Someone crashes through the wards.
It’s like a gong being struck inside Andrew’s head, and it hurts right down to his fingertips.
“Breach,” he snaps, scattering cutlery and bits of egg as he shoots up from the breakfast table. “North, by the stream. Now.”
The others break into a flurry of motion. They might not like Andrew, but they trust his wards—a mistake in Andrew’s book. No one knows better than Andrew himself that his wards aren’t perfect; magic isn’t perfect. Andrew doesn’t listen to them as they arrange a hasty patrol. He feels glazed over like he’s only half here; the rest of him is out there at the Northern border of the sanctuary, still feeling the aftershocks of the breach.
Wymack, Dan and Matt follow him outside with Arta, Dan’s familiar—Andrew dimly notes that Renee stays behind, and something relaxes a fraction inside him. It took a long time until he was able to release Aaron, Nicky and Kevin into her protection even temporarily, but here they are. Trust—such a foolish, fickle thing; and yet.
The morning is sharp and cold, a blade buried under snow. Andrew himself walked the perimeter just an hour ago, checking and mending, tightening and reinforcing. Nothing should have been able to break through so easily. He scans the underbrush for footprints and the trees for broken branches but everything is still and pristine, the wood calm. The intruder must be powerful, to lull these trees into accepting them. Which means he’s fooled both Andrew’s and Renee’s magic in one day.
Andrew grinds his teeth. He must have done it a lot in his sleep last night because pain shoots through his jaw at the renewed pressure. There’s a flash of heat in the periphery of his senses, a brief awareness of the tang of blood on the air. He turns sharply, slips underneath a heavy branch and finds—
“A fox,” Dan says, still warily keeping her dog at bay. “I thought animals didn’t set off the wards.”
“It’s injured,” Matt croons, already reaching out. Andrew blocks his path, knocking his arm away.
“Not a fox.”
Dan sucks in a breath.
Well done, Sherlock. Andrew ignores her in favour of crouching down beside the not-a-fox. Its red fur is matted and dirty, the wounds littering its body are mostly scabbed over, some still oozing quietly. They look nasty, though not as bad as the patch of burned skin on its face, just underneath a pale blue eye. It’s the bruised blue of fresh snow in the evening, the kind that spells danger for anyone venturing outside past sunset. Frostbite eyes, Andrew thinks.
“If that’s a shapeshifter and they’ve made it here, that means they need help,” Matt says decisively. “They wouldn’t have found us otherwise or been able to get through Andrew’s wards. Besides—this place is literally called the Foxhole Sanctuary. It’s like a sign.”
“Or a warning,” Andrew says.
“Guess we won’t know until they shift back,” Wymack grunts. They all turn to look expectantly at the fox, but its eyes are still fixed on Andrew. Pleading, maybe. It’s too calm for that though—like it’s given its fate over to some higher power and can only wait for the verdict. There’s something about it that feels-
No. Andrew refuses to be that higher power.
“We’ll take them to Abby,” Wymack decides. Andrew doesn’t object. His energy is a carefully rationed good; he’s stopped wasting it on arguing with a stubborn bunch of bleeding hearts who don’t listen to him anyway.
Doesn’t mean he won’t be keeping a close eye on the thing.
He takes off his jacket and bundles the fox up, not bothering to be gentle. There’s a low whine of pain but no struggle. Its eyes slip closed as Andrew carries it back to the main house. Arta bounds ahead, Dan and Wymack talk in hushed voices behind him and Matt frets uselessly to the side, but Andrew’s attention is half on the bundle in his arms and half on the wards burning bright in his awareness. Nothing else breaks through; the forest remains still and sleepy like nothing has happened at all.
It sets Andrew’s teeth on edge.
He pushes through into Abby’s workshop without knocking and dumps the unconscious fox on her table, leaving Wymack to explain. Abby gets to work immediately, focus narrowing down on the broken body in front of her, and Andrew retreats to the window ledge on the other side of the room. Close enough to intervene if anything happens, but with enough space around him on all sides that he can breathe. Sunlight warms his back through the window as he pokes the wards in his mind one by one, plucking at them like strings and listening to their familiar hum. Nothing is out of tune, but he’s still going to have to do another perimeter check as soon as possible, see for himself that there’s no damage, no gap in their defences.
When Abby is done cleaning and patching up their surprise guest, she lays the unconscious fox down gently in a nest of blankets on the floor and places a bowl of water and some fruit and strips of meat nearby. She casts one last incantation to alert her when the fox wakes up, then she joins Andrew by the window.
“A common red fox shifter. As far as I can tell he’s male, probably in his mid-twenties. He’ll live,” she says curtly. Of course he will, Andrew doesn’t say. “Some of the wounds were in a rough state, but I was able to draw out the infection. He’s still feverish and he’ll need a lot of rest and some decent meals before he’ll be strong enough to shift back again. I’d give it a couple of days minimum. He’s not in any shape to present a danger to anyone right now.”
Maybe not right now, Andrew thinks. But in a couple of days?
Wymack comes in and Abby tells him the same things. Andrew is itching to check on his wards, and as if reading his thoughts Renee appears at the door, ready to assume guard duty while he makes his rounds. She nods at him as he passes and takes up sentinel on the window ledge, perching like a bird. She’s no shapeshifter, but she looks a bit like her familiar with her white hair and her keen eyes. Andrew has tried asking her what came first—the snowy owl or the hair dye—but Renee only ever smiles mysteriously in response.
He doesn’t miss his jacket until he’s back outside and the biting wind sticks its icy fingers under his shirt.
The fox sleeps most of the day. Once Andrew is satisfied that all of their defences hold he grabs a couple of bacon sandwiches and a cup of tea from the kitchen and holes himself up in Abby’s workshop, watching the snow drift past the windows and the breath go in and out of the fox’s curled-up form. The others come by every once in a while to ogle the newcomer but get bored when all he does is sleep. Bee helps Abby out with some potions and the two women keep up a quiet stream of inane conversation that Andrew lets wash past him without listening. He makes up one of the cots for himself that Abby keeps in her workshop for emergencies. Sleep is elusive that night though, the sound of light breathing in the room keeping him awake despite how exhausted he is.
He finally dozes off in the wee hours of the morning and is roused again by a soft lapping noise. He pries his eyes open without moving and waits until they adjust to the dim light. The fox is awake and drinking from the bowl Abby left for him. One of his hind legs is in a splint and some of his wounds still have remnants of a thick green healing paste on them, but Abby’s done a decent job of cleaning him up otherwise.
The lapping stops. The fox’s head swivels over and his eyes unerringly find Andrew’s across the room. Andrew is sure he didn’t move or make a sound, but there’s no reason to be stealthy now that the fox knows he’s there, so he slips from the cot and walks over.
The fox hastily retreats into his blanket nest—Andrew can see his jacket poking out of the mess and tamps down a brief flash of irritation. The fox’s movements are so stiff and awkward that Andrew wonders if he’s faking it to garner sympathy or make himself look less threatening.
Andrew moves the bowls of food and water out of reach and pulls a squashed packet of cigarettes from his pocket, putting it on the ground between them. He lets the lighter dance over his knuckles, mostly to curb the instinctive craving—he hasn’t smoked one since last year, since they’re too difficult to get up here. Seeing the pack still coaxes a tired Pavlovian response from his battered synapses, though. He carries it around mostly to prove to himself that he can resist it, and for the comforting shape and weight of it in his pocket.
“Tap once for no and twice for yes,” he says, tapping the box to demonstrate. The fox looks at the lighter in Andrew’s hand for a moment, the fur on his back twitching nervously, then snakes out a paw to tap twice lightning-quick.
Andrew remembers the burned patch on his face, now hidden under healing salve, and puts the lighter away. For now.
“I am going to ask questions and you are going to answer. If I find out you lied to me, I will skin you alive. Are we clear?”
The fox tilts his head and huffs as if amused. Then he reaches out to tap the box twice for yes, somehow succeeding in making the movement look sarcastic.
Too many questions are jostling for space in Andrew’s mind, but with their limited yes-or-no choice for answering there isn’t much use in asking any of them right now.
“The ones who hurt you,” Andrew says slowly. “Are they still after you?”
The fox hesitates.
“Don’t even think of lying,” Andrew reminds him, pushing the cigarette pack at him. The paw jerks away from the sudden contact before returning cautiously to tap twice again for yes. Andrew considers his next question.
“Does anyone know where you are?”
Once for no. Andrew waits, but no second tap comes.
“Are you sure?” he prods. “You really told no one? Didn’t even mention it in passing, or where someone could overhear? You didn’t let a friend or family member know that you were coming here? No one saw you come up the mountain?”
The fox glares balefully at him for asking too many grammatically ambiguous questions and Andrew carefully backtracks.
“I’m going to ask you again. Does anyone know where you are?”
Another tap for no, this time more vehement and accompanied by an impatient huff.
Andrew sorts through the rest of the questions in his mind, but he’s starting to tire of the game and if the fox is saying the truth and no one knows he’s here, that means they probably have some time to decide what to do with him before anyone comes knocking. At the very least Andrew can have a proper conversation with him once he’s recovered enough strength to shift back.
He puts the cigarette box away in his pocket and nudges the bowls back into place where the fox can reach them.
The fox stays in Abby’s workshop over the next couple of days. Andrew double-wards it but still barely sleeps at night, one ear constantly listening for trouble. All the fox does is nap, eat and drink though, and occasionally stretch his legs. Watching him limp awkwardly around the workshop or squeeze laboriously through the cat flap to relieve himself outside is somewhat entertaining, but the endless procession of people trying to interact with him grates on Andrew’s nerves. Abby has banned familiars from the workshop for now—there are simply too many of them at the sanctuary, not even counting the half a dozen stray cats that come and go as they please. The fox’s many injuries start scabbing over, which prompts Abby to muse loudly on whether she should put a collar on him to prevent him from biting at them. He looks a little bit chastened, but Andrew catches him scratching at a scab again the minute Abby’s back is turned.
“We can’t just keep calling him the fox,” Matt complains over dinner. He and some of the others have all crammed themselves into the workshop, sitting in a semi-circle around the fox’s blanket nest with bowls of root vegetable stew. The floor is covered in breadcrumbs. The fox in question does a good job of looking cute and harmless when they feed him bits of food, but Andrew sees the way his eyes dart between the exits from time to time.
“It’s not like he can tell us his name until he shifts back,” Dan says.
“We could try to guess it,” Allison suggests, lounging on a stack of cushions like it’s her throne. “Might as well make a bet of it. Who’s in?”
Bet is a magic word within these walls. An instant squabble breaks out, and for the next half hour everyone shouts out increasingly ridiculous names, none of which the fox shows any reaction to in the slightest.
“We’ll just give him a temporary name until he can tell us,” Dan decides once the noise level simmers back down to a peeved murmuring.
Everyone turns to the fox, who is busy sneaking persimmon slices from Renee’s bowl while Renee graciously pretends not to notice. His face immediately morphs into a picture of innocence, which Matt takes as agreement.
“Great! I think he looks like a… Neil. What do you think, buddy? Wanna be a Neil?”
The fox tilts his head before giving a short bark. Matt throws his arms into the air, victorious.
“That’s not fair,” Nicky pouts. “We should have put it to a vote.”
“And let you name the poor thing Foxkit Snufferson?” Allison snorts. “We have enough unfortunately-named pets running around this joint, Hemmick.”
“I was going to suggest Kit Hairyngton,” Nicky grins.
“Enough,” Dan says. “We’ll go with Neil. Now get your butts in gear, Abby said he needs rest and we promised to clean up after ourselves here.”
Andrew stays on his perch on the window sill, watching them scramble. The newly baptised Neil makes use of the commotion and squirrels the last of Renee’s persimmons away—knowing Renee, she probably left them behind on purpose. Andrew waits until the last straggler of the lot stumbles out the door before following, leaving Neil alone with his spoils of war.
It’s his turn to feed the chickens tonight. Andrew doesn’t care enough to try and weasel his way out of the chores like Nicky and Allison do, but he doesn’t care about the chickens to a slightly lesser degree than he does about the rest. Their clucking and crooning is a good backdrop for emptying his mind of the junk that routinely collects in it, and Andrew has managed to teach them a few tricks for his own amusement. The matriarch—Hen Solo, one of Nicky’s unfortunately named victims—totters over to inspect tonight’s offerings of grain, vegetable peels and cottage cheese. The resident rebel chick, Amelia Egghart, tries to get at the goods before Hen Solo gives her approval and receives a vehement peck from the old lady for her cheek.
Andrew sits in the chicken coop until they’ve all settled down for the night. The house is quiet on his way back to his quarters save for the muffled noise of the TV in the communal living room. Walking through the dark corridors, Andrew feels wide awake. He doubles back just before he reaches his room and retraces his steps to the workshop. Abby’s and Bee’s voices trickle out from under Abby’s office door, underscored by the chime of a wine bottle against the rim of a glass. Andrew slips past on hushed feet and into the workshop, lighting one of the smaller lamps on his way.
There’s a thump as a surprised fox tries to wiggle out from underneath a dresser as fast as he can. He freezes guiltily when he sees Andrew. Something is scattered on the ground around him and Andrew traces the spill of small cream tiles back to Abby’s board game shelf. A massive Scrabble box has been upended, missing half its letters and runes.
Neil bats weakly at a wayward X, watching for a reaction. Andrew walks over, picks up one of Allison’s abandoned cushions and sits on the floor in front of the pile of letters.
He chooses two and spells NO.
Neil painstakingly puts together a defiant YES.
Andrew stares at the letters. They blur a little in front of his eyes. Maybe he was more tired than he thought—or maybe a game of Scrabble is just what he needs.
He uses Neil’s Y to spell WHY and says: “Why are you here?”
Neil considers the question, then pushes a few tiles underneath his S to spell SAFE.
Andrew turns the F into FROM. Neil shapes the O into OUCH, something like sarcasm in his gaze, or maybe that’s a challenge. Andrew purloins the H and makes WHO, refusing to back down, and Neil thinks for a moment before messing with Andrew’s earlier NO. When he steps aside to let Andrew see, Andrew almost huffs out an amused noise at the cheeky NUNYA: none of your business.
He tries a different approach and turns the second N into NAME. Neil takes a long time to answer that one, and then he just writes NEIL.
They go back and forth like this until they run out of tiles. Andrew manages to squeeze in a few runes toward the end, which gains him enough points to pull ahead by a slim margin. Neil grins at him, which somehow makes him look even more like a fox, and very casually slots his last tiles into place to spell JINX: something that brings bad luck.
“Are you?” Andrew asks. His voice comes out raspy from disuse. He blinks down at their sprawling game and his eyes feel dry and sore from squinting at the letters in dim light for so long. Neil flicks his tail up and down like a shrug. He reaches out and taps three letters in quick order: W-I-N. I win.
Andrew shrugs back and starts gathering up the tiles. They go into a scuffed velvet bag that Andrew puts within reaching distance of Neil on the shelf. He watches as Neil turns a few circles in his nest and settles down with a sigh.
For an instant, Andrew feels it again—like catching a whiff of the faintest scent, not quite enough to put his finger on it before it’s gone.
He closes the door quietly behind himself on his way out.