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Rou stared up at the night sky, filled in with a thousand cracks of gold, and the glimmering points of stars. It was warm here, like a late summer evening. The deck he was sitting on felt comfortable and worn, as if it had seen a thousand nights just like this. Area they were in seemed both endless, and tiny at the same time. The grass stopped not far off the deck, fading into darkness, yet Little golden trails continued onwards, far, far away until Rou couldn’t see them anymore.

Rou contemplated his surroundings, absent-mindedly tapping his leg. After all this time, a letter.

Gramps…

So the old bastard was fine. That was good! Better than good. Rou was glad he was okay. Glad it wasn’t something Rou had done that caused the old man to leave. Gramps had been angry at somebody else; that’s why he had been so short. It had been about some other guy calling in a favour. He’d even apologized in the letter.

That meant something. It had to. Gramps hadn’t just abandoned him.

Rou was still angry. Really, he just said it was a mission, then didn’t explain, the bastard. He dumped him off at the sect, Rou had worked like a dog—

And then he died. Or would have died.

Rou sighed, and glanced at the leg he was tapping. It terminated at the ankle, turning hazy and indistinct, before transitioning to the other guy’s leg.

There was silence. For once, at least, the other guy was quiet. He wasn’t saying something stupid or inane, shoving memories down their shared….whatever, like an annoying asshole. He quietly sipped the tea from home, as he sat beside Rou. The flavour and smell dredged up bittersweet memories.

The asshole had let Rou in for a while. It might not have been intentional, but the other guy hadn’t fought it. Something had happened. When he was reading that letter, it had been Rou alone.

For a brief moment, he’d felt a flash of exhilaration. It was his chance. Perhaps he could be the one to take command permanently! But as quickly as it came it faded.

The only reason he was alive in the first place was because of the shattered remains of the other man propping him up. A hand that reached out, and kept him around, when he was fading away into the darkness. Picking up the pieces and putting them back together, even when he barely had enough will for it himself. Now, he felt more and more alive. More like he was living again, despite the walls between them. Able to see and taste and experience outside of this waking dream, rather than simply watching from afar and longing.

Jin had a thousand chances to snuff him out. A thousand chances to destroy what was left of the man once called Rou.

Yet he hadn’t. He hadn’t even once considered it.

Rou sighed, and looked to his side at the other guy.

“Hey.” He whispered. Jin perked up, his good eye opened, glancing at him, while the other was a ruined mess, covered completely in gold.

Thanks.

There were no real words needed, other than that. Jin nodded to him, not bringing any more attention to it. He understood. They were kind of similar, like that.

There was silence, as they sat together.

“So. What do we do about the Cloudy Sword Sect?” Jin asked. Rou rolled his eyes.

“See how sorry they really are, take them for whatever reparations they’re gonna give, then tell them to screw off.” Rou declared instantly.

The other guy looked surprised.

“...huh. I thought you would have wanted to go back. Go and get that heavenly ascension power.” He muttered.

Rou stared at the idiot.

“Our Qi don’t work right using traditional techniques. We might have to destroy our current cultivation to start practising normally again.”

A farm. Something he had never even seen before, being from a city. He had scoffed at the other man’s memories, thinking them worthless and idealized. But the more he worked on it, the more he loved it. Something that was his. No corpses in the streets. No gangs to sully it. Lazy days by the river. Seeing it grow and change. Knowing that it was his work that made wonders.

The people who wandered in and stayed. Some left, but if they counted, really counted, they always came back.

“We’d have to leave the farm, we’d have to give up every single thing we have now to go back—”

Meiling pulling up her shirt and exposing her stomach, grinning at him as she turned, showing him the small bump. A child. His child.

Bi De bowing to him, and following him like he was something worth respecting. Staring at him and defiantly choosing to stand with him until the end.

Tigu jumping onto his back, like that little girl next door used to, before her skin turned pale and grey from the Demon's Black Hate.

A happy boar. A proper pig. A clever little rat. A stoic ox. A gluttonous carp, a kind old snake, and a naively powerful rabbit.

Gou Ren helped him build the drop hammer. Yun Ren laughed as he pranked somebody. Xiulan’s soft smile, Pops nodding to him like his own father used to.

To Rou, it was like the heavens on earth. But that's what the other guy wanted to create, wasn’t it?

Rou grit his teeth.“— and if you think I’m leaving my family alone, you got another thing comin’.” He snarled.

Jin’s eyes widened.

They may not have liked Rou. They may not have liked a street rat full of piss and vinegar. But the life was his, just as much as Jin's. The affection he felt for them wasn’t imagined.

“The Cloudy Sword Sect fucked me up once; I’m not gonna let them fuck us up again, and I’m sure as hell not letting them fuck up what we have now.”

Jin smiled. Rou turned away, glaring at the darkness around them.

“Like you would have gone anyway.” He muttered, before shaking his head. “The bigger question is. What do we do now? The Cloudy Sword Sect knows about us. We’re dumping Gold Grade Rice onto the market. We even asked that Chyou woman to put together an expedition to the south. We can’t stay a secret anymore. Somebody has already come knocking. This time it was just mail, next time?”

Jin sighed, looking down into his tea.

“Yeah. I know. The world ain’t sunshine and daisies, and I’ve gotten a bit complacent. It's the Azure Hills. I thought we were strong enough to handle anything that came towards us. Who would look at this weak place? But now, we got the Cloudy Sword Sect interested in us. Gramps is apparently strong enough that the Cloudy Sword mobilized a Senior Disciple to deliver mail.”

Jin lapsed into silence.

Rou frowned. He never had known how strong Gramps was. Never really tried to see. But weren't strong guys supposed to have all sorts of special cultivation resources? Rou hadn’t got any from Gramps, not as far as he remembered.

“We protect what's ours.” Rou finally said. “If the Cloudy Sword Sect really is looking to make amends, well, they can help us out when we need it.”

Jin rolled his eyes. Then smiled and asked. “Can we ask people if they dare oppose the Cloudy Sword Sect?”

Rou barked out a laugh.

The two half-men stared at each other. At the web of gold, and the points of connection between them.

“We protect what's ours.” Jin said, holding out his arm in a fist.

Rou tentatively reached his arm out, and punched Jin’s fist with his own.

The two ruined, mirrored halves pulled together.

“Remember to write a letter to gramps, would ya?” Rou asked.

Jin nodded. “I’ll let him know we’re okay. If he wants to see us again, he can come and visit.”

Rou felt his eyes start to close. But he did have one more question.

“Hey… do you think Yin would be willing to crap in an envelope for us?”

“She might actually do it.” his other half mused. “But come on. Asking a lady to do that is just rude. We can go and fill the letter with horse shit, like normal people.”

Rou’s eyes closed, a little smirk on both sides of their face.

===================================

My eyes opened. I stared at the ceiling of the inn. My hand absently came down to stroke the rabbit sleeping on my chest. A rooster was sitting beside my head, and a snake was coiled tight around my arm.

It wasn’t quite like waking up to Meimei, but it was the next best thing.

I gently scooped Yin off my chest. The rabbit grumbled, and curled tighter into Big D as I laid her down. Noodle woke up from the movement, staring at me a moment, before nodding his head, and slithering off to coil up near the others.

I stood up and padded over to the desk, where there was already a brush and paper prepared.

A letter huh?

What to write?

I pondered the message, and reached out, grabbing Gramp’s letter, and looking at the seal on the bottom.

I pressed my Qi into it.

The seal shuddered, and disintegrated. With a muffled pop, a sword and a scroll appeared in thin air.

Both were simple and unadorned. But the sword was high quality steel, and the scroll had another seal upon it.

I stared at the gifts.

Gramp’s gifts.

I pondered them. A sword on my mantelpiece, perhaps. Or I would train with it. I didn’t know quite yet. Carefully, I packed both away for the journey ahead, and turned back to the desk.

I grabbed the brush, dabbed it in some ink, and started.

Hey, you drunken old bastard….”

======================

The next day, Lu Ri beheld Jin Rou once more. He no longer seemed to be unsettled. His back was straight, and his stride was self assured.

There was no trace of any confusion or worry that Lu Ri could detect.

Their meeting took place once more in the pavilion. The streams bubbled pleasantly, and the last flowers of summer filled the air with a heady scent.

Lu Ri greeted him, standing to receive his guest, and his Spirit Beast Disciples.

“Senior Brother.” Jin Rou said, after the pleasantries had been dealt with. “I will not be returning as a disciple to the Sect. Too much here requires my attention.”

Jin Rou’s voice was calm. His voice had a firm strength behind it, as he met Lu Ri’s gaze.

Lu Ri frowned internally. For a brief moment, he desired nothing more than to take Jin Rou back to the sect by force, and finally put this chapter behind him. Elder Ge had said not to push the issue, however, so he pushed aside the impulse.

“Your decision is unfortunate.” Lu Ri admitted. “But understandable at this time.”

“However, if the Cloudy Sword Sect wishes to make amends… I can think of a few ways.” He smirked, a sly note entering his voice. “I do not wish us to be enemies. And I have this, If you need us to speak again.”

He held up the transmission stone Lu Ri had given him yesterday.

Lu Ri nodded. “I shall convey your wishes back to the sect.” He said. He did need to report his success in person, after all.

“But... uh, I do have a request. Could you ensure this reaches the right place at the Imperial Army Headquarters in Crimson Crucible city for me? It's my reply to Gramps.” Jin Rou brought out a scroll case, one that was firmly sealed.

Lu Ri stared at the letter, his entire journey flashing before his eyes. Every moment of frustration and searching. There was the brief urge to smack it out of Jin Rou’s hand.

“We are to make amends.” Elder Ge said.

Lu Ri plastered a stiff smile onto his face. “I shall convey your letter Jin Rou. Though I must ask…” He glanced at the spirit beasts, and considered the man’s well hidden power. “Are you certain of this course of action? The Cloudy Sword Sect’s protection and backing is no small thing.”

Jin Rou considered the question for a moment, before smiling.

Something arrived. Or rather, it was revealed to him.

It blanketed the entire pavilion with a gentle touch. It slowly expanded over the entire city. It grew until it went past what Lu Ri’s senses could detect. Feather light and hard to distinguish. It was all round Lu Ri.

It was vast in its size, yet quiet in its intent. It was the land under his feet, it was the air in his lungs, it was the sky above his head.

Yet it did not seek to crush him. It did not shout its power, or intent. It was simply there, silent and unmovable. Diffuse, and hard to grasp. For a moment, Jin Rou was the land, and the land was Jin Rou.

Lu Ri’s eyes widened. He still could not feel what Jin Rou’s level was. It was shrouded to him. Yet this was utterly beyond anything he could have expected.

“I think I’ll be okay.” Jin Rou said, and smiled. The roses were straighter. The stream’s water seemed to clear. The grass deepened in its colour, and stood taller.

Lu Ri had lived for longer than most mortals. He had seen many tournaments, with wondrous techniques.

Yet it was his first time witnessing a power so subtle, yet so vast. He longed to ask. To question. To know just what exactly Jin Rou was doing.

Yet he could not. Jin Rou’s intent was clear, and he had a mission to fulfill.

“I shall go then for now, Jin Rou. May the heavens favour you.” He intoned.

Jin Rou Stood, along with the Spirit Beasts. All bowed their heads.

“May the heavens favour you, Senior Brother. And here.” He brought out another package.

A large jar of Maple Syrup.

“Something for the road.” Jin Rou said with a boyish smile.

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A note from Casualfarmer

A very late post, for a very late letter.

 


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