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Lights Lay Out Before Us

Chapter Text

“A colleague of mine is looking for a housekeeper. He lives alone and needs the help,” says Ling Wen as she packs Xie Lian’s clothes in his suitcase.

He stares listlessly out of the window and doesn’t reply. A part of him knows he should pack for himself and is embarrassed to have someone else do it for him, but he’s too numb to care. Besides if Ling Wen really wanted to, she could easily do all that and more with just a wave of her hand. She’s a witch, after all. But maybe she needs something to distract herself since Xie Lian doesn’t have the energy to carry a conversation. 

“Room and board will be provided,” Ling Wen continues when he remains silent. “I know moving across the country isn’t ideal and it’ll take some time adjusting, but you’ll be safe there.”

It doesn’t matter when he’s already lost everything, but Xie Lian nods anyway. At least it appeases her, because she nods approvingly at him when he turns to meet her gaze. 

“You’re going to be fine.”

She sounds so sure that he almost believes her. Almost. 

After promising to call and text him to ask how Xie Lian is doing in his new living situation, Ling Wen drops him off at the airport. She goes with him to the gate and stands there until he boards the plane with one last tentative wave at her. When he finds his seat, Xie Lian pulls out his phone and finds several messages from his friends. One is from Feng Xin, sent a few minutes before he sat down, telling her to have a good time and to stay safe. Another is from Mu Qing, telling him to stay out of trouble. But one is from a number he doesn’t recognize. 

Contact me if you need to, it says simply, most likely from his new employer. It’s curt and to the point, and Xie Lian wonders if whoever it is is going to be much the same. But really, what did he expect? He imagines his employer has no desire to make friends with the hired help. It’s just as well, because he has no desire to be friends either. 

The disappointment that sinks in at the realization takes him by surprise. Exhausted already, Xie Lian decides to respond to the texts later and shuts off his phone out of spite. Living like this is going to be terrible, especially without a home and without a family. He’s never felt so lonely in his entire life. 

Xie Lian only feels more out of a place when a stony faced man and his companion meet him in the pick up area. He’s handsome with short black hair and amber eyes, dressed in a black shirt and trousers. but everything about him screams not to approach. 

His companion, on the other hand, has a more welcoming presence. There’s an easy, welcoming smile on his youthful face. With chin length brown curls and bright green eyes, he’s lovely, his features vivid against the cream colored sweater and light blue jeans. He’s also holding up a sign with Xie Lian’s name on it in big blocky letters and waves as soon as he catches sight of him. 

Did Ling Wen send them a picture of him?

“Hi! Are you Xie Lian?” asks the young man with green eyes. When Xie Lian confirms it, he glances down at his beat up suitcase with surprise. “Is that all you have?” 

His face turns red with embarrassment and he mutters a faint, “Yeah, it is.”

“Oh, that’s great! Baggage claim is always a headache, so it’s better that you don’t have to deal with it. I’m Shi Qingxuan.”

“Give it here,” the other man says, snatching the handle of Xie Lian’s suitcase from him and throws it into the trunk of his car. “I don’t want to waste any more time than we already have.”

Xie Lian feels like he should be offended, but he climbs into the backseat without a word. He thinks he’ll be ignored until they reach their destination, but Shi Qingxuan turns around in the passenger seat.

“Don’t mind him. Ming Yi acts like that, but he’s secretly very sweet.”

“I’m not sweet.”

“Nice to meet you both,” Xie Lian says, for lack of anything better to say. Not wanting to look at Shi Qingxuan’s bright eyes anymore. He glances out the window and watches the city pass them in a blur, but apparently the other man fails to get the hint.

“How old are you?” 


“We’re the same age!” Shi Qingxuan says with a smile and he turns to the scowling man behind the steering wheel. “That includes Ming-xiong, but he's practically a grandpa on the inside.”

“Shut up.”

If he’s bothered that his friend just told him to shut up, it doesn’t show. His smile doesn’t dim at all. “Do you have any experience with housekeeping?" he asks Xie Lian.

“I helped with my family’s business—” He pauses, suddenly not wanting to finish that sentence anymore. A long silence follows his statement.

It’s almost a relief when Shi Qingxuan speaks again. “Are you still going to school?” 

“I just graduated from university.” He was at school when the incident happened, which is the only reason he’s still alive. 

Shi Qingxuan hums thoughtfully. “What did you major in?” 

“I majored in history and minored in linguistics.” He even had a teaching position lined up as soon as he graduated, but had to give it up.

Ming Yi shoots him a glance at him through the rearview mirror. “Just make sure you don’t get in the way. If you prove to be untrustworthy or your work unsatisfactory, you will be sent back immediately. Is that understood?” 

“Yes,” he says. 

Ming Yi ignores him after that, even while Shi Qingxuan meets Xie Lian’s eyes apologetically. He isn’t all that surprised that they’re suspicious of him. People tend to make assumptions for him being what he is all the time. He should be used to it by now and it shouldn’t hurt him as much as it does. 

Maybe if he tells himself that enough times, he’ll actually start to believe it. 

The rest of the drive is quiet before Ming Yi finally pulls up in front of a high rise apartment building on a nicer part of town. Xie Lian finds himself staring up at it in awe, wondering how he’ll get used to living in such a place. 

Shi Qingxuan startles him from his musings by clearing his throat, linking their arms together. “Come on. We’ll show you the inside.” 

Xie Lian nods and lets himself be dragged inside while Ming Yi brings his suitcase. They take the elevator up to the top floor, which causes him to fidget with nerves. Ling Wen had explained to him before that Shi Qingxuan and Ming Yi are both very prominent artists, but he’s only just began to realize how renowned they truly are to be living in a place like this. He’s never felt more completely out of his depth. 

He can hear muffled barking from inside the apartment, but is still surprised when a large black dog lunges at him as soon as Ming Yi opens the front door. It circles Xie Lian, sniffing his wrists and ankles before flopping to the floor right in the middle of the entryway, staring up at him with a strange red eye. It takes him a moment, but he realizes that the other is scarred and shut.

“His name is E-ming,” Ming Yi says, the severity of his expression easing just a bit. The dog licks Xie Lian’s hand as soon as he’s in range, tail whipping back and forth in delight. “He’s a good judge of character too.” 

He sounds strangely approving, as if Xie Lian passed some kind of test. Not wanting to think about it too much, he distracts himself by playing with the dog’s floppy ears instead. 

“Hello, E-ming,” Xie Lian says, something tight and painful loosening in his chest when the dog wriggles closer excitedly at the sound of his name. 

“How we go in?” suggests Shi Qingxuan, trying to hide his amusement behind the hand covering his face. Maybe it won’t be so bad staying with them after all. 

E-ming reluctantly lets him up, but doesn’t leave his side as Shi Qingxuan gives a tour of the apartment. The place is decorated elegantly but sparsely, which is strange considering where it’s located. It’s more of a modest place than he was expecting. Of course, everything looks like it came straight out of a magazine and he can tell all of the furniture is top of the line, but there’s something lacking for lack of a better word. Xie Lian can’t put his finger on it exactly, but it’s enough for him to realize that this is a place someone lives in, but doesn’t consider it a home. 

It’s also surprisingly clean, for all that Shi Qingxuan’s questions had made it seem that there was a dire need of his skills as a housekeeper. There are several books piled on a lamp table and he can see a couple dishes left out on the kitchen counter, but it’s not as terrible as Xie Lian feared it might be. He’s not too sure what they even need him here for to be honest. 

“This will be your room,” Shi Qingxuan says, opening a door to one of the three bedrooms he had seen. It’s the one closest to the hallway bathroom and right across the hall from the master bedroom. “We’ll be leaving now. Hua Cheng should be home around eight, so be sure to have dinner prepared for him before then.” 

“Um. What time will you both be home?” 

Ming Yi frowns while Shi Qingxuan looks completely baffled, like he’s the one confused. “Did Ling Wen not—? Hua Cheng lives alone.” 

“What?” Xie Lian stares at him in confusion. “But I thought—You don’t live here?” 

“Of course not.” Ming Yi frowns, like the very idea disgusts him, and turns to Shi Qingxuan. “I thought you explained everything to Ling Wen.” 

“I did!” Shi Qingxuan insists but looks unsure about it. Xie Lian would have remembered if Ling Wen mentioning such a thing to him, so maybe he just forgot. “Maybe I didn’t?” 

“Unbelievable,” Ming Yi declares and shakes his head. Then he adds to Xie Lian, “You and Hua Cheng will be living here together. Make sure he takes care of himself and that will protect you from anyone who might try to harm you. Understood?” 

He really doesn’t, but he supposes it’ll be like having a roommate at a college dormitory. “Yes.” 

“Good.” Without so much as a goodbye, Ming Yi turns and leaves the apartment. 

Shi Qingxuan places a gentle hand on Xie Lian’s shoulder and smiles. “We promised Ling Wen that you would be safe here. Don’t worry about a thing.” 

He nods, too overwhelmed to speak. 

After he’s left alone, Xie Lian distracts himself from the strangeness of his situation by keeping busy. He unpacks his things, hanging what needs to be hung in the closet and putting everything else away in the dresser while E-ming lays out on his bedroom floor. Ling Wen was also kind enough to pack him his toiletries, his laptop, as well as a framed picture that knocks the breath right out of him. He shakily sits down on the bed because it’s a picture of him and his parents at his high school graduation. Looking at his parents’ smiling faces, he’s overwhelming with the knowledge that he’s never going to see them again. He won’t see their smiles or hear their voices. 

He lost everything and they’re never coming back. 

His vision blurs and E-ming whines unhappily, laying his head on his knee and looking up with his crimson eye. Only then does Xie Lian realize that he’s crying, tears streaming down his face. He gasps for breath as he sobs, covering his hands over his mouth and trying to stifle the sounds he’s making. 

Apparently he fell asleep at some point, because next thing he knows there’s a door slamming shut and E-ming barking excitedly at the noise. 

“Quiet, mutt,” a man calls across the house. “I’ll only feed you if you stop.”

Xie Lian sits up from where he’d been curled up against E-ming’s body, blinking in the darkness of the room. Through the light peeking through from under the door, he can see the dog has his head turned toward whoever is moving around the apartment but making no move to leave his side. Is Hua Cheng home? What time is it? He feels around for his phone and holds it up to his face, squinting at the glow of the screen. 

It’s well after nine. 

Xie Lian yelps and hurls himself at the door, throwing it open with a bang. “I’m so sorry! I fell asleep!” 

E-ming cheerfully bounds to the tall figure standing in the entryway, already in the process of shrugging off his jacket. The man catches sight of him and looks surprised while Xie Lian blatantly stares at him in turn. 

Everything about him is mesmerizing. From his long black hair and the gorgeous brown of his eye, the other covered with an eyepatch. He has handsome features and a strong build, the expensive suit he has on accentuating the lines of his body. Hua Cheng looks like a model or a work of art and it’s enough to make Xie Lian feel a little inadequate in comparison. Even more so when Hua Cheng’s face hardens as he turns away, like Xie Lian isn’t worth his time. 

“Who are you and what are you doing in my house?” 

Xie Lian flushes with shame, wondering if this is a cruel joke or if he really doesn’t know. Didn’t Shi Qingxuan and Ming Yi? “I—I’m your new housekeeper.” 

“Housekeeper?” the man repeats, looking unhappy with the idea. He feels whatever hopes he may have had about his new life plummet as Hua Cheng pulls out his phone, absently pushing E-ming out of his way as he goes. “Take a seat on the couch, please. I’ll just be a minute.” 

Xie Lian does as he’s told and Hua Cheng disappears into his bedroom. He closes the door, but he can still hear him speaking in a stern voice to the person on the other line. 

Maybe no one told him about him after all. 

Is he angry? Will he send him back? Xie Lian squeezes his eyes shut and clasps his hands together, fighting a wave of dizziness. The last thing he wants is to go back, where everything will be a reminder of what happened. Staying here may not be ideal, but at least it means he doesn’t have to endure his friends’ pitying looks. He doesn’t have to live in fear, knowing that the culprit responsible still hasn’t been caught, that whoever it is could still come after him and— 


Xie Lian gasps and finds himself staring up at the man’s concerned face, mere inches from his own. Hua Cheng’s hands are on his shoulders as he leans over him, a steadying force even as his body shakes. His heart is beating so hard and fast against his ribcage that he thinks it might burst. He can’t breathe. 

Why is it so hard to breathe? 

He can hear E-ming whimpering and the clicking of his paws on the hardwood floor as he paces anxiously back and forth, but he can’t seem to look away from Hua Cheng’s intense stare. “I need you to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Come on. Together with me.” 

Xie Lian struggles to imitate Hua Cheng’s breathing as best he can until finally the pain in his chest lessens and he can breathe normally again. He blinks the wetness in his eyes, feeling he might die of embarrassment, but Hua Cheng gives him a small smile. 

“There you are. You’re all right now.” He tilts Xie Lian’s head onto his shoulder and wraps his arms around him. “I’m here for you.” 

He sinks into Hua Cheng’s embrace and hates himself for it, hates himself for being so weak. He presses his face against the man’s neck for a brief moment before pulling away and wipes the tears from his eyes. 

“I’m sorry. Thank you for helping me.” 

“It’s my fault for being rude,” Hua Cheng replies. There’s an awkward look on his face, like he knows an apology isn’t enough, but he’s going to attempt one anyway. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be here. I hope you can forgive me.” 

Xie Lian shakes his head, because he wasn’t the one who fell apart in front of a complete stranger. “No one told you I was coming?” he asks. 

“Those fools knew I’d try to get out of it. They did mention hiring a housekeeper for me before, I didn’t take them seriously.” 

“I should go,” he says, trying not to sound as bitter as he feels. He rises to his feet and heads to his room to get his things. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable—”

Hua Cheng surprises him by grabbing his wrist to stop him. “Wait. Do you mind if we start over?” 

Xie Lian wonders if Shi Qingxuan or Ming Yi told him about his situation that’s why he’s being so nice to him now. That seems most likely, even if he doesn’t like it. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth to be pitied so, but he doesn’t have much choice. “Okay,” he says at last. 

“Good. My name is Hua Cheng, but call me San Lang. And you are?”

He glances down at their hands and says, “Xie Lian. I’m Xie Lian.” 

Chapter Text

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—”

“I don’t.”

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— 

“Good morning.” 

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.