Binghe’s husband tells him he is beautiful, accomplished, and good, and tells him a lot of things he is not: unlovable, disgusting, bad. He says he is not ashamed of Binghe. Doesn’t the whole world already know what they are to one another? Why would Binghe need yet another proof? No, Shen Qingqiu could never be ashamed of Binghe.
Shizun has never denied him since Maigu Ridge.
He has not denied him, but hushes Binghe when Binghe starts to call him by his title of royal consort in the presence of some petty delegates from the demonic hinterlands. He stiffens when Binghe embraces him in front of others. He lets Binghe’s hand stay on his waist, but radiates discomfort until Binghe removes it himself. He turns his head away and closes his eyes when Binghe tries to show him in a mirror how wonderful he looks wrapped up in nothing but Binghe’s arms.
It isn’t shyness. Shizun is not shy with his body.
He does not like how the two of them look together.
He stalled and stalled before he allowed his likeness to be painted with Binghe’s, and still will not look at the finished picture. It is an airy, pale, delicate painting, unfitting for a demonic lair. It is just as Binghe wanted it. In it, he rests against Shen Qingqiu’s chest, while his Shizun’s cheek touches the top of his head, his fingers deep in Binghe’s tresses.
Why won’t Shizun look at it, if not because he’s ashamed to be Binghe’s husband?
Binghe knows he is crazy. Xin Mo may be gone, but the emptiness still howls at the back of his head, his consciousness scarred and sutured, pieces of it still missing. Maybe they are the pieces that could have made him into the hero he fancied himself as a teenager, a rescuer of the oppressed, a shining leader, instead of a king crowned on top of a pile of corpses, whose husband can’t bear to look at their wedding portrait.
He is crazy, and it’s wrong, but he has to hear it from Shizun’s own lips. The truth potion in this flower is not strong, and its scent and odor are masked by the wine. It will not make Shizun tell his most guarded secrets, and in the morning he will think it was the wine that made him talk.
Shizun’s mouth smells of that wine as he turns his head, nuzzling into the crook of Binghe’s neck. “Not this again.”
“Shizun must forgive this disciple. He simply does not understand. Shizun’s words do not match his actions.”
Shizun touches his chin, fingertips feather-light, and presses a dry soft kiss on his jaw. (Shizun never simply grabs him and kisses him with wild passion. Passion is something that must be coaxed, teased, persuaded out of him like a prize, whereas Binghe can barely keep his hands to himself at any time of the day. He does not want to ask why; he fears the answer is the same as the one to all his other questions.)
Shen Qingqiu repeats, “Anyone would be proud to have such a husband.”
“Then why isn’t Shizun?” Binghe asks softly, his throat tight. He strokes his hand along Shen Qingqiu’s back, soothing. There is no tension or stiffness there now, here in the warm lamp-lit dark of their own rooms, with Shizun pliant with food and wine and tenderness.
“Mm. I’m only—” and with that, the stiffness returns. Binghe moves his hand along Shizun’s spine, just how he knows Shizun likes it, and Shizun sighs and relaxes. “Binghe, I’m ashamed of myself.”
Binghe’s hand stops. It is a question in itself.
Shizun sighs and closes his eyes, a slight frown tightening his forehead. “It is an unpleasant subject.”
Binghe waits, resuming the movement. The potion will do its work.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to go.” He taps Binghe’s nose, as if reproaching a child. “You were meant to marry someone else, many other someone elses. I was meant to… continue teaching, if I could. While my days away, help people along, practice calligraphy, cultivate at my leisure. Instead, we ended up in this disgraceful way.”
Binghe feels like he is swallowing gravel, but he waits.
“This master never wanted to be an empress, or a wife. What kind of work is that for a man? What kind of man ends up with such work? In any crowd, there is always someone who has read or heard lurid pornography with my name in it. That is all Shen Qingqiu is now, the immortal master who spread his legs for his own disciple. I used to wear this name like a crown, now it is equivalent to… to…” He seems at lost for an analogy, and gives up. “Well, it has lost any dignity it once had.”
Shizun sighs again, and shifts until he faces away from Binghe. His chest moves faster than it had a moment ago, his heart has picked up a fretful pace. “He tried to get away from it,” he mumbles, and Binghe no longer knows who he is talking about. “From his past. I’ve messed it up for him, too. Once a whore, always a—”
“Shizun!” Binghe chokes out.
Shizun’s head snaps around, startled out of his drowsiness. “Oh. I’ve upset you.” He cups Binghe’s face and rubs his thumbs at the moisture gathering in the corners of Binghe’s eyes. “Do not cry, Binghe. This master has had too much wine and is talking nonsense. Don’t cry, silly child.”
“Shizun is not a—that word.” Binghe grabs Shizun’s wrists, turns his head to kiss his palm. “I didn’t mean—How can Shizun—”
“Binghe, it’s all right. You haven’t done anything wrong. Please don’t cry.” Shizun kisses him then, small soft kisses across his cheeks, stopping at his mouth, insisting until Binghe parts his lips and lets himself be pulled into a deeper kiss. He clings and cries harder.
Shizun truly finds nothing wrong with Luo Binghe. To him, Binghe is a prodigy, he is beautiful, he is talented, a king of men and demons. He is Shizun’s good little monster, deserving of all the love in the world.
The only one Shen Qingqiu is ashamed of is Shen Qingqiu.
And Binghe doesn’t know how to fix that.