Figuring out what Zhen Zhu would like wasn’t that easy. After all, Zhu Hong didn’t even know where to start. After thinking for a bit, he got up to get a couple of things around the house and brought them back to the table. There wasn’t much. Just a few things left behind from his parents that he figured they might as well try out.
Zhen Zhu tilted his head and curiously looked on. “What’s that?”
Zhu Hong sat down next to him and put an arm on the backrest of the chair, motioning at the first thing he had brought. “I know that when he wasn’t outside hunting, my father really liked to immerse himself in doing some calligraphy or painting. I’m afraid I haven’t inherited any of that talent but I think I still know enough to show you how it is done so that you can give it a try and see if you like it. If you do, you can spend some time with that in the future. If not, then we can try something else.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and then watched as Zhu Hong picked out a couple of different brushes before he ground the ink. His husband hesitated for a moment before he picked up a brush and handed it to Zhen Zhu.
“Dip that in the ink and just try it out for a bit. I don’t know that much so I can’t really tell which one would be better suited for you to try this with.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and gave it a try but it really didn’t look very good. He smudged the ink and the result was squiggly and uneven. It definitely wasn’t worth showing anyone.
His cheeks flushed red but in front of his husband, this also wasn’t something that he needed to be too worried about so he just put down the brush and shook his head. “I don’t think that is something I’d like. It seems too difficult.”
Zhu Hong laughed and rubbed the back of his head, smiling brightly. “Giving up this easily, are we? Well, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. You don’t have to do it.” He got up to wash out the brush and then put it aside. “Other than that, I know that my mother did a little bit of embroidery. I don’t have anything left over from her work so I can’t tell you how good she was though.” To be honest, the things he still remembered of his parents or had left of them didn’t number many. Still, there were some traces of them left behind in the house. “This set of embroidery needles should have been hers. You can also give it a try.”
Zhen Zhu picked them up, looking them over curiously. He also didn’t know how embroidery worked, so he could only try blindly. Especially since his husband also didn’t seem to know how to do this.
Zhu Hong watched and felt his face heat up a little. As a husband, he really wasn’t doing a good job at showing Zhen Zhu anything. He waited for him to fiddle around with the needles for a bit before he cleared his throat. “Well, if it seems interesting to you, you should probably ask the other phoenixes for instructions. I’m sure that there will be at least one or two among them who know some more. They can teach you.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and then put the needles down, folding his hands in his lap and looking at Zhu Hong expectantly. Clearly, he wanted his husband to show him even more things.
Zhu Hong suddenly felt like he had done himself a disservice by suggesting this. At the very least, he should have prepared a bit longer so he would be able to actually show him something. He pondered and then pulled out an instrument. “This is a Xun. Originally, the dragons used it when they went hunting but with time, it has also been used to make music. I’ve heard that the phoenixes usually like it.”
Zhen Zhu was quite interested in that and curiously looked the instrument over when Zhu Hong handed it to him. It was roundish, similar to an egg, with a couple of holes in it and one at the top. “Then how do you play it?”
Zhu Hong couldn’t help but smile. He reached out his hand, taking the Xun back from Zhen Zhu, and then put it to his lips. He probably couldn’t be called a master at playing it but he felt that he was proficient enough to at least give his spouse a good impression. He thought for a moment and then played a simple tune, the low notes reverberating in the air.
Zhen Zhu’s eyes immediately widened and seemed to sparkle with excitement. Zhu Hong wasn’t too surprised at that. From what he had heard, a lot of phoenixes liked the sound of the Xun. Although, rather than playing it, they were apparently especially fond of their partner doing so for them.
He wasn’t quite sure why that was. Maybe the sound actually reminded them of the call of the phoenixes and hearing their partners play made them feel closer to them because they could connect in a different way. It could also be that there was another reason altogether that he hadn’t thought of. Whatever it was, it was good to see that Zhen Zhu thought the same as other phoenixes in this regard. If it was something that he liked, that was great.
Zhen Zhu couldn’t help himself but inched forward, grabbing onto Zhu Hong’s leg while he stared at him intently. When his husband lowered the Xun, he couldn’t help but reach up and snatch it back, giving it a closer look. This kind of small thing that was barely as big as his two fists, could actually make such a sound! Who would’ve thought? Now that he looked more closely, he also realized that there were some carvings on the instrument. They seemed a little faded as if it had been played very often in the past. “Do you play often?”
Zhu Hong looked down at the instrument and realized why Zhen Zhu was asking this. “Not particularly, no. This is just something that I would do to pass a bit of time while outside. I think that my father played it for my mother quite a few times though. I have some faint memories of that.” He slightly furrowed his vermilion brows, trying to remember the song his father had usually played for her.
Unfortunately, too much time had passed since then and as a child, he hadn’t cared as much. Now, he regretted it a little. He didn’t know if it was a song that was generally taught or if it was one that his father had come up with. In any case, he would’ve liked to know so that he could play it for Zhen Zhu. But now, that just wasn’t possible.
Zhen Zhu’s eyes were glittering when he heard that. When it came to doing things a couple would do, he was always especially interested. Even though he understood that Zhu Hong wanted him to be his own person with his own likes and things he wanted to do, he just couldn’t help it. It was most important to him to be with Zhu Hong.
He turned the Xun in his hands a few times and then raised it to his mouth. “So I can try as well, right?”
Zhu Hong nodded and watched him, not wanting to say too much while Zhen Zhu was just trying things out.
The little phoenix copied what he had just seen by Zhu Hong, and gently blew at the mouthpiece. The tone that came out as a result was a little uneven but he felt that it didn’t sound too far from what Zhu Hong had just played. Most likely, he would be able to learn this as well.
He happily used his fingers to try and get some other sounds but it turned out that this was more difficult than just blowing in air. It really seemed to be a bit off.
His expression turned ugly and he looked at his husband with teary eyes. Could it be that he wasn’t just unable to fly and do calligraphy, but also couldn’t play an instrument? Was there anything that he could do?
Zhu Hong just laughed though and ruffled his white hair. “You don’t worry. In any case, this is the first time that you’re trying. If you were immediately able to play, I would be really shocked. I needed quite a bit of time to be able to play like this and I’m still not very good. So don’t worry about it too much.”
Zhen Zhu was a little more relieved when he heard that and tried a bit longer but finally put down the instrument. “Then, what else is there?” Even though he really liked playing the Xun, that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to try some more things. After all, life was long and so were their days. He could practice things while Zhu hong was outside and then when he came back, he could surprise him with how much progress he had made. The more progress he made on things, the better it would be.
Zhu Hong had no idea what exactly his little spouse was thinking but he still patiently tried everything with him that he could think of from carving wood to cooking a simple meal. By the time they finished, it was already late at night. The sun had long sunk beneath the horizon and there were even some stars glittering in the sky.
Zhu Hong glanced over and then waved for Zhen Zhu to follow him up to the second story. “Let’s go take a look.”
Zhen Zhu held his hand and happily followed him. He never cared about what exactly they were doing. Even if they were just sitting together, he was also happy. Naturally, he would follow Zhu Hong everywhere.
They went into one of the empty rooms and Zhu Hong opened the window wide before he pulled over a chair and sat down, pulling Zhen Zhu to sit on his lap. Then, he motioned outside.
“I particularly like this time of the day. I’m not sure why. I think that when it turns dark, it unwittingly makes me think of my parents and the time I still had a family. My mother … she reminded me of the darkest hour of the day with how quiet it was but also with how it could envelop you. It just feels incredibly familiar to me now.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and looked out at the night sky as well, able to see just what Zhu Hong meant. “I wonder what my parents were like. To be honest, the day we got married, I didn’t really think about it. I was just focused on you. But then yesterday, I couldn’t help but realize that I also should have a family. But I don’t know anything about them. It is a bit strange.”
Zhu Hong nodded. “Yes, I get that. I actually feel similar because there isn’t that much that I can remember from my parents even though I did grow up with them for the first couple of years. It is just that, in the end, the time spent together wasn’t that long after all. And because of that, there aren’t many things to think back to and some of what was there originally might have faded with time.
“Still, I am thankful for the little that I have.” He gave a faint smile and his gaze turned a little softer. “Other than that, there is also this house left of them and everything that they had. The dragons are a rather tight-knit group so after my parents died, they left everything as it was, and Elder Bi immediately stepped out to take me under his wing. So I guess no matter what, I still had a good life. I just can’t change the fact that there are few memories of them.”
Zhen Zhu gave a hum and also looked around the room before he turned back to the window. “No matter what, we have a new family now. Both of us. It doesn’t matter who else is around or not.”
Zhu Hong laughed and reached up, his fingers brushing through the white strands falling over Zhen Zhu’s shoulder. “That’s true. And even though I said before that having children isn’t something I want to think of immediately, I am looking forward to the time when it will happen. By then, we will know each other well enough that we will have an easier time dealing with everything as well.”
Zhen Zhu looked up, his expression pensive. “When you said that originally, I was really sad. It made me feel like you didn’t want me. But when you say it like this, I guess it’s not wrong to wait. Whether it is marrying or having children, being at a good place yourself and also as a couple later on, I think it can help.”
Zhu Hong’s hand stilled and he didn’t really know what to say. “I didn’t want to hurt you before. I just … I feel comfortable with you to the point where I feel like I can tell you just about anything. The thoughts that I had … I can imagine that they might have been a bit hurtful but I didn’t mean them like that. I hope you can understand.”
Zhen Zhu nodded. “Not immediately maybe but I think I’m able to. In any case, I haven’t seen much of this world yet. So I guess my perspective is a bit limited. For most dragons and phoenixes, it seems that it is normal to get married right after hatching, then have children a year or maybe two from that. I guess my expectation was just that that was the way it should be because I saw these things happen many times in the memories of my clan and it seemed that that was something that the phoenixes welcomed a lot.”
Zhu Hong started brushing through his hair again, trying to imagine how that must’ve been for Zhen Zhu. “The memories of your clan … how are they? I mean what exactly are they like? Can you describe that?”
Zhen Zhu pondered, not quite sure how to say it. In any case, this was his reality for him. He didn’t know how it was for the dragons not to have the memories of their clan imparted to them and make memories of their own instead. “I’m not sure if I can say it well. It is a bit like … like if you were told a story but it is extremely vivid and it makes you feel as if you could even see pictures of what the other person describes and because they are so invested in it, you can feel what they feel. It is a bit like that. Just that it’s not just a story but a bit closer to your heart.”
“Close to your heart …” Zhu Hong chewed on those words for a bit, not quite sure what to make of them. Most likely, it had to mean that the phoenixes would especially pass down things that were important to them, the memories that had made the most impact on their life. It made sense that getting married and having a child would be among those things.
But still, he wondered just how much that would help a young phoenix in navigating the world. Clearly, there were many things that Zhen Zhu already knew but also many that he had no idea about. Some of these were a little strange considering that the valley of the dragons hadn’t changed much. So why did he not know much about that? What was the reason for that?
He didn’t know and he also didn’t know where to even start asking so, in the end, he just rubbed his lover’s neck and then motioned back to the door. “It has gotten pretty late. How about we go to sleep now and then continue with exploring the valley tomorrow? If we continue like this, then in a few days, you’ll have seen everything.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and hopped off Zhu Hong’s lap, grabbing his hand to pull him up.
Zhu Hong laughed and followed him after closing the window, lying down next to him in the dark as soon as they reached their room.
This time, Zhen Zhu couldn’t help but speak up though. “Say, when we’ve seen the valley, then what? Do we go to the city immediately?” He was still really looking forward to that.
Zhu Hong shook his head in the dark and pulled the little phoenix closer. “Then, it will first be time for a visit to the phoenixes’ forest. But after that, we can make that journey whenever you would like to.”
“I’d rather do it sooner rather than later. I’m also looking forward to seeing the forest. I remember it a bit. The tall trees, how the leaves rustle in the wind, the ground below, the big tree in the middle of the forest … I feel as if I was there myself.”
Zhu Hong couldn’t help but be a little startled. That was a hint of longing in Zhen Zhu’s words just now. Maybe … the phoenixes actually felt more about this forest than he had thought. It seemed that he would have to look very closely to see if there was something he should take note of in the future. “We can stay a few additional days if you want to.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and then snuggled up to his husband. “In any case, it’s still a few days away. When we’re there, we can still decide.”
“We certainly can.” Zhu Hong craned his neck and kissed his spouse’s forehead before the two of them fell asleep in each other’s embrace.