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Wasn't, Isn't, Never Was

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At first he was just a boy.

"Don't stick your neb where no one wants it."

A very annoying boy, true.

"You think I'm a bleater, not knowin' who does Bags' works?"

But he was also her new housemate, so Lady Sandrile--no. So Sandry planted her hands firmly on her hips, and made a face at him.

"I made it," she informed him. "And I never lie. Sell it if you like. You look like the sort of person who'd want a few more roses in his life." She grinned.

He stared at her, and then down at the tapestry. She'd already given one to Tris, which hadn't exactly encouraged further attempts at reaching out, but Briar's room had been so bare-whenever she poked her head in to inform him of lunch, and he rushed by her, the room seemed to ring in his wake.

Sandry, with her close-knit family, at least before--

Sandry, as a child who had wanted for very little (except companionship) had felt the shock of being alone amidst a crowd (of snobby nobles) like a slap to the face, once she had recovered enough to feel alive again.

So even though he probably didn't appreciate the gesture, she was fine as long as he took it and found some comfort with furnishings for the bareness, because she was not doing it for him.

"I would have stitched in more thorns," she added now, thinking of Briar's day of weeding, weeding, weeding, with the prickly Rosethorn. "But I'd have had to cover part of the pattern up."

He didn't say thank you, but she hadn't been used to gratitude - genuine gratitude - for a long time, so just thought, Boys, as she left the room.

So it was a pleasant surprise when he became a friend.

- : -

Sandry didn't have friends.

Sandry had acquaintances, and she had age-mates. She had companions who chattered through embroidery at Pearl Cup, foolish, selfish, snobby nobles who thought the world was gossip and laughter. She had memories of woods, the salt of the sea, pirate attacks, sprawling plains, and the scent of sweet pea sachets as they were tucked into her traveling trunk, delicately ominous. She had recollections of riding away from the children who had tentatively reached out, of the pressing weight of duty, and of pale light, silk thread shining against the thick veil of darkness.

Those silks, perhaps, were her friends.

But they weren't a replacement for living, breathing people--even if, sometimes, she wished she could run her hands through loose, smooth silk, bury her face in softness, revel in the simplicity of it all.

This changed when she came to Discipline--when she met them.

And, eventually, when she came to know him.

- : -

Maybe it was because of her inexperienced expectations that she found them - Tris and Briar and Daja - to be more than she ever expected, but drowsing on the roof of Discipline Cottage and watching clouds float by, she doubted it was the case.

It was summer, and the sun was golden and warm on her skin as she contemplated the friendships she had built up over the past months. The earthquake had come and gone, and she knew now that magic fizzed in her veins, but life was steady: Tris was still cranky, Daja was serene, and Briar Moss might tug her braids, but she also tickled him back.

She could feel his presence before his head popped up out of the hatchway into the interior of the house. Something mischievous gripped her, and if she could step outside of herself and watch, she would see the bright sparkle in her blue eyes--dancing in glee--and the good-humored smile tugging at the edge of her soft mouth.

"I like you," she said suddenly.

There was a rustle, and her giggles turned to laughs as she realized he had nearly tripped over.

"How long've you been up here?" he asked suspiciously, glancing at the hot sun.

She popped up an eyebrow and turned to look at him. "I'm not... what did you call it? I'm not 'romancing' you. I just like you."

Sandry could feel the mutter of something rude at the back of his mind, beckoning for her to look, but she ignored the temptation to dive back in. It was really too much fun to watch him being dismissive, trying to hide his awkwardness at any mention of affection, however platonic, because he never quite succeeded. All the mutterings in the world would not change that.

"Just like a girl," he said eventually.

"Well I'm certainly not a boy," she answered balefully. "I'm allowed to be sentimental, and that--is--that."

He shook his head as he lay down beside her, soaking up the sun like his plants did.

I dare you to accuse Rosethorn of being sentimental, she mind-told him.

- : -

But 'that' was not just 'that', maybe because they were young and alive within the magic.

He was a fascinating boy. He was supposed to be her polar opposite, because not only was he, in fact, a boy, but a thief, and a commoner, and he lied much better than she did.

Much to her envy.

(Because anyone who tells you that they never lie is a liar, if only because they're lying to themselves.)

He was not as prickly as Tris, though they were both quietly strong-willed, burning with pride they couldn't see they had. And isn't it a strange thing? she wondered. She was the noble, but Trisana was so much more of a stickler about class, while Briar had this deep, deep scorn about nobles that made him see them as they saw commoners.

He didn't have Daja's serenity, though they were both calm and level-headed in a crisis. While Tris's face went red and froze, tottering on the knife edge of being destructively useless and destructively effective, and Sandry acted before she realized it, Briar thought. His mind had guided his hands through the most dangerous situations, even when he was alone with Tris, trailing after Tris's treacherous cousin and watching Winding Circle being penetrated by pirates.

He was flippantly confident, occasionally smooth, naturally rude, subtly wild, brutally honest--when he was not lying his face off. He had a heart he wouldn't show, manners he wouldn't lose, skills he wouldn't use, or used so much she wanted to unravel his breeches.

He was always there for her.

The others were too, but he was a boy, and she was a girl, still exhilarated from surviving, still curious about what the other sex was like (but not in the really adult way.)

Maybe that was why she decided, if she was going to have a crush, it might as well be him.

- : -

She laughed at herself later.

He was like her brother.

It would never happen: she would never like him, he would never love her back, and nothing would ever come out of it.

- : -

For two summers, nothing did come of it.

It was childish crush, Sandry thought as a thirteen year old, arms laid before her on the kitchen table, chin propped on her flattened hands, and watching Briar tend patiently to one of his newest, youngest shakkan. She would have gone onto the roof, but it needed thatching, which wasn't going to happen for a few days yet, so she'd pulled on her lightest cotton dress and pinned her hair up to relieve the heat. Tris was down by the sea, trying to sense the pull behind the tides, so the wind that fluttered through the open windows, tugging coolly at her dress and making locks of hair tumble around shining cornflower eyes, was completely natural.

"Don't you have work of your own?" asked Briar pointedly.

She shook her head. "The Water Temple is stuffed full with bandages," she informed him, "and I'm waiting for a delivery of linen. What's that for?" she asked, gesturing at the soft silver light of magic as he bent one of the limbs in a gentle arc. "It looks awkward."

His thin mouth tugged down in a grimace, and the light redoubled. He didn't answer for a while, concentrating on what appeared to be a difficult, stubborn working. He looked like he'd give up if it did not work this time.

"It's this difficult, stubborn tree, and I'm going to give up and use wire if it won't obey this time," he said, and Sandry had to bite down on her lower lip to stop a giggle escaping. As the glow faded, he breathed more naturally, and ran a sun-tanned finger across the much more graceful looking curve that had formed. "Fertility," he said. "I dunno why the Water Temple wants one... something about the maternity ward..."

"I don't think the maternity ward would need one," Sandry pointed out sensibly. She let her eyes drift while Briar flicked a coil of wire in his hand and began winding it patiently around the limbs to keep them rigidly fixed. Silver began to glow again, but this time it was because she was concentrating on magic.

It was not just sight. She could feel it too, the magic stored in the miniature willow, steady and almost... sweet, like honey, but flowing like water. The shakkan stored magic, but it was still small compared to the subtle, but stronger, scent of moss and earth, blazing at the back of her eyelids whenever she could pin it down. She knew it almost as well as she knew hers, so she could tell immediately that Briar was... distracted by something.

He switched effortlessly to speaking between magics as he noticed what she had done. You know them Water Temple Dedicates.

She could feel it stronger than ever, now that their link was open again. He realized it at the same time, and abruptly cut the link, face a little flushed, while she blinked blearily, wondering what was wrong. He'd been touchy like this since the beginning of summer, almost as jumpy as Tris, who was dealing with the knowledge of just how STRONG her power was, and though it bothered Sandry, Briar didn't seem keen on sharing the problem. He spent even his free time in the gardens beside the cottage, with the excuse that his plants must be perfect. Though Sandry hadn't told him, that was why she was spending even more time on the roof--she was watching him and wondering what the problem was.

Sandry had tried to pinpoint the start of the strangeness without success. The earliest she could recall was a trip to visit her great-uncle in Summersea--sudden and without warning, after Niko decided to speak to His Grace without giving a reason why. Sandry had been stuck playing hostess to His Grace's noble visitors, struggling to keep her face void of, intermittently, irritation ("Oh Lady Sandrilene, are you certain you don't want to show off your power, the way you student-mages seem to like...?") and laughter (If he keeps going on he's definitely going to see power--when I fry him with lightning). Until finally, the noble had made the mistake of insulting her friends--and once again, her body ran forward without her, and she had informed him coolly that if he kept talking, she would strip his clothes off, and how would he like to see power like that?

She had been horrified afterwards, of course, and had spent an afternoon writing out an apologetic letter, but at the time, Sandry hadn't been quite recovered from an experiment with alcohol, and the look on his face had been worth it.

Maybe that's it, Sandry mused now. She had caught an image from Briar, of her standing up, straight and looking tall, proud and commanding, sun playing across her light brown hair as she made the stuffy noble choke back his words with just the edge of her tongue. She had acted arrogantly--like a Bag.

"You're not thinking about our visit to Summersea, are you?" she asked.

She felt the faintest shock as he looked up sharply, but he recovered. "No."

He was lying.

"I shouldn't have done that," she sighed. "I acted like a Bag, didn't I?"

His wary frown confirmed her suspicions. "You... you are one." He mumbled something under his breath that she couldn't catch, but added, knowing how it could be misconstrued, "But you're all right for one."

She had a strange urge to run her fingers through his jet back hair as he said that, and the slight upward curve of one side of his thin mouth only made the feeling stronger. What she thought of as propriety stopped her for a moment, until she remembered she was trying not to act quite so noble, but even as she leaned forward, she realized there was something else making her hesitate.

Stop it, she told herself firmly. This is Briar. He won't mind.

"Forget about it," she said, surprised at how soft his short hair was. "I might be a noble," she told him, noticing he had frozen like a thief caught in the act of larceny, "but I'm also a girl, so I'm allowed to this." She hesitated. "I'm sorry I acted so stuffy."

He seemed to sigh, air escaping in a long draught reminiscent of a real breeze. Something played across his golden face, caught between two conflicting emotions. Relief, she read, but also disappointment.

She wondered why--just as she wondered why she liked lacing fingers through his hair so much.

- : -

She saw so much, and yet she saw so little-and then the veil fell.

It fell because she imagined what it would be like to kiss him.

He's like a brother, she told herself, with decreasing conviction. It's not happening.

- : -

But it did.

It was a few days before he was due to leave with Rosethorn, while she was helping him fold clothes in neat creases in his trunk. The room was achingly bare; most of his belongings were already packed, except for the tapestry, which she was gently guiding down from its place on the wall. The silk landed soundlessly in her hand, and she smiled at it fondly—it had been in Briar's presence for so long that, if she ground the whorls of her fingers into red petals and the single sharp-edged thorn, she could feel moss and grass.

She imagined that if she ran her lips across the seams, she could taste spring.

"Duchess?" Briar said, in a way that made her think it was probably not the first time he had called her name.

She flushed as she realized what it must have looked like, and handed it over.

The room looks so bare, she sighed inwardly, as she pivoted in a slow circle to survey it. Light entered in a square prism from the uncovered window, but it fell on nothing but dust and wooden floor--even the pallet had been rolled away. It looked even lonelier than when she first gave him that tapestry.

Speaking of which...

"I never thanked you," he said quietly, holding the roll in his hands and staring at it, much like Sandry had been. It looked far stranger, though, to Sandry. His warm, golden skin contrasted starkly against the forest green background of the silk, and when he held up the tapestry, until it almost hid his nose from sight, his eyes looked like so much paler--lime, or jade, but blooming. He was going to grow up to be a heartbreaker.

"Don't worry," she said easily. "That was years ago. Who remembers that far back?"

"I remember Roach," he said darkly. "Roach hated Bags."

"Then it's a good thing you're not Roach any longer," she told him firmly.

He shrugged. "Yeah. I don't know what the Yanjing would think of someone called cockroach."

"Roach," she said with a smile, trying not to be sad--because she was Sandry, and she was always sunny, always--as she crossed the room, "would never let a foster-sister play dressmaker doll with him, or hug him when he's leaving for more than a year."

She wrapped her arms around him, trying not to think of the empty cottage in high summer, the garden blazing green with his power, Rosethorn's workshop filled with their work, and all the other reminders she would see in a week that he wasn't here.

She was surprised when he didn't say something about sentimental girls. It turned quickly to shock as he raised his arms to pat her on her silk-covered back, caught somewhere between siblings and... not siblings... with an arm slung across her shoulder as he might with a mate, and the other one unsure.

"At least you know what's important," she laughed, feeling tears gathering in the corners of her eyes--and he was not even gone yet!

She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek, but at the last moment, he turned his head--unintentionally, she could see by the widening of his eyes--and her lips caught the corner of his mouth instead. She froze in shock, her belief that nothing would happen coming back to haunt her, because he was not moving either. He didn't do what she saw the adults do, which was hold her closer, because frankly they were thirteen and there was a big difference between crush and love and sensuality, and they were caught on the line between.

Still, he was smiling when she recovered enough to draw back.

Sandry stared at Briar.

Briar stared at Sandry.

"That," he said, "was strange. Strange, but very pleasant."

And raising a hand to touch her mouth, where she'd kissed him, Sandry wondered how she was going to get through the next year alone.

- : -

That was before Uncle's heart attack.

That was before she took on a student.

That was before she got involved with murders.

That was before she began to understand duty, and ruling, and growing up.

That was before she killed.

- : -

And for Briar's part, there were gangs, and then there were years, and then there were other girls, and then...

And then, there was blood and death and war.

- : -

"Don't stick your neb where no one wants it."

It was after Namorn that Sandry recalled that summer: first kiss, first bloom, first crush.

He was no longer just a boy.

"Don't worry. I don't mind not being told about your... shenanigans."

"Then we're both happy as rats."

And she was no longer just a girl.

"I wouldn't care, but that was a really good chair. Couldn't you have found something else to... ah... break?"

He shrugged. "There wasn't anything else left."

But that didn't mean she wanted to be told about her foster-brother's sex life.

Grinning despite herself as he threw up his hands in defeat and promised to buy a new chair, Sandry followed him into his room. The girl was gone, but the sheets were still rumpled. She averted her eyes. It would be like imagining Uncle and Yazmin...

Stop. Do NOT go there.

The room wasn't nearly as bare. He was wealthy now, his shakkans worth much more than the old tapestry from nearly ten summers past, with enough to furnish his rooms with more tools and ornaments, but it pleased her when her roaming eyes--avoiding the bed--chanced upon it. The tapestry wasn't in a position of honor, but it was clearly visible, and as she reached out to it with her power, she could feel he'd been careful with it throughout his travels.

He turned, to snap at her, perhaps, but as he followed her gaze, he stopped stock-still, like he was thinking about the same summer when she handed it to him.

She nodded, walked up to him, and slung an arm around his shoulders in a most unladylike manner.

"You kept it," she told her first crush.

"You knew I would," he told his.

She could have said something more, but that point had passed long ago, and she wouldn't go back if she had the chance to.

She was not in love with him, but she loved him more than almost anything else in the world.

"I'm glad," she said, a smile in her voice as she reminisced about her past. She reached out with her power to straighten a corner of it until it was displayed in a position like it had been in Discipline, before she handed it to him-like the summer had never happened, but remembering it did.

Because it had been her crush that taught her how much he meant to her as a brother, she would always look fondly back on something that never really was.

And that was that.

- : -