by Andy Lee
"Evening, there. Welcome in from the damp. How can we be of help?"
The bartender was bald and tattooed, well muscled in black t-shirt and blue jeans; exactly as you'd expect in a grungy part of the city. The newcomer was unusual, cloaked in darkness. The smoky bar, in contradiction to all ordinances, help to conceal them.
"Whisky," came the husky voice, ungendered, melodic. Their outline, shrouded in the cloak, the darkness, the fuzzy air, continued the ambivalence of personhood. Jack the bartender took in their ambiguity and shrugged. He'd seen weirder. At least this one seemed sober and not off their rocker on pills or potions.
"Whisky, coming right up," Jack mumbled. Down the bar sat several others, and in the back corner by the fire was a low red velvet couch. Jack was sure that's where the newcomer would migrate. Shadows danced with the low flames. He poured a stiff thumb of whisky into a tumbler and held it up.
"Rocks," Jack heard, so he added ice.
The creature ambled toward the couch, swooshing between tables. Once there, the cape was swirled off one shoulder and shaken out before the fire, droplets spraying and sizzling, dimming the firelight. For a few minutes, the bar was quiet, only a handful of folks inside drinking. Soon, though, it would fill up and the volume would rise exponentially. Eventually, as most evenings did, they would have fiddlers or guitars playing tunes, people singing, talking over the music, kissing in corners. Jack wondered for just a moment how long the odd arrival would stay, then a threesome arrived and he got busy pouring beers.
Before Jack realized any time had passed, crowds of people filled in every gap and it was standing room only. The music began, first Old Tim on his fiddle, joined by Laughing Harry on his mouth harp and Red Betsy on her tiny but mighty knee drums. The wooden clack was mirrored by a hundred or more stomping feet and the clinking of pewter mugs.
As midnight neared, the music quieted, fading into the crowd until it was only chatter and, finally, Jack could hear himself think again. The Rooster and Cow had had a terrific take that night, one of their better mid-week nights. Jack began to cash out, encouraging the drinkers to return home and get some sleep for work tomorrow. He noticed, however, that the couch was still occupied by... he didn't even venture a guess. The fire was all but out, though even in the dim light he could see the lanky form slouched on the couch. Were they waiting for someone? Had they fallen asleep? Jack stuffed the money he'd counted into an envelope and dropped it through a hole in the floor to the safe below and, grabbing a rag, made his way over to the couch area. He wiped down several tables before arriving at the fire. He closed the flue of the standing stove, cutting off air to extinguish the fire.
"Closing up," he said to the figure, who he saw was alert, and also seemed to be wearing a mask and costume. Orange and red feathery skin on their face, flecked with deep purple-black, and some kind of unitard of similar texture stood out and blended in, simultaneously. Jack stood fixed, staring without awareness of doing so. The creature turned their head to him and Jack saw in the eyes, those oceanic wells that drew him in, that he'd met someone tonight that would change him. This night would not end with wiping down tables and sweeping up the floor. No, he thought. This would not end like that at all.
Before he could speak, an arm raised, hand held out for Jack. When Jack took it, it was soft, warm as a blanket. He made as if to help them up from their seat, but instead the hand drew him gently down to sit beside each other, closely touching in a way Jack never did with anyone, not even his occasional lovers. And soon the feathery hand stroked his face and neck, and before Jack could register awareness, his skin began to change. As pleasant as warm water rinsing over him head to toe, Jack reformed from the outside in, his awareness changing, his corporeal body lightening, his bones hollowing, his self-identity shifting so that this is who he was, he was a werefalcon and he knew this as if he'd been so all his life.
From across the street, Gypsy Lea watched as the two caped figures exited the bar, turning off lights and locking the door as Jack had always done. They strode softly, silent in the wet cobbled street, and then they vanished, becoming mist as surely as the rain itself.