It started with a just a simple slip. Lan Xichen was sure that he had placed the teacup on the table, but the clattering sound, the trickle of tea creeping slowly towards where he knelt, said otherwise.
“Xichen?” Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow his way.
Xichen let a smile flicker across his face, though his jaw was still clenched in confusion, “I’m sorry da-ge, must have let myself get too distracted.”
“Mm,” Nie Mingjue nodded, turning back towards the various correspondence he was meant to be answering.
Xichen stood, brow furrowed slightly as he looked down at the cup, rolling gently side to side. Playful, almost, despite its recent betrayal.
He sighed, “I’m going to go get something to clean this up. I’ll be right back.”
“Mnm,” was again Mingjue’s only answer.
And Xichen could only hope that the other man was focused enough on his work that he hadn’t noticed the slight stumble to Xichen’s step as he walked to the vanity, finding the soft cloths he looked for.
Night had long fallen when the quiet sounds of brushes sweeping against paper was next interrupted. This time, by a long, unselfconscious yawn.
“I think I’m about ready to turn in for the night, Xichen,” Mingjue said, standing up from the desk and stretching out his arms, shaking out his cramping hands, “What about you?”
Xichen stared at the lines of writing in front of him a few moments longer, trying to make sense of it. He had wanted to finish at least the inventory reports. And if not that, then at least enough of them to last the month. Failing that, he had expected to at least be done this one page.
But the words were blurring at the edges, and he squinted close. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out if the kitchens were complaining that they were low on wood or low on rice. Maybe both? He couldn’t tell.
He bit his lip, “I… I need just a bit more time. Maybe I’ll meet you for tea later?”
Mingjue laughed, “I can wait. I know how you are – if I leave you here now, I might not see you until morning!”
Xichen let the corners of his mouth tick up just a bit, but didn’t take his eyes off the page. Just this one report. He could finish this one report.
He could hear Mingjue moving about the room, each step reverberating in his head. He pulled the page up close to his face with one hand, and the other moved up to his temple, massaging it lightly.
It was wood. It was definitely wood they were asking for. Ok. All he would have to do is write a quick note, sign it, and then one of the kitchen staff could go and place the order on the sect’s behalf. He pulled a blank sheet of paper over, blinking tiredly. All he had to do was write the order. Copy the requested amount of wood. Sign his name. Then he could go.
He swallowed and cleared his throat lightly before beginning.
Moments later, he was staring at the most childishly scrawled out characters he had seen since grading one of the disciples’ history essays. He set the brush down and set the paper aside. Once it had dried, he would use the back as scrap paper in something else.
He started again, biting on his tongue, trying to keep himself awake as he moved the brush painstakingly over the page, lingering just a bit too long here and there, leaving lines a hair too thick, the odd stroke just a little wobbly.
He compared the two drafts, sighed, and chose the second as the marginally better option. He just didn’t have it in him to try a third time. He set the chosen note aside, and promised himself he would notify the kitchen staff to pick it up from him first thing the next morning.
Shoulders slumped, he sighed in relief at being done this simple, but for some reason exceedingly tiresome task. He looked up.
And met Nie Mingjue’s eyes, which were watching him carefully.
“What is it, da-ge?” Xichen asked politely, rearranging the brushes, the ink, the papers on his desk, trying to get them back to the way he liked them.
“What’s wrong?” Mingjue asked, crossing his arms.
Xichen frowned, “Nothing’s wrong, that just… took longer than usual,” he pulled his lips back into a smile, “I’m sorry, you must be hungry. We can go now?”
Mingjue let out a grunt of frustration and shook his head, kneeling so that he was now eye-to-eye with his sworn brother, “You’re not going to get off that easy,” he pointed to a spot on the bridge of his nose, “Look at me. Right here. Now, follow my finger.”
“Da-ge, I don’t know why…” But Xichen tracked the finger anyway, moving his head side to side, up and down, blinking to keep it in focus, “I’m fine.”
Mingjue looked at him skeptically, “Xichen, in case you’ve forgotten, I have a stubborn younger brother too. I’m years past ‘I’m fine’ working on me,” he lowered his hand, “You’re delayed. You’ve been working yourself too hard.”
Xichen sighed, still smiling gently, “I’ve had just a bit of a headache, maybe, and I’m a little tired. That’s all. But really, da-ge. It’s nothing to worry about. I just need a good night’s rest.”
“Alright,” Mingjue slapped his hands decisively on his thighs as he stood, reaching a hand out to Xichen, “Then go get a good night’s rest. Then I won’t worry.”
Xichen chuckled, still tidying up the piles of paper, “Fine. I will, just let me…”
“No,” Mingjue insisted, “No ‘just.’ Now.”
Xichen raised an eyebrow in Mingjue’s direction.
“I’m serious,” Mingjue said, “Come on, Xichen, I know you know I know you well enough to know that if I leave you alone now, you’ll just go right back to work.”
Xichen smiled, teasing note to his voice, “Maybe you’re right, but certainly I’m allowed, as sect leader, to decide when I stop working for the night?” But despite the apparent protests, he placed his hand in Mingjue’s offered one, letting himself be pulled up. He stumbled, and was glad, even if slightly embarrassed, to have Mingjue’s chest there to catch him.
“Sure,” Mingjue shrugged, but spoke quietly, almost tenderly as he led Xichen over to his bed, “You may be allowed, but I seem to remember you saying at one point that Cloud Recesses prides itself on its hospitality? Well, I’m a guest, and I would like my host to go to bed.”
Xichen chuckled even as his eyelids fluttered, suddenly very heavy. He yawned, “And I’m nothing if not a good host, I suppose, but…” he forced his eyes to stay open, catching Nie Mingjue’s gaze, eyes twinkling even through their tired haze, “But I hope you don’t still only see yourself as a guest here, da-ge?”
Nie Mingjue let out a breath of laughter, “You Lans. Always so vague,” he helped Xichen pull off his heavy outer robes and pulled back the blankets on the bed, letting Xichen slip underneath the covers. He smoothed Xichen’s hair back, pulling the pin out of his hairpiece and setting the ornament aside, “Sleep now. You can explain how I should think of myself in the morning, alright?”
“Mmhm,” Xichen hummed, eyes closed, already seeming half asleep.
But as Mingjue began to withdraw, Xichen’s hand caught his again, “Thank you,” the dozing man whispered, clenching the Mingjue’s hand tightly.
At the words, at the peaceful smile on Xichen’s face, Mingjue had the sudden urge to lean down, to kiss the sleeping man’s forehead. But the Lan ribbon stood in his way. And despite any knowing glances from Huaisang, despite the reddened cheeks Mingjue sometimes thought he noticed on his friend when they happened to catch each other’s eyes at sect leader meetings, and even despite the fact that Mingjue, and seemingly Mingjue alone, was invited to work late into the night in the Hanshi, Mingjue couldn’t know for sure yet whether “not being just a guest” meant enough that he could touch it.
So instead, he simply squeezed his friend’s hand back.
“Anytime, Xichen,” he said, “Sleep well.”
And Xichen did.