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You wake.

Oh, but not all of a sudden. It’s more of a slow, gradual awakening where your consciousness is pulled up to the surface from wherever it was buried.

You come to feel that your head is resting on something firm and it makes you furrow your eyebrows, shifting a little, because you’re certain your pillow isn’t this hard.

The thing below you moves when you do though and then you hear a voice.

“—Chips!”

It’s a familiar nickname from a familiar voice and you crack open your eyes, squinting against the brightness, to see Zhou Qiluo looking down at you. The stiffness in his body relaxes when he sees that you’re really awake, but concern still lingers in his eyes as he checks you over. One of his hands ghosts over you, skimming your shoulder, side, and hip, and that’s when you realize you’re lying down with your head in his lap.

“How’re you feeling? Nothing hurts? Can you get up?”

Although you’re taken aback by this barrage of questions you reassure him that you’re fine and sit up without his help.

You look around your surroundings.

Pure white.

That’s your first impression. Your second impression is that it’s not actually pure white, because you can see where the white walls join together to form a room. However, you’re not sure how the shadows are being cast since there’s no clear light source here. It hurts your head to think about it too hard though and so you look away to the spots of color that stand out in this inorganic space.

There, pacing the length of one of the walls, is Bai Qi. He looks like a caged wolf with the amount of tension radiating from his frame as he strides from one end to the other but, when his eyes catches yours the moment he feels your gaze on him, you see his steps slow slightly and the tightness in his body loosen. Bai Qi checks you over with a look and then returns to pacing after he’s sure that there’s no problems with you.

Moving on, you see Li Zeyan standing in front of a large wooden double door. He’s standing there stiffly with a subzero expression on his face and if looks could kill then the door he’s glaring at would have been microscopic rubble already.

He also feels your eyes on him and glances over. The heavy look on his face doesn’t lighten when he sees you conscious though and instead he makes a flat comment. “You’re quite something to sleep for so long in a situation like this.”

Before you can say anything, a calm voice breaks in and defends you.

“Even though there were no visible injuries, we don’t know if anything else happened. That unconsciousness was abnormal.”

You turn your head to see Xu Mo standing just a few feet away from you and Zhou Qiluo. He has a gentle smile on his face, one that deepens when you look over, but his eyes are cold when he casts his gaze over the room and stops on the door. For some reason, you feel a dangerous air around him in the way he’s standing there motionless with a hand in one of the pockets of his customary lab coat.

“How are you? Does anything feel strange or out of place?” He asks.

You try to lighten the atmosphere by saying this room and everyone being here is strange. It earns you a snort from Bai Qi, a chuckle from Xu Mo, and a laugh from Qiluo. Li Zeyan only looks over without an expression. But the invisible pressure from him makes you clear your throat sheepishly and ask for clarification on where this place is and why everyone’s here.

“No idea. We all woke up here at the same time, despite going to sleep at different hours,” Bai Qi is the one who answers you.

“You were here as well,” Xu Mo anticipated your question, “However, you were unconscious no matter what we did until now.”

There is a pause as you mull over that oddity.

Then Bai Qi continues on. “This room is 20 meters by 15 meters, all the walls are solid, the door is locked, and our Evols aren’t working.”

You’re shocked to hear him drop the word Evol here, but a quick look shows that no one else is confused or surprised. It seems that everyone here is in the know about Evols and about each other.

“Time has stopped. But, as Bai Qi mentioned, it isn’t from me,” Li Zeyan adds. He tilts his hand to show his frozen wristwatch to you.

“We haven’t been here long enough to determine if we can grow hungry or thirsty though,” Xu Mo cautions.

The small relief you feel at hearing time is stopped disappears immediately at Xu Mo’s words and your concern rises again. You look over at Qiluo who has been quiet up to now.

“Sorry, I woke up here with nothing but these clothes,” he gestures at his casual wear, “I don’t have my phone or computer with me.” You understand he’s telling you that he has no way to get access to anything inside or outside this room. Despite his words though his smile is reassuring and he rubs your back with a hand that was placed there while you were listening to the others.

You ask everyone what the plan of action is now then.

There is a heavy silence after your question is asked.

“I don’t know.” Bai Qi breaks the silence but his words are low and tense, and the muscle that jumps in his cheek shows how hard he’s clenching his jaw. He glares at a random spot on one of the walls.

Xu Mo sighs, “We can only continue to look for clues here. Maybe now that we’re all conscious something will have changed.”

Qiluo verbally agrees while Li Zeyan doesn’t object, which means he’s given his tacit approval. Qiluo stands up first before you and then offers you a hand. You take it without reservation, feeling a small comfort from his warmth, and get pulled easily to your feet. When you thank him, he flashes a smile at you that disappears when he seems to realize something.

“Oh! Guess now that you’re up, I don’t have an excuse to be lazy anymore. I’m going to have to help look around.”

It’s clear that Zhou Qiluo cracked a joke to put you more at ease and you cover your laugh with a cough as he slides a hand into his pocket and strolls off to one side of the room, examining the walls. His nonchalant act is so good you’re almost put under the illusion that he’s walking through a museum and looking at artworks on a wall instead of being trapped in a white room and staring at blank walls.

During this time, Li Zeyan has gone from glaring at the double door in front of him to studying the walls beside the door too. Bai Qi is still pacing on his side and looking intently at the corners where the walls join together to form the room. Meanwhile, Xu Mo hasn’t moved from his position a few feet away from you, close to the center of the room, observing everything in a quiet manner.

Everyone seems to have covered what to examine and so, for a second, you flounder and wonder what else you can do. But you’re driven by the need to contribute somehow; it doesn’t sit well with you to stand around and be useless, especially since you were unconscious earlier. Looking around again, you decide to start with the most obvious thing in the room.

You announce that you’re going to look at the door.

“It’s been checked and it’s locked,” Li Zeyan informs you. It doesn’t look like he expects anything to have changed even if you look at it. But he also doesn’t do anything to stop you.

Neither does anyone else, so it seems safe enough to approach the door. You know them all well enough to be certain that someone would have stopped you if it was deemed dangerous.

You go up to the door. It’s bigger than you expected and becomes even larger as you get close. The wooden double doors loom over you and you would need to tilt your head back if you wanted to see the top, but right now you’re looking at the engravings on the door. There’s carved grooves that cover the entire surface of the door and, even when you step back to look at the door in its entirety, they don’t seem to form any patterns. The grooves curl, swirl, connect, and break apart without any sense. Maybe they’re just some sort of abstract design?

Since you’re not getting anywhere with the grooves you put that out of your mind and focus on another part. There are two handles in the center of the double door; one handle for each door. Makes sense. Li Zeyan told you the door is locked, but you decide to double-check anyway. There’s no harm in doing that.

But it happens the moment you touch one of the handles.

There’s a brilliant flash of light and, right as you make an exclamation of surprise, an arm wraps itself around your waist and hauls you back. You collide into a hard chest and, next thing you know, you’re being held a few feet away from the door.

A piece of paper flutters down into the spot you were just standing at.

All these events happen within seconds of each other.

Your heart pounds from the sudden rush of adrenaline, much like the rapid heartbeats you feel from the person behind you. The firm muscles of the arm around your waist relax as the person adjusts their hold on you and that’s when you realize you’ve reflexively grabbed his arm with both hands.

Releasing him, you’re about to turn around to see who grabbed you when you hear Bai Qi ask, “Are you OK?” His breath stirs the hair at the top of your head and his words come out breathless.

You tell him that you are.

Bai Qi’s arm around your waist tightens for an instant before he releases you. He doesn’t step back though, his chest a solid heat against your back, and his hand hovers nearby just in case you need help. But, despite being shaky from the surprise, you can still stand on your own.

You quickly look around to check on everyone else.

Zhou Qiluo is frighteningly still, as if he’s a coiled spring ready to explode into action at the slightest provocation, and it’s only when he sees you unharmed that he releases his tension and rocks back on his heels. Xu Mo’s eyes are focused on your waist, his expression completely blank, but when he realizes you’re looking at him he gives you a relieved smile and then moves his gaze from you to the door.

On the other hand, the severe look on Li Zeyan’s face barely changes even after he sees that you’re safe. Instead, when he strides over to the spot you were pulled away from and picks up the paper on the ground to read it, the frown on his face deepens even more if that’s possible. Every line on Li Zeyan’s face screams with rage and you’re surprised the paper hasn’t spontaneously caught on fire.

“What’s it say?” Qiluo is the one who asks.

Li Zeyan doesn’t answer and his hand spasms, as if he’s thinking about crushing the paper. But he ends up handing it roughly to Xu Mo who comes up beside him.

Xu Mo reads the paper and you see a furrow appear between his brows.

Seeing the two of them react like this makes you anxious and this time you’re the one who asks what it says.

Xu Mo looks up at you, pauses like he’s choosing his words, and then tells you, “It only has the letters K, I, S, and S.”

You blink.

Then your brain starts spinning and puts them together. K, I, S, and S. KISS. Kiss…? Wait, that kiss? No, no way. You clear your throat, feeling silly for even thinking about something like that in this situation, and ask if those letters are an acronym for something.

Qiluo rubs at his chin, looking thoughtful. Li Zeyan still looks darkly displeased, glaring at the door again. You tilt your head back to peek at Bai Qi’s expression only to see that he’s turned his head away to the side, but his ears are a faint red. Okay, no help from this one.

Returning your attention back to Xu Mo you see him shrug, and you find yourself taking a second to appreciate how elegant he makes that look, before he says, “That is one possibility. Or it could simply be what it literally means: contact with the lips.”

Somehow, you don’t think you’re imagining the weight of all the men looking at you…

An awkward - at least for you - silence falls upon the room. Everyone is deep in their own thoughts.

But then Zhou Qiluo claps his hands, shattering the silence. “I’ve got it then!”

There’s an easy smile on his face that clears away your worries and you walk closer to him to ask him excitedly if he’s cracked the code. It looks like even without a computer, he’s still the amazing KEY.

Qiluo gives you a puzzled look, “Nope. I was thinking we should test the obvious and move on if that doesn’t work.”

Huh?

Before you can ask him what he means Qiluo grabs your arm, tugs you into him, and leans in. You hear a shout from behind you, but you don’t have time to pay attention to that when a soft sensation brushes across your forehead.

… Huh!?

You blink and then realize you’re staring blankly at the dip between Qiluo’s neck and collarbones. Did he just kiss you? You raise your head and see him looking down at you with bright blue eyes, as tranquil as a cloudless sky. He grins, flashing one of his canines, and you feel your cheeks heat up. It’s not so much the fact that he kissed you that makes you embarrassed, but that he did it in front of everyone else.

He releases your arm when you take a hurried step back. Looking over your shoulder, you see Bai Qi a few feet away with a foot forward, like he was in the middle of coming over to you and Zhou Qiluo but abandoned the idea; he switches between glaring unhappily at Qiluo and looking towards the double doors.

It turns out that Li Zeyan and Xu Mo are also staring at the door.

You and Qiluo follow their line of sight, but nothing seems to have changed with the double doors. It looks the same as always.

But Xu Mo notes, “There was a flicker of light.”

“Mn,” Li Zeyan gives a noise of agreement.

So… it is a kiss in the literal sense then? You voice this thought out loud, but no one has an answer. Xu Mo looks contemplative though.

And then Li Zeyan walks up to the door, catching everyone’s attention, and tries the door again.

Clack. Still locked.

“Maybe it’s me? Since I gave the kiss?” Qiluo brings up. He doesn’t seem to notice, or maybe he just shrugs off, Li Zeyan and Bai Qi shooting him narrowed looks and walks up to the door beside Li Zeyan to try the handle.

Clack. Nope, still locked.

The hope that rises in your chest plummets instantly and settles like a rock in your stomach. Your shoulders drop and, even though you know you shouldn’t be surprised it isn’t that easy, somehow you were hoping it would be just that easy.

Xu Mo comes over to you at this point and asks, “May I try something?”

You look at him helplessly because what answer other than “yes” is he expecting? If you don’t let him try then wouldn’t you and everyone else continue to be trapped here?

The corner of Xu Mo’s eyes crinkle in amusement like he read your thoughts and then he picks up your hand in both of his, raising it so that he can press his lips to the back of your hand. His lips are slightly dry and cool against your skin and, to your surprise, he doesn’t pull away after kissing your hand. Instead, he raises his eyes - and your breath stutters at the way those deep, dark-colored eyes glance up at you beneath long lashes - and looks towards the door.

You gather your scattered attention and look over as well to see that the double door has lit up. To be precise, it’s only the top left section of the double door that has a purple light, and even then the light barely covers a strip of the door and flickers like it’ll disappear at any moment.

In fact, the light does disappear in the next second and, just as you make a small exclamation of surprise, you feel Xu Mo push up your sleeve with a hand. You look back at him to see that he’s already raised his head from your hand and then he drops his lips onto your inner elbow. You jerk back reflexively, startled at the contact, but with one of his hands still holding yours and the other holding your arm you’re firmly restrained.

He breathes, and you think you can feel the ghost of a smile against the crook of your arm when you tremble. You hope your goosebumps have gone unnoticed though.

This time the purple light races across more of the door, following the myriad of grooves, but it still only covers a small section of the door before it disappears again when Xu Mo pulls away.

As Xu Mo lowers your hand, humming in thought, you try to work out the meaning behind these lights and the door.

Then he reaches for you again—

But someone grips your elbow and, with a sharp tug, you’re sent stumbling backwards. A broad back soon fills your vision and blocks your sight of Xu Mo.

“That’s enough.” Li Zeyan’s voice is terrifyingly low, like two tectonic plates deep in the earth grinding against each other.

“Is it?” Xu Mo’s words come out serene, but there’s also an unknown quality in them that draws the air around these two men tight with tension. You peek around Li Zeyan to see that Xu Mo’s lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “You know as well as I do there’s one more thing to test.”

“No.” This time it’s Bai Qi who barks this out and you turn your head to see that he’s come closer, one hand clenched into a fist beside his leg.

Xu Mo glances between him and Li Zeyan.

You’re sure it’s not your imagination that the tension in the air now feels like it’s sparking towards an explosion. You look over at Zhou Qiluo, trying to find help to defuse this situation. You don’t know how Xu Mo’s words rubbed Li Zeyan and Bai Qi the wrong way, but it’s certainly not going to help anyone if these three get into a fight.

However, you find that Qiluo is watching the three of them with an unexpectedly sharp gaze. It’s only when he notices you looking at him that his eyes soften and he gives you a reassuring smile. You dart your eyes between the three men and then back to Qiluo, making it obvious that you want his support before you do anything. But Qiluo’s smile turns mischievous and he puts on an affected helpless look, shaking his head. You narrow your eyes.

While you have this silent conversation with Qiluo though, Xu Mo speaks up, “I believe both of you are misunderstanding me.” He spreads out his hands in an innocent manner.

Li Zeyan and Bai Qi don’t respond.

This time you’re unable to withstand the pressure building around these three, feeling a cold sweat trickle down your back, and so you quickly ask Xu Mo for clarification. What is he testing? And what else does he need to test?

Li Zeyan angles his body towards you, disapproval in his dark eyes. But it’s impossible to take back your words.

Xu Mo’s attention settles on you. “I don’t believe we would be wrong in assuming that the more light there is on the door the closer we are to solving this puzzle. Zhou Qiluo’s kiss on the forehead compared to the two kisses I gave covered the most area. However, the lights from both our actions disappeared the moment we withdrew. Putting aside the difference of area covered by the lights, if the two of us have the same instantaneous disappearance of light I would like to see if there is a difference when we change the initiator of the kiss.”

You give him an admiring look. Geniuses really do have quick minds. Xu Mo smiles at you, catching your eyes.

So, you just have to kiss him then? You voice this out loud, and then realize how that sounds. Clearing your throat, flustered, you clarify yourself and ask if it can be anywhere like the cheek or something? Xu Mo’s smile deepens at your correction.

“No,” Li Zeyan rejects this. If his voice gets any colder, you imagine you’ll be able to see icicles forming on your clothes.

“It doesn’t have to be me,” Xu Mo calmly says, “Zhou Qiluo and I both lit up a different section of the door. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe there are two other sections that correspond to you and Bai Qi.”

Wow… what a sadistic door. This thought crosses your mind even as you look up at Li Zeyan, since he’s standing closest to you and the one who vocally rejected this. You ask him if he doesn’t want to get out of here?

Li Zeyan looks back at you in silence with a gloomy expression, gaze sweeping across your face.

You endure it and point out that it wouldn’t hurt to try, unless he has a better alternative? The five of you can’t continue to remain here.

His eyebrows draw together, forming a deep furrow, but he still doesn’t say anything. So, before you can wilt underneath the displeasure he’s exuding you decide to just go for it. Placing a hand on his shoulder, you stand up on your tiptoes to kiss his cheek.

At least that was your plan.

However, Li Zeyan takes a reflexive step back in surprise, which breaks your balance, but as you find yourself tilting over he steadies you immediately with hands on your waist. Your lips miss the mark of his cheek though and land on the underside of his chin.

“You…!” Li Zeyan’s eyes widen.

You take a second to appreciate catching the normally composed CEO off guard before you turn your head to check on the door. By the time you look over the light is already disappearing from the top right section of the double door though. Fortunately, the disappearance is not instantaneous and you can see how the red light races backwards through the grooves. It almost seems to make out some sort of illustration, but the light is soon gone and the illusion of an illustration disappears back into a confusing mess of engravings.

“That covered more than Zhou Qiluo’s kiss did,” Xu Mo notes.

“It also lasted longer than yours, and I’m guessing mine,” Qiluo adds.

While those two are discussing this, Li Zeyan releases you like a scalded cat and takes another step back, lips thinning into an upset line. You stumble at the sudden lack of support but then Bai Qi is beside you with a steady hand.

“Are you OK?” He asks you in a quiet voice.

You tell him you are, but you don’t miss how he shoots an unhappy glare at Li Zeyan. Li Zeyan isn’t even looking at him though, or you for that matter, and you try not to let that bother you. Not only does Li Zeyan have a poker face, which always makes it impossible for you to guess his thoughts, but he also seems to have a mercurial mood around you. In one moment you’re praised and then in the next you’re called an idiot.

But, in any case, now isn’t the time to solve what’s bothering Li Zeyan. You put him out of your mind and focus on the present situation. By now, you don’t need anyone to tell you what this means. The light lasted the longest when you were the initiator of a kiss. The location of the kiss being the underside of Li Zeyan’s chin covered the most light but it still wasn’t everything. So, there’s only one possible answer this is all heading towards.

Why is it a kiss on the lips though? Every other thing that was done should technically count as a kiss too, right?

“Do you want to argue semantics with this room?” It’s only when Li Zeyan replies to you sardonically that you realize you said your thoughts out loud.

Xu Mo clears his throat and, when you and the others look over to him, he has an arm folded across his chest with the other arm raised to press a lightly curled hand against his lips. You recognize this pose as one he takes before he starts a lecture.

“I’ve been considering this, ever since we established how we all appeared here after falling asleep. That perhaps this room is a shared space between us all. This door is distinctly linked to us and, as for the definition of a kiss, the first thought an adult would have towards one is of a romantic nature. You would only consider the technicalities of a kiss after thought or if you were trying to find a loophole.”

You and Qiluo must have been thinking the same thing because he voices your thoughts. “If you’re trying to say that we’re all sharing the same dream, then couldn’t we just think really hard to change things? Or wake ourselves up?”

Xu Mo shakes his head. “Therein lies another question: just who is the master of this dream? All of us equally? Some more than others? Or just one of us?” He extends a hand and spreads his fingers, turning it back and forth in front of him. “If this is a dream then the detail is outstanding, enough to trick the perception. Because of that, I also believe it is too late now. Much like seeing an elephant in a room and then being told it doesn’t exist, some part of your mind will always accept this as an immutable fact, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise.”

“That’s a detailed explanation,” Bai Qi comments in a neutral tone.

Xu Mo gives a closed-lip smile. “My field of study is neurology after all.”

Suddenly Qiluo’s eyebrows shoot up in realization and he grins mischievously. “So, seeing as a kiss is needed to solve this door, doesn’t that mean someone here is having naughty dreams?”

Right after these words Li Zeyan and Bai Qi stiffen and then you see blue eyes land on you. The others seem to follow that line of sight to you one after another. Excuse me!? You don’t need a mirror to know that you’re red underneath everyone’s gazes because your cheeks burn with heat. You shake your head vehemently, denying Qiluo’s words. It’s just as likely to be the other way around, with you as the innocent one and everyone else here being the dreamers!

As you throw everyone else under the bus without scruples, in the corner of your eye you see Bai Qi turn to the side, hand rising to cover his reddening face. Li Zeyan spits out the word “childish”, appearing offended by your insinuation, while Xu Mo hides his laugh behind a cough.

Qiluo nods with a serious expression. “True, true. I don’t know about the others, but at least I know I’m not the master of this dream or else this place would have—”

You say his name loudly to interrupt the rest of his words. Zhou Qiluo raises both hands in surrender, laughing. “I was only going to say this place would have bags of chips! Sorry, sorry, I’ll stop teasing. Don’t be angry, please?”

You try your hardest to hold onto your glare, but your twitching lips gives away your amusement. The uneasy atmosphere that had settled when Xu Mo was talking disappears as if it has never been there to begin with.

However, this doesn’t last long and the gravity of the situation reasserts itself.

So… it looks like a kiss on the lips really is the way to get out? You bring this up again for clarification, but also hoping someone came up with an alternative answer.

But no one offers another solution.

Just as your eyes start to dart around, skirting around the men here, Bai Qi spins around and stalks over to the double door. “I refuse to believe there isn’t another way out.” He presses the handle down and pulls. Hard.

Of course the door refuses to open, but he continues to struggle with it. Despite giving Bai Qi an unimpressed look, Li Zeyan still walks over to his side and re-examines the door while discussing things in a low voice. Xu Mo watches them.

Meanwhile, Zhou Qiluo catches your eyes and tells you, “I’m happy to go along with whatever you wanna do.”

You jokingly ask him what he’d do if you decide to stay here then.

Qiluo answers without missing a beat, “No problem! I’ll treat it as a vacation. Aah, honestly, the only thing that’d make this a paradise is if there was food here… and maybe more privacy.”

You don’t catch his last words, too busy covering your startled laugh when he plops down in an exaggerated action and falls backwards to cross his arms behind his head. Again, you can’t help but be amazed by how Qiluo can make this blank and eerie room feel like a normal place.

But, in the end, you decide out loud that you’d like some time to organize your thoughts and everything you just learned.

Seeing that no one has any objections, you go over to the other side of the room and crouch down, dropping your sight to the ground. So, are you really going to kiss all four of them to get out of this room? Do you even have a choice? It doesn’t feel right to drag your feet on this when the answer is right in front of everyone. It’s just a kiss, right? But all of them? And in the same room?

As your thoughts spin around and around, you feel tempted to clutch your head and groan. If this really is a dream then why can’t it be simpler? For example, placing everyone in a different room. Why does the difficulty level feel like it’s set on extra hard!?

Wait.

If this is a dream then doesn’t that mean nothing matters? Maybe no one will remember this when it’s all over?

“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

You’re startled out of your thoughts by Xu Mo’s voice which flows into your ears like a calm stream. It looks like he came over to your side at some point and, after you look up at him, he takes a seat beside you, sweeping his lab coat back with an arm so that he doesn’t sit on the underside.

It doesn’t take any time to identify the words he quoted. They were from Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher back in the Warring States Period. You say this out loud.

Xu Mo touches your head, giving it a stroke. “Correct. He was of the thought that there must be a distinction between him and the butterfly; however, it is impossible to distinguish between dreaming and being awake. Perhaps this will never be known until a person reaches enlightenment. Then, in this event of not knowing whether we are in dreams or reality, should we not treat all our dreams as a state of reality? What you feel, experience, and learn exists regardless of the form of the world.”

You must have accidentally said your earlier thoughts out loud on how, if this is all a dream, then nothing matters. So, does Xu Mo mean that because any place is indistinguishable between dream and reality you should treat everything as real and do things with sincerity? It is said that a life without regrets is an important thing.

You tell Xu Mo that you think you understand what he’s getting at. To be true to yourself, right? You can’t help but smile at how this seems like another version of his very first advice to you. To trust in your instincts.

Something ripples across the surface of his eyes as he stares at you.

You clear your throat, feeling a bit flustered when he doesn’t say anything, and ask him if you got it wrong.

He blinks, looking a bit surprised at himself before he smiles. The gentle expression softens the weight of his attention. “No, you’re right. You catch on quickly.”

Xu Mo reaches out again, as if he can’t help himself, to rub your head. But this time, although you accept his praise with a self-satisfied “hehe”, you ward off his hand to protect your hair from getting mussed. He can only withdraw his hand with a helpless upturn of the corners of his mouth.

During this lull in conversation, you take a look at the other three men. Zhou Qiluo was sitting up from his previous position lying on the ground and watching you and Xu Mo; he tilts his head, glancing between you two, and mouths a question to you, asking if things are OK? He must see your confusion at his question because Qiluo points at his head, making you realize he must have seen you guarding your head from Xu Mo. You quickly nod and smile for added reassurance.

Then you search for a certain police officer in this room, reminded by Qiluo’s concern. Fortunately, because Bai Qi is still testing the double door, it doesn’t look like he noticed your small exchange with Xu Mo or he would have come over (you remember some notable incidents at your shooting sites); but it does feel like Bai Qi is about to resort to force. Meanwhile, Li Zeyan has moved onto scrutinizing the grooves in the door.

“Are you hesitant about kissing everyone here?”

You jolt at Xu Mo’s astute question and, as you turn to him, your shoulders rise to cover your awkward expression. Is it that obvious? You ask him this, but you know he’s always been able to read you like an open book.

“It’s a natural reaction in this case.”

So he’s also aware of how this room’s request is outrageous then. You don’t hide your sigh or the way you hang your head. Why is it you? Hey, wait. You perk up your head and look at him again, pointing this out. Why IS it you? Sure, the light lasted the longest when you did it, but no one’s tried out other combinations with each other.

Xu Mo raises an eyebrow and pokes your nose. “Silly fool, what do the four of us have in common here?”

You scrunch your forehead in thought, going through things like their occupation, their age, their physical features, and their hobbies, but they’re all too different from each other. The only thing they have in common is… Oh. You. Not to mention, some of them don’t even seem to know each other, or they’re just surface-level acquaintances with each other.

You duck your head down miserably again, probably looking like a turtle drawing back into its shell.

“You don’t need to think so much. I’m certain everyone understands that these are extenuating circumstances.” Xu Mo chuckles and comforts you with these words.

Right… right. It’s like giving CPR or something. You latch onto this thought and say it out loud.

However, Xu Mo gives you a troubled smile. “I don’t think that would be wise. Remember, this room is seeking a kiss. If you convince yourself that you’re not giving a kiss then you may not fulfill the requirements.”

… Inwardly, your mind does its best impression of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. Could that even happen!? You picture the scenario of working up the courage to kiss one of them only for it not to count. You’re struck with the urge to clutch your head again. Such a sadistic room! Xu Mo has a point about getting it done right the first time, so that you don’t have to do it over again. Honestly, it doesn’t feel great having to play by this place’s rules but there also doesn’t seem to be anything you or the others can do about that.

You breath in deeply, hold the air in your lungs, and then send it whooshing out together with your hesitation and embarrassment.

Following this action, you spring to your feet and turn around to Xu Mo to hold out your hand, telling him that you’re going to do it then. It’s just one kiss, right? Well, four in total, but one for each.

Xu Mo looks up at you from his seat on the ground and you’re struck with how uncommon it is to see him like this. The sourceless light in this place shows his thin lips clearly, along with his defined cheekbones, proud nose, and the elegant sweep of his brows; altogether, these features should make Xu Mo appear aloof from the world, but the gentle curve of his jaw and the way a smile hangs on the corner of his lips transforms his atmosphere. Whenever he smiles at you, it feels like a layer of softness settles over him. However, despite the light illuminating everything, it cannot seem to penetrate the depths of his eyes, framed by long eyelashes. Like deep pools, every now and then you can catch a glimpse of a rippling purple in his eyes, but it’s a royal purple so dark that it comes off as black.

This all happens in a moment before he takes your hand and gets to his feet, although on his own without your help. However, as he stands up, you find yourself needing to tilt your head back to keep eye contact with him and suddenly the presence around him, which was restrained, seems to envelop you when he’s at his full height.

The smile on Xu Mo’s face deepens. “How would you like to do this?”

Your expression stiffens on your face. Does he need to ask this? Confirming every step just makes this more awkward! But then you catch the mischievous glimmer in Xu Mo’s eyes, making you send him a disapproving look. You tell him briskly to close his eyes and lean down.

He obediently does so, chuckling.

You reach out to grab the lapels on his coat and then pause. You only need to lean up and kiss him on the lips, but you know you’re not imagining the prickling stares from the other three men at your back and, with the deliberateness of this set up and Xu Mo’s earlier question, the mood has gone strange!

Not that there was a mood to begin with…

Realizing that you’re trying to delay the inevitable with your tangential thoughts, you keep your voice nonchalant as you tell Xu Mo that you’re going to count to three. He gives a short hum of acknowledgment.

One.

Two.

Three.

… Xu Mo, with his eyes still closed, gives a helpless smile. “Should I be the one to count instead?”

You agree that it’s probably a better idea if you aren’t the one counting.

“One… two…” he counts at an even pace, “three.”

The end of his count catches you with hands tightened in his lapels, but feet glued to the ground. You clear your throat self-consciously, telling him that he counted too fast and you weren’t expecting that so you weren’t ready yet.

Xu Mo opens his eyes with a soft laugh and then before you can react he exchanges positions with you, stepping around you so that his back is to the others, blocking their vision, before his lips descend onto yours.

You startle at the cool sensation that touches your lips, eyes closing instinctively, and try to pull back but his hands have settled at the back of your head and waist to hold you still. Quickly, you remember the purpose of this kiss and tentatively move your lips against his. Is this good enough for the door? You’ve kissed Xu Mo, right? And, even though you’re covered by Xu Mo, you can’t help but be aware of the other three men.

However, just as you think this, a sharp pinch makes your eyes fly open to see half-lidded dark eyes watching you. You realize distantly that the stinging sensation from your lips is because this man nipped you; but the majority of your attention is pinned by his gaze. Those eyes are the eyes of a beast. Hungry. Covetous. And is that not a look of exultation from a hunter catching their prey?

Surprise and a faint sense of alarm at this alien look on his face makes you tremble. You open your mouth, but only get out the first syllable of his name before he cuts you off.

“Don’t think about anything else. Just pay attention to me.”

Xu Mo’s voice is low and you don’t have time to react before he overwhelms you.

His tongue seizes the opportunity of your parted lips to intrude into your mouth. He explores this intimate part of you without any reserve, sliding his tongue against your teeth, stroking the sensitive roof of your mouth, and entangling your tongue and trapping it beneath his. You can’t keep up with this assault, feeling completely at his mercy and an indistinct pleasure fogs your head. Even though his lips and hands are cool, your warmth is shared to him and gradually both your temperatures rise.

Xu Mo’s hand flexes on your waist and then, with a tug, you’re pulled right up against his chest, which is broader than you expected. Turns out his clothes make him look more slender than he is in reality. He straightens up, forcing you to rise onto your toes and to lean against his chest. Next, he tilts your head with the hand that’s in your hair and deepens the kiss.

Through the hot haze of sparks that tingle through you every time he moves his lips against yours, you feel a desperate need for oxygen; but he doesn’t budge even when you push at him. Instead, Xu Mo presses his mouth even harder against yours. Like he’s trying to devour you. Or like he’s trying to keep you as close to him as possible. You blindly try to breathe but just end up swallowing the combined saliva in your mouth.

Finally, when you’re pretty much resting against him and clutching at him to stop yourself from sinking to the ground on shaky legs, he pulls back.

Xu Mo’s cheeks are flushed a faint red and his chest is rising and falling faster than usual, although not to the extent of how you’re gulping for air. Still, this is probably the first time you’ve seen him so disheveled.

When you blink past the mistiness in your vision you notice that his eyes are dark to the point where you can’t even see a hint of purple. But then he blinks, eyelashes sweeping down, and when they raise his expression has returned to its normal gentleness. His eyes are as serene as an undisturbed lake.

Xu Mo tidies your hair with meticulous care, smoothing out the area where he had been holding your head, before he moves on to fix your disheveled clothes.

It’s at this point that you come back to yourself and step away quickly, fixing the rest of your clothes yourself with a flustered expression. You can’t seem to look at Xu Mo directly and, as your eyes dart around, you exclaim in surprise when you happen to look past him to the double door behind him. You take a few steps past him to get a closer look. He follows your line of sight and also turns around.

The top left section of the double door has lit up in purple light, and bright and dark shades of the color fill in the numberless grooves on the door. From your position, where you can see the door in its entirety, you realize you didn’t see wrong during the moment you kissed Li Zeyan. The light and grooves do make an illustration and in this case you can see a tortoise shell outlined in a royal purple, while the rest of its body is in a purple dark enough to be considered black. The neck that comes out of the tortoise shell is sinuous and long, like a snake, and it curves partially around the shell so that its head rests on its back while its webbed feet are tucked underneath its body. The half-lidded slitted purple eyes of the turtle-snake watches everyone in this room with a solemn presence.

This is Xuanwu, the Black Tortoise of the North.

You glance between the illustration and Xu Mo, curious as to why this holy beast of water appeared for him on the door, only to see that he’s staring at the illustration with a narrow look. But when he feels your gaze on him, he turns to you with a small smile.

“Interesting.” He doesn’t add anything more to that statement.

Then Zhou Qiluo clears his throat.

You startle at the noise and you’re abruptly reminded of everyone else’s presence. The other three are looking over in yours and Xu Mo’s direction and you fight back the embarrassment that burns beneath your cheeks. You reassure yourself that Xu Mo was blocking everyone’s sight, so it’s not like they saw anything, and even if they did this whole situation is an emergency. You’re just doing what you need to do to get everyone out of here.

Qiluo looks at Xu Mo, who is standing somewhat behind you, and something you can’t make sense of passes between them over your head. But soon enough those bright blue eyes return to you and Qiluo comes up to take your hand and lead you a few steps away.

He changes his grasp on your hand so that he’s holding both of your hands in his and then grins. “My turn.”

You unconsciously squeeze his hands out of nervousness, making him tighten his own grip, but the smile on his face doesn’t change. He just watches you patiently. For some reason you feel like you should apologize, but you don’t know what to apologize for or why you’d need to apologize.

Your eyes dart around his face, taking in the casual but artful way his blond hair falls over his forehead. It almost seems to glow gold in the light of this room like a miniature sun and, paired with eyes that are as clear as a sky without clouds, you find yourself relaxing from the warmth and security he gives off. His smile widens, flashing a glimpse of one of his canines, when he feels your hands lose their tension and he runs his thumbs across the backs of your hands.

“Yup, that’s right. Relax, relax.”

Qiluo suddenly leans in and you shut your eyes reflexively, expecting to feel him kiss you.

Except you feel his lips skim across your forehead instead.

Confusion fills you, but before you can open your eyes another kiss lands on you. This time it’s between your eyebrows. Then kisses land on your eyelids. Then your nose. Then your cheeks. Each kiss is like gossamer, brushing against your skin with a light, ticklish feeling. Qiluo continues to drop this tender rain of kisses on you everywhere but your lips and behind your closed eyes you can see flashes of yellow. You don’t need to actually look to know that the double door is probably lighting on and off like fireworks every time Qiluo’s lips touch and leave you. The sight probably looks ridiculous and the image of this makes you laugh.

“That’s more like it. I love your smile.”

You’re not given any time to respond to his whisper before you feel his smiling lips press against yours.

Zhou Qiluo deepens the kiss without any fanfare. His tongue slides in through your parted lips and wraps around yours, inviting it back into his mouth, and the searing heat there startles you. He raises your hands to drop them on his shoulders before he slides his hand around to your back, pressing between your shoulder blades, while the other grips your hip and draws you into him.

He sucks on your tongue and the rush of pleasure that blazes through your nerves makes you miss how he slides a leg between yours until it’s already there. You’re helpless beneath his lack of hesitation and intensity, feeling like you’re sweltering in this fire he set. Then the hand between your shoulder blades descends, following the curve of your spine, and the scorching trail his touch leaves makes you arch your back. In your dazed mind you’re not sure if you want to get closer to him or escape the burn of his hand.

But a small part of you recalls that you’re still in public and so you squirm, wanting to pull back out of embarrassment and for air. Qiluo lets you draw back but, as your mouths separate, his tongue continues to follow yours, leading into a wet open-mouthed kiss. You can feel the flush on your face deepen, undoubtedly turning you even redder, and you clench your damp hands on his shoulders in a panic.

The tight line of muscles below your hands shifts as Qiluo leans forward again to seal your mouths together and, for an instant, you think you can feel the ghost of a smirk. His tongue gives one last lingering caress against yours before he pulls away slowly, as if reluctant to leave. There’s a thin trail of spit between your lips and his before he swipes his thumb across your lips, breaking the line and wiping away the wetness that lingers on your mouth.

Zhou Qiluo’s eyes are like blue flames and you feel yourself shiver at his gaze. Did he always look like this? There almost seems to be a flicker of a steely shadow behind his eyes before the fire there dies down and warmth returns to his eyes, softening his features into something familiar.

“I knew you’d taste swee—”

You slam a hand over Qiluo’s mouth, eyes wide open. He’s not supposed to say those things out loud! You chide him and feel him shake with soundless laughter before a wet sensation swipes against your palm.

Did he… did he just lick your palm!?

You glare at him and the playful look in his eyes. It’s the last thing that erases the strange feeling you had from earlier and returns him back to the Zhou Qiluo that you know.

“The door is lit.” Li Zeyan’s words strike like a whip, shattering the atmosphere between you and Qiluo.

You startle at that and drop your hand from Qiluo’s mouth to push against his shoulders, wanting space. He slides his leg out from between yours and pulls back his hands with a pout. You turn your head to determinedly look at the door and step away, fixing your clothes.

This time the bottom right of the double door has lit up. The grooves are predominately filled with a yellow light but there are also shades of orange and red mixed in. The illustration this time is of a bird with its wings outstretched in a flourishing arc, looking like it may take flight at any moment, and the way the three colors shimmer gives the illusion that there are flames dancing on the edges of each of its feathers. The stunning blue eyes of the bird watches everyone from its majestic pose.

This is Zhuque, the Vermillion Bird of the South.

So, according to this room, Zhou Qiluo is associated with the holy beast of fire. You’re sensing a theme from this door and you think you can guess what the other two sections will reveal.

Speaking of the last two…

Li Zeyan has such a dark look on his face that you nearly take a step back.

You decide to go to Bai Qi instead, although he doesn’t look happy either. There’s a deep furrow carved between his brows and his jaw is set as fixed as a stone sculpture. He even has a ferocious look in his eyes as he stares at Zhou Qiluo and Xu Mo.

Nevertheless, you tentatively approach Bai Qi and call out his name. For a second, you feel like the air around him is abnormally sharp, which shouldn’t be possible since he can’t use his Evol, but then Bai Qi moves his gaze - or more like rips it away - from the others and when his eyes land on you the dangerous look in them fades into a warm amber.

He steps forward to meet you and holds you lightly by the shoulders, examining you as if he’s afraid you’re injured somewhere. Then he opens his mouth and says, “You don’t have to do this.”

You blink at him, surprised. Is he really saying this at this point? Isn’t it a bit late?

His expression doesn’t change when you point this out, still serious. “If you want to stop now then you can. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. We can always figure out another way to escape from here.”

The solemn sincerity of his words wrap around your heart like a gentle embrace. You smile from the bottom of your heart, thanking him for his concern but tell him that this is the quickest way and you’re okay with this.

Bai Qi continues to look uncomfortable but he dips his head in acknowledgment of your choice. He doesn’t move apart from this though and you realize you’re going to have to be the one to do things around here. So you lean up with a heartbeat that picks up from nervousness, gripping the front of his shirt for balance, and kiss him.

His hands stiffen on your shoulders before the stiffness slips out of his frame and he wraps his arms around you, cradling you securely into his chest and slanting his mouth against yours.

Bai Qi’s kiss is pleasant. His tongue swipes, almost tentatively, against your lips and he seems more interested in mapping out the shape of your mouth than anything else. Sometimes he caresses your lips with his, changing the angles, and other times he’ll catch your lip and graze it softly with his teeth before laving over it with his tongue.

These caresses make you unconsciously tighten your grip in his clothes, wanting to get closer to his warmth, and when you press up and fleetingly touch the tip of your tongue to his he freezes. Then he deepens the kiss with more confidence. Bai Qi eases himself into your mouth and savors you in a melting, languid movement as if he’s memorizing everything in this moment. He seems attuned to your every reaction because, just as you’re about to push against him when you feel your chest tighten from a lack of air, he pulls back to rest his forehead against yours, nuzzling you in a subconscious act.

Both of your quickened breaths land, scorching, against each other’s mouth for a moment before Bai Qi straightens his back and you find yourself blinking up at him with dazed eyes and lips reddened from his focused attention.

Upon seeing this expression of yours he stifles a groan in the back of his throat, which vibrates in the lack of space between your bodies, and then the next thing you know he presses a hot kiss against your forehead and embraces you solidly into his chest. You make a small noise of surprise, both at his action and when he presses his chin down on the crown of your head. His arms are wrapped around you like steel bands and they stop you from getting out of his hold.

You call out his name in confusion, still sounding breathless.

“Just a moment…” he breathes out, “Let me hold you just a moment longer, or I won’t be able to control myself.”

You’re not quite sure what he means, but you can hear the growl of violence beneath his words and your heart jumps as your thoughts immediately turn to the others in the room. Even though you’re aware that everything you know about Bai Qi from his high school years was a misunderstanding, his reputation didn’t spring from nothing. It’s all too easy to imagine the bloodbath that can happen in this enclosed room if Bai Qi decides to turn his repressed tension, which you can feel in his bunched muscles, into physical action. Hurriedly, you wrap your own arms around him and soothingly pat his back.

Right when you feel him relax you hear Xu Mo clear his throat.

You instinctively jump and try to step away from Bai Qi, but he doesn’t let you go. His arms tense for one, long second before he sighs heavily enough to stir the hair on your head and reluctantly releases you. He gives you another look over, as if confirming you’re presentable, before he steps aside.

You carefully don’t make eye contact with Xu Mo, Zhou Qiluo, or Li Zeyan and instead look towards the double door.

The lit up illustration that appears in your eyes doesn’t surprise you much. In the bottom left section of the double door there are alternating portions of navy blue and an ice blue so luminous it could be mistaken as white. A blue light outlines these colors and corrals them into the shape of an enormous tiger with rippling muscles. The tiger has one paw raised with its claws unsheathed, looking like it can tear its way out of its section with ease. Its mouth is open in a soundless roar that almost seems to shake through your bones.

This is Baihu, the White Tiger of the West. The holy beast of metal and a symbol of strength and military force. You can understand why the room would pick this one for Bai Qi.

Three out of four sections of the double door are now illuminated. There is Xuanwu, the Black Tortoise of the North, lit up by Xu Mo, in the top left square of the double door. Zhuque, the Vermillion Bird of the South, lit up by Zhou Qiluo, is in the bottom right. Then there is Bai Qi’s tiger which you were just looking at in the bottom left.

It doesn’t take a genius to know what will appear in the top right section.

You look over to Li Zeyan just as he so happens to shift his gaze from the door to you and you feel yourself freeze. He looks… very unhappy. There’s no emotion on his poker face, but you think you can see frost spreading out on the ground from his feet. Of course, nothing like that is actually happening but the air still feels several degrees colder over there.

For an instant, you wonder if you chose the wrong order. Maybe it would have been better to go to Li Zeyan first? But that might have killed your courage right there and then and you’d never have gone through with this. At least, in this case with him being last, you’re propelled by the feeling that you have no choice but to finish things since you’ve come this far and you’re this close.

You shore up your resolve and then head over to him.

Li Zeyan’s blank expression doesn’t even flicker as you come close to him. He tilts his head to look down at you.

You stare up at him.

He doesn’t seem to have any intention of making things easier for you, but the thought of placing your hand on him to go onto your tiptoes to kiss him like you did Bai Qi makes you falter. It’s not like you haven’t touched Li Zeyan before, however it certainly isn’t with the same ease you’d reach out to the others with. This isn’t even mentioning how displeased he is right now.

You can’t continue to stand here in this deadlock though! You rack your mind, trying to think of a way to ask him not to mind you when you grab him for balance so that you can kiss him, when Li Zeyan unexpectedly opens his mouth and breaks the silence first.

“Is this what you’ve decided?”

You laugh, startled, after you hear his words. Li Zeyan’s forehead wrinkles slightly and so you explain that Bai Qi asked you a similar thing earlier. Your answer now is the same as then. You’re sure and it’d be silly to stop now at this point.

Li Zeyan’s eyes darken the more you speak and a heavy pressure seems to exude from them, unbeknownst to you.

You go to finish off your reasons by pointing out how he’s the last one too, but Li Zeyan interrupts.

“—Idiot.”

Indignation rises up within you. His insult is uncalled for! Especially when you’re doing this to help everyone.

But, just as you open your mouth to complain, you feel Li Zeyan grab your chin in an unyielding grip and then he leans down and kisses you.

It’s a bruising kiss. All you can sense is that Li Zeyan is furious. He presses his mouth down against yours, domineering and oppressive, and squeezes the fingers he has on your chin, turning the grip just shy of painful. You knock his hand off and retreat a few steps with a reflexive exclamation. It didn’t actually hurt, but it wasn’t comfortable either. Out of the corner of your eye you see light flash on the double door and then disappear.

“Li Zeyan!” “CEO Li.” “Zeyan!”

The other three men have already reacted, saying his name in warning.

You move before you even think, somehow knowing that if you don’t stand between Li Zeyan and the others there really will be a brawl in the next few seconds. Bai Qi’s eyes are narrowed in a ferocious glare and he looks like he’ll pounce over at any moment. Qiluo has a cold expression which you’ve never seen before on his face and it sends a chill down your spine. Even Xu Mo has lost his smile and he’s clearly showing his displeasure.

You firmly tell them that you’re fine and you can handle this. You’re going to discuss this privately with Li Zeyan.

When you turn back to him, he’s looking over your head at the others without any expression before he returns his gaze to you.

You point at him and then go on a tirade about how you know he thinks you’re dumb for doing this. You know he doesn’t want to kiss you, but letting you kiss him is a small price to pay for an easy way out, right? He doesn’t want to waste his time being stuck in here, right? Even if time seems to be stopped in this room, who knows what will happen if you and everyone remain here. He can think of this whole kissing business as being bitten by a cat or something and he doesn’t need to take his anger out on you. You end your speech by crossing your arms, frowning at him.

“… Idiot,” He simply spits out.

Idiot, idiot, idiot. Is that all he can say!? You ask him to explain himself.

Li Zeyan presses his lips together, looking mulish, and for a second you think he will keep silent; however, he looks past you to the others again and then orders them, “Turn around.”

It comes as no surprise to you, when you glance over your shoulder at them, that no one listens.

“Turn around!” Li Zeyan growls.

You jump a little because it’s extremely rare to hear Li Zeyan raise his voice like that. But the three men have focused their attention on you instead. You give them a nod and reassure them again that you’ve got this.

Bai Qi looks extremely reluctant but he seems to trust you and turns around. Zhou Qiluo has a frown on his face and doesn’t hide his concern, but he still turns his back albeit stiffly. Xu Mo scrutinizes you and Li Zeyan for a few more seconds before he turns around.

You look at Li Zeyan. He watches you back.

There’s a lull of silence.

You prompt him. Well? Is he going to explain what he means by calling you an idiot?

Li Zeyan clenches his jaw, as if he’s struggling over whether to answer or not, before you see his shoulders drop with resignation. It’s such a small movement that you would have missed it if you weren’t staring at him so hard. Finally, he speaks in a low voice which sounds dragged out of him. “Who said I was angry at you? I’m displeased over this situation. I would have found another method, and there was no need for you to do this.”

You blink.

Is he… upset that you didn’t believe in him?

You take another look at Li Zeyan with this new perspective and now you can see the steely protectiveness and determination in the depths of his eyes. He stands before you with an upright posture, unbowed by the demands of this room, and undaunted by this situation everyone is in. Calm, steady, and reliable. These three words pop into your head when you’re reminded of how you can always rely on him, despite his occasional thorny remarks, and you find yourself dropping your defensively crossed arms.

But still, even though you recognize and appreciate his concern now, you’ve made your decision. He needs to trust you with this like he trusts your business ventures. You smile wryly to yourself, remembering all the times he’s scolded you on subjects for a shoot and the aid he sends you in spite of his exasperation.

You meet Li Zeyan’s eyes steadily and explain to him that you want to do something to help too. You’re not one to stand around and with such an obvious answer in front of everyone - which is clearly working - how can he expect you not to do anything? If you were really against this then you wouldn’t have done it. He should know how stubborn you are (a huff of laughter escapes Li Zeyan). So, can he trust you here?

His eyes sweep across your face. You stand resolute in front of him.

Li Zeyan’s lips turn down with his displeasure but he accepts your decision with a short, “Fine.”

He reaches out to slip his fingers beneath your chin again, tilting your face up, and then leans down. You close your eyes and tense unconsciously, remembering your earlier experience, but this time his touch is gentle and so is his kiss when he presses his mouth against yours before you can react any further.

His lips are a light touch on yours and it’s a complete contrast to his previous kiss. You feel his other hand grip your upper arm, but then he makes no other movement. Somehow, even though he initiated the kiss, you can tell he’s letting you decide what you want to do next. In response, you tentatively kiss him back.

There’s an elusive taste that seems to enter your mouth from this kiss and so, before you know it, you lick his lips. Li Zeyan breaths in sharply, parting his lips, and you take this opportunity to slip your tongue inside, too caught up in trying to figure out this faint taste. His mouth is… sweet. Huh. It’s unexpected and reminds you of the pudding he makes.

Li Zeyan’s hands tremble at your entry, but then you feel him slide his hand from your upper arm to your back and spread out over your shoulder blade. Instead of pulling you into him though, he steps closer to you. Meanwhile, the hand underneath your chin shifts to cup your jaw; his palm is warm against your skin and his fingers, when they brush the area behind your ear, leaves a trail of pleasurable tingles that make you shiver. He lets you explore his mouth to your heart’s content, his tongue patiently following yours.

It’s a slow, unhurried kiss and, at the end, he suckles your tongue tenderly before giving one last lingering kiss to your lips when you both pull back. You open your eyes slowly and your breath catches at how Li Zeyan’s eyes blaze as he looks at you. His eyes flick down to your mouth again and you catch him swallowing hard.

But then Zhou Qiluo breaks the moment. “The door’s glowing!”

You turn your head to the completed double door and, like you expected, you see Qinglong, the Azure Dragon of the East, in the top right section of the door. The long sinuous dragon, silhouetted in burning crimson and with deep blue scales that seem to glimmer red, almost seems too much for its section as it curls around itself in tight loops while its four arms, topped with five sharp claws, dig into the borders around it. However, its antlered head is raised grandly to stare down imperiously at everyone in the room. It is effusive with dignity and presence.

Qinglong, the holy beast of wood, and often a symbol of imperial power. You can only shake your head in wry amusement at this illustration representing Li Zeyan.

In the next moment, a loud click echoes through the room before the handles on the double door seem to move on their own. The door opens, exposing an extremely bright white space. You can’t see past this blinding light to whatever is beyond this door.

Just as you’re about to ask everyone for their thoughts on this new development, you hear Li Zeyan make a startled noise. You whip your head back to him to see that he’s disappearing, starting from his feet. You cry out in alarm.

“Don’t.” Li Zeyan holds up a hand to stop you from coming closer. “It doesn’t feel dangerous, but you still shouldn’t get close.” The in case it is dangerous is left unsaid.

You clench your fists, worried but unsure of what you can do, and cast a desperate look at the others.

Xu Mo is already examining this phenomenon with a serious expression. He relaxes a few seconds later though and tells everyone, “I believe we’re being returned to our original locations.”

Maybe it’s due to the unexpectedness of this situation, but no one questions just how Xu Mo knows this.

Li Zeyan takes one more glance at how his lower half is pretty much gone before he looks at you and takes a step closer somehow, even though you can’t see his legs now. “Come to my office tomorrow at ten o’clock sharp.” He only gets this out and reaches out to lightly brush his knuckles down your cheek before he disappears entirely.

You barely have time to process this before you’re drawn into a strong embrace. “I’ll be at your place to pick you up tomorrow.” Bai Qi’s voice rumbles against your ear and you feel him squeeze you tightly before he also fades before your eyes.

In his stead, Zhou Qiluo is already there and he grabs your hands. Despite the fact that he’s also disappearing, and that everything below his waist is gone already, he still has a relaxed and bright grin on his face. “Post what you dreamed about to your moments. I’ll do the same and we can see if we really shared a dream.” He winks at you and then disappears.

You expect to see Xu Mo next, but you blink in confusion when you don’t see anyone. Looking around, you see that he’s still standing in his original spot even though half of his legs are gone.

His eyes catch yours and he admits, “I made a mistake.”

Huh? You jolt with alarm, asking him if he means he’s wrong about everyone going back to where they came from?

He shakes his head, a deep smile appearing on his face. “No, I mean I made a mistake in being your first. I should have made myself your last.”

It takes a second for you to realize what he’s talking about and, just as embarrassment floods your face, Xu Mo disappears with a chuckle.

The room is now empty except for you.

You look down, expecting to see yourself start to fade, but nothing happens. Uneasiness fills you as worst case scenarios flash through your mind, like being the only one trapped here forever. But then you remember the open double door and the blinding white space. Could that be an exit too?

Hey, why did everyone else get to be transported but here you are forced to manually leave? You complain inwardly even as you cautiously move to the door.

Even when you’re right in front of the open doors you still can’t see through the glaring light though. However, there doesn’t seem to be anything else you can do or anywhere else for you to go. You take another look around the room, confirming that it’s still empty, and at yourself, confirming that you still aren’t disappearing, before you breath in deeply to calm your racing heart.

You step through the door.