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Leather and Lace

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Give to me your leather

Take from me my lace

"What if he doesn't like me?"

The roses folded forward in an attempt to reach him, soft pink petals trembling with their effort to move and comfort him. Briar stretched out an arm and touched one. Its color deepened as his magic involuntarily coursed through it, bringing it to a voluminous bloom that had its neighbors straining even more toward him to take some for their own. Sandry tore her eyes away from them and focused instead on his face, partially turned from her.

"What are you talking about?" she said in surprise. "Uncle loves you, silly. He loves all of you. You know that."

"But that was before."

She tried, very hard, to keep her lips from twitching. "Before...?"

Briar scuffed his boot on the cobblestones, and she was taken back to years ago (although it was not so very long ago, really) when he was just a sullen, loud-mouthed street urchin, still a boy. "You know, before us."

Us, a sweet word that, so basic, carried so much weight in its single ringing syllable. Sandry smiled encouragingly at him as she reached out to take his brown hand; it was warm and rough against hers, callouses rasping against her smoothing palm and dirt staining the underneath of his nails. "Briar, you've been family for so long—you and Tris and Daja—and he can't just ignore that. He won't want to, besides."

"Dining at the Citadel as your charity," Briar said bitterly, withdrawing his hand from hers, "is a lot different than dining at the Citadel as your sweetheart."

"You were never my charity," Sandry protested fiercely.

But he was kneeling down in front of one of the rosebushes, his hands patting the wet earth around the roots with a tenderness that belied his taut face. He's upset, she realized. He's truly upset about this. He really doesn't think Uncle will approve of him—but I know he will. I think he's the only one he ever would approve of. She knelt beside him on the ground, spreading her skirts around her.

"You'll get your dress dirty," Briar said sullenly.

She crossed her arms. "Now you're just acting like a brat," she told him. "You're being a silly kid—and I don't mean the human kind."

He looked at her, dark brows furrowed to make a little wrinkle between his eyes. His face seemed overcast like a storm on the horizon and she wanted to smooth his stress away. She couldn't, though; she recognized this as his self-doubting face, his insecure and uncertain and I saw war in Gyongxe face. She tried to touch his mind and found it solidly barricaded against her.

"Easy for you to say, Duchess," he said. "You're welcome at any table. I was always turned away."

"But you won't be turned away from mine."

Sandry took some fallen roses from the ground, already beginning to wilt without their roots. The thorns pricked her but she ignored them, focusing just a little magic into the stems to make them twine with each other. It was difficult—plants only abided her for Briar's sake, and these haughty roses did not let their stems bend too cooperatively—but with careful coaxing and stern guidance, she finally turned them into a seamless crown of roses. She placed it on his coarse curls, oppressing giggles as it drooped down over a scowling eye.

"There," she said, leaning back on her heels to admire him. "You look splendid. No one's going to turn away a man in a crown, now will they?"

"Of all the silliest—" Briar began angrily, and then stopped. For a moment he seemed to wrestle with himself; then, she saw his mouth relax into the smallest, barest of smiles. "No," he sighed. "I suppose not."

"That's better," Sandry whispered. She touched his cheek with her finger. "I don't like to see you upset. It makes me upset."

"That's because you're a girl," he scoffed. "Girls are always bleatin' about something."

Before she could huff about it, he grabbed her face and kissed her fiercely. His mouth was warm against hers, full and sweet and all kinds of beautiful. He was the earth in which she took root; he was the rain that watered her flower. Sandry thought she loved him more than ever in that moment, and even benignly let his "girl" comment go—she would dump a bucket of water on him later, perhaps.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, tightly enough that he made a noise, but she didn't let go. She wanted to remember this—how he showed his rare glint of vulnerability, her knees digging into the moist dirt, her hands splayed across the hard planes of his back.

"I was just kiddin' about the girl thing," Briar mumbled against her mouth. "You don't have to kill me."

"I don't have to," she agreed as she drew away. "But sometime I want to."

He flashed white teeth at her, brilliant in his brown face. He leapt to his feet and offered out strong hands to her, which she took. He pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her waist in one fluid motion.

"Now what kind of attitude is that?" he asked reasonably.

"Exactly what you deserve," Sandry replied in her haughtiest voice.

She felt more than saw his smile as he crushed her against his chest, and her body warmed all over her as he tucked her head under his chin. Ah, Duchess, his mind-voice said, so gently, so sweetly, you've given me more than I've ever deserved.