It had started with…
Qingxuan doesn’t even remember how it started.
All they know is that they have a friend they’ve never seen.
“Are you there?” Qingxuan asks whenever Ge is away.
And sometimes there is a long pause, but Qingxuan never has to ask more than twice before the voice sighs and says, “I’m here.”
They talk about everything—or maybe it’s nothing at all. They keep each other company, and when they’re talking, Qingxuan doesn’t feel as lonely in this world that is just them and Ge.
It’s the middle of the day when Qingxuan steps out onto the branch while Ge is out collecting food. They don’t know what possessed them. They haven’t even called out to the voice. If anyone had asked, they would not have said they felt stifled—but they must have, because why else would they do this thing that Ge has told them never to do, this pointless act of defiance?
All of this dawns on Qingxuan as they feel the talons close around their body and already know that it’s too late.
A life lived in terror of maybes is no life at all, Qingxuan has always laughed in response to Ge’s lectures, even as they have tried to heed Ge’s warnings where it most counts.
And yet here they are, in the talons of a predator ready to eat them. They twist, but the movement only causes the sharp talons to dig into their flesh—and even if they could get the bird to let them go, then what? They would fall to their death.
Qingxuan has had the benefit of the best education Ge could provide. Qingxuan, protected in the tree where Ge keeps them safe, has spent their days learning about things like philosophy and ethics, a privilege not afforded to most creatures of the woods. All the teachings say that death is inevitable; that the wise do not fight it but embrace it when their time comes.
But Qingxuan cannot find it in themself to embrace the inevitable death.
They twist, fast and sudden, letting the talon dig into their right shoulder as they bite the ankle on their left. The bird releases its hold for a moment.
Qingxuan is falling, falling—but only for a moment, because then the talons wrap around them again, this time with one wrapped tightly around their throat, and they are back exactly where they started, only with no hope of retaliation this time.
Qingxuan shivers and closes their eyes, focusing on their breath. It’s harder now, with the talon wrapped around their throat, and they feel their consciousness go hazy around the edges.
When they are finally set down and the talons release them, they have no presence of mind to move—to try to shield their vital organs, or to try to get away. There is only the sweet, clear air that is finally flowing freely into their lungs, and the dizzy rush that fills their head with it.
The haze begins to clear, and they become aware that they are looking up at a very glary sparrowhawk.
A sparrowhawk who is not making any move to eat them.
Qingxuan stays frozen, staring at the predator who is doing nothing but staring back.
“You’re not trying to escape,” says the sparrowhawk after a long silence.
The sparrowhawk’s voice is familiar, in a terrible sort of way.
It’s Qingxuan’s friend’s voice, they realize—a realization that takes several long moments to become clear, for it doesn’t add up.
“It’s you,” says Qingxuan, and they try to keep their voice even, but the betrayal seeps into their voice all the same.
The sparrowhawk blinks, and something like shock crosses through his eyes. “It’s you,” he says, like it is as much a shock to him as it is to Qingxuan.
“Of course it’s me,” says Qingxuan, despite their trembles. “You’re the one who snatched me up!”
“I thought—” The sparrowhawk swallows his words then, staring at Qingxuan. “But you’re so…little.”
“I’m a regular size for a chipmunk,” huffs Qingxuan. “You’re small for a sparrowhawk.”
“You’ve never seen another sparrowhawk,” says the sparrowhawk, and his voice is different from how it’s always been when they’ve been no more than voices to each other. There’s a softness in his eyes, yes, but it’s also infused in his voice. It’s a softness that has never been there, as far as Qingxuan can recall, in all their disembodied conversations.
The soft tone, the soft look, is each so disarming that it takes Qingxuan a moment to register the words. The knowledge implicit there.
Of course the sparrowhawk knows this about Qingxuan. What hasn’t Qingxuan told him?
“You know me,” says Qingxuan, at a loss for any other words.
“No more than you’ve allowed me to,” says the sparrowhawk, seemingly a little wrong-footed.
“But I didn’t know you were a sparrowhawk.”
The sparrowhawk is silent.
“Did you know I was a chipmunk?”
“I knew you were likely a rodent of some kind,” admits the sparrowhawk.
“But I didn’t even know you were a bird,” says Qingxuan.
They are recalling all the conversations they’ve had, and wondering—what do they know about the sparrowhawk?
“You like to eat,” they say at last. It’s the only thing that they can recall the sparrowhawk sharing about himself, and the irony is not lost on them.
“I do,” says the sparrowhawk.
“And so you’re going to eat me,” says Qingxuan, trying hard to keep their voice as even and cool as Ge’s would be if he were here.
“I didn’t know it was you,” says the sparrowhawk, closing his eyes in frustration. “Look, I didn’t know. I’ll take you back to your tree. And I’ll leave you alone.”
Qingxuan stares at him. “What?”
“Do you need me to repeat myself?” The sparrowhawk is positively glaring now. His voice is far more familiar now—this is the friend that Qingxuan has come to know.
“No, I—you’re letting me go?”
The sparrowhawk doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even look straight at Qingxuan.
“Thank you,” says Qingxuan. “I’d appreciate it. But also, I’d like it if you’d keep coming back.”
The sparrowhawk’s eyes jerk up to meet Qingxuan’s, then.
“I’m a hawk,” he says.
“And I’m a chipmunk,” says Qingxuan. They don’t know if there’s a right way to have this conversation, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The anxiety, the fear are draining away, and in their wake is certainty—is fondness. Qingxuan has forged an unknowing friendship with a sparrowhawk that would have eaten them—but the friendship was real, it has to be, because the sparrowhawk who loves nothing so much as food is declining to eat them.
“You’re bleeding,” says the sparrowhawk, his voice rising.
“So are you,” says Qingxuan with a pointed look at the ankle they bit.
The sparrowhawk fluffs his feathers in surprise or indignation.
“You can eat me, or you can keep being my friend,” says Qingxuan, and finds as they say the words that that they truly mean them. “Because life in a tree hollow was no life, until you came along.”
The sparrowhawk says nothing. There is a dark world hiding behind his eyes, but Qingxuan knows they aren’t imagining the affection that is leaking through the shame-fear-guilt.
They don’t understand it, but they don’t need to.
“I won’t like any other chipmunks,” says the sparrowhawk.
Qingxuan blinks. “Okay?”
“Chipmunks will still primarily be food to me,” he clarifies.
“But not me,” says Qingxuan, and it’s barely even a question because they already know.
“Not you,” says the sparrowhawk.
“Also not my Ge,” says Qingxuan.
The sparrowhawk glares.
“Seriously, you can’t eat my Ge,” says Qingxuan, now a little worried.
“I don’t like chipmunks,” grumps the sparrowhawk.
“But you like me,” says Qingxuan.
The sparrowhawk’s silence is as good as an agreement, and a thrill runs through Qingxuan. They move up to the sparrowhawk, nuzzling into his breast feathers.
“What are you doing?” asks the sparrowhawk, but he doesn’t move away.
“Showing you I like you,” says Qingxuan.
“You barely know me,” says the sparrowhawk, and it’s true.
“My name is Qingxuan,” they say without pulling away from the sparrowhawk. His heartbeat is quick in Qingxuan’s ear. “What’s yours?”
The sparrowhawk is silent for a long moment before he replies. “He Xuan.”
“He Xuan,” says Qingxuan, and their voice sounds almost like a sigh. “I like you, He-xiong. And you don’t have to like any other chipmunks. But if you hurt my Ge, I’ll be sad. So don’t hurt my Ge, ok?”
He Xuan doesn’t reply, but he leans his head down to nuzzle Qingxuan’s head ever so gently, like they are something to be treasured, and for now, this is enough.
This is more than enough.
Qingxuan finds that for the first time in as long as they can remember, they don’t feel lonely.