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A feeling so sweet and subtle

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The world is suspiciously wobbly, Bai Qi decides. It didn’t use to be so a few hours ago, he’s sure, but there is something about this new, unstable world that he finds compelling. It’s easy, in a way. There is no reason to struggle and try, to keep yourself in reins because this world doesn’t care it just… flows, whether you want it to or not.

As the white and golden lines swim over him, blinding him with light reflected in small crystal chandeliers, Bai Qi feels strangely at peace. An unusual sense of calm and acceptance filling his veins. Is this what freedom tastes like?

“Who knew you could be so poetic,” says a voice to Bai Qi’s left, and he looks down from the ceiling to search for its source. He wasn’t aware there was someone else here, but now when he thinks about it, there is a pressure on his waist and someone's hand is holding his elbow…

A face swims into focus, and it is a very nice face. Beautiful even. But the face is incorrect in its judgment.

“I am… Philosophical. If anything,” Bai Qi argues, his words slurring slightly. He doesn’t like that. His words should obey him always, no matter how the ceiling behaves, and how nice the light above is. Words are weapons and a balm when needed and they should… Behave.

He looks at the small smile appearing on the face of his mysterious companion. Now that they have stopped, with the ceiling no longer swimming above him, Bai Qi can focus on him and realizes that he knows these features.

“Jing Ran,” he says, earning himself a small huff in reply. Jing Ran has no place to look at him with such amusement, in fact he has no place at all… There is something more to that statement, something Bai Qi should pay attention to, but thinking now is tiring. He’s been perfectly happy before he noticed Jing Ran’s face and now a seed of doubt enters his mind, with the walls no longer fluid around him, with Jing Ran’s embrace grounding him, Bai Qi cannot go back to the bliss he’s been enjoying seconds ago.

“Why are you here?” That’s the correct question. Bai Qi is in this hotel, at this party because Jing Ran isn’t. Can’t be, he had checked that, hadn’t he? Bai Qi accepted the invitation to Madame Chen’s gala because he was informed Jing Ran had declined it.

“Change of plans,” his unexpected companion replies, and they are moving again – the motion makes Bai Qi wobble on his feet, his body leaning against Jing Ran’s, and it’s surprisingly warm.

“You are too warm for an illusion,” Bai Qi informs Jing Ran, because well, illusions should have some standards. They should adhere to certain rules and this outrageous crossing of real and unreal is very unwelcome.

“I am officially not here,” Jing Ran tells him, and even this doesn’t sound like a thing a self-respecting mirage would say. They walk a few more steps before the thoughts in Bai Qi’s head finally align into a sentence:

“No, you are doing it wrong,” he says, and Jing Ran-shaped spectre stops to look at him in a silent question. Having the imaginary Jing Ran’s attention, Bai Qi continues:” You should be more convincing, you should try to make me believe you are real, you can’t just outright admit you are not.”

That’s how this works, the thing you want to see appears in front of you and all of your senses want to forget the truth and embrace the beautiful lie. Why does Bai Qi’s illusion not follow the script?

“I am really here. I just shouldn’t be,” Jing Ran says, and though his tone is perfectly level, there is a hint of uncertainty there. There was some effort though, so Bai Qi smiles at him approvingly.

“That’s slightly better, you are improving,” he praises, and Jing Ran sighs in a strangely exasperated way.

“We are getting you to your room.” Bai Qi doesn’t argue – going to sleep seems like a good idea, now that the world had ceased to be so undefined and bright, retreating back into its mundane laws. He follows Jing Ran’s lead and walks ahead, stopping in front of the door that looks vaguely familiar.

“Do you have your key?” Bai Qi thinks about it. He should have one, he was definitely given one but… Jing Ran’s hold onto him eases and Bai Qi staggers forwards, resting against the door. There are hands touching him now, travelling from his hips to his jacket and back. They feel nice. Familiar. Warm.

“If only you were so amiable under normal circumstances”, Jing Ran grumbles, finally taking out the card from Bai Qi’s jacket. As he turns to focus on the door, Bai Qi watches him. There is another irregularity, another bit where the illusion is slightly off.

“You can’t blush like that. Illusions don’t do that,” he instructs, and Jing Ran’s eyes snap to his, full of annoyance. His ears are still red though, so he is not doing a very good job for a mirage. However, the glare eases out, replaced by something that looks impossibly fond. And that is more likely, that’s what this delusion business should be all about- real Jing Ran would never look at Bai Qi like that.

Without another word, Jing Ran opens the door and takes Bai Qi’s elbow again, leading him inside. The room is as cold and impersonal as Bai Qi remembers it – he planned to come here after as soon as good manners allowed and go to sleep, so the lack of anything lively inside didn’t bother him. Now it is a painful contrast to the bright, yellow lights of the corridor.

“You should lie down,” Jing Ran says, unexpectedly gentle, and he actually helps Bai Qi down, lying him down on the pillow with a surprising amount of care. He disappears for a moment from Bai Qi's eyesight and then suddenly, Bai Qi is no longer wearing shoes on the bed. It's an oddly helpful illusion, he decides.

Bai Qi stares at Jing Ran in unabashed wonder, and instead of disappearing or moving away, Jing Ran sits down on the bed, leaning forward, hovering slightly above Bai Qi. It’s hard to look at him, and the world is swirling around again, so Bai Qi lets his eyes drift half-closed.

Jing Ran remains where he was, watching him with undecipherable gaze.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” he whispers, and for the first time this evening, Bai Qi is certain he is not real. Jing Ran is not soft. Not like that. Not with him. That’s why they can’t cooperate, why they end up arguing over every little, silly thing. Why the press calls them the greatest rivals of the century and why Bai Qi had come here, hoping to get the advantage of Jing Ran's absence. And then he saw Jing Ran across the room, surrounded by his usual flock of admirers and, and… and then he was in the garden, wasn’t he? It is all Jing Ran’s fault.

“I didn’t do it to myself. You did,” he replies, and instead of accusing, he just sounds tired, sleepy.if he goes to sleep now, then Jing Ran will disappear, right?

He raises his hand to Jing Ran’s face and touches it gently. It seems deceptively real. Why of all the people he could hallucinate caring for him, it’s Jing Ran that he sees?

He trails his finger up and down, caressing the face of his enemy in a manner that could be almost called loving, and Jing Ran lets him – he leans into the touch, looking so earnest…  The skin underneath Bai Qi’s fingerprints is smooth, warm and unbelievably real.

He traces the contours of Jing Ran’s face slowly, listening to every exhale of air. It feels too real.

When he gets to the nose, his hand stops, arrested by the gentleness glistening in Jing Ran’s half-lidded eyes.

“Does it benefit me to get you drunk?” Jing Ran finally asks, his voice velvety and gentle. Bai Qi eyes drop, but he keeps on looking, fighting the tiredness, trying to savour this bizarre moment. He smiles, despite himself.

“Don’t think I don’t know,” he replies, opening his eyes just a fraction more, to make sure Jing Ran is not disappearing just yet. “You get me drunk and then…” and then I dream of you, Bai Qi doesn’t say. “… I am at your mercy,” he finishes, and that’s the truth, isn’t it? How many times has it happened before? They meet, they argue, Bai Qi tries to calm down, drinks and ends up thinking, dreaming…

He feels Jing Ran’s body against his, and it still seems surprisingly real. They fit so well together, like they were made to complement each other, and Bai Qi’s heart beats so loudly that for a moment he doesn’t notice that his is not the only one. So close, he can feel Jing Ran’s pulse too, wild and contrasting with the serene aura he usually exudes.

The realization wakes Bai Qi a bit, and when he opens his eyes, Jing Ran’s face is close, too close and his eyes are so full affection... Bai Qi doesn’t know what happens now, but he doesn’t dare to move.

“I wanted to see you,” Jing Ran says faintly, his voice not more than a whisper, “I came to see you,” he rephrases, and Bai Qi watches him, feeling something around them change and shift. They have not done that before, not ever, but if they take that step, if they cross that line then, then…

“You won’t kiss me, will you?” Bai Qi whispers, and Jing Ran’s eyes widen in surprise.  

“I can’t. You’ve been drinking and I shouldn’t-“ he says, and Bai Qi doesn’t let him finish. He pushes himself up a bit, touching his lips to Jing Ran’s cheek.

“-kiss me in the morning then,” he says, feeling the body against him freeze.

“Will you let me?” Jing Ran sounds so unsure, and so impossibly tender, that Bai Qi kisses his cheek once more and falls back down on the bed.

“If you turn out to be real in the morning, then yes,” he says contentedly, and feels the edge of sleep surrounding his thoughts, suddenly calm and satisfied. The warmth envelops him, Jing Ran's pulse lulls him to rest.

The last thing Bai Qi’s tired mind registers is a press of lips on his forehead and someone’s fingers in his hair.

They feel real.