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Waters Calm and Still

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When Bai Yu heard that his co-star in their new web drama was a dragon, his first reaction was disbelief. Although the sight of a dragon mingling with humans was no longer the earth-shaking event it used to be, their numbers were still few enough to inspire a frenzy of competition for their presence anytime a new dragon appeared. Forget being the lead of a small online drama whose production company recently went bankrupt. A dragon who wanted to join the entertainment industry would pretty much have their choice of all the best roles, all the record deals, and have money rain down on them - all within a single day. And that wasn’t mentioning all the people fighting to offer them high-ranking political appointments or leadership positions in lucrative businesses.

So what was this particular dragon doing?

Tap tap tap. Bai Yu's fingers flew over his laptop keyboard, opening up multiple tabs of research on Zhu Yilong. He started out by skimming the publicly available information on Douban and Baidu, before taking a look at Zhu Yilong's Weibo topics. The more he read, the more his bafflement grew.

Bai Yu's second reaction after finding out about his dragon co-star was that Zhu Yilong was either incredibly foolish or incredibly stubborn. Possibly both. Dragons in the entertainment industry "hiding" their true identities in order to appear humble and hard-working was a well-known PR angle by now. But that only worked if there were strategic leaks to inform the public about the dragon's true origins.

Zhu Yilong, on the other hand, did none of that. As far as the public and his fans were concerned, he was just an ordinary human actor working to make a name for himself. Only the people who'd worked with him before knew he was a dragon. And if the non-disclosure agreement Bai Yu just had to sign was the same one used in his previous productions, then it was no wonder that Zhu Yilong's secret had never gotten out.

Bai Yu clicked on a fan-made highlight video featuring Zhu Yilong's smiles with a thoughtful look. Then again, with a face like that, maybe Zhu Yilong didn't need to rely on his identity as a dragon to catch people's attention.

Countless experts had written etiquette guides about human-dragon interactions since the dragons revealed themselves to the world. If Bai Yu had any inclination to read and follow them, however, that was completely wiped out the minute he was informed of their first scene together.

It was impossible for an etiquette guide to cover the proper greeting towards a dragon who would soon be massaging your arms with oil, so Bai Yu decided to keep things simple. He extended his hand and smiled. "Hello, I'm Bai Yu."

"Hello, I'm Zhu Yilong," came the polite reply accompanied by an equally polite nod.

They shook hands. If Zhu Yilong had any of the same misgivings about later today, none of that showed on his face.

Then they were handed the incense for the opening ceremony, which put a halt to any further conversation. Bai Yu stepped back and looked Zhu Yilong over. Quiet and aloof were the first words to come to mind. It wasn't the haughtiness common to dragons looking down on their lowly mortal counterparts, but rather the steadiness of someone comfortable in silence and solitude.

The smoke from their incense rose through the air as the director welcomed the cast and crew with encouraging words.

A sudden thought struck Bai Yu. How old was Zhu Yilong, anyway? His actor profile claimed he was thirty, but the kind of patience required to slowly climb the ranks of the entertainment industry by his own merits seemed out of place on a younger, more prideful dragon. Bai Yu inched closer, sneaking another peek at Zhu Yilong.

Could he be a legendary ancient dragon? Immediately, Bai Yu imagined Zhu Yilong with long, flowing white hair, wearing an exquisite immortal's robes inscribed with mystical symbols. He exhaled softly at the mental image, more convinced than ever that he was right. This kind of cool, elegant beauty was special even compared to most of the other famous modern-day dragons in China.

"—Bai Yu? Bai Yu? Can you hear me?" Zhu Yilong's voice jolted Bai Yu out of his thoughts.

Belatedly, he realized that the director had long since wrapped up the opening speech and it was now time for the group picture. Because "Your eyelashes look even longer in person" wasn't really something you should say to someone you only met a few minutes ago, Bai Yu hastily blurted out something else instead. "Ah, sorry! I was distracted by how short you were."

Several emotions flickered over Zhu Yilong's face in quick succession: surprise, then indignation, followed at last by resigned exasperation. In a grumpy voice entirely unbefitting the dignity of a dragon, he retorted, "How can that possibly be distracting? We're practically the same height!"

Bai Yu's mouth curved up into a wicked grin. While Zhu Yilong's ethereal beauty was enough to catch his eye, it inspired nothing more than superficial appreciation - like admiring a particularly stunning painting. But this? This spluttering, exasperated, and delightfully expressive response? It officially caught Bai Yu's full attention.

Having successfully broken the ice - getting a few glares and a helpless smile counted, right? - Bai Yu no longer felt intimidated by the prospect of their first scene with each other. Still, a few bad takes were inevitable. Going from "hello" and a hand-shake to an arm massage was a bit much even for seasoned actors.

"Again." Zhu Yilong's determination was clear in the set of his jaw.

Bai Yu wasn't sure where the impulse came from. He should center himself so he could prepare for the next take. If not, he should at the very least tear his eyes away from that bright shade of red at the tip of Zhu Yilong's ears. His hands, however, had their own ideas. Before he realized what he was doing, Bai Yu had already taken Zhu Yilong's wrist lightly in his grasp.

Time stopped. There had probably been some semblance of a plan in the back of his head when he decided on this course of action. He might have imagined himself putting on an exaggerated swagger, offering a demonstration with a smirk and a wink. Then Zhu Yilong would forget his self-consciousness in favor of rolling his eyes at Bai Yu, and this strange tension between them would dissipate. Bai Yu opened his mouth as though to speak, before changing his mind and closing it again. He had let the silence drag out for too long, so anything he said would probably just make things more awkward.

Sitting quietly, Zhu Yilong tilted his head, fixing a long, searching gaze on Bai Yu, the initial surprise in his eyes gradually turning to curiosity. Then, he raised a questioning eyebrow.

Bai Yu really shouldn't deal with this hole he'd dug for himself by doubling down and digging deeper. But as he ran his thumb over the inside of Zhu Yilong's wrist, he could only blame his rashness on that raised eyebrow that seemed to offer a direct challenge. Under the pad of his thumb, he felt the slower and heavier thrum of a dragon's pulse, every beat resonating with something deep within himself.

For a moment, he was almost hypnotized. What had his original plan again? A hazy idea of how to salvage this situation floated just out of reach. Shaking the fog from his head, Bai Yu risked resting his other hand on Zhu Yilong's forearm. He grinned. "How about a friendly massage to help you relax?"

The corners of Zhu Yilong's lips twitched. "All right."

Carefully, Bai Yu ghosted his fingers over Zhu Yilong's skin, marveling at its coolness. Don't overstep your bounds. Keep it casual, he reminded himself. Watching Zhu Yilong closely for a reaction, he opened his palm and applied a light pressure. Then, he pushed his palm firmly upward, stopping at the elbow. This probably wasn't much of a proper massage, but it didn't need to be. The two of them simply needed to get used to each other's proximity and touch. Yes. That must be why he started this whole chain of events.

Letting out a long breath, Zhu Yilong lowered his gaze. Then, there was only the faint sound of uneven breathing filling the air. Bai Yu still felt the minute shift of muscles under his touch despite Zhu Yilong's efforts to hold himself still. Once again, he felt himself drawn to the rhythm of that hypnotic heartbeat. Was it his own racing heart that gave rise to the illusion of a faster pulse under his touch? Bai Yu leaned forward —

A light cough broke the mood. "Ready for the next take?"

All at once, the noises of a bustling set intruded back into their little bubble. Bai Yu laughed and scratched the back of his head. Turning to the camera, he gave the director a thumbs up.

The next take went perfectly.

Bai Yu wasn't usually someone who liked to dwell on what-ifs and could-have-beens. Success was a fickle thing in the entertainment industry, no matter how hard anyone worked or how picky they were with their scripts. As an actor, he couldn't allow regret and hindsight rule his thoughts if he wanted to stay sane. Lately, however, he'd often found himself wondering what would have happened if he hadn't stubbornly stuck with Guardian through all the setbacks. If he had walked away without a second thought, would he have gone on happily oblivious to all that he'd given up? Or would he have walked around with a faint yet inexplicable sense of loss, as though he'd let something precious slip through his fingers?

Bai Yu pushed away those idle, speculative thoughts. None of those hypotheticals mattered, because in the end, he’d decided that this little project, imperfect as it was, was worth taking a chance on. And now, his decision had been richly rewarded. Bankruptcy, budget cuts, casting changes… all of that paled compared to Bai Yu finding the person (or rather, dragon) who turned out to be his acting soulmate. After that minor hiccup during their first scene together, there really wasn't any other way to describe the easy rapport and tacit understanding they had when playing opposite each other. Zhu Yilong reacted perfectly to all the improvisations Bai Yu threw his way, and Bai Yu did the same in return. The result was a series of scenes where they elevated each other's performance and produced a chemistry so intense that it caught everyone by surprise.

Normally, their successful on-screen chemistry alone would be cause for celebration. But because Zhu Yilong was an overachiever, he also happily stepped into the role of a long-suffering, but indulgent friend who spoiled Bai Yu rotten with a free breakfast every day. Bai Yu's lips quirked into a small smile. Now there was something he'd regret passing over if things had turned out differently!

"Xiao Bai. Stop thinking about whatever meme is making you smile and eat your noodles." Polishing off his tenth bowl of noodles, Zhu Yilong wiped his mouth and gave Bai Yu's still-half-full first bowl of noodles an unimpressed look.

"Long-ge! This is breakfast, not a competitive eating contest!" exclaimed Bai Yu.

Zhu Yilong rolled his eyes. "Eat."

Sullenly, Bai Yu ate a few more mouthfuls of noodles. Then, he remembered something. "Long-ge, you should eat more too! Don't forget that you'll be using your magic later today for your big scene."

Zhu Yilong glanced at the stacks of empty bowls next to himself, then gave Bai Yu a flat look.

"Don't give me that look!" Bai Yu feigned being wounded. "For once, I'm actually being sincere!"

"At least you're self-aware," muttered Zhu Yilong.

"Long-ge," pouted Bai Yu. "You're a much older dragon who's supposed to be wiser and more mature than I am. How can you bully me like this?"

Zhu Yilong's eye twitched. "I'm only two years older than you."

"Ah?" Bai Yu temporarily forgot to continue his teasing. "Only thirty and you can shape-shift so well already? Wow!"

"Most dragons learn their human form in their teens." Zhu Yilong shrugged, not quite succeeding in hiding a small pleased smile. "It's not a big deal."

"Yeah, but none of the other dragons look as beautiful as you do! It's like being a master sculptor, right?" Bai Yu pretended to carve something in the air, almost knocking his bowl of noodles off the table in the process. "A face like yours has to require a lot of skill and vision."

In an instant, Zhu Yilong flushed an endearing shade of red. His next words came out with a growl. "Stop joking around and finish eating!"

"Okay, okay!" Bai Yu made an appeasing gesture. "I don't see why you're embarrassed though—"

"More eating, less talking."

"I'm eating, I'm eating!" Bai Yu picked up his chopsticks. "I'm just saying, objectively speaking, what you did with your face has surpassed vanity into the realm of art. You should be proud!"

Zhu Yilong hid his face in his hands and made a noise of despair. "Dragons can't control the appearance of their human forms any more than they can control their original appearance!"

"… Oh." Would it be too embarrassing if he admitted that all the melodramatic dramas about the domineering dragon emperor and his plucky human love interest were to blame for his misconceptions? Bai Yu contemplated his options as he dug into his noodles. Suddenly, his eyes lit up, and he slapped the table. "Aha! That explains why you didn't make yourself taller!"

"Bai Yu!"

As night fell, a sizable crowd gathered around the set to prepare for the big scene of the day. Zhu Yilong was fairly low-key and modest, so the novelty of working with a dragon had long since worn off for most of the cast and crew. Still, it was hard to resist the temptation of seeing such large-scale dragon magic up close.

"Yu-ge, do you want an umbrella?" asked one of the crew members passing by.

Bai Yu signaled for her to wait, then called out. "Long-ge! You wouldn't let your favorite human in the whole wide world get wet, would you? I might get sick! You know how frail I am!"

A pair of golden eyes flew open and fixed on Bai Yu, sending a jolt through him. He knew that flare of protectiveness in those eyes wasn't meant for him. It was just the lingering influence of Shen Wei lurking beneath Zhu Yilong's skin. But he wasn't made of stone. Faced with a gaze that proclaimed a willingness to do anything and sacrifice everything for his safety and happiness, his heart couldn't help but flutter.

As quickly as it appeared, that golden spark faded, leaving behind only warm brown hues, soft with fondness and amusement. Then, Zhu Yilong aimed a smirk at him that was pure Ye Zun. "Don't worry. I'll make sure you get the largest share of the rain out of everybody here."

Bai Yu's protests were drowned out by the laughter of the rest of the cast and crew.

"Yu-ge, why don't I get you an umbrella and a raincoat?"

With an exaggerated sigh, Bai Yu took the umbrella offered to him. "I'll pass on the raincoat. A man has to have his pride, even when hopelessly facing off against the tyrannical might of a dragon."

Overhead, turbulent storm clouds formed in the sky. A deep rumble of thunder sent several people scrambling for shelter under roofs nearby. In the middle of the courtyard, Zhu Yilong knelt on the ground, his brows knit tightly in concentration. Gradually, the storm clouds condensed into a darker, more compact mass. When the storm's diameter shrank down to a proper regulation size and moved away from the most populous areas of the city, Zhu Yilong nodded.

"I'm ready."

That quiet declaration sparked a flurry of activity as the crew adjusted the lighting and moved the cameras into position. On the side, Bai Yu opened up his umbrella and watched Zhu Yilong's expressions shift until there was nothing left of the placid, gentle dragon he knew.

"Action!" shouted the director.

Zhu Yilong looked into the camera with a steely gaze filled with determination. A crash of lightning streaked through the skies, and the downpour began. Water dripped down his eyelashes onto his face, forcing him to remove his glasses.

Thoroughly drenched, his disheveled hair plastered against his head, Zhu Yilong should have looked wretched. But a closer look revealed bright eyes that flashed with stubborn hope. Shen Wei did not feel the icy bite of the rain, nor did he see the unfeeling door still closed before him. Instead, there was only the promise of Zhao Yunlan's smile waiting for him if he succeeded.

As Bai Yu watched the wind and rain dwindle and intensify to complement the changes in Zhu Yilong's expressions, he silently cursed. Was it really necessary to have the thunderstorm convey emotions too? With this level of meticulous attention, how were other actors supposed to live in this world?!

A strong gust of wind swept past, and Bai Yu adjusted his umbrella. Then he blinked.

Was it his imagination or was his umbrella suspiciously dry? Come to think of it, his line of sight had remained curiously unobstructed too considering the extent of the downpour.

Tentatively, he lowered his umbrella. Once he paid more attention to his own surroundings, he noticed a golden shimmer in the air in front of him that arched into a dome-shaped shield. Even without a mirror, Bai Yu knew that he must be grinning like an idiot right now. Despite the howling wind and the pouring rain, he could swear that he only felt the soothing caress of a cool, refreshing breeze on his skin.

"Cut!" The director's voice interrupted his train of thought.

Instantly, the storm clouds dispersed, leaving behind the clear night sky. And for the briefest moment, Bai Yu was frozen with indecision. Should he immediately show off his special status in Zhu Yilong's eyes to everyone else in the crew? Or should he pounce on his Long-ge and push and wheedle at Zhu Yilong until he was forced to admit his embarrassing soft spot for Bai Yu?

Turning to the courtyard, he caught Zhu Yilong's lonely figure standing up on shaky legs, and all his mischievous notions flew out of his head. Rushing past a group of confused crew members to the place where they kept their props, he pulled out several thick blankets before running back to the courtyard.

"Long-ge, here. You must be freezing!" Bai Yu draped the blankets over Zhu Yilong's shoulders while wiping away the water from his hair.

Zhu Yilong blinked at him with a perplexed smile on his face. "Xiao Bai?"

"Someone stop these two before I die of a sugar overload!" someone shouted.

"Xiao Bai." Helplessness tinged Zhu Yilong's voice. He gently pushed the blankets back into Bai Yu's arms. "Dragons generally aren't afraid of rain."

Right. Dragon. Master of rain, rivers, lakes, and seas. "I knew that."

"Aww, Yu-ge is so good to Long-ge." Another person chimed in. "I wish I had someone to pamper me even when I don't need it."

"Long-ge is good to Yu-ge too! Look, there's not a single raindrop on Yu-ge's clothes!"

The day's filming ended with both of them leaving the set red-faced.

Although Bai Yu couldn't consider himself a veteran actor, he was experienced enough to know all the common pitfalls an actor should avoid. After filming so many emotionally fraught scenes, especially when playing opposite a method actor, it was inevitable that some of the chemistry on-screen would bleed through to their off-screen interactions. The key was recognizing that this kind of infatuation was nothing more than the leftover adrenaline rush from pouring one's heart out for the cameras. Reading more into it would only lead to inevitable disappointment.

Still. It took a lot of effort to get Zhu Yilong to come out of his shell. It was only natural that Bai Yu would savor those hard-earned casual touches and secret giggles over shared in-jokes. Plus, Zhu Yilong was so ridiculously good-looking. Could Bai Yu really be blamed for enjoying the eye-candy? As long as he didn't get carried away, there was no harm in looking, was there? All he had to do was remember that for as long as dragons had lived amongst humans, not a single one had ever chosen a human for a mate. That kind of wishful thinking was reserved for works of fiction and the romantic fancies of silly high school students.

Unthinking, Bai Yu's gaze strayed towards Zhu Yilong once more. He immediately frowned. Working so many long hours closely together meant that everyone had seen each other on their good days and bad. However, he had never seen this level of frustration on Zhu Yilong's face before. Quietly, he slid into a seat next Zhu Yilong and placed a tentative hand on Zhu Yilong's back, ready to withdraw at any moment. To his relief, Zhu Yilong leaned into his touch.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Bai Yu gently stroked Zhu Yilong's back.

Zhu Yilong tilted the phone's screen towards him. "There's something wrong in the territory I oversee."

Bai Yu barely managed to hide his shock at this casual revelation. How did Zhu Yilong obtain his own territory at only thirty years of age? The map on Zhu Yilong's screen showed only a single village with a few surrounding plots of farmland, but even that was impressive if the rumors of a territory shortage between dragons were accurate. He personally thought the rumors made sense, anyway. Why else would dragons need to find new ways of life amongst mortals?

He looked past the map and whistled. Extensive charts of precipitation patterns, wind speed, humidity and air pressure, along with a radar display took up the rest of the screen, showing live updates. Then, a new notification bubble popped up requesting more rain, complete with a line of dragon and flower emojis.

"Okay." Why did it feel like the once-mythical image of dragons was collapsing in front of his very eyes? "I guess that's more convenient than performing a dragon dance or praying at a temple."

"One of the villagers has a daughter who's studying Computer Science," explained Zhu Yilong.

"It's nice of her to make that app for you." Bai Yu's mind was still reeling (and wondering if there was a secret dragon-only app store somewhere). Right. Back to the main topic. "You said there's something wrong?"

"Yeah." Zhu Yilong sighed. "I can't seem to send rain over to them anymore. Something has been interfering with my winds and clouds. And this is happening right during growing season…"

Bai Yu jumped into action. "Then we should see what's going on over there! We've been working nonstop since we've started. I'm sure the director would let us have a few days off."

"… You want to come with me?" Zhu Yilong blinked.

Bai Yu deflated. As much as he wanted to help, he didn't have much to offer as an ordinary human. "Oh. I mean. You don't have to take me with you—"

"—No, no, I just didn't think you'd want to come," said Zhu Yilong hurriedly. "But I wouldn't mind the company if you do."

"Great! I may not have any powers, but I promise I'll be your biggest supporter cheering you on!"

Zhu Yilong laughed, his cheeks turning pink. "I give you half a day before you start teasing me again."

In the end, Bai Yu didn't last beyond the first five minutes after they had boarded their early morning flight. "I can't believe any self-respecting dragon would buy a plane ticket rather than fly themselves to their destination."

"I can't believe the only person here who doesn't know how to fly is the one talking trash."

Never let it be said that Bai Yu wasn't willing to bring out the big guns just to win a petty argument. Conjuring up some crocodile tears, he made his lower lip quiver. "I see how it is. You don't love me enough to take me flying with you in the open skies!"

Zhu Yilong threw him a look of pure exasperation. "Do you have any idea how unsafe that would be?! It's almost impossible to stay steady on a dragon who's moving through the air."

Recalling the videos he'd seen of a dragon's serpentine flying movements, Bai Yu had to concede the point. "Indeed, indeed. And asking for a seatbelt would be too undignified for you."

Zhu Yilong took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Then, he put on a sleeping mask and pointedly ignored Bai Yu for the rest of the flight.

By the time they arrived at their destination, it was already early evening. The storm clouds that had persistently followed them on their journey finally began to thin out as they approached the village outskirts. Stepping out of the jeep, Zhu Yilong turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes. And even though Bai Yu had prepared himself for it, the rolling boom of thunder that threatened to split open the skies still caught him off-guard.

"My Long-ge is so cool!" Bai Yu loved to tease Zhu Yilong, but he'd never be stingy with his praise either.

All at once, the clouds dispersed.

"Sorry, did I break your concentration?" Bai Yu rubbed his nose. "I'll be quiet from now on. Don't worry. Silence is my strong suit."

Zhu Yilong smiled and bumped Bai Yu's shoulder. "You can talk if you want. I'm just narrowing down the location of the interference."

Taking their backpacks out from the trunk of the jeep, they entered the village on foot. Clouds formed above their heads again, but they didn't have a chance to solidify their shape before falling apart.

"I think we're getting closer," said Zhu Yilong quietly as he scanned their surroundings. Changing tactics, he summoned a thin fog that covered the streets and spread out towards the different dwellings. As the fog's tendrils reached the windows, they formed into an eerie imitation of a hand knocking.

"I can't decide if this is the most polite creepy fog I've ever seen, or the most terrifying," remarked Bai Yu.

The villagers didn't seem alarmed though. Most of those who were home opened their windows, some even giving them a friendly wave. Soon, their footsteps took them back outside the village again and into a wooded area. Away from civilization, Zhu Yilong allowed the fog to rise and become denser, adding a smoky texture over the vivid reds and oranges cast by the setting sun. Lacking the self-consciousness that accompanied his usual movements, Zhu Yilong glided forward with an effortless grace.

Maybe it was the magic that suffused the air, maybe it was the eerie quiet of these woods. But watching Zhu Yilong's figure float in and out the swirling fog, Bai Yu almost felt like he was following a beautiful mirage into a mysterious realm of wonders. Captivated by that beguiling silhouette, he walked through the mist as in a dream. It wasn't until Zhu Yilong finally lifted the fog that Bai Yu shook his head and blinked away the trance that he'd entered.

"Did you find something, Long-ge?"

"Yeah. We just found the source of the problem." Zhu Yilong shrugged off his backpack and put it on the ground.

Following Zhu Yilong's line of sight, Bai Yu absolutely did not let out an undignified, high-pitched scream at the sight of the monstrous snake before him. Having common sense, however, he did take several not-all-panicked steps backwards. Only then did he notice the strangeness of this circular clearing. What was dark, wet soil outside its boundaries had turned into dry, baked earth. No plant life grew within, and the trees and bushes near its edges were all wilting. And now that he'd gotten over his initial fright at the sheer size of the snake, he saw that it wasn't an ordinary snake at all. (If the word ordinary could ever apply to a snake whose length easily spanned 20 meters.) Its giant head lay on the ground, breathing shallowly, its forked tongue occasionally darting out of its mouth. But that was where its resemblance to a normal snake ended. Below its neck, it had two separate bodies, each one as thick as a tree trunk. And on each body were two wings, one of which appeared to have been injured.

"Wh-what is that thing?" asked Bai Yu when he found his voice again.

"He's a Feiyi snake, a harbinger of drought," answered Zhu Yilong quietly as he stepped into the clearing. Cautiously, he lifted the creature's injured wing and winced at the long gash running through the middle of it. "Bad luck. One of his wings got clipped by a rocky outcropping."

Crouching down, Zhu Yilong gently ran a hand over the Feiyi snake's head. Then he opened his mouth, making a series of soothing noises that invoked the sound of ocean waves lapping the shore. It was a strange but compelling song, tuneless yet musical. When the Feiyi snake's bodies finally uncoiled and relaxed, Zhu Yilong stood up and nodded.

"Xiao Bai. I'm going to try healing him and undoing the drought he brought. Do you want me to take you back to the village first?"

All the fear, wonder and shock in Bai Yu evaporated in an instant, replaced by indignation. "Long-ge! Do you really think I'm the kind of person who'd abandon you just like that?"

"I might be here all night. You haven't eaten dinner yet, and you'll get cold too."

Bai Yu crossed his arms. "It's summer! How cold can it get? Besides, I brought snacks, so don't even think about chasing me away."

Zhu Yilong sighed helplessly. "I can never win an argument against you."

"That's more like it!" gloated Bai Yu.

He barely had any time to enjoy his victory when Zhu Yilong's figure flickered and re-appeared next to him with one hand out-stretched. For a split second, Bai Yu had the most absurd notion that Zhu Yilong was going to pull him in for a kiss. Then Zhu Yilong's hand changed directions at the last minute to tickle the underside of Bai Yu's chin instead.

"Be good." With a smile and a nod, Zhu Yilong moved back to the clearing and sat down in a lotus position.

Bai Yu’s had a somewhat delayed reaction."Long-ge! Do you think I'm your pet cat or something?"

A loud clap of thunder was his only answer. Making a mental note to get Zhu Yilong back for this later, Bai Yu settled down quietly on a nearby tree stump and waited.

There were still many things humans didn't know about dragons. And as today proved, this ignorance apparently extended to a host of other mythical creatures as well. Watching Zhu Yilong summon miniature clouds that rained healing waters over the Feiyi snake, Bai Yu was torn between thinking 'Well, of course that's how it works!' and 'I never expected healing to look like this.' Every now and then, some of the rain would splash onto Bai Yu, driving away the night chill and warming him from the inside out before drying up.

As the hours passed by, it struck Bai Yu how difficult this must be for Zhu Yilong, to use his magic against what was essentially the direct counter to his own element. To keep up the steady stream of healing waters, he had to repeatedly re-summon his clouds, and many of the raindrops evaporated before they could even reach the Feiyi snake. It was only through sheer stubbornness that the ugly gash left in Feiyi snake's wing started to knit itself together.

Finally, when the sun showed its face over the horizon again, the Feiyi snake stirred and spread his wings. Rearing back to his full height, he made Zhu Yilong, who was still in human form, look comically small. Then, he lowered his head all the way to the ground in a deep, deferential kowtow.

A brilliant smile lit up Zhu Yilong's face. The sound he made this time was like the rollicking rhythm of rain falling on tree leaves.

The Feiyi snake hissed an answer and made another bow before taking off into the sky at breakneck speeds.

Zhu Yilong laughed and shook his head. "Too childish. How old is he? And still flying as recklessly as a teen."

"That just means he's young at heart, Long-ge!" Bai Yu instinctively defended against the accusation of childishness, even though it wasn't aimed at him.

Zhu Yilong didn't dignify that with a response. Looking up at the sky, he made a simple gesture with his hands. Now that the Feiyi snake's interference gone, storm clouds easily gathered once again above their heads. Soon, a light drizzle started to fall.

"Quick, take out an umbrella before you get wet."

"Aww, no fancy shield for me this time?" asked Bai Yu shamelessly even as he took an umbrella out of his backpack.

"Don't think I didn't notice you skipping your dinner. Consider this your punishment!" As Zhu Yilong's words fell, he disappeared from sight, leaving behind only a pile of clothes.

Bai Yu blinked, speechless. Was Zhu Yilong punishing him with abandonment? That seemed unnecessarily harsh. And why did he leave his clothes behind? Naked teleportation didn't seem to be Zhu Yilong's style. And even if it was, how rude to leave Bai Yu out of the fun!

Fortunately, before Bai Yu's mind could run too far off the rails, a rustling movement amidst the fallen clothes caught his attention. A sudden epiphany hit him. Surely the fates couldn't be this kind to him. There was no way this kind of comedy gold could just drop right into his lap. He threw his umbrella aside heedlessly. Barely suppressing his glee, he crouched down and opened the buttons on Zhu Yilong's shirt, gradually revealing translucent green scales. His hands moved more quickly.

When Bai Yu finally saw Zhu Yilong's full dragon form, he inhaled sharply. Until today, he'd always expected Zhu Yilong to be a towering, majestic dragon in his original form, awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measures. So, unwilling to give up his height advantage against Zhu Yilong's human form, he conveniently never asked to see Zhu Yilong transform. Then, when all his expectations were turned upside down moments ago, his mind's eye filled in a new mental image of Zhu Yilong as a tiny, adorable dragon he could fit into his palm.

Reality, however, proved to be somewhere in between. With his body coiled tightly in his shirt, Zhu Yilong was too big to fit into someone's palm, but he looked like he'd slot in perfectly in someone's arms. And when Zhu Yilong raised a sleepy head to look at him, the only thought running through Bai Yu's mind was how Zhu Yilong's eyes held the same exasperated fondness in both forms. It was as though Zhu Yilong knew exactly what he had been thinking. Looking into that familiar gaze, Bai Yu felt a strange rush of warmth in his heart.

"Long-ge, do you want me to carry you back?" Bai Yu flexed. "Luckily, you weigh much less than 80kg."

Zhu Yilong rolled his eyes (was Bai Yu the first human to get a dragon to roll his eyes?) and flew up into the air. "The path out of the forest is nearby. Follow me."

There was no time to pick up Zhu Yilong's clothes. Hastily picking up his umbrella and both their backpacks, Bai Yu followed closely behind. Which turned out to be a lucky thing when Zhu Yilong fell out of the air, causing Bai Yu to drop everything to catch him.

"All right. That's enough magic use out of you. I'm going to carry you back whether you like it or not!"

With an abashed expression on his face (because of course he wouldn't lose his micro-expressions even as a dragon), Zhu Yilong curled his tail around Bai Yu's waist before lightly putting his claws on Bai Yu's arms and comfortably settling into Bai Yu's embrace.

One of these days, he'd take a careful look at why he seemed to have no impulse control whenever he was around Zhu Yilong. But in this moment, with Zhu Yilong nuzzling his chest, no one could blame Bai Yu for leaning down and planting a kiss at the tip of Zhu Yilong's snout. The next kiss he pressed against Zhu Yilong's forehead was less excusable. Thankfully, he stopped himself before laying a third kiss on Zhu Yilong's mouth. Just because Zhu Yilong was being cuddly and sleepy in his arms didn't mean Bai Yu could take liberties like that. That kind of kiss required at least a hotpot date beforehand.

Hesitating near their backpacks, Bai Yu nudged them towards a tree with his foot. It shouldn't take much more time to arrive at the village. He could come back for them after Zhu Yilong was in bed. Making sure that his hold on Zhu Yilong was firm, he continued on the path back to the village.

"Long-ge?" Bai Yu hated the thought of waking Zhu Yilong up, but the sudden appearance of a dense fog made it almost impossible for him to see. He wouldn't ask Zhu Yilong to dispel the fog, but having another pair of eyes to guide his way forward seemed necessary at this point.

"Long-ge, I'm sorry, but I can't see where I'm going." Bai Yu spoke softly, still unable to overcome his reluctance to disturb Zhu Yilong's peaceful sleep. "Do you think you can—"

Bai Yu's words were cut off by his scream as a bubble surrounded him and lifted him into the air. His heart leapt into his throat as he watched himself zoom past the trees, further and further into the skies until the village and the forest receded from sight.

"Long-ge? Is this you playing a prank on me?" Bai Yu laughed nervously. "That's a good one! You really got me!"

Zhu Yilong snored.

Anxiously, Bai Yu could only look on as the bubble flew them far enough away to escape even the thunderclouds that Zhu Yilong had conjured. Seeing roads, villages and cities pass under him at unbelievable speeds, Bai Yu exhaled in astonishment. He couldn't imagine what flying at such speeds with only a transparent bubble around him would be like if he were afraid of heights. Though this protective bubble must be stronger than it looked, because he felt no pressure or discomfort at all despite moving faster than most airplanes.

Finally, the bubble started slowing down as a tall mountain range loomed ahead. When they reached the peak, the bubble burst and Bai Yu could once again move freely. A low growl, guttural and deep, made the ground beneath him shake. Slowly, he turned around, only to come face-to-face with two enormous ancient dragons glaring at him. The red dragon even snarled at him, showing off teeth that were larger than Bai Yu himself.

What was going on? Could this be a territorial dispute? Zhu Yilong's territory wasn't large, but it was situated in a good location well-suited to a dragon's preferences. Unbidden, he recalled all the epic dragon fights he'd seen on TV and the destruction they wrought. Did they want to take advantage of Zhu Yilong's weakened state to launch an invasion?

At the thought of these two dragons using such dirty tactics, Bai Yu glared back at them and clutched Zhu Yilong closer against his chest. The oppressive aura of two ancient dragons made his legs weak, forcing him to look away and seek support against a nearby tree, sadly ruining the tough-guy image he was trying to project.

Once he found his footing, he turned his body sideways to shield Zhu Yilong from the two hostile dragons. Rationally, he knew it was a useless gesture. But his heart was unwilling to concede the loss. Judging by their size, these ancient dragons must be extremely powerful. What were they doing bullying a young dragon and a human like this? Were they evil conqueror dragons?

The oppressive silence stretched on for what seemed to be ages. Bai Yu squeezed his eyes shut. He knew it. He just knew it. All the PR statements about how all dragons were benevolent creatures and nothing like their portrayal on television were false!

The red dragon was the first to break the silence. "Release him. Now."

"No!" Bai Yu somehow summoned up enough strength to reply, but it wasn't enough to prevent him from falling to his knees afterward. Burying his face against Zhu Yilong's neck, he murmured, "Don't worry, Long-ge. I'm here. You have me. I'll protect you."

"You…" The aura suppressing Bai Yu suddenly disappeared as the red dragon let out a huff of what might have been laughter. "You're trying to protect him?"

The incredulity in the red dragon's voice was more than a little insulting, but at least it was an improvement from his outright hostility earlier. Warily, Bai Yu glanced back at the two dragons.

The gold dragon spoke next. "It appears there's been a misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding?" Bai Yu's voice sounded strangled. An ominous feeling rose in his heart.

"Our son didn't tell us he'd met someone new," answered the gold dragon. "So we mistook your intentions."

Somehow, the knowledge that these were Zhu Yilong's parents terrified Bai Yu in a way that was entirely different from the fear he felt before.

"We're sorry. We're both a little over-protective when it comes to our little Yilong," said the red dragon, sounding much friendlier. "He's the first of our children to hatch."

"He wasn't supposed to hatch for another thousand years," added the gold dragon as she cast a doting look at the sleeping dragon in Bai Yu's arms. "So you understand why we have to keep a closer eye on his development."

"Ah, I see." Bai Yu didn't see at all, but what else could he say? He was hardly an expert in raising dragon hatchlings.

The gold dragon sighed. "He's too precocious. First it was hatching a thousand years before his time. And now he's breaking through the first rank of dragon magic several centuries before he's due."

Bai Yu frowned at her words. "Is that dangerous? He'll be okay, right?"

The gold dragon nodded, pleased. "He'll be fine, especially if he stays here until he's recovered. In the meantime, we can send you home or to wherever else you'd like to go."

Bai Yu's chest tightened with an unexpected surge of disappointment. With effort, he swallowed back the instinctive refusal and bowed respectfully. "Beijing would be perfect. Thank you both."

A stream of golden light extended towards Zhu Yilong's sleeping form and surrounded his body. It tugged. Zhu Yilong made an unhappy noise and snuggled deeper into Bai Yu's arms. It tugged again. Zhu Yilong's claws tightened their grip.

"Long-ge…" As much as he wanted to spin Zhu Yilong around and kiss him for being so utterly delightful, he should probably put in at least a token effort to coax this clingy dragon off him. He schooled his face into a stern expression. "Long-ge, be good. Let me go."

A swat of the tail told him just what Zhu Yilong thought of his suggestion. Bai Yu smiled helplessly.

The two dragons exchanged a meaningful look. The red dragon cleared his throat. "Since that's the case, would you mind staying with Zhu Yilong until he wakes up? We can prepare a space with all the best amenities for the two of you."

"No need, no need." If Bai Yu's hands were free, he'd have waved off their offer. "I'm very easygoing. It's enough to make sure that Long-ge is comfortable and safe."

The red dragon looked thoughtful. With the flick of a claw, he sent a much smaller bubble floating towards Bai Yu, carrying a jade-colored pill inside. "Consider this pill of longevity a thank-you for taking care of our son."

"Oh no, that's too much—"

"You're far too fragile," interrupted the gold dragon. "This will make you stronger and healthier."

Thinking back to all the times Zhu Yilong gave him sympathetic looks for being unable to handle spicy food, or that time he failed to move the 80kg weights an inch, or all the lost arm-wrestling contests… Bai Yu had to admit this was tempting. Seemingly following his train of thought, the muscles of his arms began to protest the strain of carrying Zhu Yilong for too long. "Then… I will gratefully accept this gift."

As though it had been waiting on his word, the jade-colored pill leapt of its own accord into his mouth. The effect was instantaneous. All his hunger, exhaustion, and any remnants of his discomfort completely disappeared. Bai Yu had to force himself to calm down so he wouldn't bounce all over the place with his newfound energy. It wouldn't be good if he jostled Zhu Yilong awake.

"I will send you both to one of the caverns we have free. Near the entrance is a staircase we carved out. It will lead you to a room with everything a human needs," explained the red dragon. "Hopefully this misbehaving son of mine will let go of you once he's near the lake."

"Thank you! Don't worry. I'll take good care of my Long-ge." Bai Yu waved as a new bubble surrounded him, lifting him up.

Another exhilarating flight later, the bubble deposited them at the entrance leading down to an enormous subterranean cavern. Walking down to the crystal-clear underground lake, Bai Yu grinned at the thought of Zhu Yilong frolicking in the waters. He knelt down near the edge of the lake and waited. As if sensing the nearby lake, Zhu Yilong's tail uncurled from Bai Yu's waist and dipped into the water. Bai Yu pulled at Zhu Yilong experimentally, but Zhu Yilong's claws showed no signs of relaxing their grip.

Well. Thanks to Zhu Yilong's parents, he had more than enough energy to spare. The least he could do was to watch over Zhu Yilong until he woke up. Lying down on the edge of the lake, he adjusted his position until Zhu Yilong lay comfortably on his chest. Time slowly slipped by, and without him noticing, sleep still managed to catch him in the end.

When Bai Yu awoke, it was to the slow, rhythmic thump of a heavy heartbeat. He tried to move, but something hefty and warm pressed him down, holding him in place. Frowning, he flailed his arms blindly to throw off the bulky bed cover on top of him. Where was he? He usually only slept with a light blanket in the summer.

"Ow!" Bai Yu's hands struck something solid and unyielding.

"… Xiao Bai?" Zhu Yilong's drowsy voice rumbled next to him.

Memories flooded back into Bai Yu's mind. His eyes flew open, and he gasped at the sight before him. Apparently, Zhu Yilong's breakthrough wasn't just magical, but physical too. Gone was the perfect cuddle-sized dragon who snoozed in his arms. In its place was a much-larger dragon whose head was draped over Bai Yu's chest and whose body was now more than twice the size of the Feiyi snake they had encountered yesterday. Bai Yu sent a silent thanks to Zhu Yilong's parents for their foresight in saving Zhu Yilong's apartment from certain destruction.

"Long-ge." Bai Yu poked at Zhu Yilong. "You're crushing me."

"Oh! Sorry." Zhu Yilong scrambled to stand.

Having been freed, Bai Yu got to his feet as well. He took a moment to marvel at how clear his head felt and how much energy he still had. "Wow! This feels amazing. If I can wake up like this every morning, this will add at least ten years to my life. Your parents were far too generous to me."

Zhu Yilong seemed to notice the cavern for the first time. "Oh, my parents found us. And you got along." He smiled. "What did they give you?"

"Something called a longevity pill. It's supposed to make me healthier, which I think extends my lifespan?"

"Yes. All longevity pills will improve your health and make you more resilient to illnesses. Depending on the quality of the pill, it can extend your life by decades, centuries, or even grant you immortality at its highest rank."

"Aha!" Bai Yu clapped his hands together. "Now it makes sense. Your parents were helping us pave the way to a happier future!"

A pause.

"Is that what you think?" Zhu Yilong's tone was careful and measured.

"Of course! If this fixes my weak stomach, I'll be able to eat all the spiciest hotpot with you every day!"

Zhu Yilong's laughter was so loud the entire cavern shook, causing Bai Yu to fall flat on his butt.

"Long-ge! Are you bullying me because you're bigger now?" Bai Yu pouted.

"Obviously." Zhu Yilong had the nerve to look as though his actions were fully justified. Then, he flew up and dove into the water with a giant splash that left Bai Yu completely soaked.

"Heartless! After I cradled you to sleep in my arms, this is how you repay me!"

Zhu Yilong's head popped out of the water, his eyes dancing with amusement. "All right, all right. I was wrong. I'm sorry."

Bai Yu wasn't used to having his own teasing tactics thrown in his face, but it wasn't as though he could ever be at risk of getting annoyed with his favorite dragon. He sighed. "Fine! It's too difficult to stay angry at a beauty. I forgive you."

Zhu Yilong spluttered, annoyance and surprise warring in his eyes. Then, he sank back under the water.

"Seriously?" The lake was completely still. "Hrmph. Have it your way! Go play in the water and ignore me! I'm going to see about a shower and a change of clothes upstairs."

The only reply he received was a dragon's tail splashing more water on him.

As it turned out, the room reserved for human guests wasn't so much a room as it was a luxury apartment. And when they said it had everything a human needed, they weren't kidding. At some point while he was asleep, someone had even retrieved their abandoned backpacks and delivered them to this room. A relaxing bubble bath and a hearty meal later, Bai Yu flopped down on the most amazing mattress he'd ever slept on and played with his phone. The temptation to just luxuriate in this opulence was strong, but their backpacks in the corner of the room reminded him of Zhu Yilong's missing clothes, which he should probably remedy. Not to mention, Zhu Yilong had such a big appetite… Had he eaten anything yet?

With newfound urgency, Bai Yu stuffed his phone in his pocket and brought Zhu Yilong's backpack with him downstairs. "Long-ge! Are you hungry? There's food upstairs."

Floating lazily on the water, Zhu Yilong turned his head. "Thank you, Xiao Bai. But I no longer need food to sustain myself."

Bai Yu was temporarily struck speechless. Was a Zhu Yilong who didn't eat hotpot even recognizable anymore? More distressingly, did that mean the end of their breakfast routine?

"Don't look at me like that." Zhu Yilong shot him a reproachful look, as though he could guess Bai Yu's thoughts. "I'm obviously not giving up hotpot. Plus, you're not getting out of our daily breakfasts that easily."

"Long-ge is a harsh taskmaster. As a weak, powerless human, I can only obey."

Zhu Yilong glared at him. "If you hadn't just changed into a new outfit, I'd splash you again."

"Oh, hey, that's right! I have your clothes here with me. Do you want to change?" asked Bai Yu. "Or do you plan to stay a dragon for a little longer?"

Zhu Yilong climbed out of the water and stretched. "Do you like it better when I'm a human?"

"Wellll…" Bai Yu drew out the suspense. "I do like how much easier you are to bully in your human form."

Zhu Yilong sighed. "Hand over the clothes."

"Okay. I'll uh… give you privacy to change then?" Bai Yu lay the backpack down by his feet and hurriedly closed his eyes.

Soft laughter drifted to Bai Yu's ears. Soon afterward, magic crackled, sending a tingling sensation through his body. Then, all the air in the cavern was drawn towards the edge of the lake in a rush. When everything settled down, there was only the sound of quiet footsteps on the ground moving closer and closer.

Bai Yu shifted, trying not to think about what (the very naked) Zhu Yilong looked like right now, standing (completely naked) in front of him. He thought he felt the weight of the backpack against his ankles lighten, but after that, there was nothing more he could feel or hear.

"Long-ge, what—"

A slender finger pressed against Bai Yu's lips, silencing the rest of his words. The seconds ticked by. Bai Yu held his body very still, his breathing gradually becoming more shallow. He flexed his fingers, then curled them back up into fists by his side. The urge to close the distance, to touch was overwhelming.

Another impulse. (Always with the impulses when he was near Zhu Yilong.) Keeping his eyes closed, Bai Yu parted his lips and leaned forward. When he felt no resistance, he let his tongue dart out - a quick swirl around Zhu Yilong's finger, a brief taste - before pulling back.

The ensuing silence was nerve-wracking, and if it had lasted a second longer, Bai Yu didn't know what he would have done. Run away, obviously. Trip because his eyes were closed, probably. Disappear into the sinkhole summoned through the sheer force of his regret, definitely. He didn't have a chance to do anything more than take a shaky step backwards, however, before Zhu Yilong's mouth was on his, clumsy with a hard edge of neediness.

For a moment, Bai Yu's hands hovered in the air, uncertain, before running themselves through Zhu Yilong's hair and coming to a rest on the nape of Zhu Yilong's neck. In response, Zhu Yilong made a small, desperate noise and deepened the kiss. There was no room for rational thought after that. Caught up in a torrential downpour that almost left him breathless, Bai Yu inhaled the earthy scent of the forest and tasted the sweetness of freshly blossomed flowers. His feet no longer touched the ground. It was possible he was flying. Or maybe it was just his joy and giddiness making him feel like he was floating on air. The world around him spun, faster and faster, until its axis tilted out of control.

Then, he was free falling without a parachute, hurtling towards the ground yet strangely unafraid. The wind whipped furiously past him, but he only sighed in discontent at the loss of Zhu Yilong's lips against his own. Finally opening his eyes, Bai Yu saw before him boundless blue skies dotted with clouds. On his hands, over his waist, and on his feet were brilliant golden strings holding him steady on Zhu Yilong's back as they soared through the air.

Bai Yu laughed, overcome with delirious happiness. "You made me a seatbelt! You do listen to my suggestions!"

"Sometimes, even a blind cat can stumble onto a dead mouse during its hunt," retorted Zhu Yilong.

"You're too shy to admit that you'd do anything for me. I understand." Pressing himself tighter against Zhu Yilong's body, Bai Yu placed kiss after kiss along the cool, smooth scales on Zhu Yilong's neck. "But you should know, gege - I'd do anything for you too."

At that, Zhu Yilong's whole body shook, plummeting tens of feet in the air before righting himself again. "Bai Yu!"

"It's okay. I don't mind a bit of excitement in our flight." Bai Yu grinned. "I trust you, Long-ge."

There was a brief pause.

"I'm glad."

Bai Yu didn't have an irreverent quip for that. For a long time, he simply let the warmth in Zhu Yilong's voice wash over him as he watched the landscape change beneath them. Sadly, this feeling couldn't last forever. Eventually, they circled back to the mountain peaks where Bai Yu had first landed the day before.

"We'll say goodbye to my parents, and then I can take you on a proper tour in my territory. There's lots of great scenery to check out now that the drought isn't a problem anymore."

"You're so good to me, Long-ge! I can't think of a better way to spend the day than seeing your baby pictures before going sightseeing."

"Remind me again why I put up with you?"

Bai Yu laughed, light and carefree. "That's easy! We make each other happy."

Zhu Yilong let out a long-suffering sigh, but when he spoke, his voice was fond and soft. "I guess we do."