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As Comfortable as an Old Shoe

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“Ready?”

Shěn Wēi blinks at his best friend, who is standing on the doorstep with a challenging look on her face. Her eyebrow is raised, her hair tied back, purse slung over her shoulder with one hand hanging onto the strap. It is a posture that Shěn Wēi recognizes from many nights of being told to take a break, to talk to people, to do something other than work and study.

Chéng Xīnyán means business.

The butterflies that have been churning in his stomach since setting this date flutter violently. They have names he knows well. Uncertainty. Trepidation.

Hope.

Inclining his head, Shěn Wēi steps out and shuts the door behind him, following Chéng Xīnyán to her car.

“There are a couple places we could try, based on what you were describing the other night,” Chéng Xīnyán explains as she pulls into traffic. “I have another idea that might feel less… drastic… of a departure. Do you trust me?”

“Mn.” There aren’t words for this. Shěn Wēi had stared at the card Chéng Xīnyán gave him on his birthday for hours, hiding it whenever Zhào Yúnlán seemed to be about to burst with curiosity. The words chased him. “Dress shopping, my treat.”

A blue dress, like the one he had worn those few years ago? Something more suited to his tastes now–tailored and severe, in tones of grey, blue or black? He wouldn’t mind wearing a dress like the one that had so enraptured Zhào Yúnlán, and had said as much when he and Chéng Xīnyán set a time and date.

“Don’t worry, we’ll only cause your man a minor heart attack; I’m sure you’ll be able to revive him,” she teases.

Shěn Wēi swallows at the vision of Zhào Yúnlán, lips moist, mouth parted while his eyes rake up and down over the dress like a physical touch. That gaze becoming more heated, smile wry and wanting, hands reaching to caress satin and skin.

“I don’t want to know,” Chéng Xīnyán interrupts. “We’re here, so behave.”

She leads him into an understated storefront with only one mannequin in the window, dressed in a simple, elegant frock. The woman who greets them knows Chéng Xīnyán by name.

“Cheng Yisheng, lovely to see you again. Can I help you find anything?”

“We’re looking for something special for my friend,” Chéng Xīnyán explains, tilting her head in Shěn Wēi’s direction. “His tastes are quite fluid, but the fabrics must be natural.”

The shopkeeper looks Shěn Wēi over, taking in the perfectly pressed suit. “Do you have something in mind?”

Chéng Xīnyán also studies Shěn Wēi, then smiles. “Yes. Separates—a top that can be worn over either a skirt or dress pants, the skirt, and probably a dress. Cocktail length. Sleeveless.”

“Hmmm. Yes. Those shoulders.”

Shěn Wēi tries to keep his face blank and his cheeks from blushing at the women’s perusal. “Blue,” he adds. “If you have it.”

“That we do. Fluid,” the woman agrees, leading them deeper into her store. “Do you happen to know your measurements, young man?”

He pauses, blinking. Young. Man. Well, he doesn’t need to correct her assumptions. Shěn Wēi rattles off his measurements, which he knows by heart after having worked with his tailor so closely over the course of his academic career.

“Go take him to the dressing rooms, I’ll pull some things for him to try.”

Chéng Xīnyán puts a hand on Shěn Wēi’s arm, guiding him away. “She’s wonderful. She doesn’t worry about who wants to wear what as long as they appreciate her, her taste, and her merchandise.”

“Was this…?”

“Yes.”

Shěn Wēi nods, thinking about that dress she’d given him, the blue fabric rustling as he moved. He hadn’t missed the dress so much as how he’d felt in it. Another side of himself. Seen. Accepted.

Zhào Yúnlán and Chéng Xīnyán wanted him to have that part of himself again, and he loves them for it.

The butterflies swirl again as he finds an armload of fabric shoved into his arms and Chéng Xīnyán ushers him into a changing stall.

“You’ve been dressing yourself for years and have wonderful taste, but I’m here if you want another opinion,” Chéng Xīnyán assures him before closing the door to the small room in his face.

Shěn Wēi finds himself face to face with himself, the mirror showing a man in his thirties with short hair, glasses, and eyes that are happy instead of tired. This is what Zhào Yúnlán and friends like Chéng Xīnyán have done for him.

He sorts through the clothes in his arms, separating them into tops, bottoms, and dresses. There are a few of each, but his fingers have already chosen his favorites–the feel of smooth silk, fine wool, crinkled linen identifiable by touch.

He starts with the tops, which are meant to go over either dress slacks or one of the skirts. Shěn Wēi is curious if he’ll like the mixture of fashions. He strips off his jacket, vest, sleeve garters, shirt; after a pause, he also removes his undershirt, looking at himself completely bare from the waist up for a moment before moving to try on the clothes chosen for him.

The first is an immediate no. Shěn Wēi shakes his head at his own reflection as he considers it, huffing out a breath as he takes in the nuances. It’s sleeveless knit turtle-necked halter top with no back, showing off his shoulders and back. What fabric there is clings like a second skin, and Shěn Wēi is absolutely certain that Zhào Yúnlán would both appreciate it and then refuse to let him leave the house in it.

Shěn Wēi would feel the same way if Zhào Yúnlán were to wear something like this… and it is far more the other man’s taste than his. Zhào Yúnlán is shameless enough not to mind if the shape of his nipples is shown off by the drape of his top; Shěn Wēi is not interested in such a look for himself.

The second top–a sleeveless asymmetrical blouse of some sort–is alright, but Shěn Wēi doesn’t really love it. It doesn’t do much of anything, and though the material is nice, it isn’t a pleasure to wear.

The third. Shěn Wēi holds it in his hands for a moment as he takes it off the hangar. It’s a vest, tailored out of a fine blue wool, but cut very differently from anything that is currently in his closet. He looks at the other items to see if it is supposed to go over something but can’t see anything.

The vest only has a single button holding it closed, but the overlap of the plackets is such that it doesn’t show off too much skin. It has a shawl collar that dips to a low V, revealing most of his sternum and almost as low as the xiphoid process if he bends the wrong way. Or the right way, Zhào Yúnlán’s voice corrects in his mind. Moving like that also reveals a slim triangle of skin above his waistband, and Shěn Wēi can sense Zhào Yúnlán’s impending approval. The shaping of the arm holes makes it so that the only fabric going over the tops of his shoulders is just under the wide shawl collar, showing off the musculature around his shoulder joints.

Looking at himself in the mirror, Shěn Wēi smiles.

Quickly, he changes out of the trousers, which are very much the wrong color and material, and tries on his favorite of the skirts. The combination does not go well with his socks and garters, so he slips those off as well.

Even before trying on the rest of the clothes, he opens the door to the changing room and raises his eyebrow at his friend.

Chéng Xīnyán studies him for a moment, a grin blooming slowly across her face. “He’s going to keel over, and I almost wish I would be there to see it.”

***

Shěn Wēi knows that Zhào Yúnlán is curious about where he went, what Chéng Xīnyán’s letter had contained, but wants to keep it for an opportune moment. He puts the new clothes into suit bags and hangs them in the back of his side of the closet. He’s not ashamed, but he is familiar with Zhào Yúnlán’s penchant for digging when something grabs his interest.

Thankfully, an event presents itself sooner than Shěn Wēi anticipated. He and Zhào Yúnlán are invited to a social gathering of Hǎixīngrén, Dìxīngrén, and Yashou. Dà Qìng is growling about having to put on a suit, and Zhào Yúnlán is teasing him about just going in cat form instead so he can chase the Crows.

When Shěn Wēi disappears into their room to change, Zhào Yúnlán almost has Dà Qìng convinced. It isn’t as if teasing Yā Qīng hasn’t become a favored pastime for the two of them at these events. Usually Yíng Chūn runs interference, and Zhù Hóng just rolls her eyes and ignores them. Shěn Wēi watches, ready to step in if things look to be getting too heated.

Pulling out the suit bag from the back of the closet, Shěn Wēi considers. He knows he wants to save the dress for a date night–just the two of them. That leaves the vest to be paired with either dress slacks or skirt. When Shěn Wēi thinks about what he wants to happen from this, It ends up not being much of a question after all.

Stripping down to his underwear, Shěn Wēi pulls on the skirt, buttoning the waistband and letting the fabric settle over his hips. It rustles as he slips into the vest and buttons it, making Shěn Wēi smile. Last are the shoes, the gorgeous blue and silver heels that Zhào Yúnlán had given him for his birthday. He’s worn them around the house a couple of times at Zhào Yúnlán’s insistence, but this will be their first time out.

“Xiǎo Wēi, what’s–” Zhào Yúnlán’s voice comes closer and then the door to their room slams shut before Shěn Wēi can even look up.

Standing up, Shěn Wēi can’t even get out a greeting before Zhào Yúnlán is crashing into him and pulling him into a kiss, one hand behind his head and the other groping down to his ass. It’s still a bit novel, being taller than Zhào Yúnlán while wearing heels. It takes a moment for them to regain their rhythm, Shěn Wēi curling over Zhào Yúnlán slightly to make it easier for them to touch along every plane possible.

“This is what you get up to when Cheng Yisheng drags you out. I’m going to have to thank her,” Zhào Yúnlán groans against Shěn Wēi’s lips. “Do we have to go?”

Threading his fingers through Zhào Yúnlán’s hair, Shěn Wēi takes a half step back so he can actually see that beloved face. “We did promise.”

“I’m going to have to beat them off you with a stick,” Zhào Yúnlán grumbles. “Wait. I’ll bring the gun. That’ll work.”

“No,” Shěn Wēi orders. “Behave and I’ll let you take it all off later.”

Zhào Yúnlán’s eyes smolder. “How long do we have to stay?”

Shěn Wēi just raises an eyebrow and sweeps out the door. He doesn’t let the smile crease his face until he’s certain Zhào Yúnlán won’t see it. It wouldn’t do to let Zhào Yúnlán make them late, no matter how much Shěn Wēi might enjoy it.

***

Shěn Wēi sits and watches as Zhào Yúnlán takes pictures of Dà Qìng, in cat form, stalking the feathers draping down from Yā Qīng’s dress. The Cat Yashou had decided that being a cat was significantly preferable to constricting clothes and so is wreaking havoc whenever he isn't napping in a puddle of sunlight.

They are all gathered in one of the gardens tended by the Flower Yashou, enjoying the sunshine and light breeze. The Yíng Chūn is hosting with the assistance of Yā Qīng and Zhù Hóng; Dà Qìng, he suspects, was not asked. There are flowers decorating every table and awning, a simultaneous show of beauty and power that Shěn Wēi appreciates. He has spoken to everyone he has to converse with and is taking a moment for himself before circulating again. Thankfully, he is no longer involved in planning or hosting any of these events; neither is Zhào Yúnlán after the strong reactions everyone had to the types of street food provided.

“It’s good to see you so yourself,” Yíng Chūn says softly with a smile as she slides into the chair next to him. “If your hair was long again, I would have braided in flowers for you.”

Shěn Wēi shakes his head in rueful admonishment; it is always interesting what pieces of him people remember across the decades of their acquaintance. “Not this time.”

“A flower crown, perhaps? We could provide one for the Lord Guardian as well.”

The image that presents for Shěn Wēi has him smiling. Zhào Yúnlán, flowers from the crown dripping down through his shaggy hair, unable to stay in place because of the man’s energy and movement.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Yíng Chūn decides, and suddenly there’s a ring of flowers sitting on Shěn Wēi’s head.

He blinks at her in confusion, the scent of heady in his nose.

“Here, I’ll let you do the honors,” she blythely continues, handing Shěn Wēi another flower crown. “One of our young ones made them for you both, so don’t be rude. Go on now.”

Those deceptively delicate hands shove at Shěn Wēi’s shoulder with force.

Shěn Wēi raises an eyebrow at her, but lets himself be pushed to his feet. “Time was, you were scared of me.”

Yíng Chūn smiles up at him, “I stopped being scared of you when I saw you teaching tricks to our little ones, and you know it, Hēipáoshǐ dàrén.”

Nodding his head in acknowledgment of the point, Shěn Wēi turns the flower crown over in his hands and then goes off to find Zhào Yúnlán.

Zhào Yúnlán is no longer stalking Dà Qìng–the Cat Yashou has found another patch of sun and is sprawled out, belly exposed. He also has his claws out, just in case anyone should read that exposed stomach as an invitation to pet him. Shěn Wēi stands and watches as young Yashou and Dìxīngrén who came to this party start trying to get closer to the cat, bringing with them bribes of fish and ribbons.

“Fancy seeing you here, gorgeous,” Zhào Yúnlán’s voice husks against Shěn Wēi’s ear as hands sneak into the gap between vest and waistband. “Who’s been giving you flowers that isn’t me?”

The hold is light enough that Shěn Wēi is able to turn around and lift the spare flower crown onto Zhào Yúnlán’s hair. “Someone who gave some to you as well.”

Zhào Yúnlán leans in for a kiss that starts sweet but ends with a heated nip to Shěn Wēi’s lower lip. “Tell me we can leave now. I’ve done my rounds and the only person here that I want to spend time with is you.” He slides his thumb up to caress the thin skin over Shěn Wēi’s ribs. “You did promise.”

“That I did.” Shěn Wēi fishes Zhào Yúnlán’s wandering fingers out from under his clothes and guides him to a quiet corner of the garden. “Anywhere in particular you want to go?” he asks innocently, as if he isn’t eager to see those flowers tumbled from the crown and strewn over their bed.

“Stop. Teasing.”

Shěn Wēi opens a portal to their bedroom.

***

“One. Button. Xiǎo Wēi, you went out with only one button holding this closed?” Zhào Yúnlán demands, fingers tracing the placket of Shěn Wēi’s vest before sliding the button through the hole.

Shěn Wēi doesn’t answer, just presses a kiss into the side of Zhào Yúnlán’s neck and shivers as those hands trail up and down his chest.

“You’re stunning, Xiǎo Wēi, whatever you wear. This, though. This has been driving me mad. Every time I caught a glimpse of that sliver of skin here,” Zhào Yúnlán dips a finger into Shěn Wēi’s belly button, making him twitch in reaction. “The fact that I could see your throat–no collar, no tie, no cravat.” Zhào Yúnlán leans in and nibbles at the tendons in Shěn Wēi’s throat.

Swallowing a moan, Shěn Wēi pushes his fingers into Zhào Yúnlán’s hair, tumbling the flowers from his crown to fall around them.

Zhào Yúnlán pushes the vest off his shoulders, letting it fall to the floor, then those nimble hands are undoing Shěn Wēi’s waistband and the skirt follows, shushing to the floor in a pool of fabric.

They kiss, mouths locking in a conversation that is as meaningful as any words could be. Shěn Wēi allows himself to be guided backward, their hands pushing at clothes until all there is between them is skin by the time Zhào Yúnlán presses him onto the bed. Shěn Wēi reaches up to remove the flowers so that they don’t get crushed.

“No,” Zhào Yúnlán murmurs. “Leave them. Those and the heels.”

Shěn Wēi doesn’t argue, just pulls Zhào Yúnlán down, over and into him until there’s no more space between.