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Caught Off Guard

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Nie Mingjue wasn’t exactly pleased that the Discussion Conference was to be held in Qinghe this year, but there was nothing he could do about it. The rotating schedule of Clans meant that he didn’t have a choice in the matter— last year the Jin Clan had hosted, and at least Nie Mingjue didn’t have to deal with going back to Nightless City for another three years.

But that meant this year was his turn, and Nie Mingjue scowled at the papers that were spread out in front of him.

Invitations had been written and sent months ago and the last of the acceptances had arrived this morning, and Nie Mingjue could finally finish his planning.

“Ouyang always takes forever,” he grumbled, scribbling a note to confirm with his assistants that everyone had responded. “I have to place him next to Yao, and I should probably keep them away from the Wen Clan…”

Nie Mingjue muttered to himself as he worked, finalizing the details for the Conference that was only a month away.

There were only two Clans left to arrive— Nie Mingjue bet himself silently that the Lan Clan would be last. They hate Discussion Conferences more than I do, he thought wryly, and they certainly never allow themselves to have fun at them either. But everyone else had arrived and were settling in before the feast tonight, and Nie Mingjue turned as the Wen Clan was announced.

“His Excellency, Wen Ruohan has arrived!”

Nie Mingjue hid his distaste the best he could as he bowed in greeting, but from the gleam in the Chief Cultivators eye he knew he’d failed.

“Nie Mingjue, what a pleasure to see you again,” Wen Ruohan said, and Nie Mingjue barely refrained from rolling his eyes at the man.

“Welcome to Qinghe, Chief Cultivator,” Nie Mingjue replied, and ignored the barely respectful bows from the man's sons as the two Clan Leaders spoke. “I will—”

“Qingheng-Jun has arrived!”

Nie Mingjue sighed internally as the Wen Clan moved to make room for the Lan Clan’s arrival, noting the annoyance in Wen Xu’s expression. They couldn’t have waited five more minutes? he groused, though he was somewhat pleased that he’d correctly predicted them coming last. Wen Xu is going to think their timing was disrespectful on purpose. And with any other Clan it might have been, but Nie Mingjue had never known Qingheng-Jun to act like that.

But he took a breath and bowed to the Lan Clan Leader politely. “Welcome to Qinghe, Qingheng-Jun.”

Qingheng-Jun returned the gesture easily, then bowed to Wen Ruohan as well. “Thank you, Chifeng-Zun, Chief Cultivator. It is a pleasure to visit the Unclean Realm again.”

At that, Nie Mingjue bit back a smile. The Lan Clan might hate the conference, but they were always unfailingly polite. He beckoned to the handful of servants that had been waiting in the shadows. “My servants will show you and your disciples to the quarters that have been set aside. There will be a feast at sunset— I look forward to seeing you then.”

Nie Mingjue bowed to the other Clan Leaders once more, and let loose a sigh of relief as they walked away from him. Once he was alone, he waved over one of his assistants.

“Keep an eye on Wen Xu and Wen Chao,” he said to the woman, who raised a brow in interest. “I bet they’re going to do something stupid to the Lan Clan,” Nie Mingjue explained, then sighed “Just try to stop it, if you figure out what they’re up to.”

Nie Chunhua snorted a laugh, but nodded. “Of course, Clan Leader.”

Nie Mingjue sighed as he shut the door behind himself.

“Finally,” he muttered as he placed Baxia in it’s stand. “I thought that feast would never end.” It wasn’t that late, but he couldn’t leave until everyone else had, and Wen Ruohan had started a lively discussion with Jin Guangshan about the benefits of talismans on night hunts, and the two of them had dragged everyone else into it with them.

It was going to be an early morning, and Nie Mingjue began to undress as he walked around the room, thinking over tomorrow’s agenda. Breakfast would be served informally until eight, then there would be the archery contest at nine, then lunch precisely at noon—

The door opened behind him, and Nie Mingjue spun around, immediately furious. A-Sang has been in bed for hours, so who the fuck

His mind blanked at the sight of the gorgeous man sliding the door shut behind himself, and hesitated, thoughts racing. White robes, headband— Lan Xichen? What the fuck is he doing? Qingheng-Jun’s heir looked around curiously, and Nie Mingjue shook his head.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Nie Mingjue demanded, attempting to keep his voice calm, not wanting to start an incident if this was a misunderstanding. Startlingly gold eyes looked up in surprise at his question, and a brilliant smile crossed the cultivators lips.

“I’m going to bed!” Lan Xichen crossed the room in a flash and smiled at Nie Mingjue, who somehow kept from flinching at the sudden movement. “Are you sleeping here too? Are we sharing the room? I don’t mind, you know, I’m used to sharing.” Golden eyes were sincere, but Nie Mingjue raised a brow at the flow of words. He’d never heard a Lan cultivator talk so much, or so fast.

“We are not sharing,” he said slowly, and walked away as he re-fastened his robes. “This is my room.” Nie Mingjue walked to the door and opened it, wondering how Lan Xichen had gotten as far into the private section as he had. But the hallway was empty, and Nie Mingjue shook his head. “Come on, I’ll show you where the Lan Clan is staying.”

He turned back around and froze.

Sky blue and white robes were spread all over his furniture, and Lan Xichen turned and looked over his shoulder as he headed for Nie Mingjue’s bed, dressed only in his underclothes. “I hope you don’t mind me taking this bed, but it’s right here and I really am very tired.” Nie Mingjue watched in disbelief as the man tucked himself into Nie Mingjue’s bed and curled up in a ball.

What the fuck,” he whispered under his breath, then marched over to the bed and ripped the covers off. “Get up,” he demanded, but caught his breath as golden eyes opened and blinked at him owlishly.

“Why are you so mad?” Lan Xichen asked, and his lips pulled down in a pout. “I’m just tired.”

That's… adorable, Nie Mingjue thought, then shook the thought from his head and rubbed his fingers over his temple in a prayer for patience. “How about you let me bring you to your Clan?” he asked, because this was getting absurd, and he’d never known a member of the Lan Clan to pull a prank like this before.

But Lan Xichen pouted at the words and sat upright in the bed. A yawn caught him off-guard and he covered it, then blinked up at Nie Mingjue.

“But, Chifeng-Zun,” the pout was back, and Nie Mingjue stared at it, completely confused by this turn of events. “You’re my favorite.” Lan Xichen’s eyes were steady on his and Nie Mingjue froze, and the unfamiliar feeling of a blush rising on his cheeks was only overshadowed by the fact that Lan Xichen was laying back down.

“I’m glad we’re sharing a room,” the Lan Clan heir confided as he gently took the blankets from Nie Mingjue’s unresponsive fingers. “You're really nice.” A yawn ended the sentence, and Lan Xichen wrapped himself up neatly once more.

What the fuck,” Nie Mingjue muttered again, because what on earth— was he drunk? But the Lan Clan didn’t drink— Nie Mingjue shook Lan Xichen’s shoulder. “Are you drunk?” he demanded, and golden eyes blinked open and stared at him in scorn.

No,” Lan Xichen said slowly, like Nie Mingjue was stupid, “it’s forbidden.” He snuggled deeper into the covers, eyes watching Nie Mingjue. “I was offered some, but I turned it down,” Lan Xichen announced proudly. “Then I got tired and asked for directions to my room, and here I am!”

Nie Mingjue had a sinking feeling he knew exactly who Lan Xichen had turned down, and sighed as he felt the headache coming on. The Lan heir may have caught his eye at the conference last year, but Nie Mingjue had never expected to be introduced like this. Unwillingly, he huffed a laugh at the situation, and rubbed his fingers across his temple.

“What were the directions you were given?” he asked, and a hand uncovered itself from the blankets.

“Leave the hall and take a left,” a finger drew a map in the air, Lan Xichen sketching out the directions as he spoke. “Then go to the second right and go all the way to the end of the hallway.” The finger traveled through the air, and Lan Xichen poked Nie Mingjue in the chest, smiling. “And this is my room!”

Nie Mingjue looked down at the finger on his chest, and shook his head, still bewildered that Lan Xichen was in his bed. “Okay.” He gave in and pushed the hand away, watching with amusement as Lan Xichen snuggled back under the covers and blinked sleepily. “You can stay.”

Nie Mingjue watched as Lan Xichen fell asleep immediately, and looked at the ceiling in thought. Lan Xichen was drunk— the directions had been to take the second right, but Nie Mingjue’s room was the third right— he said he’d turned down the liquor, which means someone spiked either his drink or all the Lan Clan drinks.

Nie Mingjue sighed, and resigned himself to sleeping on the floor for the night.

I’ll deal with fallout in the morning, he decided, Qingheng-Jun probably won’t react too badly.

Nie Mingjue had been awake and working at his desk for well over two hours by the time Lan Xichen stirred, and he paused what he was doing to watch the other man wake up. The morning light highlighted just how stunning Lan Xichen was, and he allowed his eyes to rove over the man in his bed.

Golden eyes blinked sleepily at the ceiling, then Lan Xichen rolled over and snuggled back into the covers with a deep sigh. He went still for a while longer, and Nie Mingjue shook his head and went back to his paperwork. It’s probably the first time he’s overslept in years, Nie Mingjue thought, well-aware of the fact that the Lan Clan woke at five— and it was already close to eight in the morning by now. Won’t hurt to let him stay there a bit longer.

Twenty minutes later it seemed like Lan Xichen was going to wake up for real, and Nie Mingjue put down his brush and rested his arms on his desk. Lan Xichen woke up slowly, stretching with easy grace before he sat up in the bed and rubbed his hands over his face.

Nie Mingjue hid the smile that tried to escape at the sight. “Good morning,” he said dryly, and huffed a laugh as Lan Xichen flinched at the sound of his voice and looked around in shock. “I thought the Lan Clan woke at five every day?”

“Uh, Chifeng-Zun?” Lan Xichen’s voice was unsure, and he grabbed the covers and pulled them back up over his body. “Wha-what’s going on?”

Nie Mingjue tried to keep his amusement off his face as he answered. “You got drunk last night and decided my room was yours,” he said, watching as Lan Xichen’s already pale skin got paler at the words. “Since it was so late, I allowed you to stay.”

Lan Xichen looked around the room, and bit his lip at the sight of his robes spread everywhere— Nie Mingjue had left them where they’d been thrown last night, still slightly annoyed at the disruption of his evening. The Lan heir took a breath, then shoved off the covers and started dressing.

Nie Mingjue saw hands begin to shake and looked away, huffing a quiet laugh. Lan Xichen put himself together hurriedly, and bowed deeply in front of Nie Mingjue, blushing violently.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Chifeng-Zun,” the cultivator whispered, then darted for the door.

“Lan Xichen—” Nie Mingjue lifted his brow as the Lan heir turned around and met his gaze unwillingly. “Sometimes liquor doesn’t taste like how it should— perhaps today you should stay away from the tea.”

In the hours he’d been awake, Nie Mingjue had had his assistants dig into this mess. They had discovered that all but three of the Lan visitors were suffering the effects of spiked tea— Qingheng-Jun had been understanding, exactly as Nie Mingjue had expected.

He’d shared his thoughts that it had been the work of Wen Xu or Wen Chao, in response to the imagined slight, and the Lan Clan Leader had sighed and rolled his eyes in an unprecedented display of annoyance.

“Idiots,” he’d said, and Nie Mingjue had choked back a laugh. “But thank you for telling me— none of my disciples will be punished for being forced to break a rule.”

For now, Nie Mingjue just watched as Lan Xichen hesitated, then nodded. “Thank you for your guidance, Chifeng-Zun,” he said in a voice barely louder than before, and fled.

Nie Mingjue hid his amusement as Lan Xichen’s eyes darted towards him then away for what was probably the eighth time today. It was obvious the Lan heir was expecting to be humiliated when he least expected it, and Nie Mingjue wanted to shake his head. He would never punish someone for something that wasn’t their fault— he’d come by his reputation as fair and just honestly after all, and he was proud of it.

But it kept Lan Xichen’s eyes on him, which Nie Mingjue counted as a win.

The first conference Lan Xichen had been a part of had been in Lanling last year, and Nie Mingjue had been impressed by him during the competitions, and captivated by how beautiful he was. They’d barely met— only briefly on the first and last day— but Nie Mingjue had kept his eye out for the Lan heir.

He’d been quietly pleased when Qingheng-Jun’s acceptance had listed Lan Xichen as one of the disciples he would bring to Qinghe this year. Nie Mingjue was well aware that his plan to just watch the disciple was probably creepy, but he’d thought he would have no time for anything else… The Lan Clan annoying Wen Xu into pulling a prank of this level had been completely unexpected, with unexpected results.

And today, Lan Xichen was all he could think of, especially with how easily the man had won the archery competition earlier in the day. The sight of Lan Xichen serenely accepting first place had been an interesting juxtaposition to how he’d acted last night, and Nie Mingjue watched the man idly as dinner went on around him.

There was no tea at the Lan tables tonight— liquor that tastes like tea was easy to acquire, and Nie Mingjue did not want a repeat. Instead the Lan Clan had been served various juices and flavored waters, which were much harder to hide the taste of alcohol in.

Lan Xichen looked up again, and this time Nie Mingjue met his gaze head-on. The man flushed lightly and looked away, and Nie Mingjue chuckled under his breath.

Nie Mingjue was down to his pants when the door opened this time, and he blinked as Lan Xichen entered the room.

“Lan Xichen…” he said repressively, and removed his hands from his waistband. “I thought I told you to stay away from the tea.”

Lan Xichen’s pout made Nie Mingjue feel bad for sounding so harsh, but… again? Really?

“I remembered,” Lan Xichen insisted, sounding put-out. “I didn’t have any tea, even though I wanted it.” Gold eyes studied Nie Mingjue with interest, and Nie Mingjue abruptly realized he was almost naked, and grabbed a sleeping robe to cover his bare chest.

“How come you’re back in my room, then?” he demanded, and Lan Xichen’s eyes met his once more with a grin.

“I slept so well last night!” Nie Mingjue pushed down the warmth that rose in his chest at the words. “And I remembered how to get here, so I didn’t have to ask for directions this time.”

Lan Xichen sounded so pleased with himself it brought a smile to Nie Mingjue’s lips, but he covered it as he dragged a hand down his face.

“Lan Xichen—” Nie Mingjue cut himself off as Lan Xichen came closer and tugged at the hand covering his mouth, an upset expression on his face. “What?” he asked, confused.

“You have such a lovely smile, don’t cover it,” Lan Xichen said, then grinned brilliantly as Nie Mingjue allowed his hand to be pulled away. A blush rose at the words, and Nie Mingjue shook his head as Lan Xichen’s eyes traced the color that dusted his cheeks.

“I’m going to have someone take you to your room tonight,” Nie Mingjue declared, pulling away from Lan Xichen and heading to the door. "You should sleep off the alcohol in your own bed." But a small, wounded sound made him turn around. Lan Xichen was staring at the floor, a hurt expression on his face, and something in Nie Mingjue twisted that he’d been the one to put it there.

“Can’t I stay?” Lan Xichen asked, then looked up at Nie Mingjue through his lashes. “I’ll be good— you won’t even know I’m here.” Nie Mingjue could feel himself caving as wide, sad eyes met his.

Don’t even think about it, Nie Mingjue, he told himself sternly. He’s drunk again— you have got to figure out how to stop Wen Xu from spiking their drinks— and he was terrified of you the whole day. Send him away.

But his traitorous mouth said, “I’m not sleeping on the floor again,” instead of “Get out,” and Lan Xichen’s eyes widened with shock.

“You slept on the floor?” Strong hands pulled his arms and pushed him onto the bed, and Nie Mingjue sat in shock as Lan Xichen pushed him down. “You’re the Clan Leader! You can’t sleep on the floor!”

Nie Mingjue allowed Lan Xichen to man-handle him under the covers, eyebrows slowly rising into his hairline at the treatment. The man was strong, and once he was satisfied Nie Mingjue was wrapped up sufficiently and wasn’t going anywhere, Lan Xichen put his hands on his hips and smiled.

“There,” Lan Xichen sounded immensely satisfied with himself, and began to undress. “I will sleep on the floor then, so you don’t have to.”

Nie Mingjue couldn’t bring himself to say anything for the next couple moments as layer after layer came off, but he finally shook himself out of his daze and cleared his throat.

“Lan Xichen,” his voice was rough, but that couldn’t be helped, because there was a gorgeous man undressing in front of him, “didn’t you say you’re used to sharing?” Nie Mingjue flushed as golden eyes turned interested and stared at him, and jerked his head to the side. “Get in the bed, no one is sleeping on the floor.”

Something like glee crossed Lan Xichen’s face, and Nie Mingjue swore under his breath as the man darted to the bed and crawled across him, his body pressing heavily into his. Lan Xichen peeled up the covers he’d so carefully wrapped around Nie Mingjue, then plastered himself to the Clan Leader’s side.

Nie Mingjue hauled in a shocked breath as his body burned where they touched, and stared down at the head on his chest.

‘You won’t even know I’m here,’ Nie Mingjue remembered the man saying, and breathed carefully. So, that was a lie.

“You’re so nice,” Lan Xichen murmured against him, and rubbed his cheek against the silk of Nie Mingjue’s robe like a cat. “You’re so good, and so nice, and you have a beautiful smile,” Nie Mingjue could barely hear the words through the thundering of his heart. “I spent the whole day waiting for you to make fun of me and you didn’t.”

Lan Xichen’s voice was wondering, and he reached out and draped an arm across Nie Mingjue’s chest and tucked his hand under his ribs.

Soon Lan Xichen’s breaths turned deep and even, and Nie Mingjue stared at the ceiling as he wondered how he’d let this happen.

The next morning, Nie Mingjue blinked his eyes open and stared down at the head tucked under his chin. Lan Xichen was laying fully on top of him— their bodies were pressed together intimately close, legs tangled under the covers— Nie Mingjue took in a deep breath, and began the process of removing himself.

It turned out to be surprisingly hard, given that Lan Xichen refused to let go of his human pillow, and Nie Mingjue huffed an incredulous laugh.

What is my life coming to? he wondered, peeling fingers off of his hips. If Qingheng-Jun knew this was happening, he would murder me and no one would blame him.

Nie Mingjue reached out and grabbed an actual pillow and replaced his body with it, sighing with relief as Lan Xichen clung to that instead. He stood next to the bed as he studied the sleeping man, then shook his head. Reaching down, Nie Mingjue tucked the covers in around Lan Xichen before he walked away and began to dress.

If today was anything like yesterday, he had a couple hours until Lan Xichen woke up. More than long enough to figure out what had happened this time.

By the time Nie Mingjue returned to his room, Lan Xichen was upright in the bed, sleepily working his fingers through the tangle of his hair. He was staring blankly at the sheets, and Nie Mingjue laughed when golden eyes blinked up to stare at him.

Confusion was followed swiftly by recognition and then embarrassment, and Lan Xichen froze, fingers still caught in his hair.

“Good morning, Lan Xichen,” Nie Mingjue greeted, and raised an eyebrow. He went to the low table next to his bed and removed the comb from it, then handed it to the other man. “It looks like you need this.”

Lan Xichen took the comb slowly, staring at Nie Mingjue with wide eyes. “Thank you,” he said, though he didn’t start until Nie Mingjue had begun to walk to his desk. “Chifeng-Zun—” Lan Xichen looked down as Nie Mingjue turned around. “I did stay away from the tea…”

He sounded ashamed, and Nie Mingjue shook his head as he sat. “Whoever is spiking your drinks is at fault,” he said firmly, “not you.” Nie Mingjue looked up— Lan Xichen was staring at him, lips slightly parted in surprise. “Five Lan cultivators were tricked into drinking last night, and Clan Leader Lan has been understanding about the circumstances.”

Nie Mingjue huffed a laugh as the mention of his father made Lan Xichen’s eyes grow comically wide.

“Qingheng-Jun and I are working to figure out who is doing this.”

Lan Xichen finished his hair quickly, then stumbled out of the bed, reaching for his robes.

“Thank you, Chifeng-Zun,” he said fervently, dressing quickly. It took a surprisingly short amount of time for the man to become presentable— Nie Mingjue raised an impressed brow as Lan Xichen bowed deeply to him, looking like a perfect Lan cultivator in almost no time at all.

Qingheng-Jun and Nie Mingjue had discussed it, and decided that even though they were positive Wen Xu or his brother were doing this, they would wait one more day to present their case to Wen Ruohan. It would be better to provide proof to the Chief Cultivator that his sons were up to such mischief, and Nie Mingjue had set his servants to watch the two like hawks.

The weight of Lan Xichen’s eyes followed him through the rest of the day, and Nie Mingjue found himself enjoying it. He remembered Lan Xichen’s words from last night— his own brother would never describe him as nice— but Lan Xichen had, twice now.

His side still burned from the warmth of Lan Xichen pressed against him, and Nie Mingjue looked idly around the room as the assorted cultivators ate dinner, and allowed his gaze to rest on Lan Xichen as if by chance. He truly was a gorgeous man, and Nie Mingjue hid his inspection of the man behind his cup.

Long black hair was twisted up into a perfect knot, held in place by a silver headpiece and the mysterious forehead ribbon. Lan Xichen was wearing darker robes today— deep blue and grey as opposed to his clans usual pale colors, and Nie Mingjue approved of the way the darker shades looked on him.

Golden eyes looked up and met his gaze, and Nie Mingjue allowed himself the time to study Lan Xichen. He nodded a greeting before looking away, and wondered if his servants had had any luck with their surveillance of the Wen heirs.

Nie Mingjue sank into the bath with a relieved sigh. The conference was barely half over, but it had already been a stressful one, and the steaming water felt wonderful against his skin.

He hadn’t heard anything from his informants, so Nie Mingjue had decided that it was safe to have a long, relaxing soak. If something had happened, he was sure they would have told him immediately— tonight, there was little chance of him being interrupted.

He was surprised by how disappointed he felt at the thought.

By the time he’d finished washing his body and begun to start on his hair, Nie Mingjue had accepted the fact that he would remain alone, and felt stupid for wanting it to be otherwise. But Lan Xichen’s entrance into his life had been as sudden as it was shocking, and Nie Mingjue frowned at the water.

Get used to it, he told himself, somewhat bitterly. He’ll be going back to Gusu after the conference anyway. Nie Mingjue shook his head to clear it and took a deep breath, then froze at the sound of the door opening.

“Whoever that is better have a damn good reason for bothering me,” he warned, and leaned his head back on the lip of the tub. Soft steps answered him, and bright golden eyes peered around the partition.

“Chifeng-Zun!” The delight in Lan Xichen’s voice was obvious, and Nie Mingjue called himself a fool as his heart began to race in his chest. “There you are.” A dazzling smile stretched Lan Xichen’s lips, and Nie Mingjue was abruptly aware that he was still in the bath.

“Lan Xichen,” he said in warning, and golden eyes turned worried. “If this keeps going on, I’ll never let you out of my sight.”

Lan Xichen had begun to come over but paused at the words, clearly thinking them over. His head tilted to the side and he studied Nie Mingjue, eyes following the line of his shoulders into the water. Nie Mingjue suppressed a shiver as Lan Xichen’s gaze met his.

“That’s fine,” Lan Xichen answered after a moment, then put his sword on Nie Mingjue’s desk and began to undress as the Clan Leader spluttered in shock. “Let me wash your hair.” Nie Mingjue stared as Lan Xichen peeled off his layers, and sat up in the tub, uncaring of the water that lapped over the edge.

"Lan Xichen," he said, heart thudding in his chest. "You don't have to—" Nie Mingjue wasn't often at a loss for words, but the sight of Lan Xichen's bare chest robbed him of thought.

"I know," Lan Xichen said, and his voice was light with laughter. He came and stood behind Nie Mingjue and guided his hair into the water with gentle hands. "I want to, though," he continued, and Nie Mingjue stared at the ceiling as strong fingers massaged his scalp.

What the fuck is wrong with you, Nie Mingjue, he berated himself. You've never let anyone get this close to you, and now someone you barely know is washing your hair. He closed his eyes and shoved the thought away. Lan Xichen was silent behind him but it wasn't oppressive— it felt more like the other man was concentrating on his task, and Nie Mingjue swallowed roughly.

"And why haven't you gone to your own room tonight, Lan Xichen?" Nie Mingjue asked, the sudden urge to break the silence overwhelming him. "Surely you must know where it is by now."

He kept his tone mild, not actually wanting to scare the other man away. He shouldn't have worried, because Lan Xichen leaned over his shoulder and smiled as Nie Mingjue opened his eyes, the ends of his own dark hair trailing into the water.

"I want to be here," Lan Xichen said honestly, and Nie Mingjue inhaled sharply in surprise. Strong hands left his scalp and trailed down his neck, kneading gently. "Do you want me to leave?" His voice was teasing, like he knew the answer already, and Nie Mingjue snorted and turned away.

At the implicit permission, Lan Xichen's hands grew firmer on his shoulders. He massaged what he could reach of Nie Mingjue's back and arms, and the Clan Leader just concentrated on keeping his heart from beating out of his chest. For a while, the only sounds in the room were of their breathing and the gentle lapping of water in the tub.

Nie Mingjue bit his lip in an effort to keep silent as the massage faded into gentle caresses, Lan Xichen's hands exploring softly. He straightened up and immediately regretted it as hands fell from his skin, and kept his face turned away from the other man.

"Thank you," he said roughly, but froze as Lan Xichen reached out and gathered Nie Mingjue’s hair in his hands, wringing out the excess water and wrapping it into a loose bun to keep it from getting any wetter.

"You're welcome," Lan Xichen responded as he pulled himself to his feet. He walked over to where Nie Mingjue's towel lay and brought it over, and Nie Mingjue stared, then took hold of it slowly.

Is he going to stand there and watch…? Nie Mingjue thought wildly, but heaved a sigh of what was probably relief— surely it wasn't disappointment?— as Lan Xichen smiled and went around the partition to give him privacy. Soft sounds came from the other side of the room as Nie Mingjue hauled himself out of the tub, and he surprised himself by the fond smile that touched his lips.

He's probably buried in my bed already, Nie Mingjue thought, and dressed quickly once he was dry. He didn’t even try to stop the smile that crossed his lips at the sight of dark hair strewn across his pillow, because Lan Xichen was facing away, and there was no one else to see him.

Nie Mingjue slid under the covers silently, making sure to keep a respectable distance between their bodies. But Lan Xichen made a sound of discontent once he stopped moving, and Nie Mingjue stilled as the other man rolled over and invaded his space. Heat burned into his side as Lan Xichen cuddled into him, and Nie Mingjue breathed steadily, hyper-aware of the amount of skin that was touching him.

He said he wants to be here, Nie Mingjue thought wonderingly, and as Lan Xichen’s breathing evened out and grew deeper, he reached a hand up to rest it on hair that was as soft as silk. No one’s ever told me that.

Nie Mingjue kept his face blank as Nie Chunhua reported that she and Nie Lixiu had caught Wen Xu in the process of pouring some very expensive liquor into the vats of apple juice that had been set aside for the Lan Clan last night.

“He tried to deny it,” Nie Chunhua said, obviously taking pleasure in the memory of the Wen Clan heir being caught pulling such a prank on another Clan. “But Lixiu and I had seen him, and then Huibo came around the corner and Young Master Wen stopped trying to pretend it was an accident.”

Nie Lixiu snorted. “Then his brother came around asking what was taking so long, so we caught them both in the act, Clan Leader.”

Nie Mingjue nodded, then met Nie Chunhua’s eyes. “When was this?” he asked, and the two women looked at each other in thought.

“Ah, probably twenty minutes before you left the feast?” Nie Chunhua guessed, and Nie Lixiu shrugged.

“Yeah, that’s close enough. We should have told you last night but… you looked like you had enough to worry about.” Nie Lixiu bowed shallowly. “Please forgive us, Clan Leader.”

Nie Mingjue huffed and waved off the words, and Nie Chunhua and Nie Lixiu grinned brightly at him. They’d worked for him for years, and of all of his Clan probably knew him best. But motion caught their eyes, and both of his assistants turned as Qingheng-Jun came over to greet Chifeng-Zun good morning.

Nie Mingjue took the time to think— Lan Xichen had arrived well after Wen Xu and Wen Chao had been caught… he’d acted the same as he had the other nights, but the drinks had not been tainted— Nie Mingjue shook off his thoughts and nodded a greeting to the other Clan Leader.

“Qingheng-Jun, my assistants caught the idiots in the act,” he said without preamble, and watched as satisfaction flashed through Qingheng-Jun’s eyes.

“Good,” Qingheng-Jun said immediately, and gestured for the group to follow him. “His Excellency has just been bragging about them— now is the perfect time to bring it up.”

Nie Mingjue sat at his desk and watched as Lan Xichen slept on, oblivious to the weight of eyes on his skin. Wen Ruohan had taken the accusation against his sons in stride, no doubt completely aware of their actions. He’d pulled the two out of the swordsmanship competition as punishment, although Nie Mingjue had the distinct impression that the punishment was for being caught, not for the act itself.

He huffed a laugh at the thought, but Lan Xichen sighed in his sleep and shifted, and his attention turned back to the man in his bed.

Nie Mingjue wondered if Lan Xichen had been faking it— pretending to be drunk just to keep him off guard, but Lan disciples famously didn’t sleep in, and it was well past seven. Even normal exhaustion would bow in the face of habit, and there was no sign of Lan Xichen waking up any time soon.

Does he think he needs to be drunk to come to me? Nie Mingjue wondered, then frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. He knew he was intimidating— hell, most days he counted on it to terrify people into doing what he wanted. But something about Lan Xichen being scared of him disturbed Nie Mingjue.

He says I’m nice, and that he wants to be here, but then he gets drunk to give himself the courage to do it. Nie Mingjue twisted his lips at the thought, and tapped his fingers on the table. Chifeng-Zun is too terrible to face sober, I guess.

Nie Mingjue dragged a sheet of paper in front of him, and dipped a brush into the inkwell. He scrawled a quick note and blew across the paper to dry it, then looked over at the bed. He studied the sliver of porcelain skin that was visible under the quilt, then dragged his eyes away and lifted Lan Xichen’s sword from where it still lay across his desk.

Nie Mingjue slid the note underneath the sword and replaced it, then stood, satisfied that Lan Xichen would see it when he eventually woke up. He had enough to do today without watching someone sleep, but Nie Mingjue paused before he left, and brushed a stray hair off of Lan Xichen’s face.

You don’t have to be drunk to come here

Nie Mingjue watched with sharp eyes as the two Jin disciples circled each other, blades shining in the sun. He and Jiang Fengmian had been chosen as the judges for the swordsmanship competition, and Nie Mingjue rather fervently wished he was in the ring instead. But Clan Leaders didn’t compete, and as much as he didn’t want to admit it, he knew it was a good rule.

Some fool with more luck than brains would be the one to kill a Clan Leader by accident, Nie Mingjue thought idly, then snorted as one of the Jin disciples tripped backwards— and lost almost immediately as his competition took advantage.

“That was easy,” he muttered to Fengmian, who huffed a laugh in agreement. Fengmian’s children were too young to attend, although Nie Mingjue looked forward to seeing his ward compete in a few more years. The boy had impressive skills for his age, and Nie Mingjue wondered if Fengmian would allow Wei Wuxian to train in Qinghe for a couple months.

But he stashed the thought away to deal with later, because Lan Xichen had just stepped onto the competition field, and Nie Mingjue hadn’t allowed himself to think of the other man since this morning.

He was wearing dark blue and grey again, and the Jiang disciple he was up against was a good head and shoulders taller than Lan Xichen, and looked far too confident already. Nie Mingjue and Jiang Fengmian nodded as the two disciples bowed to the judges, and he blinked as golden eyes fixed themselves on him.

But Lan Xichen turned away and saluted the Jiang disciple, and the fight was over as quickly as it had begun. Nie Mingjue snorted in amusement and eyed Fengmian, who met his gaze squarely as he shrugged.

“Lan Xichen is a phenomenal swordsman,” Fengmian said wryly, “Shihao didn’t stand a chance.”

Nie Mingjue bit back another laugh, and shook his head at the bewildered look on Jiang Shihao’s face as Lan Xichen offered his opponent a respectful bow. He watched Lan Xichen walk off the field, and tugged his eyes away as they tried to follow the ripple of the breeze through his hair.

In the end, Lan Xichen won first place in the swordsmanship competition by a large margin, and Nie Mingjue silenced the murmurs of “Wen Xu would have won if he'd been allowed to compete,” with a sharp glare that promised untold pain if they kept speaking. The Wen disciples scattered back to their Clan Leader, and Nie Mingjue snorted as he continued on.

At dinner that night, Nie Mingjue steadfastly ignored the constant weight of golden eyes on his skin, concentrating instead on the conversation regarding the bandits on the border of Qinghe and Qishan. It would never do to approach a conversation with the Chief Cultivator with anything less than one hundred percent of his attention— Nie Mingjue had learned that lesson early on in his years as Clan Leader.

Wen Ruohan gave with his left hand and stole with his right, and Nie Mingjue flatly refused to do business with the man unless it was in writing and witnessed.

Nie Mingjue sat at his desk and went over the reports from his assistants from the day, responding where necessary and sorting through each sheet of paper in the pile they’d left for him.

A knock at the door made him look up with a frown. “Come in,” he called, and felt his brows rise into his hairline as Lan Xichen slipped through the door. “Since when do you knock?” he asked once the door was shut again, and watched in astonishment as Lan Xichen’s ears turned bright pink.

“Chifeng-Zun,” Lan Xichen began uncertainly, but at the sound of his title Nie Mingjue put his brush down with unnecessary force and shoved the remaining papers away from himself.

“We’ve slept together for the last three nights,” he bit out, irrationally annoyed. “You can call me Mingjue.”

But instead of being upset like he’d expected, Nie Mingjue watched as a blinding smile overtook Lan Xichen’s face. “Okay… Mingjue,” he said, then leaned his sword against the wall and sat neatly at Nie Mingjue’s side.

Nie Mingjue studied Lan Xichen, then turned to face him completely and tilted his head in question. “Are you going to explain, or do I have to ask?”

Lan Xichen shifted where he sat, embarrassment creeping into his expression. But he visibly steeled his nerves and looked Nie Mingjue in the eye. “I want to apologize for my actions,” he began, and Nie Mingjue stiffened. Lan Xichen shook his head though, eyes still trained on Nie Mingjue. “The first day, I couldn't take my eyes off you,” Lan Xichen rubbed his hands nervously on his thighs. “And when I got lost and ended up here I thought it was a dream and didn’t care how I acted.”

Lan Xichen looked away and spoke in a rush. “Because last year I wanted to introduce myself but I was too shy.” He laughed breathlessly, and Nie Mingjue wanted to reach out and drag him into his arms, but resisted. So he hadn’t been the only one looking, last year… Nie Mingjue held back a smile.

“Then I woke up and it had been real, and I wanted to go home and hide, but you didn’t say anything about it, and everyone was off balance because of the alcohol, and then it happened again and…” Lan Xichen trailed off and his blush was vivid over his cheeks, and Nie Mingjue remembered the way the man had clung to his body.

Lan Xichen coughed and looked away. “And then last night,” he whispered, and Nie Mingjue thought he almost sounded ashamed, “I knew our drinks hadn’t been tainted because I overheard your assistants talking, so…” Lan Xichen glanced up then away again. “So I took a drink when no one was watching.”

Lan Xichen took a breath and added, “I didn’t have the courage to come back without it, but then I saw your note this morning…” He trailed off with a shrug and downcast eyes, and Nie Mingjue hummed as he thought.

Liquid courage indeed. Nie Mingjue felt lighter now— Lan Xichen hadn’t had anything to drink this time— he’d believed Nie Mingjue’s note and come as himself. But…

“Did you mean what you said?” he asked abruptly, and Lan Xichen looked up, confusion clearing the shame from his expression. Nie Mingjue met golden eyes squarely and elaborated. “That you want to be here. That you think I’m nice.”

He held off his own blush by sheer force of will and the need to know Lan Xichen’s answer, and felt relief wash through him as the Lan heir reached out and gripped his wrist.

“Of course I did!” he said immediately, “You are nice, Mingjue—” the blush was back at the familiarity of the name, but Lan Xichen soldiered on, “— you could have ruined my reputation that first day, but you didn’t and you slept on the floor because I stole your bed when you should have just kicked me out—” Lan Xichen cut off as lips met his, eyes wide with surprise.

Nie Mingjue cradled Lan Xichen’s cheek in his hand as he kissed the other man lightly, heart hammering in his chest, hoping he had read this right. He pulled away and Lan Xichen leaned forward as he chased his lips, and Nie Mingjue smiled at the dazed eyes that blinked up at him.

“Xichen,” Nie Mingjue said, feeling daring as he stroked his thumb across high cheekbones, “no one thinks I’m nice.” Awareness slotted into place in golden eyes, and Nie Mingjue paused as the hand still wrapped around his wrist squeezed tightly.

“You’re nice to me,” Lan Xichen said, and leaned his head into the hand cradling his face. “That’s all that matters.”

“How do you know I’m not just nice to drunk people in general?” Nie Mingjue asked, and Lan Xichen’s eyes crinkled with the force of his smile.

“I’ve seen others approach you while intoxicated,” Lan Xichen said, eyes gleaming. “And you barely give them the time of day.” He turned his face into Nie Mingjue’s hand. “And this feels very nice.”

Nie Mingjue huffed a laugh and dropped his hand. “Fair enough,” he allowed, and studied Lan Xichen’s hopeful face with his elbows braced on his knees. “So tell me, Xichen. Why did you come here?”

Lan Xichen bit his lip, and spoke hesitantly, and Nie Mingjue watched with interest as a flush began to spread across porcelain cheeks. “I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind my company…?” He trailed off, but kept his gaze firmly on Nie Mingjue’s face.

Nie Mingjue nodded sharply. “I don’t.” He turned back to his desk and shuffled his papers into order quickly, and capped the ink pot. Nie Mingjue stood, then reached out to help Lan Xichen to his feet. “I assume you’re staying, so let’s go to bed,” he explained, then raised a brow at the violent blush that coated jade skin. “To sleep,” Nie Mingjue stressed, amused. “I’ve had a long day.”

They undressed in silence, Lan Xichen’s skin still painted a vibrant red. But he crawled into the bed after Nie Mingjue laid down, and sprawled himself across the Clan Leader with stunning ease.

It’s good to know he’s a cuddler even sober, Nie Mingjue thought as he ran gentle fingers down Lan Xichen’s spine, trapped under the weight of the other man’s body, and fell asleep with a smile on his face.

Nie Mingjue woke up as Lan Xichen pulled away from him and frowned in reaction. Soft fingertips smoothed the wrinkles from his brow, and Nie Mingjue blinked his eyes open to see Lan Xichen leaning above him, braced upright on one arm.

“Go back to sleep, Mingjue,” Lan Xichen murmured, “it’s too early for you to wake up.”

Nie Mingjue snorted at that, because he’d been waking up at this hour for years before Lan Xichen had crashed into his life. “Then why are you awake?” he muttered, and tried to tug him back to his side.

“Father suggested that I shouldn’t be late to breakfast anymore,” Lan Xichen admitted, and Nie Mingjue let a laugh escape his control. “Or else I won’t be eating at all.”

Nie Mingjue dragged a hand possessively down Lan Xichen’s spine. “Do you think I’ll let you starve?” he asked, and Lan Xichen’s smile turned shy as he leaned down and pressed a light kiss to Nie Mingjue’s lips.

“No,” he said as Nie Mingjue struggled to get his heart under control, “because you’re nice.” Lan Xichen’s voice was teasing but hesitant, as if he didn’t know if he was allowed to joke with Nie Mingjue, even as they lay in bed together.

“Shut up,” Nie Mingjue demanded, and let his voice sound irritated, “don’t let anyone hear you say that.”

Lan Xichen’s laugh was bright and surprised, and he sank his hands into Nie Mingjue’s hair and bent down for another kiss. Nie Mingjue held him in place with firm hands, and when Lan Xichen pulled back he couldn’t tear his gaze away from lips that were spit-slicked and red.

“I thought you were leaving,” Nie Mingjue said, and unwound himself from Lan Xichen, who straddled Nie Mingjue’s hips and sighed happily, hands resting on Nie Mingjue’s chest.

“I am,” Lan Xichen leaned forward, and Nie Mingjue’s hands reached up to caress the perfectly smooth skin that was visible beneath his tunic. “Eventually.”

There were only two days left of the conference, and Nie Mingjue studied the wood grain of the table as he thought. Would Qingheng-Jun even consider allowing me to court Xichen? he wondered idly, and though his heart lurched at the idea, Nie Mingjue dismissed it out of hand. Lan Xichen was the heir to his Clan— even with another son and countless cousins, there was no way Qingheng-Jun would consider it.

His fingers tapped the wood— an annoying sound if the way Jin Guangshan was staring at him was any indication— and Nie Mingjue sent a grin that was more threat than humor to the other Clan Leader. Jin Guangshan huffed and looked away, and Nie Mingjue turned back to his thoughts.

You don’t even know if Xichen would want that. Nie Mingjue scowled, but made a mental note to ask the other man the next time they met. After all, it had been a grand total of four days— barely enough time for them to decide they liked each other, let alone if courtship was a good idea. His scowl deepened— Lan Xichen had ended up leaving even later than what had become his normal this morning, and Nie Mingjue’s lips tingled at the memory of how they had spent the time.

Nie Mingjue looked up with a glare as Wen Ruohan asked for his opinion.

“You already know what I think, Your Excellency,” Nie Mingjue raised a brow as Jin Guangshan heaved a put-upon sigh next to him. “If you insist upon the watchtowers, then I’m going to insist upon mixed forces at each one— there’s no way I’m going to allow you to post an office in the middle of my territory—”

“It’s not an office,” Wen Ruohan interrupted, and Nie Mingjue glowered at the Chief Cultivator.

“You want to put Wen soldiers in my land and not allow me to know what's going on?” Nie Mingjue snorted as the old argument was brought up again. “It’s going to be an even mix of representative from each Clan or nothing—”

Nie Mingjue rose from his seat and headed outside— he might not be able to leave for the night but he could escape— the fresh air did it’s job and cooled him down. Jin Guangshan is impossible, Nie Mingjue gripped the banister and stared at the stars. He’d very firmly ordered all of his female servants to stay away from the Jin residences for the duration of the Conference, and Jin Guangshan still had the balls to ask him where he could find a pretty face in Qinghe—

Nie Mingjue took a deep breath and held it, then let it out very, very slowly. None of his servants would allow a touch they didn’t ask for— it was better to point Jin Guangshan to the seediest brothel than let one of his servants murder a Clan Leader, even if they had a good reason.

A hand wrapped around his wrist, and Nie Mingjue blinked away his thoughts as Lan Xichen came to a halt next to him.

“You look stressed,” Lan Xichen remarked, and Nie Mingjue barked a laugh.

“The end of the Conference is the worst,” he explained, “we’re all trying to get something accomplished before we scatter for another year.”

Lan Xichen hummed in understanding, then let his hand fall to his side as he straightened his posture, and Nie Mingjue frowned before he noticed Qingheng-Jun coming their way. He lifted a brow at Lan Xichen, who just shook his head slightly.

Qingheng-Jun came to a halt next to them, and Nie Mingjue saw the flash of surprise in his eyes at how close his son was standing to the Nie Clan Leader.

“Chifeng-Zun,” he greeted, then turned his eyes on Lan Xichen. “I have dismissed the disciples for the night.”

His meaning was clear even to Nie Mingjue, and Lan Xichen brought his arms up in a respectful bow to the Clan Leaders. “Goodnight, Father, Nie Mingjue.”

Nie Mingjue did not allow his eyes to follow Lan Xichen as he left, and instead gestured for Qingheng-Jun to follow him. “How can I help you?” he asked, and watched as the man decided to ignore the familiarity with which his son had addressed Nie Mingjue.

“I wanted to talk to you about the watchtowers,” Qingheng-Jun said, and Nie Mingjue scowled. “Let me speak,” the man said, raising a hand to forestall Nie Mingjue’s words. “Jiang Fengmian and I have been talking, and we’re going to back you with the request to have evenly split forces.”

Nie Mingjue raised a brow, then grinned viciously. “Oh, Wen Ruohan is going to hate this.”

He headed back to his room after he and Qingheng-Jun had cornered Jiang Fengmian and nailed down their plan of attack for tomorrow, and satisfaction had placed a sharp smile on Nie Mingjue’s lips.

How rare to accomplish something so important, he thought, opening his door and stepping into the empty room. Now tomorrow I just need to make sure Wen Ruohan doesn’t turn us against each other. Nie Mingjue was pretty sure that wouldn’t happen— Qingheng-Jun and Jiang Fengmian were honorable men, and once their word was given, it was final.

But it never hurt to be prepared, Nie Mingjue knew, and settled at his desk to review the papers that had accumulated during the day.

An hour passed, and then another, and by the time Nie Mingjue’s desk was empty it was clear Lan Xichen wasn’t going to show up. Nie Mingjue huffed, annoyed with himself as he slid into a cold bed.

“Get used to it, you fool,” he muttered to himself, and frowned at the space next to him. How had he become so accustomed to Lan Xichen’s presence after such a short period of time? He snorted, then rolled over and closed his eyes.

“Good morning, Mingjue,” a soft voice called from behind him, and Nie Mingjue turned with a raised brow. Lan Xichen was heading towards him with a smile on his face, and Nie Mingjue felt the tension in his shoulders unwind.

“Xichen,” he replied, then glanced at the sun, where it was barely peeking over the horizon. “It seems you can wake up early.”

Lan Xichen came to a halt next to him and Nie Mingjue let his eyes trace over the man's face, and huffed as golden eyes creased with laughter. “Well, I had no reason to stay in bed this morning.”

Nie Mingjue’s gaze turned sharp, and Lan Xichen’s smile became apologetic. “Father was… annoyed by how I treated you last night,” he said delicately, and Nie Mingjue felt his face turn to stone. “Apparently it is rude to refer to you as anything other than Clan Leader Nie or Chifeng-Zun.” Lan Xichen reached out and curled his fingers around Nie Mingjue’s elbow. “He had his eye on me the whole night.”

Nie Mingjue snorted. “Did you tell him you have permission?” he asked, although it was more likely that Lan Xichen hadn’t said anything of the sort. Lan Xichen’s head shake confirmed it, and Nie Mingjue looked away.

The halls were empty— this early, aside from himself and a few assistants, no one would be awake for hours— Lan Clan aside, Discussion Conferences were gleefully used as a vacation, and Nie Mingjue was glad for the hours when he wasn’t bothered by anyone.

But Lan Xichen’s hand tightened on his arm, and he looked down into curious eyes. “Would you be alright with me telling him that?” Lan Xichen asked, and Nie Mingjue remembered his thought yesterday, about asking Lan Xichen if he could court him— he brought his hand up to cover Lan Xichen’s.

“Can I court you?” Nie Mingjue asked abruptly— he had never been known for his tact, and Lan Xichen flushed an astonishing shade of scarlet at the question. Nie Mingjue soldiered on. “This is sudden, I know, but you caught my eye at the Conference in Lanling last year, and I have been intrigued by you ever since.”

Lan Xichen’s silence was alarming, but Nie Mingjue didn’t let that stop him. “Then, with what has happened between us this week, it seems we are compatible with each other, and I would like to have the opportunity to know you better.”

Lan Xichen glanced up at Nie Mingjue, blush still vibrant on his cheeks. It was a distracting sight, but Nie Mingjue waited as patiently as he could.

“I’d like that,” Lan Xichen said finally, and Nie Mingjue let a wide smile cross his face, though he wiped it away quickly.

“Good,” he said gruffly, and froze as Lan Xichen leaned up and pressed a light kiss to his cheek. “Now eat breakfast with me,” Nie Mingjue said instead, and turned towards the dining hall that should still be mostly empty at this hour. Lan Xichen allowed himself to be pulled along, hand still trapped under Nie Mingjue’s, a sunny smile on his face as his blush finally began to fade.

Nie Mingjue contemplated how to bring this up to Qingheng-Jun, because the feel of Lan Xichen at his side was already familiar and perfect, and he wanted to do right by Lan Xichen and his Clan.

Although, he thought wryly, I should definitely wait until after the three of us ambush Wen Ruohan about the watchtowers. With his luck, Qingheng-Jun would hear that Nie Mingjue wanted to court his heir and decide to back out of their agreement.

But Lan Xichen’s hand moved to wrap around his arm properly, and he was still smiling brilliantly, and Nie Mingjue felt his heart beat double-time in his chest, because he had been the one to put that smile there.

“I’ll talk to your father after the morning meeting,” Nie Mingjue said, and guided Lan Xichen to sit next to him.

Lan Xichen sat so their legs touched, a warm line of contact between them, and turned his bright golden eyes on Nie Mingjue. “Good luck,” he said, wry amusement in his words. “Father is going to be tough.”

Nie Mingjue lifted Lan Xichen’s hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it, uncaring of who saw. It was just his servants in the dining hall anyway, and none of them would break their Master’s confidence.

Lan Xichen’s renewed blush made Nie Mingjue smile broadly.

“I can handle it,” he said confidently, already planning out courtship gifts worthy of Lan Xichen. “Leave him to me.”