“Is there even a point in telling you what I want?” Jin Zixuan asks. “As you’ve never once made what I ordered.”
Wei Wuxian beams at him. “Of course! It gives me direction. A genre, if you will.”
“You do have a specific listing for a surprise drink.” Jin Zixuan resettles a-Ling on his hip. “If I wanted that, don’t you think I’d have ordered it?”
“Well, no,” Wei Wuxian explains reasonably. He reaches across the counter and pats the baby’s cheek. “If you wanted to get what you ordered, you’d have asked Wen Ning to make it.” Wen Ning turns from where he is setting up the soup tureen to shrug in apologetic agreement.
Jin Zixuan sighs deeply. “Someday I’m going to stop tipping you.”
“You can do that on the day that you don’t like what I make you,” Wei Wuxian informs him. “I mean, you won’t, because ajie would never stay married to someone who didn’t tip. But I would understand if you considered it.”
Lan Wangji half-listens to the exchange from his corner table. It is a familiar one, enough so to be pleasant background noise without distracting too much from his book. When the proper disruption comes, it is neither unexpected nor unwelcome, as it happens every morning around this time. He has already closed his book and moved his empty cup to make room for the small chalkboard that appears in front of him.
“Spicy vegetable for the soup,” Wei Wuxian announces, flinging himself down in the other chair. It is not yet nine in the morning, and he already looks happily tired. Lan Wangji nods and wipes the board clean—perhaps not strictly necessary, but if he redoes the borders, Wei Wuxian will sit with him for longer and take a proper break. “White chocolate and cranberry scones, because ajie loves us very much. And...hm. I’ll do a blueberry mint lemonade today, I think. Do we have blueberries?”
This last is for Wen Ning, who sets down Wei Wuxian’s coffee, Lan Wangji’s refill, and a plate with two of the aforementioned scones. “We do,” Wen Ning confirms. “But they’ll go moldy soon, so you should use them up.”
“Perfect.” Wen Ning smiles at both of them and returns to the counter. Wei Wuxian leans back in his chair, stretches his legs full-length, and looks around the coffee shop with satisfaction. One of his ankles comes to rest against Lan Wangji’s. Without looking up from the chalkboard, Lan Wangji puts his free hand on the table. Wei Wuxian laces their fingers together and dips a scone in his drink.
This is how mornings have gone nearly every day for a few years now. Wen Ning arrives early to open; Wei Wuxian staggers down from the apartment upstairs after being prodded awake by Lan Wangji, who claims his table and reads as the coffee shop comes to life around him. Jin Zixuan arrives at some point, bearing the day’s soup and pastries from Lotus Pier Cafe and often as not a dinner invitation for all of them from Jiang Yanli. Lan Wangji earns his coffee by writing out the day’s specials; Wei Wuxian seizes the opportunity to sit down for as long as it takes him to complete the task. Then Lan Wangji gives his table over to the morning rush and goes to work himself. Cloud Recesses Books is close enough to walk to in good weather, and he gets there in time to open. When the coffeeshop closes at three, Wei Wuxian wanders over and spends the rest of the afternoon doing his own reading or debating with Lan Qiren. It is a pleasant routine, and Lan Wangji sometimes has to stop and wonder at how happy he is.
There has been a coffee shop here for decades, under one owner or another, but the Jiangs bought it only three years ago. Lan Wangji remembers perfectly the first time he visited it after that. It was Lan Xichen’s idea to see what the new management had done with the place, and they went for lunch the first month after it reopened. “‘The Burial Grounds?’” Lan Xichen reads, pausing outside the door. “Interesting name choice.”
“After the Burial Mounds, presumably,” Lan Wangji points out. “The nature preserve outside the city.”
“Ah,” his brother says. “Naturally.”
Despite the name, the inside is entirely pleasant: walls repainted to brighten the space, spider plants hanging in the windows, a detailed menu in plain neat lettering on the chalkboard above the counter, specials in the same writing on a smaller one by the pastry case. “They must outsource their food,” Lan Xichen observes, nodding at the familiar lotus image. “The Jiangs own Lotus Pier too, so it makes sense.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. He is listening. He is.
Lan Xichen follows his gaze to the mug on the counter, which holds pens for signing receipts and also a small rainbow flag. “Ah,” he agrees. “That is a pleasing development.”
The line is long enough that they can take their time reading the menu. This is good, because it contains none of the conventional titles. The Med Student, Lan Wangji reads. Four espresso shots in a cup. Below that is The Jiejie: soooooup! (See Specials board for today’s variety). And on and on: The Peacock (a white chocolate mocha with nutmeg), The Angry Brother (chamomile and hibiscus tea), The Adorable Nephew (warm milk with honey), The Headshaker (“Decisions are hard, so let us surprise you!”). Some have less of a story, Lan Wangji thinks: The First Timer is just a latte, and The Adventurer promises undisclosed amounts of cayenne. The result is a place that feels well-loved without being unwelcoming.
“It certainly has character,” Lan Xichen observes as they near the counter. The young man who takes their orders has a quiet earnest smile; he carefully lists the non-dairy milk options for Lan Wangji.
Despite the line, they find a window table easily enough—it is towards the end of the lunch hour—and they watch the street while they wait. It is only a few minutes before a different employee appears with their orders, mugs and bowls balanced precariously enough that Lan Wangji watches the soup in some alarm. But the dishes and their contents reach the table safely, which means that he can look up when the server says brightly, “Can I get you anything else?”
Lan Wangji thinks, Oh. He only barely prevents himself from saying it aloud, and the effort keeps him from speaking at all.
“Oh, wow,” the beautiful man says, staring back at him. Then he shakes himself. “Uh. Sorry. Is this your first time here?”
“We thought we’d see what the new ownership had done with it,” Lan Xichen explains. There is laughter in his voice, subtle enough that Lan Wangji hopes nobody else can hear it. “Our family owns Cloud Recesses, the—”
“The bookshop down the street!” The server’s face lights up—lights up more—and Lan Wangji gives up any hope of forming words himself. “I’ve been in there a few times. I thought you looked familiar.” This is to Lan Xichen; to Lan Wangji, he says, “I haven’t seen you before, though.” He does not say, I would remember, but the sentiment comes through clearly enough that Lan Wangji feels his ears go pink.
“My brother just finished university,” Lan Xichen explains. The amusement has become noticeably less subtle. “He will be working with us.”
“Oh wonderful!” the beautiful man says. “We’ll hope to see you again, then. Both of you, of course.” He sticks his hands into his apron pockets. “I’m Wei Wuxian, the manager. Which is, you know, terrifying. I’m probably not supposed to tell customers that part, though.”
Lan Xichen laughs aloud now, kindly, and Lan Wangji loves his brother for the way the beautiful man—Wei Wuxian—relaxes. “We understand,” Lan Xichen says. “Starting a business is a rather stressful experience at the best of times. I am Lan Xichen; this is Lan Wangji.”
“Welcome to the Burial Grounds, Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian says gravely, eyes dancing. “Please do let me know if you need anything. Or Wen Ning, he’s honestly much more capable than I am.” He jerks his head towards the counter, where the young man who took their orders is wiping down the espresso machine. “Anyway, I have to get back to work, but I hope you’ll come back.”
“I am certain we will,” Lan Xichen assures him. Wei Wuxian’s eyes linger on Lan Wangji’s face for a moment. When he manages to nod agreement, the smile widens. Wei Wuxian ducks his head at both of them and disappears into what is presumably the back room.
“Well,” Lan Xichen says, after a moment. “This is a delightful discovery.”
“Brother,” Lan Wangji says, deeply pained. He suspects that his ears have gone full scarlet by now.
“I mean the coffee shop, of course.” Lan Xichen takes a sip of his latte and hums with pleasure. “And as a small business ourselves, it’s only right to support others in the neighborhood. We shall have to become regulars.”
Lan Wangji sighs.
He returns alone the next day, just for a coffee in the morning. The one after that, Wei Wuxian sets his drink on the table with a hesitation that already seems out of character. When Lan Wangji tilts his head in question, he says, “I, uh, made you something special. If you want the one you actually ordered, I’ll do that instead, I just...sometimes I get the idea for new things, and I thought you’d like this one.”
Lan Wangji looks at the mug in front of him. It looks like the perfectly dull mocha that he had ordered, unsure what else to get, except that there are flower buds of some kind on top of the foam. He doesn’t know what to say, so he just nods and takes a cautious sip. “Lavender,” he says. He closes his eyes, which helps keep his brain from panicking when Wei Wuxian sits down in the empty chair. “Salt. Something sweet, apart from the chocolate?”
When he opens his eyes, Wei Wuxian’s smile is brilliant. “Birch syrup,” he confirms. “Good, I wasn’t sure how much that would come through; I haven’t used it before. But do you like it? You’re the first person to try that one.”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji looks down at the cup again: something made just for him, not for anyone else. “I like it.” He lifts his head again.
“Oh, wow,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, as he had the first day. “Sorry, I know I’m being weird. I just hadn’t seen you smile before.”
“Not weird,” Lan Wangji says, when he finds his voice. “At least, I don’t mind.” He clears his throat. “Thank you. For the drink. You should put it on the menu.”
“Yeah?” Wei Wuxian grins. “I can do that.”
There is indeed a new listing on the large chalkboard the following day: Dark chocolate mocha with lavender, sea salt, and birch syrup. Lan Wangji looks at the name of it and swallows. The Beautiful Stranger, it says, printed neatly in white chalk below The Headshaker.
When he has been coming to the Burial Grounds several times a week for a month, Lan Wangji arrives one morning to find Wei Wuxian darting frantically back and forth behind the counter. “Wen Ning called out sick,” he explains, when Lan Wangji gets to the front of the line. “This is definitely my reminder to hire more staff. I meant to, since we’ve been doing pretty well, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. Anyway, sorry, what can I get you?”
Lan Wangji looks at the smear of cocoa powder on his cheek and says, “Is there anything I can do? I do not know how to use the machines, but I could help with other things.”
“You know,” Wei Wuxian says, “that would actually be amazing. Uh, let’s see. I need to get the Specials board up but my handwriting is atrocious. Would you mind? We’ve got chicken dumpling soup and vegan ginger snaps. No drink specials because I have too much else to worry about today.”
When that task is done (“Oh my god,” Wei Wuxian says, staring. “Well, I know I’m never ever showing you my writing”), Lan Wangji clears tables and wipes down the counter and takes orders. All the while, Wei Wuxian darts around the shop like a cheerful whirlwind. “Don’t you have to go to work?” he asks at one point, managing to pour a perfect latte and read the next ticket at once. “I’ll manage. I mean, I don’t know how, but—”
“I have texted my brother,” Lan Wangji says calmly. “He and uncle will cover the bookshop today.”
“...Right,” Wei Wuxian says. “I feel like I should fight you on that, but also I don’t have time. Thank you.”
At three o’clock, Wei Wuxian sets the Closed sign, draws the curtains, and collapses facedown onto the couch where the college students like to study. Lan Wangji regards him for a moment, then puts down the rag he was using to wipe down the last table. He still cannot use the espresso machine, but the kettle is a more familiar creature.
Wei Wuxian lifts his head blearily at the clink of saucer on table. He sits up enough to drink his tea without spilling it, and he devours two of the ginger snaps that Lan Wangji brought over in rapid succession. Lan Wangji sits down in the armchair across from the couch and sips his own tea.
The cookies seem to revive Wei Wuxian a little. “Thank you,” he says. “Again. For the tea and for, you know, everything. How can I repay you? Not a rhetorical question.”
Lan Wangji cradles his tea, glad to have something to do with his hands. “Well,” he says, “when I came in this morning, I meant to ask if you would have dinner with me.”
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian looks at him, wide-eyed. “I—hang on, past tense? Did you change your mind? I guess you did just get the total immersion experience, which I’m told is a lot—”
“I enjoyed the experience,” Lan Wangji says. “But I do not wish you to feel obligated. I will not ask you in a conversation about compensation for my labor.”
“...Right,” Wei Wuxian says. “Because you think about things like that, because you’re a ridiculously good person as well as gorgeous and in possession of unbelievably nice handwriting. Hold on.” He sets down his mug and goes to the counter, does something out of sight involving paper and a pen, and returns. “Here.” Lan Wangji puts down his own tea and inspects the offering: a gift certificate (filled out in a scrawl that is admittedly dreadful) for enough to keep him supplied with coffee for a month, more if he cuts down on his visits. “And I’ll get you all the tips from today, once they’re counted.”
Lan Wangji does not imagine that he will be cutting down on his visits.
“This will do,” he decides, and tucks the paper away in his wallet. “And half the tips. You worked very hard.”
When he looks up again, Wei Wuxian is fidgeting beside his chair. “Sure,” he says. “Great. So is the compensation conversation finished? Can we have the other one now?”
Lan Wangji smiles; he cannot do anything else. Deliberately, he stands up so they are facing each other. Wei Wuxian swallows, but his eyes are bright and he is smiling helplessly as well. Lan Wangji says, “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replies immediately. Then, “You mean like a real date, right? I mean, I’d still say yes either way, but just so we’re clear.”
“A real date,” Lan Wangji confirms.
“Oh wonderful,” Wei Wuxian says. “I really hoped that was what you meant. Yes. Did I already say that?”
He is still in his apron, which has great smears on it from when a cup of coffee spilled on the counter earlier. His hair is coming loose from its tie for at least the fourth time that day; there is raspberry syrup on his forehead and powdered sugar on his nose. He is very, very beautiful.
Lan Wangji reaches up and tucks one loose strand of hair behind his ear. It does very little to help anything, but it means that he gets to feel the slight intake of breath as Wei Wuxian goes still. Lan Wangji does not drop his hand back to his side. Instead, he cups Wei Wuxian’s cheek very gently. He whispers, “May I—”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, a little hoarsely. “Yeah, yes, please—”
Lan Wangji kisses him. Wei Wuxian makes a soft sweet sound and puts both arms around his neck; Lan Wangji cradles his face a little more firmly and drops his other hand to the small of Wei Wuxian’s back, drawing him in.
Art by arisprite.
And so now it has been three years, or near enough. Lan Wangji dutifully writes out the Specials board every morning; the main menu also bears his script. He has met Wen Qing, who is now a surgeon and no longer the Med Student of the four espresso shots but who remains alarmingly intense. He has also met the Adorable Nephew and the Headshaker as well as the Peacock, Jiejie, and the Angry Brother, all three of whom received him with some combination of suspicion and amusement. “So you’re the Beautiful Stranger,” Jiang Cheng says, having shown up at the Burial Grounds to demand an introduction all of two days after that first date. “Hmph. He’s been yammering about you for a month; you better have been worth it.”
Lan Wangji is trying to be worth it. He plans to ask Wei Wuxian to marry him soon, and he thinks that Wei Wuxian will probably accept. This doesn’t really make the prospect of proposing any less daunting; what does is the way Wei Wuxian pulls him back to bed for sleepy kisses in the mornings, trusting and sure of affection reciprocated. Lan Wangji rather expects that he will slip and ask the question at one of these times, rather than at the dinner date he has scheduled for their anniversary. He doesn’t really mind the idea.