It all started with cereal.
Shen Wei should’ve known something was up the second Zhao Yunlan asked to accompany him to the grocery store. Zhao Yunlan hated the grocery store, said it was too bright, too crowded and too boring. Whenever Shen Wei asked him to go with him, Zhao Yunlan always suddenly found an emergency at the SID to attend to.
So Zhao Yunlan volunteering to go to the grocery story with him?
That should’ve been a red flag.
But Shen Wei, poor naïve, trusting Shen Wei, was just too happy to spend extra time with his beloved, and didn’t think to question his motives.
When they got to the aisles with all the international foods, Zhao Yunlan made a beeline for the section with American cereals. Shen Wei sighed in exasperation. He’d tried weaning him off the sugary breakfast treat, but Zhao Yunlan’s sweet tooth prevailed. At least he’d started eating the cereals as a snack now that Shen Wei provided him with home-cooked breakfasts every day.
Smiling fondly, Shen Wei waited at the end of the aisle, content to watch as Zhao Yunlan scoured the shelves.
That should’ve been another warning.
Zhao Yunlan was never picky when it came to his cereals. As long as it was sweet, he would usually grab the first box he touched. But now, he was carefully scanning the shelves, as if he was looking for something in particular…
“Aha! Found you!” he exclaimed and suddenly darted forward in excitement. Shen Wei shook his head fondly at his antics. Sometimes, Zhao Yunlan acted so much like a young Da Qing, pouncing on everything that caught his attention.
Zhao Yunlan picked up a box and held it reverently in front of him.
“Finally,” he said, “I’ve been waiting months to get my hands on you.”
Shen Wei’s lips twitched. It must be a special new flavour to get Zhao Yunlan so excited about boxed cereal.
Oh, how Shen Wei wished it was as simple as a new cereal flavour.
Alas, he knew it had to be more than that when Zhao Yunlan came back to the Shen Wei’s side with the box tucked tightly against his side, partially hidden by his arm, and refused to put it in their basket.
Shen Wei raised an eyebrow, and looked pointedly at the cereal box and then to the basket. Zhao Yunlan just smiled at him, lightly patting the side of his box. Maybe it was an exceedingly rare flavour, and he was afraid someone would take it if he put it in their basket? Shen Wei knew cereal boxes sometimes came with prizes inside, perhaps that’s what had Zhao Yunlan feeling so protective; a rare cereal box prize?
Whatever the reason, he kept a careful hold of the box throughout the rest of their shopping trip.
He only set it down when they got up to cash. But. Instead of just placing it on the counter with the rest of their groceries, like a normal person, he waited until after Shen Wei had emptied out their basket. Then, before the shop assistant could scan anything, he dashed forward and practically threw the box at her. It landed on its side at the very edge of the counter, tipping towards the ground on the cashier’s side, but she caught it before it could fall.
In the split second the box had spent on the counter, and Shen Wei finally saw what was printed on it, he finally understood everything. Why Zhao Yunlan had asked to go grocery shopping with him, why he’d taken so much time in the cereal section, why he’d been so careful to keep the box hidden for the rest of their trip…
“No.” The shop assistant froze at Shen Wei’s tone, cereal box held just above the scanner. “Absolutely not.”
“But! They’re limited edition!”
“No,” Shen Wei said again, injecting all of the Envoy’s steely authority into his voice. He turned a glare at Zhao Yunlan, making it clear that he would not get his way.
“You know the rules.”
Zhao Yunlan sighed. Reluctantly, he mumbled, “No crocs at the house.”
“Good,” Shen Wei said, and turned back to face the shop assistant.
“What about –”
Zhao Yunlan growled in frustration and stomped out of the store.
“My apologies xiaojie. We won’t be getting that,” he told her, indicating the offending cereal box with his chin. He couldn’t help but glare at the image on its back, promising a pair of limited edition “cinnamon swirl” crocs with every purchase.
If Shen Wei was any less experienced with keeping his powers in check, the box would’ve exploded with the force of his annoyance. He really didn’t need another problem on top of everything else. He had enough to deal with as Heipaoshi, what with the ongoing treaty negotiations and establishing a new system of governance in Dixing. Then there were the end of term assignments and exams he had to worry about as Professor Shen, and working to reconcile with Ye Zun as Shen Wei. He really didn’t need to worry about Zhao Yunlan, too.
But – Shen Wei was smart enough to know his supermarket victory was superficial. If he didn’t do something, Zhao Yunlan would have that limited edition pair of crocs in hand the second Shen Wei left him alone more than ten minutes.
There was only one option he could take. It was drastic, but it was the only way to ensure he’d be rid of those awful shoes for good.
By the following afternoon, the market in Dixing was overflowing with cinnamon-flavoured cereal and accompanying crocs. Shen Wei felt a touch of guilt at pawning off those awful shoes onto Dixing’s unsuspecting people, but he knew it was for the best. Dixingren were smart enough to find some way to repurpose the shoes, and this was the only way to guarantee they’d be kept out of Zhao Yunlan’s hands.
Satisfied, Shen Wei left the marketplace and made his way back to the portal.
He didn’t notice his brother smirking in the shadows on the outskirts of the market. He didn’t see Ye Zun walk over to the stall where he’d left the crocs. Didn’t notice him taking out his phone and posting a picture of the shoes to Xingbowen, Dixing’s version of Weibo.
He certainly didn’t know the caption of the post claimed the shoes were extremely comfortable, so comfortable that the Lord Guardian himself favoured them, or that Ye Zun had also included a selfie Zhao Yunlan had taken with the secret stash of crocs he kept hidden at the SID.
If Shen Wei had known, he wouldn’t have left Dixing feeling almost giddy with satisfaction, sure he had successfully eradicated the cereal-crocs threat with minimal casualties. Sure, Zhao Yunlan would be upset. But Shen Wei would make him fresh hand-pulled noodles and shenjian to make up for it.
Ye Zun’s post went viral.
The crocs sold out in less than twelve hours, and every shoe-seller in Dixing was scrambling to import more styles.
Ye Zun had of course snagged four pairs before the croc-craze truly began. They were waiting just inside the door of Heipaoshi’s Dixing residence, the house-slippers that used to live there nowhere in sight.
Ye Zun may have cackled with glee imagining Shen Wei’s pained expression the next time they visited Dixing.
A week later, the Council of Dixingren, Dixing’s new government, summoned Heipaoshi. They wanted to consult with him on the terms they wanted to propose as part of the revised treaty with Haixing. It would take three days, which meant Zhao Yunlan, Ye Zun and Da Qing would all want to go with him to Dixing.
That was a complication.
The market would undoubtedly still be full of those horrible shoes, and if Zhao Yunlan saw them… Well. Zhao Yunlan was smart. As soon as he saw the shoes, he would know what Shen Wei had done. Shen Wei did not want to face the Zhao Yunlan’s disappointment.
But he also couldn’t ignore the summons from the Council.
He would just have to find an excuse to keep Zhao Yunlan out of the market, and hope Zhao Yunlan didn’t see through it.
Fortunately, Shen Wei could tell as soon as they emerged from the portal that avoiding the market wouldn’t be necessary.
Unfortunately, the reason he was no longer concerned about the market was a much bigger threat than even Zhao Yunlan’s disappointment.
“I didn’t crocs were so popular in Dixing,” Zhao Yunlan said from beside him.
Shen Wei just hummed noncommittally, too stunned and horrified to respond with actual words. If it weren’t for his duties and the fact that Zhao Yunlan was holding his arm kept him from immediately returning to Haixing.
Every single person around them was wearing crocs. And not just the brown, gold and cream pairs that Shen Wei had brought to Dixing with the cereal, either. There were blue crocs with thick soles, pink crocs with an extra heel strap, orange and red crocs that looked like they’d been crafted from Dixing’s lava streams. There was even a baby wearing a tiny pair of bright yellow shoes. Shen Wei didn’t know they made crocs that small.
“They weren’t,” Ye Zun said smugly from Shen Wei’s other side, “No one knew they existed until this post went viral.”
He took out his phone, and when he passed it to Zhao Yunlan, the screen showed a the Xingbowen post Ye Zun had made, with over ten thousand likes. Everyone in Dixing had to have seen it.
Shen Wei’s horror grew. He had made a horrible miscalculation in bringing the shoes to Dixing. He should’ve destroyed them instead.
Zhao Yunlan just laughed, delighted. “I’m glad some people appreciate my fashion sense! See Heilao-ge? These shoes are great!”
Shen Wei closed his eyes and clenched his fists. It was going to be a long day.
The consultation session did not go well.
Shen Wei had tried proposing a clause banning crocs, citing how quickly the craze had taken over as a threat to Dixing’s traditional shoe-making industry.
The Council had refused his suggestion.
“I’m sorry Heipao-daren, but these shoes are much too comfortable to ban,” Wang yisheng, Dixing’s most prominent healer, said.
“Besides, won’t the Lord Guardian be offended if we ban his favourite shoes?” another councillor, Lao He protested.
Shen Wei valiantly resisted banging his head on the table in front of him.
He considered arguing for a ban anyways, but had to concede when An Bai started talking about how Dixing’s shoe-makers had already begun developing new designs and creating modified crocs in traditional styles.
Belatedly, Shen Wei noticed that all three of them, along with the rest of Dixing’s council, were also wearing those awful shoes. He had no allies here.
Shen Wei left as soon as the meeting ended for the day, opening a portal directly outside the door to their home in Dixing. At least here, he knew he would be safe.
As he turned the handle and pushed open the door, his shoulders loosened and his jaw unclenched, already anticipating the sweet relief of seeing normal shoes and his plush house slippers waiting by the door.
He slammed the door and stepped back.
No, no, no. Impossible.
Shen Wei closed his eyes and shook his head, as if he could shake out the nightmare he had unintentionally walked in on.
Mentally bracing himself, he pushed open the door again, praying he had seen wrong the first time.
There, waiting on the mat just inside the door, was a sole pair of brown, gold and cream swirled crocs in Shen Wei’s size. His house slippers are nowhere in sight.
He steps back and closes the door again. He cannot deal with that right now. He’ll find Zhao Yunlan and return to Haixing for the night. He’ll deal with the crocs at the Dixing house another time. For now, he just. Needs to get back somewhere with more sensible footwear.
Taking a steadying breath, he portals to Dixing’s bar, knowing that’s where he’ll find Zhao Yunlan this late in the evening. He’ll walk in, grab Zhao Yunlan and go. That should give him minimal exposure to shoes.
He spotted Zhao Yunlan as soon as he entered the bar. That was not a relief.
He was sitting at one of the tall chairs directly in front of the bar, surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic Dixingren. In typical Zhao Yunlan fashion, he was leaning back against the bar, one leg bent, foot propped up on his opposite knee.
There was a brand-new pair of bright, neon green crocs on his feet. Shen Wei’s fists clench.
He froze when as soon as he was close enough to overhear their conversation.
“Lord Guardian, do you prefer to wear your crocs with charms or without charms?”
“Both! If the crocs are plain, than a couple little charms adds some excitement to them, but if the crocs are already patterned, then charms can overwhelm the design.”
“What are your thoughts on the new designs we’ve come up with so far?”
“I love them! Dixing designs are definitely superior to the ones on Haixing. I mean, there’s the pair that look like they’ve been made of pure lava. It even looks like the lava is glowing and moving. And then there’s the roller-skate crocs, those are genius! You should make a pair for ice skating too. Those would be a hit in Haixing during the winter!”
“Lord Guardian! Have you seen the new Heipaoshi charm collection yet?”
That was Shen Wei’s last straw.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, so he made his way behind the bar, careful to stay out of Zhao Yunlan’s line of sight, and poured himself a glass of baijiu. He then made his way to the empty table closest to the door and settled into the chair. He pulled his seat up close to the table to make sure he wouldn’t fall.
With one last hope that this was all a strange stress-induced nightmare, Shen Wei downed the glass in one and promptly passed out.
An indeterminate amount of time later, he woke with his head cradled in Zhao Yunlan’s lap. Gentle fingers stroked his hair, and he smiled with his eyes still closed.
Then he opened his eyes.
There, on Zhao Yunlan’s feet, were a pair of blue, fleece lined crocs.
Shen Wei frowned up at Zhao Yunlan. He did his best to imitate the wounded expression Da Qing made when anyone stole his snacks. Involuntarily, he also made a low whining sound in the back of his throat.
The meaning was clear: Zhao Yunlan, how could you betray me? His beloved, merciless, laughed softly at him.
“Xiao Wei ah,” he said, fingers still running through his hair at a steady rhythm, “you know how much I like these shoes.”
As if that was an adequate response to this betrayal. No crocs in the house, they’d said. And yet.
Shen Wei opened his mouth to protest, but at that moment, Da Qing jumped onto the narrow space of the couch beside where Shen Wei lay.
He raised a hand to pet the large cat, but froze when something red caught his eyes.
Four tiny red crocs, one on each of Da Qing’s paws.
“Da Qing?!?!” Shen Wei exclaimed in confused horror.
“What? They’re comfortable and practical. Besides, red is a kingly colour, perfect for the King of Cats.”
Shen Wei didn’t know how to respond to that. He didn’t even know they made crocs for cats. At least they didn’t have bells, like the boots the neighbour’s dog wore in the winter.
“Gege, are you finally awake?” Ye Zun called from the kitchen.
Shen Wei turned slightly to face his twin. Finally, he would have an ally in the fight against the worst shoes ever created. Surely his twin would share his wisdom and superior fashion sense.
And then Ye Zun walked into the living room, and Shen Wei felt his heart drop.
“You too didi?”
Ye Zun smirked, and lifted one foot to better show off his own pair of crocs. The very pair that had started it all, a pair of brown, gold and cream limited-edition pair of cinnamon cereal crocs.
“Who do you think started the trend?” Ye Zun said, smug, and Shen Wei had to close his eyes.
“Hey! It was my name that did it!” Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, and Shen Wei groaned.
“Sure, but it was my post!”
“You used my photo!”
Ye Zun shrugged, and Shen Wei massaged his temples. This was all too much to deal with immediately after waking from an alcohol-induced nap. He needed some tea first. He sighed one last time, and then opened his eyes.
He didn’t even make it to his feet before he froze again. His blood went cold, and he couldn’t look away from the black monstrosities on his feet.
He was wearing crocs. Shen Wei was wearing crocs.
To make matters worse, there was a charm on the outer edge of both shoes. A little chibi Heipaoshi on the right, a rounded cartoonish black mask on the right.
Eyes wide, he looks at the people around him. His family, who he had trusted, had betrayed him.
“Do you like them Xiao Wei? We had the charms custom made, just for you!” Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei slumps back down onto his lap in defeat.
Dixing has been thoroughly comprised, and there’s nothing he could do.
(Later, he tried one last time to argue the “no crocs in the house” rule.
He was successful at keeping the house on Haixing as a croc-free zone.
But, unfortunately, with the popularity of crocs in Dixing, and given how everyone was wearing them now, he had to agree to a new rule for the house in Dixing.
That house would be a croc-only zone, no other footwear allowed.
Shen Wei could feel the last of his dignity and respectability shrivelling up and dying as he agreed.)