Having made the decision not to decide on anything for now, Zhen Zhu felt like he had really achieved something. Thus, he once again found a comfortable spot for himself and then closed his eyes, falling asleep again.
Zhu Hong stayed up a little longer, brushing through Zhen Zhu’s white hair while he just looked up at the leaves above them, listening to them rustling in the breeze. His thoughts were still on everything he had heard and seen today, and they circled around the question that Zhen Zhu had asked him.
Yes, what exactly was love? It sure seemed like he hadn’t thought enough about that before. Even after deciding on Zhen Zhu’s egg, he had been too shortsighted. That between them … even though there was no bond, it was probably love. After all, he saw Zhen Zhu as … his family. And wasn’t that also love? It might not be the type of love that was expected between spouses or the one that Zhen Zhu might hope for but it was a type of love and that was probably enough for them. He continued to think about that for quite some time before he also turned to the side and then fell asleep.
The next morning, Zhu Hong woke up with a row of feathers covering his face. He faintly raised his brows and then reached up, gently pushing the wing to the side that had unfolded while his husband slept. He glanced at him and then smiled, turning to the side to look at him more closely. After a while, he reached out and started to rub his back just like he had done it in the first few nights at home.
By now, Zhen Zhu wasn’t the fluffy chick anymore that had originally hatched from the egg but it still was a good feeling to do this.
Zhen Zhu also especially liked being petted by his husband like this and even snuggled up more closely to him before he finally woke up a few minutes later. There was a smile on his lips when he changed forms and he immediately hugged his husband, feeling that today really was a beautiful day.
Zhu Hong chuckled when he saw him like this and craned his neck, giving him a kiss on the lips. “Good morning. How do you feel?”
Zhen Zhu smiled even more brightly and then craned his own neck to look over the edge of the nest. Pulling back, he nuzzled the spot beneath his husband’s chin again. “Like it’s going to be a great day! I want to see the other phoenixes and a bit more of the forest.”
Zhu Hong nodded and the two of them got up. Zhen Zhu didn’t seem to have grown much last night and he also didn’t want to try flying from this height so Zhu Hong once again brought him down himself.
When they arrived on the ground, it didn’t even take ten seconds for several elders to crowd around them.
The phoenixes living in the forest were those who hadn’t managed to make their marriages with their dragon spouses work or had lost their spouses later on. They didn’t often have the chance to see the little ones of their race so they couldn’t help but be especially excited when they got a chance like this.
Zhen Zhu felt a bit like on that day when he had gone to the building of the phoenixes in the dragons’ valley for the first time: Everyone was looking at him, asking him about his life in the valley and how his husband was treating him. There were questions about his everyday life, Zhu Hong’s behavior, the things he had seen, whether he liked that place, what he thought of the forest, just everything. He actually felt a bit dizzy after a few minutes of this.
This time though, Zhu Hong was right next to him, keeping an arm around his waist all the time. He just smiled politely at the elders that were inquiring about him, not minding in the least. In any case, he felt that it was good that there was somebody who cared about Zhen Zhu beside him and the people Zhen Zhu had already managed to wrap around his little finger over in the dragons’ valley. This way, no matter what happened, he would always have a place he could return to. Knowing that was a good feeling.
Seeing his attitude, the elders also seemed a little more inclined to show him a good face. Some of them might be skeptical about marriages after their own had ended badly but they also knew that most phoenixes were rather lucky with their dragons and happy living with them. And it definitely seemed like this little one had managed to find an especially good partner. Why wouldn’t they treat him well? It was important to keep a good partner like this.
With the elders questioning him closely, time went by in a flash, and soon, midday had already arrived.
At that time, Grandelder Lan Jing walked out of the building around the mother tree, laughing at what she saw. “Have you really just been standing here all morning? Don’t be like this! The little one just arrived here yesterday and now you are already scaring him away! I bet none of you idiots thought of even feeding him.”
The elders looked caught and immediately, there were a few older phoenixes crowding around even closer, inquiring whether Zhen Zhu was hungry and what he wanted to eat. It was pretty clear that he only needed to say the word and they would immediately rush off to get whatever it was that he wanted.
Lan Jing looked at the lot of them silently. “Don’t bother. I’ve already prepared something for the two of them. Don’t forget that he also has a husband with him.”
The other phoenixes glanced the Zhu Hong and realized that they probably should’ve said something to him as well.
Zhu Hong just continued to smile and then nudged Zhen Zhu. “So, do you want to go in?”
Zhen Zhu naturally nodded his head. Grandelder Lan Jing was his only relative. If there was one phoenix that he especially wanted to spend time with, then it was her.
The two of them finally managed to pull themselves out of the circle of elders and followed Lan Jing into the building, sitting down at a small table at the side, where they found several plates with food already prepared. Most likely, the Grandelder had been at this for a while.
Zhu Hong made sure that Zhen Zhu was comfortable and then turned to Lan Jing. “Thank you very much. There really was a lot of excitement out there. I was already afraid that we wouldn’t be able to get away anytime soon.”
Lan Jing just smiled. “They are always like this when the young ones return. And most of the time, they scare them off because of that. Well, it is also because they just love seeing that there is a future for our race. I can’t say that I don’t feel similar.” She looked at Zhen Zhu and her gaze softened. “There aren’t many of us, just like with the dragons. And with each new generation, there seem to be even fewer.
“For both of you, there is only one child in both families. I really wish that in the future, it would be the other way around again. Seeing couples with many children running around, that certainly would be something that I would be happy to see.” She hurriedly raised her hands after saying this and shook her head. “Don’t feel pressured though. You just got married last week. I don’t think there’s any reason to have a child too soon.”
Zhen Zhu who had just reached out to pick up some of the food couldn’t help but look at her. “You think that it isn’t something that should be done soon?” He had felt hurt when Zhu Hong brought up that he didn’t want to have a child immediately even though he had understood the point he made when he explained it. Now, he was really stunned when he heard Lan Jing say the same.
Lan Jing turned to him and raised her brows, feeling that there was probably a bit more to the child’s question. “Well, do you want to have one immediately?” She wasn’t trying to say that it was wrong but in most cases, she felt that it would be better if the couples had a bit more time to find to themselves first. That would probably help with making them stick together in the future.
As things stood, it was sometimes difficult for them to find enough time as a couple because they were so focused on having children early and then raising them. There wasn’t much time left for anything else.
In the past, things had been a bit different. With so many people around, there hadn’t been as much pressure on the younger generation. So they could take their time to first get to know each other and find a way to be partners before they became parents. Now though, that wasn’t possible anymore. They would usually be urged by their families to start trying for a child already.
Zhen Zhu felt a little lost when she asked like that. Not even mentioning that Zhu Hong had said that he didn’t want a child immediately so it was out of the question, he also had to say that he had agreed with his reasoning so he couldn’t say that he really felt that a child would be a good idea right now. Whether he wanted one … to be honest, he hadn’t really thought about it.
Taking back his hands without trying the food, he sunk into a contemplative silence.
Zhu Hong looked at him, feeling that maybe now wasn’t the right time to think about something like this. He reached out to the small snack that Zhen Zhu had gone for, picked it up, and put it down on the plate in front of him.
Seeing his husband give him food, Zhen Zhu absentmindedly picked it up and started to nibble on it.
Lan Jing watched the two of them interact and there was a smile in the depths of her eyes. Well, even if these two decided to have a child rather soon, it might not be too soon. Clearly, they got along better than most others she had seen.
Still, she felt that it might be better if they gave themselves a bit more time but she also wouldn’t try to influence them too much. Her own feelings on this matter … they were hardly worth anything. In any case, she was also just a phoenix without a partner. What did she know about having children?
After a while, Zhen Zhu pulled himself out of his thoughts and looked up again, some clarity emerging in his eyes. “I think that I would also rather wait. You know, I feel like I’m still very young. There are a lot of things I don’t even know that concern my own life. So laying an egg and maybe raising a child … I don’t think it would be a good idea for me right now.”
Lan Jing nodded. Especially considering that he had said that he wanted to make his own memories first before he even considered taking in the other memories from the mother tree, it was probably true that he would need more time to grow as a person. He wasn’t ready to be a parent. Well, that did make her think of another question though. “If you don’t want to have a child yet, then have you thought about what else you want to do with your time?”
Everyday life in the dragons’ valley could become a drag after a while. Now, everything was still new and exciting but who knew how it would be in the future? They still would need to come up with some kind of plan for their life if they wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t stumble upon some trouble later on.
Zhen Zhu’s eyes immediately sparkled when he got to talk about their plans. “Well, we weren’t sure yet whether we should maybe stay here for a little longer.”
Lan Jing raised her brows. “Oh? So the elders haven’t scared you off yet?”
Zhen Zhu just smiled cutely and shook his head. “No, they haven’t. I’m not that easily scared off. In any case, the others in the valley haven’t treated me any different.”
Lan Jing gave him a long look and felt like she could somewhat understand where this was coming from. Clearly, Zhen Zhu had this cute appearance that made it difficult to see him as an adult. At the very least, not like a very experienced one. So everybody had probably felt that he was like a small sibling that had just come of age and still needed a lot of guidance. They were probably all trying to mother him. “Well, I’d be happy if you stayed here for a while but I also wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t. And the elders will be able to live with it either way. So just go with what you want to do.”
Zhen Zhu nodded. “Yes, that’s why we’re not quite sure. Zhu Hong said that he would go and bring me to the city so I can have a look around. I’m really curious! I mean I remember a bit about the forest but I don’t really remember anything else out there. So maybe it would be better to do that first and then return here later on.”
Lan Jing nodded again. “That also sounds like a good plan. Just go with whatever you’d feel happier doing.”
Zhen Zhu’s expression was a little tangled. It had seemed good yesterday to just push the decision off but now here he was, still not sure what to do. He hadn’t gotten any inspiration at all.
Zhu Hong watched him and just continued to pick up food for him, making sure that Zhen Zhu didn’t completely forget to eat.
After thinking for a bit, Zhen Zhu finally turned to him. “Well, I’ve been really looking forward to going to the city. Do you think we could just do that tomorrow? Like, return to the valley today, and then go to the city tomorrow? Then after we’ve seen that, we can still come back here.”
Zhu Hong reached up and rubbed his head, nodding. “Of course, we can. If that is what you want, then that is what we’ll do.” When it came to Zhen Zhu, as long as it was possible, he would give in to every whim that he had. He knew that he didn’t need to do this but it was something that just made him happy. Seeing him like this … it was quite nice.
Lan Jing watched the two of them and nodded as well, feeling that even if they weren’t in the forest or the valley, she wouldn’t need to worry. Clearly, these two were perfectly able to get along with just the two of them. “Well, I guess it is good that I invited you to eat. You’ll probably leave right after, right?”
Zhu Hong nodded. “Yes, that would probably be better. Zhen Zhu has already seen things on his way here but I still wouldn’t want to fly too fast. Actually, in any case, these two days were rather exciting. It would be better to go back early so we can rest up and then have more energy for the trip to the city.”
He didn’t mention it but he wanted to suggest to Zhen Zhu to try flying when they made that trip. They could take as much time as they wanted on the journey after all and it would make Zhen Zhu quite proud if he finally got the hang of it. And by now, his size might suffice for it. And even if it didn’t work out, after reaching the city, there would be so many new things that he would forget about it soon. It really seemed like the perfect opportunity to him.
Having talked about their plans, the three of them just silently ate and Lan Jing used the opportunity to tell Zhen Zhu a few stories about his mother that she could still remember.
When they left, it had actually gotten a little later since Zhen Zhu had wanted to hear more but it was still early enough that they would be able to make it back to the valley before it turned dark.
Zhen Zhu and Zhu Hong bid Lan Jing and the elders farewell. The latter were looking especially reluctant, clearly not wanting to let the feet little phoenix go this soon.
Lan Jing just smiled and waved at them, watching Zhu Hong change his form before Zhen Zhu climbed onto his palm and the two of them rose into the sky. When they finally vanished out of sight, she sighed and shook her head. “What a cute couple. I hope that in the future, they’ll come to visit more often but I’m afraid we won’t have that much luck.”
Some of the elders around her also couldn’t help but sigh. “The better the couple gets along, the more difficult it is to get to see them. Even if you see them, you only ever get to see them together. The next time they come here, they might already be bringing an egg along.”
Lan Jing glanced at the elder that had mentioned this, once again being reminded of what she had spoken to the two of them about before. Wasn’t that just it? Seeing that they got along well, everybody was already thinking about them having children even though the wedding had only been a week ago. She sighed again and then went inside, not taking part in the conversation any longer.
No matter what, if Zhen Zhu and Zhu Hong wanted to come, she would be here. If life in the dragons’ valley or wherever the wind carried them was more exciting, then they also had her blessing. She just wanted for this little phoenix of her family to live. She didn’t have any other desire.