Briar was glad that spending the night with a woman was a good, ironclad reason to lock the girls out of his mind, because there were certain things he’d really rather they not find.
He was very, very good at faking it during the day. He was pretty sure that even Tris hadn’t guessed, and Tris tended to guess everything, at least where he was concerned.
It was harder to fake it at night, though, especially when there was a woman in his bed, because no matter who she was or what she looked like, he saw bright blue eyes and felt soft brown hair. Which wasn’t fair to anyone, really, and he knew that, but he couldn’t get her out of his head.
Briar sat back on his heels and wiped his bare arm across his forehead. “It’s too hot,” he told Rosethorn. “Even for summer.”
She surveyed him dispassionately; he should have known that he wouldn’t be finding any sympathy from her. “Keep weeding,” she told him. Despite her words, however, she was also clearly becoming uncomfortably warm, even through the thin trousers and shirt she’d donned in place of her normal green habit, because after another ten minutes, she sighed and straightened up. “Let’s go in for a cup of tea,” she suggested. At his horrified look, she let out a laugh. “Iced tea.”
“Oh.” Briar stood up and brushed his trousers off. “Yeah.”
Once they’d settled in, Rosethorn cocked her head to the side and studied him. “You know, I’m perfectly capable of doing the weeding on my own. You don’t need to come here all the way from Summersea to help me.”
He shrugged. “Not a lot of weeding to do back in Summersea,” he said. “Daj got a house with a big enough garden, considering, but it’s not anywhere near the size of yours.”
They’d just settled in when he heard a loud, clear laugh just outside the house and winced before he could stop himself. He downed the rest of his tea quickly and stood up. “Back to weeding?”
Rosethorn stared at him. “Boy, what on earth is the matter with you? Twenty minutes ago you were complaining that you wanted to come inside.”
“Maybe it’s gotten cooler since then.”
“I doubt it.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s really going on?”
The front door opened, and he was saved from having to answer by Lark and Sandry herself. Lark was smiling almost as broadly as Sandry, though unlike Sandry, she wasn’t so amused by whatever they were talking about that she was giggling uncontrollably.
He threw up a thick wall against his thoughts about Sandry and pushed them as far away as he possibly could. It seemed to work; though her smile wavered and a concerned crease appeared in her forehead, he was fairly sure she had no idea what he was really thinking about when she silently asked, Briar, are you all right? You look pale.
“I’m fine,” he said out loud, sinking back into his chair and pouring himself more tea. It was always worst when she came into a room; after that, he could usually adjust and engage in tricky mental maneuvers and downright lies. “Just the sun. Don’t know how you’re not bothered by it, all the skirts you have on.”
She rolled her eyes at him and followed Lark into her workroom.
Rosethorn was looking at him as though he’d grown an extra head. “What was that about?”
He shrugged and concentrated on his tea. She dropped it for the moment, but he wasn’t surprised when she brought it up again when they returned to the garden.
“What was that about?” she asked him again.
He didn’t have to ask what she meant. He knew. “Er - nothing.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?” she said in a tone that was remarkably similar to the one she’d always used when she threatened to hang him in the well.
He winced. If she hadn’t come up with the answer yet, he was sure that she would, and soon. He threw up preemptive shields; if any of the girls tried to talk to him, they’d be bothering him later to know why he’d felt the need to do so when all he’d been doing was weeding, but he’d come up with some excuse. Maybe he’d say he was talking to Rosethorn about Gyongxe or something.
He knew he shouldn’t have told Sandry he’d be happy to join her on the trip to Winding Circle; it was just that the chance to ride alone with her, shoulder to shoulder - and hip to hip - had been too tempting to resist. “Just - ah - the sun.”
Rosethorn frowned at him. “Don’t lie to me, boy. You’re acting like - oh, Mila bless me. Look at me.”
He focused very intently on the plants in front of him.
“Look at me.”
He looked. He wasn’t sure what she found when she searched him, but when she spoke again, he felt his world drop out from beneath him.
“You’re acting remarkably like a lovestruck boy. Is that because you are a lovestruck boy, or because you just find it amusing to act like one?”
“The first,” he mumbled. “I guess.”
“Speak louder. I can’t hear you.”
Finally, his head snapped up, and he flicked his hand out toward the cottage. “No!” he hissed. “She’s right in there! I’m not saying it louder so she can hear what a silly bleater I am!”
Rosethorn sighed. “How long?”
He shrugged again.
“Briar, I am not dragging this out of you word by word. Answer me.”
He sighed. “Long enough,” he muttered. “Bad enough. Are we done?”
“No, we are not. Sit.”
He sat down in the damp earth and let his forehead fall to his knees. “I don’t know how long,” he said. “I guess it started after we got back from Namorn.”
“You got back from Namorn over a year ago.”
“I know. It’s only been the last few months that it’s gotten… well, like this.”
“Well, if it’s been ‘like this’ for the last few months, I’m surprised none of the girls have noticed it.”
“I’m good at hiding it,” he muttered. “I just - I can’t get her out of my head. I’ve tried, believe me.”
“I believe you.”
“I knew it can’t end well,” he said, as much to himself as to his friend and former teacher. “I know it can’t. The duke’s probably going to make her his heir.”
“You can’t keep going like this, either,” Rosethorn pointed out.
Going back to Summersea was equally uncomfortable. It was dusk by the time they left, the wagon they’d brought filled with carefully wrapped cloth and several small plants Daja had insisted he’d bring back for the cook. That wasn’t to say that he minded the strong smell of basil wafting through the air, of course, but as Sandry laid her head on his shoulder to doze, the relaxing aura it helped create did not help his situation as all.
Tris was the one who eventually figured it out. Of course it would be Tris, home on a break from Lightsbridge and far too aware of his shifting eyes and excuses for comfort.
“What is wrong with you?” she hissed at him in the garden. Her mind was open enough for him to see that she knew exactly what was going on.
“I just - er - I can’t help it!”
“Figure out a way to help it! Especially with the way you treat other women - it might just be fun to you and to them, but it wouldn’t be for Sandry, and if you play around with her emotions like that I’ll - I’ll -” For once, her imagination failed her. “Just don’t.”
“I wouldn’t!” he protested. “I haven’t even had another woman in my room in weeks!”
“Weeks,” she scoffed. “Oh, well, if it’s weeks.”
He winced. He did not want to admit that she had a point, even though he was fairly certain that she did.
“Briar, we’ve all just gotten ourselves back on track. Don’t ruin it.”
He rubbed the heel of his palms into his eyes. “I don’t want to,” he snapped. “I’ve tried not to. But I can’t even kiss someone else without seeing her in my mind.”
Tris regarded him with steady grey eyes. He was glad he wasn’t hoping for sympathy - over the next fifteen minutes, he got everything but sympathy from her, and it was a relief when she turned around and stomped back into the house.
Eventually, it had to come crashing down.
It was well after sunset one evening when Briar’s door burst open. He scrambled up. “Don’t you knock?” he snapped. Then he realized who was in the doorway and pulled up short. Most of the emotion he was getting from Sandry was senseless rage, and he was fairly sure that only one thing could have caused that reaction.
“Briar Moss!” she said loudly. “How dare -”
He winced. “At least close the door?”
She didn’t close it so much as slam it. “How dare -”
“Will you keep your voice down?”
“No! No one else is even here!”
He changed tactics. “I didn’t do anything.”
“No,” she agreed, crossing her arms and sticking her chin out. “No, you didn’t. You just moped around and felt sorry for yourself and -”
“Thanks,” he muttered, falling back onto his mattress. “You’re usually a lot nicer than this.”
“If you want me to be nice, then don’t fall in -”
He realized where she was going with that sentence and cut her off just in time. “Thanks for the advice,” he snapped. “I’ll make a note of it for next time.”
A strange expression spread across her face, and after a moment, he realized that he’d genuinely hurt her. “Don’t I feel special, then,” she snapped.
“Sandry, that’s not what I -” She whirled around, but before she could storm out, he said, “Sandry, if you’re going to storm in here to yell at me, yell at me.”
Her lower lip was quivering. “This isn’t fair.”
In that moment, she sounded disconcertedly like the ten year old she’d been when they first met.
He sighed. “Yeah, well. What do you want me to do about it?”
Sandry slid down to the floor and fixed him with her eyes. He knew he should probably look away, but he couldn’t. She didn’t speak.
“I know it can’t work, all right?” he said, willing her to believe that he knew it. He wasn’t willing to let her inside his mind, though - not yet, not about this. He did know it, but there were a lot of other things related to him knowing that that he didn’t want to risk her finding. “I know. I’m just - and I know that you don’t - look, I’m dealing with it, all right?”
She let out a surprised giggle. “Not very well.”
“No, not very well,” he admitted. “Tris yelled at me, if that helps.”
“Did she.” She cocked her head to the side. She seemed to have calmed down a little, which was mostly a good thing. “Do you want to kiss me?”
She shrugged, two faint spots of color appearing on her cheeks. “I said, do you want to kiss me?”
“Well - yeah.” He felt his face start to get hot. “That’s kind of the problem.”
“Why don’t you?”
Briar couldn’t be hearing her right. “What?”
She crossed her arms. Sandry at her most contrary was bad - the part of her body that she was drawing his attention to was worse. And her words, of course, were more disconcerting than either. “I said, why don’t you?”
“Do you want a list? It’s pretty long.”
“No. I want you to do it now.”
He fell back onto his mattress and rubbed his face, willing himself to wake up. When he opened his eyes, Sandry was studying him closely.
He pushed himself against the wall to put a few more feet between them. She knelt down on his mattress gracefully, which only reminded him that even now, their stations in life were far, far too different to make this work.
“No, you don’t,” he said.
Her eyes flashed. “Briar Moss, don’t tell me what I want!”
“Well, I know it’s not me.”
“Of course, because I don’t know any other men who would be perfectly happy to kiss me if I wanted them to.”
He scowled. “Sandry, I’m not a game.”
Her calm was adding to his tension, not detracting from it. “I - you know where I come from. It’s not where you come from.”
“And I’m not a game,” he repeated.
“That’s a little funny, coming from you.”
That hurt. “I don’t treat anyone like a game.”
“You don’t take them seriously, either.”
That didn’t seem to be the point, but he let it go. “So why do you want me to kiss you, then?”
“Oh, because.” She leaned forward, and he felt his heart start to speed up.
He grabbed her elbows before she could lean in further. “Sandry, this isn’t a good idea.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “You’re right.” Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.
Briar had self control, but he did not have the self control of a saint. He closed the distance between them and pressed his lips against hers softly.
When he pulled back, she was smiling. “You’re good at that.”
He’d decided that this was probably a dream. He knew that he’d be more than a little gutted when he finally woke up, but while he was dreaming anyway…
He leaned in to kiss her again.
It wasn’t until he woke up the next morning that he realized that he might not have been dreaming after all, which brought on such a large headache that he nearly wished he had been.
He was halfway across the room when Sandry, still lying on his mattress, opened her eyes sleepily. “Where are you going?” she asked.
He looked back at her. His heart was pounding in his ears. “It’s morning. Er -”
“Oh!” She sat bolt upright, all traces of drowsiness gone from her face in an instant. “I should get back. I need to -”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, it’s not important. Where are my shoes?”
Briar wasn’t sure whether he was glad that she was leaving so he could process what had just happened or disappointed that they couldn’t… something. He wasn’t really sure what.
“We should probably talk,” he made himself say.
Sandry spotted her shoes next to his mattress and slipped her feet into them. “Yes,” she agreed. “I’m sorry, Briar - I’d stay if I could, I just…”
“It’s fine.” The idea of spending the entire day - or longer, even - having no idea what was going on was not very appealing, but there was nothing to be done about it. He was just happy they hadn’t done anything more than kiss - that would have definitely had his stomach tied up in knots for hours.
He offered her a hand to pull herself off the floor. She took it, and he felt a jolt slide up his arm.
Before he could say anything - not that he knew what he should say - she kissed his cheek. She’d done that countless times over the years they’d known each other, but this felt different. “Later,” she whispered.
He nodded. Before she could open the door, he pressed his lips against hers again. She smiled when they pulled apart and hurried out.
Briar groaned. There was no way that this was going to end well. He made his way to the kitchen anyway - it would take more than kissing Sandry to get him to skip a meal.
“Who just left?” Daja asked cheerfully from the kitchen table.
He shrugged. After a moment, though, he decided that a half-truth was probably better than refusing to say anything at all, especially since they could generally track each other’s locations if they wanted to. “Sandry. I think she wanted to get away from people who wanted things from her for a bit, but we fell asleep.”
Daja frowned, a faint crease in her forehead. “Why didn’t she stop in to say hello?”
“I think she had to get back. She didn’t mean to stay here - we just fell asleep.”
Sandry, he thought, I told Daja you were here. I didn’t tell her anything else.
It was probably good that he’d done so, because he immediately heard Daja’s voice in his mind. Sandry, why didn’t you say hello?
I was running late, she said. Sorry I missed you, Daja. I’ll try to come back tonight.
She ended the connection, which was just as well.
Daja looked mollified and went back to breakfast.
Briar briefly considered talking to her about the entire thing - he was sure that Sandry would, at some point - but after a moment, he decided to let it go. She'd undoubtedly broach the topic better than he would, and he still didn't know quite what to make of the whole thing.