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he visits the ruins in angkor wat / 神樹

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Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain. They’d find a tree and carve a hole in it, and whisper the secret into the hole. Then cover it over with mud. That way, nobody else would ever discover it.


Xiao Xingchen descends the mountain. Xiao Xingchen descends the mountain, and the world is a bad place, full of bad people, and hurt people, and hurt people who hurt people.

Xiao Xingchen’s first kill is a rapist. Lots of those, rapists. Xiao Xingchen kills the rapist in front of the rapist’s daughter and the daughter smiles in disbelief.

“You can have his body,” she says. This is unfilial but it’s not like Xiao Xingchen is a child who cares to be filial, so they don’t care. “You can eat him, if you spare me.”

Xiao Xingchen doesn’t reply at first, because they are busy growing themselves a tongue. The daughter misunderstands their silence, and her expression crumples where her body is already crumpled against a corner of the farmhouse.

“Or you can kill and eat me too. What the hell was I thinking? I knew this was too good to be true.”

Too good to be true. Xiao Xingchen mulls over those words as their tongue finally finishes taking shape.

“No,” they say. Their voice is gentle like starlight, liquid like blood. “Good and true. I only came to kill him for you.”

“How—?”

Xiao Xingchen cocks their head, and lets the scent of crushed camphor bask the morning air. The woman sniffs it, and an odd expression comes over her face.

“Wait, I know that smell. You… What are you?”

Xiao Xingchen glances around the cabin and, seeing no other sources of danger for the woman, turns to take their leave. They pause at a nervous call.

“I— I meant it when you said you can take his body. I don’t… I wouldn’t know what to do with it anyways.”

Humans bury their dead to honor them, and to give ancestral spirits a home. The woman wants nothing to do with honoring and homing her father.

Xiao Xingchen considers the body, and shrugs. They grab it by an ankle.

The body ends up drunk dry and—funnily enough—buried. Burial means a lot to Xiao Xingchen’s kind too, but not for the same reasons as humans. A corpse is food; the meat and bones are meals, and the clinging shreds of soul are sources of life. If it is buried under a fresh-grown hydrangea, the hundreds of tiny petals will welcome those soul shreds home.

The soul may be tainted, yes—but so is the soil, onto which humans already throw animal blood and bury their waste. So is the rain, carrying the acrid sharpness of hundreds of smithies. So are the trees and flowers themselves. It takes taint to grow a pearl and blood to bloom a thorn. Better the transmuted thing than the leaking plague of the original.

So Xiao Xingchen buries the rapist for transmutation under a grateful orange tree and walks on, themselves a transmuted thing. They have blood and the breath of humans inside them, warm and roiling.

They flex the tongue behind their teeth experimentally, and resolves to practice its usage.


Xiao Xingchen continues to kill. Not all the people they leave alive are happy right at the occurrence of the incident, but they figure as long as the people aren’t unhappy, they are fine.

It’s not until they spot the glares and overhear the whispers at a whorehouse that Xiao Xingchen realizes maybe they ought to modify their methodology to have a little more nuance. Several of the women are happy, but most aren’t. They are worried. They are panicked. They are mad because Xiao Xingchen just murdered the one man who keeps all the accounts for the business in his head, who got the whorehouse permission to run by virtue of his personal connections with higher power.

Xiao Xignchen frowns, and offers their services in apology. They are waved aside by the most senior and authoritative of the women.

“We’ll figure it out ourselves,” she snaps. “You may mean well, but why don’t you try asking first next time huh?”

They nod seriously in agreement, and still end up cleaning the bathrooms for a month at the whorehouse as amends. Xiao Xingchen takes this time to earnestly reflect on their purpose and conduct in life, and all the potential pain they have ignorantly wrought.

So at their next stop, they pause before tearing out their target’s throat. This is an abuser, a gambler, an addict; his daughter’s breath was six-years-old when it was breathed into Xiao Xingchen.

Sixteen now, the daughter screams when Xiao Xingchen turns to address her.

“Will it cause you undue inconvenience if I kill him?”

Let him go!” she screeches, throwing a nearby teacup at Xiao Xingchen. The ceramic bounces off Xiao Xingchen’s shoulder harmlessly, and Xiao Xingchen frowns.

“You said he hurts you.”

The girl’s eyes widen and fill with tears when she recognizes the smell of camphor.

“But he’s still my father,” she sobs. Her father tries to speak, but chokes instead because Xiao Xingchen tightens their grip. “Please, please, what do I, what can I, I don’t know what to do if he dies.”

Xiao Xingchen frowns harder.

“You live,” they tell the girl in reminder. The girl glares.

How?” she hisses. “He lives in debt to all his gambling pals—there’s no silver in the house. He runs a merchant’s route in exchange for rent—if he dies I can’t stay here any longer. I have no marriage prospects, no place to go if I lose this one. When I told you that, I only wanted— I only wanted someone to listen. I only wanted someone to know. If you kill him, you might as well kill me too.”

A bit frustrated by this turn of events, Xiao Xingchen smacks the father hard enough across the head to knock him out, then summons a writhing mass of damp black roots to strap him down. The girl screams all the while, but Xiao Xingchen patiently waits her out, arms folded in contemplation.

“No,” they declare, when the girl finally turns her attention back. “I don’t accept that. You must have other options. I’ve seen plenty of women living satisfied lives on their own.”

“What, whores?”

Xiao Xingchen nods heartily.

“That’s not—” The girl laughs, incredulous and angry. “I’m not going to— I won’t. You don’t understand.”

That much is true, so Xiao Xingchen doesn’t attempt to continue arguing this angle. They keep thinking, but their experience off the mountain has only been so long—they won’t be the source of idea for how to best survive in human society.

So they pull up a chair and insistently sit the girl down.

“You must think,” they tell her solemnly. “I can leave your father alive if that is what you truly want, but there must be some other option. Sit, and think.”

The girl sits. The girl thinks. The girl complains and weeps and yells at Xiao Xingchen while thinking because that is what—Xiao Xingchen has come to learn during their time on earth—sixteen-year-olds do in the throes of their emotions. Xiao Xingchen forgives her and lets her be, because it’s not like she’s doing them any harm, and this is indeed a fairly stressful situation.

Finally, deep into the night (and knocking the father out for the third time in so many hours), the girl finally pulls herself together to give an answer.

“I guess I can become a nun.”

Xiao Xingchen perks up, flicking the last of some dried blood off their nail.

“Yes? That will be an acceptable path of life for you?”

“…Maybe?” The girl scrunches up her nose. “It doesn’t seem like an easy lifestyle.”

“Neither does getting beaten and sold to your father’s debtors,” Xiao Xingchen points out. The girl goes pale and bares her teeth.

“Okay, but how do you know the temple won’t beat and sell me?”

Xiao Xingchen grimaces.

“Fair point. Then I’ll find a temple with you. Make sure you settle in okay.”

It’s the girl’s turn to perk up.

“Will you kill them if they hit me too?”

They consider it.

“Probably. Sure. Why not?”

The girl makes up her mind and bravely nods. “I’ll do it then. I’ll enter a temple.”

Xiao Xingchen smiles encouragingly back, and crushes her father’s skull.


At Baixue Temple, a blind man attacks Xiao Xingchen with a sword of ice. It nearly takes off Xiao Xingchen’s left arm at the elbow, and Xiao Xingchen is fascinated.

“I come in peace,” they declare cautiously, holding the girl behind them for safekeeping. “This girl just lost her father. She wishes to enter your temple as a supplicant.”

The man doesn’t respond. He lifts his sword and, as Xiao Xingchen watches enraptured, brings it to his nose to smell. Xiao Xingchen’s fingers stroke idly at where the sword cut his arm, camphor scent bleeding instead of red.

Xiao Xingchen keeps watching as the man points his sword tip to the earth, scratching in clear characters: you’ve killed people.

“Yes,” Xiao Xingchen agrees. “I killed her father about two hours ago.”

That sword of ice flashes again, and this time, it does take off a limb. The girl screams, and Xiao Xingchen lets her be taken away by the man’s grabbing hands.

They seem protective, the hands. Nothing like the covetous limbs Xiao Xingchen has come to know so very well on earth, and has lopped off so many of.

The blind man doesn’t react when Xiao Xingchen starts growing back their arm—obviously. He can’t see. The girl does kind of whimper though; Xiao Xingchen supposes they haven’t exactly displayed all their least human qualities in her presence, so she maybe didn’t register. Still though, no matter how upstanding this protector of the temple may seem, and no matter how the girl cowers from Xiao Xingchen now, Xiao Xingchen isn’t going to leave.

“I made you a promise,” they say. “If you want to stay here, miss, I will make sure nobody here will do you harm.”

The blind man slowly cocks his head, as if in consideration. An odd flicker of playful mirth alights in Xiao Xingchen’s chest area at the sight.

“It’s not like this gentleman here can beat me anyways.”

“Daozhang—”

The blind man takes his bait (willingly!) and steps forward on another attack. Xiao Xingchen is ready for him, and sends flexing branches twisting around first the sword, then the man. A burst of cultivation energy has Xiao Xingchen’s branches scrambling for grip, but Xiao Xingchen lifts up their chest and summons forth all the human whispers pent up within them.

The sword vibrates hard, goes still, and its owner falls with a spray of blood from his mouth. Xiao Xingchen catches him with a moue of concern.

“No no no,” the girl is murmuring frantically, “you’ve killed him. You’ve killed him and now I can’t stay.”

Xiao Xingchen presses branches and hands to all of the man’s pulse points and says, “he is not dead. And why can’t you stay? She can stay, yes?”

That last question is directed at the horrified, nervous humans who have gathered in the courtyard. Their leader, an old man, is ushering the girl behind him while staring shakily at the blind man wrapped in Xiao Xingchen’s holds. Xiao Xingchen surveys his intentions.

“Of course the girl can stay,” the old man trembles. “Please, you seem open to reason—let Song Daozhang go. He was only trying to protect the girl, just like you.”

“I know,” Xiao Xingchen says, surprised. That is not the thing he doesn’t know about the man. “Song Daozhang? Does he not talk?”

“H-His tongue was taken from him,” the old man replies. “By a villain who wanted to destroy our temple.”

Bringing the unconscious Song Daozhang up to eye level with their branches, Xiao Xingchen tucks two fingers into Song Daozhang’s mouth to see if it’s true. They feel the cavernous heat of the mouth, and pat around some behind the teeth in interest.

“He was wronged?” Xiao Xingchen hums lightly. “Where is the villain now? I can kill it for you.”

“Is— Is that your bargain?”

Xiao Xingchen frowns. What is it with humans and their eagerness to assume Xiao Xingchen wants something in return? Surely their kind hasn’t been so unreasonable in the past? Xiao Xingchen was made to want one thing and one thing only—the freedom of every trapped breath inside them.

Their eyes brighten on an idea. Ask first, the working women told him.

“A bargain you say? Loan me Song Daozhang, and I’ll… What would you like in return? Any yaoguai been troubling the temple recently? Any fierce corpses?”

There are troubled protests from the gathered crowd, but the old man speaks above them all.

“No, there is nothing we want! Song Daozhang keeps us safe. Please just let him go.”

“But there are things I would like to consult him on,” Xiao Xingchen replies, earnestly troubled. “Though… If there is no immediate trouble, it won’t hurt to borrow him for a few hours anyway, right? I have no actual obligation to ask permission for him from you.”

Weighing their own desires against propriety, Xiao Xingchen has no trouble choosing themselves; it’s not as if they’re hurting anybody after all. The girl is safely delivered, but they would be back around to return Song Daozhang, so they can check on the girl then as well.

Decision made, Xiao Xingchen beckons their branches closer until the branches have tossed the still-unconscious Song Daozhang over their shoulder. Xiao Xingchen grips his ankle. Feels the human heat of it. They make sure to grab the sword too.

“I will return,” they say with a bow, ignoring the hubbub of human shouting. They are far too used to the noise to be bothered by them now, and feel little guilt about the entire situation; they’ve done their due diligence. “Please take care of the girl in the meantime.”


Song Daozhang comes awake deliberately not struggling, but Xiao Xingchen holds him down anyways. They give the man’s wrists a little squeeze to let him know that they know he’s conscious.

Song Daozhang gradually stiffens before giving up the ghost. Xiao Xingchen feels an outward surge of cultivation energy, as the man uses it to scan his surroundings.

“We’re in a cave,” Xiao Xingchen answers, a bit too eagerly. “In the mountains just south of your city. Do you smell the pines? Do they smell familiar?”

They even guide in a waft of the local pine scent, letting it swirl around the cavern until Song Daozhang, with severe lines on his brow, nods haltingly. He then tugs at the vines keeping his arms strapped wide apart and against the cave wall, in question.

“Ah, well I would not like you attacking me. I don’t want to accidentally knock you out again, see.”

Song Daozhang lifts his head, then his eyebrow in a skeptical response. Xiao Xingchen is startled into indignant laughter.

“It really was an accident, I swear. And I haven’t kidnapped you, you’re really free to go anytime. I just have a few questions, is all.”

As proof, they let the vines fall away when Song Daozhang tugs this time, and watches unmoving when Song Daozhang gets shakily to his feet.

“I healed your inner wounds,” Xiao Xingchen wheedles. “Please?”

Song Daozhang’s head turns to the mouth of the cave before the man lets out a frustrated sigh. Then he holds out an expectant hand, palm up.

Xiao Xingchen eagerly leans forward to place a sword into it.

Song Daozhang immediately flinches, teeth snapping together in displeasure because that is not his sword. Xiao Xingchen keeps hold of his hand though, wrapping around the fingers wrapped around the hilt, to indicate they should hold on.

Then finally Song Daozhang relents to keep his own grip. Xiao Xingchen’s hand falls away, and they watch Song Daozhang once again bring the sword up to his face to scent. Then he presses two fingers to the width of the blade, scanning the metal.

His flesh trips over the name Fuxue, rubbing back and forth and back and forth until its owner is certain what the characters read.

“How is it?” Xiao Xingchen asks softly. “I modeled it after yours.”

Song Daozhang’s Shuanghua sits in a gentle bed of straw behind where Xiao Xingchen is kneeled. Even now, the protective sword won’t let Xiao Xingchen’s vines hold onto it for longer than a handful of moments, freezing plant matter to death and dust with all its might in allegiance to its master. Xiao Xingchen feels a great appreciation for that sword.

This is a cave with dirt on the floor; Xiao Xingchen made sure of it. The tip of Fuxue descends upon the soil now to scratch its wielder’s characters.

Magnificent yāo sword. The ice must burn, for a tree.

He knows, Xiao Xingchen thinks, pleased, and laughs: “I didn’t make it to cut me. I like the way your sword wields ice. The cuts must be neat.”

Then all of a sudden Song Daozhang’s grip is tightening on Fuxue. A dark emotion has descended over his brow, over the strip of black cloth covering his eyes. Xiao Xingchen nudges Shuanghua toward them, in anticipation of a blow.

“You want to exterminate me because I’ve killed people,” Xiao Xingchen says carefully. Where their fingertips skim Shuanghua’s hilt, their skin is already blistering in cold burns. Song Daozhang nods. “But I only kill those who have caused great injury. Why do you think I brought the girl to your temple?”

Huffing in frustration, Song Daozhang swings Fuxue in his grip, charting vicious circles through the pine-filled air. Sword tip lands in the soil this time with a loud thunk.

Nobody can decide the course of justice on their own. Just because they’ve injured doesn’t mean they deserve to die.

“I don’t know who deserves to die or not, but don’t those they’ve injured at least deserve to have their wishes heard?” Fuxue stalls in the dirt, the first character of Song Daozhang’s next reply half-written. Xiao Xingchen has a fun time determining what it might have been. “That’s how I came to be, you know.”

Resentment?

“Wishes,” they correct. “Like fine alcohol. People ferment these great secrets inside them, carve a hole, and whisper them into me.”

They get to their feet. If Song Daozhang has the eyes to see, he might startle at the way it’s easier for Xiao Xingchen to rot away the bent limbs and grow back already-straightened joints. He might be frightened by the way Xiao Xingchen’s skin fills out first crackled like bark, before soaking down slowly into the softness of flesh.

As it is, Song Daozhang merely keeps his head turned forward as Xiao Xingchen gets closer.

“Do you have any wishes yourself, Song Daozhang?” And before Song Daozhang can evoke another expression of skepticism, Xiao Xingchen offers, “a tongue, perhaps?”

They grew themselves one just a month ago; how hard can it be to grow one on a human? Someone has carved a hole inside Song Daozhang, and Xiao Xingchen can fix it.

But to their surprise, Song Daozhang firmly shakes his head and takes a step back.

I want nothing from you.

“Are you scared of me?” Xiao Xingchen murmurs, bemused. To their great surprise though, it’s Song Daozhang who furrows his brow, head tilted up at them like they’re the strange one here.

Not scared. There is simply nothing I want that needs to concern you.

Xiao Xingchen finds that they are not especially pleased by this answer. What did the girl say? That she only wanted someone to know and listen, do nothing? How does that even work? Even non-sentience can be moved to war by too many whispers; Xiao Xingchen is not made to do nothing.

Will you continue killing?

“Do you know better methods of justice?”

Some. Song Daozhang can make even sword strokes in soil sardonic. Xiao Xingchen is abruptly very proud of Fuxue for being held in that hand.

“Will you teach me?”

Fuxue skims the ground this time, mildly weighted with dread.

How?

Xiao Xingchen smiles their sweetest smile, and perfumes the cave with camphor.

“Come travel with me. There’s a world of people out there who’ve asked me for justice, and I should like to give it to them. Without murder, as you suggest.”

Behind them, Shuanghua has begun to rattle loudly with impatience. Xiao Xingchen grabs it and holds it out in offering to Song Daozhang, whose brow is tightly, looking almost painfully furrowed in thought.

You are not threatening me, he finally scratches in the earth, still with Fuxue. Xiao Xingchen hums the negative, curious about but pleased that Song Daozhang is stating, not asking. You truly only seek justice?

“Yes. I vow it.”

Humans have carved holes into you, injured you.

“Yes.” Shuanghua is rattling, and Xiao Xingchen presses it more insistently forward. “Daozhang, please.”

Song Daozhang’s hand closes around Shuanghua’s hilt. He jerks, startled, then tosses both Shuanghua and Fuxue into one hand in order to free his other one to grab Xiao Xingchen’s. Human fingertips rub achingly over the iced-over blisters on Xiao Xingchen’s bark.

“I can heal,” Xiao Xingchen tells Song Daozhang, tone resonant with meaning. “And so can all those people, once I get them free.”

The wood that grows back this time encases Song Daozhang’s hands. Song Daozhang tries to pull back too late, and they both hear his knuckles knock into the wood. With a winsome squeeze, Xiao Xingchen retracts their organic being and transmutes it back into cool smooth flesh. Absently, Song Daozhang smoothes a thumb over them again, as if to check the wounds are gone.

Then he abruptly drops Xiao Xingchen’s hand, ears going pink. He stumbles back, splits the swords, and almost offers Xiao Xingchen Shuanghua back. Xiao Xingchen can’t help but laugh.

“Is that a yes?”

Song Daozhang’s expulsions of breath truly are masterpieces of expression. This one, for example, articulates, I’m only conflicted on principle because I had more choice in this than I anticipated, and my choice lines up with your desires despite my preferred judgment.

He also knocks Shuanghua’s hilt to Xiao Xingchen’s hand. There is no more icy burning.

In a moment of glimmering possibility, Xiao Xingchen quickly rolls his hand over Shuanghua so he can now grab it, and at the same time wraps a thick three layers of vines over Song Daozhang’s left hand to keep his fingers knitted over Fuxue.

“Trade you?” they ask, teasingly but perfectly serious. Shuanghua begins to grow indignantly cold again under their grip, but with a warning squeeze from Song Daozhang, the sword goes back to tepid.

Then to Xiao Xingchen’s utter delight, Song Daozhang parts from Shuanghua with a light snort. He gestures, and Xiao Xingchen commands the holding vines to snake up Song Daozhang’s forearm instead, keeping themselves wrapped there in a warm protective grip. Song Daozhang swings Fuxue, this time to experiment with melee, an icy frost flooding off the sharp edges.

“I’ll return your sword,” Xiao Xingchen says softly, “when I return you.”

Slash. A spill of ice crawls from the split up the cave wall, and Xiao Xingchen is marveling. Shuanghua sings in their hand that it can do that too, aren’t they lucky that its owner lent it to them to play with. In that ice, Song Daozhang has lift his sword to carve:

I shall not pass up the chance to actually be helpful, despite my limitations. (Xiao Xingchen frowns, uncomprehending. What limitations, and isn’t he already so helpful to the temple? Helpful enough that mortals would brave a god to bargain for his life, at least.) But why would a being as powerful as you ask for company like mine?

“Company like yours?”

Blind, mute. A beat. I also cannot stand human touch.

Xiao Xingchen immediately moves to retract their vines, but Song Daozhang’s hand presses on the tail end of one before it can slither fully away. Song Daozhang then lifts Fuxue to underline, twice, the character for human.

His ears are still pink, and with concentration, Xiao Xingchen finds that they can make their own ears go pink to, and does so with excitement.

“I find you perfect, Song Daozhang,” Xiao Xingchen says to the human’s back. Shuanghua sings in agreement in their grip, and Fuxue, freshly formed and still learning the language of its own tongue, hums a concordant note. “Good and true.”

You don’t even know me.

This is written plainly because it is true. Or—mostly true. This cave has not been nothing, Xiao Xingchen knows it. And yet they say:

“And you don’t know me.”

The jut of Song Daozhang’s chin over his shoulder is frustrated.

“What’s the worst possibility here?” Xiao Xingchen questions, idly strolling a circle around Song Daozhang. The ice on the wall is already melting in the ambient late afternoon heat, Song Daozhang’s characters fading from relief. Not even Shuanghua can bring them back, Xiao Xingchen notes, because more ice would just cover the characters further. “That you or I aren’t as virtuous as we’re making ourselves out to be, and one of us must kill the other? Is that worse than now?”

There is the impossible flash of a smile at the corners of Song Daozhang’s lips, and Xiao Xingchen actually leans in to get a better look before it disappears.

“But what’s the best thing that can happen?” Xiao Xingchen smiles, teeth fresh-grown and pretty like a skull cleaned of meat. “We save a whole lot of people, and the world while we’re at it? I’m a god, you know. I can do that.”

Song Daozhang snorts at the irony and sincerity both. He makes a little gesture with Fuxue. Not with murder.

“So teach me,” Xiao Xingchen insists. “The human way of justice.”

Song Daozhang takes a slow, shaking breath that Xiao Xingchen suddenly craves to have in them. A nod. I can do that.

“It’s settled. Shall we clasp hands?”

The amusement is back, a summer butterfly on Song Daozhang’s lips. He holds up a hand and Fuxue both, cutting lightly the meat of his palm. This is how to shake on it.

“I don’t bleed,” Xiao Xingchen says as they take Song Daozhang’s hand anyways. Instead of liquid they expel roots from their hand—pale ones, as pale as they can manage, as to best take up Song Daozhang’s blood. Song Daozhang flinches, not expecting the numerous little feelers, dull as they are, to push apart the slit in his skin and pet the insides for drink. But he doesn’t pull away, just beholds with mouth slightly parted. Xiao Xingchen longs to send a few aerial roots past those lips and into that dark empty mouth as well, but they have learned that that is something to do only after asking, and that now did not seem an opportune time to ask.

They do want to ask something though.

“I don’t have your words in me.” If they do, they would know. They remember every single whisper homed and given honor in his body. “But have you never?”

Song Daozhang considers the question, then does two things. First he taps his mouth, then shakes his head decisively no. Then he taps his chest.

Huffs wryly.

Who has never wanted?

“Okay,” Xiao Xingchen replies, oddly cheered. They want, and they want Song Daozhang to have wanted. Song Daozhang’s wishes may not find their way into Xiao Xingchen via an intimate press of mouth and whispers, but as long as they are in there, Xiao Xingchen can find a way to fish them out.

The roots, now stained a lush a vivid red, wriggle in Song Daozhang’s flesh in encouraging assent.


“I want,” Xiao Xingchen breathes into Song Zichen’s mouth, and Song Zichen laughs soundlessly, tossing his head back. Xiao Xingchen’s branches—the willowiest ones, with soft and mossy coverings—slip between his lips and caress affectionately the insides of his cheeks.

“I want,” Xiao Xingchen repeats, fingers drawing down the plane of Song Zichen’s chest and lengthening as they go, leaving ivy creepers clinging to the flesh. They get to Song Zichen’s abdomen, and give a yank—all the wet little roots of the ivy sticking to Song Zichen come popping off, and Song Zichen’s breath hitches at the sensation.

“I want,” Xiao Xingchen says again, glossy but rough bark coating their thighs, which are then applied to pushing Song Zichen’s legs open. They rub against the insides of Song Zichen’s thighs like that, tree trunk to sensitive tender flesh. They strap Song Zichen’s ankles tighter to the bed.

“I want.”

Someone has carved the hole in Song Zichen, but it is Xiao Xingchen whispering their secrets into it. These are the things that nobody is supposed to discover, Xiao Xingchen thinks. These—the taste of the sweat that blooms on Song Zichen’s bottom ribs, the speed of the pulse between Song Zichen’s thigh and hip, the precise temperature of the roof of Song Zichen’s mouth—are the things they should like to keep always hidden, always selfishly inside them.

Yet humans are such funny things. They are full of such sorrow and pain, that they must induce that injury into another being via knife and hollowing. They don’t ask, and leave Xiao Xingchen to get used to sealing themselves over with sap and resin. They don’t ask, and leave Song Zichen with the tongueless silence. Hurt people hurt people, and something is always bleeding.

And Xiao Xingchen still kills, sometimes. Song Zichen knows this, and seems less tortured by it every day. If nobody can decide the course of justice on their own, can two? Can one god, and one human body with so many hollows so frequently filled and occupied by the god?

Xiao Xingchen does that filling now, pressing their lips back to Song Zichen’s. Song Zichen, who still cannot whisper. Song Zichen, who still has not carved a hole in Xiao Xingchen, instead keeps all of Xiao Xingchen’s wants and his own safely stored inside himself. Beneath spring mud.

“And you want too,” Xiao Xingchen whispers, and coaxes the sapling inside that mud to germination.