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Interviews were the bane of Zhu Yilong's existence. The flashy effects, the rapid-fire back-and-forths, the trick questions - everything about them was designed for someone far more outgoing and much faster on their feet than he was. It didn't help either that he was a pretty boring guy, even by non-celebrity standards.

His appearance fell squarely on the average side of good-looking. When left to his own devices, he'd default to spending a lazy day lounging around in ratty sweatpants playing video games, which was a mental image that appealed to exactly no one. Of course, actors didn't win roles or make connections by being couch potatoes, so he still showed up dutifully with a smile when the invitations came in. However, any excitement he experienced walking the red carpet was more likely to involve wandering off in the wrong direction than anything else. (At least his fans found that part funny.)

All things considered, though, he still managed to get by. Even if all else failed, he could always fall back on his patented wide-eyed looks of confusion that the interviewers were too indifferent to push past. There was a comforting simplicity in being too bland and taciturn to cause any waves (or even ripples, for that matter). And right now, as the pounding of his heart drowned out all the other noise in the room, he wished more than anything else in the world that he could return to that simplicity.

"Um." Zhu Yilong blinked under the sweltering studio lights. Somehow, without him noticing, the solid, reassuring feel of Bai Yu's thigh now felt uncomfortably hot. It was difficult to resist the urge to tug at his collar and ease the warmth that was bringing a faint flush to his face.

He was vaguely aware that he'd trailed off in the middle of his answer, but the hole he'd just dug for himself was more than deep enough already. If he finished this dangerous line of thought, he may as well openly confess on television that his ideal romantic partner was Bai Yu. How did he go so far off-track from the safe, tame lines he'd rehearsed a million times before? He had a hunch that this wasn't what his publicity team meant when they told him to be more spontaneous.

"And the third quality that you're looking for is—?" prompted the interviewer in a gentle voice.

Out of habit, Zhu Yilong turned to Bai Yu, the helplessness in his eyes no longer feigned. Then, remembering who the culprit behind his sudden crisis was, he immediately looked away. Staring at the curve of those cherry-red lips wouldn’t help him come up with an answer that didn't describe all the qualities he found attractive about Bai Yu.

"Come on, don't make things difficult for my Long-ge." Bai Yu slung an easy arm over Zhu Yilong's shoulders, oblivious to the effect of his casual touch and playful words. "It's already a miracle he said more than three words. Don't ask him for three sentences! As his unofficial bodyguard, I won't allow you to bully him."

The interviewer laughed and shook her head. "All right, all right. Well, Guardian fans, that was the best I could do. Do you think you have the two most important qualities to catch Zhu-laoshi's eye?"

"Let the competition begin!" declared Bai Yu with perfect timing.

Lost in the audience's uproarious laughter was Zhu Yilong's soft sigh of relief. That momentary respite allowed him to slide his mask of inoffensive politeness back on. It was too easy to forget putting up his shields when Bai Yu was busy making him exasperated and fond in equal measures with so much charm. He'd have to be more careful from now on.

The ride back to the hotel was quiet. Bai Yu was slumped in his seat, staring at the ceiling of the vehicle. Most likely, he was recovering from having to carry more of the interview than usual, though he was diplomatic enough not to point it out.

With a tired smile, Zhu Yilong gently nudged Bai Yu and handed him a bottle of water in silent thanks.

"All this kind of came out of the blue, didn't it?" Bai Yu took a sip from the bottle before putting it down. His normally energetic voice held a note of fatigue.

"The new attention is a little overwhelming," Zhu Yilong admitted. "I think today's the first time an interviewer refused to let me go when I couldn't come up with an answer."

"Heh! Now that we've gotten popular, it was only a matter of time before we encountered a high-level interviewer strong enough to resist your puppy dog eyes!" said Bai Yu with obvious schadenfreude.

"It's fine as long as they still work on you!" Zhu Yilong shot back. While he was usually happy to let Bai Yu win - especially if it meant seeing that dazzling grin that lit up his world - it didn't mean he wouldn't occasionally strike back just to keep Bai Yu on his toes.

"Long-ge!" Bai Yu gasped, a scandalized expression on his face. "I never knew you could be so cold-blooded!"

"Me?" With earnest, wide eyes and a small, shy smile, Zhu Yilong was the perfect picture of an innocent, harmless bunny.

Bai Yu clutched at his chest. "No! You can't do this to me! Your crocodile tears are my only weakness!"

Zhu Yilong's smile transformed into a sincere one, his eyes curving into crescents as fondness blossomed in his heart. Unable to keep a straight face, Bai Yu soon joined him with bright laughter that was filled with delight.

They both knew each other too well to actually be shocked at any differences between their real selves and their public personas. No matter how genuine an image someone projected, it was still playing a character in its own way. Except instead of picking and choosing small parts of themselves to form a wildly different whole, the art of crafting a public persona involved adding thin layers of embellishments that obscured their true forms underneath.

The long pauses as Zhu Yilong carefully deliberated his answers, and his bewilderment at some of the more creative questions were all real. And there was an element of truth to the wide-eyed look of distress he'd developed as a defense mechanism. The scrutiny of strangers had always left him feeling stiff and awkward in his own skin. But when he was around friends he trusted, he didn't have to worry about smoothing out the edges of his humor or holding back from giving as good as he got. Which was too bad for Bai Yu, whose soft marshmallow heart wasn't nearly as well-hidden as he imagined it was. Just as the dancing light in Bai Yu's eyes was Zhu Yilong's weak spot, so too was Zhu Yilong's pleading expression irresistible to Bai Yu.

Now that Zhu Yilong thought about it, Bai Yu's public persona was a much better-crafted one than his own, with a much sturdier defense built on an endless supply of charm. Of course, Bai Yu could hardly fake his dedication to memes or his unique sense of humor. He was still the cheerful life of the party who never seemed to run out of methods or energy for teasing Zhu Yilong. But his casual, carefree exterior hid a sharp intelligence that was surprisingly well-attuned to people's emotions around him. He knew exactly when Zhu Yilong needed to laugh at his antics, and when Zhu Yilong simply needed a quiet, comforting presence as an anchor.

Like now. Maybe Bai Yu somehow sensed the subtle turmoil that Zhu Yilong had almost succeeded in suppressing. Maybe he was just as in need of a reassuring touch as Zhu Yilong was. Without warning, Bai Yu rested his head on Zhu Yilong's shoulders like it was the most natural thing in the world.

A year ago, Zhao Yunlan had leaned his head on Shen Wei's shoulders, leaving a flustered Shen Wei breathless with the urge to take Zhao Yunlan into his arms. Now, without Shen Wei's presence heating his reactions, Zhu Yilong felt strangely vulnerable and exposed, afraid of what his instinctive responses could reveal. Gazing down at the sight of Bai Yu dozing peacefully, Zhu Yilong slowed his own breathing to match the rise and fall of Bai Yu's chest. And just like that, the tension coiled tightly inside him gradually dissipated.

For a while, there was only the low rumble of the engine and the occasional sounds of traffic.

Then Bai Yu looked up at Zhu Yilong and grinned. "Long-ge, you know you can always count on me to help you out, right? No matter how ruthless you are about taking advantage of me?"

Zhu Yilong rolled his eyes, but he couldn't quite stop the smile that tugged on his lips.

"I mean, I'll complain loudly about it all the way," continued Bai Yu, erasing all the goodwill he'd just built up. "But I'll always be here for you."

Ignoring the warm flutter in his stomach at those last words, Zhu Yilong shoved Bai Yu off him. "Go away."

When Bai Yu got an idea in his head, he was nothing less than a force of nature that swept everyone in his path away with his enthusiasm. This was especially true for a Bai Yu who had just woken up full of energy from a refreshing afternoon nap.

As Zhu Yilong closed the hotel door behind them, he sometimes wondered if Bai Yu had some kind of mind control field around him that caused people to lose their common sense and agree to all his ridiculous schemes.

This wasn't Zhu Yilong being in denial about his own feelings. He'd experienced the thrill of infatuation before. And of course, he wasn't new to love either, though he hoped his case wasn't that severe yet. Either way, there wasn't anyone else, past or present, who could regularly make him throw away his good judgment.

A mock interview was in theory supposed to help him improve his reflexes. In practice, Zhu Yilong could already foresee Bai Yu teasing him until he was blushing to the tips of his ears. Casting a glance at the culprit responsible for his predicament, he had to stop his gaze from lingering at the enticing way the well-fitted black suit hugged Bai Yu's waist and legs.

Their eyes met.

Bai Yu cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our next guest, the beautiful and talented Mr. Zhu Yilong!"

Slipping smoothly into character, Zhu Yilong stood up and shook Bai Yu's hand. "Thank you for inviting me today."

"Please, have a seat." Bai Yu gestured at a nearby reclining chair. Then, dropping all pretense at dignity, he flopped backwards onto the hotel bed.

Just like that, the formal atmosphere shattered. Zhu Yilong laughed softly. "Comfortable?"

"Yes!" Bai Yu stretched luxuriously. Then, propping his head on his hand, he turned onto his side and faced Zhu Yilong. "Whenever you'd like to start, just give the word! I, and our audience, are waiting with bated breath."

"I'm ready."

"Good! All right, first question: Who's your favorite cast member of Guardian and why is it Bai Yu?"

Even as Zhu Yilong cracked up, an impulsive notion popped into his mind. It would be effortless to fall into the usual dynamics of their easy camaraderie and give Bai Yu an exasperated roll of his eyes. But he could also try turning the tables while Bai Yu's guard was down. He'd be playing with fire. But then again, he was the one with the inconvenient feelings. So why should Bai Yu have all the fun flirting?

"Because he's handsome. Because he makes me laugh. Because he makes me feel safe." Zhu Yilong's eyes were full of sincerity as he met Bai Yu's suspicious gaze directly.

Bai Yu sat up and leaned forward. "It sounds like he's very special to you."

"He is," confirmed Zhu Yilong, his voice calm and even.

Restlessly, Bai Yu hopped to his feet and walked a circle around the hotel room. Stopping to lean against the windowsill, he gave Zhu Yilong a pointed look. "Next question! Describe your idea of a perfect date."

"Hmm." Zhu Yilong put on a thoughtful expression to hide the grin that threatened to break out. "It starts with an extravagant hotpot dinner, of course."

"What's the point of dinner if it isn't hotpot?" Bai Yu chimed in.

"After that, we'll spend the rest of the night at home, cozy and warm. Maybe we'll just sit together, enjoying each other's company. Maybe we'll chat about nothing. We could play a few video games too." As he spoke, Zhu Yilong kept his eyes on Bai Yu, ready to play everything off as a joke at the first sign of alarm or dismay. He was probably being too paranoid. Just because that particular night was a precious, cherished memory for him didn't mean that it held the same significance in Bai Yu's heart. Still. Seeing Bai Yu slowly begin to frown, his mouth suddenly felt dry.

"That sounds like…" muttered Bai Yu before trailing off.

"Hmm?" Zhu Yilong blinked rapidly, clinging to the flimsy pretense of innocence.

Bai Yu narrowed his eyes. "Long-ge."

Zhu Yilong swallowed.

"This is your incredibly unsubtle attempt to talk me into eating hotpot with you tonight, isn't it?" Bai Yu wagged his finger. "Don't think I didn't see you staring at the fancy hotpot restaurant when we passed it on the road!"

Disappointment warred with relief as Zhu Yilong rubbed the back of his neck. It was fine. Wasn't this his backup plan in the first place? Things could have turned out a lot worse considering his impulsiveness. He forced a smile on his face. "You always know what I'm thinking, Xiao Bai."

Bai Yu clapped his hands. "That's right! Okay, let's put our interview on pause. I'll go call in a reservation."

Zhu Yilong wasn't sure how he'd managed to survive the night so far. He knew it was bad when not even hotpot could distract him from his fraying nerves. He blamed it on the spicy soup base that gave Bai Yu's lips a lush red sheen. Why did he let Bai Yu with his fragile stomach eat spicy food again? Placing the last piece of beef in Bai Yu's bowl, Zhu Yilong managed to keep his hands steady enough to finish up his own food and clean up. Then he beat a hasty retreat under the pretext of paying the bill.

Returning to the hotel room, Zhu Yilong comforted himself with the knowledge that at least he wasn't so far gone that he'd find Bai Yu's atrocious PUBG skills attractive. Funny, maybe. Ridiculously endearing, definitely. But a long gaming session was exactly what he needed to give his racing heart a break. By the time they turned off their laptops, they were both comfortable and content.

This wasn't a date. It couldn't be one. Even if Bai Yu kept licking his lips and staring at him during dinner. Even if Bai Yu was unusually cooperative in-game tonight (zero sabotage attempts was a new record). He definitely shouldn't be reading too deeply into how Bai Yu was practically glowing now, happily wrapped up in a cozy sweater and snuggled against him on the couch.

Zhu Yilong's pulse sped up, hope and yearning twisting his stomach into knots. As though his hand had a will of its own, he reached out and gently stroked Bai Yu's hair.

"You know, there's one thing you left out of your perfect date," said Bai Yu, his voice husky.

"Oh?" Zhu Yilong let out a shaky exhale.

"Yeah. A goodnight kiss."

Zhu Yilong's lips slowly curved into a smile. The first kiss, when it happened, was unbearably tentative. With Bai Yu draped lazily over him, he felt rather than heard Bai Yu's sharp intake of breath. There was only the barest flutter of touch before they pulled back, the same unspoken question reflected in each other's eyes. The next kiss was more insistent, more demanding. It was a long-awaited release of tension built on playful teasing and half-joking flirting. It was a dizzying array of familiar scents and unfamiliar sensations. And it was a giddy anticipation of what this budding affection between them could become.

This time, they didn't pull away until they were both breathless.

When their eyes met again, that unspoken question was thoroughly answered with the light of wonder in each other's gaze.