Lan Xichen gets his own tea from the kitchens. He’s the eldest son-- no longer a student but a man with his own duties and obligations to the sect. He could have his tea and breakfast brought to him in his quarters; it would be in no way unusual. If he wanted, he’s sure he could keep tea of his own in his quarters as his uncle and brother do.
But Lan Xichen enjoys getting his own tea, his own breakfast. He likes having a reason to emerge from his quarters and take a short walk before the day truly starts. He likes having a reason to see the Cloud Recesses when it is still in the process of rising, as lamps begin to turn on inside of windows. He likes the uneven quietude as the chattering bats roost for the day and the birds wake up singing. And Lan Xichen also likes to get his own tea because there is no better way to sense what is happening in the kitchens.
He was surprised to discover that not every sect heir knows the names of the people who work in the kitchens, who harvest the eggs and tend to the gardens and wash the laundry. But then, he supposes not every sect heir was raised in the absence of parents and the abundance servants. It was his uncle that taught him to play the xiao, it was his uncle who gave his discerning eye to his early calligraphy, it was his uncle who guided his hands over the flat surface of his ribbon, it was his uncle who walked him to see his mother, but it was a tall woman named He Bai who wiped the tears from his cheeks and slid candy into his pockets and told him old stories about foolish monks and naive princes.
Lan Xichen came back from Qinghe yesterday afternoon. He slept in his own quarters for the first time in months last night-- slid under his own sheets in his own rooms, felt the air of the Cloud Recesses against his skin-- and this morning, he is happy to rise a little too early and dress and take the long, pleasant walk to the kitchens. There’s a door at the back of them that he knows is left open. He slips through it easily, and instead of Song Mei, who is usually there, there is someone else.
She doesn’t notice him at first. She’s paying close attention to her task, slicing a huge ginger root into tidy disks. Beside her is a basket full of more chilis than Lan Xichen thinks he’s seen in his entire life. She works quietly, efficiently, placing aromatics in pots. She turns around after wiping her hands on her apron and she startles, seeing Lan Xichen for the first time.
“Oh!” she exclaims, tipping into a quick bow. “I beg your pardon, Master Lan.”
She’s maybe a year or two younger than he is. She has dark hair, shiny and straight and tucked away from her face into a simple braid. And she has round cheeks and bright eyes and small hands that she lays neatly in front of herself.
“Pay me no mind,” he says. “I am just coming to get my tea and breakfast.”
She glances at him and smiles, crookedly. “Is Master Lan too impatient to eat with disciples?” she asks. “How naughty-- stealing from the kitchens.”
Lan Xichen laughs-- it escapes from him suddenly. Her grin grows a little wider and something glitters in her eyes. “Don’t worry, I have permission,” he answers. “And when disciples are eating, I’m usually handling sect business.”
She wipes her hands on her apron before poking long cooking chopsticks into a pot, stirring contents back and forth. “Mm,” she replies. “I’m sure that’s what all the young masters say.”
He laughs again. He likes her; he tends to like all of the servants but there’s something about her that he finds fascinating. “I don’t believe we have met,” he says. “Did Song-ayi hire you while I was away?”
She looks up at him for a moment, hand frozen in midair above the pot. Steam rises, brushing against her round cheeks. Something comes over her expression that Lan Xichen cannot quite read before she nods and says, “Yes. Yes, Song-ayi hired me a few weeks ago. This is why we have not met. Yes.”
Lan Xichen smiles.
“A-Huan!” Someone calls from behind the new servant and she turns to look back at her work as Song-ayi emerges from the deep, hot center of the kitchens to pinch his cheeks and tell him he looks thin and press a bowl of porridge into his hands along with the tray of his tea and by the time he turns back around, she’s gone.
She’s there again the next morning. She’s washing rice, pouring the cloudy water off into a different vessel, and when she sees him, she smiles and says, “Good morning, a-Huan.”
Lan Xichen laughs-- it startles from him, her familiarity wild and new. Most of the servants who call him a-Huan knew him when it was what everyone called him; hearing it from her is different.
“Good morning,” he says. “I am sorry we were interrupted yesterday-- I did not get your name.”
She looks up from where the rice is draining. She blows a stray lock of hair from her face. “A-Li,” she says. “Everyone calls me a-Li.”
Most of the servants in the Cloud Recesses wear clothes in a slate grey, but a-Li’s are in a deep navy. The dye looks expensive, maybe a holdover from where she last was in service, although Lan Xichen cannot think of any major sects that could afford to outfit their servants in such a way. It must have been difficult, where she was before, if she left somewhere with such resources. She must not have been here very long if they have not yet gotten new robes for her.
“Good morning, a-Li,” he answers. “I hope you are well.”
She laughs. “Oh, yes,” she replies. “Very well. And you?”
He nods. “Always good to be home after traveling. It is good to see my brother and uncle.”
She smiles. “It can be hard to be parted from family,” she says.
“Do you have siblings?” Lan Xichen asks her.
She turns pink and nods. “I’m the eldest of three,” she answers. Her sleeves are rolled up to her elbows so she can reach into the water and rub the starch from the rice. He watches her small hands, red from the cold water, plunge in and out, the pearly rice sticking to her fingers, her palms.
“Ah!” he exclaims. “Should I call you Li-jie?” he teases, raising an eyebrow.
She laughs. “Should I call you Huan-ge?” she answers.
“Perhaps you should,” he says, “if it would persuade you to let me be so familiar with you.” It is a little thrilling-- not even Wangji calls him such a thing.
She smiles, looking away from him. “A-Huan should allow me to take it under consideration,” she says, a little meekly.
Lan Xichen nods. “To be patient is a virtue,” he says. “I eagerly await your verdict.”
“This one is honored to aid in Lan moral development,” she chuckles. She shakes the rice in its basket; it settles wetly. “Song-ayi placed your tray a little further in,” she tells him, “I am sure a-Huan is quite busy today.”
“And this one is sure a-Li has much to do as well. The guest disciples must have made plenty of extra work,” he says, nodding.
“Ah,” she says. “Yes, the guest disciples.”
He has received letters from his brother and his uncle. His uncle’s are mostly about the lack of standards in the other sects, the absence of discipline or respect-- these are not unusual. His brother’s though--
He frowns. “I have not had a chance to spend very much time with the guest disciples,” he says. “I hope they have not been too familiar with you. With the others.”
She shakes her head. “No,” she answers. “No-- no more troublesome than any other young masters or mistresses.”
Surprised relief takes Lan Xichen. “I’m glad to hear it. I admit, I know of the guest disciples mostly from letters from my uncle and brother--”
And A-Li laughs, even if the humor sounds thin. “I imagine your uncle and brother have a particular point of view,” she says.
“Yes,” he answers.
A-Li scatters the rice from the basket over a steamer. He looks at the grim set of her mouth. She pokes holes through it before covering it and settling it over a steaming pot. She pauses for a moment before she says, “The Lan sect has high expectations of conduct.”
It catches him off guard, somehow. It feels weighty, the way a-Li says it. It feels like she means more than she’s said. It leaves him dizzy, tangled in a strangely serious conversation before even breakfast. It feels less like a statement and more like a question-- are we speaking candidly of the Lan expectations?
“Do you believe them unreasonable?” he asks, voice quiet after a moment that stretches on and on.
A-Li sighs. Outside, a bird wakes and sings a clear song to the morning air. “Is the rulebreaking in the Cloud Recesses truly more remarkable than it is when guest disciples study in Qinghe? Or in Lanling?” she asks. “Or is it simply more abundant for all of the rules?”
“You believe the expectations invite rebellion,” he says.
“I believe the expectations invent malice where there is none,” she says.
“Rulebreaking without malice still betrays a lack of discipline,” he argues. “Is discipline not the finest foundation of study?”
She hefts the great, wide bucket of water that rinsed the rice onto her hip. “The guest disciples have all their lives to be silent at meals and hold themselves with dignity. They only have so many years to be young. Is rulebreaking really such a horror? Is a little mischief truly so disrespectful?” He looks at the shape of her shoulders, the long line of her neck. The milky water throws the early morning light strangely and it casts something under her eyes. Very suddenly, A-Li seems to glow. She is close to him, he realizes. How long has it been since any woman was so close to him, he wonders.
Her voice is low. “ You only have so many years to be young, a-Huan,” she says.
She steps through the door and heads down the path. She leaves him stricken as she goes.
Lan Xichen thinks of her continuously. He thinks of her when he flies into Caiyi Town with his brother and the guest disciples to take care of the water ghosts ( Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are rowdy, bickering and laughing and flying daring arcs on their swords-- does he miss that? Does he want that? What does Wangji’s laughter sound like? It has been so long since he heard it). He thinks of her as he writes a letter to his Uncle in Qinghe, informing him of the waterborne abyss ( Where did a-Li come from? Why did she leave? Did she bring her siblings with her? How does she write her name? What is her full name?) . He thinks about her as he bathes, as he writes his correspondence to Nie Mingjue, as he takes his dinner and goes to bed.
The Lan are set apart. They always have been; not quite monks but not quite of the material world, either. And Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji are the sect leader’s sons, which means even among the Lan they are apart.
You only have so many years to be young, a-Huan.
It’s different, when she calls him a-Huan. It’s different from how Song-ayi calls him a-Huan, which is much more like how his mother called him. It feels even closer, somehow. Lan Xichen has been so far apart from everyone for so long that the closeness is unfamiliar, if not unwelcome. She calls him a-Huan, this woman he has known for barely minutes, and she feels as close to him as his robes to his skin. She feels even closer than Nie Mingjue, who has known Lan Xichen his whole life and knows every secret of his heart. She feels even closer than Wangji, who has been the only one who could understand the ringing silence their parents’ absence has left, understand the twisting, unfilial guilt of wanting more, more, more of both of them.
He wants to let her closer, somehow. The feeling takes him suddenly, a wild impulse. He wants to show her everything of himself. They are strangers-- he doesn’t even know her full name-- and he wants to lay himself bare before her in the hope that she could see. That she could know. That she could hold his name in her mouth like a pearl even after.
He sleeps poorly that night. He rises early in the morning and goes to the kitchens.
She’s there again when he goes the next morning. She is wearing the same navy robes, her glossy black hair braided simply. She’s once again washing the rice.
“Good morning, a-Li,” he greets.
She looks over to him, and he sees a line of tension ease in her shoulders. “Good morning, a-Huan,” she answers. “Did you manage to stay dry yesterday, or did you also nearly drown?”
“I’m fine,” he says. “I take it you heard from the guest disciples.”
“You should all be more careful,” she says, and there is something undeniably more severe to her motions today. “You are cultivating but none of you are immortal yet .”
“I did not realize the kitchens were so concerned with the wellbeing--”
“Not the kitchens ,” she corrects, looking up with a splash against the water. “ Me. ”
She surprises him yet again. And he sees then that her eyes are puffy and red. And his heart does something complicated in his chest. Does it sink with the knowledge he made her cry? Does it fly with the hope that she thinks fondly of him?
His throat is tight when he swallows. He cannot quite meet her eye. “We are afforded the luxury of study by the labor of others,” he murmurs, “and we meet that labor with the duty of our service.”
“Service is one thing, to be foolish enough to not know what you were getting into is another,” she answers. She sets the steaming basket for the rice down hard, punctuation for her statement. “Did none of you think to test further what was there? Was the best way to perform your duty to charge half-thought into a lake?” She takes a deep breath and it hitches and then Lan Xichen cannot look away from her.
Her tears are warm on his fingertips, as precious as dew.
He didn’t realize he’d stepped so close her, close enough to touch, until very suddenly he was touching her. But here he is with her soft cheek against his palm, her warm skin on his, her breath near enough to brush against him like a breeze.
“This one apologizes,” he says. “a-Huan did not mean to be reckless. To give a-Li reason to worry.”
She is beautiful, suddenly.
She is motionless in front of him but for the butterfly-wing beat of her blinking lashes.
“Be careful,” she whispers.
“I will be,” he promises. “I will be.”
“Is the rice rinsed yet?” someone calls from deep behind them, and Lan Xichen pulls his hand away quickly as a-Li turns.
“Just a moment!” She calls back, and then Song-ayi is there to fuss over the rice and press the tray into Lan Xichen’s hands and he is sent on into his day.
There are weeks of this. Lan Xichen spends all the day waiting for the next morning, when he will again see a-Li and feel her laughter close to him and hear his name in her sweet voice. Lan Xichen goes to the kitchens and a-Li is rising rice while humming sweetly; he goes to the kitchens and she is splitting dough into buns for mantou and laughing about Wangji’s illicit rabbits (word has not yet reached uncle but the kitchens have known for days); he goes to the kitchen and she is pressing pale tofu into blocks, sleeves hiked up high on her arms to keep out of the water. She has two brothers, he learns, who she sees in town every week. She misses warm lakewater-- Gusu is too cold, a-Huan!-- and hot chilis. She loves children, delighted by every story Lan Xichen can gather of the junior disciples sitting still in their lessons, giggling through meals, adjusting their ribbons with serious faces. She loves pork-- no slaughter in the Cloud Recesses, a-Huan, I know, but what if the pigs are slaughtered in Caiyi town, could I bring in pork then?
In the precious minutes every morning, Lan Xichen has learned so much about her and he wonders as he walks to the kitchens on another cool, unremarkable morning, what she has learned about him.
This morning, a-Li is perched over a large, earthenware pot. The low firelight of the stove catches on the planes of her face, glittering on the sweat there. He watches her a moment, quiet, before he says, “Good morning, a-Li.”
She turns to him and smiles-- it curves her eyes. “A-Huan!” she says. “Come here-- I’ve been working on something.”
She pulls a spoon from a pocket and dips it into the pot, pulling out a clear, aromatic broth freckled with red oil. He leans forward and she slips it into his mouth.
It is very , very good. It is also spicy enough to leave him coughing.
“Oh no!” She exclaims and she dashes off before pressing a cup into his hands. He takes a sip of water and then another. “I knew the Lan diet was mild but I didn’t think it was that mild,” she comments.
He laughs, rubbing the center of his chest. He looks back up at her. “It is excellent ,” he manages, hoarsely.
She smiles. “I found lotus root in Caiyi Town,” she says. “I didn’t use pork rib-- Song-ayi showed me how to use mian jin for it, instead, and it’s not quite as deep as it would be with pork but the seaweed and bean paste really helped even if they overwhelmed the wolfberry and made the broth cloudy and--”
“It’s delicious,” he interrupts. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
Her smile grows even wider, even more warm and bright. “It’s pork rib and lotus soup. Well-- I guess it’s monk’s pork rib and lotus soup,” she tells him. She turns around and he watches her pour boiling water from one small pot to a larger one before ladling spoonfuls of soup into it. She uses the corners of her apron to protect her hands as she turns around to place it on a tray, adding a small lid.
She pushes a stray lock of her dark hair behind her ear. And she looks up at him. “I made it for you,” she says. “For breakfast.”
He blinks, struck dumb.
“For me?” He asks.
He wonders when she woke up this morning. The soup is delicious. The flavors are deep and complicated and spicy and rich. It took work. It must have taken even more work to make mian jin.
“Thank you, a-Li,” he answers.
Her smile is smaller, but not less intense. “Of course, a-Huan,” she answers.
They are both saying something else, though, something much more wild and vulnerable and rare.
Lan Xichen did not see it, but he becomes aware of it almost as soon as it happens. Fighting-- not sparring, but fighting-- is prohibited entirely. He is in a meeting with his uncle when Lan Hai tells them what has transpired. A fight between two guest disciples over the honor of a betrothed-- the Jiang sect’s daughter. Jiang Yanli.
His uncle’s face goes heavy with anger. “I apologize I cannot help further with your correspondences,” he says, gravely, and he rises and walks out the door, his posture stiff with fury.
Wei Wuxian is young and impulsive, Lan Xichen supposes. Jin Zixuan is haughty. He is not particularly surprised they came to conflict, even if he wishes they had not. He is not particularly surprised that of all the guest disciples to be removed from study this year, it will be Wei Wuxian. Maybe he will see him again next year, as they have seen Nie Huaisang. He doesn’t think much of it as he finishes the letters to Lanling and Qinghe. If Uncle and Wangji require his input, they will request it.
He’s in the library, looking for a specific score, when he hears it. When he hears her.
Her voice is soft, muffled. She is crying.
It’s uncommon that Lan Xichen sees the female disciples, much less the female guest disciples. Their quarters are usually elsewhere. They usually have different instructors.
“Are you alright?” He asks, approaching her carefully. She’s sitting at a table. There are no books before her.
She looks up and--
“A-Li,” he whispers.
She’s different but the same. Not wearing navy robes but brilliant Jiang purple, embroidered with dense lotuses in bloom. Her glossy hair braided beautifully, elaborately, befitting the eldest daughter of a sect. Her hands are hidden in her draping sleeves, but he knows the shape of them, the curl of her fingers, the round shell of her nails.
She looks up at him like a startled rabbit. Her eyes are red and teary. She gasps and turns away.
Lan Xichen sits down at the table, overwhelmed with bafflement.
He listens to her quietly cry. It’s awful.
After a long moment, he tries again. “A-Li, are you alright?”
He hears her take a long breath.
She doesn’t look at him, but she doesn’t cover her face with her hands. “I didn’t,” she starts, and then she pauses. She takes another breath. “It wasn’t to hurt you,” she says. “It was just fun. You didn’t know . And everyone knows. But then you were...I didn’t have to be the sect’s eldest daughter or shijie or anyone’s betrothed . And then when I wasn’t anyone, you were so kind. And I--” She stops. She takes a breath; barely not a sob.
And it hits him, that as much as he enjoyed being a-Huan, she enjoyed being a-Li.
“No one ever asks me what I want,” she says, very, very quietly. “Mother and Father and a-Xian and my brother never do.” He watches her expression twist angrily. “It never mattered if he liked me or not. We could have just been unhappy like everyone else is and now everyone knows he hates me and if we do get married, it will be all anyone ever says.” She takes another hiccuping breath. “I knew he hated me but now everyone knows I know and it’s worse. I didn’t want anyone to defend my honor. I didn’t want any of it.”
She wipes her face.
“I didn’t mean to make you look foolish. You must be furious.” She laughs, there is no humor. “I was so stupid . I just didn’t think and by the time I realized what I was doing could be...that it wasn’t right, I wanted it too badly to stop.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t think anyone has wanted him before.
“Lan-zongzhu, please forgive me,” she whispers.
“I’m not angry,” he says, immediately.
She looks at him. She meets his eye.
“Being with a-Li,” he begins. He stops. He carefully takes her hands in his. “Being a-Huan has been best part of my day,” he says softly.
Her fingers grip him tightly.
“What do you want, a-Li?” he asks her. “I want you to have what you want.”
She presses her lips together. She holds his hands, strength in every curve of her fingers. And hope shimmers in her tear-filled eyes.