oh, hell, no. Who told him?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to skin him if he tries anything.”

Piper turned, following the siblings looks of hatred and staring, eyebrows lifting. The man that had just entered through the gate looked very similar to the rest of Martha’s brood, though his hair was a stylish, shoulder length mix of blondes and browns and his green eyes had a more sinister shine to them than the others.

“Who is he?” Piper questioned, though she had a feeling she already knew.

“Randy.” Flint all but growled, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists, “And he is not welcome here.

As Piper watched, Randy - the cousin Martha had told her about, the one who’d done something to Briar - glanced around the gathering and full out smirked when his eyes landed on Briar, a twisted, ugly look on an otherwise handsome face. Then he turned and said something, holding a hand out towards the gate.

A woman took his hand and stepped into the backyard and Piper froze, sudden tension filling the air as more people took notice.

“No way.” Kristy whispered, shock and anger warring on her face, “He did not bring her here!”

“I’m going to kill him.” Flint snarled, eyes a furious, toxic green.

“Who is she?” Piper questioned quietly, not liking the aura coming off the woman. She was tall and slim, with a models figure and face; hair a brunette curtain that fell over her shoulders in a silky wave and grey eyes the colour of a stormy sky.

Truth be told, Piper didn’t like the aura coming off either of them. Randy’s was dark, a stronger, twisted version of Mason’s. The woman’s was like the ‘tick’ she’d gotten off Serah’s attempted suitors for Briar, only stronger. Slightly.

And the look she was giving Briar made fury run hot through her veins.

“Adeline Russell.” Kristy growled, all hints of her usual fun-loving self hidden beneath anger, “Ten years ago, she was dating Brennan, and he was the happiest we’d ever seen him. We thought he had found his match, finally.”

“We were wrong. We didn’t find out until it was over, but she’d been seeing Randy behind Brennan’s back the entire time. She only wanted Brennan’s status and the things he could give her, never him. When Brennan refused her something in order to keep her safe, she broke it off and told him about cheating with Randy, that he had given her everything, unlike Brennan. Randy showed up to pick Adeline up, and he and Brennan went at it. Then they packed it up and left for Toronto, and Brennan... well, he was never quite the same. Believe it or not, he hasn’t always been this grumpy or solitary.”

“Does he not realize the family is going to rip them apart?!”

“You know why he did it.” Flint muttered, eyes on his cousin, “To get to Brennan. But why now?”

“It’s been ten years, maybe they think he’s broken down?”

He looks like he’s about to collapse. Piper stared at Briar, heart frozen.

Briar looked utterly shaken, eyes wide and lips pressed in a thin line, hands dropped at his sides. His whole posture had sagged, like the energy had been drained from him, and as she watched his tattoos shifted, changed, the green leaves of the absinth morphing into white flowers with large, black centres, settling in as his eyes seemed to dim.

Anemone flowers. Piper sucked in a breath, Abandonment. Oh, hell no.

She was moving before she was really aware of it, ignoring surprised questions from Kristy and Flint and making a beeline for the back porch, striding between frozen children and furious adults.

She hadn’t been able to catch what the pair was saying to Briar, but the smug looks on their faces were all she needed to see to know it wasn’t anything good.

They didn’t notice her until she slid her arm through Briars and purposely leaned into his side, lacing her fingers through his once he’d recovered enough from his shock to let his bend.

Then she glared at the couple, eyes bright amber and hair fire red, ignoring the sparks she felt wherever her skin touched Briar’s, lips pursed and eyebrows lowered.

“I don’t think you were invited to this party.” she drawled in as dark a tone as she could muster, thrilled by the startled looks they both wore, “And I don’t think you’re welcome, either.”

“Really, now?” Randy tried to recover, though she could see he was still in shock as his eyes flicked between she and Briar, “Do you know who I am?”

“Oh, I know who you are. I know who you both are. And I know for a fact that you are not wanted here.” Piper bared her teeth, feeling a sudden rush of energy that both seemed to come from and go to Briar, “I think you should leave before you get yourselves into trouble.”

“And who are you?” Adeline’s voice was just as obnoxious as she’d expected it to be, her pretty face twisted in confusion and suspicion.

“Someone far more welcome’ere then ye.” Briar rumbled suddenly, the sound going straight to her heart and revving it up even more, ”Ye made perfectly clear’ye didnae wan’any part’o m’life ten years ago, Adeline."

Holy crap his accent is amazing when he’s mad.

Piper schooled her thoughts immediately, knowing she needed to stay on task here. Terrified as she was about whatever it was she felt for Briar, he was important to her and fuck if she was going to let these fools mess with him any longer.

“Piper Connors.” she greeted them, lifting her chin to peer down her nose at them and wow, at least Randy must have remembered her name because he looked scared, “Now, run along, seriously. We don’t want you here.”

“Piper?” Randy looked like he was choking on her name, bewildered, ”Jeanette’s kid?”

“Ye’didnae recognize’er?” Briar sneered, giving a feral looking smirk as he squeezed her fingers a little tighter, “She’s Jeanette’s alright.”

“And I must say...” Serah’s voice drawled suddenly, “I agree with Piper, whole heartedly. How the hell did you know when the reunion was, Richard?”

Briar’s mother stood just outside the back doors with her arms crossed and a wicked scowl on her face, clearly enraged and trying to keep it under control. Martha stood beside her, looking no less pissed off then her sister.

“Nice to see you to, Aunt Serah, Mother.” Randy responded, though he seemed much less cocky then a moment before.

Adeline was still a picture of arrogance, hands on her hips as she tossed her hair over a shoulder and shot the older women a smirk, ”Wonderful little party you’ve got going on, Serah. Good job finding someone to stand with him, here I was thinking I wouldn’t get a challenge tonight.”

“I’d hoped to never see your lying little face again, Adeline.” Serah responded, clearly trying to keep her temper from getting the best of her, “And I haven’t done a thing.”

“Oh, please. You can’t tell me she’s here because she wants to be.”

“In case you’re talking about me,” Piper broke in, fed up, “I am here of my own free will. Brennan is my friend, and I’m sure as hell not letting some prissy little toothpick mess with him while I’m around. So fuck. off."

That apparently ruffled Adeline’s feathers the wrong way, as she stomped a foot and turned to Randy with a scowl, ”Randy! Are you going to let them talk to me like that?!”

Randy snapped from his stupor and gave Briar a nasty look, smirk returning suddenly, “Let’s settle this the easy way, shall we? A game of chicken, just like old times, us against you two. You win, we’ll leave. We win... well, we’ll figure that out afterwards.”

“Deal.” Piper snapped, teeth barred again as the other couple turned to grab their swim stuff, energy still buzzing between she and Briar’s clasped hands.

“Piper.” Briar’s voice was quiet, and when she looked at him the genuine concern in his eyes made her knees weak, “Ye dorn’t have t’do this.”

“I want to do this.” she stated, giving his hand another quick squeeze and thrilling a little in his shocked look before forcing herself to pull away, immediately missing the energy, “Let me get changed and then we’ll kick their assess.”

He looked at a loss for words for a moment before smiling; not one of his smirks or grins or half-smiles, an actual, honest to god smile that softened his scars and made her insides turn to mush, ”Thank you. Meet ye down by’the water, alright?”

“Y-yeah.” Piper forced herself to snap from her stupor and marched back over to Kristy to grab her bag, sharing a wicked look with the girl before heading inside and to the bathroom Martha had shown her.

She dawned the bathing suit she’d worked so hard to find - a cut-off tank style top that was grey across the bust and yellow on the straps with a matching yellow bikini bottom - stuffed her clothes in her bag and marched back outside, tossing her stuff on the corner of the deck and trotting down to the lakefront.

Briar was ready and waiting, stretching in preparation for the ‘battle’. He wore simple black swim trunks that showed a lot more skin then she usually got to see, proving that his tattoos did go right across his shoulders and collar bones, still showcasing the white flowers from before.

I will make those go away. she vowed, lips quirking when he noticed her and stood upright, towering over her once more.

“Ye sure about this?”

“Positive.” Piper grinned, giving him a thumbs up and trying to seem less self-conscious then she was about him seeing her in a bathing suit. “Why the game of chicken, though?”

“Used t’do it all the time as kids, with Hailey an’Eve. Randy always used t’win.”

“How come? You seem like the stronger one.”

“Didnae want’a hurt’im.” Briar was scowling then, gaze focused behind her, “Ah won’t be holdin’back this time.”

Turning as well, Piper watched Randy and Adeline reappear from the gate and make the trip down the slope to them, pleased to note that the rest of the family was just as unhappy about their presence there.

Randy was in a black Speedo that showcased his toned body, Adeline matching him in a bikini that barely covered anything.

Piper couldn’t help shooting Briar a look, eyebrows lifted teasingly, “Seriously? How did you ever go out with that?”

Briar actually grimaced, “Ah was young, hush up.”

She had a feeling there was more to it than that, but the opposing couple had arrived and the men were now staring each other down, Adeline giving her what she supposed was meant to be an intimidating look.

Dear lord, the woman was full of herself!

“Ready to lose, just like the good old days, Brennan?” Randy sneered, reaching out for Adeline’s hand to pull her against his side, “You never were any good at holding on to the things you wanted.”

“Ah won’t be th’one losin’.” Briar growled back, glancing at Piper and jerking his head back at the water, a silent motion to follow him when he started walking.

Piper shot one more glare at the other two before trotting after her silent partner, pausing when they reached the edge of the water to glance up at him.

“So...” she drawled, “We may have a problem.”

“Oh?”

“How the hell am I supposed to get on your shoulders? You’re a giant, remember?”

Briar only smirked and crouched down, keeping himself as straight as possible so she wouldn’t topple off, “Climb aboard, princess.”

“Ohhh, you are so getting it for that later, pops.” Piper approached him and tried not to feel awkward as she hooked first one and then the other leg over his shoulders, clutching his head for lack of anything better to hold onto, “Please don’t drop me. At least not until we beat them.”

“I won’t drop ye.” Briar snorted, lifting his hands so she could grab onto them instead of his head, keeping herself steady as he slowly rose to his feet.

“Holy crap.” she whistled, stealing back one hand in order to put it to her forehead and jokingly peer off in the distance, “I think I can see Mount Everest from here!”

“Har har. Hold on, princess.”

Piper gently gripped onto his head to keep herself steady as they walked, his arms wrapped around her legs to keep her anchored. The feel of his touch against her legs was doing delicious, terrible things to her lower half, and it was all she could do to shove the feelings aside and remind her body that hello, we have some assholes to beat.

Not that it cared. Fucking traitor.

Briar waded out into the lake until he was about hip-deep, which was pretty far since he was so freaking tall.

When they turned, she saw that Randy was at waist-depth when he hit the same point, Adeline’s toes in the water whereas Piper was completely dry.

The men turned to face each other and Piper removed her hands from Briar’s head, adjusting herself to the position and finding her balance. Briar also loosened his grip on her legs, since he would need to fend Randy off.

It was only once both couples had found their balance that they watched each other for a moment, waiting to see who would make the first move. Piper had never played chicken before - had only watched other people play it - so she had no idea if it was better to move first or not.

Briar apparently thought it was not a good idea, as he stood his ground and braced himself instead, eyes blue ice.

As expected, Randy gave a roar and charged, locking hands with Briar as Adeline’s shot towards her, Piper gripping hard when their hands met.

If it hurt, Adeline didn’t show it, both putting their full strength into pushing, trying to knock the other off. Briar was fighting just as hard with Randy, both men snarling and shoving.

Piper found, to her shock, that she couldn’t gain any headway on the other woman. Adeline was all soft lines and skin, not a muscle obvious on her, but she wasn’t budging and ... wait... was she glowing?

Adeline must have seen her surprised look, because she smirked and through her head and yup, there was a definite, faint glow to her skin.

“All that power, and no idea how to use it.” she simpered, grinning in that way that made Piper want to punch her right in her smug face, “What a shame.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Piper bit out, annoyed and frustrated and slightly nauseous as what felt like a knot started to build in her stomach, painful and warm and weird.

“Oh, honey, you don’t even know what you are?” Adeline’s voice had taken on a fakely-sweet, simpering tone, “Briar is still a fool, I see. Oh dear.”

“Shut up!” Piper snapped, flinching as the knot grew even tighter, anger flaring at the woman’s words. Power. Is that what this feeling is? Is it why I can see strange things? Is that what’s making her skin glow? Does she have it, to?

It would explain the weird ‘tick’ she got from the woman’s aura, the same as the other women from Briar’s house.

Okay, great, but how do I use it?!

Like this, sweetheart. Here, let me help-

The voice - it sounded like her mother’s, but that was - seemed to connect something in her mind then, the knot suddenly releasing and warmth pouring through her, an energy similar to the one she’d felt touching Briar earlier coursing through her veins.

She felt it travel through her legs and then Briar shuddered beneath her, as though he, to, was feeling it, and that thought brought a lot of questions to light.

Questions for later. Beat this bitch first.

Something must have changed outwardly, to, because Adeline suddenly looked petrified, and she felt Briar make progress on Randy below as well.

Baring her teeth, Piper snarled and shoved with all her might, putting every ounce of energy she felt into the push and shattering whatever it was that had been helping Adeline, sending her flying backwards off of Randy’s shoulders with a scream and plunging into the water.

Briar had rushed Randy at the same time, overpowering him and sending him sprawling backwards as well, practically landing on top of Adeline as she fought to right herself. They got caught in a tangled mess, swearing and cursing and flailing around as they fought to get up, officially beaten.

Piper gave a ‘whoop’ of triumph even as her body continued to buzz from the warm energy, high fiving Briar when he lifted his hand and grinning down at him when he tilted his head just enough to look up at her.

The energy did effect him to! she triumphed mentally, noticing how bright his eyes were glowing, the way the vines on his skin had grown vibrant with life. Lifting one hand, she noted that her skin was downright shimmering, pale streaks of gold present in random patterns.

“We need to talk later.” she muttered, knowing he’d heard her when his shoulders stiffened, “About everything.”

“We will.” Briar mumbled back, attention turning to the coughing couple that had finally managed to stand up in the water.

“I’d say we won that match.” he drawled, his accent much calmer now that he wasn’t seething, “A deals a deal. Leave, now."

"Fine.” Randy spat, pulling Adeline along with him as he headed for shore, shooting a scathing glare back at them, “Good luck holding onto this one, cousin. You’ll need it.”

“Oh, just piss off already, asshole!” Piper shouted at him, smirking in childish delight when a roaring cheer went up from the rest of the family and the man turned red in rage, yanking the brunette along behind him as he stormed up the hill to the gate.

“Now that.” Briar chuckled below her, hands on her legs to steady her again, “Was worth’em showin’ up. Good work, Piper.”

“Not too shabby yourself, Brennan.” Piper made sure to put an emphasis on his name, secretly loving the way it made him stiffen below her.

Without a word or warning, Briar turned and started wading deeper into the water, clutching her legs tightly as though preventing her from getting down. As if she could, please.

Still, she grew wearier the deeper he got, clutching his head again, “Briar, what’re you up to?”

“Feel like a swim, Piper?”

“Uhhhh-HEY!” Piper jumped when he wobbled suddenly, almost slipping off his shoulders before clinging onto him, “You said you wouldn’t drop me!”

"Until we’d beaten’em.” Briar rumbled, and she could only imagine the wicked smirk he was likely wearing, “Hold yer breath!”

“BRENNAN!” Piper screeched just before he toppled backwards, submerging them both even as he released her legs so she could pull free, sputtering as she came back to the surface.

“Not funny!” she snarled, jumping on him and forcing him back under the water when he tried to surface, not letting go until he flailed wildly and smacked her legs in a silent plea.

He was laughing when he surfaced, the jerk, grinning like a lunatic, “Could’nae resist.”

“You scared me, dammit!” Piper groused, fighting back a smile of her own as she splashed him as hard as she could, snickering when he coughed on a mouthful of water.

Then she shrieked when he growled and jumped at her, trying to grab her and drag her back under. Piper evaded him and swam in a circle, laughing and doing her best to stay out of his grasp, the mess with Randy and Adeline steadily fading from her thoughts.

“Hey! Don’t hog all the fun!” Kristy’s voice chirped from the shore, the blonde running into the water with Carter and several kids in tow, all cheering loudly.

Piper gasped when Briar managed to grab her by the waist and yank her over, dunking them both again before she could argue.

They both came up laughing, not touching but not very far apart, hardly looking at the others that had joined them.

Neither noticed that they were both still glowing with energy, like a spark that had found it’s flame.

Serah watched from the back porch, grinning knowingly.

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Ah’m still sorry y’had to be part o’that.”

“Briar, seriously, it’s fine. I chose to get involved, remember? So stop apologizing!"

Briar grumbled but relented, sitting back in his chair and sighing in content, eyeing her sideways, “Y’want more?”

“Oh, hell, no, I’m stuffed.” Piper leaned back with a groan, patting her stomach jokingly, “Gonna get fat; thank god I don’t eat at your mom’s all the time.”

“Hmm.”

Four hours, lots of swimming and goofing off later, Serah had finally forced everyone out of the lake in order to eat dinner.

Piper had been right to bring her lactose pills; Serah explained that although she’d wanted to make things dairy free, with so many people to feed it really hadn’t been possible. When Piper had said she understood and hadn’t expected Serah to go that far for her anyways, she’d earned herself a tight hug and smile from the older woman.

She still wasn’t used to the physical affection Briar’s family seemed to love.

The amount of food, however, was ridiculous, though with how many people were there, maybe not.

There were hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, chicken burgers, various salads, baked beans... if you could imagine it at a BBQ, it was there.

Serah had mentioned dessert to, though Piper couldn’t even imagine eating anything else. She’d taken a cheeseburger, a hot dog and some Caesar salad and she was stuffed to the brim. She and Briar had taken up residence in the lit gazebo-style tent Serah had set up about midway between the house and the lake, preferring it to the loudness of the main tables.

Briar rolled his shoulders and put a hand to the back of his neck, a crack sounding as he grimaced, “Not t’look like a pig, but ah’m still hungry.”

“Hey, you’re a grown bean pole, y’need your nourishment.” Piper quipped, smiling innocently at his annoyed look.

“Alright, princess, gimme yer plate if yer done. Ah’ll be right back.”

Piper watched him walk away towards the house -not at all focused on his ass in those tight jeans he liked to wear, nope - until a noise to her left made her jump, amber eyes flashing to the intruder.

Then she relaxed with a sigh, eyes fading to brown again, “Hey, Tanner.”

Tanner said nothing, only nodding to her and taking the seat Briar had vacated. She was half tempted to tell him that seat was taken - dammit, self, control - before noticing how utterly wrecked he looked. Not to mention Eric was nowhere to be seen, and he had been at Tanner’s side all night.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked, sitting forwards to look at him more closely, “Where’s Eric?”

“Had a fight. Went home.” Tanner mumbled, running a hand over his face, “’Cause of... Randy.”

“Randy?” Piper frowned, “Why would you get in a fight over-” then she froze, mouth working silently as she stared at the blonde man, gears turning, “Wait... Tanner, you didn’t invite him...?”

“He said he wanted to make amends.” Tanner mumbled, refusing to look up, “I didn’t... I had no idea he was going to bring her with him. I honestly thought he wanted a second chance, to fix things. Not to fuck things up worse.”

Part of her - a very big, angry part - wanted to yell at him, to cuss him out for not seeing through his brother’s lies and putting Briar through that stress.

The smaller, more rational part of her looked at Tanner and saw herself from just over a year ago, when she’d still been blinded by whatever hold Aaron had over her and had forgiven him everything.

Besides, this was Tanner. The chef that joked with her and shared recipe ideas every day, that flung pancake batter at Kristy whenever she tried to sneak bites of tester-dishes before they were done.

The man that had offered her his rolling pin and told her to aim for Briar’s ankles the first day they’d met.

“You’re human, Tanner.” Piper mumbled, reaching out to pat him awkwardly on the shoulder, “You can’t read minds. Or at least, I hope you can’t.”

Her joke made him chuckle ruefully, shaking his head, “I should have known, though. Why would he suddenly want to make amends?”

“There’s nothing wrong with hoping he had changed.” she responded, smiling a little when he looked up, “You gotta hope for something better, right? Can’t always be cynical - and you know that’s the truth, coming from me.”

“You got that right.”

Kristy had appeared at the opening of the gazebo suddenly, green eyes bright with mischief. She held two glasses of swirling, shimmery purple liquid - the one from the fancy bottle Flint had brought out earlier - each with a swirl of orange propped perfectly on the rim.

She and Tanner stared at each other for a moment before she grinned and shrugged her shoulders, handing him one of the glasses, “Here, bro, you need this tonight.”

“Thanks, Kris.” Tanner stared at his glass before downing it in a gulp, grinning lopsidedly, “That stuff goes down way to easily. What’s the rule tonight?”

“No one under 18 gets any.” Kristy grinned, “Carter’s also been told no for the simple fact that he has to head home tonight - family crap, don’t ask. Also, Mom said midnight is the cut off, so no one’s to drunk by the time we all head to bed.”

“Potent stuff?” Piper questioned, eyeing the purple liquid with both curiosity and dread.

“Not really, but it depends on the person. Plus it doesn’t taste like alcohol, so it goes down reaaaaal smooth.”

“How many have you had?” Tanner questioned, eyes narrowed.

Kristy grinned, “Only two! But I’m getting another one when I head back up. This one’s for Piper!”

“Uh...” Piper hesitantly took the offered glass, holding it at arm’s length, “What is it?”

“It’s a home brew! Aunt Serah’s specialty, we only drink it at the family reunion every year! Nothing bad in it, I swear! Just a bit different then what you’d find in stores.”

Sniffing the liquid and finding she wasn’t utterly repulsed by the scent, Piper took a small sip and blinked, surprised. “Geez, doesn’t taste like alcohol is right. Tastes like some weird mix of strawberries and lavender and hibiscus, or something.”

“Couldn’t tell you, Aunt Serah won’t share the recipe.” Kristy did a little dance, shrugging, “Hope you like it! Imma get me another round. They’re gonna set up the dance floor soon, and karaoke! You guys should come join!”

“Hah! Not likely, Kristy.” Piper snorted, taking another sip of the strangely delicious drink.

She didn’t notice the wicked looks Kristy and Tanner shared while she wasn’t looking.

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

At about 11:30, Briar was more than ready to call it a night and be done with the annual family reunion. He had had more than his fair share of excitement, and simply wanted to go to bed and get some sleep. He didn’t need energy; Piper had, knowingly or not, given him more than enough to keep him running for several months, replenishing the slowly fading supply Jeanette had left him with.

No, he just needed the rest so he could be logical and coherent when he did as promised and explained things to Piper. Because, really, after everything that had happened? She deserved to know what she was, if nothing else.

He would tell her everything, though. Or... mostly everything. He wasn’t quite willing to share certain things with her yet; he had to fully admit to them himself, first.

Briar wouldn’t go to bed until Piper did, however. He wanted to make sure she was comfortable and safe and not being harassed by his mother.

Which was why he was still awake and actively searching for the redhead. Either she was avoiding him, or she was just constantly moving.

Considering she’s spent most of the night with Kristy, the latter is incredibly possible.

The kids had all either been taken home or put to bed, and the elders had bid the family good night as well, Briar earning more than a few hesitantly returned hugs as he wandered.

With less people there, it should have been easy to spot Piper, her hair a clear marker amongst the blondes and brunettes of his family.

Apparently not.

A small dance floor had been set up near the back porch, along with a karaoke stand on the porch; Briar headed there now, having had no luck finding her anywhere else.

He had just reached the edge of the dance floor and paused to glance around when his mother appeared at his side, wearing a pleased smile and swirling a glass of that vile purple wine in her hand, just the scent of it making him flinch.

He would never, ever be drinking that bloody stuff again.

“This has turned out to be a wonderful evening, wouldn’t you say, Brennan?” Serah commented casually, making him weary.

“If by wonderful y’mean stressful, then yah. Wonderful.”

“Oh please, dear. You got to spend almost the whole day with Piper; if that wasn’t a success, I don’t know what is!”

“Have you seen Piper?” he asked instead of responding, cursing his mother’s attentiveness.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Serah grinned happily at him, lifting a hand to touch his scarred cheek fondly, “You are positively smitten with that girl. Thank the Gods.”

“Mother, have ye seen’er?” he asked again, evading the question but not bothering to move her hand.

“She’s with Kristy, dear, and she’s fine. Stop your fussing. So, when are you going to tell her?”

“About what she is, tomorrow.” Briar scowled, eyes dimming, “About... th’other stuff, once she doesn’t smell like fear anymore.”

“The girl was hurt, Brennan, of course she’s a little hesitant about these things right now. Just give her some time.” Serah saw his surprised look and winked, “But not too much time, darling. I want you settled A. S. A. P.!”

Briar only rolled his eyes and shook his head, dislodging Serah’s hand on his cheek, “An’ere I thought y’were actually agreein’ with me fer once. I ain’t rushin‘er into anythin’. If something’s going t’happen, it’ll be on her terms.”

“Well, maybe she just needs a little push.”

Blue eyes narrowed, pinning on his mother as she sipped her drink, ”What did y’do?"

“Nothing at all, dear.” Serah murmured from behind her glass, “Nothing at all.”

“Give it to me I’m worth it! Baby, I’m worth it~!”

Kristy’s slightly slurred voice sang out, though Briar didn’t bother to look, to distracted by his mother’s alarming words to care much for his cousins typical antics. “Mother, seriously, did ye say somehin’te Piper?”

“...In the club with the lights off, whatchu acting shy for? Come and show me that-”

Serah huffed, rolling her eyes as Flint took over the rapping part of the song, “Oh please, Brennan, you know me better then that! I may meddle, but I want to help your chances, not ruin them! I may have just...”

“Just gimme you, just gimme you! Just gimme you, that’s all I wanna do!”

Briar’s eyes went wide as his attention shot to the karaoke stand, barely hearing Serah’s mischievous “....given her a little nudge.”

No, he wasn’t going crazy. That had been Piper’s voice, slightly off key and slurred sounding but still clear as a whistle. She was up there with Kristy and Flint, looking just as into it as his cousins.

“Is she drunk?” he asked incredulously, staring. Then she reached for a glass filled with familiar, shimmery purple liquid and downed it between verses, things clicking together in his head as he whirled furiously on his still-smiling mother, “Ye gave her fae wine?! Are ye mad!”

“Technically, I didn’t give her any.” Serah answered with a shrug, “Kristy’s been feeding it to her for the past couple of hours, though.”

“Do ye remember how hard it hit Jeanette?” he hissed out, fists clenching.

“Oh, do I ever, she was quite fun when drunk on fae wine.”

“Did it not occur t’ye that Piper would be even more susceptible, being as powerful as she is?!”

“Of course, darling.” Serah stared him in the eye then, smirking, “You’re welcome, by the way.”

Snarling in frustration, Briar stalked around the edge of the dance floor and up the steps to the karaoke setup, arriving just as the group finished their song to a round of cheers and applause.

“Piper.” he rumbled quietly, not wanting to startle her in her wine-tinted state, “C’mon.”

“Briar!” Piper spun to face him and smiled, his heart nearly exploding with how happy she looked before he reminded himself that she was fae influenced, “Did you see? I sang! I suck at singing but I still got up and did it!”

“Ye sure did.” he grasped her wrists carefully, trying to gently lead her away, “C’mon, princess, yer gonna crash soon...”

“And Kristy’s been giving me this awesome drink, it’s freaking purple! And it doesn’t even taste like alcohol and-” she hiccupped, seeming suddenly embarrassed, “I think I’m drunk. Am I drunk?”

“You are definitely drunk.” he agreed, blue eyes softening as she bit her lip and seemed to come back to herself slightly, eyes dimming to a hazel swirl as she looked away from him.

“Don’t feel drunk though.” she pouted quietly, “Just feel... warm. Content. Happy.” she looked terrified suddenly, shaking his hands off her wrists so she could grab them with hers, “Am I allowed to be happy? Really happy?”

Briar’s heart - torn and scarred as it was - broke in two at her voice and her words, gripping her hands just a bit tighter, “Of course ye’are. Ye deserve no less, princess.”

Piper’s smile was brilliant and then suddenly she was hugging him, her head against his chest and holy hell how much wine had she had?!

“Thank you.” she mumbled, words slurring a bit more than before, “You desverve t’be happy to, Briar. Fuck Adeline. Ye’r to good for her.”

“How much wine did you have, Piper?” he questioned quietly, shooting a look at his cousins over her head.

“I’unno. Five? Six? Lost count.” she was sounding drowsier by the second, slumping further into him and nuzzling into his chest, making his wounded heart beat twice as fast.

“Okay. Bed time fer th’princess.” Briar sighed and swung the shorter woman up and over his shoulder, trying not to smirk at her surprised squeak as her face thumped gently against his back, his arm tucked around her legs to keep her in place.

He headed inside without a word to anyone else, pulling the door open and closing it softly behind them, striding easily forwards.

Then he stopped in the hallway with a silent curse, realizing he didn’t know where her stuff was or what room his mother intended to put her in.

“Piper’s bag is in your room, Brennan.” Martha - appearing from the kitchen with a mug of coffee and a knowing smile - informed him, “And it was your mother’s idea, not mine.”

“Ah’m not even surprised.” Briar grumbled, though he still nodded his thanks and headed for the stairs, taking them three at a time.

Piper was basically out cold by the time he got to his room and flicked the light on - revealing that, as usual, Serah had kept the space clean and prepped for if he ever needed to stay there.

He dumped her gently on the bed and grabbed her bag from beside it before freezing, realizing the implications of having her sleep there.

Piper is going to kill you when she wakes up. he groaned mentally, knowing he had no other choice. Every other plausible sleeping space was spoken for, and he didn’t particularly care for the thought of sleeping on the ground.

She’s also going to get sick if you leave her in her bikini top and shorts all night.

Muttering under his breath, Briar grabbed a pair of sleep pants and a sleep tank from a drawer and left the room, thanking whatever Fae Gods were on his side - for once - when he met Eve coming out of the bathroom.

“Can ye help Piper get changed?” he asked, trying to stay casual despite her knowing look, “Don’t want’er gettin’ sick, but she’s wasted on Fae wine.”

“I had a feeling they were aiming for that tonight.” Eve chuckled good naturedly, “Sure, gimme a few minutes, cuz. We’ll see how cooperative she is when high off Fae spirits.”

“Thank ye.”

Briar watched until Eve had closed the door to his room before entering the bathroom, changing quickly and then trying not to pace as he waited for the all-clear.

Eve was quiet as she slowly slipped out of the room, shooting him a look, “She’s out cold, she’s gonna be having some weird dreams tonight, I bet. May want to keep your distance; she seems like the type to punch in her sleep.”

“Thanks, Eve, see ye tomorrow.”

Eve nodded and headed into the spare room she and her brood were sharing, leaving Briar to slip inside his own and pull the door closed with a little click.

Eve had left only one of the bed-side lamps on, illuminating Piper’s figure where she was curled on her side, clearly asleep. Eve had changed her into a baggy t-shirt and sleep shorts, her hair still in the customary braid.

Briar stared at her for a moment, wondering how things had come to this.

He sat carefully on the edge of the bed and kicked his feet up, smirking a little wryly at how utterly tiny Piper looked on the extra-long bed. He flicked the light off and stretched out on his side, watching her for a moment, features easily distinguishable thanks to the faint red glow still coming off her hair.

“Mmm...” Piper mumbled a little, shifting and tucking her legs closer to herself, a sigh leaving slightly parted lips, “Br’nan...”

He froze, eyes wide as he stared at her, surprised. What was the fae wine making her dream about, if she was saying his name?

Propping himself up on his arm, Briar leaned over her and ran a thumb along her cheek, feeling energy seep into him even through the brief contact.

Then he bent closer and ghosted his lips over the smooth skin, feeling the tingle of the magic she unknowingly housed within her, glad she was asleep.

“G’night, Piper.” he mumbled, laying down and forcing his eyes to close, fighting the urge to simply look at her, “We’ll talk t’morrow.”

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