A long, long time ago, back when the past was the past and time meant something, Fulton was just a tailor. It felt hard to believe now. He’d spent his days mending and hemming clothing, the typical colors and the typical fashions. These days, he wondered if they’d just been the same jobs again and again and again, his own neat stitches unraveling while the world remade itself. He woke with sleep dust and unholy knowledge lingering at the corners of his eyes, and he knew that his days were both numbered and infinite, a thousand splinters of possibility wrapped up in the same goddamn week.
He could pinpoint it, the moment when his days became different from one another. When his mind cleared and his eyes sharpened. It was all just a drop of sweetness. Then bitter truth.
There was a new bar down the street. Paisley was an old town, and it didn’t see new very often. (Not anymore. Maybe not ever.) Fulton would have been a liar if he’d said he wasn’t curious. They all were. They all trickled in and out of that strange new-old bar that had materialized at the end of town, hanging on by just the barest thread of consciousness, and they came out changed. New. Old. Betwixt.
Fulton found his time just as soon as any of them. It was the end of a long workday. A chill night, fog clinging to the windows of his shop. It was a good night to warm up with a drink. A good night to visit a new neighbor. He’d been expecting something strong and cruel when he’d sat down at the bar, but a very different drink had been pushed across the counter.
Wine. Thick, black wine.
Fulton prodded at the cup, a chalice if anything, and raised an eyebrow. “Got something stronger for the cold?” he asked.
And that new bartender just smiled, and none of it reached his black eyes. “Nothing stronger than this, Fulton,” he replied.
Fulton watched him go back to his work, and wondered who he’d been speaking to that he’d learned Fulton’s name. Ah, well. There were so few neighbors in Paisley. It wouldn’t have been hard to learn.
He frowned down at the chalice. It was such a dark wine, and the aroma of it was so strange. It niggled at his mind, and he found himself casting about for a memory, or perhaps some half-forgotten dream. He fought a shudder as he picked up the cup. Or perhaps a nightmare.
Fulton felt eyes on his neck as he raised the wine to his lips, but when he glanced upward, the only one there was the barman, who only straightened his bar. He took a sip. Then another.
“What remarkable wine,” he said, a certain weight to his soft tones, one that felt unsettlingly unfamiliar to his own ears. He drank deep, hoping that the wine’s lush sweetness would tamp down his troubles.
“It is, isn’t it?” the barman asked, and hell, it really was a strong spirit. Fulton felt almost as if there were two of him there, a smile and a frown, a man and something…else. “Nothing stronger in all the world. This or the next.”
Fulton blinked at him, and felt a peculiar swooping sensation inside him. It was as if the wine was filling up some empty cavity in him that he’d never known existed, but at the same time was what was wearing away the hole in the first place. It burned and built and he shivered at the strength of it. “What is this?” he asked, belatedly.
“Elder wine,” the man-not-man said casually. This time, his mouth was a firm line – but his eyes were smiling.
“Elderberry?” Fulton asked. There was something about elderberry that nagged at him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Had he read about it in a book once?
“Elder,” the man replied, noncommittal.
“The fae slumbers beneath the elder,” Fulton said, well-worn words appearing in his mouth like magic.
“And more than that,” the bartender said, and his lips slid up into something predatory. “We dance.”
Cold fingers gripped Fulton’s heart. There were cobwebs in the corners now, and they glistened with something ethereal. Something sweet. Something bitter. The taste of it lingered on the back of his tongue. What on earth was to be trapped in those webs? “What have you done to me?” Fulton whispered, feeling very much like an insect. Like food.
The barman placed an old glass bottle, clouded in quality, back on the shelf behind the bar. “What needed to be done.”
“No,” Fulton murmured, even as the truth started to tremble at the corners of his eyes. He teared up a little, like dust had gotten itself caught there instead of a profound, terrifying knowledge. Instead of the ghosts hovering just out of sight. “You did what you pleased.”
Hell, he thought. And then he realized, no, truly, this was hell. And the smirking man before him, this beast lying in human skin, was a devil if ever they’d walked among them.
The devil laughed, a jarringly pleasant sound. “Isn’t it grand when business is pleasure?” he asked.
The world tipped alarmingly below Fulton’s feet, and he felt himself crumple against the bar. “But why?” he asked, voice growing husky in his throat. “Why now? Why me?”
The devil paused, and there was a glimmer of something like interest in those black, black eyes. “Call it compassion,” he said, and Fulton snorted. “Things need to be kept fair. The world must be balanced. That’s how magic works. You’ll see.”
And Fulton didn’t see, he didn’t see at all. He didn’t see how it was fair that he’d been given a cursed brew to sip, or how it was balanced to give one lone tailor the barest weapon against the devilry at his door. At this point, he couldn’t even see the bar anymore.
Fulton’s vision swam and went dissolved into darkness. Warm hands caught him as he fell.
* * *
Fulton stepped forward, legs gone jellied beneath him, and wiped the fog from his window. No. Wait. Fog shouldn’t be on the inside of the – that thought, his last logical thought for a good long time, broke, splintered in his mind as he stared out the window at his new-old world. Ghosts wandered the streets, stumbling over themselves in a kind of hunger that was just beginning to gnaw at his bones. They felt it. Her call.
Now… so did he.
He turned around to see a gift left for him on his desk. It had not been there when he had awoken, and a chill slipped down his spine as he recognized it as the bottle he’d seen behind the devil’s bar. It was old and cracked and yet devastatingly solid in his hands. A note was looped around its neck.
‘Don’t forget – red thread is for binding. Cheers.’
The note trembled between his fingers, and he remembered the old spool of red thread in his desk. It had been rarely used up to this point. It was far too garish for mending.
It would be used for something very different now.
Fulton picked up the bottle, its weight confusing in his grip. The heft of it was uncanny, simultaneously heavy and light, familiar and howlingly foreign in his hands. He swallowed hard. Now he held Compassion. Now he held Truth.
He thought about inviting old Bargarran over for a drink. He thought about tipping drops of bitter sweetness into the cups of every poor sod in town. He thought about having company in his torture.
He thought about compassion, and the true meaning of the word. He thought about the way the edges of him felt heavy now, felt tattered. Then he brushed the new cobwebs from an old cabinet and locked the bottle inside.
He slowly wound red thread around the lock and hummed a song he’d never heard before as he worked. Binding. Balance. Blood. The old songs thrummed through him now like magic, like horror, like a ghost in his own skin.
He did not dance.