Epilogue: I Never Regretted
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Zhu Hong and Zhen Zhu left the dragons’ valley a few days later, going out to travel once again. They stayed outside for a few days and then returned to the dragons’ valley for a few weeks.

In the time there, they would spend a part of the day with Elder Bi and his family, and every now and then, Zhu Hong would go on a mission together with the other dragons. Sometimes — especially when Dong Lin was with them — he would even take Zhen Zhu along, finally staying wherever the mission had taken them to spend a few days with his husband before they followed the others back a while later.

In this way, five years passed by in what seemed like the blink of an eye. By now, Zhen Zhu wasn’t the youngest phoenix in the valley anymore. After him, a delicate phoenix woman had married her dragon spouse, making the others fuss about her more than him.

Also, thanks to his travels, he had learned many things and matured quite a lot which likely aided in how the others did not want to mother him as much anymore. Although, to be honest, the phoenixes that had seen him arrive and spent more time with him in those early days would probably never stop doing so completely.

Zhen Zhu didn’t care about that though. He had found his role not just in the valley but also in his own family. Although … the latter was about to change soon enough.

Zhen Zhu looked down at the apricot-colored egg with white spots he was holding in his arms and couldn’t help but rub the top, his gaze a little reluctant. "Do we really have to do this?"

Zhu Hong looked at him, his own feelings not any different from his husband’s. "Believe me, I would also rather keep them at home. But it’s a phoenix egg so what can we do? It has to be brought up the mountain." He reached over and wrapped an arm around his waist, holding him for a moment before pulling back and rubbing the side of the egg as well, a smile in his eyes.

"Come on now. We should bring them up and find a good spot. One where they will be as safe as possible but can also be found more easily." He definitely didn’t want a repeat of how things had been with Zhen Zhu. Even though there was no set date when a phoenix had to be brought down again, he was already longing for the opportunity to see their first child outside of their shell.

Zhen Zhu nodded. He had been told many times over just how his husband had finally found him after searching for quite some time and his thoughts on the matter were the same as Zhu Hong’s. Being secure was the most important but having their little one be found soon would be nice as well.

The two of them walked up the path that Zhu Hong had taken five years ago, their gazes brushing over the grass and stones to the side, but they weren’t really satisfied with what they were seeing. It really was difficult to let go of this first child of theirs. Who knew when they’d see them again? A phoenix would grow inside the egg so they wouldn’t be able to accompany them. Just thinking of it, they felt reluctant.

"Where do you think is the safest place on the mountain?" Zhen Zhu looked up at the path in front of them, trying to find an answer to what was probably the most important question.

"Well, I guess it might be a little safer at the side. If somebody or something managed to break through the barrier, they would probably try and grab an egg at the top. So bringing the egg there might make it too vulnerable. But on the sides, it might be more likely to roll away. So maybe that wouldn’t be good either."

"Then should we find a spot further to the base?"

Zhu Hong turned back to him, not too sure either. He knew from experience that a phoenix egg wasn’t that fragile. When he had carried Zhen Zhu off the mountain back then, nothing had happened. And even though his egg had rolled into a crevice in the mountainside, nothing had happened to it.

But still, looking at their egg, that their future child was resting inside, he just couldn’t help himself but feel that it was incredibly fragile and that just the slightest mishap could harm the newest addition to their family.

How could they arbitrarily decide on a place to put them? No, he still felt that it would’ve been best to keep the egg in the house. Or maybe now would be the perfect time to actually move in with Elder Bi and keep it there. The more people were around, the better for the child for sure.

Zhen Zhu saw that his husband also didn’t know and became even more worried. He rubbed the egg again and then turned back to the front, finally just marching on. "Let’s just look around. Maybe we’ll find a spot that looks secure."

Zhu Hong also didn’t have a better idea so he could only nod and follow him, glancing at the small nest under his arm that he had made for the egg. Well, putting it in there, it should be a little more secure than if they just put it on the naked ground, right?

He didn’t know where Zhen Zhu’s parents had put his egg down back then, but he had felt that adding a small nest couldn’t hurt. Also, clearly, Zhen Zhu had always loved sleeping in a nest. Even if their child wouldn’t be able to actually lie in this, maybe they would feel some comfort in knowing about this later on. And whoever their partner would be, if they found the egg in a nest, they would probably also tell them after the wedding, right?

The two of them made their way halfway up the mountain when Zhen Zhu suddenly stopped and then motioned with his chin to a place further ahead. "How about there?"

Zhu Hong looked over and saw that there was lush grass that was high enough that it would probably hide the egg a little. "Will it be seen though?" In any case, it was quite good if the egg was safe but if it was never found by a possible partner, what then? He still wanted their child to return to them!

Zhen Zhu rubbed the egg in his arms again and then lowered his head, pressing his ear against it. "What do you think? I think it looks like a really nice place. There’s lush grass and the slope of the mountain isn’t as steep. Surely, your egg wouldn’t roll away like mine did back then. I think it would be a good place.

"It’s difficult to be found if your egg just rolls off the side. And who knows what would happen then? Don’t you think it would be good to be brought there? Doesn’t it sound like something you would like?"

Zhu Hong smiled when he saw his partner like this and reached over, rubbing the back of his head and sliding his fingers through the white hair that had grown a lot longer over the years. "Hearing the way you describe it, I suddenly feel that it is perfect as well."

Zhen Zhu smiled with satisfaction and the two of them walked over there, looking at the spot with the lush grass.

Zhu Hong crouched down and carefully brushed it aside, putting the nest right down in the middle. Looking up at his husband, he raised his brows. "Like this?"

Zhen Zhu nodded and then crouched down as well, gently lowering the egg into the nest. He didn’t let go immediately and instead continued to hold it for a moment, rubbing over the side and then the top. Only then did he reluctantly pull back his hands.

Zhu Hong also continued to hold the grass back to the side for a moment longer before he pulled back his hands with a sigh. Immediately, the grass swung back into position, hiding half the egg and only exposing the upper half with the three white spots at the top.

"I guess this means that it will still be visible even after a while so we don’t have to worry about them not being found."

Zhu Hong nodded. "Yes, that seems to be the case." He stared at the egg and then reached over to pull Zhen Zhu into his arms now that he had both hands free. "I really can’t believe that we’ll have to leave in a moment." It just felt wrong somehow. He wanted to stay here for longer. Saying goodbye was really hard even though he knew that it wouldn’t be a goodbye forever.

Zhen Zhu rested his head against his husband’s shoulder and nuzzled his cheek before he reached out to rub the top of the egg again. "Well, it’s not forever. And you don’t have to worry either! We’re going to come and visit you."

Zhu Hong looked at him with a complicated expression. "I don’t think we can …"

Zhen Zhu looked at him and pursed his lips. "Why shouldn’t we? Anyway, I asked Elder Bi and even the two grandelders. They all said it wouldn’t be a problem to come here and visit. Anyway, they are our child. Nobody can forbid us from doing this."

He turned back to the egg and continued to rub the shell, his lips curving up in a smile again. "We’ll come to see regularly. And if you are going to have a sibling later on, we will definitely bring them here to meet you as well. Then you won’t be alone anymore." Come to think of it, maybe they should hurry up with having a second child. Although, if it was a dragon child, then this little phoenix wouldn’t really profit from that either. There would just be one more person to come and visit them.

Zhu Hong rubbed his back while sitting next to him, also looking at the egg as if he wanted to imprint the pattern into his mind. He wasn’t necessarily intending to have a second child anytime soon. The heartache of having to leave one of them here was already enough. To have to go through that a second time … he wasn’t quite sure if he was ready to do that anytime soon. Later, sure, but first, he wanted to spend some time just focused on this one.

He finally patted Zhen Zhu’s shoulder and then got up. "We should probably leave now."

Zhen Zhu nodded but continued to sit on the ground.

Zhu Hong raised his brows. "You don’t want to yet? But I’m afraid we can’t stay here forever." And they had been here for quite some time considering that they hadn’t found a suitable spot immediately. By now, it was already late in the afternoon. If they continued to sit here for much longer, this would turn out like back then when he went up the mountain to find Zhen Zhu’s egg: It would almost turn dark and people would get worried again.

Zhen Zhu looked at Zhu Hong and then pulled at his hand. "You haven’t even bid them goodbye yet."

Zhu Hong’s brows wandered even higher. "Will that really make a difference? In any case … they are just an egg right now." And to be honest, he’d rather not stay for too long. Even though Zhen Zhu seemed intent on returning soon and spending a lot of time here, he wasn’t sure yet if he could do that. Knowing that he’d have to leave again at the end … he felt like it wouldn’t be good to get even more attached.

Zhen Zhu pursed his lips though. "Can you say that? In any case, it’s not like we can’t hear inside the egg. I mean I don’t think we can immediately after being born but after a while, we will. And who knows when they will start? So it’s better to talk to them immediately just in case." Saying so, he leaned forward again, still rubbing the side of the egg as if he wanted to transmit some of his warmth to the little one inside. "Don’t worry about it, your dragon father is just being difficult. He’s not normally like this. You should see the nest he made for you! It’s incredibly cozy. If I didn’t have one already that has a lot of sentimental value to us, I would even be a little envious of you. So lucky to have a father like this!"

Meanwhile, Zhu Hong just stared at his husband, his mind completely blank. The wind was brushing through their hair, and looking at the white waves in front of him, Zhu Hong felt like his mind was pulled back to the day when he found the pearl-white egg in the crevice and finally bent down to pick it up.

At that time, most of his thoughts had been kept quiet but he had said one thing to him that had probably given away exactly what was going on: If I don’t take you along today, who knows if somebody else will notice you in there? I could probably put you down somewhere else but since I’ve already taken you out, maybe you wouldn’t mind if I carried you down the mountain. I sure hope so.

This wasn’t how a freshly bonded dragon would talk to their future spouse’s egg. Even if he didn’t believe that the one inside could already hear them, the words they spoke should have been of love, not practicality. His guilty conscience had probably been almost palpable to Zhen Zhu.

He had thought the missing bond had been his secret and he had made sure over the years to never mention it, not even after their talk with Grandelder Lan Jing or their visit to the city. He had always feared that he might break his heart if he did.

But if he understood right, then Zhen Zhu was telling him that despite his best efforts, he had long known. Yes, his husband had known all along what was up with him. He had known from the very beginning that there wasn’t a bond between them. And still … still, he had gone along with everything.

He had let Grandelder Lan Jing carry him over to the dragons’ valley, he had gotten married to him and then stayed with him for all these years. Now, they had even had a child.

Zhu Hong crouched down next to Zhen Zhu, not quite sure if it was because he didn’t have the strength anymore to stand because of the shock he had just received or because he wanted to be closer to him.

He was sure that he had understood Zhen Zhu’s meaning right but he still couldn’t help himself and wanted to make sure. "You mean to say that on the day that I found you, you heard every word that I spoke."

Zhen Zhu continued to hold onto the egg and just turned to face him, giving a faint smile. There was something in his eyes that — now that Zhu Hong thought about it — he had seen before: a trace of hurt but also a lot of indulgence.

It reminded him of the time when Zhen Zhu had only been with him for a week and they had talked about their future, the children they would have some years down the road, and what he imagined love to be.

Back then, his husband had probably been hurt because he knew deep down that he couldn’t quite be to him what the other phoenixes were to their partners. He had still been happy at the same time because he loved him and no matter the bond, he probably also felt that he was loved back.

Zhu Hong sighed and had to look away, not sure what to do with this newly acquired knowledge. It was something he had never expected. He had always thought that this was a secret he would take to the grave.

He was … stunned that this didn’t turn out to be true but at the same time, he was happy that it was out in the open now. It was something that he didn’t necessarily want to keep to himself. He wanted Zhen Zhu to know. He wanted to be able to be honest with him, no matter what. And now, there was no need to worry anymore.

He reached out and put his hand over Zhen Zhu’s, using the other to rub the side of the egg as well. "Well, your fathers will have to go back home. But we’ll come and visit you again. Maybe by then, you’ll really be able to hear us." He turned to Zhen Zhu and then leaned down, giving him a kiss on the lips before he interlaced his fingers with his and pulled him to his feet.

The two of them turned around and slowly walked away until they were sure that they were out of earshot or whatever that might be for an egg.

Then, Zhu hong stopped in his tracks and turned to his husband, his gaze puzzled. "In these five years, why did you never tell me?"

Zhen Zhu looked up at him and then hugged his waist just like he had always done as if nothing had changed at all. His eyes were shimmering with happiness just like any other day as well. "In these five years, why did you never tell me?

"You thought I didn’t know so you kept it to yourself. I figured that if you didn’t want to talk about it, then I shouldn’t bring it up either. It was your matter to tell me.

"Originally, I would have continued to wait. It is just that now … we have a child. Even though they are going to stay on the mountain until they are found by their future partner, we are still parents now. And I … I just feel that it’s the right thing to share. Even if it’s not for my sake or for our sake, we should do so for the sake of our children and the ones they might have in the future.

"Weren’t you happy when Elder Lan Jing told you the truth? So why keep it to yourself and not pass that knowledge on? I think that at the least when it comes to our own family, you should be open about it."

Zhu Hong slightly furrowed his brows and then reached up, brushing Zhen Zhu’s cheek with his fingertips. "You’re not … angry? Or disappointed?"

Zhen Zhu lowered his head and then reached up to grab his husband’s hand. He played with his fingers for a moment, weighing his words. When he looked up again he gave him a brilliant smile. "I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t worried at the beginning.

"I was worried that it was because of me. That maybe there was something wrong with me that you couldn’t form a bond with me. Maybe there was something that prevented you from doing so. It might have been because my egg rolled into that crevice or because I was on that mountain for too long. Maybe I just … couldn’t elicit that kind of reaction even if I was able to feel it for you.

"Still, the moment I was brought over to the dragons’ valley and saw you, I … felt this sense of awe. I liked the way you looked and hearing your voice made me comfortable. Even though I knew that something was wrong or, well, at least different between us, I wanted to give it a try. I thought that maybe things would change. Maybe you couldn’t form the bond immediately but would still do so in the future after we had spent more time together.

"So I just ignored it and waited but that didn’t change anything either. I think I realized that when we were talking about having children for the first time. The things you said … they weren’t wrong or mean or … anything to worry over really. But they probably weren’t what a dragon madly in love with their spouse would say. And that finally made me understand that I shouldn’t expect to ever have that."

Zhu Hong furrowed his brows. "I do love you."

"I know." Zhen Zhu smiled and reached up, cupping his cheeks and brushing his temple with his fingertips. "I grappled with the situation between that talk and our visit to the forest but after we talked with Grandelder Lan Jing and then you opened up a bit in the evening, I realized that it didn’t matter why it was happening anyway.

"Bond or not, you always loved me. I’ve never doubted that because I could always feel it. Especially not after I grew up a bit and made a few more experiences.

"Back then, you said that you’re not sure what love is. I’m not sure either. But I’m sure that it is there between us. So what do I have to be disappointed in or angry about? There’s no reason for either of that.

"I have a great husband, a great family, now also a great child. My life is great. Bond or not, I don’t think we ever missed out on anything important. So don’t think too much. It’s good just the way things are. I just … want to spend my life with you. Now and for the rest of eternity. That’s all that I want." He tiptoed and closed his eyes, pecking his husband’s lips. When he opened his eyes again, they were glittering like usual when he looked at his spouse. "I hope you feel the same."

Zhu Hong looked back at him and pulled him up to his chest, hugging him tightly. "Yes. That is what I want as well, more than anything else in the world. I love you, I truly do. And I’m happy that on the day, I chose you out of all the eggs on the mountain. I’ve never regretted that."

This is the end of "Like a Feather Tickling My Heart". I hope you liked the story! If you have some time, it'd be awesome if you could leave a comment or review with your thoughts on the story. I'm always happy to receive feedback, even if it's about things you might not have liked or missed in the story. After all, this helps with making the next stories be better. ;)

If you want to see more stories with aspec characters in leading roles, follow my profile here on SH. My next ace novel, "As Tranquil as the Moon", will go public on October 20th. If you're following, you'll get a notification about new stories and I usually make a separate announcement as well so you can't miss it.