As soon as he saw his husband’s glittering eyes, Zhu Hong had the feeling that he had done something wrong. Originally, he had only told him about the cave down there because he thought it would be an interesting thing to mention that Zhen Zhu might like. Now though, he regretted it. He wasn’t sure what exactly Zhen Zhu’s gaze might mean but he was afraid that it wouldn’t be anything good.
Zhen Zhu pushed the stick with the fish back into the ground and then grabbed his husband’s arm, clearly agitated. “Say, how big is that cave?”
Zhu Hong gave a wry smile, feeling that he had been exactly right. It seemed that Zhen Zhu wanted to go and explore that place. Otherwise, why would he ask? Still, if his husband asked him something, he also wouldn’t lie, no matter how he worried about the outcome. “I’m not completely sure but it shouldn’t be that big. Maybe big enough for one person to fit in if they are on the smaller side.”
Zhen Zhu lowered his head, his white brows furrowing together as if he was deep in thought.
Zhu Hong wasn’t sure what to make of this. Could it be that he was unhappy because this wasn’t the adventure he had imagined? It could very well be. Thinking for a bit, he reached over and rubbed Zhen Zhu’s back. “It’s alright. Even though the cave would’ve been interesting, I’m sure that you will find even more interesting things when we get to the city.”
Zhen Zhu looked up, a bit surprised. “What? Oh, no, that’s not what I’ve been thinking about.”
Zhu Hong raised his brows, not knowing what to make of this any longer. “It isn’t? Then … what’s the matter?”
Zhen Zhu gave a hum, not quite sure to explain himself. “Well, you see, we still haven’t decided on where to bring the feather and the scale. I thought that maybe this kind of cave would be a nice idea. After all, how many people would come here?”
Zhu Hong stared at him and then it finally dawned on him. He actually hadn’t thought about that scale and feather at all but now that Zhen Zhu mentioned it, it was indeed a good idea.
He pondered for a moment and then slowly nodded. “Well, it would be big enough to put them there. And it is a bit more hidden. If not because one of the fish tried to escape there, I also wouldn’t have noticed. So I think it would be a good spot.”
Zhen Zhu’s expression lit up when his husband said this. “Really?”
Zhu Hong nodded in return. “Really. So do you want to dive down together?” He had taken a look around at that time so he knew that there wasn’t anything he needed to worry about if they went down there. Also, as long as he was at Zhen Zhu’s side, what was supposed to happen? He didn’t think that there was any reason to worry.
Zhen Zhu immediately wanted to jump up to go over and take care of things but Zhu Hong pulled him back down.
“Wait! We haven’t even finished eating. Let’s do that first and then we can still go and bring them there. In any case, you still need a lot of energy today. And if this isn’t enough for breakfast, then when we are down there, I can catch us some more fish.”
Zhen Zhu felt that what his husband was saying sounded rather sensible so he nodded and sat back down, picking up his fish again. Ah, he was really looking forward to it though.
The two of them continued eating but Zhen Zhu was so excited that he almost wanted to leap back up when he had finished the first fish. Only when his husband reminded him that there was one more left did he reluctantly sit down again. Clearly, he wasn’t in the mood for food at all.
Zhu Hong could only sigh, divide the last fish in two, and then hurriedly follow his husband in eating it before he dusted off his hands and then got up. “Alright, I see you can’t wait even a second longer. Let’s go then.” He really hoped that this would work. He didn’t want any bad surprises happening or for Zhen Zhu to be disappointed when he saw the cave and it wasn’t what he had imagined. After all, this kind of thing often sounded better than it actually was.
Zhen Zhu immediately shot to his feet and then rushed over to the river, only stopping at the edge to look back to his husband.
Zhu Hong gave a faint laugh. It seemed he’d have to hurry up or his little spouse would jump in first. “Let’s go in this form.” The phoenixes were able to swim in their other form as well but Zhen Zhu only had experience doing it in this one so he’d rather keep it at that.
Zhen Zhu nodded and then waited for his husband to say that they could go.
Zhu Hong gave him another glance and then motioned at the surface of the water. “Alright, just follow me. I’ll show you where the cave is.” With that, he jumped into the water.
Since Zhen Zhu had been waiting the whole time, he was naturally right behind him, breaking through the surface of the water just a moment after him. The two of them dived down, almost touching the ground of the river.
Zhu Hong waved for his husband to follow him and then swam over to the small cavern he had found. It had probably been created by the water falling down from above and maybe spraying up after hitting some boulders that had originally been lying here. With time, it had created a hole in the side of the mountain to a point where it was so deep that the water didn’t reach the top anymore. Thus, now, the waterfall was like a veil in front of it, hiding it from prying eyes while it still lay there silently, waiting to be discovered.
Zhu Hong kept a close eye on his husband when they passed under the waterfall, wanting to make sure that he wasn’t suddenly swept away by the currents. As it turned out, he was worrying too much though. Zhen Zhu happily swam next to him, not looking like he was troubled at all.
Zhu Hong smiled. Maybe there was more than one reason for his name. While Zhen Zhu clearly had that pearl-white color, he also seemed to belong in the water like a pearl. It seemed to come naturally to him, more so than flying did. But anyway, that wasn’t important right now.
Zhu Hong didn’t think about it any further and just motioned for Zhen Zhu to get into the small cave while he hovered outside. This place really wasn’t big just like he had said. It was barely enough to fit Zhen Zhu, not to mention him. Even alone, he might not have been able to fit into it comfortably. Thankfully, the cave was a little above the water’s surface so they were able to talk.
Zhen Zhu first took a look around, his expression excited. “I think this is perfect!”
Zhu Hong smiled as well, feeling that it had to be if his husband was this happy. “Then let’s put them here.” Saying this, he took out Zhen Zhu’s heart feather, and gently brushed over it with his fingers.
Originally, when the tribes had still been young, the heart feather of a phoenix had been so long that it wouldn’t just reach into the heart but would reach the deepest part. Back then, forcefully ripping it out would have killed the phoenix and they had lost quite a few of them to something like that happening.
That was the reason why it had become customary for the phoenix’s partner to take it out: As long as you were careful, as long as you paid attention to how the phoenix was doing, this would allow them to live even though they would lose part of their strength for the time being. But in any case, that strength could be regenerated with time.
Nowadays, things had already changed. The heart feather didn’t reach as deep anymore so the danger to the phoenixes wasn’t as big. But still, if it was ripped out in the middle of a fight, the pain would leave them vulnerable for too long. Thus, the heart feather was still taken out, even though the phoenixes usually did it by themselves on the day of the wedding. This way, they had enough time to do so, making it less hurtful to them. And still, they would be protected.
Despite the heart feather probably not storing as much of their strength any longer, it was still true that this was what held most of it. So just leaving Zhen Zhu’s heart feather here … Even though Zhu Hong knew why it was done, the ritual felt strange to him.
Still, he knew that it meant a lot to Zhen Zhu. Maybe even more than it did to him or any other dragon for that matter. Because they still held the memories of their ancestors, the phoenixes probably knew much better just what it meant to be robbed of this. They would rather give it to the person that they loved and slowly regenerate their strength than to allow others to use this feature of their race against them. Since that was the case, how could he deny Zhen Zhu this?
When Zhu Hong looked up, Zhen Zhu was holding his reverse scale as well. Seeing it in his hands actually made Zhu Hong’s lips curve up. Contrary to the heart feather, the reverse scale was useless to the dragons. Whether it was there or not didn’t matter because it still wouldn’t give them any protection even if it was still left on their body. Thus, parting with it had never been a problem to them. It was just a pretty token of love.
“Alright, do you just want to put them down here?” Since his parents hadn’t been around any longer by the time he started thinking about how it would be to have a partner of his own, he had never been able to talk about these things. How exactly a couple would stash these away … he had no idea either.
Zhen Zhu looked up, seeming stunned. “Just like this? But won’t they get dirty then?” He looked at the stone ground, feeling that it shouldn’t be too suitable. No, this was something extremely special to them. Surely, it should be placed here with some kind of protection, right?
Zhu Hong also looked around, realizing the same thing. He thought for a bit and then took out a small box. He wasn’t quite sure if it would be big enough for both the scale and the feather but he hoped so. If not, then he was afraid he didn’t have anything else. “Maybe this would work?” He handed it to Zhen Zhu to put the scale in first. Even though he didn’t know how things were done customarily, it seemed logical to have the feather be on top. Otherwise, the scale might flatten it.
Zhen Zhu happily opened the box and placed the scale at the bottom before he handed it back to Zhu Hong.
Zhu Hong stared at the inside of the chest and then at the feather in his fingers and figured that most likely, it wouldn’t fit too well. No, the thing was clearly too delicate and too wide.
Even though at that time, Zhen Zhu hadn’t had his full size yet so the heart feather had been a little smaller as well, it was still the longest of the bunch, and thanks to the fact that he hadn’t had fully grown yet, it was also rather fluffy. He felt that if he put it in there, it might be too cramped at the sides, resulting in the feather getting crumpled. He didn’t like that idea one bit.
In the end, Zhu Hong still sighed and then carefully placed it in the box. Just as he had thought, it was a little too narrow. He wondered if he should take it out and suggest getting a better box in the city but then reconsidered. When done very carefully, he could place the feather inside without damage. He just needed to make sure that all of the fluffy barbs were pointing in the same direction.
He hesitated for a moment longer and then brushed over the feather before sliding it on top of the scale in a fluid motion. Making sure that the feather was alright, he finally closed the box and then handed it back to Zhen Zhu.
His husband beamed, his whole face lit up with a smile. He pressed the box against his chest but his gaze was on Zhu Hong. “It feels like we finally finished our wedding rituals.”
Zhu Hong smiled faintly and reached up, caressing his cheek and then brushing his hair back behind his ear. “Don’t tell me you were feeling like we hadn’t finished it?”
Zhen Zhu put the box in his lap and lowered his head, brushing over the lid with his fingers. “Well, I know that we are completely married but it just felt like this small thing was still missing. Now that we’ve done it, I just feel that it’s a bit more complete, you know?” Saying so, he raised his head again and looked around the cave, finally deciding on a spot that seemed to not have been touched by the water in a long time and would likely stay dry in the future as well, giving the box with the scale and feather the best protection. He put the box down there, his gaze lingering on it for a moment longer.
Zhu Hong observed him and felt like — even though his own feelings were different — he could see where Zhen Zhu was coming from. “Well, no matter what, it’s done now. Is there anything else you feel like we still have to do?” He didn’t think that there should be anything but he would leave the answer to that question to his husband. If Zhen Zhu felt that there was something else, he wouldn’t say no to it.
Zhen Zhu thought about it but then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I think that should have been everything.” He continued to ponder and then shook his head with some more conviction. “In any case, now, this is also done. We should get on our way to the city. After what happened before, I don’t think I want to fly myself. It’s better if you carry me for a while longer.”
Zhu Hong nodded, not that surprised. In any case, Zhen Zhu had been wobbling quite a bit when he was trying to chase after him before. Now, it wasn’t a problem when they were just flying here where they were somewhat hidden but things might be different when they were flying toward the city. He didn’t think that Zhen Zhu would like somebody else to see him like this. If it was his own spouse, it shouldn’t be a problem but when it came to other people, he would feel a bit awkward.
In fact, Zhen Zhu’s thoughts weren’t quite going in that direction. He just felt that flying was quite strenuous and it was much more comfortable to travel in his husband’s paw. And since there would still be a lot of things to do in the city, he’d much rather save his strength for those.
In any case, no matter the reason, they both felt like this was the better idea. Thus, Zhen Zhu jumped out of the small cave and the two of them swam back to the river bench, shaking themselves to get rid of the excess water. Then, Zhu Hong took on his other form, let Zhen Zhu climb on his paw, and rose into the air.
Just like he had promised, he flew slowly so that Zhen Zhu would be able to take a look around while they were on the way. The city wasn’t that far away so, despite their slow speed, they still managed to make it over there in just a few hours, resulting in them arriving just when it was about time for lunch for most of the people living there and the visitors as well. As such, there were many people on the road, all on their way to finding a place to eat.
Zhu Hong landed a little outside of the city with Zhen Zhu and then wrapped an arm around his waist while he walked with him to the gate. “Don’t worry. We’ll have to be checked before we go in but that should only take a moment. After that, we’re free to go through the whole city and take a look at everything.”
Zhen Zhu nodded but his whole attention was already on the gate and the guards standing around in front of it. There was a stream of visitors that was going in the same direction as them, as well as a line of people leaving the city that was going through the other side of the gate.
Just looking at this scene, Zhen Zhu felt excited. In fact, looking at everything, he felt excited. The gate of the city was painted a brilliant blue while the stones to their feet were a matted red.
He had never seen anything like this. Well, that wasn’t strange considering that he had only seen the valley and the forest but he was still surprised. He hadn’t imagined the city to be like this. While they were flying over those towns, even though they had been far away, he had still been able to see a few things at least. And he definitely didn’t remember any bright colors out there. So being confronted with this sight, he felt like it was especially beautiful.
The two of them went to the end of the line of people wanting to go inside and Zhen Zhu couldn’t help but look at those who were already lined up in front of them. Some of them didn’t look that different from them. Their bodies came in the same shapes and they had colorful hair and eyes just like them but there were some details that were different as well. Right in front of them, for example, stood a man with a pair of horns on his head. They were about three fingers high and partly hidden in his hair. Still, at least the tips were visible. They were gray with a faint spiral pattern leading around them. Zhen Zhu couldn’t help but stare.
Zhu Hong glanced at his husband and finally just reached out, putting a hand over his eyes before the guy in front of them could realize what was going on. He leaned down to Zhen Zhu and lowered his voice to explain. “Don’t stare. Not all the people coming here are phoenixes or dragons. Some of them will look quite different. Make sure that you don’t look at them too obviously.”
Staring a little was alright. Especially with Zhen Zhu looking so young, most people wouldn’t have a problem with it if he looked a little more closely. But if he outright stared like this, some of them might have a problem with that. And he would rather not risk that happening.
After all, while he was pretty sure that he would be able to protect him, it was still better not to get into a fight at all. If something happened, who knew if they would even be allowed to stay in the city? He’d rather not risk that after Zhen Zhu had been waiting for this day for a whole week. No, it was better to warn him before something could happen just in case.
Zhen Zhu was surprised but still nodded and then grabbed his husband’s wrist, pulling down his arm. “I know already. You don’t have to tell me.” His cheeks had turned red, clearly embarrassed that he had needed that reminder.
Zhu Hong just smiled and then kissed his cheek, not minding too much. He didn’t feel that Zhen Zhu had necessarily acted wrong. Even though it wasn’t what one should do, it was normal that this was his reaction. It was his own fault for not reminding him of that earlier.
He rubbed his back and then motioned to the guards up ahead. “Well, we’ll be there in just a couple of minutes. After that, we can take a tour of the city or if you want to, we could also try and find something to eat. Right now, it’s the time where most restaurants will be filled though so it might take a while to find one where we can get a seat.”
Zhen Zhu touched his stomach, feeling that the one and a half fishes had actually been quite a lot. Clearly, his husband had caught bigger ones for him. Thus, he shook his head. “I don’t need to eat yet. Let us take a look around first!”
Zhu Hong nodded and then, the two of them just slowly inched closer to the city, following the line of people in front of them. Finally, they managed to make it to the front, stopping in front of the two guards on duty. And even though Zhu Hong had warned him, Zhen Zhu couldn’t help but stare after all.