Xie Lian peers at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, embarrassed to find his eyes are still puffy and red from crying. Splashing cold water on his face hasn’t helped much either, although he’s glad to have a private moment to compose himself.
Despite the late hour, Hua Cheng —San Lang, he supposes— insisted on making dinner for them. He tried to protest, saying that it was his responsibility as the housekeeper, but Hua Cheng stubbornly dug his heels in about it.
“This is my way of making it up to you,” he said with a smile, so Xie Lian had no other choice but to let him.
He can hear Hua Cheng bustling around the kitchen, occasionally speaking to E-ming like he actually expects him to reply. Maybe he can. He never really thought to ask, and he realizes that he doesn’t know what Hua Cheng is either. Does he know about Xie Lian’s story?
A knock on the door startles him from his musings, followed by Hua Cheng’s voice. “Are you all right in there?”
“Yes!” Hastily toweling his face, Xie Lian yanks open the door only to freeze at the sight of the man standing right in front of him.
Although a little disappointed that Hua Cheng no longer wearing his fancy suit, he still looks just as amazing in a plain black shirt and grey sweatpants. It makes Xie Lian feel underdressed somehow, even though he’s the one wearing actual clothes. They’re not very stylish, but the white sweater and dark jeans he has on is one of his better outfits. He’s been told that he looks attractive in them, but Hua Cheng doesn’t seem to notice.
“Your bangs are still wet,” he says instead, reaching out his hand and rubbing the strands between his long elegant fingers. “Dry yourself off properly, or you’ll catch a cold.”
“O—okay.” Xie Lian feels his entire face flush at having the other man so close and touching him like this. Calming him down is one thing, but Xie Lian isn’t used to being touched even by his closest friends, so this small bit of contact is both frightening and exhilarating.
Eventually Hua Cheng seems to realize the effect he’s having on him and pulls away, with a complicated look on his face. “Dinner is almost ready.”
“Thank you,” Xie Lian says softly and stares in breathless wonder at the small smile he receives in response.
It turns out that Hua Cheng is a brilliant cook. The pasta he made is mainly just vegetables and chicken in a creamy sauce, but it’s flavorful and filling. It’s possibly the best pasta Xie Lian has ever had, and he wonders what use he’s going to be as a housekeeper for somebody who cooks like this.
“Let me do the dishes,” he insists, after they finish eating and Hua Cheng tries to clear the table. The other man seems confused by the request but agrees anyway, and Xie Lian feels a little less like his job is being threatened.
Hua Cheng leans against the counter while he washes up, taking the toy E-ming presses into his hand and throwing it for him to catch. They repeat the process several times. It’s kind of sweet.
“So. How much trouble are you in anyway?”
Xie Lian’s hand slips and he nearly cracks the plate in he’s holding against the side of the sink. “What?”
“I didn’t hear much about your situation. Just that you need protection.” Hua Cheng shrugs, before accepting E-ming’s toy and throwing it again for her to fetch. “I don’t know why you came all the way out here, but it must be bad.”
Scrubbing hard at the dish in his hand, Xie Lian avoids looking at him. But he can feel his eyes on him like they’re trying to read his thoughts. Can he read his thoughts or would that be rude to ask?
“It’s none of your business.”
“That’s fair,” Hua Cheng answers breezily. Like he doesn’t care he’s being difficult, even if Xie Lian can tell he’s actually annoyed. “But I know you’re not human.”
“Neither are you,” he snaps, glaring up at him.
They stare at each other when E-ming —sensing the sudden tension in the room— whines. Hua Cheng sighs and pushes off the counter, heading straight to his bedroom. “Then don’t tell me. Goodnight, your highness.”
Xie Lian watches Hua Cheng leave the room and tells himself he doesn’t care when the door shuts firmly behind him. He finishes the rest of the dishes, dries them, and sorts them in their proper places before brushing his teeth and going straight to bed. Or tries to at any rate.
He’s never met anyone as beautiful or frustrating as Hua Cheng in his entire life, and that confuses him more than he’s willing to admit.
A cold, wet nose presses against Xie Lian’s cheek and startles him awake. He pushes himself up on his elbows and finds E-ming resting his head on the edge of the bed, staring at him with his red eye. He whines and licks his wrist, something urgent in his voice. Xie Lian is about to ask him what’s wrong, when he hears it. Faint though it is, he hears soft moans from across the hall. E-ming prods at him with his nose again and he obediently stumbles out of bed, following him out the door —which is open, although he’s positive that he had closed it before falling asleep— to Hua Cheng’s room.
He’s shirtless and his bare legs are sticking out from under the covers, twisted as they are around his body. Xie Lian flushes despite himself, but any embarrassment he feels is quickly forgotten when he realizes that Hua Cheng is having a nightmare. There’s a sheen of sweat on his face and his hands are gripping the blanket as he’s in pain. Is he having a nightmare?
“Hey,” Xie Lian calls softly and his heart aches at the pained sound he receives in response. “Hua—San Lang, wake up.”
Hua Cheng mumbles something Xie Lian can’t make out, but from the way he furrows his brow he knows it can’t be good. He reaches out and smooths his bangs back from his sweaty face, wanting to help but not knowing how.
“San Lang, you’re all right.”
A flash of crimson cuts through the darkness of the room as the other man grabs his wrist with alarming speed, waking up from whatever bad dream had held him captive. To his relief, he recognizes Xie Lian immediately and blinks, the red of his eye melting into brown. His voice is hoarse.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Yeah.” It hurts where Hua Cheng is gripping his wrist, but he stretches out his other hand and rests it on his cheek. “You were having a nightmare. You’re okay. You’re safe.”
He doesn’t know what Hua Cheng was dreaming about, whether it was a cruel vision from his subconscious or possibly a memory he was reliving, but he says the words anyway. He wants to offer whatever comfort he can, the same way Hua Cheng did for him while he struggled with his anxiety.
He sits up slowly, running his fingers through his hair as he catches his breath. He looks very young and vulnerable without his eyepatch covering his other eye. He still hasn’t let go of Xie Lian.
“Was I screaming?” he asks.
Xie Lian hates how much a question like that hurts him. “No. E-ming woke me and brought me here.”
Hua Cheng glances down at the dog as he wags his tail once. “I see.”
He doesn’t sound happy about it. Actually, he sounds furious.
“Sorry for intruding, I know I shouldn’t have—“
“It’s fine,” Hua Cheng says. He lets go of his wrist and draws back. “Thank you. You can go back to bed now.”
“If you need anything—”
Despite the clear dismissal, Xie Lian finds himself reluctant to leave. He internally debates with himself before throwing caution to the wind and starts stripping out of his clothes. Hua Cheng’s eyes widen comically and he would find it more amusing if he wasn’t so flustered himself. Hopefully it’s too dark for Hua Cheng to see how red he is, baring himself to a complete stranger, but if there’s any way he can put him at ease, he wants to do it.
“You asked me what I am,” he says, folding his clothes and setting them on a chair.
Hua Cheng nods hesitantly. “I did.“
“I’m not fully grown yet,” Xie Lian explains as he looks away from Hua Cheng’s shocked face. “So I don’t have all my powers, but I can do this at the very least .”
“What are you—” Hua Cheng starts to ask when he climbs up onto the bed, but chokes on the words as his transformation starts.
He shrinks first, something Feng Xin used to always tease him about. Then Xie Lian feels fur cover his entire body. His hands and feet form paws while his jaw lengthens and narrows to form a muzzle. His tail is last, long and bushy, curling around his body as to protect him from Hua Cheng’s wide eyed stare. E-ming wriggles into his space and sniffs at him, expressing his confused delight at this new form.
“I’m a fox spirit,” Xie Lian tells Hua Cheng, suddenly shy. “Weak as I am, I can still keep the nightmares away for you.”
Hua Cheng doesn’t move as if he’s frozen in place and he wonders if he’s afraid. He remembers the words of the man who destroyed Xie Lian’s world and his entire family. He called them tricksters, monsters, and demons that needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. Perhaps Hua Cheng feels the same.
“Sorry,” Xie Lian says and backs away. “If you don’t want me here, I’ll just go—”
“Don’t!” Hua Cheng’s shout startles both of them and E-ming, and he quickly lowers his voice. “I mean, don’t. Please stay.”
Xie Lian doesn’t quite believe him, but hesitantly crawls closer as Hua Cheng lays back down and tucks himself against the man’s chest. “Close your eyes. I’ll watch over you while you sleep.”
Hua Cheng looks at him with something like awe, hardly noticing when E-ming also clambers onto the bed and burrows against his back. The staring makes Xie Lian nervous and he bats at his chin with his paw.
“Of course,” Hua Cheng says quietly and slowly curls his arm around Xie Lian’s small white body. “Thank you.”
He stares at his long lashes before closing his own eyes. “You’re welcome.”
Sunlight is just starting to peek through the window when Xie Lian wakes, blinking in confusion as he takes a look around the room and can’t find anything he recognizes. But then he remembers that he’s no longer at home, that he’s a housekeeper for a complete stranger and is going to live with him indefinitely. Thinking about fills him with bitterness and resentment at his new circumstances, but it’s more subdued than it was before. The covers slide down his back as Xie Lian sits up and he startles to find himself in fox form, until the lingering fog of sleep clears and memories of last night come back to him. E-ming waking him and Hua Cheng having a nightmare, which resulted in Xie Lian climbing into bed with him. All of it.
Embarrassed, he wriggles out of the blanket and wonders how it came to be covering him. E-ming makes an unhappy noise next to him when he pulls away, but stays asleep. Other than the two of them, the bed is empty and he tramples down the disappointment that starts to well up at that realization. He didn’t expect Hua Cheng to thank him or anything, but he had hoped. Maybe Xie Lian offended him for presumptuously offering to sleep with him. Even if it was to keep his nightmares away, it still doesn’t change the fact that Hua Cheng is still his employer and what he did was inappropriate—
He glances up in surprise when Hua Cheng steps out of the walk in closet he hadn’t noticed before. “Morning?”
The smile he receives in response shouldn’t make his heart skip a beat like it does, but apparently no one told Hua Cheng that. He’s buttoning his dress shirt and his tie is hanging loosely around his neck, but he still looks stunning even this early in the morning. That’s just not fair.
“You should go back to sleep,” Hua Cheng, but he shakes his head and stretches.
“Let me make breakfast,” he offers and when the other man starts to protest, adds, “Really. I want to.”
He still looks like he’d prefer Xie Lian get more rest rather than feed him, but finally caves. “As long as gege doesn’t mind.”
Xie Lian wonders at this strange situation he finds himself in where a housekeeper has to argue for the chance to work and is then called gege by his employer.
Still in his fox form, Xie Lian hops off the bed and stops at the way Hua Cheng is staring at him. “What?”
“You’re beautiful,” the man says with a smile. And he’s never been so immensely grateful to be in fox form, so he can’t see him blush.
Xie Lian has always been ashamed of that side of himself because of how it lacked so many ways. His fox body is smaller than it should be for someone his age and doesn’t have enough tails either. Not to mention his white coat is a rarity among his kind, who are typically red or gray. Worst of all, his eyes are a bright amber gold. His relatives would say that it’s bad luck, which apparently they ended up being right about that. Not wanting to think about it anymore, Xie Lian pads over his pile of clothes and ignores the sudden emptiness he feels inside.
“Would you mind looking away?”
Hua Cheng must hear the despondent tone in his voice because he frowns with worry, but dutifully turns around and starts fastening his tie in the mirror. “I’ll try to be home around seven, so you can have the day to yourself.”
He falters, more taken aback than he wants to admit. “You don’t need me to do anything?”
Hua Cheng shrugs without turning around. “If you want to take E-ming out, I’d appreciate it. Otherwise take the day off. There’s some places to eat close by and a bookstore if you want to check it out.”’
E-ming perks up at the sound of his name and his tail thumps on the mattress, although he makes no move to get up. But Xie Lian stares at Hua Cheng’s back, trying to make sense of the words. The suggestion to take it easy doesn’t sit well for him. It feels like Hua Cheng has been doing nothing but humoring him. It’s terrible and he doesn’t like it.
“I don’t like being idle,” he says firmly. He closes his eyes and transforms back into his human form. When he opens his eyes, he sputters when he catches Hua Cheng blatantly staring at him. “Hey!”
“It was too dark to see last night,” he replies cheerfully, not at all bothered by the sight of a naked man standing in his bedroom. In fact, he looks sort of... appreciative? “I’ve never seen a fox spirit in person before.”
Xie Lian yanks on his clothes as quickly as possible because Hua Cheng is still staring at him and says, “Most people haven’t.”
Their numbers were dwindling long before he was born and he’s the last of his kind that still have a fox form to turn into. The only ones he knew besides himself who could were his parents, but they’re gone now too. He’s the last one left.
He can tell Hua Cheng wants to ask, but he doesn’t know if he can bear it. “I’ll get started on breakfast,” he manages to choke out and flees like the coward he is.
The kitchen is surprisingly well organized and well stocked, so Xie Lian only has to do a bit of poking around to find out where everything is. The coffee maker is a little intimidating with buttons and switches that seem excessive, but Xie Lian finally gets coffee brewing and pulls all the ingredients he needs from the refrigerator and pantry.
Hua Cheng wanders in while he opens a package of bacon and leans over his shoulder. Xie Lian’s heart speeds up at having him stand so close, but is surprised when he reaches into one of the bottom drawers and pulls out a plain blue apron.
“To protect your clothes,” he murmurs, stepping into Xie Lian’s personal space. “Lift your arms.”
He does as directed, holding his breath as Hua Cheng reaches around him to tie it. “Um. Thank you.”
The smile he receives in response is downright unfair. “What can I help with?”
“You really don’t have to,” Xie Lian says quickly. Maybe borderline frantic.
Hua Cheng pouts a little, but lets himself be pushed to the table and accepts the cup of coffee that’s poured for him. “I’ve been feeding myself just fine before you came along, you know.”
It’s said without any real heat, but it still makes Xie Lian’s face redden. Maybe he is being silly when Hua Cheng is obviously a self- sufficient adult, but it’s making him more and more anxious realizing that he really doesn’t know why Shi Qingxuan and Ming Yi hired him. What is he doing here? What can he do so that Hua Cheng will let him stay? Unfortunately, he gets a bit sidetracked when he’s thinking too much, so he doesn’t realize how much food he’s made until he hears Hua Cheng’s exclamation of surprise.
“Gege, you made quite a feast!”
He blinks and stares down at horror at all the plates and bowls piled high with bubbling, unrecognizable substances. He glances up at Hua Cheng with an apology hanging from his lips, but he just laughs.
“This smells amazing,” he says as E-ming wanders out of the bedroom at the prospect of getting table scraps.
Xie Lian slides into the seat next to him, watching nervously as Hua Cheng takes his first bite. To his surprise, he doesn’t seem at all bothered by his cooking and praises him, finishing everything without complaint. Xie Lian knows that he’s not a good cook no matter how hard he tries, but is immensely relieved that Hua Cheng doesn’t seem to mind. He nibbles at his food slowly, occasionally looking over at Hua Cheng with awe. If Hua Cheng notices the scrutiny, he doesn’t mention it. He’s too preoccupied with teasing E-ming with bites of food and then yanking his fork away because he can taste any of it.
“I’ll feed him,” Xie Lian offers, and leaps up to dig in the cabinet where E-ming’s food is kept.
The dog perks up at the sound of his kibble being poured into his bowl and dances excitedly as he sets it down in front of him. Xie Lian pets his head while he eats with a smile and looks up to find Hua Cheng watching him. His eye is very wide and Xie Lian covers his mouth, feeling self-conscious.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“No,” Hua Cheng croaks, which does nothing to reassure him.
The rest of breakfast is a quiet, awkward affair and it’s only after Hua Cheng leaves that Xie Lian hides his face in his hands, cheeks hot when it occurs to him why he reacted the way he did.
It was the very first time Hua Cheng had seen him smile. And the first time he was comfortable enough to do it in his presence.