June 22, 1999, 6 a.m.

He stumbles up to Spruce’s place, he thinks about six in the morning, but the sun is strange here and he can’t really tell. Early, at any rate. Not so long after leaving… He had wanted to walk. Walk out his confusion and the dismal sense that events are spiraling away from him. But this is Her town. Her place. He sees Her everywhere, even in places they haven’t been. He liked that trail by the water, very much, but he thinks he’ll never be able to go back there again. Not without seeing Her. The way She moves. The light on Her hair, like a sunset.

His hands shake as he fumbles at the apartment door. It takes him several tries to get the key in the lock; it keeps slipping out of his control. Like so much else. Lack of sleep, more than likely. He wants to curse and just kick the damned door in, as his old self would have done. But he knows that would be a bad thing, so he restrains himself. Finally, the key goes in.

In the tiny kitchen, he hunts up the makings of coffee. Not so much because he wants it, as for something to do. Some activity to distract him. He keeps feeling Her touch. The fire in him, ignited just by looking at Her. He’d tried to bear it; all the gods knew he’d tried. So many reasons not to… But, in the end, he hadn’t been strong enough. Then he’d thought, perhaps, to quench it. That works, sometimes, when wanting a fuck, wanting a woman, troubles his mind. Simple to indulge his impulse and get it out of the way. And She had not been unwilling.

He catches himself standing at the sink with the coffee pot in his hands. Staring into space. Smiling.

He shakes himself. It hadn’t worked. There was no end to his wanting. The more he took, the more She gave. It only built the fire higher. He’d been rough with Her then. Pretending She was no more than a vessel, a receptacle for his need. It hadn’t helped. When She cried out, it inflamed him even as it tore his heart. And still the need for Her, the desire for Her, tormented him. In the end, She had outlasted him. That had never happened before.

Gods. He can smell Her on him. He thinks he will smell Her on him forever. He will never be free of Her. Even when his work is done and he leaves Her town, She will haunt him.

He blunders about the kitchen, searching for the coffee, the filters. His hands are clumsy. He can’t seem to hold onto anything. His body feels alien, too big; he makes noise. He, who can move as silently as a cat, without thinking.

“When did you get in?”

His sister is standing in the kitchen doorway, cross, arms folded on her breasts. She looks a great deal like their mother. Their mother when young, before they left Skye. Before the sickness that changed everything for him.

“A few minutes ago,” he says, not knowing whether or not it’s true. He could have been lurching about the kitchen for hours. But Spruce is still wearing the oversized t-shirt she sleeps in, the one that barely comes past her thighs. Her hair is tousled from the pillow. And her expression tells him that he’s gotten her out of bed far too early for her liking.

“Where’ve you been all night? Walking?”

He can never quite adjust to her accent. The rest of the family managed to retain some of the soft cadences of the Isle in their speech, even his younger siblings, though it faded in degrees. Like dye running into white, until in the twins, who had only been toddlers at the time of the move, it was the mere hint of elsewhere. Not like him, with the voice that refuses to let go, that marks him always as foreign. And not like Spruce, who, aside for some idioms, never picked up the Scots at all.

He remembers her birth. He remembers acting the proud big brother, swearing to protect her and changing her nappies, and her a wee, squalling thing. Before.

His life is sharply divided into Before and After. Not even leaving Skye marked him the way that his eleventh year marked him.

“Timber! Did you hear me?”

He recollects that Spruce asked him a question and hunts in his head until he finds it.

“Aye, I heard. No, not walking.”

“Working?”

She knows of his work, of course. Not the all of it, but a good part. She’s in two minds about it. Glad and grateful that Mitch took him in hand and saved him from the person he had been in his teens. Thankful he’s found some kind of meaning. But still wishing her adored elder brother could have been different. More…normal. And, of course, she wishes his visit had sprung from a pure desire to see her. From family feeling, rather than some mysterious errand she can’t entirely grasp.

“No.”

He tries to measure out the coffee. Somehow the scoop becomes tangled up in the filter and he ends up spilling grounds all over the kitchen counter. He stares at the mess, wondering what to do about it. Then his sister’s capable small hands are on his, removing the coffee scoop, shoving him aside.

“Here, let me do that. You’re making a botch of it. You’ll break something.”

He steps back, feeling inept, useless. Spruce scoops out the coffee, takes the pot, fills it with water at the sink. Pours the water into the machine and flips the switch on. The mechanism gurgles and begins to drip. Spruce gazes up at him with a frown.

“Well?”

Her eyes bore into him. He has the uncomfortable sensation she can see right into his soul.

“What?”

“Well, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

Her eyes roll heavenward, as if seeking guidance. Or patience. Perhaps both.

“Timber, you can charm the pants off anyone you like and you can lie like a fox when it suits you. But not to me. We both know the truth of that.”

He knows. He’s never been able to lie to Spruce. No more than he can lie to their mother.

“You’re gone almost a whole day. You come in at fuck-all o’clock in the morning and make such a racket that it wakes me up. And you’re acting crazy.”

“More crazy than usual, you mean,” he says, trying to sidetrack her, lighten the mood.

“I wouldn’t say that,” she replies, taking him seriously. “But upset and distracted. Something’s happened, and you say it’s not work. So?”

To tell or not to tell? Spruce knows about Her already. Not much, only that he’s been working with a local woman. Her name. Not the rest of it. Perhaps he can…

No. He already knows that won’t work. Not on his sister. She’ll have the whole sorry tale out of him sooner or later. Better make it sooner. Lance the boil, get the poison out. Get it over.

Still, he tries half a tale at first.

“I made a bad mistake and I’m sorry for it,” he says.

Spruce just looks at him, waiting for the rest. He sighs and gives in.

“I slept with Caitlin,” he mumbles, and Her name is honey on his tongue. Honey and wine, like the sweetness of Her skin. Like the taste of Her.

His sister lifts an eyebrow. She wants more.

“It was an accident,” he says.

That was the wrong thing to say.

“An accident?” Spruce explodes. “How do you sleep with someone by accident?”

“It wasna my intent!” he yells right back, not caring that he might wake the roommate. The canny, wee blonde roommate who’s always making big eyes at him. Aye, that bitch in heat’s sleep can be broken, for all of him.

Perhaps he should have fucked the roommate. Perhaps that would have helped. But Spruce would have eaten him alive.

“Yell all you like; Donna isn’t home,” his sister says, as if reading his mind. “Timber MacDuff, you explain yourself. This instant!”

“I went to Her place yesterday, in the morning.” He does not want to speak of it. He’s afraid Spruce will hear the way any mention of Her falls from his tongue, with a little space around it, making it more than it should be. More than it is.

“And?” Spruce prompts him, when he pauses too long.

“She’d told me She wouldna work that day. It was a holiday for Her, ken. But I found something out, the night before, and I thought She should know.” He hears the lie in his voice, though he doesn’t want to. He wants to turn away from it, wants it not to be. Aye, he’d found something out. But it could have waited a single day. The truth is, he’d wanted to see Her. Already, he can’t imagine a day passing without his seeing Her. Even though he knows the danger. His path is other than Her path, but he knew perfectly well what the Summer Solstice was about. The pull in his own blood, though… That he hadn’t expected. And seeing Her, smelling Her… The scents of sandalwood and roses from Her skin, the spicy sweetness of Her hair. Watching Her dance.

His hands clench into fists. He’d like to beat the memory out of his head. Instead, he finds himself winding his arms around his body, as if to hold in his heart.

Spruce is still looking at him expectantly. With an effort, he lowers his arms and goes on.

“Well. She wasna having any.”

“And? Timber, that was yesterday morning! You could have come home.”

“Aye, and I should have! I should have, and I didna. We went walking. She’s… lovely, She is.” Gods. How can he speak of this to his sister, of all people? “I wanted Her. I tried not to. It didna work. I walked Her home, thinking I would leave, thinking I…” He stops. He can’t go on with this. It is too close, too much.

“So, did she seduce you?” Spruce asks after a time. “You’re an attractive man, Timber, you know it. Too attractive for your own good, if you ask me.”

“I’m not asking you,” he splutters. “And no, She didna seduce me.” He shivers with the memory. Her hands on him. His mouth on Her. “It was…mutual.”

“Okay, so two adults engage in some mutual seduction. All night,” Spruce adds with a wry twist of her lip. “What’s the problem? Did she wake up to regret it and toss you out on your ear? I’m sure that would be a blow to your ego.”

That bites a little close to the bone for his comfort.

“No! But I didna mean for it tae happen!” He hears the Scots in his voice thickening, and curses himself; try as he might, he’s never been able to stop it from getting heavier when his emotions are engaged. Spruce knows it, too. “When I woke and realized what I’d done, it was like…” Beauty. Fulfillment. Safety. “Like someone had punched me in the face. We’ve tae work together yet, and I’ve gang and complicated the hell out of matters. I left as soon as I could. Perhaps there’s still something tae be salvaged, I dinna ken.”

It seems to take a bit for his outburst to sink into his sister’s head.

“Wait a minute,” she says when it finally does. “You woke up, thought, ‘Oh, shit,’ and just walked out?”

He thinks about it. “Aye. Something like that.”

“Timber! How could you be such a big jerk? Christ on toast! What were you thinking? Did you even take one second to imagine how that must have made her feel?” She backs him up against the refrigerator, waving her finger in his face, a tiny whirlwind. “Of course not! You weren’t thinking at all. Not through any of it! Or you were thinking with your dick, and when that was satisfied you didn’t even get your brain in gear before you let your inner asshole take over!”

He grabs her wrist, stilling the offending finger. “Leave off wi’ that, ye reipseach. Dùin do ghob.

Cursing in the Gaelic usually makes him feel better. Not this time. And Spruce isn’t having any.

“Don’t go all over Gaelic on me, Timber Alasdair! I know you’re not a saint, but how could you treat any woman like that? Much less one you have feelings for!”

He rears back as if she’s slapped him. “I’ve no particular feelings for Caitlin Ross!” Again, the honey on his tongue.

“You great fucking shite! You hadn’t known her a day before you were preening in front of the mirror every time you were going to see her! Digging special jewelry and tighter shirts out of your pack, so you could show off! You moron! What did you think that was about?”

He leans his head against the fridge and closes his eyes. The cold metal feels good to him. “I canna have feelings for Her. I’ve been warned off Her, ken.”

“Oh? Who by? A boyfriend?” Spruce snorts. “I’ve no doubt you could make three of him without blinking an eye, if you were of the mind.”

“Not a boyfriend.” His hand starts for his Soul Catcher, craving its reassurance. But he doesn’t feel worthy of it, right now, and he pulls his hand away. “Others.”

“Oh, Others.” Spruce’s voice is harsh in his ears. Gods, please, can this nightmare be over soon? “Timber, open your eyes. Look at me.”

Against his will, he does so. He expects condemnation. He sees only concern and a certain droll understanding. She’s his sister, and she knows him better than anyone.

“My big brother in love,” she says with a slow shake of her head. “I never thought I’d see it.”

His stomach falls into his feet. “I’m not…”

She cuts him off. “Oh yes you are. You’ve got it as bad as I’ve ever seen,” she insists from the wisdom of her bare twenty years.

“My guides…”

“I don’t care. I don’t care what your guides have told you. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop caring too. Before you fuck it up any more.” She crosses to the cupboard, gets out two mugs and pours them each a cup of coffee. He can’t remember hearing the machine give its death rattle announcement of finishing its task. It must have been some time ago.

“Sit down.” Spruce puts a mug into his hands and guides him to the kitchen table. His knees buckle, tired of holding him up.

“So,” his sister asks. “What are you going to do?”

He looks up at her, but does not see her. He sees golden skin like silk, hair like a sunset spreading its rays on a rumpled pillow. He’s lost. He’s been lost since first he laid eyes on Her.

“I dinna ken,” he says.

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