He doesn't know what made it all sink in finally. The red, the dress. The way his husband looked at Liu Qingge so softly, with a sparkle in his eyes that Shen Qingqiu only ever sees when Yue Qi is talking about something he's excited about.
Something he loves.
It leaves a hollow realization in his chest.
There wasn’t any pain, no sharp stabbing sensation that left Shen Qingqiu bleeding out on the floor, begging for his Qi-ge to save him. It was a voiceless echo, slowly fading away in a fog that hardened him. It was the same epiphany he had near thirty years ago when he was a scuffed up little nobody on the streets.
His heart weighed down to the bottom of the sea and stayed there.
He got up from his seat.
"Xiao Jiu?" Yue Qingyuan hissed, worried that his husband was about to make a scene with his new bride. To throw and kick and do whatever it takes to stop the wedding that was already in progress.
He was ready to raise his hand as the lord of the home and order Shen Qingqiu to sit back down but instead, his husband just stood there.
He looked out over the garden. It was massive, vibrant, and beautiful. Nothing like his wedding to Yue Qingyuan was. His was private, small, and desperate. He thought he was fine with it then, they would have the rest of their lives together to make up for any lost grandeur. But he now realized it was missing something crucial that enrages Shen Qingqiu when he sees that Liu Qingge's has it; Warmth.
He spoke, "Go on. It's nothing I'm not familiar with." And he left.
Shen Qingqiu, without a tear or care in the world, left the wedding hall where his lord husband was marrying a second man taking his place as First Husband.
The flutter of his robes as he left seemed to ripple in the shocked silence afterward.
Yue Qingyuan stared open mouth, just as surprised, as Shen Qingqiu gracefully left through the front door.
A part of his heart twisted and something deep inside him warned him that this was a bad sign. Worse than any sort of a vile plan abrew to ruin his second marriage.
Luo Binghe, a small, ragged servant boy, shuffled from where he knelt before ultimately getting up as well to follow after his master.
For a while, all the guests were silent, astounded at Shen Qingqiu's peaceful (?) departure.
Then it erupted into chaos.
"What is he planning?"
"What has gotten into that shameless Shen Qingqiu now?"
"Can Yue Qingyuan ever control that wife of his?"
"Good riddance then!"
On and on they brayed and Yue Qingyuan, in vain, tried to reel them all back in.
"Hey!" Liu Qingge's voice barked through the crowd and grasped their attention.
Liu Qingge glared down at them, clenching his red sleeves in an effort to keep from punching someone in the face.
"Shut. Up." He growled out and the guests promptly followed the order.
The wedding went on without another hitch and the bride and groom were each left with their own turmoil about what happened.
Yue Qingyuan, at the back of his mind, worried. He surely expected another argument with his husband.
After his wedding night with Liu Qingge.
He gulped and snuck a heated look at his new husband.
Liu Qingge is a beautiful man that could be mistaken for a woman if it wasn't for the broad shoulders and strong chest. Yue Qingyuan, with a note of guilt in his chest, couldn't help but wonder what he'd be like in bed.
Liu Qingge was fighting an internal war in his own mind. He was flustered and stiff, nervous in front of so many people.
Everyone and his family had warned him about the viper Shen Qingqiu. Warned him about the man's schemes, lies, and deceit. And Liu Qingge had built himself up to deal with every one of them. Yue Qingyuan is a wise and noble man from the Emperor's innermost court. How Shen Qingqiu managed to seduce such an honorable figure into marrying him, Liu Qingge doesn't know but he won't allow it to continue.
He had said his vows with a set determination and conviction. Gazing eye to eye with his new lord husband, he grit his jaw and set his shoulders. Prepared for whatever trouble may come.
Yue Qingyuan was his husband now.
"Shi-shizun..." Luo Binghe whimpered, voice soft, afraid that he was going to set off Shen Qingqiu's infamous, short temper.
But honestly speaking, a beating would have been preferred to watching his master stand over the lit fireplace, gazing down at a handful of old and wrinkled letters, with an empty, soulless grimace.
Luo Binghe is used to his master being fierce, cunning. Snapping at everyone for the smallest slight. As beautiful and graceful as Shen Qingqiu appears, he is truly a cunning and cruel man.
Shen Qingqiu is always scheming something. Always planning three steps ahead more than anyone else and Luo Binghe knows that Shen Qingqiu, out of everyone else in the mansion right now, he hates Liu Qingge more than anyone. He hates that the man was marrying his husband. Hates that Liu Qingge was taking his place as First Husband. Hates that there was nothing he could do to stop it.
And yet, as his master stood there, expressionless, it was like Shen Qingqiu couldn't care less.
Luo Binghe remembers the resulting fight when Lord Yue Qingyuan announced his intention to marry the Liu noble. Shen Qingqiu's shouting shook the earth and haunted the halls.
Yue Qingyuan had raised his hand and for the first time that Luo Binghe could remember since living in the Yue estate, he punished his beloved husband by sentencing him to solitary confinement.
The shock of it silenced Shen Qingqiu as swiftly as if Yue Qingyuan actually physically struck him.
He sucked back his vicious words and instead brood during his sentence. Confined in a courtyard on the other side of the estate with only Luo Binghe to personally serve him as always.
Shen Qingqiu's words were especially cruel during this time but he didn't kick Luo Binghe around like usual, mostly sending him out to the Emperor's palace to deliver letters and items.
Shen Qingqiu passed the time either biting his nails down to the quicks or planning.
Planning what? Luo Binghe was too dumb to know, only that Yue Qingyuan had always put to stop to it no matter what Shen Qingqiu did.
Each time seemed to crack Shen Qingqiu's fragile ego, beating it and beating it down until it was wedding day and Shen Qingqiu seemed to finally... Snap.
Eerily, quiet, Shen Qingqiu got up, said a few words, and left.
No-fuss, no tantrum.
It terrified Luo Binghe.
"Shi-Shizun!" Luo Binghe dared to raise his voice an octave, desperate to just break the eerie tranquility.
Shen Qingqiu snapped back into reality. He looked up from the old, aging paper and at Luo Binghe. His narrow, green eyes looked through Luo Binghe to something only he could see.
He sighed and shook his head, putting the papers back in a jewelry box on the mantle.
"Go get some food." He ordered. Exhausted. Defeated.
"W-what?" Luo Binghe was dumbfounded. Wasn't he going to be hit for speaking without permission?
"Go. Get. Some. Food." Shen Qingqiu repeated each word carefully. Like he was speaking to a particular imbecile. But there was no spit or fire in his words. No sort of any frustration at having to repeat himself.
Luo Binghe was stuck there for a few seconds, still struggling to comprehend that his master was able to talk in such a calm voice.
" Binghe ." Shen Qingqiu finally got annoyed at the boy's gawking and growled out his name.
Luo Binghe snapped back to attention.
"Yes, shizun!" He said and took off towards the kitchens.
It took a few minutes to get to the main kitchens and no matter what Luo Binghe said, none of the cooks or servants would spare Luo Binghe a single scrap of food.
"We were already busy cooking for the wedding. We don't have time to spare for a snack for the second husband ." They said, with a sort of satisfaction at the demotion in rank for Shen Qingqiu.
It was no secret that none of the staff cared for the Lord's firs... Second husband.
So Luo Binghe trudged back to his master's room, empty-handed. He worked himself up to confronting his punishment. The estate sounded quieter with the wedding finally over and the guests leaving.
The sun started to dip below the horizon line.
"Xiao Jiu," Yue Qingyuan's voice muffled out from behind Shen Qingqiu's door and Luo Binghe stood still. Not daring to go inside and instead stood perfectly still. So tense and silent that the voice behind the paltry door threatened to knock him over for inadvertently eavesdropping.
"There's no need for this."
Inside the room, Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes on the burning fire. Counting the sparks and cracks of the burning wood.
"No need?" Shen Qingqiu responded, not looking at his husband standing right behind him as he stared transfixed at the flames. "Apparently there was no need for a lot of things. For instance, there was no need for you to lie to me, for years , about how I would be enough and how I would never have to suffer because of your incompetence ever again."
Yue Qingyuan sighed, ragged and frustrated, running a tired hand through his hair. He was hoping it wouldn't come to this but he had come prepared to punish his husband.
'Second husband.' Something hissed at him from deep inside, enraged and betrayed but he brushed it away. Now wasn't the time for regrets.
"Xiao Jiu." He said, trying to be the calm voice in the storm to Shen Qingqiu's inevitably raised one. "It's too late . Liu Qingge's a part of our family now. You have to get along."
Shen Qingqiu coughed and turned, glaring strained eyes at Yue Qingyuan like he could kill him with glares alone. Unable to force up a laugh at his words.
Family!? They're a harem . A whore house . Another ten years and there'll be another one. A third husband. Then a fourth. And a fifth.
Because his husband is the Lord and Lords don't have just one spouse to suck his cock.
"There's also the matter of you walking out." Yue Qingyuan said gently, not bowing under his husband's glare. He didn't like having to punish his husband like this, but for both their sakes, he has to. "You'll be in solitary confinement for another week."
" Fine ." Shen Qingqiu snipped, accepting the punishment. He looked back at the letters on top of the mantle.
"... Xiao Jiu," Yue Qingyuan sighed, heart breaking at his husband turning his back towards him. A sign that Shen Qingqiu was too angry to bother arguing. " Please , don't cause any trouble. I'm serious."
That was the wrong thing to say. Shen Qingqiu walked up to the mantle, opening the box and crinkling the letters as he brought them out again.
"Those..." Yue Qingyuan was surprised to see his old letters back from when he courted his Shen Jiu when they were younger. He was very willful back then. Crafting amateurish poetry and hymns to try and swoon his future husband.
The sight of them made him nostalgic and the guilt boiled forth, making his stomach churn as he wondered what Xiao Jiu was about to do.
He knows that beneath the cold and aloof exterior, his husband is a sentimental man. He noted the kept trinkets from their years of marriage. Shen Qingqiu even kept the empty bottles of expensive perfumes he shrouded himself in.
So it wasn't all that surprising to see that his husband kept all their old letters. But he did anxiously wonder why Shen Qingqiu was bringing them out now . Shen Qingqiu wouldn't hesitate to use anything to get his way but it's rare for him to bring out anything that important to them both.
"I've kept all of your letters." Shen Qingqiu said as he finally looked up at his husband. There was something burning in his eyes, glistening and feral in a barely kept-back rage. "In every single one of these, in every letter, poem, and paragraph you said you were mine ."
"... I still am, Xiao Jiu." Yue Qingyuan muttered back, guiltily bowing his head, unable to look back at his husband.
It was true. Despite his marriage and affection for Liu Qingge, Shen Qingqiu is still the first man he married. The man he grew up with and experienced all the ups and downs throughout his life with. From boys on the streets to noble lords, Shen Qingqiu was his everything.
"No." Shen Qingqiu stared down Yue Qingyuan and saw a man in the shape of his Yue Qi.
Shen Qingqiu had risked life and limb to help his husband from the shadows more times than he could count. A knife in his sleeves, a drop of poison in every teacup. He was the one who spun lies like silk. Shen Qingqiu did everything dishonorable, and by the book horrific , to have his husband rise to the top. And he did. Yue Qingyuan soared above the clouds, and Shen Qingqiu went with him.
Trusted explicitly by the Emperor himself, the only station that Yue Qingyuan could have left to rise to is the throne itself. But even all that prestige gave Shen Qingqiu pause.
So as their marriage went on, the longer Yue Qingyuan was held above everything and everyone else, the more distant Shen Qingqiu felt his husband become. He had panicked, doing everything he could think of to keep Yue Qi at his side; Guilt, affection, sex.
But none of it worked. And bit by bit he lost the man he fell in love with. The husband he had wanted to protect from the machinations of court politics, even at the cost of his own life, was gone. Yue Qingyuan looked exactly like the puppets that Shen Qingqiu used to sneer at over the top of his fan.
Shen Qingqiu became cruel for Yue Qi and in return, his husband became Yue Qingyuan. Close advisor and friend to the Emperor, and the Lord of two husbands.
He thinks Yue Qi might still be in there, deep down in those familiar soft eyes. That he must still love him and only him somewhere. But after all these years, all the suffering, fights and mistakes...
Hasn't he already done enough?
If he fights, Yue Qiyuan will tell him to stop. If he yells, Yue Qingyuan will tell him to be silent.
He could see it. The plans he could make, the opportunities he could take, and the mess he'll make just to make Yue Qi his again. And Yue Qi, sweet kind Yue Qi, will fight against him at every turn and protect his little harlot and grow even more and more in love with him. And that's how it'll go.
Because ugly, dirty little street orphans like Shen Qingqiu don't get happy endings.
"You are." Shen Jiu agreed and let the papers slip from his fingertips into the hearth fire.
"But I don't want you." He said.
Yue Qingyuan watched, wide-eyed and horrified, as their letters slipped by one by one into the flames, burning to ash in the fireplace.
"Xiao Jiu!" He lunged forward and knelt to grab the papers out of the fire. He managed to snatch a few out by the corners but singed his hands when he tried to reach deeper in.
Out of everything he thought his Xiao Jiu would do in retaliation, to spite him, he didn't expect this! Shen Qingqiu valued everything his husband gave him, treasured every token! Because he loved him!
To burn the first gifts that Yue Qingyuan had ever given him. The gateway to their marriage. What was Xiao Jiu trying to say? What was he trying to prove?!
Yue Qingyuan choked back the tears that threatened to fall and stared hopelessly up at his husband that stared pitiless back down at him.
"I'm out." Shen Qingqiu said, his lips momentarily quivering with a manic laugh. A wave of something like heart-wrenching relief flooding through him. "I'm done. I had enough! Stay here, stand all the way over there with Liu Qingge and watch whatever the hell it was between us burn! Because I had enough!"
The world may forever know of Noble Yue Qingyuan with his beautiful First Husband Liu Qingge, the war god. But Shen Qingqiu be damned before he takes a backseat in that tale: As the pitiful, pitiless, petty second husband whose reign of terror was forced to an end by the pure-hearted marriage of true love.
With those empty letters of promises, with Yue Qingyuan's heart, shattering in his eyes, the person known as Shen Qingqiu can burn!
Luo Binghe jumped as Yue Qingyuan, red face and tear tracks staining his cheeks as still more spilled out of his enraged eyes, slammed the door open. The cacophonous bang echoing throughout Shen Qingqiu's courtyard.
Veins were bulging in his neck from how tightly he reigned himself back from his anger and Yue Qingyuan marched briskly out of Second Husband's wing of the estate.
Luo Binghe stared after the ghost of the furious Lord long after he had left. The inside of Shen Qingqiu's room was dark and silent and it frightened Luo Binghe even more somehow.
Tentatively but daring, Luo Binghe sneaked step after step to the doorway. And peered inside.
Shen Qingqiu has collapsed to the ground in exhaustion, shivering from the encroaching chill of night and overexertion. His head was bowed low, almost touching his crown to the scuffed floor.
Somehow, the room became disheveled.
Shen Qingqiu was clutching to his left arm, holding it close like it was fragile. Like he was fragile.
Soft sounds sniffed and whimpered from his mouth as he breathed raggedly to come down from his self-righteous high.
Luo Binghe gawked, agaped, at his master. His heart beating fast in his chest as he tried to think of what to do. Everything was happening so fast.
Before he could comprehend it, Luo Binghe had rushed from the doorway to help his shizun back up onto his feet.
Shen Qingqiu felt surprisingly light as he went along with the motion, taking shaky steps to his bed and collapsing on top.
He threw a hand over his eyes, humorless, breathless chuckles coughing past his lips.
He looked at the pitch blackness beneath his eyelids and hushed out, "You said you'd love me."
Luo Binghe had knelt on the floor next to Shen Qingqiu, too frightened by everything that happened to say anything, to nervous to do anything. But as his normally posed, frigid master seemed to come apart at the seams on the bed above him, Luo Binghe's bleeding heart didn't let him leave either.
Shen Jiu looked out over his room. The space feeling significantly wider and more open now that he had ransacked all his jewelry and gems out of it.
The extra week of isolation was an unnotable blur of pulling himself back together before he was free to go back to his room with a vengeance.
It was daunting how little there was left but the cleared space tickled Shen Jiu funny and he actually smiled when he thought about how he would fill the void back up again. With his own trophies and his own paintings that he’ll make for himself . And that thought led to another upsetting revelation.
Did he have anything that was his own?
He looks at the sheets still on his bed.
No. He had nothing .
From the floor to the ceiling, everything in his room, everything in the estate, was Lord Yue Qingyuan's property. Nothing was his because of his own merits. Even his own body was created for Shen Qingqiu and his lord husband.
Never for Shen Jiu.
Shen Jiu lifted a hand and rubbed his fingers together calling the soft static of his core to the surface.
Even his cultivation...
Shen Qingqiu truly did not exist without Yue Qingyuan.
"Shizun." Luo Binghe returned, empty-handed, from the kitchens Shen Jiu sent him off to for supper, clutching at his patchy robes and shuffling on his feet. Prepared to kowtow for his master's forgiveness.
Shen Jiu looks at the young boy behind him and remembers when he first obtained the little pup.
He was touring Huan Hua Palace and by chance caught that salacious, disgusting old bastard salivating over an unconscious Luo Binghe.
He was reminded of a time long past and acted so fast and swiftly that he couldn't really recall the entirety of it. Just that somehow he attained a boy with a life debt towards him, and barely breezed past the chopping block for permanently crippling the Huan Hua Palace Master.
He had originally wanted to drop the boy off to some well regarded noble family to serve as their servant, not his own. But Qi-ge managed to convince Shen Qingqiu to keep him.
It had enraged Shen Qingqiu because he knew the reason behind it.
Yue Qingyuan had thought he saved the boy because of some paternal instincts deep inside him and thought that by letting the young boy serve him, he could serve as the child Yue Qingyuan consistently denied Shen Qingqiu of.
And he hated that. Yue Qingyuan had dared try to deny it when they fought. But he never said Shen Qingqiu was wrong either. He since then tortured the boy, treating the kid like trash. Anticipating that one day the boy would either smarten up and leave to create a life of his own, or Yue Qingyuan would finally see that his ploy wasn't working and send the boy away.
But it didn't happen. And now he's looking at Luo Binghe who was still so stupidly loyal to him despite everything he's done to him.
Between a servant and his own husband, it was Luo Binghe who was still looking up at Shen Qingqiu like he was a god sent from heaven and served him faithfully.
It disgusted him.
"So there's no food." Shen Qingqiu sniffed, derision in his voice.
Luo Binghe winced and stuttered, "T-the kitchen s-staff said that they're all busy cooking for f-first h-husband and can't spare any food. S-so-"
"I know!" Shen Jiu barked and Luo Binghe curled back, silent.
Before Shen Jiu could send the boy away, Luo Binghe's stomach suddenly rumbled loud and embarrassingly.
Shen Jiu paused and glared darkly at Luo Binghe's stomach.
"You haven't eaten yet, have you?" He seethed at the stupid boy.
Binghe curled in on himself, desperate to hide away by being as small as possible.
"Answer me!" Shen Jiu shouted. What use was a servant if they starved to death?
"I-if Shizun doesn't eat then t-this servant shouldn't also!" Binghe exclaimed, speaking loud and fast and Shen Qingqiu wants to smack the boy upside the head.
This ridiculous loyalty! It's aggravating how familiar it is to Shen Jiu!
But Shen Jiu reigned back his anger for the first time in a long while. He thinks about how he would have normally punished the boy. Always for the smallest and most convoluted things.
A staple of Yue Qingyuan's heartless husband.
"Go back to the kitchens and eat." Shen Jiu ordered, turning away, not looking back at the trembling boy behind him. "Don't do something stupid like that again."
Luo Binghe suddenly ceased shaking and looked up at Shen Qingqiu, eyes wide and bright with something hopeful and astounding.
"Shi-!" Binghe started and stopped when Shen Qingqiu closed his hand fan with a snap.
He quickly bowed and said, "Many thanks to Shizun!" And ran back towards the kitchens.
Shen Jiu was sitting on his bed, the sheets pulled off and the mattress covered with various junk and knickknacks that he gathered from every corner of his room.
They were all gifts from Yue Qi from when they were younger. He since used up many of them or left them to collect dust. But even then the pure quality of them and their testament to time warranted their worth.
He had wanted to burn them like the letters but had figured that it would've been a waste.
So he thought about who he could sell them to. There was nothing bad about earning his own money.
It was the first time he's been able to think so clearly and logically since the wedding. And his analytical brain has been spinning around with various schemes and ideas to care for himself in case things go even more down south than they already had for him.
He could run, with as much money as he could scavenge, and start his own life. Maybe as a scholar in some distant town. But he wasn't sure if he wouldn't be hunted down and dragged back.
Not by Qi-ge himself but most likely by one of his own many enemies to draw and quarter him. Or rogues hired to drag him back home for the sake of the household’s face.
Besides outright running away, he had too many risks without the protection of a Lord's estate.
He sighs, fingers brushing the trinkets. It seems he was trapped here. For the time being.
A knocking at his door alerted Shen Jiu to gather himself together. Not caring enough to clean off his bed, he ordered, "Come in."
The door opened and someone rather short entered, carrying a comically large plate of an equally huge roasted bird.
"Shizun!" Luo Binghe yipped, excited, before quieting his voice back down, sheepish but determined to go through with his act of kindness.
"I brought you some dinner!" He hoisted the plate up onto the tea table before backing away, playing meek to keep his Shizun from getting too angry at him again.
Shen Qingqiu was... dumbfounded.
He stared, wide-eyed at the impossibly huge roasted bird, mind buzzing from Luo Binghe's words.
Did... Did the boy STEAL this ginormous roasted bird?!
Quickly his stomach roared much like Luo Binghe's did earlier and he could feel the familiar nausea of an empty stomach reaching up his throat.
He gulped it back down and sputtered out, "S-Stupid boy! Did I say you had to feed me?!"
He may sound insulted but he did stare greedily at the perfectly cooked fowl, mouth threatening to water over from how delicious it looked.
Binghe winced and tried to defend himself, "B-But Shizun hasn't eaten anything a-all day! And-"
"Stop stuttering!" Shizun said, irritable at being caught so off-guard by this. But his empty stomach twisted again and he had to fight back a groan of hunger.
Luo Binghe snapped his mouth shut and hung his head low.
An awkward and tense silence filled the air as Shen Qingqiu debated what to do with himself.
On one hand, he really wanted to kick Luo Binghe around. On the other hand...
It's late and he just really didn't wanna bother to.
"Come on. Eat." Shen Qingqiu sighed, thumping down at the tea table and ribbing off a piece of beautifully cooked meat.
"Shi-shizun?" Binghe startled, not sure he heard correctly.
Shen Jiu popped the piece of fowl in his mouth and took a moment to savor how tasty and wonderfully spiced it was before responding. Also to scare Binghe a little bit more.
"You stole a whole bird from the kitchens. I'm not going to finish it in one night. And if there's any evidence left," He curled his voice into a cruelly teasing lilt, "you'll be punished and I won't save you."
Binghe gulped at the thought of being caught for using the kitchens for himself and his immensely hated Shizun. The staff would definitely take the chance to attack Binghe as revenge against his master.
"Yes, shizun!" Binghe hopped up to join his shizun at the table. Awkwardly but quickly eating the roasted bird as well.
Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge were in their 'honeymoon' phase. So the two were spending most of their time 'spending time' in their rooms. Not that Shen Qingqiu knew what that was like, as Qi-ge had went straight back to work after the night of their wedding.
... Gods, his life sucked.
Yue Qingyuan had spent morning, noon, and night by his First Husband's side. So disgustingly sweet that Shen Jiu was almost glad he wasn't like that with him.
But Shen Jiu hasn't been lazing around either, wallowing in his own self-pity.
The realization of just how dependent his very existence was on the title of Yue Qingyuan's Husband had sent some sort of reinvigoration through Shen Jiu's cells.
He had taken his beloved Xiu Ya off the wall, refamiliarizing himself with the blade he's rarely touched since his discipline days at Gusu Lan.
He took down every cultivation manual from the estate library and amassed all his collective knowledge about his own finicky cultivation in a single journal and basically started from scratch, short of ripping out his Golden Core to make a new one.
He also managed to bully Binghe into taking that box of valuables he's picked out to go sell out in the market.
"But Shizun!" Binghe gasped out two of the ten words he knows. Astonished at seeing the box's contents. "These are all-"
"I know," Shen Jiu quipped, dry humor his patronage. "Worthless." He tapped the top of the box with his fan. "I want to get rid of them."
Luo Binghe had lingered, clearly conflicted about selling the things that his Shizun had so clearly used to treasure and it grated on Shen Jiu's nerves.
He whacked Luo Binghe on the head with his fan, not as hard as he used to but enough to give a bit of a sting.
"Get going!" He barked and Binghe yelped, scuttling off to do as he says.
Binghe had come back to his master's side by the afternoon with a heavy pouch of gold filled to the brim.
He handed it over to his Shizun and Shen Jiu upturned the money onto the table and counted every piece. His sharp mind knew how much all those goods were worth and wanted to make sure he got paid proper. Even if it was through a relatively uneducated servant boy.
Amazingly, all the correct amount was there and he lifted a brow towards Luo Binghe. He knew his reputation among the populace. Any smart merchant wouldn't dare try to scam him, but he was surprised that Luo Binghe didn't take a coin or two for himself.
Such a favorable show of dedication bumped the boy up a bit in Shen Jiu's good graces. He took three of the many valuable coins and threw them at Binghe's feet.
"Those are yours. Keep them somewhere safe because I won't repay you if you're stupid enough to have them stolen." Shen Jiu said and put the rest back in the bag.
Binghe gawked at his Shizun, astonished. But as Shen Jiu lost interest in whatever Binghe was doing, he quickly snapped out of it and quickly tried to figure out where to put the coins.
Shizun said somewhere safe. Thinking fast, Binghe decided to stash the gold in his socks.
Shen Jiu caught him out of the corner of his eye and gave the smallest, minute nod. Approval of the boy's apparent streets smarts earning him another point.
Aside from that day, Binghe spent most of his time sticking to Shen Qingqiu's side. His new and frankly disturbing behavior towards him turned Binghe into an awestruck, sticky pup. More so than usual.
Shen Jiu still didn't mince words or hold back his hits. But they weren't as severe anymore. The worst that Shizun hits him lately was on top of his head with his fan, and that's only for if Binghe takes too long to follow orders.
Plus Binghe's got a tough skull, so it doesn't hurt as much as it usually would.
In fact, little by little everyday, as Luo Binghe did what he'd just usually do, Shizun seemed to have found a newfound appreciation for it all. He even sometimes rewards Binghe for his loyalty.
Binghe has also somehow become a usual attendant at Shizun's tea table as they eat together during breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert for his Shizun's sweet tooth. Which he usually all prepared himself.
When he sheepishly admitted such this to Shizun, Shen Jiu promptly ordered him to cook all their meals from now on. Calling his Lord Husband's chefs useless for not being able to cook half as good as a young boy.
Luo Binghe took the shining half compliment for what it was with glowing pride and a dorkishly large smile. Which Shen Jiu half-heartedly bopped him on the head for.
And once when Shizun was particularly dazzling as he routinely practiced with Xiu Ya, he caught Binghe's eyes sparkling with admiration towards him and a childish desire to be just as graceful.
Shen Jiu hummed, remembering where he first found the boy. Huan hua Palace claims to be a place of scholars and righteous warriors but really they were all lazy sacks of scum.
"Boy," Shizun called Binghe that nowadays more often as opposed to 'dog' and 'mutt'. It still wasn't his name but Binghe was still much happier with it.
"You used to live at Huan Hua Palace, didn't you? Didn't they teach you anything?" He asked, doubt strongly layering his question.
Binghe blushed, embarrassed as he thought back to the sect he used to live in as a younger child. He hardly remembers anything about it. Only remembering that it was where Shizun saved him from... Something. He doesn't know what and Shizun gets angry whenever he tries to ask about it, but he knows that Shizun would have no need to lie to him about it.
"No, Shizun." Binghe quickly admitted, ashamed at his lack of education. "If they did, I don't remember."
Shen Jiu was actually not surprised by that. He rolled his eyes. Not only did he have to take in the boy, but the boy was also actually stupid? Did he even know how to read and write?
Shen Qingqiu strongly doubted it.
"How do you write your name?" He tested the boy.
Binghe blushed hotter, and was on the verge of ashamed tears as he poked uselessly at the dirt.
"I'm sorry, Shizun. I don't know how." He said, frustrated at himself for this perceived self-failure.
But before Luo Binghe could drown himself any further in sorrow, Shen Jiu stabbed the point of Xiu Ya into the dirt and dragged it at Binghe's feet.
Shen Qingqiu's writing even with a sword in the dirt was concise and elegant. Swiftly drawing the characters; 'Luo' and 'Binghe'.
"This is your name: Luo for the Luo River, Binghe for icy river. Your name means 'Lowered Into An Icy River'." Shen Qingqiu then swiped his blade, brushing away the letters from existence.
Binghe stared at where the letters used to be, silent tears starting to fall from his eyes onto the ground.
Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes at the sight. He tipped Binghe's head up to look at him with the point of his sword.
Binghe blinked, trying in vain to hold back the tears at the revelation of his name.
"Wipe your tears boy." Was all Shen Jiu had to say before letting his head drop back down and wiped the dirt off Xiu Ya.
"Be grateful." He advised, a bit of a sour taste in his mouth. "At least your name means something."
Luo Binghe didn't understand what his Shizun meant in the moment, only wiping his eyes with his sleeves as his Shizun instructed.
Later that night, he would use an old splintered brush and a wrinkled piece of paper and rewrite his name a thousand times, cluttering the letters as tightly as possible to make space for more, over and over
But at the moment, he just cried and thanked his Shizun silently in his heart for his rare kindness.
Shen Jiu watched dispassionately as Liu Qingge bent in over himself as he fought against the racking pain of a Qi deviation.
This man stole his husband, his life, and left Shen Qingqiu shattered and broken.
He could turn away. Leave Liu Qingge to his fate. The bastard would die and Shen Jiu would regain everything he lost. He'd be First Husband again and Yue Qi would be his and his alone.
'Except he won't be.' His common sense warned him. Hissing out from the cracks of his broken heart. 'He'll just go on to marry another man again. And you'll be forgotten again. Over and over, again and again.'
"Fucker." Shen Jiu growled as he turned back around, flapping his sleeves, throwing out Xiu Ya to launch at Liu Qingge.
The brute actually managed to dodge at the strike, red eyes straining wide to growl at Shen Jiu. The man no doubt believed that he was trying to finish what the Qi deviation started.
The aggravating battle waged on for a bit. Liu Qingge jumped out of Xiu Ya's way and Shen Jiu gritted his teeth to try to pin the bastard down while dodging the man's own wild attacks, not caring about the property damage in collateral.
Eventually, he finally managed to jab Xiu Ya through Liu Qingge's sleeve, pinning the man to the ground.
Liu Qingge roared and twisted, trying to rip his clothes apart to get away.
Shen Jiu was quick to lunge forward and slam his hand on the spot between Liu Qingge's shoulder blades. He closed his eyes and focused his spiritual energy to flow steadily through his palm into Liu Qingge.
His cultivation had recently gone through a dedicated and daily cleansing, so his spiritual power was fresh and powerful. Smoothly flowing through him to entwine with the feral Liu Qingge's.
Liu Qingge growled incomprehensible words and tried to buck Shen Jiu off but Shen Jiu just pressed down harder onto his acupuncture point, pressuring Liu Qingge to stay still.
Slowly but surely Liu Qingge started to calm down as the pain and panic ebbed out of him. Shen Qingqiu's wood element swirled gently into Liu Qingge's Earth element, cooing the rampant Qi to settle. Eagerly healing Liu Qingge's feverish body and steadying his raspy breathing.
Liu Qingge's mind cleared and was met with even more confusion as Shen Jiu, the Shen Qingqiu, healed him out of his Qi deviation.
Shen Jiu on his part was focusing entirely on sending his Qi through Liu Qingge. He was far more used to the hot and snapping Fire element of Yue Qi's spiritual core. The eager welcome and easy coddling of Liu Qingge's disturbed him. But he only chalked it up to their compatible elemental energies.
Because he was so focused on helping his hated rival and Liu Qingge was naturally out of it from the near-death experience, he wasn't aware of anyone else approaching. Not until someone had literally kicked him away from First Husband.
The kick was so powerful and forceful that Shen Jiu flew from Liu Qingge, bouncing off the ground before slamming down to a stop.
Shen Jiu gasped from the pain, clutching at his undoubtedly bruised sides, curling in on himself to try to mitigate the sudden pain. A pain that he was familiar with but hadn't felt in a long, long time. A pain that was promised he would never feel again.
From his fetal position on the ground, he peeked up from his hair covering his face like a curtain to stare shocked and horrified at who it was that attacked him. Whatever minuscule fragment of hope was left buried in his chest was crushed ruthlessly.
"Shen Qingqiu... You!-" Yue Qingyuan panted, anger and panic rolling in his eyes and voice.
He had arrived home to panicking servants who told him that his new husband had gone mad in his courtyard. Yue Qingyuan ran to his First Husband's side to see what was wrong and came to the sight of Shen Jiu pushing Liu Qingge to the ground, a glow around the two of them.
His mind went to the worst possible scenario. And his body went into auto-drive. He just remembers springing forward and forcing Shen Qingqiu away before he could finish whatever he was trying to do to Liu Qingge.
He thought he could mitigate any more damage by keeping his husbands far apart from each other. He thought Xiao Jiu would be alright so long as Liu Qingge was out of his sight.
He knows his Xiao Jiu, how his fires burn hottest and his actions strike fastest. So when he saw Shen Qingqiu standing over a vulnerable Liu Qingge, he knew he had to protect his husband before Xiao Jiu did any more.
Not even Yue Qiyuan could protect him if Xiao Jiu killed someone like Liu Qingge.
"Shizun!" Luo Binghe yelled, terrified and heart broken as he raced to his master's side. He fell to his knees, hands hovering anxiously above Shen Jiu, not knowing what to do.
All the years he's been in their servitude, he's never seen the Lord raise a hand let alone his voice against Shen Qingqiu before, even when his master did the exact opposite.
Luo Binghe's stomach jumped in his throat as he fretted about what to do, tears welling up in his eyes as he worried about his master in pain.
Shen Qingqiu was staring out from inside his ink-black hair, out towards his husband who just attacked him and he looked broken. Shen Jiu was shaking and Luo Binghe knew if he commented that he might be the one kicked next.
But he would gladly endure it so long as Shizun was okay. So long as he wasn't hurt too badly. He wanted to yell, yell at the man who was supposed to love and protect Shen Jiu and yet so utterly shattered that delicate trust.
"Shizun..." Binghe muttered softly, trying to keep his master still. As he reached out to help his Shizun up, Shen Jiu flinched away from his touch and it broke his heart.
Liu Qingge gasped in his breaths and reached out a shaky hand to curl over Yue Qingyuan's ankle.
"Wasn't... Him..." He gasped out before the exhaustion finally caught up with him and he passed out.
"Qingge!"Yue Qiyuan gasped and caught his First Husband. Thinking over what he managed to gasp out, Yue Qingyuan turned wide and horrified eyes towards his husband.
"Xiao Jiu?" His voice was wispy. Stolen breathless at the dawning horror of what must have really happened. And what he's done.
At the name, Shen Qingqiu seemed to have snapped back to reality. He slapped away Luo Binghe's hand and stood on his own, fighting back flinching from the pain radiating from his back.
"First Husband had a Qi Deviation. I had to immobilize him to stop any further damage to my property and fed him my spiritual energy to stop the deviation..." He glared down at Yue Qingyuan crouching over his husband like he was a precious treasure. He had to ignore the feeling of his soul bleeding out.
"...I'll call for Mu Qingfang." Shen Qingqiu said, clipped and trying to distance himself from the drama that just happened.
"No!" Yue Qingyuan stopped him from leaving, picking up Liu Qingge in his arms, shaking his head, struggling to believe him. "Let me just bring A-Liu inside first."
Yue Qingyuan turned away from them and left to bring Liu Qingge back inside
"Shizun." Binghe whimpered, not knowing what to do let alone think.
During his servitude, he's seen Shen Qingqiu plot and enact countless cruel and evil acts. But Binghe also saw Shen Qingqiu change. Not necessarily in a good way, but it was like Shen Qingqiu lost the fire in him that lashed out to burn others. As the singular husband of Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu was always paranoid and working in the shadows to secure and raise their station in the Emperor's court.
And he saw it reach its precipice when Yue Qingyuan confronted Shen Qingqiu about marrying Liu Qingge. He watched Shen Qingqiu try and fail to do anything and everything to stop it from happening, he saw Shizun throw words and hands at his husband to stop him from marrying Liu Qingge.
Luo Binghe originally thought that it was all because Shen Qingqiu didn't want to lose his privileges as First Husband, didn't want to lose the control he had over the estate.
But ever since he walked out from the marriage ceremony, Shen Qingqiu has been like an emotionless doll. He hadn't even entertained himself by torturing Luo Binghe.
And when he overheard Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan, things slowly started piecing themselves together for Luo Binghe.
He saw the signs, no matter how small they were, in his memories of how much Shen Qingqiu really, truly loved Yue Qingyuan. How every time Shen Qingqiu fired and cycled out the staff, the ones cut off were those who always gossiped and acted shifty, taking little things from the estate for their own.
Luo Binghe doesn't think he can easily forgive Shen Qingqiu for the torment he was put through but Luo Binghe steadily realized just who Shen Qingqiu truly is. What he's really like as a person.
He was a man who sacrificed morals for the man he loves, even if it garnered him countless enemies.
A man who gave up so much of himself and built himself upon the foundation of belonging to the lord he loves that when it's all swept away there's nothing left of him.
When he learned that that very Lord was going to abandon him for someone else, how else could he react except with... Fear ?
Luo Binghe's soul wept for his master.
"What?" Shen Qingqiu snapped at Luo Binghe. "If you have something to say just say it!"
Luo Binghe winced at the harsh tone but still dared murmur, "Does it hurt?"
Shen Jiu stiffened, the pain intensifying from the tensing. Of all the people to ask him that in that moment, it was the servant boy he loved to toy with and take his anger out on. Despite the ache, something warm settled in his chest.
"... It doesn't matter if it hurts." Shen Jiu answered, voice low and stepping forward to follow Yue Qingyuan. "I'm not the subject of concern here."
Luo Binghe watched his Shizun walk in the footsteps of Yue Qingyuan, loyally following his lord despite the damage to his body.
Luo Binghe felt something dark and angry roll around in his chest. Liu Qingge was fine , Shizun saved him . And Yue Qingyuan responded by attacking his husband! A man he promised that he would love and protect forever! And Shizun was still standing by his side, broken by his betrayal, and fighting through the abuse he earned for it.
Both his Shizun and the Lord had changed from what Luo Binghe first knew them as.
His Shizun's heart shattered and he had to throw out the pieces and evidence that showed he ever loved Yue Qingyuan. Ever loved anyone.
Yue Qingyuan betrayed his faithful husband. Someone he used to be so clearly and proudly in love with. Had written him letters and poems during their childhood and promised an eternity together with. And he turned distant and commanding and cruel, even attacking his own spouse.
Luo Binghe tightened his hands into determined fists.
He may be grateful that his Shizun changed so much, but that doesn't mean he wants his Shizun to keep being hurt unjustly.
Unlike Yue Qingyuan, Luo Binghe keeps his promises. And he swears by his mother's memory!
He'll always protect Shen Qingqiu!