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let me get under your skin

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Shen Qiao stumbles along the street that may or may not lead him home. The world is a little blurred around the edges and it feels like he’s walking over a swaying ship’s deck (that’s sailing through a raging storm). He tries to get his thoughts in order, but whenever he reaches for one, it slips out of reach before he can make sense of it. There was that bar, and Yu Ai, and a glass that never seemed to get empty. It must have been a magical glass, Shen Qiao’s brain provides, and Shen Qiao finds that to be a reasonable deduction. He nods to himself – a mistake which only makes the world shake dangerously. Supporting himself against a wall, Shen Qiao squeezes his eyes shut and waits for everything to calm down. This is really very inconvenient. Judging from the sky’s colour it’s at least…very late o’clock. And Shen Qiao still has to open the shop tomorrow, so he better get himself to bed and the alcoholic substances out of his system as quickly as possible. The problem is that he is now 51% sure he’s on the wrong street. He pushes his glasses further up his nose because maybe getting them closer to his eyes will enable to see better. It does not. The world remains an expressionistic painting composed of blurry shapes and colours.

Wait, is that –

Shen Qiao squints at the windowfront to his right. He can clearly make out the tall orchid that is perched on the sill behind it. Maybe he has been on the right street all along. Granted, the rest of the interior doesn’t look too familiar, but there are flowers, so logically it must be his flower shop. Shen Qiao nods to himself, proud to have found the way despite his state of mild intoxication. He fumbles for his keys, but to his surprise the door already tilts open when he leans against it. He must have forgotten to lock up. And to turn off the lights. He stumbles inside and reaches for the table next to the entrance to support himself, only to discover that it seems to have vanished. Brought off balance by the sudden lack of familiar furniture, Shen Qiao braces himself for the fall. It’s sure to hurt. The whole world tilts and all he can do is close his eyes and wait for the inevitable impact. As expected, it hurts. Shen Qiao’s shoulder makes the painful acquaintance of the hard ground and his head makes its introductions soon after. Strangely, the first thing that comes to mind as Shen Qiao lies there is This is not my floor. Instead of light wood, there are dark tiles.

“What the hell?” says a loud voice and Shen Qiao feels the vibration of approaching steps against his cheek. Someone pulls roughly at his shoulders and Shen Qiao graciously lets them (not that he could have offered much resistance). “Sir, what are you doing on the floor?”

“I fell,” Shen Qiao informs the young man who’s now propping him up. “What are you doing in my store?”

The fellow gapes at him and his voice gets uncomfortably shrill. “Your store?”

Shen Qiao nods and points in the rough direction of the window. “There’s an orchid.”

“What the – how drunk are you?”

Shen Qiao looks down at his fingers before realising that drunkenness can’t be counted. “Probably a lot,” he acknowledges.

“Yu Shengyan. What’s all the noise about?” another voice asks, this one a lot more pleasant.

“Boss!” the newly named Yu Shengyan says and jumps to his feet, effectively letting Shen Qiao fall back to the floor. “This guy is super drunk, he came in here and claimed it was his store.”

There was a moment of silence and then Shen Qiao finds himself lifted off the ground yet again. Only that this time it’s all the way as someone grabs him and hurls him to the feet. His head immediately starts spinning and he reaches for something that can stop him from falling over. That something turns out to be firm yet squeezable, and Shen Qiao’s fingers twitch involuntarily.

“What in the actual…is he a pervert?” Yu Shengyan asks, his voice now reaching a truly dreadful pitch.

Contrary to that, the chuckle that comes from right in front of Shen Qiao is low and pleasant to the ears, and for some reason Shen Qiao can feel it under his hands.

Oh.

The firm yet squeezable something is a chest. Shen Qiao gives it a pat, then another one, and then he takes a step back because what he’s doing is indeed a bit indecent.

“My apologies, Sir,” he says and bows, only for his forehead to bump against said chest.

“Yu Shengyan. Go and get a glass of water,” that nice, melodic, deep voice says.

“Yes, boss!” the untuned flute that is Yu Shengyan replies.

“And you…why don’t you sit down for a bit?” A gentle hand on Shen Qiao’s back nudges him forward until they reach a purple sofa. Shen Qiao gratefully (if not gracefully) falls down on the soft cushions.

“Thank you,” he says and tries to lift his head. It’s very heavy, so he stops halfway, at eyelevel of leather-clad thighs. The thighs’ owner crouches down, and Shen Qiao’s eyes take in a purple satin button-down shirt (literally, because it’s not even slightly buttoned up), and a face that Shen Qiao’s alcohol-addled mind immediately calls beautiful. The man crouching before him seems to be a bit older, if the grey streaks that run through his inky black hair and the crow’s feet at his eyes are anything to go by. It makes him even more beautiful.

“You’re not half-bad yourself.” The man smirks and his eyes wander down Shen Qiao’s body. 

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing, nothing.” The man seems very amused for some reason, which is a bit rude, considering he’s in Shen Qiao’s store without permission.

“Sir, why are you in my store without permission?” Shen Qiao asks politely.

“Oh?” The man leans a little closer and pats the cushions on both sides of Shen Qiao. “Does your store have a purple leather couch as well?”

“No.”

“Then, does it have purple wallpaper? Golden ornamentations?”

“I have purple wisteria and golden osmanthus.”

“Then I guess your shop is a flower shop?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, the mystery is solved then.” The man says merrily and points to a large neon sign that says “Tattoos”. Shen Qiao frowns at it.

“This isn’t my store.”

“Duh,” Yu Shengyan says as he enters the room and pushes a glass into Shen Qiao’s unsteady hands. “So maybe you can now apologise for barging in and groping the boss?”

“Yu Shengyan. Be polite,” the boss admonishes and wags his finger at the young man. “This gentleman is clearly in need of a little recuperation.”

Yu Shengyan grumbles something Shen Qiao can’t make out and busies himself behind a counter. Shen Qiao feels the glass being taken from him again. Then the cushions next to him dip and the boss sits down, close enough for him to press the glass to Shen Qiao’s mouth.

“You should have some water,” the boss smiles and nudges Shen Qiao’s lips open. He diligently takes a sip.

“Thank you very much, Sir. I am in your debt.”

“Oh?” The smile widens. “I will keep that in mind, then. Maybe the first thing you could repay me with is your name?”

Shen Qiao, shocked by his own rudeness, jumps to his feet, regrets it immediately, and falls back down onto the sofa. He contents himself with turning towards the boss and inclining his head respectfully. “My apologies. My name is Shen Qiao.”

“A-Qiao,” the boss says (Perhaps he misheard? Granted, Shen Qiao might be slurring his words a bit), “I’m Yan Wushi. Most customers call me Lao-Yan, but you can call me Yan-lang.”

Shen Qiao nods. “Of course, Yan-lang.”

Yan Wushi laughs loudly. “You’re the most agreeable drunk I’ve ever met.”

“True,” Yu Shengyan chips in from the counter. “Remember the last time some drunk came in? You had to threaten him with the tattoo needle. And then turn that threat into action.”

“Good times,” Yan Wushi nods and Yu Shengyan snickers.

Shen Qiao smiles at them and then makes another attempt at getting up. This one ends in success, and he bows in Yan Wushi’s direction.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Yan-lang, but I must be on my way. I have to open the store tomorrow.”

Yan Wushi stands up. He’s quite a bit taller than Shen Qiao and his neckline is really low. His leather pants are really tight, too. “A-Qiao, you can’t possibly hope to find the way home in your state. A beauty like you, all alone on the dark street. Ah,” he grasps his chest as if his heart were aching. “I can’t bear it.”

Yu Shengyan makes a noise like a dying cat, but Shen Qiao is moved by so much compassion. “Thank you, Yan-lang, but I can’t possibly demand more from you. I’ll just–“ He gestures towards the door, which coincidentally picks this moment to slam open. Another young man strides in, his face stormy and his clothes splattered with something that is hopefully chili oil.

“Those damned fools from Hehuan gang trespassed on our territory again! I swear to the gods, the next time I see Xiao Se I’m gonna – oh. A customer?”

“Swept in by the autumn breeze,” Yan Wushi confirms. Shen Qiao bows to the newcomer as well.

“Yan-lang was so kind as to help me out.”

“Yan…lang…” the newcomer says and stares from Shen Qiao to Yan Wushi to Yu Shengyan. “Yan…lang?”

“Don’t ask,” Yu Shengyan sighs and shakes his head.

“It’s good you’re here, Bian Yanmei. I have something to take care of and I need you to look after the studio.”

“But boss! What if Hehuan–“

Yan Wushi cuts him of with an impatient wave of his hand. Shen Qiao’s eyes catch at his exposed forearms and the black ink that covers them. He can’t make out any specific forms, but the swirling patterns and delicate lines are mesmerising. “As if they dare to even come close. And if they do…you know how to deal with them.”

Bian Yanmei sighs. “It’s almost 1AM, what do you even have to do?”

“Oh, this…” Yan Wushi walks closer to Shen Qiao and takes his hand, “…and that…” he leads Shen Qiao towards the door, “…I’m a busy man, you know how it is.” He opens the door. His two…friends? Employees? Gang members? Stare after them.

“Goodbye. Thank you for your care,” Shen Qiao calls over his shoulder. “If you ever want flowers, please visit my shop.”

“Sure!” Yu Shengyan calls after him. “And if you ever want a tattoo, hit me up!”

“Do not hit him up,” Yan Wushi says.

“What, why not?” Shen Qiao, who is seriously considering if a tattoo would be a good idea, asks and looks up at him.

“Because, A-Qiao, if you’re getting a tattoo, you’re of course getting it from me. No need to content yourself with those second-rate artists.”

“Aren’t they your employees?”

“Compared to me, everyone is second-rate.”

“Hm,” Shen Qiao says – Yan Wushi seems a tiny bit arrogant. Then he realises something important.

“Yan-lang?”

“Yes, dearest A-Qiao?”

“I think we’re walking in the wrong direction.”

-

They do make it to Shen Qiao’s flower shop eventually (after two detours through rather shady neighbourhoods in one of which Yan Wushi had a threatening-sounding conversation with a hooded figure). Shen Qiao is glad when he sees the familiar windowfront of his shop because he’s honestly getting bit tired and his head has not stopped swimming ever since Yan Wushi decided Shen Qiao wasn’t able to walk anymore and in desperate need of being carried.

“You can let me down now, Yan-lang. We’re here.” Shen Qiao points to Shan He Hua. Yan Wushi diligently lowers Shen Qiao to the ground and takes in the pastel blue façade of the flower shop with its little painted vines around the door and the lanterns on both sides of the window.

“How…aesthetic,” he says and sounds a bit like a parent who’s looking at a particularly bad children’s drawing.

“Thank you,” Shen Qiao replies and fumbles for his keys. Not in this pocket…not in the other one either. Ah, this coat has inner pockets as well. “So you’re a tattoo artist, Yan-lang?” Shen Qiao asks while his hands are still on their quest for the key.

“Indeed.” Yan Wushi leans against the wall next to the door and demonstratively crosses his inked arms over his chest. He strikes quite the image there in front of the quaint little shop, all satin and leather and long hair and broad shoulders. For some reason, it makes Shen Qiao giggle.

“What’s so amusing?” Yan Wushi asks with a smirk that says he knows exactly what’s so amusing. Shen Qiao doesn’t bother with an answer and instead produces the key from his third inner pocket. He unlocks the door and gestures inside.

“Please, Yan-lang.”

Yan Wushi leisurely strolls into the shop and looks around. “Very nice. But I don’t see a bed.”

The strange comment has Shen Qiao confused. “I…is that expected? I thought sleeping on the job was considered bad form?”

Yan Wushi turns around and glances down at Shen Qiao with an almost playful glint in his eyes. “I’d say you’re being sarcastic, but those huge, honest doe eyes tell a different story. Ah, it really makes me want to…” He makes a gesture from which Shen Qiao has absolutely no idea what it’s meant to signify. Then he lets out a long sigh. “What I mean is, didn’t you intend to sleep?”

“Oh. I did. I do.” Shen Qiao nods. “Because I have to open the shop tomorrow.”

Yan Wushi comes closer. With each slow step, he utters another word. “And where will you sleep?”

“In my bedroom, I think. It’s upstairs.”

Yan Wushi is very close now. Shen Qiao can see fine, black tendrils reach out from underneath his shirt; more ink stretching over both sides of his chest and down to his stomach. It really is a very low neckline.

“Do you like it?” Yan Wushi purrs.

“Do I like what?” Shen Qiao’s eyes are still glued to the strands of ink, and he has the strange urge to push Yan Wushi’s already pointless shirt out of the way to see whatever patterns it’s hiding. All of a sudden, the ink vanishes from Shen Qiao’s sight and the floor from underneath his feet. Yan Wushi drapes him over his shoulder like a sack of rice and makes his way over to the door leading to the staircase.

“You can admire my body once you’re sober. If you really do intend to open your store tomorrow, you should sleep.”

It’s very reasonable and Shen Qiao can’t really argue with it. However…

“Yan-lang. I really do owe you. Please make sure to come by later and let me give you a flower.”

A snort. “How about you come by and let me immortalise myself on your skin?”

For some reason, Shen Qiao feels colour creep up his cheeks. “That…that sounds a little inappropriate.”

“Good.”

Shen Qiao wonders if he should feel a little more uncomfortable than he does, helplessly perched on Yan Wushi’s shoulder, surrounded by the smell of smoke and leather. Strangely enough, he feels good. Well, if you don’t consider the ever-present headache and the bone-deep tiredness. Maybe he could close his eyes for a bit. Just a second or two…

-

When Shen Qiao wakes, it’s because of bright sunlight that directly hits his face. He must have forgotten to close the curtains yesterday. Blinking into the brightness, he slowly sits up. Immediately his head protests the motion and demands he lie back down. In his mouth is the taste of bad decisions and regret. He rubs at his eyes and forces his head to stop swimming like this. A look to the clock immediately wakes him up all the way. It’s almost 11AM. The shop should have opened three hours ago. Shen Qiao is appalled by himself – something like this has never happened. When he left the large corporation he used to work for to open this little store, he swore to himself to always give it his all, to never slack off. And now? Customers wanting to buy flowers aren’t able to do so because the useless florist spent the night out drinking with his former colleague who tried to lure him back to the company. Shen Qiao groans and swings his legs out of the bed. The least he can do is open the shop for the afternoon.

It’s then that he realises that he’s still wearing yesterday’s clothes. They smell like cigarette smoke and faintly like leather…and the smell tugs at something in his memories. The brightly lit interior of a shop, a lopsided smirk, dark hair streaked with grey, leather and satin…Yan-lang.

 Shen Qiao is pretty sure that, were he in a Wuxia drama, he would cough up blood now. He buries his face in his palms and barely resists the urge to lie back down and cover his embarrassment with a pile of blankets.

But then he hears it.

The tell-tale sounds of a shop being operated from downstairs. Clattering of pots, voices, even a laugh. But if he is up here, still wrestling with his shame, then who opened his shop? Is he being robbed by the loudest burglars in existence?  Shen Qiao, complete with bed hair and rumpled clothes, stumbles out of his bedroom and towards the stairs. He built Shan He Hua from the ground up, went through many troubles and worries during the first years, and he’s going to defend it to his last breath.

When he bursts through the door, the image that presents itself has him stunned. Whatever he expected, this didn’t even make the list. Two aunties, regulars who come by at least once a week, stand in front of the azaleas and talk behind their raised hands while looking very obviously to the counter. A young man in a large hoodie (Shen Qiao knows his kind – he’s looking for flowers to gift to the subject of his affection) stands helplessly near the succulents and keeps throwing insecure glances to the counter and a businessman with a suitcase in hand seems to actively not look in that direction.

Because behind said counter, inked, muscular forearms bare, neckline as low as ever, long salt-and-pepper hair flowing over his shoulder, reading glasses perched on his nose as he idly flips through a book, is none other than Yan Wushi. He leans on the low countertop like he owns the place and exudes an aura of “If you talk to me I might help you out, but I also might pull out a knife and stab you with it.”

Shen Qiao’s mouth falls open. He never knew one could think in nothing but punctuations, but right now a row of question marks flashes before his eyes. It’s the businessman who finally talks, probably because he has very important places to be at and businesses to take care of.

“Excuse me, Sir, where might I find the carnations?”

Yan Wushi lifts a hand without looking up and the man clamps his mouth shut. A few moments of uncomfortable silence pass. Then Yan Wushi turns a page of his book and glances up.

“The what now?”

The businessman swallows heavily. “The…carnations?”

“No idea. What do they look like?”

The man does his best impression of a fish by opening and closing his mouth a few times before he speaks again. “I…you…don’t you work here?”

Yan Wushi carefully marks the page in his book, places it down, and straightens. His satin shirt stretches over his broad shoulders, and he tosses his hair back in a fluent motion. Then he slowly steps from behind the counter. It’s completely understandable that the businessman shrinks a little. The aunties, meanwhile, seem to find this very intriguing.

“I’m the intern,” Yan Wushi says with a smile that’s one part friendly and nine parts threatening. “It’s my first day. I know fuck-all about flowers. I can point you to the roses though.” He towers in front of the man now, who looks like he’s going to buy anything Yan Wushi asks him to.

“I mean…sure, why not? I take some roses?”

The open fear on the man’s face finally makes Shen Qiao snap out of his stupor.

“You really don’t have to, Sir, the carnations are over there!” he blurts out and hurries towards the customer who’s currently being scared to death.

Yan Wushi’s expression changes in an instant and the menacing smile becomes more of a self-satisfied smirk.

“A-Qiao! Did you have a restful sleep?”

The aunties to the side start whispering excitedly and Shen Qiao is aware that now all of his regulars will hear about this.

“Yan Wushi,” he says and tries to sound calm. “What are you doing here?”

Yan Wushi turns away from the businessman, who looks visibly relieved, and towards Shen Qiao. “I didn’t want to wake you this morning, so I simply opened the shop without you.”

He says it with such conviction that for a second Shen Qiao thinks it sounds reasonable. Then he remembers that he met Yan Wushi exactly one night ago after drunkenly stumbling into his tattoo parlor, and it’s not reasonable at all anymore.

“And you thought that was appropriate because…?”

Yan Wushi’s smirk widens and a thousand “Danger! Turn back!” signs flash up in Shen Qiao’s mind. “A-Qiao, in bed you kept saying how important it is that the shop opens today so you wouldn’t break the streak.”

“In bed he said!” Shen Qiao hears one of the aunties giggle. “A-Qiao he said!” the other one snickers.

Shen Qiao finds that this is as good a moment as any to completely ignore Yan Wushi’s existence. He pointedly strides past the man and smiles at his actual customer.

“May I take you to the carnations, Sir?” he asks.

The man starts to nod, but then his gaze falls over Shen Qiao’s shoulder and his eyes widen in terror.

“Actually, I think roses are perfectly fine!”

Shen Qiao whips around, but Yan Wushi only blinks innocently at him. As far as a 1.90m tall man covered in tattoos and with a constant threatening edge to his smile can look innocent.

After Shen Qiao made the businessman a bouquet of his most expensive roses (Yan Wushi kept lingering behind him, standing way too close and constantly brushing Shen Qiao’s back), placated the two aunties (they may have talked to Shen Qiao, but their eyes were glued to Yan Wushi, and in particular his exposed chest), and advised the young man to get his crush only a single flower at first (“You should get them something useful. Like a gift card for a tattoo parlor,” Yan Wushi said and Shen Qiao had to resist the urge to jab his elbow in Yan Wushi’s ribs), the shop was finally empty safe for its owner and the mid-40s intern.

Shen Qiao expects the other to finally explain himself, or maybe even offer an apology, but clearly Yan Wushi has deemed that social norms don’t apply to himself. He strolls around the shop and stops here and there to take a closer look at a flower. Apparently it falls to Shen Qiao to start this conversation.

“So I…owe you thanks for helping me out in my rather embarrassing state last night.”

Yan Wushi hums and smells a camellia. “You’re welcome.”

Shen Qiao shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I don’t…remember everything in detail. I hope I did nothing untoward, and if I did, I apologise.”

“Oh, no worries. In fact, I would have loved you to be a bit more untoward. Alas. You fell asleep quite quickly.”

“A bit…more…untoward??”

Yan Wushi finally turns away from the flowers, clasps his hands behind his back, and saunters over to Shen Qiao. For some reason Shen Qiao feels like a deer that’s being eyed by a wolf who considers it to be an especially tasty snack.

“How do you intend to compensate me for my help?” Yan Wushi asks. He’s quite a bit taller than Shen Qiao and with how close he stands, Shen Qiao has to tilt his head in order to make eye contact. Apparently, that conversation about how Yan Wushi unbiddenly operated Shen Qiao’s store like it’s the most normal thing in the world isn’t happening today.

“I, uh…could give you some money for your troubles?” Shen Qiao says. He should have known - of course someone like Yan Wushi, wearing expensive clothes and adorned with jewellery, would demand compensation.

“Money? How boring. I have enough of that. Can’t you be a little more creative, A-Qiao?”

For a second Shen Qiao wants to ask if him letting Yan Wushi call him “A-Qiao” isn’t payment enough, but then his politeness wins over. “Then maybe a bouquet or two for your studio?

Yan Wushi is not impressed. Suddenly, he grabs Shen Qiao’s chin and tilts it up while his other hand tugs Shen Qiao’s collar down. “Hmm, or how about you pay me with your body, A-Qiao? So much beautiful skin, waiting to get inked…”

Shen Qiao jerks backwards and straightens his collar while gaping at this absolutely shameless man.

“Yan Wushi!”

Yan Wushi throws his head back and barks a laugh. “Not calling me Yan-lang anymore?”

Shen Qiao feels colour creep into his cheeks. “I’m grateful for your aid but would appreciate it if you didn’t tease me like this.”  

“Alright, alright. To be honest, I already had another idea for how you could repay me.”

Shen Qiao gulps. He has the distinct feeling that out of ten words that leave Yan Wushi’s mouth, nine are indecent and one is a threat. “I’m happy to help you with anything in…in the realm of the possible. And the…legal.”

Yan Wushi’s smile bares his teeth and he comes closer, apparently determined to prove Shen Qiao’s comparison to a wolf correct.

“You see, A-Qiao, while my two disciples are very capable, they lack a certain vision for the aesthetic. You, on the other hand, seem more than versed in the beautiful.” He spreads his arms. “So why don’t you join my studio and learn a bit from me?”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m quite happy with where I am, and I do not intend to abandon my shop.”

Yan Wushi sighs dramatically and lowers his arms. “It was worth a try. Then let me invite you to dinner.”

“I – what??”

“Come to dinner with me.”

Shen Qiao is taken aback. “How is you inviting me considered repayment from my side?”

“You’d be paying with your presence. I’ve been invited to a dreadfully boring business dinner, and it would be highly amusing to see my contacts’ reactions to me showing up with a plus one.”

“So you’re doing this for…for amusement’s sake?”

“I do very little not for amusement’s sake.”

That, at last, Shen Qiao is more than willing to believe. But dinner with Yan Wushi and whatever people he considers ‘business partners’ is not at all a reassuring prospect because Shen Qiao doubts those business partners are going to be other artists. He faintly remembers hearing something about gangs.

“And you’re sure you don’t want flowers?” he tries weakly.

“Very sure.”

Shen Qiao sighs. Yan Wushi grins.

“Very well. Then it’s settles. I will pick you up in two days, around 8PM. Make sure to dress appropriately.”

“What would be considered appropriate?”

Yan Wushi closes the last bit of distance between them and leans down, bringing his face close to Shen Qiao’s. His grin is all menace.

“With a face like yours? Everything.”