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with a little energy (maybe you can stay)

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Andrew places the last sachet Dan asked him to make on the shelves, and decides to call it a day. The shop has a strong sage scent, which means Allison probably had another demon-filled dream, as it has become the accepted sign that the shop needs some cleansing and protection. For reasons that he can’t fathom, Andrew doesn't truly tolerate the smell, so he escapes to the backstore to find Renee.

The closing hour has passed anyway, so no need to linger around herbs, ointments and amulets anymore. He has spent the day making purifying sachets, and he has enough of it for now.

As expected, Renee is sitting at the craft table, and she smiles at him when he enters. Andrew doesn’t return it, but he still sits with her in silence and observes as she melts some powder and resin together to form new jewels. She will probably ask him to spell them later with her.

It’s calm and familiar, enough so that Renee’s slight flinch is blatant and alarming. Her eyes turn to a milky white as they usually do when she scans their territory. Their boss owns a four storey building; the shop and kitchen takes the first floor while multiple lofts are on the three others. The backyard has a large garden bursting with flowers, fruits, herbs, veggies and way too many hiding spots. It’s large and could take a long time for Renee to go through, but in a second Andrew is up, trusting his friend to be fast.

Renee gets on her feet soon enough and starts walking to the back door, and he gets on her heels to follow. “Where?” He asks, but she doesn’t answer him, leading them to the back of the garden, near the huge apple tree there. When they reach it, Andrew grabs the woman by her elbow and pushes her behind him as he takes in the sight.

Oh, well. That’s unexpected.

At first glance, the injured man sitting under the tree seems to be a kitsune. He’s hugging one of his large tails against his chest, the fur covered in strikes of brownish red. The most striking injury is the sharp claw marks on his right cheek, oozing blood all over his face and neck. His dazzling blue eyes are unfocused as he looks at them, squinting in an effort to not lose consciousness, Andrew guesses.

Kitsunes don’t usually venture outside of their own territory, and few are those who dare to get into a fight with them, which is even more concerning.

“Who is he?” comes Matt’s voice behind them—he must have seen them hurry outside the building and to the back of the garden. Andrew doesn’t pay attention to the oni, getting closer to the kitsune.

At first, he only gets a slight flinch when he leans in front of him, but soon enough the kitsune shows a glimpse of his fangs, the effort obvious in this simple attempt.

It’s Renee who speaks first, using one of these soothing tones she keeps for the scared creatures that always finds a way to their shop and garden. The last time Andrew heard her use this one was when Allison found her way to them, begging for the demons to stop appearing in her dreams.

“It’s fine, you’re okay now. We won’t hurt you.” The sound of a foot in the dirt means she took a step forward and Andrew glances back quickly to see Matt’s hand on her shoulder. She must be annoyed by it, but she doesn’t show it, attention on the injured creature. “We can carry you inside and help you, and you don’t have to tell us anything. How does that sound?”

The kitsune shows his teeth once more, but his eyes are becoming more and more unfocused, blinking so slowly Andrew isn’t sure they will open next time he does so. It’s obvious he’s going to lose consciousness sooner or later, so Andrew doesn’t move, and waits. No need to waste spiritual energy on forcing it.

They stand in silence until the kitsune loses his fight against his injuries, chin falling against his bloody chest and face buried in his tail. When Andrew is sure the man isn’t faking it, he gets up and steps aside to give way to Matt. If ever the kitsune wakes up and starts fighting against him, there are way less chances for the oni to get badly injured. Plus, Matt is frustratingly strong.

“What the hell happened to him?” Matt mutters once he has the other in his arms, bridal style. For once, Andrew has to admit that it doesn’t look pretty at all; there are so many open wounds through the shredded fabric of the kitsune’s clothes that they might not be able to save him.

“With a bit of luck, kitsunes have a strong constitution,” Renee murmurs, touching his forehead with the back of her hand. “I don’t think he’s supposed to be that hot, so he’s probably coming up with a fever.” She presses her lips together. “I’ll go get Abby, you bring him to the empty loft.”

They share one glance and she nods before heading toward the building quickly. Andrew stays back with Matt, walking slowly as to not shake the injured man too much. It’s stronger than him, so he scans the horizon around, making sure nothing is following this mess of a kitsune. They shouldn’t find the shop even if they were, but old habits die hard.

“These look like claw and bite marks, right?” Matt says, frowning at the bloody mess in his arms. It’s slowly dripping down between his fingers, to the grass, tainting soft green with harsh red. "Did he get attacked by one of his own?"

Andrew brings back his attention to what almost looks like a corpse now, and assesses the damage once more. It does look like it, or at least a similar yokai, so he hums and proceeds to ignore Matt when he swears under his breath.

Maybe because it’s more interesting to follow the oni and what will happen after than to go back to his quarters, but Andrew feels nice enough to open doors for Matt until they get to the second floor and its only unoccupied loft. They leave the unmoving body on the bed, uncaring for the sheets under and the stains that will surely be left.

It’s easy to know when Abby joins them because of the audible gasp she makes. Andrew lazily looks her way to find her frozen in the entrance for a second, but soon enough he sees the changes in her expression as she gets to the bed, already scanning the mess. The way her frown deepens each passing second isn’t promising.

After what seems like an eternity, Abby finally starts undressing the kitsune, causing the cuts to bleed heavily. She stops at his chest and opens her medical kit, getting to work. “How are you feeling?” She asks, seemingly to no one in particular, but Andrew knows she’s asking about his spiritual energy. It’s obviously severe if she thinks she might need his help.

Andrew closes his eyes and tunes out everything around him, feeling the pool of energy inside his veins. It isn’t flat, but it isn’t high either; he’s neglected it in the past few days. “Depends what you need me for," he answers truthfully.

It takes a minute but then she nods. “If you could get it up a bit, that would be great.” It isn’t an order, she probably knows Andrew won’t listen if she tries to command him around. It’s a favor, and they both know it, because Andrew doesn’t care if the kitsune dies or survives.

And yet, Andrew wonders what could have gotten him so poorly, beaten up, so he walks away from them to get to his own place right next to this one, ignoring when Matt calls behind him, “That’s a yes or a no?” and Abby shushing him to silence.

There is a ray of light coming from the window to the middle of the room, and it’s exactly what he needs. He places himself on the ground under it and closes his eyes against the sun, deepening his breathing until nothing around exists anymore except for the warmth of the sun.

His thoughts soon melt into something barely comprehensible, and Andrew stays there, unmoving and completely closed to the whole world.

***

The smell of blood and antiseptic hits him right when he enters the room, Abby obviously still working on the kitsune. There is a gory pile of clothes on the side of the bed, and Andrew wonders once more if the creature will even survive the night.

“Will you help?” the yuki-onna asks him, barely glancing back to make sure it’s truly Andrew who’s just entered the room. Her usual impeccable braid is spilling around her shoulder, leaving frost where the strands of hair touch.

“I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t going to,” Andrew comments as he reaches the bed and takes in the sight that the injured man is. The skin has been cleaned, giving a clear picture of all the gashes, and it's now possible to see faded scars in the lot. There is also a huge purple bruise on his unnaturally bent forearm. It's one messed canvas, Andrew thinks.

One look at his face, and Andrew knows they are currently losing him. His lips are sickly pale, and beads of sweat are rolling down his forehead and neck. He sighs deeply, taking the other side of the bed to evaluate what he can do. Abby doesn’t comment on it, knowing Andrew will know best what is in his power to do or not.

In a swift movement of his hand, Andrew writes a talisman in the air with the ease of practice. It dissipates above the injuries, blood clotting under their naked eyes. It’s one he has used many times on himself, and it takes quite a bit of energy, but doing it is almost as easy as breathing.

Abby sighs at the display, her shoulders untensing slightly now that it is clear Andrew will assist her for now. She knows it’s always a gamble if he will care enough or not; he isn’t fond of spending energy on random people when he could need it to protect his family and the shop.

Reluctantly, Andrew picks up the man’s wrist, sensing his energy and searching for his pulse. Both are incredibly weak, meaning he can’t leave it at that simple trick. As soon as the assessment is finished, his fingers release the other and he leans against the wall to evaluate the possibilities.

There aren’t many choices from this point forward, and Andrew has to decide if he’s willing to share his energy with the kitsune for the next few days or not. The honest answer is that no, he isn’t willing considering sharing any part of himself is one of his least favorite things in this messed up world. Therefore, Andrew tunes out his own mind and chooses his fate with his next words: “Leave us alone. If you don’t trust me you can send Renee, but no one else.”

The snow woman hesitates, which Andrew gives to her advantage, as being too trusting is never good. She bites her lower lip and then slowly nods, her frown deep. “That won’t be necessary.” It’s so unsure, Andrew almost expects her to change her mind and fetch for Renee right away. “Is there a time we should come back in?”

It only takes a few seconds for him to evaluate how much time he might need. “Give us three hours, and if I’m not out after this set time, send Aaron.” This is one of the situations he’s trained him for.

“Alright, be careful.” She whispers the last part as she leaves, knowing he doesn’t like it, and yet she can’t help herself. With a more pressing matter at hand, Andrew doesn’t react to it and gets to work.

He brings the room’s armchair beside the bed, close enough to be able to reach the kitsune’s head, and sits down with his legs folded. It isn’t the best setting, but it will have to do. In one move, Andrew pulls one of his multiple knives out and folds up his right sleeve to cut the skin of the inside of his wrist, just enough to draw blood. It’s painful, but also familiar, and it’s better than to cut his hands open each time.

Andrew dips his index in it and reaches for the creature’s forehead, drawing symbols on the wet skin. Hopefully it will stay and not erase itself in the middle of his attempt to save him.

When it is done, he leaves two fingers on the symbols and closes his eyes. At first, his spiritual energy fights back, refusing to move from its host. It is most likely held back by Andrew’s own reluctances at doing it, but he forces it to flow steadily into the dying man. To keep it constant and stable takes all of his focus, so Andrew lets the outside world disappear from his mind once more, bracing himself for a few hours of exertion.

Sometimes, he wonders why he puts the effort into anything at all.

***

Andrew wakes up out of breath, his heart beating too strongly in his chest. With the darkness surrounding him, it’s impossible to see past the edge of his bed, which doesn’t help with the panic filling his mind and spiritual energy. It takes two attempts before he manages to cast a spell, little balls of light that soon illuminate the space.

Once he can see everything, it becomes clear the fear and panic isn’t his own. The source is flooding through his energy, and Andrew is on his feet quickly, getting out of his loft to enter the one next to it, the lights following him.

As expected, the kitsune is out of his bed, eyes round and chest raising heavily with each fast-paced inhale and exhale. He’s sitting in the corner of the room, back against the wall, most likely to be able to see both the door and windows at once. It has been a few days since Andrew has started sharing his spiritual energy with him, but it should still be too early for him to move around.

The frightened man has a blanket around his shoulders, preventing Andrew from scanning the damage he must be doing to his injuries. He takes a few steps in his direction, keenly aware of each movement the kitsune makes.

“Would be nice if you don’t waste our efforts, so get back into bed,” Andrew commands, knowing full well that there’s little chance the other will listen to him. The way he recoils further against the wall even if he’s already plastered against it is telling.

“Stay away from me,” the kitsune growls, showing his canines. The action seems to be painful, probably due to the claw marks on his cheek, because he flinches slightly.

Andrew stops a few meters away from him as a show of goodwill, pushing his hands in his sweatpants pockets. It likely surprises the kitsune because his mouth closes, hiding his sharp teeth.

They stay in silence for a little, the kitsune becoming calmer with the minutes, but also shakier. His body must be exhausted and it’s coming back at him—he must be in a lot of pain now.

“What’s your name?” Andrew finally inquires. He’s tired of calling him ‘the kitsune’ in his head.

“Where am I?” The kitsune retorts, as he brings his knees closer to his chest. Knowing the full extent of his injuries, Andrew knows that this simple movement must be hell for the other, and there is also a telling, painful pull in their mixed energy.

“That’s a difficult question to answer.” Which isn’t a lie, because their home isn’t truly set in time and space, and Andrew isn’t usually the one who does the explaining.

The answer clearly isn’t satisfying, and the man frowns. “Then try your best.” It sounds like a threat, which is funny considering Andrew has no idea what the human fox could do right at this moment. His energy is back to a respectable level, with Andrew maintaining it up, but the kitsune needs it all to heal properly.

He chooses not to mock him, and answers truthfully, “This is our home, and a shop for people who need it. Whoever is after you shouldn’t find you here. You found this place because it knew it could help you, and someone looking for it wouldn’t find it.” It might be unclear, but the others can have fun explaining it to him later if they want to. For now, this will have to do. “Now, what’s your name? I don’t like repeating myself.”

The kitsune is silent for a moment, and Andrew can feel the turmoil in his energy as he decides if he believes him or not. He never got used to sharing his spiritual energy, and to feel someone else’s feelings and missing a part of your own soul is always a weird and invading process. Andrew can do without anything or anyone invading his personal space.

“Neil. My name is Neil.” The way Neil tests the name on his tongue is telling, and Andrew doesn’t believe him for a second. However, he doesn’t care enough to be bothered by it, he can be called whatever he wants. At least now he has a name.

“Fine, Neil.” Andrew makes sure to sound derisive, but he doesn’t plan on commenting further than that. “We’ve spent days trying to save you.” He points toward the unmade bed, now clean from any signs of blood. “I won’t do it a second time if you aren’t careful, so go back to sleep.”

It might be a sign of defiance when two of Neil’s five tails starts flapping against the ground as he bites his lower lip. Andrew doesn’t press it, if he can avoid using a talisman to force their patient into bed, then he will wait. “How many people are here?” Neil inquires as he tries to get up, each of his movements calculated as to not hurt too much, but it must be an impossible task. The strain is visible on Neil’s features, but he does a good job of hiding the pain.

If giving answers to his questions gets the kitsune back to bed, Andrew doesn’t mind offering him that. “We’re ten. Most won’t bother you here.” As of now, only Abby and himself have come to this room in the past days to take care of Neil.

By the time the injured kitsune is sitting in bed, he’s panting for air through gritted teeth. Andrew thinks he notices a line of blood on the clean sheet Neil is holding around him, but it doesn’t seem large enough to be worrying in the immediate.

“Why are you helping me?” This is a valid question. Andrew never believed in giving without gain and he still doesn’t, no matter what Dan, Abby and Renee tell him all the time. They just want to help, they say, but Andrew knows they all have a reason to do so, whether they see it that way or not. They want to stay and to have a purpose; even if it isn’t specific to every lost soul they help in the process, it’s still their gain.

“That’s the purpose of this place. Ask the rest to someone who cares about it.” Andrew is only here to escape from his past and protect his family, he doesn’t care about the rest. He only plays along when it is necessary because it gives him what he wants.

Neil hums. He doesn’t move from his sitting position, and Andrew understands he probably won’t until who he considers to be an intruder leaves. This fox has better preservation skills than his injuries are showing him to have had. Taking it as his ticket out, Andrew turns around and manages to reach the door before a pull in his energy gets him to stop.

He turns quickly toward Neil to witness him holding a luminous flow of energy between his fingers. Now manifested in the air, a blue line comes from Andrew’s chest and mixes with orange where Neil holds it. Fucking kitsune. Of course he noticed the link between them. His eyes are full of questions when they look at Andrew. After all, why would someone waste so much energy to save someone they don’t know?

Unwilling to have this conversation, Andrew signs quickly in front of him, the physical manifestation dissipating into dust. The link is still there, but Neil shouldn’t be able to touch it for the next hours. “Get some rest,” he groans, exiting the loft and leaving the kitsune behind him with his interrogations.

***

All of Andrew’s wishes of eating his breakfast in peace evaporate when Dan enters the room and takes the seat in front of him angrily. He ignores her as long as she allows it, drinking from his mug and staring at a specific spot on the wall.

“He refuses to talk to us and to let anyone touch him,” she finally says, and Matt reaches for her back to rub circles in an attempt to soothe her. “You said he talked to you last night!” It sounds like a reproach, as if it is somewhat Andrew’s fault if the kitsune doesn’t cooperate anymore.

Because she stated a fact, he doesn’t pay her attention, shoving the last piece of his Nutella toast in his mouth. Before Dan can snap at Andrew, Nicky steps in from beside him. “Maybe he’s shy or intimidated? I mean, I probably would be if I woke up wounded in an unknown place with only strangers,” he rationalizes, but Andrew knows he’s wrong, because there are no traces of any of that in Neil’s energy.

“With the way he smiled cockily in our faces when he refused to answer, I doubt it,” Dan replies, throwing her hands up in annoyance.

Matt stops rubbing her back to cough, maybe hiding a laugh, Andrew doesn’t know, because he isn’t looking at them. “Who the fuck bites back when they are being helped, though? We saved his life,” he says.

“Someone who isn’t used to getting help without owing something worse in exchange,” Andrew provides, finally participating in the conversation. He doesn’t stay long after feeling a pull and a spark of panic in his veins; he throws his dishes in the sink and turns to leave the room, but he still hears Nicky mumbles, “What is worse than death? He would have died.” And Andrew is content knowing Nicky doesn’t know many things are worse than death.

The moment he steps inside Neil’s temporary loft, heat kisses his skin and he’s forced to stop. There is magic fire around the bed, and Abby is as far as she can be from it while still in the room. The kitsune glances his way, but he’s quick to bring back his attention to the woman.

“You realise it’s my energy you’re wasting for your stupid trick?” Andrew raises an eyebrow at him, and slowly places himself between Neil and the snow woman, finding it wiser to get the kitsune’s attention off her. They aren’t a good match together, kitsunes control fire while their healer is basically part snow and ice.

“Tell her not to touch me,” Neil growls. The sheet he had around his shoulders the previous night is down, showing off the two bite marks at his side and the numerous claw marks on his shoulders and chest. Andrew knows there are others on his back. He’s also holding one of his arms against his stomach, the other one controlling the fire.

“She’s the one taking care of your wounds, stupid fox,” Andrew retorts. He could sever the source of energy Neil is currently using, but if he does so, he doesn’t think he will be willing to rehabilitate it after. Neil still needs it for some time to heal properly, his own pool of it too low.

Neil glares at him, but doesn’t stop, which is infuriating. How old is this dumbass? Three? As a provocation, Andrew heads for the bed slowly, heading directly toward the fire, unwilling to spend hours playing this game.

The fire slips lower slightly, but picks up right after. Neil looks somewhat alarmed. “What are you doing? Step back.”

Andrew stops right in front of the burning perimeter and tries one last time. “Want to heal fast and get out of here? Then I suggest that you stop wasting my energy. I’m going to keep it for myself if you use it against me.”

Neil opens his mouth likely to protest, but he closes it fast after. Andrew doesn’t add anything to the conflict in the fox’s eyes and wait, sweat starting to pearl at the base of his hairline. It takes a minute, but soon enough Neil brings his hand down slowly and the fire evaporates, leaving only blackened wood where it previously was.

The strong strain Andrew has been feeling since earlier finally gets to something bearable, and he wipes his wet forehead with the bandages covering his arm as he glances back. Abby’s whitish hair has melted in parts, but it should get back to normal soon enough, and except for this she seems unscathed.

Before he can add anything, Wymack enters the room, obviously fuming. Renee probably warned him of a burst of magic coming from the injured fox’s room. “What is happening here?” One look in the healer’s direction, and he’s fast by her side, checking for injuries. She reassures him with a hand to his cheek and a soft smile, a scene which Andrew adverts his eyes from. It’s none of his business.

Unpleased, Neil is now staring at the wall, avoiding to look at anyone in the room. It gives the cultivator some time to notice how the kitsune’s forearm is bent, even pressed against his stomach in an attempt to conceal it. He doesn’t have time to inquire about it, because Wymack reaches his side, keeping a few feet between them.

“You might not know the rules here, but the first one is to not hurt the others,” Wymack comments, and Andrew notices how Neil flinches at the strong voice. “Don’t talk to us, I don’t give a damn, but whatever hurt you is probably out there, so I suggest you learn to behave yourself until you’re healed. After that, you’re free to go.” He pauses in his speech, giving Neil some time to assimilate it before he adds, “Are we clear?”

Neil finally turns to look at Wymack, defiance clear as water in the brightest blue eyes Andrew has ever seen. Even so, the fox nods and proceeds to ignore them again. The owner of the place glances at Andrew, and the latter nods too, not feeling any ill intent coming from Neil’s energy.

“Good, now behave yourself.” With this, Wymack leaves Neil to the care of Andrew. As for Abby, she doesn’t step forward yet.

“His arm didn’t heal properly, I thought I would have time to replace it, but your energy seems to have sealed the bones wrongly,” she informs him, giving a bit of insight on what must have happened earlier.

Andrew sighs at Neil’s shiver; they both know what this means. “So you need to break it again.” He hates stating the obvious, but they do need to come up with a way of doing it and keep it precise.

Abby hums, finally taking some steps in his direction. “Is there a way you could minimise the pain? Or Renee?”

The kitsune’s ears flatten on his head and he moves so fast Andrew wouldn’t have picked up on it if their spiritual energies weren’t connected to one another. Andrew manages to grab his bent arm just in time to stop Neil from crashing it into the bed frame to break it himself, and he braces himself when the fox tries to push him away with a hand against his chest.

The burst of pain in their shared energy must surprise Neil, because he yelps and takes his hand back to his own chest as if Andrew is scorching lava. The cultivator grits his teeth, feeling the patch of skin Neil touched which has ripped open, most probably leaving a trail of blood at the front of his shirt. His grip on the other’s arm is shaky, but he doesn’t release him.

Abby gasps when she realises what just happened, but she doesn’t move closer when Andrew gives her a sign to stay back.

Neil doesn’t dare to move anymore, as still as a statue. Andrew needs a few more seconds to get over it, and finally Neil mumbles, “What the hell just happened? I’m positive I didn’t touch you with my claws, your shirt isn’t even ripped.”

Instead of answering this, Andrew pulls at Neil’s arm lightly in warning. “Fucking behave, will you? If you’re so into doing it without pain killers, let Abby do it.” He waits until he feels Neil’s energy calm down, and then Andrew releases him, moving away from the bed.

The moment Abby sees the blood oozing out of the injured man’s chest, she gets closer and tries to reach for him but Andrew gets a blade out of the sheath at his right hip and wards her off with it. “Don’t touch me, it’s nothing I can’t deal with.” She knows him enough to not push it, but she sighs in defeat.

“You shouldn’t have to deal with it alone,” she comments, obviously worried by their forever reticent resident.

Andrew doesn’t reply, forgetting the overwhelming pain by focusing on Neil and putting away the blade. The latter is looking at him with the inability to understand what just happened, but he isn’t trying to break his arm anymore, so the cultivator takes it as a win. “Are you going to let her help you?” he asks coldly, done with it.

“I don’t need—”

“Do you want to keep your arm impaired like that forever?” Andrew snaps dispassionately even if his hands are clenching. “Slam it in the bed frame, go ahead you dumb fox, but chances are you’ll break another part and not help the matter.”

“Andrew,” Abby tries calmly, but the two others don’t pay attention to her.

Neil presses his lips together and challenges Andrew’s stare for a bit, but finally he swears under his breath and tension releases from his form slightly. “Fine, whatever. Make it quick.”

The healer doesn’t seem pleased by the turn of events even if the kitsune lets them proceed; she isn’t keen to inflict pain without anesthetics. Andrew guesses it’s because Neil doesn’t want anyone close to him anymore when he doesn’t have all of his head.

“I’ll go get Allison, she can help me,” Abby concedes finally, leaving the room quickly to go fetch the girl she’s training. Meanwhile, Andrew leans against the wall closer to the open window, taking a deep breath of fresh air.

Mindlessly, he presses his right hand to his chest and the open wound. Even if he tries his talisman on it, the cultivator knows it won’t close down, so he bears with the ache. The curse isn’t one he can counter easily.

“What happened?” Neil asks once more when they are alone, waiting for the women to come back.

Unenthusiastic at the idea of getting into this conversation, Andrew brings one finger to his lips. “Shh, Neil. Let’s enjoy the silence before your screams fill the room, what do you think?”

This time it’s Neil’s tails that shiver at the mention. “Won’t you feel part of the pain too?” Andrew shushes him once more, and the fox huffs, annoyed.

Then they fall into silence.

***

It took Neil a few hours after getting his arm broken again to be able to fall asleep from exhaustion, even through the pain.

Abby and Allison made sure to stabilise the bones together afterward, leaving Neil’s arm in a mess of tape and wooden sticks. There is a faint trail of Wymack’s energy on it, so Andrew guesses he spelled the wood to stay stable.

Considering the situation, the kitsune needs even more of Andrew’s spiritual energy, but the previous events of the day put a dent into it. Therefore, the cultivator decided to stay in Neil’s loft, the distance between them playing an important part. The only time he left was to change shirts and patch the tear in his skin for it to stop bleeding all over. He’s currently lazing in the room’s single armchair, a book in his hands, closing his eyes sometimes to rest for a few minutes.

It must be past 1 a.m. when Andrew feels a pull in his energy signaling Neil has woken up again. He doesn’t feel the need to say anything, reading silently and giving the kitsune the choice to go back to sleep despite his injury or to seek distraction. Not that he’s much of one.

Time passes until Neil finally takes a breath to talk. Andrew expects him to ask about the injury he caused once more, but instead he surprises him by asking, “What are you reading?”

Andrew looks at him briefly. The kitsune is sickly pale but there is no obvious sign of fever. His eyes are barely open, squinting at the foreign cover of the book the cultivator is holding.

Instead of giving a clear response, Andrew decides to read aloud starting from the line he’s at. This book is one of the rare ones he managed to salvage from his past. His old master has tons of them in multiple languages to be able to gather as much knowledge as he can. He tried to teach as many as he could to Andrew, which is why he can read this one in Mandarin Chinese.

Neil doesn’t complain at being read in a foreign language, and they continue like that until Andrew loses sense of time, as he’s tired and interested in the meditation techniques explained in these pages.

“It’s Chinese, right?” Neil mumbles, rubbing at his eyes with his good arm. He sits up slowly, picking up the glass of water Allison left for him earlier. In the dim light of the loft, Neil’s hair and fur are the color of the sun setting down, and it's almost mesmerizing.

The cultivator hums, making sure Neil doesn’t do anything dumb with his other arm, because he would appreciate to be able to get his spiritual energy back for himself only soon, no matter how warm Neil’s one is, mixing with his, now that it’s growing back.

“How many languages do you speak?” Neil eyes his arm with disgust. He must feel the magic against his skin. Hopefully he’s wise enough not to touch it or mess with it.

“Six.”

“That’s a lot,” Neil comments, finally moving his attention to something else. There is still a trace of disdain at the corner of his eyes. “I thought having three was already confusing, but you got double.”

It must be because he’s deeply tired that Andrew gives a glimpse of himself to the injured kitsune, or maybe it’s their mixed energy that is getting to his head. “It’s easy to learn languages when you get physically punished each time you don’t understand what your master tells you.” Memories come flooding to him, and yet, he doesn’t feel anything at the thought of them. They were his norm, his everyday life, he knew nothing else at the time, so he didn’t know to be disturbed by it.

Unlike everyone else that hears part of his past, Neil doesn’t flinch, but there is a spark of irritation crossing his eyes. “Yeah, must be.” Maybe in a pursuit for fairness, he adds, “My father always found random reasons to beat me or punish me. Talk too much, don't talk enough, have too much opinion, don't have enough.”

That explains the faded scars then. Andrew wonders if the fresh injuries and the fake name are related to Neil’s father. “Where is your father now?”

The fluffy ears flatten on top of Neil’s head and he frowns, lips pressed tight. It’s becoming clear by the minutes that Andrew isn’t going to get an answer and since the kitsune gives everyone the silent treatment except for him, he decides to change subject before he gets included in it.

“Do you want me to continue reading?” Andrew knows Neil can’t understand, but sometimes, when he was younger, he liked to have some sort of noise to fall asleep to.

It seems to break the memory spell the kitsune was in, his ears coming back to life. “Yes, that would be nice,” Neil murmurs honestly, sliding back slowly under the blankets. He closes his eyes after the first few words and by the time Andrew has read 5 pages, Neil has fallen back into the dream world.

***

The first time Neil meets Renee is an interesting event to be present for. She’s bringing a mug of honey tea for Andrew, who’s reading on the armchair that he has become familiar with, and soup for the kitsune.

At first, Neil gives her the same wary look he gives anyone else other than Andrew. However, when she reaches his side and leaves the bowl on the nightstand, his ears snap backward and he instinctively shows his canines.

Renee isn’t troubled by it, used to mixed responses from newcomers. She waits beside the bed to give Neil some time to ask questions if he wants to, but when he doesn’t, she still smiles and leaves them alone.

“What is she?” Neil finally demands when she’s gone, staring at the door as if she would come back right away.

Andrew shrugs, unimpressed by the other. “Ask her if it interests you.”

It takes a few more times before Neil gets tired of not knowing. Now that he can finally heal in peace, the others started coming over more frequently, and the kitsune broke his silent spell after a little bit of coercing from them.

Andrew is entering the loft occupied by Neil when he hears him snap at Renee. He stays near the door, leaning against its frame to observe the scene with no intention to intervene.

“What are you?” Neil asks harshly, and from his energy, he’s ready to attack if needed. Which won’t be necessary, so the cultivator stays unalarmed at the whole situation.

Renee isn’t even halfway through the room, a tray with broiled fish in her hands. She offers him her soft smile as she says, matter-of-factly, “Most people would call me a vengeful spirit.”

There are many emotions going over Neil’s face; incredulity, denial, then caution.

“It doesn’t add up,” he mentions, and yet, even if he doesn’t seem to want to believe it, Neil can’t say Renee doesn’t feel slightly like it. “You should be doing rampage, not serve me food and look so… corporeal.”

The woman hums, acknowledging Neil’s words. “I did, many years ago.” She doesn’t get closer to the kitsune and doesn’t move from where she was when Neil started questioning her. “I took a liking to a tree back then, and since the exorcist my village hired couldn’t get rid of me, he sealed me in it.”

Andrew can feel the moment realisation crashes over the fox at the way he glances around.

“And this tree was used to build a part of this place.” Neil frowns, still missing a piece of the puzzle. “Then you should be haunting this place, so that still doesn’t explain it.” Neil finally looks at Andrew, directing his questions to him, even if he has no intention of helping him on the matter.

“I did, for a little. Then Wymack and Abby found this place, but despite his efforts he was unable to fully exorcise me as the source of my anger is long gone and out of reach. Still, I got back my thoughts. For the first time in forever, I could think of something else than killing.” She doesn’t lose her smile, in a way Andrew despises her for sometimes. He steps in solely to free her from the tray, knowing Neil will let him bring it to the nightstand. She thanks him, and continues, “We made a deal. My soul is tied to this place, so I hide it from unwanted eyes and keep it safe. In exchange, I get to have a physical form and a new life. I’m a bad soul who tries very hard to amend for what I have done.”

Neil opens his mouth in disbelief and shakes his head sharply. Clearly, he’ll need more time to trust Renee, which is fair. Andrew doesn’t think anyone who hears this story should be too prompt to give her the benefit of the doubt. It had been a long process for himself to get to it.

To stop Neil’s staring contest with Renee, he picks up a piece of the fish and shoves it into Neil’s open mouth, promptly removing his fingers after to avoid being touched. The fox chokes on the bite, seemingly about to spit it out, but the taste must be to his liking, because he stops and starts munching carefully.

As he finishes his bite, Renee chuckles and asks, “Did this satisfy your curiosity?”

“Why did you give me your story so easily? You don’t know me,” Neil retorts warily, picking up the plate carefully to take apart the fish with his fingers.

“Because you asked me,” she simply answers, as if it is always that simple. Sometimes, for the residents here, it is. It leaves Andrew with a disgusted feeling most of the time.

Slowly, Neil’s ears are going back up the way they usually are, but his position stays careful. “Can it be that easy?” His skepticism is flagrant, no matter how easily he got the story out of the spirit.

“Not always, but sometimes it is.” For the first time since the beginning of this conversation, Renee moves in the direction of the door, signaling her departure. “The others would probably think the same, at least some of them.” The look she gives Andrew indicates clearly that he isn’t one of them, which he doesn’t deny.

Renee waves her hand, leaving them alone for now. Abby should be back with Allison soon to make sure Neil’s injuries are recovering nicely. Even with their mixed spiritual energies trying their best to heal him, the cuts and bites were deep and Neil lost a lot of blood. From a logical point of view, he shouldn’t have survived.

The kitsune stares a bit more at his plate, as if he’s going to find answers in the shredded flesh. Uninterested, Andrew leaves him to it, finding his way to the armchair and picking up one of the manuscripts he left on the ground. He chooses something in Japanese, because if ever he decides to read it aloud as it has become their custom, Neil will be able to understand it for this is one of their shared languages.

“Is everyone’s story here this messed up?” Neil questions him once he’s finished with most of his meal.

“Says the fox that came to us a dead man,” Andrew mumbles, before adding, louder, “No, some more than others. Renee is pretty high on the list.” Especially with what he learned from her past and some of the reasons she became such a spirit. However, it isn’t for him to share.

It’s silent for a few more heartbeats, but Neil’s curiosity is likely high today. “What about yours?”

Not in a sharing mood, Andrew questions back instead of answering. “What about yours?”

“But, I asked—” Neil stops himself, understanding, then he huffs, annoyed. They both have stuff in their pasts they’d prefer not to talk about today. “Fine, whatever. Will you read?”

And as an answer, Andrew opens his manuscript once more and picks up where he left.

***

Eventually, they decide Neil is strong enough on his legs to let him come down to the first floor and their communal kitchen to eat his meals. The fox is reticent at first to meet everyone at the same time, especially since he hasn’t met two of them yet. Nevertheless, the moment Andrew joins Matt, who’s in charge of bringing Neil down, Neil takes place beside him and doesn’t show his apprehension anymore.

As expected, Aaron completely ignores the newcomer, but it’s hard not to notice the heavy flinch that comes from Kevin. Even if Neil does a good job of hiding his own, Andrew senses a shift in his energy immediately. He automatically steps between them without making it obvious, but the way the tanuki stares at Neil is hard to miss.

It’s Allison that picks up on it first. “Oh, he is from that kitsune clan related to yours, isn’t he?” It’s slightly cruel to point it out in front of everyone, but no one will change her or try to stop her now that it gets all curious eyes on them.

Kevin seems at a loss for words, so Neil steps forward. “Hey, Kevin. It’s been a while.”

As if out of a trance, the tanuki gets up angrily, shoving his chair back, but he doesn’t get closer. “What are you doing here?” Then he takes an accusatory tone and adds, “You said your name was Neil!”

Well, Andrew knew it, not that he really cares. However, he does mind the way Neil’s eyes harden and the aggression that comes up in their mixed energies. “People can be whoever they want here,” the cultivator says in a bored tone, middling where he usually doesn’t. This might be why Nicky steps in. Or maybe it’s the betrayed expression on Kevin’s face.

“Andrew is right,” Nicky says cheerfully, completely at odds with the current mood. “Neil wouldn’t be the first one to give us a fake name, so leave it be.”

Whatever it is that Neil sees when he looks at Kevin must be something, causing a ruckus in their shared link. Before it turns completely sour, Andrew sighs and forces a wave of calmness into Neil’s energy, making him lose his balance for half a second. It gets the wanted effect, Neil’s attention finally leaving the tanuki for him.

“Enough, boys!” Dan intervenes, getting Kevin back into his seat and silently asking Andrew to do the same for Neil. “You can talk later if you want, but for now, let’s eat.”

The cultivator takes his seat at the edge of the table, unsurprised when Neil decides to sit beside him on the side that is farthest from Kevin. “No worries, Dan. I have nothing to say to him,” Neil declares coldly, a small, chilling smile on his lips.

“Then eat,” Andrew cuts whatever Dan was about to say, pressing a bowl of strawberries and blueberries he just filled into Neil’s good hand.

It takes a few minutes for the heaviness in the air to lift, but soon enough Nicky and Renee manage to bring back the others into diverse conversations, leaving Neil and Kevin to brood over whatever bad blood is between them.

Andrew doesn’t want to care about it.

***

The conversation with Renee, having part of his cover busted by Kevin and being able to move around easier seems to be the push Neil needed to start seeking stories from the others.

Where Neil is, Andrew finds himself never too far from. As long as they share their energy, it’s less tiring to be closer. Or at least, this is the rational reason he gives himself. It has nothing to do with the most beautiful eyes he has ever seen, or those little smiles Neil gives him when he understands a word in a language he doesn’t speak. Or at least, it should have nothing to do with it.

So, of course, he gets a recap of Dan’s pitiful childhood and the way her family died at the end of vengeful spirits because she angered them with her ability to see them.

“How do you deal with Renee, then?” Neil asks him with a frown, and Andrew has to admit that it is a very legitimate question.

Dan smiles sheepishly at it, rubbing the back of her head, messing with her short hair. “Oh, I hated her at first, I didn’t understand why a man like Wymack would keep something like that here.” Her respect for the owner of this place is clear in her words. “She worked really hard to get a word out of me, and she accepted all the reproaches I had for her kind with a smile.” She grimaces. “It pissed me off so much, but then she told me more about her life and how she became such a spirit and…” She hesitates long enough for Neil to pick up.

“So you understood it wasn’t really her fault in the end.” Neil nods, he must understand how hard it had been for Dan to face the fact that the spirits that slaughtered her family couldn’t be held responsible for being evil.

Andrew misses when Neil asks Allison, Matt and Abby, but he reaches the kitchen right when Nicky is in the middle of his story. He doesn’t enter right away, wondering what his cousin will dare reveal to Neil without asking him first.

“—and then I fell in love with one of the cultivators under the same master as Andrew. He’s amazing, Neil,” Nicky says dreamingly, the same way he does each time he’s talking about Erik. “It was a complete coincidence that I ended up being one of the herbs suppliers for their temple. I met Erik first as Andrew wasn’t really allowed out much.” He almost murmurs the last part, probably making sure not anyone else hears the story.

Andrew isn’t certain if Nicky is telling Neil out of everyone else because he thinks the kitsune must be closer to him in a way. It’s stupid. The kitsune will leave when he has healed, and he shouldn’t be privy to their life.

And yet, Andrew doesn’t enter the room to stop him.

“We didn’t know my aunt had twins, probably because we only met Aaron when he was four and thought the Andrew he was talking about was an imaginary friend.” Nicky sighs, and picks up his mug. “Anyway, when I met Andrew, I knew I had to bring Aaron.”

“Must have been weird for him to realise he had a brother and not an imaginary friend,” Neil muses over. They are the first words he’s spoken since earlier. Maybe he’s afraid Nicky will stop if he talks too much.

“I don’t know, I think he still believed Andrew had been real, because he didn’t look surprised. At the same time, both their spiritual energies are high, so maybe Aaron could feel him even if he’s untrained.” His cousin is tentative in his words, and it’s the first time the cultivator hears him make this hypothesis.

Neil suddenly tenses up, and Andrew supposes that what Nicky said made the fox realise how close the one sharing his spiritual energy actually is.

Tentatively, Neil goes straight to the point, or maybe he’s trying to get the subject away from Andrew. “So, how did you get here, then?”

His cousin presses his lips together, losing his easy smile when remembering what must have been the longest days of his life. Nicky explains, “When their master noticed the relationship, he ordered Erik to get rid of me, but of course he didn’t want to. Andrew took us away, and we found ourselves here because we needed a place where he couldn’t find us.” That’s the short version, without Andrew’s punishment, without Erik begging him, without the days he didn’t sleep to protect them, without the moment he lost consciousness for days after they stepped in the garden here.

Andrew decides it’s enough for now, stepping in the kitchen without looking at the duo as he reaches the fridge to get some chocolate milk out. He knows their eyes are on him and from the tension in the air, they are obviously waiting for him to comment on the conversation that was going on.

Instead, when he has finished his glass of the sugary beverage, he asks, “Do you want to go out? You haven’t in a while.” The question is clearly not meant for Nicky, so he gets up and pats Neil on the back lightly with a grin. Then he heads into the shop to see if they need help.

It’s automatic. Neil’s tails get into motion lazily, betraying his excitement at the prospect. “Can I?” he asks as he gets up swiftly; the natural grace of a kitsune is coming back to him as his injuries get better and better every day. To be honest, Andrew could have severed the link between them since a few days now, and he probably should.

“If you move too much and hurt yourself it’s your problem,” Andrew answers, leading the way to the back door.

The moment they step outside, Neil closes his eyes, enjoying the sun on his skin. The weather here usually adjusts itself depending on what the garden needs, but Andrew suspects the storm comes from when Wymack is pissed off.

The rays of light make the auburn fur shine in a much healthier way than when he arrived here, and Andrew has to take his eyes off him. Instead of focusing on the kitsune, he brings them to the garden section he needs, pointing out a tree where Neil can sit to wait for him. The latter does so without complaining, content with observing around and smelling the air.

Andrew works in silence, picking up lavender, chamomile, rosemary and more, and placing the samples in different small bags hanging from his belt. It’s mindless work, something he’s so used to doing, his body does it mechanically. The only difference from his old temple is the placement of the flowers and herbs, nothing he can’t remember easily.

“Hey, Andrew,” Neil finally calls him from his spot under the tree. He looks comfortable there.

Without giving him attention, the cultivator hums. He has long closed his bags in favor of taking care of the plants. The air is slowly getting colder with the sun setting down, signaling the time that has passed.

“Would you teach me to meditate?” Andrew finally raises his eyes to a determined fox, and he's quick to notice the way his ears are shivering. It has been a while since he had to fight the outside weather, so he should get Neil inside soon.

“Fine, but isn’t it something kitsunes usually learn?” Andrew asks back, getting to his feet slowly, his left leg is slightly numb from the crouched position he has been in since earlier.

Neil rolls his eyes at the observation and brings his legs against his chest, without pressing them to it. The cuts are better, but the negative energy in them makes them hard to heal properly even after so long, and some keep opening back. “My father rejected a lot of what we should have been; working with a tanuki family, not relying on our spiritual energy, and he burned a lot of our manuscripts so I wouldn’t get my hand on them. He mostly believed in physical strength.”

Ah. The tanuki family, most probably Kevin’s. He had been the chief of his clan for a year before his cousin, Riko, managed a coup against him and left him for dead. It’s pure luck that Wymack found him and decided to pick him up even if Kevin didn’t find the shop by himself.

Instead of bringing them inside like he perhaps should, Andrew goes to sit beside Neil, closer than he normally would. He tries hard not to pay attention to it. “Why are you so fascinated by everyone’s story?” Andrew ponders instead of asking more about Neil’s father.

“Oh. Eh.” Neil frowns and lets his legs back on the ground, almost touching Andrew’s in a way he can’t help but observe. “I was used to envy people around me, even servants. Why was I the young master, but got such a shitty life, you know? As previously mentioned, my father found any reason to punish me and get imaginative with it. My mother was better because I know she loved me, but I wish it had been in a different way?” He sighs, and Andrew notices the past tense in his sentence, hinting to what he thinks happened. “I’m not used to finding so many people with a bad background like me. It’s less lonely. Does it make sense?”

“Don’t ask me.” Andrew rolls his eyes, and waits for the question that will surely come in exchange. He noticed how Neil never asked something without sharing back a piece of himself with him. Maybe it’s because he knows the cultivator isn’t prone to sharing. Either way, the fox might expect for it to be mutual.

It comes a few minutes later. “You heard what Nicky told me, right?” And with Andrew’s nod, Neil continues, “Why did your master ask you to kill Aaron?” Nicky didn't clearly state it, but Neil isn't dumb enough to not have understood.

Andrew raises his arms in front of him, eyeing the white bandages he always keeps on when he isn’t wearing long sleeves. Under it are scars, but he isn’t ashamed of them; they are from spells and talismans. This isn’t what he’s hiding; what he’s hiding is the price it cost him to protect his family. “Because he was a distraction, and his favorite disciple couldn’t get distracted.”

“That’s a bit radical, isn’t it?” Neil observes, looking everything but surprised.

“Best way to achieve what he wanted, no way to get past it.” With this answer, Andrew gets up, knowing Neil must be too cold by now. “Let’s go, dinner is probably ready.”

Without adding anything more on the subject, the kitsune gets to his feet slowly. “Oh great, I’m starving,” And sets forth toward the building.

Andrew isn’t used to it, someone respecting his boundaries, not asking more than he’s willing to give back. He also shouldn’t get used to it. Chances are that Neil will be gone one morning and there is nothing he can do about it.

***

The fourth time Neil gets agitated in his meditation state is when Andrew decides it’s enough for their third lesson. It’s the first one where the cultivator actually allowed Neil to try it out after hours of theory on how to do it properly.

It should be easy for a kitsune to get into it, but Neil seems unable to get past the demons haunting him.

“Enough,” Andrew commands aloud, unsurprised when Neil jumps out of his trance looking slightly startled and alarmed. His posture quickly untenses when he gets familiar with his surroundings once more. “You aren’t going to find your inner space like that.”

Neil huffs, frustrated, as he unfolds his legs. They have taken this lesson at the back of the garden near one of the small ponds. The sound of water always helped Andrew when he was younger.

“What is it supposed to be like even.” He frowns, picking up grass bitterly. It’s not really a question since they reviewed it in the past days, but Andrew repeats it anyway.

“A place no one is allowed in, so you need to put your barriers higher. Memories have no place there.” Unlike Neil, the cultivator doesn’t unfold his legs, used to staying in this position for hours on end.

The almost pout on Neil’s lips is unexpected, and Andrew has to look away. The slight change in his heartbeat can go fuck itself. “What does yours look like?” Neil asks quietly, as if he’s unsure he has the right to ask this question.

In fact, nobody knows what Andrew’s inner space is like. It infuriated his master not to be able to reach him there, but he refused to give up on it. In a swift move, his fingers breach the fresh water, the current familiar against his skin. “There are cascades behind the temple I grew up in, and it was prohibited to go, but I found myself there often enough.” A place no one else tainted in his memory.

Neil hums, eyes on Andrew’s fingers as he puts back pieces together. “A place only for yourself. I don’t think I had one, my mother could find me anywhere.” Must have been why Neil wasn’t able to focus properly earlier, with memories of his mother barging in.

“Then you have to create one for yourself, whatever you want it to be.” Half the cultivators he knew didn’t use real places. As long as it is soothing to the mind, it should work out good. It needs to be somewhere nobody can reach.

There is a sudden breeze, bringing leaves to the previously calm water, creating ripples. Andrew removes his hand, and makes the mistake of looking up at the kitsune. Neil has his eyes closed, face turned to face the wind, his ears and tails softly moving with it. The claw marks on his cheek don't’ remove anything from the peaceful portrayal he gives, and Andrew finds himself unable to look away.

It’s the freest Andrew has seen him, a picture he needs to keep in a folder inside his brain for later. Safe and unchanging.

They stay like this for who knows how long before Neil breaks the silence, but the cultivator can’t tell what he says at first. The kitsune murmurs his words like he isn’t sure he wants to speak them. “Is it bad that I grieve her? No matter if I hated her at some point, she loved me.” He presses his lips together, before opening his eyes and adding, “Most of my clan didn’t deserve to be slaughtered by Kevin’s old one just because of my father’s choices.” The revelation doesn’t come as a surprise; the tanuki had told him about the links between both their clans.

Andrew doesn’t believe in regrets. Life is hard enough without looking back and wishing for something else. “The way you feel about it is yours alone, nobody can choose it for you.” And yet, no matter everything his master did, no matter how twisted his ideas could be, Andrew had to grieve his guidance.

“Because I have the choice now.” Neil nods slowly, as if trying to convince himself, testing the new limits of his own life without the barriers his parents created for him. It takes him a minute, but finally Neil gives him the smallest smile. “I think I want it to look like this.” He gestures around them. “It might be the calmest I’ve ever felt. It’s fine if you can find it.”

Andrew hates the way his breath catches in his throat for a second. His balance is lost, as if the ground suddenly opened under him, and finding a sense of stability is harder than it should be.

“Your stupidity is astonishing.” His voice is weaker than he would have liked, but firm enough to not be conspicuous. Even so, it doesn’t have the wanted effect as Neil’s smile stretches into something big and genuine.

“Might be, it’s okay,” He replies, content, the rustling leaves picking up his attention, his ears moving toward the sound.

Andrew doesn’t think Neil’s energy against his own has ever been that warm; it’s too comfortable. Without warning he gets up, heading toward the building. “I need to do some talismans,” he calls, not looking back.

“Oh.” The disappointment in Neil’s voice is probably a figment of his imagination. “Can I come with you?” The hope probably is, too.

In spite of it, Andrew has a moment of weakness. “Whatever, don’t bother me.”

It’s enough to get Neil on his feet and beside him as quickly as his injuries allow him, his healing arm still mostly unused. “Yeah, yeah.”

Neil will leave, Andrew reminds himself again and again, until it doesn’t make sense anymore.

***

“Andrew.” Neil is spread on the cultivator’s bed, deeming it more comfortable than the one he has in what everyone now considers the kitsune’s loft. Andrew is on the ground beside it, busy reading a new manuscript about curses Wymack brought back for him, so he doesn’t pay him attention. “Andrew,” Neil says more forcefully for what must be the fifth time.

It’s bothering enough that he finally groans as an answer, keeping his eyes on the words in front of him. It’s sufficient for Neil to think Andrew is listening, his tails coming to life until one hits the cultivator on the cheek. “I know that you guys have been spelling me clean for the past weeks, but I’m really craving a bath. Water. Something,” he complains, which is justifiable in a way, because no matter how clean your body is kept, if you don’t do the action of cleaning yourself, it ends up feeling wrong after a certain amount of time.

Knowing he won’t get more reading done for now, Andrew closes his book and leans his head back until it’s on the mattress. “And what does it have to do with me?” He knows Abby has prohibited Neil from getting under water because his arm can’t get wet if they want the wood to not bend. Plus, even if most of his injuries are now closed and healing well, there are still three of them that open back constantly. They must have been done by someone powerful; the will to hurt is potent in them. Andrew will force Neil to sleep with a talisman if they aren’t permanently closed in a week.

Neil rolls on the bed until he’s sitting. “I don’t know, don’t you have something that would allow me to take one? I want to wash my hair and fur so bad.”

“What am I? Your babysitter?” Andrew asks derisively. He might have an idea, though, so he gets up and gets out of the loft, leaving a confused kitsune behind him.

“Andrew?” Neil calls from the room, but hopefully he’ll wait there for him to come back.

He goes to the shop, earning himself a warm hello from Renee and a nod from Dan, but he doesn’t answer back, instead focusing on finding what he came here for. When he does, he picks it up without explanation, stealing the scissors beside the cash register at the same time. One of the current customers is looking at him weirdly for barging in that way, nevertheless Andrew doesn’t care and leaves again after a few minutes.

Back to the room, Neil is still sitting on the bed, frowning at the manuscript in his hands. He has been doing that more and more, stealing the cultivator’s books that are in a language he can understand and reading his way through them. It’s easy to pinpoint the moment the fox hears him come in, his right ear moving in his direction.

“Curses are a really high level of messed up,” Neil comments before pointing at the type of blankets and scissors in Andrew’s hands. “What’s that?”

“They have been spelled to stay waterproof,” Andrew explains as he reaches the bed.

Neil glances between Andrew’s face and what he’s holding, mouth opened in surprise. It’s quickly followed by a smile. “You’re going to help me?” A simple nod from the blond man, and he doesn’t need more coercing to remove his shirt in front of the other, after all, Andrew has already seen it all. The way he’s clumsy because of his strapped arm is amusing, but it doesn’t put a dent into Neil’s sudden good mood.

When there are no more shirts in the way, Andrew cuts pieces of the blanket in different shapes and sizes. He tries to ignore the way Neil gets goosebumps the moment his fingers touch his skin as he places the protections on him. For each one of them, the cultivator signs in the air, making it stay where it needs to be.

For his injured arm, Andrew covers all of the improvised cast, including Neil’s hand. The latter does scowl at it, always so obviously hating to be impaired, but he doesn’t complain. The last piece of fabric to be placed on his body is the one that will cover his cheek, and the cultivator almost lets it fall when his wrist brushes plump lips by accident. He grits his teeth and spells it in place, before taking two steps back.

“How do I look?” Neil teases, opening his arms to showcase the patched up mess he is.

“Dumb,” Andrew answers matter-of-factly, as if his eyes aren’t going down the other’s stomach and the way one of his tails curls around it.

Before saying anything horrifying, Andrew turns around to his bathroom. In a way even he doesn’t understand, they all have large tubs with infinite warm water, which renews itself after each bath. He knows it’s Wymack’s work, but no one truly knows how his magic works.

When Andrew hears the sound of more clothes hitting the ground behind him, he doesn’t turn around, but he moves on the side after testing the water temperature to give way for Neil to get in it. The cultivator isn’t bothered by nudity, having bathed with other disciples most of his life, so he doesn’t blink an eye when Neil slowly gets into the tub, his tails shivering softly before they get submerged.

“Keep your arm out anyway,” Andrew commands, picking up the soap bar and the bowl he uses to wash his hair. He puts them beside his knees when he kneels down.

Neil rolls his eyes as he answers, “Better safe than sorry, I know.” The slight annoyance is soon gone, though. The clear water reaches just under his chest, and most of the tub is filled with five large auburn tails. It’s fortunate that kitsunes control fire, Andrew thinks, because they probably use it to dry themselves without having to wait for hours.

“Do you want me to wash your hair?” It takes Andrew a few minutes to convince himself it’s fine, that this will have no consequences. He’s never felt like such a liar.

Out of excitement, one of the tails splashes some water out of the tub, and Neil doesn’t have the decency to look sheepish about it. “Will you? That would be nice.” Andrew has to believe that the blush that covers Neil’s cheeks is from the heat and nothing else.

He nods and brings one of his arms in front of him. He could keep the bandages and his shirt on. He really could—what is some wet fabric against his skin? And yet, the kitsune really makes him do unusual stuff.

Carefully, Andrew undoes the bandages and removes his shirt right after. He expects surprise when he looks back at Neil, therefore, he’s the one surprised when it’s anger that meets his stare.

“Is it a curse?” Neil sounds breathless, as if he stopped breathing when he understood what is covering Andrew’s body. From his wrist to the beginning of his neck, his skin is marked everywhere with black curving lines, starting from his veins and heart, spreading around. The kitsune gets his good hand out of the tub, but stops just before he can touch him. “That’s why you’re researching them.”

Andrew nods, picking up the bowl and filling it. “Close your eyes,” he commands, and it takes a few seconds for Neil to obey, unable to look away from the dark marks. Once his hair and ears are wet, strands of hair are falling in front of his opening eyes.

Andrew picks up the shampoo bar, and rubs it efficiently in the auburn hair, trying to not get too much in his ears. Unable to hold himself back, Neil questions him again. “What are the effects of it?”

“Any touch is supposed to rip the skin open,” the cursed man informs him calmly, as if he isn’t talking about his own impairment. “It took time and trials, but now it only does so if the touch is with the intent to hurt me.” That’s why he doesn’t like being touched or standing too close to others; he can never make sure of their real intent.

Neil’s eyes don't take long to become round in realisation. He opens his mouth, but Andrew cuts him off. “Close your eyes.” Unwilling to get soap in them and his mouth, Neil does so, his lips pressed in a thin line. “Getting angry for me won’t change a thing.”

When Andrew is done rinsing his hair, Neil looks back at him sadly. “Maybe not, but I didn’t mean to hurt you like that.” He finally has an explanation for what happened the time he tried to break his own arm and ended up injuring Andrew instead.

There is nothing but honesty in Neil’s energy, and Andrew finds himself unable to doubt him. “I know.” Even if he isn’t touching the other anymore, the lingering feeling against his fingers is enough to keep his heartbeat going slightly too fast.

They look at each other without moving for what feels like an eternity before Neil gets closer to the side of the tub. “Is it your master? Because of Aaron and Nicky?” For someone who acts stupid a lot, Neil is pretty bright, paying attention to details in a way Andrew doesn’t give him enough credit for.

“It’s a good way to hold someone from wanting to form ties.” It would have worked if Andrew wasn’t such a stubborn ass. Saving his long lost family seemed like the thing to do at that time, no matter the pain. He would do it again.

It’s more than he’s ever shared with anyone, and it might be why Andrew doesn’t hold back when he gets the urge to cup Neil’s uninjured cheek in his palm. This whole setting feels so intimate, he knows instinctively that he needs to step back. So why is he falling forward instead?

They are close enough for Andrew to hear the way air gets caught in the kitsune’s throat, his breath coming back in short, soft bursts. “Andrew?” It’s barely a whisper, his eyes going down to the other’s lips.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Without adding any other word, Andrew leans forward, pressing their lips together. He doesn’t know what he expected, but he isn’t at all against the desperate way Neil kisses back, or the way he leans into it, his tails creating ripples at the surface of the water.

It’s the closest he has been to anyone in years, and the first time since he got cursed. It feels good, and he doesn’t want to have to give it up. It’s frightening, in a way he isn’t used to experiencing anymore.

Andrew is the first one to break the kiss, keeping the image of Neil’s abused lips and flushed cheeks in mind for later. Leaning back, he picks up the soap bar and shoves it into the kitsune’s hand. “Wash yourself.”

Neil looks confused for a second, dropping the soap in the tub. Andrew has to hold his injured arm back when he almost shoves it into the water out of reflex to catch the bar.

At Andrew's unimpressed glare, Neil suddenly laughs, moving his tails to find back the missing soap bar under them.

“You’re a mess,” Andrew mumbles, abruptly aware of the way Neil’s spiritual energy reaches his chest, hot like the sun.

“Yep,” Neil replies amused. “Seems like you like—aha!” he exclaims, triumphant, his hand breaking the surface of the water with the missing item in it.

Because Neil starts washing himself without picking up where he left, Andrew decides to let it go, already thinking back to their kiss.

Hopefully there will be more of them.

***

For the first time since he got here, Allison manages to bring Neil to the front shop, assuring him he shouldn’t meet anyone he knew. He followed her, unsure, but as time went by, she got enough of his trust for him to do it anyway.

“If I meet one person I know, you owe me, Alli,” Neil warns her with a roll of his eyes. Andrew observes him from his post behind the cash register as Neil makes his way around, taking in everything they sell to the lost souls that find their shop.

Since they removed the cast on his arm, the kitsune has been this hand a lot more, trying to bring the feeling of it back to normal. Now that he’s back on his feet, Andrew waits for the moment he will disappear from his life. It shouldn’t be long, and yet, he hasn’t put a stop to the stolen kisses, or these nights Neil falls asleep in Andrew's bed to the sound of the cultivator’s voice reading aloud.

He pushes these thoughts for later when Dan perks up from behind one of the shelves. “Oh, talking about owing something, Neil, are you coming down tonight?” She asks him with a glance at Andrew, which he pointedly ignores.

The kitsune puts back a small jar where he previously took it. “What is happening tonight?” He questions, genuinely curious.

“He didn’t tell you, right?” Allison comments happily—they must have bet on it. Count on them to find any reason to.

Neil turns toward Andrew, he looks both unimpressed and amused. “What didn’t you tell me?” When the only answer he gets is a shrug, he gives Dan his attention again.

“Andrew lost a bet with Renee, so he has to play his Chinese flute tonight,” Dan informs him, finally, when she picks up on Andrew’s lack of answer. “It’s worth watching, honestly.”

The apprentice healer nods, placing her arm around Neil’s shoulders. “But of course your boyfriend didn’t want to mention it to you,” she adds with a smile, glancing in Andrew’s direction, most probably waiting for a reaction. Which he doesn’t give, because it doesn’t deserve one and, if anything, Andrew is more interested in Neil’s.

Neil is good at keeping his expression neutral, but his tails are less so. The space around him is too compact to allow them to move freely, and two hit a row of talismans. At least they don’t fall to the ground. “I would have known later tonight anyway, it’s not like I wouldn’t have noticed,” Neil retorts, moving away from Allison and going back to his exploration.

It is true that they spend most of their evenings together, there’s little chance Neil wouldn’t have followed him downstairs.

The two girls exchange a satisfied look, and go back to work. Leaving Andrew to his thoughts, to playing back the way Neil didn’t protest the insinuation about their relationship in his head.

***

When the sun is down, they all gather in the garden. Andrew keeps away from the pond he now considers as Neil’s, but he brings them to a smaller one. He takes place against the trunk of a tree, flute in hands, waiting for everyone to settle down on the ground.

Neil sits closer to him while still keeping close to the others so he can join the slow conversation if he wants to. They don’t press Andrew to begin, knowing he will delay it even more if they do.

He takes some time to observe Neil in his pale traditional clothing, more fitting for a kitsune. Nicky went out the other day to see Erik, always wearing the concealing talisman Andrew and Erik worked on, and decided to pick some clothing for Neil now that he was mostly healed. Neil had been thrilled to get back in clothes he was used to, beaming at Andrew when he got an approving nod. The light breeze gets his fur moving with it, adding to the ethereal vibe coming from him.

The moment the cultivator moves and brings the flute to his lips, everyone falls silent. Unused to it, Neil looks at them weirdly, but doesn’t add anything, his tails betraying his curiosity.

With a deep breath, Andrew softly blows in the flute, remembering every note learned in his past life with practiced ease. At first, it’s only a simple melody, but he pours his spiritual energy in it when it picks up.

Luminous animals of diverse colors, from foxes to rabbits, appear around them, coming from behind plants and trees, fishes also jumping in and out the pond. It illuminates their surroundings, leaving trails of red, green, blue and purple in the air, earning gasps from the others.

Andrew gives Neil his attention when he laughs aloud, a shining lynx sitting in his lap and pressing its head against his chest. He looks fascinated and happy as he reaches to touch the translucid head, his ears shivering with excitement when his fingers find something solid to pet, and Andrew can’t take his eyes off him, playing the melody on automatic.

He doesn’t know how much time passes when Neil raises his ocean eyes to look at him, but Andrew almost misses a note. What he sees in the other’s eyes shouldn’t be there, not when Neil is a pipe dream, something that will soon disappear.

Or at least, that's what he tells himself.

With effort, Andrew closes his eyes and decides to focus on his performance, ignoring how much he wants to reach for the other and how warm and steady Neil’s energy is against his own.

He’s seriously developing a pattern here.

***

They are spending the afternoon outside at their usual spot for one of their meditation lessons. With practice, Neil has become better at closing his mind, needing less and less to be woken up by Andrew.

Because of it, he can finally meditate with Neil without always keeping an eye out for him. Anyway, their mixed energies would warn him if something was wrong. Having their spiritual energies connected hasn’t been necessary for weeks, and yet Andrew hasn’t taken it back—he’s waiting for the kitsune to ask him to, which hasn’t happened.

“Andrew.” Neil’s voice, closer to him than it previously was, brings Andrew back to reality fast. He’s surprised to see him right in front of him, kneeling not too far.

Andrew opens his legs around Neil as an invitation, not regretting it when the kitsune gets closer and settles down between his legs. They stay like that for a moment, facing each other, and since Neil seems to be thinking about something, Andrew waits for him to make up his mind.

Something akin to determination settles on Neil’s features and he reaches for Andrew’s face slowly, leaving some time for him to say no if he doesn’t feel like being touched. When he doesn’t get rejected, Neil cradles Andrew’s face in his hands, leaning forward to bring them closer.

Instead of kissing him, Neil murmurs, unsure, “Do you think they would let me stay if I wanted to?” Andrew can hear the undertone of this question: Do you want me to stay?

This isn’t something he expected to hear, and the sudden and unforeseen relief in his chest takes over anything else he might have been feeling. Andrew reaches for one of Neil’s hands, pressing it against his cheek. “If you want to stay, you aren’t going anywhere.” This isn’t something he’s supposed to have, but if he can, if he gets that chance, Andrew doesn’t plan on letting go.

Neil’s smile at that moment could probably illuminate the whole sky by itself. He adds, “I think I'd like that. There is everything I need here.” He leans forward and presses their lips together, long enough that Andrew pushes Neil backward until his back is against the grass, tails spreading under him. Neil looks up at him the same way he did the night he played the flute.

“Won’t regret it?” Andrew asks, kissing Neil again now that he’s above him, knowing the others usually don’t get that far into the garden.

“If it means not leaving you, no, I won’t regret it,” Neil says teasingly, but there is nothing else but honesty in his energy.

“You’re stupid,” Andrew can’t help answering. He might not have believed it if he couldn’t feel it.

Neil hums smiling cockily, cheeks red. “I know, might want to change insults though, it’s getting redundant.” And he looks so satisfied here, that Andrew only leans forward to abuse his lips instead of answering back.

He has plenty of time to find new insults now. Neil isn’t leaving.