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not too late to save you

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It was early morning, he was tired, and the sunlight streaming in through the windows was positively divine.

“If you’re going to nap, at least don’t do it on your food,” Chen Guo grumbled in a distinctly accusatory way.

Ye Xiu straightened and took a bite of his…what was this? The vegetables were nice, but the wrapping was strange. He noneth­eless made an appreciative noise, hoping to earn some goodwill.

Chen Guo eyed his listless manner with more derision, somehow.

Time to switch tactics. “Is there anything you need me for this morning?” he asked after swallowing his mouthful of food.

“Mumu and Rourou seem to have vanished. Go find them when you’re done,” she ordered. “I asked them to buy some fruit for me.”

Ye Xiu nodded placidly and watched Chen Guo wipe the nearby tables clean with trained efficiency. The restaurant would be opening in another hour or so; he preferred to be elsewhere when the morning crowd rushed in. Nobody was ever chatty at such an early hour, which meant there was no gossiping for him to eavesdrop on; all he received were dead-eyed stares and snappish requests for another serving of food, like he was a common waiter.

When Chen Guo had moved on to the most distant tables, Ye Xiu finished his breakfast. He silently abandoned his tray and ambled out of the building through the kitchen, adjusting his leather vambraces as he went. Chen Guo had started meal preparation for the customers already, and the appetizing scent spilled out into the alleyway behind the restaurant when he opened the backdoor.

This was probably why he was met with wide, hungry eyes as soon as he looked outside.

Su Mucheng smiled at him. “You’re finally up! Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Ye Xiu said warily. “Whatcha got there?”

“Fruit,” Su Mucheng replied, holding out the basket in her gloved hands.

“We bought more than Guoguo asked for, but the prices were too good to pass up,” Tang Rou added, gesturing at her own basket. “You like these, don’t you?”

There was something disconcerting about two women dressed in armor and bristling with weapons wielding a bunch of fruit. Perhaps a casual observer would glance at this scene and think, Oh, those two lovely girls look rather capable! I bet they ventured into the dreadful forest just to pick fruit for their senior brother here! But Ye Xiu knew the only spoils Tang Rou and Su Mucheng would walk away from the forest with were their enemies’ heads.

The city didn’t contain the same threats as the surrounding wilds, and neither woman was bloodied or otherwise worse for wear. And yet…

Ye Xiu stared at the contents of the baskets, then at the five boys huddled behind Su Mucheng and Tang Rou. “I do like them. So. Care to introduce me?”

“Oh, yes,” Su Mucheng said, like the clearly starving youngsters looking over her shoulder had slipped her mind. “This is Bao Rongxing, Luo Ji, An Wenyi, Qiao Yifan, and Mo Fan.” She pointed at each boy as she recited their names. “Friends, this is Ye Xiu, the one I told you about.”

Nothing good ever came of Su Mucheng presenting him as “the one I told you about” in that tone of voice. But Ye Xiu was nothing if not polite, so he smiled at the boys and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Yes!” the one called Bao Rongxing exclaimed. He was wearing fewer clothes than the other boys, but that wasn’t saying much. They may as well be draped in rags. “Does Big Brother have anything to spare? I can live off a single steamed bun for three days.”

His eagerness was much too difficult to resist. If Ye Xiu were to judge by their appearance, they were likely homeless and struggling to fill their bellies. What was he to do but take pity?

Even so… “How did you come across your new friends?” he asked Tang Rou. He internally begged for them not to be the result of some strange and unexpected morning excursion. Since their heads were still attached to their bodies, he dared to hope for the best. Ye Xiu could tolerate a lot, but he drew the line at abduction.

Tang Rou lifted a shoulder and smiled gently. “They were watching the fruit vendors. People were getting nervous; we intervened before the situation escalated.”

“I see.” Escalation usually drew in those damn thugs—er, guardsmen.

Ye Xiu took another glance at the boys’ faces. He didn’t recognize them at all, and he knew every vagrant in this part of the city. “This must be your first time in the neighborhood. The vendors at the market don’t like people lurking in alleys.”

Qiao Yifan peered nervously at the alleyway they were standing in. “Er…do you not like it, either…?” His face was smudged with dirt, making him look even younger than he probably was. Ye Xiu didn’t know if that was deliberate or not.

“I am not opposed,” Ye Xiu said grandly. He stepped out of the doorway and gestured inside. “Come along, you can sit down and have breakfast.”

“We should wait here,” Luo Ji protested. “We’re all dirty.”

“Nonsense,” Tang Rou declared. “Chen Guo, the owner of this establishment and our employer, would never tolerate us treating guests like this.”

Ye Xiu nodded encouragingly. “According to our boss, only uncivilized people don’t eat meals at the table.”

“Guoguo has a lot of opinions about food and its consumption,” Su Mucheng agreed. “Really, it’s fine. You can come inside.”

The boys stepped into the building with varying degrees of reluctance. They all wore wary expressions, but as they passed through the kitchen, their eyes tracked from the huge pot over the fire to the open pantry door, stuffed with food, to the chopped vegetables separated into ceramic bowls on the counter.

Ye Xiu, bringing up the rear of their little train, did not fail to notice a single thing. He knew he wouldn’t need to use the knives hidden in his clothes this morning. None of these boys could withstand so much as a push, if they were as desperate for food as they looked.

“You’re back!” he heard Chen Guo cry. “What took you so long? Did Ye Xiu find you? He only left a minute ago.”

“We were already at the door,” Tang Rou said. Then—

“Ah? What’s this? We’re not open yet!”

Ye Xiu was the last to emerge into the restaurant proper. The boys lowered their heads at Chen Guo’s scrutiny, and he could see why: she had her hands on her hips, one still clenching a rag, and her expression was thunderous enough to drive away men twice her size.

“We brought some guests,” Su Mucheng explained. “Can you make enough breakfast for all of them, too? We’ll help! Oh, and here’s your fruit.”

“Just set them down wherever,” Chen Guo responded automatically. Then she squinted, her expression softening until only confusion was left. “Who are these boys? Where did you meet them? They need washing.”

Ye Xiu couldn’t stay quiet anymore. “Why are you asking so many questions? They clearly need a hot meal. Let’s just feed them and they can be on their way.”

“It’s my establishment they’re standing in and my food they’re going to eat, I can ask as many questions as I want,” Chen Guo snapped, flicking her rag in Ye Xiu’s direction. “Keep them company while the girls and I get breakfast. You two have some explaining to do!”

He came perilously close to rolling his eyes. The three women disappeared into the kitchen and Ye Xiu was left alone with the boys.

…Well. While he did not envy the interrogation Su Mucheng and Tang Rou were undoubtedly being subjected to at that very moment, he did not really want to be in this position, either.

“Here,” he said helplessly, “take a seat.” He sat in front of his breakfast tray, which Chen Guo had yet to clear. Sadly, every single dish was picked clean, so he couldn’t offer their guests anything.

Each table could only seat four, so An Wenyi and Mo Fan occupied the table to the left. They seemed more comfortable with the distance, while Qiao Yifan, Luo Ji, and Bao Rongxing were willing to chat—especially Bao Rongxing, who asked lots of questions about the restaurant, and Luo Ji, who tried to quiet him.

“It’s all right,” Ye Xiu told him, amused. “He can ask.”

“Sorry about him,” Luo Ji said, pursing his lips at the table.

“It’s really fine.”

Of course, that was when Fang Rui and Wei Chen trudged down the stairs.

“Eh?” Wei Chen blinked at the small gathering. “Didn’t that woman say we couldn’t bring work back home? You old demon, keep your contacts out of the building.”

“Shut up, the only old demon here is you,” Ye Xiu replied. “And they’re not contacts,” he added belatedly. No matter what anyone said, his life did not revolve around illegal activities.

Fang Rui pushed out from behind Wei Chen with a grunt. Though he was in a tunic and leather armor, he managed to look remarkably disheveled. “Get out of the way—who are they, then?”

Ye Xiu sighed and introduced each youngster by name. They seemed even warier with more people in the room. Perhaps they were worried about being outnumbered? A likely fear for a group such as theirs. Undoubtedly, they had banded together to avoid being outnumbered.

“They’ll be having breakfast with us today. With you, I should say; I already ate.” Ye Xiu leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know why Chen Guo complains about me being lazy when you all get up later than I do.”

“She just likes complaining about you,” Fang Rui said dismissively. He was considerate enough to give Mo Fan and An Wenyi their space and chose a third table for himself and Wei Chen to Ye Xiu’s right.

Wei Chen was more suspicious. “So where do you all come from?” he asked after he sat down. “We don’t see new faces around here often.”

“I met this lug in the 10th district,” Luo Ji answered readily, gesturing at Bao Rongxing. “We joined up with the others in the noble neighborhoods.”

“How long have the five of you been together?”

“Less than a year…”

Wei Chen continued firing off question after question. They weren’t too probing, so Ye Xiu didn’t stop him. Fang Rui occasionally followed up, asking for clarification. He was friendlier than Wei Chen, and that, in combination with Ye Xiu’s silence, seemed to be sufficient reason for their guests to relax.

By the time Chen Guo and her smiling assistants (who were still armed) returned with meal trays, only Mo Fan had yet to speak. Su Mucheng opted to join his and An Wenyi’s table, while Chen Guo and Tang Rou sat with Fang Rui and Wei Chen.

Breakfast was quiet: the youngsters no longer seemed to care about anything but their food and the rest of them were unwilling to engage in conversation in the face of such ravenous hunger. Chen Guo was nicer than usual to Wei Chen, and Su Mucheng only spoke up to ask if Mo Fan wanted more water, who nodded hesitantly before he resumed his attack on the breakfast.

Ye Xiu did not know what to make of it, but he had to admit, the atmosphere was unusually peaceful. Everyone was always on their best behavior in front of guests. It didn’t seem to matter that their guests were grown-up street urchins.

…Actually, that probably served as further motivation. The boys did seem liable to spook at the slightest hint of hostility.

Ye Xiu did not want them spooked; he wanted them to eat their fill before amicably seeing them off. He’d ask Chen Guo to give them enough snacks to hold their hunger at bay for a few days, which she’d do anyway. And maybe after their snacks were gone, they’d return for more, and they could be treated to another hot meal.

Su Mucheng, with her uncanny ability to guess exactly what he was thinking, met his eyes with a knowing look. Chen Guo, on his other side, was staring straight at him with that urgent expression that meant she wanted him to fix this and fix it now. Tang Rou was much the same, but subtler.

As for Fang Rui and Wei Chen…well, who cared about their opinions, honestly. It wasn’t like they didn’t understand.

(They were all such suckers. All of them.)

With a put-upon sigh, Ye Xiu said, “You know, friends, there are some empty rooms upstairs that need cleaning, if you want to earn a bit of money for the road…”