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plum blossoms and winter frost

Chapter Text

 

Gu Yun’s Mountain was not surrounded by bamboo like those often seen in cultivator sects or the pine more characteristic to the common folk.

“The Gu Family was originally a military family in the mortal realm. A long line of prestigious generals came from this family, serving and protecting the common folk and changing the tides of war during troubled times. The last of this family’s generals, you — Gu Yun — had the chance to ascend as an immortal after Great Liang’s last war in Emperor Long An’s era.”

Gu Yun listened carefully, taking one step at a time along the mountain path, eyes momentarily caught by the leaves overhead. One fell from its branch, and he followed its downwards, winding trail to the ground.

A thought crossed his mind. He interrupted his companion: “The path here is very clear. Brother Ji Ping, didn’t you say this mountain was sealed up for a long time?”

Brother Ji Ping — Shen Yi paused. He glanced at the path too, but then his face went black. He turned to look at him and accused, “You’re trying to change the subject again.”

Before Gu Yun could even click his tongue, Shen Yi continued, “This is your history. Were you listening at all?”

“Gu Family was a military family, I was a general,” Gu Yun repeated. “So? How did I go from a prestigious family to this one-man sect on the mountain?”

“You’re not part of a sect,” Shen Yi said. “You were the last of the Gu’s, and you happened to ascend. If anything, you’re just an immortal who took up house on a random mountain instead of going up to the immortal realm properly. You were also adamant about having nothing to do with sects and disciples, saying they were too troublesome… Gu Zi Xi, are you even listening!”

Gu Yun was not even looking at him, observing instead the way the early morning light scattered amidst the leaves, but he said very kindly, “Listening.”

Then he pulled farther forwards with a single, careless leap — presumably to get Shen Yi out of his earshot. He raised a hand and plucked a leaf in midair. When he landed, he continued walking, looking the leaf top to bottom, front to back. For reasons he did not remember, he knew that this was the leaf of a plum tree.

Shen Yi, of course, caught up to him shortly. He originally wanted to voice some complaints, but seeing Gu Yun’s contemplative expression, he couldn’t help but ask, “Did you remember something?”

Gu Yun shook his head. He tossed the leaf aside and began to ask Shen Yi, “Did I like plums very much? Why is this whole mountain — “

His eyes happened to catch sight of another person amidst the plum trees. He unconsciously stopped.

That person was dressed in pure white, his wide sleeves swaying with the breeze along with his unbound, scattered black hair. In the pale morning light, he appeared almost sickly, but Gu Yun saw the gradual change in that person’s eyes, of fog clearing away like waking up from a long, long sleep, and the light that shone within them was as if his entire soul’s vitality was focused there — just to see every bit of Gu Yun.

Shen Yi noticed his unnatural silence and followed his gaze. Then, it was as if his soul was nearly frightened away. He exclaimed: “Your Highness!”

Gu Yun vaguely remembered what Shen Yi had told him before coming here. There was someone within this locked up mountain, put fast to sleep by Gu Yun himself.

“This person’s identity is quite complicated,” Shen Yi had said. Eventually, after thinking about it for a long time, he’d continued, “He is the one who you’ve chosen to live and die with, the person at the apex of your heart.

“His name is Chang Geng.”

Despite being called by him, Chang Geng did not even glance over at Shen Yi. He stared at Gu Yun, refusing to blink, as if he was afraid that Gu Yun was an illusion that would disappear once he did. His eyes even turned red from the strain.

He refused to talk, and so, taking some pity on him, Gu Yun, who did not remember anything at all but knew his name second-hand from Shen Yi, called out: “Chang Geng.”

In response, Gu Yun could see a slight movement almost hidden by the wide sleeves, of Chang Geng curling his fingers, holding himself back.

There was not much Gu Yun remembered after being brought here by Shen Yi. There were only one or two things that slowly came back along their journey here and upon breaking the mountain’s seal, and none of them about Chang Geng. However, he must have really held this person in his heart. It ached faintly, familiarly, the kind of ache when reuniting with loved ones after a long period of missing.

Because of that, it did not feel so strange for him to say afterwards, almost naturally, “I’m back.”

 


 

Chang Geng did not come close to Gu Yun.

The entire way up to the peak, he kept himself at a distance from both Gu Yun and Shen Yi, not too close to them yet not too far either. His words were also sparse. Upon meeting them, he had only murmured a hoarse, “Zi Xi and General Shen are here,” then turned to lead them up the mountain.

Shen Yi, the chatterbox Gu Yun could not silence throughout their journey to the mountain, did not say much either. Out of consideration for Chang Geng’s voice, which likely was hoarse from disuse, or because he was preoccupied by his thoughts, Gu Yun couldn’t say.

And so, just like that they were all silent.

Once they arrived at the peak, Gu Yun glanced around. Nothing in particular stirred his memories. There were a handful of courtyards scattered about, even what looked like a shed for storage off to the side. A stable for horses was not too far from them, but Gu Yun couldn’t see any horses there.

All around, there were flowers and trees placed in a tastefully convenient way to provide shade while offering something nice to look at. A pond separated the entrance from the courtyards, a bridge going across it. When they walked along it, Gu Yun glanced at the water’s surface but couldn’t find any signs of fish in its depths.

As Chang Geng led them, Gu Yun noticed a tree standing within one courtyard. The wall blocked most of the view, but Gu Yun could clearly tell that the tree was flowering, its petals a deep, vibrant red.

Looking closer, Gu Yun realized it was actually another plum tree. Unlike the rest of the trees on the mountain, this one was flowering out of season.

“You both can rest here for now,” Chang Geng said as he welcomed them into a reception area. A low table was placed in the center of the room. When Gu Yun stepped inside, he noticed the change in temperature. Perhaps it was an immortal spell or tool keeping it comfortably warm in here. “There’s only water. Let me heat some for you two to drink, and we can talk afterwards.”

Chang Geng did not give them any room to interject. With that, he left, leaving Gu Yun and Shen Yi to stand there.

Shen Yi pinched his brows, sighed, and said, “Sit down. Let me ask you: why didn’t you let me know you set Chang Geng’s seal to break alongside the mountain’s? I was frightened to death when we saw him on the mountain path!”

Gu Yun looked at him. His expression was clear — I didn’t tell you because I didn’t remember myself.

Ignoring Shen Yi’s nonsense, Gu Yun sat down and asked, “Why are you so afraid? He looks like he might fall over if the wind blows too hard.”

Shen Yi did the same with a frown. “You don’t remember, but before you left Chang Geng’s condition wasn’t good. Even the restrictions set were sometimes not enough to hold him back. The cure that you were searching for in that land gods and ghosts would not enter was actually for him.”

‘That land gods and ghosts would not enter’ was, according to Shen Yi, the former lands of the Eighteen Tribes. The Eighteen Tribes people had been assimilated into Great Liang at the end of Emperor Long An’s reign after the war between the two. However, the land became uninhabitable. It was originally bad enough with its winters long and harsh. Now, blizzards happened year-round. The sun did not shine there, and there was the lingering presence of curses in the earth waiting to strike anyone who stepped onto the barren land.

“It was the Wolf King’s final move,” Shen Yi had told him. “He waged a war trying to conquer Great Liang, but he could not do it. In the end, since he couldn’t get the land he wanted, he would make it so that no one else could take his own.”

For the sake of finding a cure, Gu Yun had gone into that place. Who knew how long he was in there for. That was where Shen Yi had found him, wandering around like a spectre.

Gu Yun himself didn’t remember why he was wandering around like that. He thought about it briefly, but set it aside and asked Shen Yi, “What is Chang Geng sick with?”

“He’s not sick, he was cursed by someone from the Eighteen Tribes,” Shen Yi clarified. “He was destined to go mad, becoming violent and destructive. He held on for a very long time until he couldn’t anymore — that’s when you left to try and find a cure.”

They both fell quiet. The words destined to go mad hung heavy in the air.

“You must have found something while you were in that no-man’s land. Otherwise, Chang Geng wouldn’t be conscious now.” Shen Yi paused. “Maybe it has to do with your missing memories.”

Gu Yun pondered over it but couldn’t remember anything. He chewed on Shen Yi’s words, trying to imagine destined to go mad, becoming violent and destructive with the Chang Geng who left to fetch them water, who couldn’t speak very loudly and who had stared at Gu Yun just moments ago looking like he might cry.

Needless to say, he couldn’t imagine it.

He asked Shen Yi, “How was he before I left, do you know?”

“Of course I know,” Shen Yi answered. “Qing Xiu and I came here often during that time. We were both worried about the two of you. Chang Geng was not conscious most days, and you did not want to leave him by himself, but if anyone was near, he would often lash out…”

Just as Shen Yi trailed off, there was a knock on the door. It opened, and Chang Geng came in with a tea set, though there was no aroma. It really was just heated water. Gu Yun and Shen Yi watched as he settled down and poured each of them a cup.

It was only after this that Chang Geng looked up.

Since one person was asleep all this time and another became an amnesiac, Shen Yi himself was the most knowledgeable one out of all three of them, then he should start the conversation to get them all on the same page. Shen Yi opened his mouth to do just that. Unexpectedly, he was blocked by Chang Geng speaking up first.

“I don’t have many questions,” Chang Geng said. He spoke without looking at either of them, eyes staring into the empty space across from him, unfocused. After a moment, he shifted his gaze to Gu Yun. “I just want to know: where did you go? Now that you’re back, are you alright?”

Hearing this, Shen Yi immediately felt something was odd. Evidently, Gu Yun did too. Instead of answering his question, he asked back, “You knew I left?”

“You told me before you did,” Chang Geng explained. “I remembered bits and pieces of it since waking up, but my state of mind wasn’t clear then. The things I remember, I don’t remember very clearly.”

Gu Yun gazed at him.

Chang Geng clarified, “I remember you telling me you were leaving. I don’t know to where or for what reason, though I can guess.”

They looked at each other. Gu Yun couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Chang Geng was before. When Shen Yi said this person was the one in his heart, Gu Yun assumed it was a mutual thing, two people sharing intimate feelings for each other.

The Chang Geng sitting beside him was a little distant. Even the way he expressed his concern maintained that distance, not probing too much.

Shen Yi couldn’t stand their staring contest and answered Chang Geng’s questions: “He went to the former Eighteen Tribes’ land to look for a cure for you. I also checked his state when I found him. Zi Xi is alright, but his spirit is a bit unstable, and he’s lost many of his memories.”

Chang Geng’s expression didn’t change until the end, showing his visible surprise. He looked at Shen Yi, then back at Gu Yun for a long while and eventually reached out his hand to him.

Gu Yun looked at it.

“Give me your hand,” Chang Geng said. His voice was still hoarse, and he didn’t drink from his cup yet. He ended up coughing a bit.

When Gu Yun held out his hand, Chang Geng’s fingers pressed lightly against his wrist.

Gu Yun did not mind his touch, though he did notice that the tips of Chang Geng’s fingers were somewhat cold. His hand also appeared weak as if lacking energy, like the rest of Chang Geng’s body.

He felt that this hand should be much warmer, with more strength. Thinking so, as a result, Gu Yun felt some discomfort in his heart.

Was this the state Chang Geng was in when he was mad?

“Part of the reason his spirit is unstable is because he left a small part of it here on the mountain,” Chang Geng explained. He let go of Gu Yun’s wrist, then waved slightly with his other hand. A small ball of scattered light not even the size of a thumb’s nail appeared at the tip of his index finger.

“He left it here?” Shen Yi asked. “When did you notice it?”

“When I was outside,” Chang Geng answered, gazing at the light. “It was following me around… He must have left it here to watch over me.”

He lifted his head. At this point, Chang Geng hesitated. He said to Gu Yun, “It might hurt.”

For some reason, Gu Yun smiled slightly. Shen Yi had lectured him over his past military exploits, the good and the bad, leaving out nothing. Gu Yun’s body was also littered with scars. Hurt should really be the last concern anyone had for him.

Gu Yun said, “It’s fine.”

Chang Geng seemed to have expected this response. With a murmured, excuse me, Chang Geng pressed his finger to Gu Yun’s forehead. All at once a piercing pain stabbed his chest, a terrible ache throbbed throughout his body. Once, twice, then —

“Chang Geng!”

Gu Yun was dazed. That was his own voice in his ears. There was a vague scent in his nose, like rust.

“Chang Geng, you let go… Don’t — !“

“Zi Xi!”

Gu Yun snapped back into awareness. He blinked several times. Across from him, Shen Yi, the one who called out earlier, looked at him with some worry.

“Did you remember something?” Chang Geng asked. His hand was on Gu Yun’s shoulder. Gu Yun vaguely realized that Chang Geng must have shaken him out of it.

Gu Yun turned his head to him. The memory scattered away before he could fully understand it. He opened his mouth, closed it, then gave one short nod. “I was calling out to you.”

Even without elaborating, both Chang Geng and Shen Yi seemed to know where this memory came from. This was a sore spot; Shen Yi didn’t not say a word. Chang Geng, on the other hand, spoke mildly.

“It’s a good thing you were pulled out of it,” Chang Geng said. He took back his hand. “There’s no need to dwell on those unpleasant memories.”

Chang Geng’s meaning was unspoken but clear: It’s best if you forget about them altogether.

Gu Yun wanted to tell him, Even if they’re bad, they’re still my memories.

But he also understood why Chang Geng would think this. After all, putting all the pieces together, in these “unpleasant memories”, Chang Geng was at the center.

In the end, Gu Yun opened his mouth and said without really thinking about it, “They’re memories of you, aren't they? Why would I want to forget?”

Chang Geng blinked, caught off guard.

Shen Yi pressed his face into one hand, wishing he was deaf.

Even without his memories, this bastard didn’t forget how to coax him!