Zhu Hong stared at Grandelder Lan Jing, unable to believe what he had just heard. He had always believed that there was one match for every dragon and every phoenix. That was where his guilt toward Zhen Zhu came from. Because in taking his egg, he had taken the opportunity from Zhen Zhu to find someone who could bond with him. To now hear that maybe this wasn’t even the case and that there could be a different number of bonds for a person … He didn’t know what to do with that knowledge.
Lan Jing looked at him and cleared her throat. “You don’t have to think too much. The two of you are a good couple. That is the only thing that counts. In any case, if you find an egg and pick it, that already signifies that you have a bond. Whatever might’ve come about after that … is it really important?”
Zhu Hong was startled, not sure what to think. Was it important? Was it not? He didn’t know any longer. He just knew that this somehow changed things. He was too startled to really think it through but this was the one feeling that he had that he felt should be right. He didn’t know how to ask about it further. He didn’t even know where to begin.
Zhen Zhu glanced at his husband and reached over, grabbing his arm as if he was the one who wanted to reassure him this time. He still turned to look back at Grandelder Lan Jing though. “I think it really doesn’t matter much. As long as we have each other and are happy, that is what’s important. And I’m really happy.”
Lan Jing smiled. “I thought as much. From the moment you arrived here, you’ve been radiating happiness. And clearly, your husband is a big part of the source of that happiness.
Zhen Zhu nodded, feeling that this was indeed right. He fell silent for a moment before he spoke up. “There being more than one possible bond, is that why some relationships don’t work out?”
Lan Jing raised her brows, not quite sure how to answer that. “Why a relationship doesn’t work out … Who can say for sure? I think it depends on the couple. The bond that we form with each other between dragons and phoenixes is just the first step. It is not the most important one either.
“The most important should be the feelings that you develop after that. How you care for each other, how you listen to your spouse to get to know each other, how you build the life that you want to live with one another. That is what is important.
“That bond is merely a first spark that can help you go in the right direction. But I guess that even without it, you would be able to have a fulfilling relationship if you put in the work.”
Zhu Hong looked up, his expression still completely lost. Even without a bond, you could have a fulfilling relationship? Wasn’t this … exactly what he was trying right now? Did this mean that maybe he wasn’t even the only one who had ever been in this kind of situation?
His mind was blank but he still tried to voice his doubt. “But certainly, that kind of thing has never happened, right? I mean, the dragons go up the mountain and find the egg they bond with. If they can’t, then they will come down without one. But if they do, then the phoenixes will automatically bond with them. So there shouldn’t be something like that happening, right?”
Lan Jing’s expression became pensive. “Well, usually, I guess it will not be the case. But from what is passed down in the clan, it is clear that even our god and goddess did not have a bond. They made their relationship work based on something else. Who knows for sure? In any case, the bond wasn’t what carried them through the years. And it was only in later years that it was established.
“Furthermore … there are also those who weren’t able to make things work with whom we like to see as their destined partner. But some of those are still able to find happiness. For example, some of the phoenixes that return here will have a relationship with each other. It doesn’t happen often since there aren’t many relationships that don’t work out at all. And even among those, most want to stay alone. But that doesn’t mean that it is completely unheard of. So I would say that there surely are those without bonds and those that can have a relationship without one. That isn’t so strange to think of.”
After saying so, Lan Jing fell quiet again. The other two also didn’t know what to say so they sat there in silence, all preoccupied with their own thoughts.
Finally, Zhu Hong managed to shake himself out of his thoughts and glanced at Zhen Zhu next to him. He felt a little guilty. Not because of what he usually felt guilty for but because this meeting should’ve been about Zhen Zhu, about his family and his history, not about the bond he missed out on without knowing. Even though he really would’ve liked to know a bit more, this just wasn’t the time. Realizing this, he cleared his throat. “Is there anything else you can tell Zhen Zhu about his family?”
Zhen Zhu was startled out of his thoughts and looked up, needing a moment to find back into the conversation. “It’s okay if you don’t. In any case, I really am happy with Zhu Hong. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t any other family around anymore.”
Lan Jing smiled, her eyes curving up a little. “Am I not enough? In any case, I’m afraid there really isn’t much more. Since it was so many years ago, the place they had in the dragons’ valley was probably long-lost. On the other hand, there is nothing here in the phoenix clan’s forest either. At most, I still have a few things left of my brother. Nothing of your mother’s though.”
“Oh.” Zhen Zhu looked down but he hadn’t really held many expectations anyway so he wasn’t too disappointed. “Well, it’s nice that there is at least you.” He probably felt even better about it because he already knew Lan Jing. She had been there when he hatched. To realize now that she was his family was quite nice actually.
Lan Jing gave a hum and then looked from Zhen Zhu to Zhu Hong and back again. “If the two of you ever encounter any problems, you can always come to me. So far, you’re really doing well but there will be problems between every couple every now and then. And maybe you don’t want people in the dragons’ valley to know about everything. So don’t hesitate to swing by here if that is the case.”
The two of them nodded and Zhu Hong hurriedly thanked her. This was something that he was quite happy about. In any case, he might really need it in the future.
Since they had already talked with Lan Jing now and there were no relatives in the forest to visit, their customary visit could actually be considered finished for the most part.
Seeing that there was nothing else he wanted to know, Lan Jing finally got up and motioned at Zhen Zhu. “Well, you have spent a week in the dragons’ valley now. Now that you’re back, come with me for a moment. There’s still something that as a phoenix, you should do.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and followed her while Zhu Hong continued to stand in the same spot. Considering what she had said just now, he likely wasn’t welcome to join in.
Lan Jing glanced at him and smiled faintly. “Just wait here. You can sit down if you want to or go out and speak with the others if you’d like that better. I’m sure that there are still some things that you would like to know about the phoenixes. This could be a prime opportunity to ask about them.”
Zhu Hong nodded but after she had taken Zhen Zhu away, he just sat down again. There were indeed things that he would like to know but he felt more at ease asking Chengse and the other phoenixes in Elder Bi’s family. So right now, he would rather wait here until Zhen Zhu came back. He also didn’t want to make him worry when he came back and his husband wasn’t there anymore.
Meanwhile, Lan Jing took Zhen Zhu around to the other side of the house, to a place where there weren’t any shelves in front of the mother tree. She turned to the little phoenix and motioned at the trunk. “You surely know about the mother tree. Originally, this is where the memories of our clan are stored and then imparted to the young phoenixes while they are maturing before they hatch. After a week in the dragons’ valley, you should have made some of your own experiences so if you want to, you can take a look at some more of the experiences of our clan. It can help with finding your way in the world.”
Zhen Zhu looked at her with wide eyes and then looked back, a little unsure now that his husband wasn’t here. He really would’ve liked to talk it over with him. “This is something that I can do but it doesn’t have to be done?”
Lan Jing nodded. “Yes, you’re free to refuse. You’re also free to come back and take a look whenever you want to. So you don’t have to decide immediately. But you should know that from now on, that option will always exist for you.”
Zhen Zhu still hadn’t decided but looking at the tree, he felt that probably he didn’t need it. “I … I don’t think I want to give it a try. This past week, I had a lot of fun with Zhu Hong. He is good to me, really. And I think that rather than having more experiences imparted to me in this way, I want to go out with him and make my own.”
Lan Jing nodded. “In that case, you don’t have to.” She fell silent and then reached out to take Zhen Zhu’s hand, looking at it for quite a while.
The little phoenix tilted his head, making the white hair spill over his shoulders.
Lan Jing looked up, thinking of his father when she saw this. “You know how the dragons and phoenixes will go to hide their partner’s reverse scale and heart feather a while after they’ve gotten married, right?”
Zhen Zhu nodded. “Yes, we are currently still keeping them safe but haven’t gotten around to do so yet.”
“That’s quite normal. Usually, it takes a while until you can be sure of your feelings for each other. In any case, quite a bit of our strength is stored in our heart feather. That means that without it, we will need more time to grow that power back.
“There aren’t that many dragons and phoenix anymore and life can be dangerous. I do know where your father’s heart feather very likely is. If you want to, I can tell you so you can go and look for it together with Zhu Hong. Gaining that additional strength would make you safer.”
Zhen Zhu looked at her, feeling that what she was saying right now was not just because she was the Grandelder of the phoenix clan and in charge of these things, but rather because he was her family. She didn’t want anything to happen to him. She wanted him to live and live well at that, so she wanted to give him one extra life by handing the key to what was left of his father and mother to him.
Even though he understood, Zhen Zhu wasn’t quite sure about that. “Is it alright to do something like this?” There was nothing in the memories of his clan that had something to do with that. Maybe this wasn’t what was usually done. It certainly felt like it.
Lan Jing’s gaze was gentle as she looked at Zhen Zhu. “While alive, a phoenix’s heart feather belongs to their partner unless they break up. And a dragon’s reverse scale will also be their partner’s up until that point. But sometimes, if they die, they will decide to give these things to their children to help them out a bit. That is a decision that everybody needs to make for themselves.
“Some will say that it is alright, others will be of a different opinion, feeling that the feather and scale are a sign of love only. And that they should not be given to anyone but their partner. It is your decision, really. I can tell you where it is, and I wouldn’t mind doing so but you have to make the decision.”
Zhen Zhu nodded but didn’t answer immediately. The thing was that he still only hatched a week ago. There were many things about this world that he didn’t know yet. “Then, Grandelder, can I take a bit of time to think about it? Also, is it alright to talk it through with Zhu Hong?”
Lan Jing reached out and rubbed his head, ruffling his hair and making it stick up into the air. “That man is your husband. Whatever you want to discuss with him, you naturally can. I certainly won’t keep you from it.
“Anyway, do you want to stay the rest of the day in the forest? With the speed you were flying at, you wouldn’t make it back to the dragons’ valley today anyway. Just stay here for a bit and tomorrow morning, maybe you will be ready to make a decision. But even if not, it will be a better time to return.”
Zhen Zhu thought about it and felt that what she said made a lot of sense. He didn’t want to make this kind of decision all alone though. “I want to speak about it with Zhu Hong first. Is that alright?”
Lan Jing laughed when his response to this question was the same as to the first one and patted his back, motioning back to the front of the tree. “Well, go lead the way then!”
Zhen Zhu laughed happily and then rushed forward, immediately jumping into his husband’s arms when he got back. Zhu Hong was barely able to get back onto his feet before he had to catch the little phoenix. Looking at him, he wasn’t quite sure what to say. He looked up at Grandelder Lan Jing and raised his brows. Somehow, he felt as if there was something he should know.
Lan Jing chuckled and slowly followed Zhen Zhu over to explain to Zhu Hong. “There’s a matter that your spouse will still have to think through. I suggested staying here for tonight. Would you mind?”
Zhu Hong immediately shook his head. “Zhen Zhu was quite excited to come in the first place. I guess staying a bit longer will be even better. Wouldn’t you just love to take a look around?” He rubbed his cheek, giving him a smile.
Zhen Zhu didn’t deny it and looked at Lan Jing. “Then we’ll stay.”
Lan Jing nodded and then motioned outside. “Very well, then follow me outside. I’m sure that there won’t be a problem finding a nest for you.”
Zhu Hong’s brows immediately shot up but he probably should’ve expected that. This here was the place where the phoenixes lived. The dragons might stay for a day or two but that was it. Naturally, it would be built in a way that benefited the phoenixes most. And just like Zhen Zhu had mentioned the other day, the phoenixes apparently preferred to rest in nests instead of the bed or on the ground like the dragons. This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him.
Lan Jing saw his expression but when he didn’t ask anything, she also didn’t say more and just led the way outside before motioning up the tree. “You can probably see which of them occupied and which are not. But I can accompany you to find one that is suitable for you as well.”
Zhu Hong nodded and he and the Grandelder both took on their other forms while Zhu Hong gingerly picked Zhen Zhu up. This time, he didn’t let him sit on his back though, and instead held him in his palm since the way wouldn’t be too long.
Zhen Zhu didn’t mind. He just straightforwardly hugged his husband’s claw and excitedly looked around when they rose into the air.
The other phoenixes couldn’t help but look on closely, happy once they realized that the couple would stay here for a bit longer. Now, they would actually have the chance to spoil the little one of their clan a bit. That was something they had already feared they wouldn’t be able to do.