The Higher Path

Disclaimer: I don't own any legal rights to Jade Empire. Or... anything, really. Nor do I have any worldly posessions of value other than my Dr Who doll, so sueing won't do you any good.

Notes: Male slash of the canonical persuasion(Furious MingxSky). I'm not fond of the name Furious Ming, but he's the best of the male playablecharacters so there you go.

Sky awoke to the sensation of the ground shaking beneath him, and may have smiled at the realisation of the cliché if he wasn't acutely aware that the earth was only moving because hundreds of thousands of feet – flesh and clay – were thudding their inevitable way towards Dirge. His stomach clenched as it had only a few hours previously, but this time there were no pleasant tingles in other parts of his body to counterbalance it, no soft smile to sooth him or sweet kisses to distract him from the sensation of his entire self twisting and stumbling down a completely different path than that which he was used to. He threw himself at the tent flap and made it outside, on his hands and knees, before the retching started, wishing he hadn't skipped supper so at least there'd be something to throw up.

He didn't make a habit out of vomiting before fights, even taking into consideration their almost ludicrously small force and the might of the Imperial Army bearing down on them. It had been such a strange and emotional few weeks that he could almost forgive himself the dishonour of it. It wasn't a usual occurrence for him to break into the Lotus Assassin fortress, not to mention the palace, witness the slaying of the emperor and the reappearance of supposedly dead princes. Neither had he ever fallen head over heels in love with another man before, mere days before witnessing his lover's death and subsequent re-birth.

And that wasn't the half of it. Those were merely the events of the past few weeks which he was comfortable discussing with the others in the group. Up until now, things had been easy. All he had to do was watch Furious Ming's back, fend off the females (who didn't give up on Ming so easily), and go with his gut instincts. From here on in, instinct wasn't going to help and his gut was already causing trouble. He was going to have to make a decision in the next twenty-four hours that would not only decide his own fate, but that of the entire Empire.

He sat back on his haunches, wiped a hand across his mouth, and stared up at the starry sky overhead. He hated himself for this uncertainty, this temptation, but… well, self-loathing was one thing he could live with; he didn't know if rejecting this opportunity was another. The miasma of uncertainty had grown within him ever since the Lotus Assassin approached him in the arena tavern, and despite knowing in his very being that it was wrong, Sky was only ninety-nine per cent certain that the return of his daughter was not worth the deaths of thousands – including those he had come to care about.

The point was, he wasn't sure. Not as sure as he made Ming believe, or even as sure as he told himself he was. It was fully possible to convince himself that he was as dedicated to ridding the world of Sun Li as Ming and the others were, but when the time came to finalise his double-edged betrayal he couldn't be sure that conviction would remain. Death's Hand was powerful, Sun Li even more so… what if Ming failed? Sky would lose everything, but the same could be said if he picked the side of the Emperor and Ming prevailed. The most terrifying thing about that prospect was that he wasn't sure Ming would have the mercy to kill him for his deceit. And, of course, he knew his daughter's spirit was best left to rest undisturbed, but what if the Water Dragon couldn't be saved, and ghosts were condemned to wander the empire forever? He knew there was sorcery powerful enough to spare her that fate, and that if anyone had it Sun Li did.

"So many questions," said a high-pitched voice off to his right, "and no way to decide where to start. A sign-post would be nice, or a conversational wind-map, but I suppose we'll just have to do this the punching-through-walls way and get right to the point – you, friend Sky, are stargazing naked."

Sky managed a smile for Kang, who, while curious, seemed unabashed and even amused. He was carrying a heavy load of sticks and canvas and other unidentifiable things, presumably for upgrading the dragonfly.

"I will remain non-judgemental, but my curious nature implores me to speculate why you would be undertaking such a bizarre pastime outside our prestigious leader's tent – and, speculation failing to provide any insight, I must present the question to you openly."

"You mean, what am I doing?" said Sky.

"Putting like that would also work."

Sky shrugged. "I needed some air. These tents can get pretty stuffy."

"True indeed. But since I rarely sleep, the insides of tents hold little interest for me. It is far preferable to be out here, beneath the heavens."

"Yeah?" Sky glanced back towards the tent. Through the flap he could see Ming's back, the tattoos dark and almost sinister in the moonlight. It was impossible to tell whether he was asleep or not.

"What're we doing here, Kang?" he murmured, turning his gaze back to the starlit sky.

The inventor had been about to amble off, but paused in thought. "Something to do with saving the empire, I think. At least, that's what I've discerned from listening to you lot chatter all day long."

"I mean us. Me and you. Whirlwind and Hou. The others have a vested interest in all this, but the four of us are no more involved than anyone you could pluck off the street. Why did we follow him? And why us?"

"I fly the dragonfly, Whirlwind could take on this approaching army by himself, and the bun-man supplies us with food," said Kang matter-of-factly. He shifted on his feet, clearly wanting to get back to whatever he'd been doing. "Can we assume you didn't just follow him in the hope that one day you'd get the opportunity to regurgitate your breakfast outside his tent?"

Sky smiled apologetically. "Sorry, Kang. I didn't mean to keep you. You've probably got lots to do…"

He watched the inventor amble off in the direction of the flier, and sighed heavily. A gentle snow shower had begun and left him painfully aware that he was still unclothed, but the caress of the night air made him feel more alive than any battle ever could.

There was movement behind him, and he turned even as he heard the panicked exclamation.

"Sky? Where-"

"Shh." He pushed the tent flap aside and crawled back in, the warm sex-scented air filling his lungs with a comfortable sensation. Arms reached towards him, and in the darkness he sought out the younger man's lips. He was filled with an overwhelming urge to defend this one – not in battle, but perhaps emotionally, spiritually. It was an indistinct feeling, an impulse rather than a thought-out decision, but nonetheless he folded his strong arms tightly, protectively around him and was filled with a rush of pleasure as his every touch and kiss was accepted and reciprocated. He pressed his lover down amongst the jumble of blankets and clothes with all the fervour of a man who knew the chances of them both making it through the next twenty-four hours were slim.

Afterwards he lay still, an arm still slung possessively across Ming's stomach, listening to them both breathe until he was sure Ming was asleep. Outside, dawn was not far off and even now he could hear a distant bird starting its early morning recital. Carefully, Sky sat up and pulled his trousers and shirt on. He glanced at the sleeping figure, his features so childlike despite the recent loss of his innocence, and Sky knew that his betrayal had already taken place; he still did not know what path he would take when the time came.

He toyed with the idea of kissing his young lover good-bye, or leaving a note, or even staying where he was, but after a moment's silence he pushed aside the tent flaps once more. Somehow, the air seemed colder now that he was dressed, the wind sharper and the star-speckled sky less friendly and more foreboding. It wasn't difficult for him to sneak past Kang, and from the stillness in the air he could tell the others were fast asleep.

He wondered, briefly, if there was anything other than coincidence behind Ming's choice – out of all those in the group who expressed attraction towards him – of forging an emotional attachment to Sky; the one and only member of the group tempted to betray him, and the one with more emotional baggage than a pair of oxen could drag downhill. Of course, the kid had an unnatural attraction to trouble and danger, but that wasn't it. Maybe it was nothing at all.

The snow fell a little heavier over the ruins of Dirge, muffling sound and casting a shimmering edge against the darkness. And then, as silently as the air itself, Sky was gone into the night.