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scent of the future

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1.

It's a new scent that clings to Gu Yun these days.

Since Chang Geng's childhood, Gu Yun has always smelled of bitter medicine. Now is no different. As Chang Geng quietly shuts the door to their room, it's as though he's walked into a warm pot of medicine, the herbal scent tickling his nose.

The difference — it's no longer the familiar three-part poisoned medicine that Gu Yun drinks like water now.

By the bedside, there is an emptied bowl with lingering drops of medicine clinging to the edges, some small jars of pills and supplements Chen Qing Xu had prescribed earlier lined up like a small, personal army along one edge. The fragrance-burner sits closest to the bed, apart from the collection of prescriptions, still steadily burning.

Chang Geng hardly notices the tranquilizer underneath all the layers of herbs and medicine, but Gu Yun, even as dazed to the world as he is now, is surprisingly sensitive to whether the fragrance has burned out or not, waking up not too long after if it has.

With light steps but an impatient heart, Chang Geng divests himself of the topmost layers of clothes, sets them aside, and makes his way to the bed. The bedcurtain was carelessly opened some time between Chang Geng leaving and coming back now. It hangs half-closed, revealing Gu Yun fast asleep just behind it.

It isn’t often that Gu Yun tosses and turns while asleep, and with his body is still recovering now, he instinctively refrains from it.

But Gu Yun must have woken up while Chang Geng was gone. Aside from the askew bedcurtain, Chang Geng can clearly see that Gu Yun took advantage of his absence and moved over to Chang Geng’s side of the bed.

Even after bringing Gu Yun back to the capital, Chang Geng, someone naturally born to be concerned, still can’t help but worry. Despite reassurances all around, it did not change the fact that Gu Yun’s condition isn’t very good, and so Chang Geng does his best to take care of him, talking to Chen Qing Xu about his condition every few days, waiting for the times when Gu Yun was a bit more sober to ask how he feels.

Of course, it isn’t as though Gu Yun doesn’t notice this, but there isn’t even enough breath in Gu Yun’s lungs for him to try to reassure him with lengthy talk. All he can do is answer honestly.

Unexpectedly, seeing this scene, the tension in Chang Geng’s heart eases a bit. A small smile crosses his lips.

He carefully sits on the bed, reaching out to tangle his fingers with Gu Yun’s.

There are still steel plates wrapped around some places taking longer to heal. Even if Gu Yun is wearing Heavy Armour at this moment, Chang Geng will not mind it, but he can’t bring himself to hold Gu Yun to sleep the way he wants to now, afraid of making him uncomfortable.

For now, Chang Geng can only content himself with these small but reassuring things — having Gu Yun recovering in a place where he can see, taking care of him in all the ways he can, holding him like this and reminding himself that Gu Yun is still here.

For the first time since he’s brought Gu Yun back, Chang Geng seems to catch the fragrance of tranquilizer.

He lightly rubs Gu Yun’s fingers with his own and thinks to himself, He’ll be alright.

 

2.

Recovery is slow. As the days pass and Gu Yun begins to stay awake for more of the day, Chang Geng’s worries shift.

“Don’t push yourself,” he says as he helps Gu Yun out of their room and into the courtyard.

Night has just fallen. Stars hang overhead, glittering brightly in the moonless sky. Some servants totter back and forth, slowly lighting up the lamps in the courtyard at Chang Geng’s earlier request, casting it in a faint orange glow.

Gu Yun laughs, quiet and somewhat hoarse even though the wound on his neck has already fully healed. He asks, “Do I dare to with you here?”

Before Chang Geng can respond, Gu Yun continues, “If I show I’m slightly out of breath, won’t you just order another day of bedrest? Forget it. I only want to walk around a bit. My back aches from laying down so much.”

Hearing that, Chang Geng swallows his earlier reply, smiling helplessly.

Gu Yun turns his head to look at him. The liuli glass is clipped to his nose. The metal frame and gold chain glint in the low light. “What’s wrong?”

Chang Geng shakes his head. He squeezes Gu Yun’s hand once, just enough to get his attention, and speaks into his ear, “Watch your step.”

Even with the nation's affairs to busy him, thanks to regular reports from an earnest Huo Dan, Chang Geng is aware of what happens in the Marquis' Manor while he's gone. Gu Yun has been walking around more often as of late, taking half a day to go from one end of the manor to the other, settling back obediently in bed by the time Chang Geng comes home.

Chang Geng has never asked him about it, but he's wondered countless times, What is there to push himself so much for?

Several reasons have crossed Chang Geng's mind. Habit, unwilling to laze around, a years-honed general unable to let go of his vigilance for too long —

— His Majesty has wracked his head over this many times, but he never asked Gu Yun outright. Even if he asks, Gu Yun will probably not properly reply.

As they settle down at the small table, Chang Geng suddenly thinks, Is he worried I will scold him?

With Gu Yun's health the way it is, Chang Geng thinks, even if he wants to, he won't be able to.

Waving these pointless thoughts away, Chang Geng pours a cup of warm water and gives it to Gu Yun, somewhat distracted. “Drink this to warm you up a bit.”

Gu Yun takes it and drinks without a word, eyes lingering on Chang Geng.

Chang Geng moves to pour himself a cup. His gaze is only averted for a moment, but he suddenly hears Gu Yun stiffly stand back up.

Startled, Chang Geng blurts out: “What are you doing — “

Cold fingers press against his cheek. An even colder palm follows, cupping his face. Gu Yun stands before him, half-leaning against the table, the smallest of frowns on his lips.

The medicinal scent clings onto Gu Yun’s sleeve. Chang Geng breathes it in, then hurriedly reaches out to hold Gu Yun’s waist to steady him.

Gu Yun asks again, “What’s wrong?”

Chang Geng falls quiet.

Gu Yun: “Chang Geng?”

Chang Geng suddenly asks, “Will you tell me?”

Gu Yun is confused. “What?”

Gu Yun’s words from earlier linger at the back of his mind. Chang Geng unconsciously rubs his waist, thinking it still too thin.

“If you’re out of breath or too tired or hurting,” Chang Geng says, looking up at him. “Will you tell me?”

Hearing this, Gu Yun pauses. Chang Geng steadily holds his gaze, not hiding away at all.

In those eyes, Gu Yun finds a shadow of helplessness, as if Chang Geng already knows the answer despite asking. He also finds a desperate sort of hope of a person who has missed time and time again, wanting this try to finally hit its mark.

Marshal Gu has a heart cast in iron. He's not a heartless beast, and the soft inside has already been exposed to this person besides. Before, distance made it easy to dodge Chang Geng's eyes and hide away all the unpleasant and scary things, but these days… if Chang Geng wants to strike his heart, all he needs to do is reach out and pinch it.

Gu Yun breathes out, his hand slipping further back, fingers rubbing the soft skin of Chang Geng's ear. The medicinal fragrance flows from his sleeve, and Chang Geng unconsciously relaxes.

Gu Yun says, "If you ask, I won't lie to you."

"Then," Chang Geng immediately starts, "These past few days, you've been getting up while I was gone. Does it really hurt when you lay down?"

Gu Yun smiles. Even in his current state, he’s had a vague feeling that some traitors had changed sides in his own home. Later, when Chang Geng is out, he’ll need to root them out and scare them back into submission.

Without revealing a thing, Gu Yun reaches out to play with Chang Geng’s hair, replying, "It's difficult to sleep without a certain beauty accompanying me in bed."

Chang Geng frowns at him. "Zi Xi."

“I’m not lying,” Gu Yun tells him. He looks at Chang Geng and asks, “If I said I missed you, would you believe it?”

A vague understanding dawns on Chang Geng. He can somewhat imagine it — Gu Yun waking up alone, wanting to recover faster in order to accompany him wherever he’s going but at the same time not wanting to worry Chang Geng by doing so, sneaking around behind his back, pretending nothing at all happened when Chang Geng came home.

However…

He gazes back at Gu Yun, eyes growing hot.

Chang Geng: “I don’t believe you. What are you hiding?”

Gu Yun laughs, “Isn’t the Bone of Impurity gone? You’re still so suspicious?”

“This suspicion is because of you,” Chang Geng says, reining in his wayward emotions. He pulls Gu Yun back into the seat. “Sit down, don’t strain yourself. Hurry and drink the water before it cools.”

Chang Geng presses Gu Yun’s cup back into his hands. It’s still hot. The heat immediately warms up Gu Yun’s fingers as he holds it, and he takes a slow sip.

Beside him, Chang Geng reaches out and wraps both his arms around Gu Yun’s waist. He pauses afterwards. Gu Yun sets the cup aside and looks at him. “Hm?”

“Nothing,” Chang Geng replies. He slowly leans over and presses his forehead to Gu Yun’s shoulder. It’s a light touch, hardly anything at all, Chang Geng not daring to press on him too much.

He breathes in the scent of medicine clinging onto Gu Yun, feeling a mix of comfort and anxiety.

Gu Yun wasn’t completely dishonest earlier. Chang Geng can feel the stiffness along his back, the careful way he breathes in and out. Even if he said it somewhat jokingly before, Chang Geng can already gather how much truth was in his words. Without thinking about it, he runs his hand down Gu Yun’s back, carefully pressing down on all the tight and painful places, wanting to drive away all the pain.

My general, Chang Geng thinks to himself. Get well soon.

 

3.

Fortunately, by the end of the year, Gu Yun more or less recovers. He wanders around the manor some days, running off to the Ling Shu Institute on others, taking advantage of this rare “vacation” to the fullest. With so much free time, he’s even taken over the renovations of the manor’s courtyard that Chang Geng started.

Unfortunately, even recovered, the scent of medicine still lingers around Gu Yun.

Chang Geng hands him a bowl of medicine and watches as Gu Yun drinks it all without a change in his expression.

Chang Geng hesitates, then asks, “How is it?”

“Delicious,” Gu Yun says with a smile. “Better than the one before. Miss Chen must have taken some pity on me this time.”

Chang Geng knows he isn’t telling the truth — he’s the one who brewed his medicine, after all. Even by scent alone, the bitterness of it is apparent, there’s no need to talk about how it tastes.

A few days after Gu Yun discovered the temperamental little pill hidden in the beads of his bracelet and sent it over to Chen Qing Xu, Chen Qing Xu came back with modified medicine designed after the properties she gleaned from it. So soon after recovering, Gu Yun was put back on a diet of medicine, drinking it every day.

After drinking it so often, any opinions he may have had about the medicine have all been whittled away by its relentless bitterness. Chang Geng sometimes wonders if his tastebuds have shriveled up from it.

They say the more bitter the medicine, the more effective it is. Whether or not there’s any truth behind those words, Chang Geng doesn’t know, but somewhere in his heart, he secretly hopes so. If that’s the case, after drinking this medicine for a while, wouldn’t Gu Yun’s eyes and ears be cured sooner?

“Miss Chen said some results will show soon if it’s effective,” Chang Geng says. He reaches out, pulls away Gu Yun’s liuli glass, and finally lets the pent-up worry leak into his expression.

Despite Chen Qing Xu reassuring him that this medicine is indeed the cure, after several days of taking it, Gu Yun hasn’t mentioned any notable improvement. Logically, Chang Geng understands a years-long sickness won’t be cured in such a short time. Still, understanding this doesn’t lessen any of his concern.

How is it? Chang Geng writes into Gu Yun’s palm. Can you see better today?

Gu Yun’s lips pull into a smile. “You ask every day. How am I supposed to tell?”

Chang Geng: Can you see me more clearly than yesterday?

With a laugh, Gu Yun accurately presses a finger to the crease that formed between Chang Geng’s brows. Although Chang Geng knows he’s blind, Gu Yun still accurately looks straight into his eyes: “What do you think?”

He smooths his fingers over Chang Geng’s brows and says, “It’s no use asking about yourself. Everything else, on the other hand, is still blurry.”

For a moment, Chang Geng gazes at him, eyes unreadable. His heart feels hot.

A little uncontrollably, he calls out, voice soft, “Zi Xi.”

There’s no telling if Gu Yun actually heard him or if it’s his innate intuition, he responds back lightly, “Hm?”

Either way, Chang Geng doesn’t speak again. He writes quietly onto Gu Yun’s palm for only a few moments before Gu Yun uses his other hand to push his head away with a laugh. “Get out.”

Chang Geng looks at him, smiling. “Zi Xi.”

“What?” Gu Yun says loudly.

“Didn’t you say just now that you could see me clearly?” Chang Geng asks, mostly to himself.

“I can’t hear you,” Gu Yun says with a straight face.

When Chang Geng starts writing into his palm again, Gu Yun waves his hand off.

When Chang Geng tries to put on his liuli glass, Gu Yun turns his head.

Chang Geng laughs, a bit of happiness sparking in his heart. Left with no other options, he leans over and says directly into Gu Yun’s ear: “Yifu.”

Gu Yun: “...”

There really isn’t any way to handle this big beauty.

 

+1

It’s a quiet night.

Gu Yun is fast asleep beside him. Chang Geng looks at him and lets his eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, gradually making out the outline of him.

Outside, a wind whistles by. Chang Geng shifts, closing the small distance between them, and wraps his arm around Gu Yun.

The scent of medicine fills his lungs, a shadow in his heart.

 

 

Chang Geng wakes up groggy and disoriented. A rare ray of winter sunlight shines in his eyes.

In a daze, he recalls his dream. It was neither one of unrestrained joy nor one of innumerable pains and sorrows, but as it fades, it leaves behind an inexplicable gloominess. Chang Geng, in a half-awake state, feels a bit like a needle has pricked his heart.

There’s a vague urge coming to life in his chest, hot and sparking, like the flicker and snap of the steam lamp before it turns on —

“Your Majesty, Master Xu is here,” the attendant announces from outside.

— but at that voice, Chang Geng presses the flame that wants to rise down into a bearable smolder.

Whatever it is, it will have to wait.

He pinches his brows to wake himself up. “Let him in.”

The first few months of His Majesty’s rule was both an extremely busy yet smooth-sailing time. Although preparations were made beforehand, it isn’t as though Chang Geng was able to make out each and every ripple that would come after the war ended. In the end, afterwards, a lot of matters are still brought to Chang Geng’s hands to deal with.

It can’t be helped. No matter what plans Chang Geng has for the future, right now, the seeds have only been planted, their roots just starting to sink into the earth.

Xu Ling steps inside, bows, then immediately dives into the reason for his visit.

It’s neither a big nor small issue, one involving Du Wan Quan and the merchants under him. Chang Geng has already gone over the details with the man himself some time ago, both of them reaching an agreement. He relays and reviews it all with Xu Ling, then takes this chance to go over other big and small matters.

By the end of it, the sun has already started to set.

Xu Ling’s eyes are visibly bright, as if their long discussion reinvigorated rather than exhausted him. “I’ll take my leave now, Your Majesty.”

Chang Geng blinks, then nods, sending him off. He stays for a moment longer, but soon he also retires for the day, hurrying out and into the carriage to head back to the Marquis' Manor.

The distance between the palace and the manor isn’t far, but Chang Geng still gets caught in a daze. With nothing to distract him, the feeling that he couldn’t quite place before comes back, circling around like a trapped beast.

In fact, Chang Geng can somewhat understand this feeling. Although Chen Qing Xu deemed Gu Yun fully recovered not too long ago, Chang Geng’s vigilance hasn’t been affected. He’s aware that in his heart he doesn’t fully believe it.

After so many years, it’s not unnatural to feel like this.

When the carriage comes near the manor, Chang Geng glances out the window. Strangely enough, there’s someone walking along the manor wall.

He abruptly gets up.

Startled shouts and exclamations pass in and out of Chang Geng’s ears. “Your Majesty, be careful!”

At that moment, Chang Geng thinks he might have gone mad.

Any witness will think back to this moment and find it strange and comical — Marshal Gu, Commander of the Black Iron Camp, turning his head at the commotion only to lose his balance and slip off the top of the manor wall because he was scared silly by His Majesty’s sudden appearance… and His Majesty, who rushed out of the carriage to catch him.

It should have been a vain attempt. Chang Geng’s martial arts isn’t enough to cover the distance between them. Besides, a short fall like this is nothing to Gu Yun, who’s had to walk on a knife’s edge for most of his life.

Yet, somehow, by miracle or luck, Chang Geng catches him anyway.

Chang Geng’s heart beats in his ears. He sucks in a breath, unconsciously searching for the scent of medicine, but all he finds is the faint scent of saponin mixed with the wind and the food stall Gu Yun must have visited earlier. No matter what, he can’t find it.

He stops short, a little confused, but right then Gu Yun laughs. It’s very clear in Chang Geng’s ears, stunning him temporarily. Afterwards, Gu Yun lowers his head and says something — probably teasing him — but Chang Geng can’t really focus on his words.

For some reason, his throat feels tight.

Gu Yun notices his strange mood. He pats his shoulder. “Chang Geng?”

Chang Geng presses closer to Gu Yun but doesn’t reply right away.

He breathes in deep, letting this scent sweep up every lingering shadow, then finally exhales all of the worries in his heart.

Chang Geng hugs him tight. With a little laugh, he shakes his head and says, both to himself and Gu Yun, “Everything is alright.”