He was damn sure he didn't have a thing left to live for. And he was more than fine with it.


5. Already Gone

It wasn’t a greenhouse, but it was something Briar could do without wanting to beat his head against the wall. The bakery was bigger than Thomas’s, and contained significantly more personnel than Briar was used to, but his specialty was breads, which meant Briar had to be there very early in the morning and was usually out of there by noon, or a little into the afternoon. It worked out well, as Lily was only left alone in the house for a small pocket of time between when Miles went to the forge and when Briar returned.

                They’d been in Venegry a little over a month, found a relatively cheap house he and Miles spent their non-working days fixing up properly, while Lily worked from their small front room as a seamstress, specializing in fix-its. It wasn’t a heavy workload – neither male would permit it – and her belly continued to swell with each passing day.

                Miles had done the honorable thing shortly after their arrival and married her in front of Venegry’s High Justice, Briar as their witness. He wouldn’t have been able to if he’d still bore the Haverford name, but Briar Foxwood was enough to watch Lily Haverford marry Miles Halloway. Beamed with pride, too.

                And wondered, in the deepest parts of his mind, if he’d ever find happiness like that again.

                Kneading was muscle memory, and he allowed it to take over so he could let his eyes roam around the storefront. He was visible behind a length of glass to the right of the door. The main counter with the display case of the day’s wares was across from him. Chase, a human who stood nearly a foot taller than Briar, was getting the till set for the day. Soon enough, he’d unlock the front doors and the customers would come trickling in. They’d pay Briar little heed, except maybe the little ones, who would be utterly fascinated by the male with the unruly shaggy hair up to his elbows in flour. He kept his hair long enough on the sides to cover the tops of his ears – most notably the missing tip of the left one – since it prevented unwanted questions Briar didn’t want to particularly think about, let alone answer.

                He grabbed his knife and sliced the dough in half, patting it into a loaf shape and thumping it onto the baking sheet. The other half followed suit, and he scored the tops. The knife went back to its resting place, and he upended another bowl of risen dough onto his work space, sprinkling more flour. The empty bowl went on top of the previous one, and Briar floured his hands again before beginning to knead again.

                Rhythm, a mindless, soothing rhythm where he could blank his mind and not think about a damn thing.

                Chase closed the till with a snap, leaning against the counter and surveying the shorter male. Briar didn’t say much, came to work on time, stayed when he was asked, and worked hard. All his bread dough rose beautifully, and he was, more or less, a model employee.


                The Fae in question picked his chin up, hands never stopping their movement as he gave Chase his attention. “Yes?”

                “You’re not Venegry born and raised, are you?”

                He met the human’s blue eyes calmly. “No. I’m from Kelleran, though.”

                Chase snorted. “Well, yes. You don’t have the coloring to be from Border Countries.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Where are you from?”

                Briar took his clenched hands from the dough, resting his knuckles on the counter and leaning heavily on them. What were the chances the other villages and cities had heard about what happened in Pennfold? How many other places had fallen to surprise attacks by the Red Order, whoever they were?

                What were the chances anyone in Venegry knew about the Earth-bound mage who had lost all control in the Pennfold village center and destroyed a fountain of Lev and Cyren because he’d lost his best friend?

                Venegry wasn’t far enough from Pennfold to be completely in the dark.

                Chase took his hesitance to mean something completely different. “You’re wanted by the law, aren’t you?”

                Briar jerked as though slapped. “No. Chase, no.” He rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I’m not wanted by the law, I swear.” He let his head hang, thumb swirling a small pile of flour. “I’m from Pennfold.”

                The human’s left eyebrow crept up his forehead. “Pennfold?”

                He nodded. “Pennfold.”

                Chase rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Were you there when the mages were attacked?”

                Briar’s chest hitched. This was exactly what he didn’t want to deal with. Not trusting his voice, he nodded dumbly.

                “Heard about it from a drifter,” he continued casually. “Some Earth-focused Fae took out two of the Red Order, saved a whole passel of children, and destroyed the monument to Cyren and Lev in the middle of the town. He’s apparently a hell of a mage.”

                It was interesting to hear about his personal exploits from a third person point of view. Briar fought the blush creeping up his neck, trying to gather his scattered thoughts to figure out how to respond. There was no way for Chase to know it had been him. There hadn’t been any odd defining characteristics of the Fae responsible, and at the time, Briar had had both ear tips.

                He damn near blacked out, and had to remind himself to suck in a breath and let it out again through his open mouth. “Really?” he finally managed to croak out.

                The human smirked. Briar apparently knew more about this than he’d originally thought.

                “Oh, yeah,” Chase said, barely managing to keep a straight face. “Said he was about your height, green eyes.” He tilted his head to the side. “I dunno, Briar, now that I think about it, the drifter pretty much described you.”

                Briar took a half step back from the counter, wheezing horribly, trying to draw in a decent breath and failing. There was a roaring in his ears, black encroached across his vision, and he grabbed for something stable to hold onto. He missed the counter, flailed at the empty bowls, and managed to take them with him as he hit the floor with a solid thump, passed out cold.

                “Shit, Briar!” Chase scuttled around the counter, passing in front of the ovens as the Fae and the bowls toppled out of sight. He landed hard on his knees beside the smaller male, carefully turning Briar’s head and peeling back an eyelid. “Come on Briar, I know you’re in there.” He patted the Fae’s cheek, heaving a grateful sigh when he started to come around. Briar’s leg twitched, sending one bowl skittering into another with a hollow twang. The noise served to bring the Fae further back to consciousness, and lime-colored eyes blinked sluggishly open, staring up at Chase with confusion.

                “Welcome back,” Chase said warmly. He wrapped gentle palms on either side of the Fae’s head to keep him still, frowning when his right hand encountered scar tissue where the left had found the top of a pointy ear. Briar continued to blink up at him, content – or disoriented enough – to let Chase manhandle him, turning his head to the right.

                Briar’s legs moved again, searching for purpose on the hard floor to get him away from the human hovering over him. His chest heaved.

                “Easy, Briar, you need to breathe.” Chase continued his inspection of the side of Briar’s head. “In and out, long, deep breaths. In and out.”

                He obliged, and finally coordinated enough to plant his left foot solidly on the floor and push, attempting to lever himself away from the human.

                Chase promptly kicked Briar’s left leg out from under him; it hit with a slap. “You get breathing down and then we’ll worry about moving.” He moved Briar’s dark brown hair out of the way, whistling lowly when he caught side of the left ear in all its mangled glory. “What did they do to you, Briar?”

                Briar’s breathing finally leveled out.

                “Good. Ready to sit up?” He didn’t wait for Briar to give the affirmative, moving around to kneel between the Fae’s splayed legs to get a good grip on his upper arms and slowly haul him upright. Briar swayed and blinked, wincing. Chase didn’t let him go until he was certain Briar wasn’t going to fall right back to the unforgiving floor. “Just keep breathin’.”

                “Chase,” Briar rasped, running a hand through his hair and feeling the lump at the back of his skull. That would explain the headache. “I’m not wanted by the law.”

                “I know that.” The human sat back on his haunches, surveying the Fae in front of him. “What happened to your ear?”

                “It’s what happens when you’re Fae and your family disowns you.” It was easier to look over Chase’s shoulder at the half-window curtains on the front windows, rather than the human’s blue eyes. He didn’t need anybody’s pity, let alone Chase’s. “I was that mage in Pennfold, the one the drifted talked about.”

                “I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I – the drifter didn’t actually know what the mage had looked like. I figured you would have brushed it off, not passed out on the floor.”

                “Yes, well, the truth is usually stranger than fiction, isn’t it?” Briar scooted back to put some space between himself and Chase, and used his workspace counter to help haul himself to his feet. His knees needed to be coaxed to take his weight, and he leaned heavily on the counter, not caring he was getting flour all over his dark shirt. Dark fabrics did very well at covering sweat stains, but not so well when it came to disguising flour.

                Chase rose gracefully to his feet and gave the Fae the space he was silently pleading for. Knowing Briar would probably feel safer, in some regards, if he went about the rest of the morning routine like normal, he left the bowls on the floor for the Fae to get and moved back across the bakery to the till.

                His legs were anything but steady as he went to pick up the bowls. It was a good thing they were both empty and dirty, otherwise he’d have been angrier with himself for dumping perfectly good dough on the floor along with him. He next moved to the sink to wash his hands and forearms, temporarily ignoring the looks Chase was shooting him across the room. He’d give the human answers when he was good and ready to. Or he wouldn’t. Briar didn’t think the human had it in him to fire him because he wouldn’t talk about past events in another village. Chase not only had more tact, but more respect, too.

                After drying his hands thoroughly, Briar returned to his workspace, sprinkled more flour on the dough and his fingers, and got back to his kneading, allowing the repetitive motion to soothe him.

                “Our Mage in Residence was one of the first they attacked that night,” Briar said, not looking up from his task. “The first one I took was the one who had her pinned in her kitchen, ready to kill her. The second happened because it went after some of the children.” He brought his chin up, looking defiantly over the glass at Chase. “They killed my best friend. I lost it.”

                Chase blinked. “They disowned you for that?”

                Briar shrugged, shoulders twitching. It was much more complicated than he’d made it seem. “It was a long time coming.”

                The human slipped under the counter and went to unlock the door, uncaring they were nearly fifteen minutes later in opening. He looked back at Briar before he switched the sign around, waiting until the Fae’s eyes met his. “Your secret’s safe with me, Briar. You have my word.”

                Briar nodded stiffly, not trusting his voice. Chase went back to his position by the till, Briar went back to his kneading, and the customers began filing in. Everything, more or less, returned to its normal cadence.


                Lily was sitting in the front room working on what looked like a wedding dress, if the sheer amount of fabric and bows were anything to go by, when Briar returned to the house. Chase hadn’t asked any more questions, and Briar hadn’t offered up any more information. It reminded him of a chess stalemate, both sides pressing without truly getting anywhere, and it was about as good an analogy as he could figure.

                He leaned in the doorway, content to watch Lily with her needle and thread. She hummed while she worked, something out of their childhood, and he rubbed a hand the bristles on his jaw. Growing a beard was a tempting idea, if for no other reason than it would throw anyone seriously looking for him for a loop.

                Was there anyone looking for him? Really?

                Briar pushed away thoughts of the Red Order and focused on staying right where he was, in the house Miles and Lily graciously shared with him. The ungrateful part of him called it charity, and rebelled against it, while the practical side of him had taken to heart her soft statement in the wake of Endy’s death, that he would always be her brother, contrary to what the law stated.

                He thumped a heel against the wood in frustration.

                Lily jerked at the sudden sound in her quiet world, pricking herself with the needle. She dropped the fabric in her lap, jamming the needle into the pincushion and stuffing her thumb in her mouth while inspecting the dress for any sign she’d bled on it.

                “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.                             

                She smiled around her thumb, and he was reminded with a sharp ache in his chest of the better moments in their childhood. With her other hand, she held out the dress. Briar crossed the threadbare rug, wiping his already clean hands on his breeches out of habit, and picked the garment up by its…front. The thing didn’t have shoulders, and he cocked his head to the side, trying to figure out how exactly it would fit a female’s body. He took a few steps back, holding it higher so it wouldn’t drag on the ground, and came to the conclusion it was made for someone far taller than Miles, even, and what was the purpose of all that extra fabric spewing from the back?

                “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Lily asked, using the arm of the sofa to get to her feet. She inspected her thumb again, her other hand settling over the swell of her belly.

                Briar looked between Lily and the dress, unsure what to say, and finally stammering out, “Sure.”

                “Males,” she muttered, not bothering to search his face for the lie, and extended the arm by her baby bulge from him to drape the fabric over. He did so, and she bustled into the next room to hang it back up. “You don’t like it, do you?”

                “I’m not particularly fond of females, let alone females in wedding dresses in that particular way.” He followed her, knowing he was probably going to say the wrong thing but also knowing she wouldn’t slap him for it. “It doesn’t appeal to me. And it’s got about twice as much fabric as it should, so how’s a male to get his bride out of it on their wedding night? It would take him ages.”

                Lily hung the dress, running her hand over the fabric to make sure it settled properly. She threw him a wicked smirk over her shoulder. “That’s half the fun, Briar.”

                “That’s one of those things I don’t need to know, thank you very much.” He grinned. “It’s also much quicker to get out of breeches than a damn dress.”

                She turned, giving him her full attention and a look of false innocence. “Speaking from experience, are you?”

                He forced a chuckle. It wasn’t in his heart to make her feel badly as he and Endy had never reached that stage in their fledgling relationship, so he muttered something about swimming holes. The grin that lit her face was completely worth it.

                “Did you eat lunch?” she asked, brushing by him and heading for the tiny kitchen. Briar followed dutifully in her wake, sliding into one of the rickety chairs at the rickety table when she pointed. He knew she was trying to take care of him so well as a way to try and make up for what she considered not taking proper care of him when they were younger, and he didn’t know how to make her see it was alright.

                Some things in life were simply inevitable, the falling out between father and son one of them.

                “I can heat up some soup, if that’s alright?”

                “That’s fine, Lily.” He leaned his elbows on the table. Did he tell her about Chase and the incident that morning in the bakery? “I brought some bread home, too.”

                She practically squealed with delight, and his smile reached his eyes this time. No, he decided, she didn’t need to know. The less she did, the safer she was, if they, whoever they were, came for him.


                The weeks passed slowly, the heat of the summer blending into the cooler tones of the incoming fall. The house, little more than a shack when they’d bought it, had undergone enough repairs at the hands of Briar and Miles to be considered a real home, complete with a specific space for Lily to deal with clients and accepts new garments for repairs without customers traipsing through most of the downstairs. Lily herself was glowing as she entered the latter terms of her pregnancy. Briar had been shocked when she’d eased down next to him on the sofa one afternoon, taking his hand and placing it in a specific spot on her rounded belly. Once the shock – and the blush – had receded, he grinned stupidly when the little one inside her battered his palm with its foot.

                The longer they spent in Venegry, the more comfortable they became with the market town. Briar fought with his paranoia when he was out and about with Lily, always wary of who was around and where they were. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything about it, most likely chalking it up to overprotective brotherly instincts he hadn’t been able to suppress completely, though she was the older sibling.

                Technically speaking she was an only child now, but her father and the High Proprieter could both go to hell in her opinion.

                In any event, she thoroughly enjoyed the time she was able to spend with Briar. Miles was at the forge, and she and Briar were taking a turn around Venegry’s large, open-air market. Careful saving and spending their first weeks in the town had allowed them to now sit comfortably and start looking for things for the baby. Lily wanted neutral colors, in case there were any surprises about the sex of the child. She was a staunch believer she was going to have a son, while Miles and Briar were at least as adamant she was having a daughter.

                Lily paused to peruse some knitted blankets, noticing from the corner of her eye the way Briar stared at the nurseryman’s tent a few places down. She gave him a none-too-gentle shove in that direction.


                She nudged him again. “Go. Look. You haven’t been around a living plant since we arrived in Venegry. And no, flour doesn’t count. Now go.” She sighed, planting her hands on her hips. “I’ll be right here and won’t be leaving until you come back. Now go. Before you hurt yourself because you want to so badly.” She made shooing motions with her hands when he hesitated further.

                Briar gave her a look that said, very clearly, stay here, and wove his way through the crowd toward the nurseryman. An ache settled deep in his chest, part of him crying out in longing as he approached the potted plants and newly growing root systems. He ran his fingers over the smooth leaves without conscious thought, closing his eyes as the part he’d tried so very hard to keep buried surfaced, reaching out and connecting him back to the Earth he’d tried to turn his back on.

                “Ye alright, boy?” the grizzled man behind the table asked, looking at him oddly.

                “Much better now, thank you,” Briar said with a small, genuine smile. He wandered slowly down to the end, crouching next to the small saplings. Trees had always been his favorite, the one plant he connected the fastest and strongest with. The plants themselves were amazing as well, bending in the rough weather but never breaking.

                A lot like me, the devious part of his mind whispered. Bent, but never broken.

                He stroked his thumb over the small leaves, angling his body so he could see back through the thinning crowd to find Lily. She was still looking at knitted baby blankets, one hand draped casually over her belly, positively radiant. Miles was a very, very lucky male.

                Children weren’t in his future, except for the niece or nephew Lily was going to bring shortly into the world. Males couldn’t carry children, and Briar had no doubts he would, perhaps, eventually find a male to settle down with.

                Maybe it would feel a little less like replacing Endy and a little more like moving on, too.

                His grip tightened on the poor sapling, and it spontaneously underwent a small growth spurt.

                Briar blinked, feeling a drain he hadn’t felt in weeks. This part he hadn’t missed.

                His arms dropped lamely to his sides and he blinked against the fuzzy quality the world had temporarily taken on. When his vision cleared, he smiled reassuringly at the nurseryman and looked back toward Lily.

                The world ground to a halt.

                Lily stood in conversation with a hooded stranger wearing what looked like a black robe. The figure shifted in response to Lily switching her weight from one foot to the other, and Briar’s stomach clenched painfully. The robe was a deep enough red to appear black. It was exactly the type and color as those who had attacked the mages in Pennfold had been wearing.

                The Red Order.

                He fought down panic. Tossing an apologetic smile to the nurseryman, Briar started to weave his way through the mass of bodies to get back to Lily. By the time he reached her, the man in the robe was gone, and Lily was handing over some coins to a girl about their age while an older woman wrapped the baby blanket in stiff paper. Said paper was creased badly when Briar drew her into as tight a hug as he could with her baby belly between them. He kissed her temple, holding her close and searching wildly for any sign of the Red Order.

                Lily snaked an arm around his waist and pinched what little excess skin he had on his far hip. He stepped back with a yelp, rubbing at the offended area.

                “Not that I’m complaining about the hug, but what the hell was that about?” she said, smiling her thanks to the lady behind the table and wrapping her slim fingers around Briar’s wrist, hauling him back the direction they’d come.

                He swallowed thickly in a vain attempt to organize his thoughts in a coherent manner that didn’t end up with him sweeping her off her feet and running back to the house. She’d hate the display of chivalry, and she’d be beating him about the head with her package the whole way, too.

                Not knowing what to tell her, he settled on, “Do you trust me?”

                “Of course.”

                Briar paled. There had been no hesitance whatsoever.

                “Briar?” Lily tucked the package under one arm and reached up with both hands to cradle his unshaven cheeks with her palms. “What is going on with you?”

                He forced a smile. “I’ll explain. Just trust me.” He reached up, taking her hand in his and leading her away from the market.

                The walk back to the house was made in a stony, awkward silence. Lily tossed the package on the kitchen table and sat with a huff, glaring at Briar as the male locked the door and turned on the lights. She kicked out the chair across from her, gesturing with her dainty chin for him to park it. He sat with a thud, dropping his head into his hands. Without looking at her much, Briar told her, in great detail, the night the Red Order came to Pennfold, what they were looking for, who they had found, and, more importantly, who they had missed.


                Miles Halloway wasn’t a worrier by nature, and he tended to roll with whatever came his way. In his fairly short twenty-five years on Kelleran, that had come to include, but was not limited to, falling in love with Lily Haverford, getting her pregnant, spiriting her and her brother – who had enough problems of his own and could hopefully deal with – from Pennfold to Venegry in the dark of night in the middle of the summer, beginning a new life in Venegry, marrying the female he was in love with, and living under one roof with Lily, Briar, and what would be Miles’s son or daughter. That was his reality, and while it had taken some getting used to, he was quite comfortable with it. It made coming home after a long day rather relaxing.

                He did not, however, want to come home to the same scenario in the kitchen he walked in on.

                Briar’s knapsack sat by the door – Miles nearly tripped over it on his way in – and Lily sat nursing a cup of tea at the table, one hand wrapped around the mug and the other stroking slowly over her belly. She was deathly pale, and looked agonizingly between Miles and Briar, who leaned against the counter with his arms folded across his chest, nails biting into his forearms.

                “What the hell is going on here?” Miles asked, remembering to keep his voice down. Their neighbors, while lovely people, were on the nosey side. He went first to his wife, kneeling beside Lily’s chair and taking her cold hand in his, chaffing it vigorously. “Lily?” When she didn’t say anything, he looked over his shoulder at the other male. “Briar? What the hell is going on?”

                “He’s leaving,” Lily whispered.

                “What? Why?” Miles rose to his full height, resting a heavy hand on Lily’s delicate shoulder.

                “I have to,” the smaller Fae said. “The same people – the Red Order – who tore apart Pennfold to find mages have come here to Venegry. Looking for me.” He allowed his red-rimmed eyes to meet Miles’s. This wasn’t an easy decision. If anything, it was harder to do than turn his back on his parents. “One of them talked to Lily at the market.”

                “Did he hurt you? What did he say?”

                “He was looking for mages. Asked me if I knew any.” She looked wearily at Briar, tears rolling unchecked down her cheeks. “It was so easy to say I didn’t. We had to deny your gift for years and it was so easy to lie to him. I’ve seen what your magic can do, Briar, and I lied because it felt like the most natural thing for me to do.”

                Briar blinked, swallowing thickly.

                Miles looked between his wife and his brother-in-law, thanking Cyren this wasn’t his decision to make. He met the muted lime-green stare and dipped his chin slightly. Briar had to go, and Miles would pick up the pieces when Lily’s heart broke.

                “Miles,” Lily croaked, “say something. Convince him to stay.” She looked up at him, fear and hope warring for dominance on her features.

                “Lily Rose,” he said gently, “I think you should hug your brother and tell him you love him before he walks out.”

                The smaller Fae uncrossed his arms, opening them wide. Lily stood up so quickly she sent the chair toppling backward, wrapping her arms around her brother’s neck and squeezing. She stood on her tiptoes, running her finger over the scar tissue of his left ear, and whispered, “You’ll always be my brother, Briar Foxwood.”

                He nodded. This was much more difficult when he had to the leaving as opposed to simply going because someone else told him to. If he didn’t go, there was the chance Lily wouldn’t live to see her own child, and Miles didn’t deserve that.

                Briar held tightly to Lily’s hand as they separated, looking between the baby bulge and Miles as he stood respectfully by the kitchen chair. “Promise me you’ll love that child regardless of gender, preference, or magic.”

                “That I can promise, Briar,” Miles said quietly.

                He squeezed Lily’s hand once again before letting it go. Briar’s footsteps were the only noise in an otherwise silent house, and he slung his knapsack across his shoulders before opening the door. Tears wouldn’t come. He didn’t have any left, not even for what family still claimed him despite the law.

                The door swung shut behind him. With nothing more than the stars and moonlight to guide his path – wherever it was going – Briar picked a direction and started walking. Without looking back.

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