A Fairly Adequate Heaven
Notes: This is set post-Jade Empire, and features slash. Nothing strong. Check the rating. If you read, please review! Writer is synonymous with feedback-whore. Oh, and it also helps if you've played through with a malexSky romance, but if you haven't, then just rest assured I've not created any AU situations. This is all canon in the right circumstances.
Sunrise in the Imperial City always failed to be anything spectacular to someone accustomed to the beauty of Two Rivers. Dirge was Furious Ming's birthplace, and the city was where he now lived, but in his heart he would always think of Two Rivers as his home.
As for that name, Furious Ming was someone else, someone he had ceased to be a long time ago. The name had been bestowed upon him by Master Li many years ago, and he felt it was no longer his to bear. When he mentioned this to the Empress – who, in turn, he would always know as Silk Fox – she immediately presented him with a new name; Guardian Ming, protector of the Jade Empire, by which he knew she meant protector of her throne. He couldn't hold it against her, though. She had come so close to being snatched from her rightful place that a noticeable defensiveness to her otherwise wise and benevolent rule was to be expected.
A year had passed in the empire of Sun Lian, one of unexpected prosperity for the land. With the death of the water dragon and her announcement that the empire would have to crumble before it could be reborn, Ming had anticipated many years of hardship, but it seemed the heavens had chosen to look kindly on them. Ming himself sat upon the lawn of his expansive home on the Golden Way, a servant waiting a polite distance away for instruction. He did not need nor want servants, but two had arrived as a gift from the Empress, and it was not wise to turn away gifts from royalty. He ignored them mostly, and allowed them to roam the city freely, but they came with a sense of duty that was not easily countered.
In his hands, Ming held a small contraption made from cogs and handles and wire. There was a button on it which was clearly intended for pressing, but so early in the morning his curiosity was yet to overtake his caution. He had not heard from Kang the Mad in many months, but this was clearly a device of his design and therefore was to be treated carefully. A servant had found the thing on the front doorstep. Ming was sure it was not intended to harm him, but with Kang that wasn't a sure sign of anything.
As the sun hefted itself laboriously over the horizon, light glinted from a thousand highly polished surfaces that contained the mechanisms. Ming placed it gently on the grass and watched, in case it did something. He placed his palms flat on his knees and allowed the machine to be a focus for his meditations, in the vague hope that some enlightenment would reach him as to the thing's purpose.
But focusing his mind was no easy task. A year. A whole year had passed since he slew his former master and helped Silk Fox claim her throne. A year since the release of the Water Dragon and the defeat of Death's Hand. He had destroyed all three Sun brothers, brought back the natural order of life, death and rebirth, and restored a goddess to her former glory. It was an impressive list by anyone's standards, and he was quietly, contentedly proud of all of it. And yet…
No. He shouldn't dwell on it. He had duties now that must be fulfilled. The Order of the Lotus was being rebuilt, cautiously, under his guidance, and the Empress looked to him for wisdom and support. He had no time for silliness, for games. He was no impressionable youth any more, and he had no call to rely on any other person. It was just that…
Ming picked up the device again and, in a sudden bout of recklessness, threw it high into the air. It seemed to tumble away from him for hours, and then came rushing back towards him again. He held out one hand and caught it, then checked it to see if anything had changed. Nothing. Looked like pressing the button was the only way to go.
He hesitated again, placed the thing back on the floor. He didn't want this to be over with, wanted this reminder of days of adventure and mayhem to last a little longer. Kang had obviously not forgotten him, and nor had Hou, who frequently visited and often spent days at a time lying low in Ming's home without either of them having to request for, or offer, an explanation as to why. Dawn Star kept in touch, for which he was constantly grateful. One of his greatest fears was losing her, his closest friend and only link to a past which now seemed alien to both of them. He had many friends and companions, old and new, and was occupied with training, advising, and overseeing. He was also contemplating taking on a student – just the one – to pass his teachings on to and give him something to focus on, but frequent visits to the Black Leopard School had failed to turn up a suitable youth.
But none of it was quite enough. There was still a space for something else, of a different shape and nature, in his life. For a few precious weeks he thought he had it, but had soon learned that promises are nothing but sounds, as fragile and easily broken as a sapling in a gale. Occasionally he awoke expecting to find a warm body beside him and blue clothing scattered across the floor, but he had learned quickly to dispel the emotions that accompanied the discovery that he was, as always, alone.
Ming looked up, slightly uneasy with the title of master but learning to respond to it. A servant had approached him, waiting for permission to speak. Ming nodded.
"A carriage awaits to take you to the palace, master. The Empress requests your attendance earlier than we expected."
"Very well, but dismiss the carriage. I will walk."
He left Kang's device on the grass and paused before a statue to finally focus himself before setting out into the already bustling street. The Imperial City did not appear to sleep, and dawn heralded an explosion of activity as bakers and traders, thieves and guards set about their daily business. He passed Hou in the street and waved cheerfully, receiving a weary nod in return. He found it difficult to pity Hou, burdened with a spouse who, despite an iron will and notorious vicious streak, was unlikely ever to abandon him. In fact he felt a certain amount of sympathy towards his often-jilted wife, which he was fairly sure would evaporate if he ever met the woman. If you were going to enter into a commitment it was your duty to stick with it, and no excuse was good enough for abandonment.
Before long the palace was directly overhead, and Ming waited patiently for a flyer to transport him into the air and deliver him safely to the magically floating building. He took his time walking to the throne room, remembering the time he and his companions had practically stormed the palace by themselves, taking down Lotus Assassins and imperial guards in their wake. These days the palace guards were fewer, and the occasional budding Lotus Monk was an inoffensive sight. He felt safe in the palace, so close to the Empress and so high above the Jade Empire.
When he reached the door to the throne room, he stopped and smiled. A familiar voice rang out, audible through solid iron doors.
"This simply is not acceptable!" Empress Sun Lian bellowed at some unfortunate guest. "I will not have chaos and discord in my empire! Your bid against the slavers was tolerable – noble, even – but your men run the streets like common thieves, terrorising the people and upsetting order!"
Sensing he may be needed, Ming pushed open one of the doors. As if from the shadows a handmaiden appeared and stepped through the door before him.
"Empress," she interrupted. "Your presence is required upstairs."
Lian looked around, glanced briefly at Ming, then nodded at the handmaiden. "I understand." She glanced back at the figure before the throne. "But remember I am not through with you, Sky!" she snapped. "You and I have a lot to discuss. If you dare to leave this city, I will place a warrant on your head – friend or not!"
The empress stormed out of the room, barely sparing Ming another glance before following the handmaiden upstairs. Ming shut the door slowly behind him, and stepped into the room.
"Well," said Sky, finally choosing to look him in the eye. "I was wondering when you would appear."
Ming tried to find something to say, a counter or a greeting, but neither came. Sky had changed in the course of a year, maybe even matured a little, although the glint in his eyes suggested otherwise. He had traded in his trademark blue for a more sombre but more protective black leather, and his hair hung loose, but Ming would have recognised him from a mile away even if he set out to disguise himself. There was something to Sky's stance, the way he held his head, and the aurora or confidence which surrounded him that would make the best of camouflage ineffective to something who knew him intimately. And if anyone knew him intimately, it was Ming.
"What was that about?" Ming asked eventually, gesturing in the direction the Empress had departed. "I don't understand."
Sky shrugged slightly, and ambled across the vast throne room towards Ming, who stood his ground. He wasn't sure if it was out of steadfastness, or because he couldn't persuade his feet to move even if he wanted to.
"Since I finished chasing slave traders, my boys have got restless."
"You mean the Guild."
"That's just a name. You must see what I've done with them, how I've turned them around-"
"Yes, I must have," said Ming suddenly, "because you have not been here to tell me yourself. I've had to interpret your every move, hoping I'm right in my judgement. With you it is impossible to know!"
Sky's expression froze somewhere between surprise and consolation. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I did not mean to leave so… permanently."
"And you did not mean to come back. We have clearly been set up."
Ming opened the doors and retreated once more to the flier landing platforms, where he signalled quickly for transport. Sky, as he knew he would be, was close behind, and swung himself into the flier as it took off.
"That's not true," said Sky. "I intended to return to you."
Ming ignored him, gazing out of the flier at the vast city below them. The descent was always too quick for him, and he often rented a flier simply to fly him around the city and the surrounding land for a time. He liked to be in the air, it gave him perspective no mortal could achieve from the ground. He liked the wind, and the dampness when they flew through clouds – and he couldn't help liking the way Sky was forced to pull his hair back out of his face as they plummeted towards the street.
"I was always going to come back," Sky insisted. "I had things I had to do. For myself. Things I couldn't ask you to risk yourself over."
"You know I would anyway."
"You were safer here."
Ming raised an eyebrow, a gesture that contained within it things he would never say aloud but which they both knew to be true – that where Sky could hold he own, Ming was in his element. Issues of safety and skill had nothing to do with Sky's sudden departure, a mere three weeks after the defeat of Sun Li, and little more than that after his pledge never to leave Ming's side.
As they walked, Sky slowed the pace. Ming tried to ignore it, to keep ahead and stay angry, but he knew it would not work. He would hear Sky out.
"The difference between us is that you have a future spanning ahead of you, shackle-free and completely dependant on your whim, whereas I have a past. A hell of a lot of a past."
Ming shook his head. "That means nothing."
"I had to finish what we started in Tien's Landing before my past would truly rest easy, and I had to do it alone. Avenging my daughter did not contain the satisfaction I thought it would because it was just the start. I had to ruin the slavers, and make sure they would never operate again. That finally brought me satisfaction. That and using the Guild itself as a tool to bring about that end. In my travels I also visited a number of people, many of them for the very last time."
They passed a group of students from the school putting on a demonstration in the street. A crowd had gathered, but it parted to let Ming move to the front. Sky pressed close behind him, his gaze ever leaving his face as Ming studied the students.
"I didn't ask where you went or what you did," said Ming quietly.
"I thought it needed explaining. You're obviously angry with me, and I don't blame you-"
"All I want to know is why you left me behind, and why you did not tell me you were leaving."
Ming picked out the best student of the group with ease and committed her face to memory. She was not quite up to the standard he wanted, but she was very young and would learn.
"Because-" Sky began, then shook his head. "Look at me. We're in the midst of a crowd and you have asked me, so I will answer, regardless of whatever scandal this will create. The Guardian of the Empire dallying with the head of the Guild. That's news that will spread like a bad smell."
"Everyone knows, Sky." Ming turned on his heel, trying to focus in his mind on the face of his prospective student. He had so much to teach, so much to share, and he had to be certain his knowledge was passed on to just the right sort of person. He had felt the serenity of the young student, the determination and the sense of duty, but there was something about her he was not entirely happy with. Something… missing.
Sky was forced to trot to keep up as they approached Ming's house, and when he finally caught him in the doorway Sky trapped him with one hand on the door handle and the other on the wall.
"I couldn't take you because I was laying my past to rest," he said.
"You took others. Guild members."
"But I couldn't take you."
"Despite what we had."
"No, because of it. I keep saying – that was my past. And you… well, you were to be my future, and the two can not be intertwined. I couldn't let you face my demons for me, like you did in Tien's Landing, and perhaps there were certain things I did not want you to see. Aspects of myself, as well as former acquaintances, and… well, former lovers. I had to cleanse myself of any concerns that were not you and my life with you, because you were everything. You are everything. And if I told you I was leaving, I know you would have followed. I know, because I would have done the same."
The door was pulled open suddenly, from the inside, and the face of the servant peered through.
"We heard voices-"
Ming raised a calming hand. "It's nothing. We are coming inside. Please… take the afternoon for yourself."
The servant scurried off, and Ming led the way into the house. Sky trailed behind him, gazing around at the place he still thought of as home despite his absence. Instinctively, Ming went straight into the garden, preferring the sun and the wind on his face rather than the still air and shadows of indoors.
"How long have you been back in the city?" he asked, seating himself once more in front of Kang's mystery device.
"A few days. There was one last thing I had to take care of here. Then I would have returned to you without the princess' interference."
"She's empress now."
"She'll always be a bratty princess to me."
Ming allowed himself to smile as he felt Sky settle down behind him. Strong hands gripped his shoulders and he knew that Sky could come and go as he pleased, and the last of the Spirit Monks would be powerless not to wait for him.
"What happens now?" he asked.
"You tell me." Sky's fingers kneaded his shoulders and lower neck, working away tension that no other person would have found there. Ming thought of the moment he first laid eye on Sky, on the pirate island in Tien's Landing, and he remembered the awe he felt for Sky's raw strength and speed as they fought together against the pirates. He had surpassed Sky in skill, that they both knew, but he was fairly certain he had many things left to learn from his old friend. Perhaps the time for Ming to become a master and take his own student was not yet come, and perhaps the distinction between the two was not so clear-cut. He leaned back into Sky's embrace, lifted one hand to toy with the elder man's hair.
"I think we'll be alright," said Sky. "We'll figure something out. We brought the empire down around the Sun brothers' ears… I think we can work out how to love each other." His hand brushed Ming's face lightly, then ran affectionately down his chest. Ming inhaled sharply as Sky's fingers brushed his thigh, but Sky was reaching for the glass-enclosed clockwork contraption.
"So are you going to tell me what this thing does, or do I have to take the risk myself and press the button?"
Ming exhaled, a little disappointed. It was almost an entire year since he last felt Sky touch him, and he didn't appreciate the distraction caused by Kang's dratted invention.
"I have no idea what it is. It just showed up this morning."
Sky grinned. "I think we only have one choice," he announced, eagerly stabbing at the button with his thumb.
Ming cringed and prepared himself for an explosion, but there was only white light and a tumbling sensation, followed by watering eyes and a cool breeze. He was standing on something, that much was certain, with Sky a little way off. He watched as Sky reached out and caught something fluttering in the air – a tiny scroll bound in ribbon.
"It's addressed to you."
Ming took the scroll, absent-mindedly. In Kang's almost illegible handwriting was scrawled the words: Your own personal heaven, to carry wherever your kicking and punching takes you.
"This is… incredible," breathed Sky, reading over his shoulder. "A real heaven? That can't be possible. Either he's filched this one off some other deity, or he's created an incredibly good replica."
Ming gazed around at the miniature heaven. A few trees, heavy with blossom, were clustered at the far end, and a small stream erupted from nothing close to his feet and tumbled the length of the heaven to vanish somewhere amongst the carefully placed stones of a rock garden. The sky was blue as a thin-sliced sapphire, and the air smelled fresh, reminding him how smoky and contaminated city air could become, from fliers and human rubbish.
Nearby there was a small pagoda with a divan inside it, and what Ming was certain would turn out to be a fountain of wine. He decided never to let the Black Whirlwind into this place, and realised he and Sky wouldn't ever be in the mood to share it with anyone, never mind a drink-obsessed killing machine.
No. This was a heaven where mortals could pretend just for a little while that they would live forever – when they needed it. It was the ultimate retreat, a perfectly private place where there were no pasts of futures, only a present that lasted as long as you liked.
"What do you think?" Sky said, glancing towards the inviting divan.
"I think this is a fairly adequate heaven," Ming said, smiling. "I've seen a lot better."
"Well it ain't a hell, and that's good enough for most people."
"Do you really think so?"
Sky nodded. "People get by on a lot less. Things work out, even if it's not the exact way you always hoped."
A sad expression came over his face, and Ming touched Sky's temples lightly with his fingertips, attempting to ease the remaining pain from his mind. Calloused hands closed around his.
"No. I've got to remember, and sometimes I've got to feel the pain of their loss. That's how it works. But I'm yours now – really yours, for always, if you'll take me."
Ming smiled and stood on tip-toes to kiss Sky's lips. Sky wrapped his arms tightly around him, pulling them almost uncomfortably close together but Ming didn't seem to care. He let Sky guide him to the pagoda and down onto the divan, ignoring the bubbling fountain and the way the pink and yellow fluttering birds occasionally exploded in a shower of feathers.
And it wouldn't last. It couldn't. Not the way Ming had always hoped, because Sky wasn't about to settle down again and Ming had his own ambitions and duties and desires, but whenever they needed each other there was always one small heaven tucked away for them. It was more than most people had, and maybe, one day, they would finally figure it out.