It all started, strangely enough, with a Christmas card. One day he emerged from the back room to find it sitting on the counter. It seemed innocuous enough, all told, or at least as innocuous as things got in their world. It was simple cardstock with what appeared to be a drawing of holly on it. It was a bit hard to tell, though, beneath the sprig of white flowers that had been placed on top of the card.
Bargarran fingered the edges of the heavy paper and wondered who could have left such a thing. There were the customers, of course, but taxidermy was not work that inspired much by way of customer loyalty. A pretty young thing had moved into the room down the lane; it was possible that she hadn't yet heard the tales. But though her face was lovely, her eyes were hard. Bargarran didn't think Agnes Naismith was the type to send Christmas cards.
He twirled the bloom between his fingers lightly, the smell of crushed petals familiar and yet not quite possible for him to place. He'd never been much for horticulture. Finally, he placed the flowers inside the counter and opened the card.
He dropped it as if burned.
'Ave Maria,' it read in spidery black script, 'Gratia plena; Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.'
At the bottom, elegantly scrawled, was a name that was familiar to him: J. Fulton. It was a name that he passed every day as he walked past the tailor's place. It was a name he'd heard whispered as he walked past the mortuary.
He was a cunning man, they said. Those could ward against evil, they said. Against witches. But, they added, tutting disparagingly as he slipped through the mortuary doors, at what cost?
Bargarran was no stranger to death. He was up to his elbows in it. He could see a sort of beauty in glassy eyes and limbs that had gone so, so still. Cold flesh meant very little to him, in the grand scheme of things. And yet... There was something unnerving about the way that Fulton walked through it, reaching down with tenderness to grasp at it as one would a flower.
He paused, rubbing his fingers together, then brought them to his nose for another sniff. Some kind of herbal, spicy smell, but below it... yes, the scent of ashes.
Both of them kept company with corpses, he knew, but he wondered--just what did Fulton do with his?
* * *
But something drew him to the card. He half-suspected there was witchcraft at work in its making. He had no other explanation for the way that his eyes kept drifting to the bright red and green of its image throughout the day, nor the way that he felt some urge to open it, to run his fingers over unfamiliar words.
In the end, he found himself at his desk, cluttered to the brim with the detritus of a fully-lived life, carefully folding a card of his own. The card he'd received that morning was put away in a drawer, and drawing utensils pulled out in its stead.
He dithered a little over what to put on the card before settling on a bird. Birds were a proper symbol of Christmas, right? He'd seen a blackbird in a tree on the way to work that morning watching him solemnly from a gnarled branch. It was that expression he tried to mimic in his drawing. It looked out at him from paper just as it had from the tree, eyes shining with some important secret.
He frowned at it, tapping his pen irritably as he considered its dark gaze. Perhaps a robin would have been a better choice. But the blackbird felt right, somehow, just like those white flowers had. If nothing else, maybe an unseasonal card would encourage Fulton to leave him be in the future.
Bargarran put no magic words in his card, no odes to heretical saints. It was a simple message, well wishes for the holiday and the new year. It was to the point. It would have to do.
Once the card was sealed, he took to the streets. The evening was cold and clear, and their street was utterly deserted. He'd sort of hoped that Fulton's office would be as well, but a soft light flowed out through the window. Through it, he could see Fulton seated at his desk, poring over some dusty tome.
Bargarran hesitated. He did look rather busy. But before he could turn around and steal away into the night, Fulton stiffened as if alerted by some noise, then looked up.
Their eyes met through the glass, and Bargarran couldn't help but shudder. He pushed that revulsion back, though, that distinct sense of unease, and knocked smartly on the door. He'd survived worse things than a local cunning man. He'd survived.
Fulton rose from his desk and made his way to the door, quick and silent, like a shadow traveling across the floor. When he opened the door, it was only a crack. "Can I help you?" he asked, voice low and full and rough, smoke drifting on a winter night.
Bargarran swallowed. "The--the card. I received your card," he said, and he forced his own voice into something gruff and commanding. He would not be shaken by this man.
Dark, dark eyes searched his, but after just a moment more, Fulton opened the door wider. "Please, come in."
Bargarran trailed in after the man, eyes flitting to and fro, taking in his odd surroundings even as he tried to orient himself within them. Little heaps of salt dotted the grooves in Fulton's walls, and Bargarran could not for the life of him understand their significance. Something arcane, no doubt.
Fulton seated himself at his desk and quickly, almost surreptitiously, put away a spool of red thread that sat out on the desktop. Bargarran almost asked, but at the last decided that he really did not want to know. "Feel free to have a seat," Fulton said, nodding to a stool he had next to the desk and turning around in his own chair so he was facing Bargarran rather than his work. "Make yourself comfortable."
Bargarran wasn't sure that was possible, not with the dangling assortment of scissors in the window swaying in a nonexistent breeze, but he sat all the same. "Thank you," he said, hesitantly, "For the card."
Fulton's eyes fell away at that, momentarily going to the book sitting out on the desk before easing away again. "It was nothing. We're neighbors, after all, aren't we?" he said, but his tone, low and intense, belied the casual words.
"We are," Bargarran allowed. "But I'll admit I was a bit surprised to find it. We've hardly spoken."
The corner of Fulton's lips twitched up just slightly. "There's no time like Christmas to create new bonds," he said.
Bargarran followed that slight movement with his eyes, fascinated despite himself. The man really didn't give much away, did he? But then he realized that the smile was becoming truer by the moment, and for good reason--he'd been caught staring. "Er," he began, and if just to have something to do with his hands, he extended his own card. "If that's the case..."
Fulton's eyebrows went up as he took in the proffered envelope. Clearly he had not expected a return gift. "Is this a card?" he asked, not moving to take it.
Bargarran's nerves settled, just like that, brought back down to earth by the comforting weight of annoyance. "Of course it is. What else would it be?"
Fulton shrugged easily before finally accepting the card. "One never knows," he said, and his cryptic tone was almost enough to make Bargarran want to hit him. Somehow he thought that wouldn't be appreciated, so he just gritted his teeth and let Fulton tear open the envelope without comment.
Fulton studied the drawing on the front of the card for several long moments, and Bargarran fought not to twitch with impatience. Something about this man absolutely put him on edge. Eventually, Fulton lowered the card to his lap and stroked one finger across the bird's beak thoughtfully. "You know," he said, his voice taking on the intimacy of a secret shared, "They say blackbirds are for reincarnation."
"Is that so?" he asked flatly.
"Yes," Fulton said, and laid the card down on his desk. "And for witchcraft."
Bargarran stiffened. "I beg your pardon?"
Fulton smiled again, and the gesture softened the inky blackness of his eyes, drew Bargarran's eyes to soft lips. "I mean no offense, Mr. Bargarran. Such things are not exactly common knowledge," he said.
Bargarran forced himself to keep his attention on Fulton's eyes, no matter how unnerving they were. "Do you always accuse your neighbors of consorting with witches, Mr. Fulton?"
"I keep watch," Fulton replied mildly.
"Because you're cunning folk."
Fulton's smile slipped, and it was replaced with a sort of stillness that Bargarran did not like. "Among other things," he said.
Almost without meaning to, Bargarran glanced through the window, across the street to where the mortuary stood. "Among other things."
"Have you need for my other services, Mr. Bargarran?" Fulton asked him, but beneath the polite inquiry, his voice was strained.
Bargarran made a face. "No, I don't." And would not, if it were up to him. He had no desire to bring that sort of thing into his life, no matter how arresting the local cunning man happened to be.
"In that case, I'm afraid I must inform you that you're needed elsewhere."
Bargarran frowned. "What?"
Fulton just tilted his head toward the window, and Bargarran followed his gaze. The streets were just as still and quiet as he'd left them mere minutes before. But no--a man suddenly came into view. He was heading for Bargarran's shop. But as far as he could tell, there was no way that Fulton would have been able to see him from his vantage point. "How--"
"A cunning man is very good at seeing, Mr. Bargarran. Especially things that are not usually seen," Fulton said. He looked placid enough, but there was an edge to his words. "Good day, Mr. Bargarran. Merry Christmas."
"Yes," Bargarran said, rising to his feet. "Merry Christmas."
As Bargarran crossed the threshold of his own store, he looked back behind him. He could see Fulton through the window there, head bent over his book. So why couldn't he shake the feeling that Fulton was looking straight back?
* * *
He wondered, wildly, if this was what magic felt like. Did all cunning men melt into the shadows as Fulton did? Did they all have such dark, fey eyes? Could the mere proximity of one inspire madness? Because if nothing else, Bargarran surely felt mad. He felt Fulton's presence when he was locked in his office away from prying eyes, and he felt him as he crossed the hills. He felt him, a heartbeat and a lifetime away, even as he closed his eyes to go to sleep at night.
He was haunted, and by a man who still lived. And, he thought to himself as he inspected the posy that had been hung from his door one evening, Fulton seemed fully content to do the haunting.
It contained the same white flowers as before, but with sprigs of some thorny herb tangled amongst them. It smelled like a witch's garden, and he couldn't help but recoil from it.
"It won't hurt you."
Bargarran absolutely did not jump. He simply spun to face Fulton with just a touch more vigor than he might normally. "What is it?"
Fulton stood there across the street, solemn and watchful as ever, holding a tattered umbrella in one hand and keeping the other fisted tightly at his side. If he was cowed at all by the displeasure in Bargarran's voice, he didn't show it. "Yarrow, for protection. And rosemary to confound spirits. You should keep it where it is," he said, and his mild voice had taken on a note of authority that Bargarran wasn't sure he liked.
"And do I need protection?" he asked, taking a step away from his own door and towards Fulton's. 'From what? he silently added. 'From you?'
Fulton just looked away from him, down the street into the mist. His brow creased then, and his eyes for once looked a little less knowing and a little more fearful. "Don't we all?"
Bargarran felt a shiver work its way down his spine. On second thought, he'd take the authority. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what might frighten a cunning man. Strange things had been afoot of late, he knew. There had been howls that pierced the night air, too ecstatic for wolves, and the tang of blood seemed soaked through the air. He thought that his nose was inured to the scent by now, but something about it felt... off.
He found himself following Fulton's gaze. What indeed?
Fulton seemed to notice his discomfiture, and he pursed his lips. If Bargarran had to wager a guess, it would probably be that some kind of private war was being fought behind that tense demeanor. Bargarran was not privy to his thoughts, however, or their arguments. All he knew was that after a moment, a long moment, of silent contemplation, the worry lines fell away as something like a smile graced Fulton's fine features. "The night is cold and our work is done. Would you care for a cup of tea?" he asked.
Bargarran frowned at him. No, he bloody well didn't. Not with Fulton, anyway. Who knew what a cunning man might slip into an unsuspecting guest's tea? And yet... The night air was cool where it brushed his skin, and he could feel the drizzle making its way beneath his collar. And though it was likely just his imagination, a sort of warmth seemed to radiate from the posy on the door. He wondered how much warmer its creator might be.
With some force of will, he broke eye contact with Fulton to glance down at the mortuary where Fulton seemed to spend his nights. It was not so very far away, and unassuming at first glance. But something about its dark windows made his stomach twist. "Not in there."
Fulton blinked in surprise, and then, as if unexpected to him as much as it was Bargarran, he laughed. The sound was soft, almost lost to the sound of the rain, but something about it brought warmth to his face. It was like the barest bit of sun peeking through storm clouds, and Bargarran's frown grew deeper. "No," Fulton finally answered, "Not in there." His fisted hand unfurled, and he gestured behind himself to the door of his shop. "In here."
It was a bad idea. It was a truly bad idea. But Fulton was looking at him, quietly entreating, and then his feet were moving without his permission. His shoes sounded loudly on the street, but each footstep seemed to bring a little more light to Fulton's dark eyes. Before he'd even fully decided to agree, Bargarran found himself beneath a tattered umbrella, sharing breath and a steady gaze with its owner.
He swallowed and looked away. "Well?"
Bargarran tried to ignore the way Fulton's ill-fitting suit brushed against his skin as he turned to open the door, just as he tried to ignore the soft breath of laughter. He tried to focus instead on the clammy dampness of the air. It made him feel a little less foolish when he followed Fulton into the shop.
It looked much as it had last time he had been inside. Bolts of fabric lay against the wall in a sort of haphazard order, and a sewing machine sat abandoned on Fulton's work table. The heavy scent of herbs hung in the air, cut with something sharp and unfamiliar, and Bargarran's lips twisted. "Just what does a cunning man put in his tea?" he asked.
There was a soft click from behind him as Fulton shut the door. "Tea leaves," he said dryly. "Sometimes a bit of whisky if the night is cold enough."
"You don't..." Bargarran made an odd sort of gesture, helplessly pointing to the scent of old greenery that permeated the shop.
"Fill teacups with toadstools and baby's blood?" Fulton asked, moving to rummage around in the back of the shop.
If Bargarran was the type of man prone to blushing, he might have. As it was, he simply shifted uncomfortably where he stood. "Something like that."
Again, there was that soft huff of breath that Bargarran was beginning to recognize as Fulton laughing at him. Before he could protest, however, Fulton was turning around with a chipped teapot cupped in his hands. "Only on special occasions," he said, placing the pot on the table and going back for cups.
Bargarran sat down at the stool set next to the table and tried not to stare too hard at the salt. "You're mocking me," he said, and it was a statement rather than a question.
"And you look at me as if I'm a monster come in the night," Fulton countered as he set two mismatched teacups on the table. Bargarran could hear rather than see the slight quiver in his hands, a minute trembling of porcelain. "I have no intention of hurting you, you know."
Politeness dictated that he answer 'I know', but Bargarran said nothing. He simply stared at Fulton evenly until he turned soundlessly on his heel to fetch the water.
It wasn't until the tea was steaming in their cups that Fulton finally took his seat across from Bargarran. "There are charms that can be worked in tea," he admitted, taking a sip of his own. "Healing, mostly. Words that can be steeped in the water along with the leaves for fever. Or celandine root, for problems of a more... intimate nature," he said, looking clinically over Bargarran's body. "I trust that you have no need for anything like that."
"No," Bargarran said shortly, absolutely refusing to ask Fulton to elaborate. "I don't."
Fulton 'hmmm'ed into his tea and his examination took on a slightly speculative shade.
Without really knowing why, Bargarran inched back in his seat. "Those flowers," he said. "They were the same ones that you left in my shop."
From the expression on Fulton's face, the abrupt change of subject was not lost on him. However, his eyes went pensive rather than amused like Bargarran had half-feared they might. "Surely you've felt it, Mr. Bargarran."
Fulton put down his cup. "Something is not right here in Paisley," he said, and despite the warmth of the tea, Bargarran felt a chill at his tone.
"There have been strangers," Bargarran said. "And... misfortunes."
"There has been witchcraft," Fulton said, and his tone brooked no argument.
Bargarran's fingers tightened on his cup, but he refused to let his shock show on his face. "I suppose you would know."
Fulton's eyes flashed. "Yes," he said tightly, "I would know."
Ah. He'd caused offense. "I've heard that no one can protect against witches like a cunning man can," he said carefully, and was more relieved than he cared to admit to see the tension in Fulton's shoulders dissipate. A little.
"Usually, that would be true," Fulton said. For the first time, Bargarran could hear hesitance in his voice.
Fulton looked away, brows knitting together into an expression that hovered somewhere between concerned and annoyed. "I cannot find her," he said. "Not when she does not wish to be found."
Bargarran frowned, hearing what was unsaid. "And when she does?"
Fulton sighed. "Then there is no ignoring her."
Bargarran had a feeling he knew what that was like.
"I suspect we are dealing with something very strong and very old. Something evil, Mr. Bargarran," Fulton said.
"And yet there are only flowers on my door," Bargarran pointed out. "What makes my shop so special?"
For several long moments, Fulton didn't say anything. He just sat across the table and contemplated his companion. The set of his jaw was pensive, and the look in those shadowed eyes even moreso. And then, when Bargarran thought for sure that he was never to be answered-- "I wonder."
The hoarseness of the answer, and the barest note of longing, startled Bargarran, and he put down his empty cup with a clatter. "I--"
He was cut off as Fulton stood, pushing his stool back with a scrape as he went. "Mr. Bargarran, I hate to throw you out on the street, but as you so astutely observed, tailoring is not my only profession." He hesitated, and Bargarran felt the eerie sensation of a man looking through him and out the window, out at the shuttered building a few doors down. "I have business to attend to."
'But you invited me,' he felt like protesting. All at once, though, he realized just how late it really was. How was it that time seemed to move so differently when he was looking into those eyes? It was almost enough to turn his stomach. "Of course," he said, rising from his own chair.
"Thank you for stopping by," Fulton said, as if rote, as he opened the door for Bargarran. "And Mr. Bargarran?"
Bargarran paused, halfway out the door. "Yes, Mr. Fulton?"
Fulton's head tilted just so, and he regarded him with eyes gone rich in the lamplight. Mercurial as ever. His voice, when he used it, was low and entreating. "Please... Don't be a stranger."
It was all he could do to nod.
* * *
If he'd thought that Fulton had distracted him before, it was nothing compared to the days that followed. It was not that Fulton was everywhere; it was that he was not. Bargarran found himself watching for the other man during every errand, and at times felt in his bones that he was walking the same steps that Fulton had not so much earlier. There was a shadow of familiarity at the periphery of everything Bargarran did, but not anything tangible enough to grasp. It was only a glimpse of black, a whiff of rosemary, the unshakable belief that Fulton was near. And yet he was not. Fulton remained safely ensconced in his little shop, and Bargarran thought he would go mad with it.
Perversely, he missed those eyes. And what would he do to see them again?
Before he could even scold himself, he had the razor in his hand. It took only a quick slash to put a ragged hole in the arm of his favorite coat. It could have been an accident. Everyone in town knew that he used sharp implements all the time in his work.
He bundled up the coat in his arms and looked across the way at the light that shone in the darkness. It could have been an accident.
When Bargarran knocked on his door, Fulton was engaged in some sort of threadwork at his desk. He looked up at the sound, and Bargarran tried not to feel pleased at the way his surprise was tempered with a small smile.
"Mr. Bargarran," he said as he opened the door. "How may I help you?"
Wordlessly, he held up the coat. The hole had frayed convincingly by then, and he reminded himself sternly that there was no way Fulton could know that the cut had been deliberate.
There was a flash of disappointment that Bargarran was half sure he'd imagined, but it was lost as Fulton reached out to take the coat. He turned it over in his hands, examining the tear. "A bad one to be sure," he murmured, and took it back to his desk.
As if pulled by an invisible string, Bargarran followed. He surveyed the contents of the workspace. Normalcy, for the most part, except-- "A book?"
Fulton jumped, just the slightest bit. Obviously he hadn't noticed that Bargarran had followed him. "Yes," he said, reaching out to close it. "Just an old reference book."
"Full of thread," Bargarran noted. He'd never seen the like. The pages had been clumsily embroidered, design clearly chosen for efficacy rather than appearances. Red thread covered words here and there, eliminating them entirely from his view. "Full of magic, too, I'd wager."
"And you'd be right," Fulton said, pursing his lips ruefully. "Red thread is for binding."
Binding? How could you bind a word? Or was it a concept that Fulton was after? "You--"
"And the rest is for mending," Fulton interrupted, gesturing towards the assorted miscellany that covered the rest of his desk. "So if you please."
Bargarran took a step back. He knew a dismissal when he heard one.
* * *
He tapped on the glass, and Fulton jerked to attention. He fixed Bargarran with eyes that were far away and frightened, but his expression soon eased into one of recognition, and he stepped down from his stool.
This time, Bargarran let himself in. "You look as if you've seen a ghost," he said sardonically. It felt nice to be the one with some shred of composure for once.
Fulton just nodded, face pale and drawn. "Among other things."
Bargarran paused in the process of taking off his coat. "Pardon?" he asked.
"The streets of Paisley are crowded, Mr. Bargarran," Fulton said. "And not all of our new neighbors are as friendly as you."
Bargarran scoffed and shrugged his coat off his shoulders. "Friendly," he repeated, derisive.
"Aye," Fulton responded, and at long last he smiled, thin as it was. "Though I suspect you'd prefer I keep that a secret."
"You're good at those. Secrets," Bargarran said, and even as he shook his head he did not know whether he meant it as a compliment or an insult.
Fulton hummed in reply and looked out the window again, eyes following invisible movements that Bargarran could only guess at, and he murmured something almost too soft too hear. "Augurs and understood relations have by magot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth the secret’st man of blood."
That voice, hushed and forlorn, bothered Bargarran more than the strange words. It was worn, and it spoke to the burden carried by one man, tired and alone. Bargarran gritted his teeth against it. "Is that some kind of charm?" he asked, knowing full well that it was not.
"No charms," Fulton said, turning back to his desk. His smile was gone. "Only truths."
"Mr. Bargarran," he returned, then turned back to face him, white cloth in hand. "You'll be wanting your coat."
Bargarran reached for the garment, but Fulton kept it just out of reach. "I need a fitting before I can finish the job," he said.
"A fitting? For a simple mend?"
Something in those dark eyes flickered. "Nothing about this is simple, Mr. Bargarran. You know that as well as I do."
He did, damn it all. He felt it in the way he knew one Mr. J. Fulton would be rounding the corner even before the first glimpse of dark hair and an undertaker's suit. He saw it in the way the moonlight seemed to fall irregularly around their shops, unearthly shadows that did not bend to the whim of the streetlights that threw them. He heard it in a high, thin scream lost to the wind and the hills.
But he did not need to tell Fulton that. "Suit yourself," he said, and dropped his coat on the table before going to meet Fulton where he waited. His back was to the window now, and he tried not to let that bother him. Hopefully whatever Fulton saw wandering the streets had no desire to look back.
Fulton's fingers were clever as they plucked at his coat, touches light enough that he could barely feel them beneath the layers of fabric. But feel them he could, and he tried not to respond to that fact, even as dexterous hands trailed down his sides.
"This is an old coat," Fulton said, letting his hands linger on Bargarran's hips just above where the pockets lay. "It feels like you."
"What?" he asked, and almost winced at how thick his voice sounded in his throat.
Fulton pressed in with his thumbs, the pressure almost imperceptible against the points of his hips. Almost. "We work together with our surroundings, Mr. Bargarran. You can't use something every day without leaving a bit of yourself behind. Those memories remain." He slipped his fingertips inside Bargarran's pockets, playing with the fabric. "You shouldn't give away fabric this well-loved so easily."
Bargarran swallowed whatever he was feeling, and covered it up with a glare. "To people like you, you mean."
To his surprise, Fulton's eyes warmed. "Exactly," he said, and then pulled away.
Bargarran didn't even realize how difficult it was to breathe in Fulton's presence until he was well away again, opening a drawer and pulling out a measure. He tried to steady his breath, and to do it quietly. It wouldn't do to let Fulton have yet another advantage.
This time, as Fulton's fingers, those clever fingers, skated across his body, he bolstered himself against their influence. He stared straight ahead as Fulton measured his forearm, his shoulders, his chest. His waist. He ignored the light touches he could feel ghosting against his skin, even when they idled just a moment too long. "Why are you doing this?" he finally asked. He was no tailor, but he knew that a torn sleeve did not require being touched there.
"I want to know you." And despite his words, Fulton's tone was level.
He could feel Fulton stop what he was doing, stop measuring, stop observing, stop learning. He hung there behind Bargarran, between him and the window, and he let his hands rest at the small of his back. "I know you watch me," he said, quiet. There was no flirtation, no curiosity. But if he listened close enough, Bargarran could hear the slightest hint of longing.
Bargarran did not turn. "You watch me, too."
The fingers tightened in his coat. "I do."
"You leave fresh flowers on my door, though I'm sure I don't know where you're finding them in this snow. You creep into my store and leave spells where you know I'll find them."
"And where I know you won't," Fulton added.
Bargarran stiffened. "You've bewitched me."
"If you have been bewitched," Fulton said, voice soft and low and far too close, "Then so have I."
It was too much. Bargarran spun in Fulton's grasp until he could reach down and take him by the wrists. He pushed, pulled, something in between, until Fulton was up against his desk, looking up at him with those confounding eyes. Bargarran didn't want to see them anymore, didn't want to fall into those dark depths and know all the while that Fulton could see him, could use that witch-sight of his to lay him bare and vulnerable to his perusal. So he shut his eyes, and he kissed him.
Fulton's lips were as soft as they looked, and Bargarran felt one of them split beneath his own. The bitter taste of blood should have ruined it, but instead it just sparked something deep inside of him, something ugly and ravenous, and he pressed closer, demanded more.
Fulton gave it. His mouth opened under his, and this, lips and tongue and ragged breaths, this at least was easy between them. Bargarran felt Fulton fist his fingers against his collar and pull him in ever closer, but still he did not open his eyes. He did not want to know what Fulton could see. He did not want to know what he could taste on his lips, not now. Not ever.
But it was, as he knew, too good to last. Fulton pulled away, but only just enough to press his mouth to Bargarran's neck. He mouthed against his pulse, tasting it and counting the beats, and his whispers felt cold against his damp skin. "We're tied together, you and I. I know not why, and I know not how. But our threads are bound up in knots, inescapable."
Bargarran shuddered at the sound, and he tried to ignore Fulton's words even as his mind snatched at them. Such things were impossible.
Fulton took hold of his tie and yanked. "Look at me, Bargarran."
Bargarran shut his eyes more tightly and tried to regain some measure of control over the situation.
Fulton yanked again, sharper this time. "Look at me."
Slowly, Bargarran opened his eyes only to find Fulton's scant inches from his own. Those eyes were like dark water, wide and deep and deceptively beautiful. He knew it was dangerous to be drawn in by shining eyes and lush lashes, but it was too late for common sense and wariness. Far too late for that.
Fulton's eyes searched his, but whatever Fulton was looking for, he did not find it. He sagged back against the desk, strings cut, and he sighed. "I can ignore you no more than you can ignore me. I would know why, but I suspect that it is just one more mystery bound up in the rest. Black magic lies at the root of it all," he said. His voice was hoarse, though whether it was through defeat or exertion Bargarran could not say.
Fulton could be cryptic and mouthy and deadly in turns, but Bargarran found that this was the one expression that he could not bear. He slid his hands down Fulton's chest, his belly, and did his best to memorize the way the flesh trembled beneath his hands. He grasped tight to his hips. "They say you can fight against black magic." 'They also say you can practice it,' his mind cautioned.
Fulton swallowed, then rested his hand against Bargarran's collar. "I have tried. Ever have I protected you, though I know not why. I do not intend to stop the plans that I have put into motion," he whispered.
Bargarran shifted his hands under Fulton's hips, maneuvering him so he rested on the desk instead of against it. "Neither do I," he said, and then leaned in to kiss him once more.
* * *
He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. His actions spoke quite clearly enough. He stood there in front of him, separated only by the counter, and he looked taller than he ever had. There was the light of knowledge in him, terrible and raw, and when he extended his hand, Bargarran had no hopes of ignoring what was in it.
Bargarran looked from the bird to Fulton's face, then frowned. "That is not one of mine," he said.
Fulton remained silent, hand outstretched. It was just a taxidermied bird. He handled a dozen of them every day. But somehow, when he looked into its glassy eyes, he did not want to take it from Fulton's hand.
But Fulton stood there, implacable, until Bargarran gave in. He reached out and finally took the bird and looked it over. "It is fine work," he admitted. "But it is not mine."
"Isn't it?" Fulton asked, and Bargarran felt no better for having finally heard his voice. It was like ice.
"No," he said, putting the bird down on the counter and holding up his hands. "I have no recollection of mounting this crow." Who on earth would commission a crow? They were such common birds.
"Not a crow," Fulton said, eyes narrowed. "A blackbird."
Something about that word in that voice niggled at him. He reached for a memory half-forgotten, and was surprised by how quickly it bobbed to the surface. "Blackbirds are for reincarnation," he quoted.
Fulton raised an eyebrow. "Yes."
"That's what you said," Bargarran said, rising from his chair so the two of them were level.
Even though he had to look up slightly, Fulton did not back down. "How many times has that bird changed hands between us?" he asked, and his voice was soft, but not mild.
'None,' he thought, but the word died before it could reach his lips. Blackbirds were for reincarnation. "You don't mean..."
"How many times have we fought, Bargarran? How many times have we--" he cut himself off roughly and finally looked away.
Bargarran could fill in that blank easily enough. "Don't be ridiculous, Fulton. Such things cannot happen. When a person dies, they do not come back."
"You have not seen the things I've seen, Bargarran. The things I see." Fulton's spine was stiff with fury, and with other things. "You do not see their eyes watching us as we work. The screaming revelries their mistress commands. You have never seen her," he said, and he shut his eyes against whatever monster haunted him. "Ghosts exist, Bargarran, and so do witches. Such things can happen, and do happen, and will happen. Don't you understand?"
Bargarran looked down at the bird in his hands, so tiny a thing to make him feel so nauseated, and then up at Fulton. It was like there was some strange energy, a feyness that Bargarran could not describe, that flowed out from him at that moment. "No," Bargarran answered, and he had never been more truthful.
"We've been here before, Bargarran," Fulton said. "So many times. We disappear, but this place remembers."
"You shouldn't give away fabric this well-loved so easily."
Bargarran frowned and started to make his way around the counter, only stopping when Fulton took a step back. "That's why this place feels like you," he accused.
"It's why you feel like me," Fulton hissed, and Bargarran flinched.
"What do you mean?"
Fulton put both hands on the counter, and suddenly Bargarran was quite glad it was there. "You reek of magic. My magic. You always have, even before the moment I first laid eyes on you."
"That can't be," Bargarran said, stubbornly clinging to reality, or what passed for it.
"You're impossible to ignore, Bargarran. How strange it is, to find a marked man and to have the undeniable knowledge that you were the one that marked him. I knew I had to watch you. How could I not, when it was my own protective charms that hung over you like a corpse's shroud?"
Bargarran, for once, was at a loss for a response. Is that why Fulton had left yarrow and rosemary on his door? Why he left Christmas cards in his shop?
Fulton watched him, waiting for a response. Or maybe, Bargarran realized with a start, he was just watching his mouth. It was all the warning he got before Fulton reached across the counter and wrenched him down by his collar. The kiss was quick and brutal, and Fulton pulled away as suddenly as he'd leaned in.
Fulton ran his tongue over his lips, and Bargarran could not help but track the movement. "Go home, Bargarran. Check your bed. I've not seen it in this life, but I have no doubt that my mark will be there," he said, and his words were sure.
Bargarran cleared his throat and fought not to bring his fingers up to touch his abused lips. But the glitter in Fulton's eyes was coldly amused, and he knew that his acting was no match for the preternatural knowledge to which Fulton laid claim.
"Check, Bargarran," Fulton said, and without another word, he strode out the way he came.
Bargarran did not know if there was truth to Fulton's words, or if he was truly at the root of Fulton's troubles. But he did know that the whispers were right; it was not wise to anger a cunning man.
* * *
He did not bother knocking before storming into Fulton's shop. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, shaking the paper as he drew near.
Fulton almost seemed to be expecting him; instead of fear, he reacted to the outburst with a sort of bone-deep exhaustion. "Mr. Bargarran," he said, simple and slow.
"When have you been to my bed, witch? What curse have you laid there?" he asked, throwing the paper down upon his desk.
Fulton did not even bother looking at it before shrugging his shoulders. "It is a protection charm, as I said. I do not know when it was placed."
"But it was placed by you," Bargarran interjected.
"Aye," Fulton agreed with a nod. "But not in this lifetime."
"Lifetimes," Bargarran said derisively. "You expect me to believe what you say?"
"What better explanation is there, Mr. Bargarran? Why else would your footsteps be ever at the edges of my mind? How would my mark find its way to your bed? How else would I know what you like?" he asked, his contemptuousness matching Bargarran's own.
Bargarran tensed. "Perhaps because you are the one that made me like such things."
Fulton stared at him, and Bargarran could only feel a sickly sort of satisfaction now that he had finally reduced him to silence.
"A cunning man has power, they say. To heal or to hurt... or to ensnare," he said. He paused, let his eyes run over the bundles of greenery he could see in the back of Fulton's shop. "Tell me, Fulton. How does one create a love charm?"
Fulton rose stiffly from his seat and, reaching in a box beside his desk, grabbed a handful of withered blooms that had once been purple. Then, without taking his eyes from Bargarran's, he dashed it across the desk. "Our Father," he began, "Who art in heaven."
Despite himself, Bargarran took a step back. It was a prayer, to be sure, but a prayer was as good as a whispered incantation in the right hands. He watched as Fulton crossed himself, continued, crossed himself again, then began speaking far stranger invocations. All the while he watched Bargarran, furious and unblinking.
The two watched each other warily, the flowers a thin and uncrossable boundary between them. Finally, "Do you feel any different?"
"No," Bargarran said, and he didn't. His mind was full of Fulton, his body inflamed with it, but no. He did not feel any different.
"I doubted you would," Fulton said, and his lips twisted into an unkind smile. "It has no effect on those who are already lost."
Bargarran's intake of breath was sharp. Lost indeed, and with no sane guide.
Then Fulton sighed, and the stiffness went out of his shoulders, leaving only the sag of exhaustion. "We are bound, Bargarran, and through no magical interference." He sounded no happier about it than Bargarran felt.
"This is not love," he said.
"No," Fulton agreed. "It is obsession."
Bargarran snorted and fisted his hands at his sides. Ineffective as it was, it felt far worse to let them hang still. "It is a haunting," he said.
Fulton's eyes focused behind him on something unseen, as they so often did, and Bargarran could see no reflection of what they beheld. "Or something very similar."
"Look at me when we speak."
Fulton's eyes snapped back to reality, the one that they both shared. "I do," he said. "But I see much more."
Bargarran took a step closer, and with a frustrated growl, he swept his fist across the desk. The petals and Fulton's tools scattered, but he did not flinch. "Tell me what you see, Fulton," he demanded.
Fulton regarded him evenly, perhaps even a little pityingly. "I see evil, Bargarran. I see a world that has been halted by one thousand tiny cruelties, and I see the scavengers that come to feast on the remains. I see the bones of kings and soldiers and blackbirds alike, mingled together with little care for propriety." He paused, forehead creasing as he finally started to look a fraction of as lost as Bargarran felt. "I see you. You walk through it all ignorant to the dust you disturb, but plucking at the strings that bind us all the same. You're drowning in threads you can't even see. But I can. And I feel you struggling against them because I feel you always, in all that you attempt."
Bargarran stepped back from the desk.
Fulton watched him go, and when he finally spoke again, his voice was small. "Why do I protect you?" he asked. "Why are you so dear to me, and so foul?"
"I do not know."
"You--" Fulton cut himself off, and even as Bargarran watched him, the pained haze in those dark eyes cleared. He moved past Bargarran, was on the door in a flash, and he opened it with a nimbleness that Bargarran had forgotten he possessed. "You must go."
"What?" Bargarran asked numbly.
"The players are gathering," Fulton whispered. His gaze, as ever, was drawn to the end of the street. "She calls."
There was an urgency to his voice that seemed to compel Bargarran forward, that had him at the door before he could even comprehend the words. And yet there was something there at the back of his mind, something that hovered and called for attention even in the face of Fulton's distraction. Bargarran did not know what it was until he reached forward to take the door in hand. Until he glimpsed his own sleeves. "The thread," he said.
"Many of them," Fulton agreed, his eyes scanning the night.
"No," Bargarran said even as his voice rose. "Not your threads of fate and happenstance. This thread."
Confused, Fulton finally tore his eyes from the shadows and fixed them on Bargarran. "What?"
Bargarran raised his arm, presented Fulton with a row of neat, red stitches. "Red thread," he said tightly, "Is for binding."
Fulton's eyes widened. That was all Bargarran needed to take hold of him himself and throw him out into the street. "You speak of the threads of fate as if you are helpless, cunning man," he hissed, "But you're not nearly so passive as all that, are you?"
Fulton caught his balance as he fell, and righted himself with a ragged noise. He stood there in the center of the street, illuminated by shadows and lamps, and he grimaced. "We don't have time for this."
"We do." Bargarran took hold of his collar again and shoved him up against the wall. He held him there, forearm against his collar, and tried not to think of the last time he'd pressed this man up against this selfsame wall for very different reasons. "Why have you sewn your fate into mine, tailor?"
He could feel Fulton swallow against his skin, but he merely stared back at him. Bargarran could see guilt there, such a human emotion to find in such fey eyes. And then he knew. "What else have you sewn?"
Fulton's eyelids fluttered, but they did not close. "Blackbirds' wings," he choked out.
"The mount," Bargarran supplied. He remembered it well.
Fulton tried to nod, but it did not amount to much more than a twitch beneath Bargarran's weight. "A curse, perhaps, or a blessing."
And then there was the question, the real question, the only one that mattered. "Did you bind this curse, or did you bind it in place?" Bargarran asked.
Fulton went still, but still he breathed. And then, finally, "I don't know."
Of course. Of course. How could Bargarran have let himself ignore such a possibility, right there from the start? Such strange happenings in Paisley. Such heaviness in the air. It had all started with a Christmas card, and a sprig of white flowers.
He pulled his arm back from Fulton's throat only to bring it down, hard. But it was enough of an opening for Fulton to slip away from him, to dodge the blow by less than a heartbeat. He retaliated with a shove of his own, one that sent Bargarran sprawling onto the stones below.
The man was deceptively strong. Bargarran panted and tried to recollect his wits. Deceptive in many ways. He rolled to his feet.
"The thread is a guide," Fulton said, his voice still scratched and hoarse. "Like the skeletons in your mounts. It is intent that provides the flesh."
Bargarran threw himself at Fulton, and was not surprised when Fulton sprang away from him once again. "And what did you intend with your bones?"
"To bind the curse. To prise our lives from its influence, and to live out this life as our last."
Fulton stood there, limned by light. It hurt to look directly at him, but Bargarran knew better than to let his eyes leave that thin frame again. "But I don't know my past intent."
Bargarran snorted. "Right. Your lifetimes."
"I've done it before," Fulton said. "I'll likely do it again. The magic is my own to shape to my will."
"The curse is your own."
"It belongs to a me that has existed, just as the mount was once one of yours."
Bargarran shook his head. "I tell you, tailor, the bird is not my work."
Fulton edged around him, and Bargarran had the unnerving sensation of being corralled. "Then neither is it mine, if we do not take ownership of our past deeds," he said.
Bargarran turned even as Fulton did. "What past deeds?"
"It is my power, Bargarran, that is to be sure. But what was my intent? Was it truly my intent at all?" Fulton stopped where he was, and as ever before, his eyes were drawn to the end of the street. "Was it a trap laid for witches, or by them?"
Bargarran stared at him, breathing hard. "A cage," he said. If this was Fulton's madness, at least he was starting to understand it.
Fulton nodded. "For all of us, good and bad."
"And this," Bargarran said, brandishing his mended sleeve. "Is this mine?"
Fulton held his breath behind his teeth. "We have ever been bound, Bargarran."
"Because of you!" Bargarran shouted, bearing down on Fulton once again.
This time, though, Fulton managed to get in a blow of his own before Bargarran's aim could land true. "Because we have been together for countless lifetimes! And I would not see you drift away from me, not into her web!" he snarled.
"A leash, then," Bargarran said, rubbing at his jaw where Fulton had hit him.
Fulton watched the motion of his hand, and clenched and unclenched his own fist as if he could still feel flesh beneath it. "We have lived so many times, Bargarran, in so many ways. I can feel those memories just beyond my reach. We have loved each other, and we have betrayed each other. I have tasted your flesh, but also your blood. How many times do you think you've dashed out my brains upon these bricks?"
And how many times had he fucked him against them? Bargarran felt his throat working even as he tried to make sense of it all. This could not be so. No matter how the shadows seemed to call to him, familiar and seductive, no matter the way he knew Fulton like he knew his own desires--which was to say with intimacy and confusion.
"How many times," Fulton whispered, "Have you been the one with a curse upon your hands?"
Bargarran stood his ground. "One that you laid, no doubt."
"Are you always so wary, I wonder?" Fulton asked.
'Yes,' his heart told him. And each time it begat heartbreak. "Should I not be?"
"Oh yes," Fulton said, and he swayed in a breeze Bargarran could not feel. "But not of me."
He took a step towards Bargarran, and then another. Bargarran tensed for the blow, for the vile words and foreign incantations. But none of that came. Instead, Fulton laid gentle fingers on his neck, the nimble fingers of a tailor, and the stained fingers of a mortician, and he pulled him down for one more soft kiss. It was flavored with blood, as so many of theirs were, but held a tenderness that he had never experienced before. Not in this life.
Cursing himself for every kind of a fool, Bargarran allowed it. He allowed those fingers to creep down his chest, around his hips so they could grasp at his hands. He allowed Fulton to share breath with him even after their lips parted. He tasted the words that slipped off that tongue, tucked them away in the part of his heart that he left ever untended.
And when Fulton's hands tightened in his, when he sucked in a quick breath and tore himself away, he could not bring himself to be shocked. Such things had happened before. They would happen again.
Fulton's eyes were full of fear, but not for the man who had nearly choked the life out of him. His eyes went wide, glassy like the birds Bargarran tended, and a soft sound escaped his throat. "She's here."
Bargarran reached for him, but Fulton eluded him one last time. He dashed to a door, had it opened and closed in a flash, and Bargarran's hand was on the knob before he realized that it was not the shop to which Fulton had escaped. It was the mortuary.
Shutters banged shut around him, and there was a dull thumping on the other side of the door. A voice chanted quiet words inside the house, a voice that he loved and hated and cherished above all others. Bargarran banged on the door once, hard, but he already knew that it would not open.
The sounds of his shouts, of the rattling of the door, of Fulton's quiet chanted words grew fainter, muffled somehow, and Bargarran felt his own heartbeat quicken.
There was a tug on some part of him, deep and hidden. The threads that bound him were plucked and pulled. He heard a bell, and a call. He turned and, at long last, looked down towards the end of the street.