Zhen Zhu happily listened to his husband playing. He was so wrapped up in the music that he didn’t even notice as the time passed. Finally, their surroundings got darker and Zhen Zhu looked up, startled.
He reached out to his husband, grabbing his arm, and gave him a frightened look. “Zhu Hong, why is it getting so dark?”
Zhu Hong looked up and also realized that too much time had passed. He had held his eyes closed and just focused on the music and Zhen Zhu’s reaction, not paying attention to anything else either. “Well, I guess it’s nighttime already. Do you want to rush over to the city or just stay here for the night?”
Zhen Zhu looked back at him, distraught. “Can we just stay here? Isn’t that dangerous? Or is flying at night dangerous?” He really didn’t know what to make of the situation.
Zhu Hong put away the xun and reached out, gently rubbing the back of Zhen Zhu’s head. “Don’t worry. This spot seems rather safe. Continuing the flight also wouldn’t be a problem. Although I should probably carry you there.”
Zhen Zhu really didn’t know what would be better. He looked up at his husband, asking for help.
Zhu Hong rubbed his head again and then looked around, finally motioning at the ground. “I’d say let’s stay here for tonight. When we are out on missions, we also just camp outside. It’s not a problem. Actually, you might even like it. Just give me a moment.”
He got up and then walked closer to the trees, gathering a few leaves and carrying them back to spread them on the ground next to the river. With this, it might be a bit more comfortable for Zhen Zhu to lie there.
He also took out a blanket from his spatial ring and used it to wrap up his spouse. He hadn’t really thought of the possibility of this happening before so he still only had the one that he usually carried with him in case it got really cold at night. Right now, the weather was nice though. It wasn’t necessary for him to use a blanket and it should be more than enough for Zhen Zhu. That way, he might feel a little more at home.
Zhen Zhu indeed calmed down a little although it wasn’t really because of the blanket but more because his husband was so self-assured. Seeing him prepare for the night as if he had done that hundreds of times already, he felt that there really wasn’t a problem worth worrying about. Since Zhu Hong knew what he was doing, they would certainly get through this night without trouble.
Zhu Hong smiled when he saw Zhen Zhu calm down and rubbed his head again before he awkwardly retracted his hand. He had really gotten too used to this is in the past week. Now, it had already become a habit ingrained in him that was difficult to get rid of. If Zhen Zhu really didn’t like it, he still had to do so though.
Zhen Zhu didn’t seem to mind at this moment though. Actually, Zhu Hong being attentive toward him and trying to calm his feelings felt really nice at this moment. Thus, he snuggled up to him more closely, once again nuzzling that spot beneath his chin with the top of his head.
Zhu Hong thought for a moment and then rubbed the back of his head again, feeling that it probably shouldn’t be disliked at the moment. Then, he lay down together with him, looking into his eyes.
Right now, even though Zhen Zhu had calmed down, there should still be a bit of anxiety there. So it would be best if he tried to divert his attention. In this situation … “Do you want me to tell you about the first time I went out on a mission?”
Zhen Zhu was immediately all ears. “The first time? You must’ve been really young back then.”
Zhu Hong nodded at that. “I was. At that time, my father was still alive. Usually, before you are supposed to go out on your own missions, your parents will take you along. As I said before, I don’t remember much about them but I can remember that day.
“The mission that he had at that time wasn’t a difficult one so he figured that it was alright to take me along. I was still really small at that time. Even when I changed into my dragon form, he still held me in the palm of his hand. I was always looking out between his claws just like you did when I brought you to the forest of the phoenixes. Everything seemed exciting.
“At that time, I had been venturing outside the valley every now and then. But I stayed in the vicinity at least so that if something happened, I would always be able to rush back or call for help. This time though, we actually went to the mountains outside, to the highest one I had ever seen. I originally thought that the top was just barely touching the clouds but when they flew higher and higher and broke through the first layer of clouds, I realized that it towered even higher than that.”
Zhen Zhu’s eyes were already shimmering when Zhu Hong had gotten this far with the story. “That must’ve been awesome!”
Zhu Hong nodded. “It was a breathtaking view. When the wind blew below or one of the order dragons struck the clouds with their tails, a gap would open up in that white blanket and I could see the world below.
“Everything seemed small as if it was something that somebody had just painted on a scroll of paper instead of the real thing. But it was beautiful. I think that the dragons’ valley was the first thing I saw this way. It was different from how I knew it. Even though it was the very same houses that I had seen every day, it just looked different this way.
“And then, when we got high up the mountains, the cliffs that had seemed dangerous when I stood on top of them were just like a small ledge from up there. It felt as if you could jump to the other side easily. And it was breathtaking, more than anything else I’ve ever seen. That is a view I will definitely never forget.”
He smiled and couldn’t help but sigh. “My father was telling me about the things we saw. What place we were currently passing by, what was important to know about this mountain or that, what I should take note of if I ever went out on my own.
“I felt like I learned so much that day. And I couldn’t wait to go out with them again. Unfortunately, I was still too small. So they could only take me along if there wasn’t any danger around. After all, I wouldn’t even have been able to fly away fast enough. And needing one of the dragons to guard me while there was some kind of fight ongoing … that wouldn’t have worked out. So I couldn’t go along with them again anytime soon. By the time the next mission like that came around, my father already wasn’t alive anymore. And my own fervor for going out with them had died with him.”
Originally, he hadn’t wanted to include that part but thinking about it, he still felt that he should tell the whole story. After all, Zhen Zhu was his spouse. He wanted him to know more about his life. And even if it hadn’t been for his personal history, Zhen Zhu also needed to know that there was always some danger involved in those missions. That way, he wouldn’t be surprised if something bad ever happened in the future.
Zhen Zhu hugged him in response, looking sad. “I’m so sorry.”
Zhu Hong rubbed the back of his head again. “It’s alright. It’s been a long time since then and I’ve managed to get past that and made many more experiences after that.
“In any case, I’m grateful that he insisted on taking me along that early. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even have had this beautiful memory of him. That is something that I would really regret. Losing him … Well, it might have been inevitable. Life is like that: Not everything will stay around forever. Sometimes, we have to say goodbye to people that we love. But our memories of them remain.”
Zhen Zhu wasn’t quite sure what to do with those words at first. To him, there weren’t any loved ones other than the ones he had gotten to know in the past week. He didn’t even know his own parents. So it was a bit difficult for him to relate. But thinking of how he would feel if Zhu Hong left him, he felt like he could at least understand somewhat. He would be sad beyond belief but it wouldn’t change the past and the good times that they had had. Although he would still prefer to always be together with him.
After stewing on this thought for a while, he lightly grasped his husband’s hand. “I do want to make nice memories with you, the more the better but I don’t want you to leave. So you have to promise that when you go out in the future, you will always be especially careful. Don’t take any risks. We don’t really need much to live anyway. So those missions … it’s better to do fewer of them.”
Zhu Hong smiled and reached out, rubbing Zhen Zhu’s neck this time instead of his head, hoping to reassure him but not treat him like a child either. “I know. In any case, I saw what happened when you aren’t careful enough. Not that I think that my father put his life on the line lightly. But still, I will always be careful when I’m out there. I wouldn’t want to do the same thing to you or any future children we might have. So you don’t need to worry.”
Zhen Zhu nodded, not that worried if he was honest. He had just been made a little uncomfortable by what Zhu Hong had just said but he did know that his husband would take his own life seriously. So he had just wanted to make sure that he had voiced that sentiment.
Since they had already agreed on this, Zhen Zhu’s thoughts traveled further. “So, are you always camping outside like this when you are on a mission?” He shifted around on the ground, feeling that it was slightly uncomfortable even though Zhu Hong had put the leaves on the ground and even given him the blanket. He didn’t even want to imagine how it would be right now without the blanket. In fact, thinking of that, he couldn’t help but tug at it, wanting to share it with his husband.
When Zhu Hong saw him wriggle around like that, he rubbed his back and then tried to pull the blanket up higher. “Are you uncomfortable? I don’t have a second blanket. So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with this for the time being. We could gather some more leaves though. It usually helps with making the ground a little softer.”
Zhen Zhu looked up at him, really not sure what to make of his husband’s actions and words. “I wanted to share it with you.”
Zhu Hong raised his brows and then realized that Zhen Zhu was worried about him again. He chuckled and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re thinking too much. My body is much tougher than yours. So I don’t really need the blanket. It’s more to keep warm in case that the temperature suddenly drops by a lot but that is currently not the case so there is no reason to worry. You can just keep it for yourself.”
Zhen Zhu was a little unsure whether he could trust this but looking into Zhu Hong’s eyes, he couldn’t see any hint that he was lying. So in the end, he had to accept it.
Seeing that he settled down, Zhu Hong wrapped him in his arms again and then got back to answering his previous question. “As for spending the night on the missions, most of the time, they are indeed like this. It might only be that we will stop in a town or city along the way to our destination if the distance is very big. In those cases, that might make more sense than camping outside. But if we go to a place closer to the valley, we don’t bother with that.”
“Oh.” Zhen Zhu really wasn’t sure what to make of that. If he could, he really would have liked to make things easier for his husband somehow but he knew that he had no business getting involved in those missions. He wasn’t like Dong Ling. Following his husband would only make trouble.
In any case, he had only learned how to fly today. He shouldn’t even think about accompanying Zhu Hong on anything but a small outing. Realizing this, Zhen Zhu didn’t bother him about that any longer. Instead, he focused on what was ahead of them. “So tomorrow, we’ll fly the rest of the way to the city.”
“Yes, that’s the plan. In any case, you know how to do it now. So if you want to, you can fly yourself. Otherwise, I can bring us over there just like before. However you would like it.”
Zhen Zhu gave a hum but didn’t quite know. “Let’s decide that tomorrow morning. Right now, I’m not sure yet. Also, I think it couldn’t hurt to try flying again as well. You know, just to see whether I’m doing a good job at it. Before, there wasn’t so much time so I only tried a little. This time, if I have to fly a longer distance, then we first need to make sure that I’m able to do it well.”
Zhu Hong nodded, feeling that what Zhen Zhu was saying was quite sensible. “Alright, we can do that. In any case, don’t feel forced. You don’t need to do anything alone, especially right now. Later on, when you’ve reached your full size and have gained more experience, then that won’t be a problem anymore. Right now, it’s alright to take your time for everything.”
“I know. You don’t need to keep reminding me. In any case, it will only take a few more days for me to reach my full size. I’m sure of that.” To be honest, he was still quite a bit smaller than Ying Shi but it wasn’t by that much anymore. And in general, not all phoenixes were of the same size.
Most likely, he had just been dealt with the lot of having a small physique in his phoenix form as well. There was nothing he could do so he’d just have to live with that. Anyway, Zhu Hong didn’t dislike it so that was already good. As for himself … He was a bit sad but he could deal with it. In the end, size wasn’t that important.
Zhu Hong nodded, not doubting his spouse’s words on this matter. From what he knew and had seen of other phoenixes, Zhen Zhu had indeed almost reached the regular size. Also, the timeframe was a normal one so it wouldn’t be strange. “In any case, we should probably sleep now if we want to get up early tomorrow to fly to the city.”
Zhen Zhu gave a drawn-out hum. To be honest, he wasn’t tired at all yet.
His husband realized that something was up and brushed back his hair, cupping his cheek. “What’s the matter?”
Zhen Zhu gave another hum and then scratched at his husband’s chest. “I’m not tired yet. Can’t we stay up a little longer?”
Zhu Hong laughed and leaned closer until their foreheads touched. “Of course. What do you want to do? Just cuddle a bit? Or should I tell you another story? Or … do you have something else in mind?”
Zhen Zhu suddenly froze when his husband asked him like this. He couldn’t help but feel that Zhu Hong’s voice had sounded rather suggestive just now. Most likely, that wasn’t even true but it was the way he felt. He couldn’t change that. Zhen Zhu wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. So he couldn’t help but fall silent again.
Zhu Hong actually hadn’t thought of anything and was a little confused when his spouse was suddenly silent. He thought for a bit, pondering whether he had overlooked something obvious, and felt that the only other option was probably playing a song for him again. In any case, Zhen Zhu had seemed to like that before. “How about another song?”
Zhen Zhu looked up, surprised when he suddenly heard that suggestion. He really hadn’t thought that Zhu Hong would go on asking. It seemed that he had really misunderstood him before. He was too embarrassed to admit to that so he just nodded. “That sounds good.”
Just when Zhu Hong reached to take out the xun, Zhen Zhu still reached out and grabbed his sleeve though. “Say, it isn’t a problem to play here, right? It wouldn’t be dangerous?” Since he didn’t know much about these things, he didn’t want to make trouble. So he’d rather ask to make sure that he wasn’t asking for anything dangerous.
Zhu Hong just laughed though. “Wasn’t I the one who suggested this in the first place? You don’t need to worry. In any case, it’s not a problem.”
“I guess that’s true.” He didn’t worry any longer and just waited for Zhu Hong to take out the instrument and put it to his lips.
Zhu Hong needed a moment longer to get things right, now that he couldn’t see as much in the darkness that was fast approaching. After a moment, he was sure that he had the right grip on the xun though, and then started to play. He remembered the tune he had played before and chose a similar one, hoping that Zhen Zhu would like this as well.
Zhen Zhu closed his eyes, listening intently. To be honest, he got why the other phoenixes liked this so much. It really felt like something very familiar, something that was meant to be this way. He couldn’t explain that feeling, he just knew that it was something that he really, really liked. In fact, he wished that Zhu Hong would never stop.
Closing his eyes, Zhen Zhu hummed faintly while his husband played until finally, the faint humming stopped and turned into even breathing.
Zhu Hong smiled and continued to play for a while longer, just making sure that he slowed down bit by bit, allowing his husband to fall into a deeper sleep before he finally stopped altogether and put the instrument away. Then, he gathered him into his arms and closed his own eyes, soon falling asleep as well.