The next morning, Zhu Hong was woken up by a couple of feathers tickling his cheek. His brows twitched and he tried to turn his face away but he only managed to get even more feathers into his face. Finally, he could only open his eyes, giving up.
Despite the fact that he had grown so much in the last week, his husband somehow still turned back at night and then tried to squeeze onto his chest. Unfortunately, he didn’t fit there snugly any longer. Now, part of his body was on top of Zhu Hong’s chest, one wing spread out over his neck and face while the other one was brushing over the ground each time his chest moved up and down.
Zhu Hong glanced at the white feathers brushing over the dirty ground and wondered how Zhen Zhu would react when he found out. At home and in the forest of the phoenixes, this hadn’t been a problem because they had always been further above the ground so it was either the bed or the nest beneath the feathers both of which were clean. But now, his spouse would probably get quite a bit of dirt on himself. With his color that might be a problem.
Well, thankfully, there was a stream right next to them so at least washing up wouldn’t be a problem. He still didn’t think that he should just watch without lifting a finger to help. He hesitated for a moment, not sure how to go about things at first, but then gently reaching beneath Zhen Zhu’s wing and folding it back so that it was closer to his body.
His husband made a faint sound that sounded suspiciously like cooing and his head brushed again Zhu Hong’s shoulder a few times as if he was trying to nuzzle him even in his sleep.
Zhu Hong chuckled and then just held onto the wing, making sure that it wouldn’t brush through the dirt any longer. He also pulled down the other one, making sure that Zhen Zhu was still lying as comfortably as possible without brushing through his face all the time. Then, he just looked up at the stretch of the sky that he could see above them.
It hadn’t gotten completely bright but the sky wasn’t completely dark anymore either. Instead, it had turned into a murky gray that would probably soon change into a pale orange. He wondered if he should wake Zhen Zhu up so that they could watch the sunrise together. In the end, he decided against it though.
Yesterday had been a strenuous day and today wouldn’t be any better. Even though Zhen Zhu clearly loved seeing all these new things, he’d tire sooner or later. It was best to let him sleep some more so he could regain some strength.
The color of the sky soon changed indeed and finally, it had gotten completely bright without Zhen Zhu waking up at all. He was still curled up on his husband’s chest as well as he could, turning a little here and there and cooing from time to time.
Zhu Hong took his gaze back from the sky and instead looked at his husband with a smile when it happened the next time. He had often woken up before him but usually not this much longer. Thus, he had never gotten the chance to actually watch him in deep sleep like this.
Now, he was actually able to find out new things. He had never heard Zhen Zhu make that sound before. It was … quite adorable, to be honest. Also, judging from the tone, he felt like he somewhat understood just what the phoenixes liked about listening to their partners’ play the xun. The sound of the instrument was deeper but it could compare. So it was probably indeed that they felt more at home when they heard it.
Finally, the sun had wandered a little higher and some of the rays reached down to the place where they were lying. Zhen Zhu turned in the other direction when they shone into his face. Then, he seemed to remember subconsciously that there was something to do today. He shot up, his wings flailing before he realized what was going on. He turned his head to his husband, looking at him with some confusion left in his eyes.
Zhu Hong chuckled and reached up, rubbing the spot beneath his chin. “Good morning, my love. Have you slept well?”
Zhen Zhu hurriedly changed back and raised his head further, letting his husband caress him a little longer. He narrowed his eyes in satisfaction before he snuggled up to him and rubbed the spot beneath his chin as well. “I slept really well! How about you?”
Zhu Hong pondered for a moment while wrapping his arms around his spouse. To be honest, sleeping wasn’t a problem but as for waking up … he felt like they should find a solution for this problem with the wings. While he did expect to have some feathers around, always having them in his face and being woken up ahead of time would be a problem in the long run.
Still, he didn’t want to bring that up right now. “Well, I woke up a little early and watched the sunrise. I was thinking whether I should wake you up but I figured you might want to sleep a little longer. Anyway, how is it? Ready to get up?”
This time, he didn’t need to ask twice. Zhen Zhu immediately jumped up, giving his husband a bright smile. “We should hurry up! Let’s get ready, try flying again, and then we can make our way over to the city!”
Zhu Hong laughed at that. “I see you haven’t forgotten. Well, I don’t think there’s a need to rush. We’ll definitely make it over in time. The sun just went up a little ago. For now, how about something to eat? We haven’t had anything since yesterday midday.” Thinking of that, he actually felt worried. While it wasn’t a problem to leave out one meal — and Zhen Zhu likely hadn’t even realized that he did — they had also left out breakfast thanks to the elders of the phoenix clan that were circling around them.
Zhen Zhu blinked his eyes at his husband and then thought back to yesterday. It seemed … it was true. When they had arrived here yesterday, he had tried to fly, and then they had sat down to celebrate a bit before going to sleep already. In all that time, they hadn’t even had a single bite!
He touched his stomach but actually didn’t feel that hungry. Well, he could eat something though. Thus, he turned to look at his husband, clearly expecting him to pull something out that he had prepared.
Zhu Hong winced and then got up. “I didn’t bring anything. But I’ll find us something. Don’t worry about it. Just give me a moment. If you want to, you can practice flying again in the meantime. Then we can leave for the city as soon as we have finished eating.”
Zhen Zhu nodded but he didn’t change back immediately and instead looked at his husband curiously, clearly wanting to know just how exactly he was going to find them something to eat. He actually felt a bit like he was out on a mission with him and able to take a peek. How exciting!
Zhu Hong didn’t bother about his spouse’s glittering eyes and just stepped closer to the stream, taking a closer look to probe his chances of getting them something right here. At this spot, the stream wasn’t deep and he could actually see the ground. It was probably only about a foot beneath the water surface. There wouldn’t be much living in there. Definitely not the kind of place to find good food for his husband. On the bright side though, this was likely just a small sidearm of the actual river that was coming from inside the mountains. So he just needed to go to the main stream and he would have found something in no time.
With that conclusion in mind, Zhu Hong changed his form and then flew up, following the course of the stream.
Behind him, Zhen Zhu couldn’t help but become a little nervous. He also changed his form, fluttered his wings, and then managed to get off the ground after a little bit of trouble. He wasn’t really calm enough to do it on his first try but after focusing for a bit, he managed to do it. Then, he flapped his wings some more, trying to fly after his husband.
As it turned out, just flying on the spot was much easier than actually flying around with some goal in mind. He wobbled quite a bit while trying to cover the distance and if Zhu Hong in front hadn’t slowed down, he wouldn’t have been able to keep up.
His husband looked back, clearly a bit worried when he saw him like this.
Zhen Zhu was embarrassed but just continued to flutter his wings, catching up slowly until he reached the end of Zhu Hong’s tail. When he got there, he flapped his wing some more and then just grabbed onto it. He definitely wouldn’t try flying after him anymore. Not for the time being at least.
He had really wished that he finally reached his full size so that they could go out to travel together, soaring through the sky side by side. Now, he had to realize that until he was able to do it well, quite some time would probably pass. It had nothing to do with his size. He just … well, he needed time to practice as embarrassing as that was. Usually, shouldn’t flying be something that came to him naturally as a phoenix? He really couldn’t understand.
Zhu Hong smiled to himself and then curled, extending a claw toward his husband. He definitely didn’t mind taking him along. He didn’t think that it was too safe to leave him at the end of his tail though. After all, he didn’t have eyes back there and if something happened, he’d rather hold him in his claws where he would be able to protect him better.
Zhen Zhu hesitated for a moment but then jumped over, and huddled down in his palm. He felt down and looked like he did, his head lowered to his chest as if he hardly dared to look up.
Zhu Hong could imagine what was going through his mind so he reached up with one of his claws and rubbed his head. He didn’t mind. Even though Zhen Zhu was technically older than him thanks to the time he had grown in the egg, he indeed thought of him as young. And a young person having to learn a lot was normal, wasn’t it? Thus, he just felt like Zhen Zhu needed a bit more time.
It was hard to see him look like this though. Thankfully, they would be on their way to the city again as soon as they had eaten. He should better hurry up. Seeing something new would definitely divert Zhen Zhu’s attention from his failure.
Thus, Zhu Hong turned back around and continued to fly until he found a spot deep in the mountains. The stream was indeed much deeper here, the currents stronger as well. In fact, there was even a big waterfall up in front.
Zhen Zhu whose mood had just been down in the dumps was immediately happy again when he saw this. What a beautiful sight! He jumped a little on Zhu Hong’s claws and his husband landed, letting him down while he himself also turned back.
“This is so beautiful!” Zhen Zhu immediately clung to his arm. He would have liked to go over to take a closer look but as nice as it looked, the sound made him think that maybe it would be better to keep a safe distance from that place.
Zhu Hong turned to glance at him with a faint smile. Zhen Zhu’s excitement was something he was well used to by now but seeing that his little spouse was able to realize that this place was also dangerous and just stayed by his side made him relax a little. He had worried that Zhen Zhu would get himself into trouble if he turned his back to him for just a moment. Now though, it seemed that there was no reason to keep holding onto that thought.
He reached up and patted his back before he motioned over to the river. “I’ll see if I can catch us some fish.” He pondered for a moment and then turned to face Zhen Zhu, putting his hands on his shoulders. He might not need to worry that Zhen Zhu would do something stupid but his spouse also didn’t know anything about life outside. “You’d better stay here. If you hear anything before I am back, try to make sure where it comes from first and then go in the other direction. If it’s on the ground, fly up. If it’s in the air, hide here on the ground. Do you understand?”
Zhen Zhu nodded, his expression turning worried. “You won’t be gone for long, right?” He reached up and grabbed onto his husband’s wrists, his eyes turning round.
Zhu Hong had trouble breathing when he saw him like this. He didn’t want to scare him but life outside the valley was indeed dangerous. That was why most dragons didn’t take their spouses along for more than short trips and usually wanted others to follow along as well. After all, there was a certain strength in numbers. But they were alone now and he hadn’t had the time to check their surroundings first.
He gulped and forced himself to give a smile. Right now, there wasn’t even a hint of danger around them. He should calm Zhen Zhu down so he would be able to react in time if something happened and then hurry up with catching something to eat. “Don’t you worry. It’ll only take a couple of minutes at best.” He leaned down and gently kissed him on the lips.
Zhen Zhu indeed calmed down when he saw his husband’s self-assured expression. He snuggled up against his chest for a moment before he stepped back and lowered his head. “Then … then you’d better go. I’ll wait here.”
“Mn.” Zhu Hong reached up and rubbed Zhen Zhu’s cheek. Then, he turned around and changed his form again, jumping head-first into the water.
The river was deep here, deep enough to contain his whole figure even though he was still visible from up above.
Zhen Zhu heaved a sigh of relief when he realized that he would be able to see his husband. He had been afraid of not seeing him anymore and not knowing where he had gone. Now, he didn’t need to worry about either. Zhu Hong was right there. If he went any closer, he would even be able to see exactly what he did. Not that he would try. He felt like it would be better to wait exactly here.
Zhen Zhu looked around, pondered for a moment, and then changed his forms. He crouched on the ground and made an effort to fluff up his feathers to look bigger. It wouldn’t help much but if there was someone or something around, they might hesitate for at least a moment. Also, he’d be able to try and fly away in this form at a moment’s notice.
His gaze darted around when he thought of that. ‘A moment’s notice’ might be too optimistic. He should really make sure that he practiced a lot as soon as he could. Then Zhu Hong wouldn’t need to worry anymore when he took him out of the valley.
A minute passed by and just as he had said, Zhu Hong already broke through the surface of the water again, emerging with a fish grasped in each paw. He threw them on the ground where they wouldn’t be able to jump back into the water and then changed back. He wanted to ask whether Zhen Zhu wanted him to jump back in and get more when he saw the fluffed-up phoenix on the ground. He stared, his expression a little blank. He wasn’t sure what exactly his spouse had tried to do there but … god, this looked adorable!
Zhen Zhu leaped up, his wings flapping, and then changed back in midair, stumbling right into his husband’s arms. “You’re back!” He clung to his neck, rubbing his cheek at his chest. Ah, even though it had only been a moment, he had still felt anxious without Zhu Hong.
His husband was stunned but then just hugged him back, closing his eyes for a moment while he rubbed his back. He probably should have expected that Zhen Zhu would worry. He held him for a moment longer before he pulled back and gave him a smile. “I’m back. So, do you want to eat?”
Zhen Zhu smiled brightly as well and nodded. Now, he slowly started to feel the hunger.
Zhu Hong chuckled and then went to grab the fish, only to realize that one of them had managed to jump back into the water. He clicked his tongue but didn’t follow. In any case, they might as well eat these three first and then see if Zhen Zhu still wanted more.
He put the fish down a little further away, gathered a bit of wood as fast as he could, and made a fire. Zhen Zhu followed after him the whole time, curiously looking on as if these simple things were somehow interesting. Zhu Hong didn’t say anything about it and just continued silently for the most part, only mentioning what was up when he started something new so his spouse wouldn’t be left to wonder.
Finally, the two of them sat side by side, watching the wood crackle in the fire while the three fish were slowly being fried. The scent that wafted up made Zhen Zhu’s stomach grumble, finally driving home the point that they really hadn’t eaten much yesterday.
Zhu Hong smiled apologetically and rubbed his back again. “It won’t take much longer. Just give it a minute more.”
Zhen Zhu nodded. He didn’t mind waiting a while longer. It was just a bit boring to just sit there like this, although he didn’t mind that either with Zhu Hong at his side. He leaned against his husband’s shoulder, looking up to him with his gaze soft. “How is it inside the river?”
Zhu Hong raised his brows. That question was quite unexpected but then again, with how curious Zhen Zhu was and how he had wanted to know more about his missions yesterday, that was probably his own misconception. He should have known his spouse would want to know.
He thought for a bit and then figured that he might as well tell him a bit more. “This river here isn’t that deep so there is still light falling down to the ground. It is a bit like the spring in the valley where you can also see underwater. If we went out to the sea, things would be different. The further down you go, the darker it’ll get. I’ve only gone once or twice but there comes a depth where you wouldn’t be able to see at all.”
Zhen Zhu’s eyes widened, having difficulty imagining that. “Is it like at night?”
Zhu Hong pondered and then nodded. “Yes, pretty much so. The light from above seems far, far away. The first time, I thought that it had to be dangerous and felt uncomfortable. Now, I don’t think it’s that bad, although I also wouldn’t dive down deeper than necessary. Who knows what exactly is down there? In some cases, it is better not to try out too much.”
Zhen Zhu nodded. He still vividly remembered the story Zhu Hong had told him yesterday. Even though he didn’t actively fear for his husband’s life, knowing that Zhu Hong held this opinion that unknown things didn’t necessarily need to be discovered if it was dangerous still made him feel calm at heart.
Zhu Hong smiled when he saw his expression and then reached out to pick up the first fish that had finished frying, handing it to Zhen Zhu. “Here, be careful though. It’s still hot.”
Zhen Zhu nodded and gently blew on it while he kept watching his husband.
Zhu Hong picked up the second fish and pulled the third one a little further away from the fire so it would keep warm but not get burned. Then, he also started to blow on his food before he took a bite. Chewing a bit, his eyes suddenly seemed to gleam, making Zhen Zhu pause just when he had wanted to take a bite as well.
Zhu Hong turned to him with a cheeky smile. “You know, there’s a small cave down there.”
Zhen Zhu almost forgot about his food when he heard that. A cave down in the river … That sounded really exciting. And it sounded like a really well-hidden place. Which reminded him that there was a task they still had left to do.