Lan Zhan stood outside of Lotus Coffee at 6:45 am, nervously pacing in a way he never did. He was confident that the training session he had had with Jiang Yanli covered the basic drinks the coffee shop offered, but that hadn’t involved actually serving customers.
Jiang Yanli showed up a few minutes later, red-faced and waving. “I’m so sorry I’m late!” she exclaimed. “It’s tough getting out of bed when it’s so cold out here!” Lan Zhan hummed in agreement, holding the bag she thrust out at him so she could unlock the door.
“Ok, it’s just going to be the two of us for an hour or so,” said Jiang Yanli, “and then Nie Huaisang will come in at 8. Wen Qing is the manager on duty today, and I’ll be in the back making the pastries and other goodies for the day.”
“Wen Qing’s brother, Wen Ning, will be in at 11 to cover lunches, and then Xue Yang and another newbie will come in at 2 to relieve you! It’s going to be busy since we’re so close to the big shopping street and it’s only a week to Christmas, but it shouldn’t be too bad.”
Lan Zhan just nodded helplessly, none of the names sounding familiar except possibly Nie Huaisang - was that his brother’s boyfriend’s...sibling? Relative? How common was the name Nie? Jiang Yanli giggled at his expression and patted his hand as they hung up their coats.
“Do you remember how to open?” she asked. Lan Zhan walked behind the counter and picked up the clipboard with the checklist of opening chores. He nodded, realized that Jiang Yanli was not facing him, cleared his throat and said, “Yes.”
“Great! I’ll let you get to it, just yell if you have any questions!” With that, Jiang Yanli vanished behind the swinging doors leading to the kitchen, leaving Lan Zhan alone in the coffee shop. This felt like trial by fire, but he took a deep breath and got started.
The first item on the list was starting the coffee for cold brew. He found the correct pitchers, measured out the coffee and water and set them aside. Next, condiments. He pulled the various milks out of the fridge and set them up with assorted sugars and other sweeteners.
Lan Zhan made his way through the opening checklist, finishing at the same time that Jiang Yanli came out of the back with the first batch of scones. He helped her set up the display case with her fresh-baked treats.
Wen Qing and Nie Huaisang showed up together around 7:45, and as soon as she reviewed all the opening chores to make sure everything was completed, they unlocked the doors, rolled up the blinds and turned on the twinkle lights in the window.
The calm that Lan Zhan had cultivated while completing the easily understandable and clearly marked list of opening chores was shattered with the very first customer. He asked her four different times for her order, but she ignored him, instead playing with her phone.
He eventually got her attention by waving in her face, which of course offended her, but he finally got her order, which consisted of a string of nonsense words he wasn’t entirely sure were even English.
“Tall half-whole milk, one quarter 1%, one quarter non-fat, extra hot, split quad shots (1 1/2 shots decaf, 2 1/2 shots regular), no foam latte, with whip, two packets of splenda, one sugar in the raw, a touch of vanilla syrup and three short sprinkles of cinnamon. Got that?”
Lan Wanji responded to this barrage of information with a blank look. “Dooo yooou neeeed meee tooo saaay it sloooower?” the woman said, speaking exaggeratedly slowly. “Hey! None of that, ma’am,” Nie Huaisang popped up from behind the bar. “There’s no need to be rude.”
The woman rolled her eyes, but repeated her order slowly enough for Lan Zhan to enter it into the register. It turned out that the basic drink she wanted was a latte with four shots of espresso, which Lan Zhan had learned how to make the previous day.
“Hey, you know we get free coffee when we work, right? You look like you could use a boost after that woman.” Nie Huaisang was lounging behind the espresso machine, a huge mug steaming merrily in his hand already. “I don’t drink coffee, actually,” Lan Zhan told him.
“You...don’t drink coffee?” Nie Huaisang repeated. “Why are you working here, then?” “My uncle believes that working a service job at this time of year helps to keep us grounded,” said Lan Zhan. “Grounded,” repeated Nie Huaisang.
“Yes. My family is quite wealthy, and he does not want us to take it for granted. Jiang Yanli is a friend of my brother’s, and she agreed to let me work here this week in order to fulfil my uncle’s wishes.”
“So, you’ve never worked retail before,” Nie Huaisang said. Lan Zhan nodded. “And your uncle is making you do this now, for the week before Christmas, the literal worst week of the entire year to work retail in the US,” Nie Huaisang continued. Lan Zhan nodded again.
“...in order to keep you humble.” Nie Huaisang finished. That wasn’t exactly the lesson Uncle intended him to take from this experience, but it was close enough, so Lan Zhan nodded once more.
Nie Huaisang whistled, long and loud, and clapped Lan Zhan on the back. “Good luck!” he said, cheerfully.
The rest of the morning was steady, with the line of customers staying around five people no matter how quickly Nie Huaisang and Lan Zhan worked. Wen Qing came out to help if they got busier than that, but mostly she stayed in the back, doing paperwork.
At 10:45, Lan Zhan had a customer who was more interested in finding a song than she was coffee. “Hey, can you tell me the name of this song?,” she said, and then spoke the word ‘la’ five times. Lan Zhan repeated the word to her. “Oh, it might be 'la la la la la?'”
There was no discernable difference between the two sets of las. While Lan Zhan had perfect pitch, he didn’t know pop music, and at any rate, the las were spoken in a monotone, no tune to be found.
“This is a coffee shop, ma'am,” Lan Zhan told her, attempting to be polite. “Oh, sure, but you sell music, too, right?” she said. “No ma'am. We sell coffee. And tea. Sometimes pastries, but we are currently out of scones.”
Nie Huaisang was hiding behind the counter, crouched down so the customer couldn’t see him and was laughing so hard he had literally stuffed a clean rag in his mouth to muffle the sound.
The customer stood there, looking Lan Zhan dead in the eyes for a solid minute. When this did not intimidate him into magically knowing the song, she said, very quietly, “I’d like to speak to your manager.”
Lan Zhan went to get Wen Qing, who politely reiterated that they were not a music store; that no, Lan Zhan could not be expected to define a song for her; and no, she would not be getting free coffee for her trouble.
At 11:30 two things happened - the espresso machine started making a loud clanging noise, and Wen Ning showed up to relieve Lan Zhan for lunch. Lan Zhan gratefully collected the sandwich Jiang Yanli offered and a steaming mug of tea and went to sit in a dark corner.
The espresso machine died about five minutes later, ⅔ of the line crying out when Wen Ning announced it. Jiang Yanli came out from the back, biting her lip and clutching her phone, and poked at it. She seemed to be trying to follow directions from the person on the phone.
Lan Zhan watched as the line grew more and more disgruntled as his half hour wound down. He dreaded having to go back. At 11:55, as he was preparing to return to work, the bells above the door jangled and the most beautiful man Lan Zhan had ever seen walked in the shop.
“Jiejie!” the man yelled, his voice low and musical, his smile infectious, his hair long and glistening black. Lan Zhan stopped dead in the middle of the aisle, causing Jiang Yanli to narrowly miss running directly into him. “a-Xian!” she called, her voice heavy with gratitude.
“I’m on lunch, what’s going on?” Beautiful Man asked. “Oh, the stupid espresso machine, as always,” she replied. Beautiful Man nodded, rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt (Forearms!, Lan Zhan thought distantly) and grabbed a set of tools from a shelf.
Lan Zhan realized that he was still standing there, staring. He flushed and hurried back behind the counter, tying his apron on as he walked behind Beautiful Man, now doing something with a … key? in the guts of the espresso machine.
Fortunately, Beautiful Man was fully engrossed in his work, and Lan Zhan got back without embarrassing himself. “You ok?” Nie Huaisang asked, not unkindly, but definitely smirking. “I am fine,” Lan Zhan said stiffly. “It is your turn to take your break.”
Lan Zhan turned back to the register just in time to get hit in the face with a full cup of coffee.
“Why can't you make a simple latte, you useless idiot! This is why you work at a fucking coffee shop instead of doing something valuable to society!” the customer screamed in Wen Ning’s face, leaning over the counter and attempting to poke his finger into Wen Ning’s chest.
Wen Ning and Nie Huaisang ignored him and turned horrified eyes to Lan Zhan, who was soaked with the coffee. He was stunned into motionlessness, the coffee dripping from his hair sounding loud in his ears. The customer, finally realizing the gravity of the situation, shut up.
“WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?” The voice didn’t even sound familiar, it was so angry. Lan Zhan turned and saw Wen Qing, looking murderous, stalking to the front. “a-Ning, take Lan Zhan to the back and get him a new shirt while I deal with this,” she ordered.
Beautiful Man silently offered Lan Zhan a towel as Wen Ning steered him into the back. Behind him, Wen Qing’s voice had grown terrifyingly quiet as she demanded an explanation from the abusive customer.
Lan Zhan was already tired of coffee from just the five hours he had been working. Now it was literally all he could smell. Coffee in his hair, dripping down his face. Coffee in his shirt, stuck to his chest. Coffee beans in the boxes lining the hallway to the office.
I could never smell coffee again for the rest of my life and it would be too soon, Lan Zhan thought as Wen Ning knocked on the door and opened it after Jiang Yanli called out a cheerful but distracted “Come in!”
“Jiang Yanli, do you have a spare shop t-shirt?” Wen Ning asked. At the question, Jiang Yanli looked up from her computer, her pretty features contorting first in horror, quickly morphing to sympathy as she took in Lan Zhan’s newly brown clothes.
“Oh my god, what happened?!” she exclaimed. “A customer was angry that the drip coffee he ordered wasn’t the latte he wanted,” Wen Ning explained. “Jie is dealing with him.” “Oh, good. That asshole will see why my whole crew calls her ‘General Wen’,” Jiang Yanli smiled.
“Are you ok?” she asked Lan Zhan. “Are you burned? Do we need to take you to Urgent Care?” Lan Zhan shook his head. “I was just surprised,” he told her. She looked at him suspiciously, but decided he must be telling the truth and turned to a stack of boxes beside her desk.
She dug around in one of them, finding a blue t-shirt with the Lotus Coffee logo on the front and offering it to Lan Zhan. “Hopefully you won’t be too cold in that,” she said. “I think we might have a hoodie or something around here, too? I’ll look while you rinse off.”
The only sink that was big enough for Lan Zhan to wet his hair was in the kitchen. Most of his long hair was tied in a ponytail and hanging down his back, missing the coffee assault, but his bangs and the top of his hair were soaked.
He was pretty sure that the health department would shut them down if they happened to drop by for an inspection, but he couldn’t bring himself to care as he peeled off his shirt and stuck his head under the faucet.
He was, of course, half naked, leaning into the sink, when he heard Beautiful Man’s voice again. “Hey -” he started, before suddenly choking and falling silent. Lan Zhan tilted his head toward where he thought the door was, his eyes still closed to keep the water and soap out.
A brief clearing of his throat later, Beautiful Man came to stand beside him. “Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were ok! We don’t keep our coffee at, like, ‘suing McDonalds for skin grafts’ temps, but that still probably wasn’t fun!”
Lan Zhan stood up and started to wring out his hair in the sink before opening his eyes and using the towel to dry his face and chest. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say to Beautiful Man.
“Oh, sorry! You’re probably wondering who the hell I am!” Beautiful Man held out his hand, a bright smile on his face. He was only an inch or two shorter than Lan Zhan, and looked about the same age. “I’m Wei Ying,” he said, nudging Lan Zhan’s bare shoulder with his own.
“I’m Jiang Yanli’s brother. I’m the only person that espresso machine listens to, and I have an internship a couple blocks away so whenever it stops working she calls me. The folks on my team get free coffee whenever I fix it, so they don’t mind me taking off every now and then!”
Wow, Beautiful Man - wait, no Wei Ying- could talk. Lan Zhan hadn’t even gotten a word in edgewise to tell him his name. Wei Wuxian paused for breath, and Lan Zhan said the first thing that he thought of. “It’s Saturday.”
Lan Zhan briefly considered punching himself in the face to avoid the blank look on Wei Ying’s face at his statement. A second later, however, his face brightened again, and Wei Ying laughed. How can I hear this laugh every day? Lan Zhan thought.
“Oh, you mean why am I at work on a Saturday?” That was, surprisingly, exactly what Lan Zhan meant. He nodded stiffly. “Oh, we’re working on a cool project and we have the week between Christmas and New Years off! I wanted to finish my bit before the break.”
Lan Zhan belatedly realized that he hadn’t actually told Wei Ying his name. Also, that he was still standing topless, rubbing his torso with a towel. He flushed bright red, quickly pulling the t-shirt over his head, sticking out his hand awkwardly and blurting out, “Lan Zhan.”
“It’s great to meet you!” Wei Ying was still laughing, but it didn’t feel unkind. Lan Zhan felt like he was part of the joke. He could have stood here all day, awkwardly staring at this ridiculously beautiful man and not actually making conversation.
Unfortunately, Wen Qing stomped in the kitchen a second later, brusquely looking over Lan Zhan and making sure he was ok. “Some assholes don’t know how to behave in public,” she grumbled. She thrust a piece of paper into Lan Zhan’s hand.
“This is that asshole’s phone number,” she explained. “I made him promise to cover a replacement shirt for you, since you’re never going to get the coffee out of yours. If I were you I would go to that fancy bespoke place on Main Street and fleece him.”
When she turned to Wei Ying and told him that his order was up he patted Lan Zhan on the shoulder. “Hey, I’ll see you around, huh, Lan Zhan?” Lan Zhan could only nod as Wei Ying left as suddenly as he appeared.
“Are you really ok?” Wen Qing asked. Then she tapped Lan Zhan on the shoulder and repeated herself. “Wei Ying can do that to a person,” she laughed. “He’s harmless, though.” Lan Zhan nodded again, tossed his ruined shirt in the trash and followed Wen Qing back out of the kitchen.
Apparently Wen Qing had scared more than just the abusive customer, since the entire rest of the line was extraordinarily polite to him. Everyone said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ during their transactions. Lan Zhan got about ten minutes of peace before the next annoying customer.
Nie Huaisang was helping her, when she responded to his comment of “Happy Holidays” at the end of a transaction by staring him straight in the eyes and saying “Merry Christmas”. Nie Huaisang’s eyes gleamed. “Happy Hanukkah!” he responded cheerily.
“Merry CHRISTmas,” the customer said. “Blessed solstice!” Nie Huaisang replied. “Merry CHRISTMAS” “Happy Dongzhi!” “MERRY CHRISTMAS” “Happy Kwanzaa!”
Lan Zhan interrupted this standoff by silently handing her her coffee, and she huffed and gave up. “Man, I love doing that,” Nie Huaisang giggled behind him. “Don’t tell Jiang Yanli, though, she worries about offending people.”
At 1:55, Jiang Yanli came out from the back, looking worried. “Have you seen Xue Yang?” she asked Nie Huaisang. He shook his head. “I’d stay to cover, but I really actually need to leave at 2 today,” he said. “My brother and I have plans and he’ll kill me if I bail again!”
Jiang Yanli nodded distractedly. “Lan Zhan, do you mind staying a little over? BOTH of our 2:00s seem to be no-shows. I can call my brother to work the night shift, but he won’t be here for about half an hour. I’ll see if…” she wandered away, still muttering.
Nie Huaisang saw how he perked up when she mentioned her brother and nudged him with his shoulder. “Wrong brother,” he said. “How many brothers does she have?” Lan Zhan asked. “Well, technically, one. Jiang Cheng is her, like, actual, has-the-same-birth-parents brother.”
“Wei Ying is adopted,” Nie Huaisang continued. “His parents were family friends and the Jiangs took him in after they died when Wei Wuxian was, like, five.” Lan Zhan was disappointed that Wei Ying wasn’t coming back, but he was quickly distracted by another rush.
Lan Zhan took a deep breath as Nie Huaisang grimaced an apology and left for the day. The line of customers snaked down the aisle, and even with Jiang Yanli and Wen Qing both behind the counter, making drinks as quickly as they could, he soon felt overwhelmed.
The customers, thank goodness, seemed to understand that he was doing the best he could and were very patient. No one ordered anything more complicated than a mocha, and when he just stared blankly at the woman who requested latte art she just laughed and said “Nevermind!”
At 2:45 Lan Zhan was joined behind the counter by a grumpy-looking man wearing a purple hoodie, who responded to his greeting with a grunted “I’m Jiang Cheng.” Fortunately he worked everything with an expert hand and the line was soon under control.
Jiang Cheng didn’t seem super interested in conversing with Lan Zhan, but he did look sympathetic when Jiang Yanli came and asked, extremely apologetically, if there was any way he could close.
“I know that it’s an incredibly long shift, especially for your very first, but the people who answered their phones are all too busy to come in,” she explained. “You’re scheduled to work tomorrow, but I got Song Lan to agree to work instead, so hopefully that makes up for it?”
Lan Zhan nodded. There was only two hours until the shop closed, and Jiang Yanli told him he could leave right then; he didn’t have to help clean. His feet felt like blocks of wood at the ends of his legs from standing; tomorrow he wasn’t going to leave his bed, he thought.
An hour later, Wen Ning came back, this time holding a small cheerful boy in his arms. “Hiiiiiiiiii!” the child greeted everyone in the shop, with an exuberant wave that moved his entire body, nearly causing him to fall out of Wen Ning’s arms and brain himself on the floor.
Lan Zhan could tell which of the people in the cafe were regulars by how they greeted Wen Yuan. He had little nicknames for a lot of them, cheerfully greeting the woman in the cat sweatshirt as ‘Aunt Kitty’ and giggling as an older man snuck a piece of candy in his hand.
Even Jiang Cheng smiled when he saw the boy. Wen Ning allowed him to come behind the counter to hug Jiang Cheng’s knees. He got briefly shy when he saw Lan Zhan, but held his hand out toward him anyway, announcing, “I’m Wen Yuan!”
Lan Zhan, as charmed by this adorable child as everyone else in the shop, solemnly shook his hand and introduced himself. As soon as he did, Wen Yuan peeled himself off of Jiang Cheng’s leg and attached himself to Lan Zhan’s.
“This is my cousin,” Wen Ning explained to Lan Zhan. “I’m watching him this afternoon and he wanted to come to join the sing-a-long.” “Sing-a-long?” Lan Zhan echoed distantly. “SING-A-LONG!!!!!” Wen Yuan yelled.
Seeing his confusion, Jiang Cheng explained, “My sister refuses to play Christmas music 24/7 like all the rest of the shops, so we have one hour a day where it’s allowed. Mostly this means little kid songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rudolph’, and everyone sings along.”
At Jiang Cheng’s words, Lan Zhan realized that the shop had been playing music all day, including a classical playlist from his own phone, but none of the annoying songs that all of the other shops had been blaring since Halloween. He took a minute to silently thank Jiang Yanli.
“What’s your favorite christmas song?” Wen Yuan asked Lan Zhan. “I don’t have one,” he replied. “What is yours?” “FROSTY!!!!” the little boy exclaimed. “It’s about a snowman who has a magic hat and when you put the hat on his head he comes to life and sings and dances!”
Before he could respond, Wen Qing came behind the counter and grabbed Wen Yuan, enveloping him in a warm hug. “Qing-jie!” Behind them was Jiang Yanli, looking less harried at the sight of the cute little boy. “Everyone loves this kid,” Wen Ning said to Lan Zhan.
“Are you ready to sing?” Jiang Yanli asked, loudly enough for the whole shop to hear. More than half of the customers cheered. “Ok! We’ll start in about 10 minutes,” Jiang Yanli said. “Come line up to add your songs to the playlist. I reserve the right to remove it, so be nice!”
The rush to the front of the shop surprised Lan Zhan. “There is quite a competition to get your song played,” he said to Wen Ning. “People really like singing along to the songs from their childhood, and this is a good environment for it,” he replied. “It’s like holiday karaoke!”
Ten minutes later, Wen Yuan returned to the counter, dressed in a tiny Santa costume. Jiang Cheng poked his newly fat belly and announced that they were going to stop giving him pastries if this was the result, to a briefly pouting response. “It’s a pillow, Jiang-shushu!”
The first song on the playlist was ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ added first by virtue of Wen Yuan being basically everyone’s favorite. He helped Lan Zhan with the lyrics until he could join in, and they repeated the song once he had them all.
Normally far more taciturn, Lan Zhan found himself truly enjoying the camaraderie of everyone singing at once, even if he and his brother had never learned the songs as children. He recognized some of the more traditional ones from playing his violin for events.
There were a few more customers, but even they seemed more cheerful as they gave their orders between verses. The last hour of the day went by far more quickly than Lan Zhan had expected, but he was grateful when the last song was sung and Jiang Yanli started ushering folks out.
He took a moment to rest his head on the counter. The bells above the door chimed again, and Lan Zhan tiredly called out, “I’m sorry, but we are closed,” without raising his head. He was roused by the sound of tiny feet running, Wen Yuan’s voice shrieking, “WEI-SHUSHU!!”
He raised his head to see Wei Ying crouching on the floor with his arms out, greeting the little boy with his brightest smile. Lan Zhan was newly enamored. Oh no, he’s good with kids TOO? Wei Ying picked Wen Yuan up and tickled him until he screeched with laughter.
“Wei Ying is definitely Wen Yuan’s favorite,” Jiang Cheng grumbled behind him. As Wei Ying made his way through the shop, Wen Yuan excitedly told him about his day, including meeting the exciting new employee, ‘Lan-shushu’.
Wei Ying reached the counter and looked from Wen Yuan to Lan Zhan. “Lan-shushu looks really tired, doesn’t he?” Wei Ying said in an exaggerated whisper. Wen Yuan nodded. “He needs a break, I think,” he said seriously. “Go help Jiang-shushu sweep the floor, ok?”
Wei Ying gently shoved Lan Zhan back from the counter. “Jie, we’re taking a break!” he yelled. Leading Lan Zhan by the wrist, he led him through the kitchen, grabbing a blanket from the office and Lan Zhan’s jacket from the hook outside and waiting until Lan Zhan put it on.
“Where are we going?” Lan Zhan asked. “You look exhausted, I want to show you something that might cheer you up,” Wei Ying said. Intrigued, but too tired to ask for more information, Lan Zhan followed Wei Ying.
Outside the back door and across a tiny parking lot, Lan Zhan saw a little hill that was flat on the top. Wei Ying spread the blanket, sat down, and pulled Lan Zhan down beside him. Together they laid on their backs, looking up at the stars.
They lay quietly like that for about five minutes, when Wei Ying leaned over and pointed up. "Look north," he says, quietly. "See that W?" It took him a minute, but Lan Zhan eventually saw the stars. "Now, look to the left of the zig-zag. See that one super bright star?"
Lan Zhan nodded, the movement causing him to brush against Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying smelled of cinnamon and chili peppers, the spicy scent briefly overwhelming the smell of coffee in Lan Zhan’s senses.
"That's Perseus,” Wei Ying said. “You know the story of the hero Perseus? In Greek mythology?" Lan Zhan cleared his throat. "He's the one who killed Medusa, right?" he asked. "Yes!" Wei Ying's voice rang out in the darkness.
"While the entire story of Medusa is INTENSELY problematic, what the actual fuck she got raped by Poseidon and then punished for it by Athena and her hair turned into snakes –” He took a deep breath to get back on track.
“Anyway, the point is, he took Medusa's head and rescued his mother from her abuser by turning Polydectes into stone." Lan Zhan grunted. He didn’t know where this story was going, but he was pretty happy at his proximity to Wei Ying, so he decided it didn’t really matter.
"Now, I know you’ve had a shitty day,” Wei Ying said directly into Lan Zhan’s ear. “You worked hours longer than you were supposed to, customers suck this close to the holidays, your feet are probably screaming bloody murder and I still smell coffee when I get close to you.”
Lan Zhan nodded. “Now, imagine if, at the beginning of the day, you had come to work knowing you have the ability to turn assholes into stone."
Lan Zhan snorted a laugh and turned to Wei Ying. He looked slightly nervous, like he was worried Lan Zhan wouldn’t like his joke, but mostly he looked like he was trying to hold back one of his infectious laughs. Lan Zhan couldn’t help it, he started giggling and couldn't stop.
“Lan Zhan, you’re even more beautiful when you smile!” Wei Ying’s voice was full of awe, and he cupped Lan Zhan’s cheek with his hand. *Is he going to kiss me?* Lan Zhan thought, hopefully, before Wei Ying touched his forehead to Lan Zhan’s and stayed there, just breathing.
Lan Zhan’s giggles tapered off as their breathing synchronized. They sat for a few minutes more, until Lan Zhan started shivering. Knowing it was time to go back in and finish closing, Lan Zhan thought that, with Wei Ying beside him, he would be able to go home happy after all.