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Idol Xiao Zhan - an omega?! And he's bonded?? Click here to find out more!

Xiao Zhan groans and hides his face in his palm, letting his phone drop down to his lap. His "fuck" is smothered against his hand.

"I know, laoban," his manager says sympathetically. "I'm talking to Jinghua right now to see what we can do about this, but…"

"But there's not much to do now that it's out there," Xiao Zhan sighs, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling. "You can't kill a thought."

"Right."

"Ugh." He shuts his eyes. Of course Yibo would be out of town when this happens. Xiao Zhan can't even curl up with him and try to forget this bullshit, even for a little while. Jianguo is lovely and soft, but isn't quite the same when it comes to comfort. "So, what do we do?"

"For now? Jinghua says nothing, see if it blows over. It could go nowhere." Xiao Zhan gives Changying a deeply sceptical look. "I know, I know." She sighs. "Look. You have a day off tomorrow. Stay home, relax, try to catch up on sleep. Talk to him. Play with your cat. In the meantime, Jinghua will come up with something. She's the publicist around these parts."

Xiao Zhan realizes he's been touching the bonding mark on his neck and flushes, dropping his hand. "You're right. I can't do anything about this right now, so I'll try to put it out of my mind."

The thing is, he had not been ready for this. He should have been, but he isn't. At all. Why hadn't he prepared for what now seems like an inevitability? Omegas, for all the tricks available to them—scent cover-ups, for one, which Xiao Zhan has used religiously since college—get outed quite a bit. It's a compulsion people have.

In his meaner, more cynical moments, he wonders if it isn't just a sex thing. People always wanting to know how you fuck. In his case, he supposes, it's how he gets fucked. Xiao Zhan curls his lip and shoots to his feet, needing to move. "I guess," he says, pacing the studio space, "it isn't so bad. So, they know now. What could they possibly do with this information?" His thoughts whirr to a stop as he slowly pauses in his pacing. "Fuck. Yibo. The next step is figuring out who I've bonded with."

Changying doesn't say anything. They both know he's right.

"I'm slow. Ha." He runs a hand through his hair, shakes it out, paces back to his chair, and drops down onto it.

They will figure it out, he's sure of it. It's only a matter of time. Hell, he's wearing Yibo's sweater right now. People have eagle eyes when it comes to this stuff. He's not oblivious, either. The pair of them have been subject to speculation before—before they'd even bonded, which had been pretty wild at the time. In some ridiculous way, that speculation had had a part in them getting together.

"Imagine, that's so silly—"

"Is it silly, Zhan-ge?"

"Well, I—"

"Zhan-ge. Is it so silly?"

He smiles, remembering. Remembering Yibo's determined face as he had asked. Remembers the stutter of his heart at the words, the intense look in Yibo's eyes. Yibo had already known that Xiao Zhan was an omega, had sensed it underneath the scent cover-up. Had assured Xiao Zhan that no one would find this information out from him. Had looked at Xiao Zhan that day, and asked, is it so silly?

As if Xiao Zhan hadn't already fallen head over heels for this boy who had walked into his life and brought with him fun and laughter and a flutter in his heart. And Yibo had been an alpha. His scent had been unmistakable, heady. Xiao Zhan had sensed it and his entire body pinged with a desire so strong he could barely keep it inside as it unfurled.

Their first time together had been like an explosion. The bonding had really been inevitable, from day one.

"Talk to him. I'll talk to Yibo's publicist in the meantime."

Xiao Zhan nods, tucking his phone back into his pocket only to take it out again the next moment, because he needs something to fidget with. Nothing from Yibo, but then again, he isn't expecting anything—Yibo's on top of a mountain filming, at the moment. Xiao Zhan will be lucky if he gets to talk to him tonight. He, of all people, understands what it's like. Yibo may not even get back to the hotel until one, two in the morning.

Abruptly, Xiao Zhan swipes the phone open and messages Yibo to call him whenever he can, even if it's late. I won't have it on Do Not Disturb. Call anytime. He just wants to hear his voice.

🝔

Xiao Zhan wakes up all of a sudden, confused, until he hears it—his phone nearly vibrating off his bedside table. He makes a noise as he tries to catch it, then manages to wedge it in between the side of the nightstand and his hand. The vibration tickles his palm. He grabs it and swipes it open before the call drops. "Hello? Yibo?"

"Zhan-ge, what's wrong?"

Xiao Zhan blinks, then settles back into the bed. Yibo's scent surrounds him—he'd gone to sleep with Yibo's sweater near his pillow. Suddenly, he doesn't want to talk about shitty things. He just wants Yibo. "Why would anything be wrong?" His voice is rough from sleep.

"You said to call anytime, I got worried."

Xiao Zhan squints at the bedside clock. It's 1:43. He sighs. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. Just wanted to hear your voice." He rolls over until his nose is buried against the scratchy fabric of Yibo's sweater. He mumbles a "miss you" into it.

"Zhan-ge." It sounds like a sigh. "I miss you, too. I'm so tired. Wanna be home already."

"I'm sorry, baby." Xiao Zhan wants him home more than anything, but even though he's almost done filming the drama, Yibo has to fly immediately to Changsha for Day Day Up. Xiao Zhan fancies he can feel the bond mark throbbing low on his neck, not covered up by makeup. It's just there, on his skin, the sign of his love. Giving him away.

By habit, he counts up the days, as if he doesn't already know. He's due for a heat soon. He squirms. Their respective studios know to build in time for this, and everybody and their brother has signed an iron-clad NDA to make it happen, but still, he worries that Yibo's schedule won't accommodate it. Always worries. His heats are so painful without Yibo. "Have you been on Weibo recently?"

"Not for a while, why?"

Xiao Zhan sighs and rubs a hand over his face. He might as well tell him now. It would be weird to wait until Yibo discovers it himself. "There are rumors."

"Rumors." Yibo's voice is low in his ear, comforting. Even a word that brings such anxiety to him sounds peaceful in that voice.

"Yeah. Rumors about me being an omega."

He can almost hear Yibo's intake of breath. Jianguo chooses that moment to hop up onto the bed and settle herself over Xiao Zhan's belly, curling up into a donut like she means to stay a while. "How—"

"No idea. They also know I'm bonded. Or, well. They're speculating."

"Fuck."

"Mn."

Xiao Zhan thinks about both of their careers. Thinks about what this could possibly mean. If they can weather this particular storm. It's not unprecedented—a few idols have been outed as both omegas and bonded, and survived with their careers intact. Most haven't.

"How are you feeling? Are you all right?"

Xiao Zhan smiles. Yibo has his own shit to worry about now, but it's sweet of him to ask. "I think so. I don't know, to be honest. Haven't wrapped my mind around it."

"Yeah." God, Yibo sounds exhausted. Xiao Zhan should have waited to tell him, but when? Yibo's days right now are long. They're lucky they can talk at all.

Still. "I'm sorry to dump this on you. You're busy enough as it is."

Yibo sounds almost stubborn when he says, "I'm glad you told me. Don't keep that shit in. We're in this together, right?"

Xiao Zhan pets Jianguo's soft little head and smiles, feeling dazed and silly. "Yeah. That we are."

"So, we'll figure it out."

"Our people will figure it out, you mean."

"Well, it is their job, isn't it? Ours is to look pretty and hit our marks."

Xiao Zhan laughs, soft in the dark. "How is your mark hitting going, by the way?"

They chat about Yibo's current drama. Yibo tells him all about his coworkers who tease him mercilessly whenever he zones out looking at his phone, about Shi Rou the makeup artist who continuously asks about Xiao Zhan. "Is he as tall in real life as he looks?"

Xiao Zhan laughs some more. It's nice. Yibo's voice in his ear, the echo of his scent wafting around him. The only thing missing is Yibo himself, whole and here. Xiao Zhan can feel it, the prickle of awareness of his heat coming on. He's got a few days, still, but the signs are there. Slightly risen hormone levels (he's been half-hard the entire time they've been talking, just from hearing Yibo's voice), feeling extra warm, hell, his face has broken out a bit along the jaw. Sure sign that it's coming.

A part of him always dreads his heats—always will. A painful reminder of what they were like before he'd bonded. Lonely, endless, painful days of trying and failing to keep it in check, crawling out of his skin and needing something that he couldn't get by himself. It will never be an experience he doesn't dread at least a little bit. But Yibo has made it bearable. Has given him a reason not to be afraid. The only thing he fears is Yibo not getting there in time.

Sometimes he wonders what it would be like if they were two normal people. Just living their lives, not at the constant mercy and whims of their handlers and career moves, bursting-at-the-seams schedules, and endless public scrutiny, even doing mundane things like buying coffee or getting on a flight.

Yibo sighs in his ear, and Xiao Zhan already knows it's coming. "I should go," Yibo says. "I have to get up in...just over four hours."

"Ugh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept you. Go to sleep, baby."

"Good night, Zhan-ge."

"Night, Yibo."

It takes him a while to fall asleep afterwards, Jianguo still curled up in his lap, a warm weight pressing him into the bed.

🝔

Perhaps him having a day off for this wasn't such a good thing. Xiao Zhan has nothing to distract him from searching the trending topics on Weibo. Not even responding to his backlog of emails can take his mind off of it all.

The rumors don't go away, they spread. An alpha who'd managed to pick out his scent here, a beta who has analyzed his and Yibo's body language at a fanmeet there. It all coalesces into a distorted picture of the truth. That Yibo is an alpha is already a known factor in this.

Xiao Zhan calls Changying. "This isn't going away, is it?"

"I'm sorry, laoban. We're working out how to handle it. Just enjoy your day off."

"I can't get off of Weibo."

"Aw, don't do that. Go watch something. Take a nap."

This isn't the first time someone on his team has told him to go take a nap. "I already slept for, like, ten hours."

"Good for you! Go read a book, Xiao Zhan."

Xiao Zhan gives up and does as told. At least the book he's currently reading is engaging enough to almost take his mind off things, at least for a little while. He plays with Jianguo, who gets bored of chasing the toy mouse before he does, then pulls out the script of his next drama that's due to start filming in three weeks—after his heat—and starts highlighting his lines. He even makes himself an elaborate lunch from scratch. It would all be a normal part of his day off routine, if not for the niggling at the back of his mind.

So, he's been outed as an omega. Theoretically, prejudice against omegas is frowned upon, as omega rights activists have worked hard to achieve. But people are people, and some feelings run deep. Male omegas are lesser than, they say. They're unpredictable, they're emotional. Their heats take them out of commission—as though the alphas' ruts last any less time. It's exhausting, and there's a reason omegas still work on disguising their scents to pass through the world unscathed. At least until they choose to come out.

Well, Xiao Zhan didn't choose it, and neither did Yibo, by association. So that sucks. There are no two ways about it. But it's happened, and now he has to figure out how to deal with it. Which he will. He will absolutely deal with it. But maybe he'll take today to pout about it.

His phone rings when he's watching a recorded episode of Day Day Up, something he does that Yibo had found out about a while back. His shit-eating grin had been blinding upon discovery. Xiao Zhan had been forced to drag him to bed just to get him to shut up about it. He smiles now at the memory, the spot on the couch next to him feeling emptier than even a moment ago. He picks up the phone. "Yibo." He settles back against the cushions and shuts his eyes.

"Zhan-ge. I saw the stuff on Weibo."

Ugh. He'd been hoping they could have a normal conversation, as though nothing at all was going on. "I'm sorry. Have I mentioned that I'm sorry?"

"Stop that. It's not your fault." Yibo sounds gruff, raw. "It's stupid. They have no evidence, they've got—"

"But it's the truth, and sooner or later it will come out as that. So we may as well get ahead of it." He hadn't thought about it that way until he'd said it. Now he wonders if that isn't the best way of dealing with it. Write a post explaining his truth, and seeing where the chips fall as a result.

"You shouldn't have to be fucking dealing with it." Yibo sounds tired, far away. The line rustles with a particularly hard breath. "Fuck."

"I know." Xiao Zhan sighs, then opens one eye as Jianguo meows and hops up onto the couch, gracing him with her presence. She headbuts his hand until he gets the subtle message and starts to pet her. "I've been thinking about it all day."

"And it's your day off, too."

Xiao Zhan cracks a smile. Why is everybody so protective of his days off? "Well, life waits for no man and all that." Another gusty sigh from Yibo. "Anyway, I don't want to waste our time with this bullshit. Tell me how you are."

He's tired, is how he is. Tired and honest with it, so Xiao Zhan gets the unfiltered version of Yibo's current circumstances. It had rained in the mountains all day, and they managed to film some, but production was definitely disrupted and delayed by at least a day. Alarm bells start to go off in Xiao Zhan's head. "What about Day Day Up?"

"They're gonna let me fly out for a few hours to film that, but then it's...back here." The pause between them is heavy, knowing. "I'll be there, baby," Yibo says, quiet but firm. And Xiao Zhan believes that Yibo believes that. But. "Trust me, okay? I'll make it happen."

Sometimes he can't. Sometimes Yibo misses his heats. Those times are worse than anything that's come before, his body knowing exactly what it's missing and trying to claw its way back to him across hundreds of kilometers.

"Okay," Xiao Zhan says now, because he doesn't want Yibo to have to worry about this on top of everything else. "I know. You'll be here."

Afterwards, he vacuums the entire apartment, despite knowing the cleaners had just been two days ago. He dusts his bookshelves, refolds his socks in the drawer, and it isn't until he's sorting through his products in the bathroom that he allows the frustration to take over and throws a tube of eye cream across the room. "Fuck." He slides down to the floor where the fluffy bath mat cushions his descent and buries his head in his hands. He scrapes his fingers through his hair and pulls a little, to try and get rid of the headache building behind his eyes.

He can do this. He can do this. He's gone through worse than this and come out the other side. It's just one heat. It's just one rumor. He's got amazing people on his side working through it right now. They're okay. He'll be okay.

But maybe he'll just sit here on this bath mat in the silence of his apartment, with his head buried in his hands, and let himself get upset. Just for a little while.

🝔

"Okay, here's the plan. We don't rise to the bait."

"Changying..."

"We don't! It's vicious people online. They aren't the majority."

Xiao Zhan looks at her. They both know how it works. People's careers have been destroyed over people online, even without them being the majority. "What does Jinghua think?"

"She thinks the same thing, that's why I'm coming to you with this. Yibo's publicist agrees. We should wait for it to blow over."

Xiao Zhan realizes he hates this plan. This plan involves doing nothing, and he can't do that. He's tried that before, and it's never worked. He gets antsy.

"Changying, I really don't think this will blow over. It's. It's pretty huge." He doesn't say this to be self-aggrandizing. It's just that every time somebody is outed, it remains in people's minds for a while, and nothing ever blows over. Not really. Not completely.

"Let's try it for a few days, okay? That's all we ask."

She says it as almost a warning, which it is, he realizes. Xiao Zhan is not Yibo, he doesn't normally take matters into his own hands because he hates waiting, but he's been antsy enough to want to try it. He forces himself to settle back down.

"Fine. I can do that."

Her shoulders sag as her mouth stretches into a relieved smile. "Good. And then—we take it from there."

Xiao Zhan nods. A few days.

It is a few days of trying not to go on Weibo and attempting to ignore increasing articles speculating on his silence, as it turns out, and Xiao Zhan hates to say I told you so, but he does think it. Quite a bit.

And his heat is almost here. And Yibo isn't.

"I swear, I'll be there," Yibo tells him for the hundredth time after coming off the damn mountain at eleven at night. He's still in the van on his way to the hotel, and he sounds bone-tired. "I promised you. I'll make it happen."

"I know," Xiao Zhan says, believing that Yibo believes. It will have to be enough. "I know, baby."

Yibo lowers his voice for the next part. "I miss you so much. Would you… Want to video later?"

The implication is clear. Xiao Zhan has been too tense to even jerk off, but… "Yeah. Yes. Just text me when you're ready."

They fuck by proxy, jerking off to the sight and sound of one another. It's never enough, video sex, but it's something. He still gets to see Yibo naked, writhing on the bed, knees up, legs spread, hand flying over his dick, neck arched. He's so fucking beautiful. Xiao Zhan drinks in the sight of him and comes embarrassingly fast and incredibly hard—by-product of the impending heat.

Afterwards, they lie in their respective beds catching their breath, and talk. It's not even pillow talk, not really. It's just...talking. They carefully avoid the big rumor elephant in the room, and it's nice. It's almost normal, this. If not for the rumors. If not for his fast-approaching heat.

It's good. He sleeps better that night than he has in a while. And the next day, the rumors explode.

🝔

CONFIRMED: Xiao Zhan's old school friend speaks out!

It's a kick in the nuts he had not been expecting. Somehow, through all of this, he had expected his old friends to give him privacy. And most of them do, some even calling to check in on him, then mercifully talking about anything but this. Most of them. And then there's Zhou Hongqi.

A bitter ex. It's like something out of a bad drama. Xiao Zhan would laugh, if it were in any way funny, but it isn't. Because there it is, the truth: Xiao Zhan is an omega, and he's been hiding behind scent-blockers and a carefully curated list of trusted people.

He's been told more than once that he's too trusting.

"I'm sorry, I hadn't even considered the possibility," he tells his publicist over the phone in between photoshoot takes. He's in the makeup chair, and the makeup artist had given him a studied wooden smile before getting down to business. She'd been on her phone right before he'd walked up to her. "We have to put out a statement."

"You don't have to do any—"

"I do, Jinghua. You know I do." He has his reputation as an honest person to salvage. Ever since he's debuted, he's been known as someone who is forthright and upstanding. To sit back and let the rumors devour his career is unthinkable. He just wishes he knew what to say.

"All right. Draft something but don't post it until you've run it by me, okay? We'll do it as a studio. You have everybody's backing."

"Thank you." He exhales, then sends an apologetic look at the makeup artist. He tries not to move his face too much after that.

The other shoe drops just as unexpectedly, and Xiao Zhan can't decide which one hurts more.

Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo: BONDING CONFIRMED. Exclusive from a crew member—

"Well, this is shit," Yibo says conversationally from Changsha. There are voices in the background—his Day Day Up brothers. It sounds like they're all in makeup.

"I'm sorry," Xiao Zhan says not for the first time, from his own set. The commercial is taking longer to film than anticipated, and he's exhausted in every way it is possible to be.

"Stop fucking saying that," Yibo hisses. "It's not your fault, none of this is your fault. With this, if anything, it's both of us."

"I mean—"

"We weren't exactly subtle." There's an ironic tone to his words. No. No, they hadn't been subtle on the set of The Untamed. They hadn't gotten together until the very end, but they had flirted, knowingly or unknowingly, from the very start, and it only got worse as time went on. Everybody on set had known it, some had even teased them about it, and absolutely nobody had given any indication that they would, one day, spill the beans to top the already disgusting cake that this past week has been with more shit icing.

"You're right."

There's a pause, and Xiao Zhan hears Yibo's name called on his end of the line. "Fuck. I gotta go. I'm sorry, Zhan-ge. I'll call afterwards."

"Don't worry about it. If you have to sort this stuff out with your people first, you should do that. I'll be here." Approaching his heat. Trying and failing to come out with a good enough statement.

"I'll call," Yibo says, sounding almost angry, but Xiao Zhan knows—Yibo pissed as hell, yes, but not with him. Never with Xiao Zhan. Yibo's angry tone settles something in him. What a strange phenomenon.

Yibo's got him. Yibo won't let him fall.

🝔

That night, he sits cross-legged on the couch with his computer, and he begins to write. Well. He sits there, staring at the cursor blinking at him, and chews on his lip until it's raw, but then—then he begins to write.

It comes in halting words and phrases. Wish to tell my truth. And, everybody knows an omega, we are your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. And, still your Zhan Zhan, the same as I have ever been.

He writes, My life must be accommodated the same as anybody else's. My circumstances may be different from those of betas and alphas, but I am just as worthy of respect.

After an hour, he blinks his dry eyes, and types out the last full stop. There. It's done. He shoots it off to Jinghua before he can think better of it and delete the whole thing, then shuts his computer with a careful hand. He did not address his relationship with Yibo. He has no idea what they will do about that. And it's late. It's so late.

He barely manages to brush his teeth and get out of his clothes before crawling into bed, making sure his alarm is set, and passing the fuck out.

He wakes up to his phone ringing at five o'clock in the morning. At first, he doesn't understand what's happening—is his alarm going off? Why does it sound weird? Finally, his brain kicks in enough that he understands, and then he's fumbling with his phone, attempting to swipe it open without looking to see who it is. Chances are, if it's ringing at five in the morning, something's happened. His first thought is, Yibo.

"Hello?" His voice is groggy.

An unfamiliar voice says, "Is it true? Are you an omega?"

Xiao Zhan pulls the phone back to look at it. It's an unknown number. What the fuck? "Who are you?"

"Just a concerned fan," the voice says, and it sounds slick, like oil on pavement. "Any comment?"

Xiao Zhan hangs up and lets the phone drop from his hand. What. The fuck?

He turns it off, then, just to be on the safe side, and knows he won't be going back to sleep, so he may as well get up and drag himself through his morning routine.

They got his phone number. How the fuck did they get his phone number? As soon as it's a normal human time, he's calling Jinghua and Changying. And then, what, changing his number? Fucking hell, this is the last thing he needs right now. He washes himself mechanically, then dries himself as he thinks. He should warn Yibo, maybe. There may be similar blowback for him.

He makes himself tea, then turns his phone back on and it starts ringing immediately. An unfamiliar number. He knows better than to pick up. Viciously, he ends the call—he wishes he could have the satisfaction of dropping the phone onto its hook; cell phones are just not the same—then takes a deep breath and texts Yibo.

They somehow got my number. Hope you're safe. Maybe change yours, just in case.

Then, I'm sorry.

He doesn't expect a response, and he dozes on the couch for a bit, drifting, when his phone vibrates in his hand. At first, his heart jumps. Not again. Then he realizes it's a text, and it's from Yibo. Fuck. Fuck! I'm so sorry, baby. Don't worry about me, we'll figure it out. Have you talked with Jinghua yet?

Xiao Zhan calls him. "Hey. I didn't know you were awake."

From Yibo's voice, it's clear that he isn't, not really. "I heard the phone," he says in a rasp. It's sexy as hell and Xiao Zhan has to fight back the wave of arousal that goes through him.

"Ugh, I woke you up. I'm sorry."

"Zhan-ge. Please. You have nothing to apologize for, so stop it. Did they wake you up?"

He sighs and falls back against the arm of the couch, stretching his legs out. "Yeah. Some asshole who wanted to know if I was an omega."

"Ugh, these fucking people."

Xiao Zhan's phone vibrates again in his hand. "Hang on…" He pulls the phone back to look at it.

It's a text from an unfamiliar number. So is that how you like it in bed?

He curses and nearly drops the phone. Yibo's tinny voice says, "Zhan-ge? Are you all right?"

Xiao Zhan fumbles with the screen until he manages to hit "speaker," then says, "Yeah. I mean...no. I'm not. That was a text from some other asshole. Maybe it's the same asshole."

Yibo nearly growls. "I'm gonna kill them."

The ferocity of it is the first thing in a while to make Xiao Zhan laugh. "Will you hunt them down like the big bad alpha that you are?"

"I fucking will, if it comes down to it. What, you don't think I can do it?"

The idea of Yibo—who can't even go outside without a mask on and then still gets clocked everywhere he goes—hunting down anonymous callers is sweet. "This is what we have our handlers for," he says, attempting to relax. He sets the phone away from himself, so they can still hear each other, but he doesn't have to look at it.

"You should call Jinghua and Changying right now. Maybe the police."

"We'll figure it out." Xiao Zhan sighs, then rubs his eyes with the back of his hands. He groans. "This is the last thing I fucking need right now."

"I know, baby. I wish I could be there."

Xiao Zhan tenses. Yibo is, theoretically, supposed to be here two days from now. Better not think about it. If he doesn't make it, he doesn't make it. Nothing Xiao Zhan can do about it. "I know," he forces himself to say. "I wish you could be, too."

"I'll take care of you," Yibo says, and it's quiet, but fierce. Xiao Zhan nearly whines with want. "Okay? I will, Zhan-ge."

Xiao Zhan manages to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth and say, "I know. I know you will, sweetheart."

In the quiet between them, the farting of Xiao Zhan's vibrating phone makes him jump. He looks over gingerly. Another text from an unfamiliar number. Fuck. Fuck his life.

And then, another one, and another. All from different numbers.

"Yibo, I—I gotta go. I have to call Changying. We have to figure this out."

After a beat, Yibo says, "Okay. Take care of it. Let me know how it goes, okay?"

"I will." Xiao Zhan doesn't want to let him go, but he can't wait any longer, he has to—he has to do something, or he will scream. "Love you." It comes as easily as breathing.

"Love you, too."

Afterwards, he doesn't look at the texts, swiping over to his manager's name and pressing "call." She picks up on the second ring. She sounds awake when she says, "Zhan Zhan. It's early, are you all right?"

And Xiao Zhan breaks down. Just a little bit. He can feel his face crumpling, and he doesn't cry, not really, but his voice sounds strangled when he says, "They got my number, Changying. I've been getting calls and texts all morning. They got my fucking number."

"Oh, Xiao Zhan." There's a pause. Then, in a steely voice that's all business, she says, "Right. Leave this to me. I'll have someone start work on changing your number. You just sit tight, and wait for my call. Don't pick up from anyone you don't already have saved on your phone, all right?"

Her brisk no-nonsense approach puts him at ease, as it usually does. He tries to make his shoulders unwind from around his ears, forces himself to drop them. "All right." Then, "I have that shoot today—"

"You're still going. Chen Fa is set to pick you up. I'll be there." She pauses. "Have you told him?" she asks quietly.

"Yeah. His people will handle it."

"Good. Good." After a beat, she says, "We will figure this out, Zhan Zhan. I promise. But I can't promise it will go away quickly."

Of course not. It absolutely won't. He'll be feeling the effects of this mess for weeks, maybe months. Abruptly, he feels exhausted down to his bones. He wants, with a sudden clarity, his parents. He wants to crawl into his bed at their house and sleep for a week. Maybe Yibo can be there, too, while he's dreaming. "Yeah. I know. Thank you for everything you do."

"It's my job, laoban. We will work this out."

"I know you will."

By the time he's done talking with Changying, it's time to get going. He unearths Jianguo from behind the curtain and gives her a few head scritches, then grabs everything he needs. His phone feels too heavy in his hand. He flinches anytime it lights up with a notification.

He goes downstairs and gets in the car. Chen Fa greets him with a nod, brusque as always. Now, though. Now Xiao Zhan is wondering what he knows. What he believes. What he thinks. Xiao Zhan thinks Chen Fa might be a beta. He wonders how that feels. He envies him, just for a moment.

🝔

His phone continues to ring with unknown numbers. Changying takes his phone, so she's the one to go through his texts. Apparently, they're not all nasty. Some are downright encouraging. We love you, Zhan Zhan!!!! Jiayou!!! and Stay strong!! Omegas all over are rooting for you!!!

All get deleted with vicious finality, and more take up their place. It is an infinite supply of privacy invasions.

He makes himself focus on work, which is immediate and time-consuming. It's another commercial—he doesn't have a long project coming up for another few weeks—and it takes him away from his phone.

At lunchtime, Changying hands his phone back to him, which he takes as if it were a live grenade, and says, "Number's changed. Tell your people."

"Oh, thank God. Thank you, Changying. I don't know what I would do without you."

"You would be just fine," she says with a hint of a smile on her face. She's older than Xiao Zhan, and he's always thought of her as the older sister he never had. "But I'm glad I can help."

He gives her a smile and takes his phone back. He updates his number on WeChat, then texts Yibo. Changed my number.

Then he calls his parents. "Zhan Zhan!" His mother's voice goes a long way to soothing him. Xiao Zhan remembers it then—his parents raised him to be strong. He can be strong for them.

"Mom," he says, and doesn't break down, which is already a plus. "I'm sorry for all the trouble."

"What trouble! You're the one suffering. We're just worried about you. We didn't want to call in case you were busy, or…"

"Zhan Zhan." His dad. "You just stay strong and this, too, will pass. Now, are you eating enough?"

Xiao Zhan laughs, swipes his fingers across his eyes, then nods, like they can see him. "Yeah, dad. I'm eating enough. Hey, just wanted to tell you, I had to change my number."

"Oh, honey." His mom sighs. "They found it, didn't they." It's not really a question.

"Yeah. But Changying took care of it."

"Good for her."

"Yeah." A silence stretches comfortably between them. They know sometimes it takes him a while to put his thoughts together. "I think I'm going to come out with a statement."

"Oh yeah?"

"Mn. I'm going to tell the truth. My part of it, anyway." His parents know about Yibo, of course. It would be impossible for them not to. Xiao Zhan has the most amazing parents in the world, because they have folded Yibo into their family unit with an ease that shocked even Xiao Zhan, who already knew his parents to be the best people to ever live.

"You have our support, then," his mom says. "You always do, sweetheart."

He doesn't cry. He doesn't. But he comes damn close. "Thanks, Mom. Dad. I...I should go, my break is nearly over."

"You just keep your head down and do your work," Mom says, pragmatic as ever. "The rest will sort itself out."

"Right. Bye, then."

"Bye, darling."

🝔

"It's a good statement, Xiao Zhan." It's evening, and Xiao Zhan is back in his t-shirt and sweatpants, eating prawn chips straight out of a bag and licking up the crumbs from his fingers. His heat is coming and he's been outed. It's the least he can do for himself, dammit. "I've tweaked it a little, to make it less…" Here, she pauses.

Xiao Zhan grins. "Punchy?"

"...Combative."

He sniggers. He's already had a beer and while he knows his limits, it does feel quite good right now. He'll probably be asleep in half an hour.

"But we did add some strong language about privacy invasions."

"Oh, good." He chews another chip. "I'm glad I didn't have to write that part."

She sounds amused when she says, "I hope you can relax, Xiao Zhan. I know this is shit, and I know it's unfair, but you're doing the right thing."

That sobers him enough to say, "Thank you. I...I'm glad you think so. I can't just stand by and ignore it. It's wrong."

"You're too good for them."

"Oh, hush." He grabs another chip and shoves it in his mouth, not even caring that he's being sort of rude by crunching into the phone. "I just never want other omegas to think I believe it's shameful to be what I am."

"I know." Jinghua is an omega, too, and she used to use scent-blockers, until she got tired of it. Everybody who knows her knows not to mess with her. She, of all people, understands. Not only is she an omega, she's a woman, after all. "All right, well. You go relax, watch some TV, or better yet, read a book where the news won't pop up. We'll release the statement from the studio. And hey," she adds, "have you talked to Yibo?"

"Not since this morning. Why?"

"Does he know about the statement?" she asks carefully.

Xiao Zhan nods, licking chip crumbs off his thumb. "I texted him."

"Okay. Good."

Xiao Zhan frowns, reaching for another chip. "What do we do about the bonding situation?"

"Yibo's publicist and I are working on that part. Don't worry about that right now."

Easy to say, harder to do. His Weibo and Oasis notifications are being flooded with questions and speculation. None of that will go away with the statement. That isn't what the statement is for. "All right." He blows out a breath. "All right, I'll...try not to. Thank you, Jinghua."

"It's my job. Good night, laoban."

"Night."

He's antsy when he gets off the phone. He wonders what tweaks Jinghua made to his statement. He wonders where Yibo is now. He wonders how long it will be until Yibo has to tell him he'll be late for his heat. He wonders if he'll ever fall asleep tonight, now.

Maybe he needs another beer. He's just opening the fridge door when his phone goes on the couch. "Ughhhh, you better not be a stranger," he says as he pops open the beer. He will lose it.

It isn't a stranger. It's his mom. His statement has gone out—Jinghua must have hit post as soon as they'd hung up—and Mom is hard to understand through the tears. "I am so proud of you," she tells him, and this, this is the moment Xiao Zhan loses it. They cry together, while his dad gruffly tells him he's proud of him, too. Dad's an alpha, but he's never cared about who was what. He has never made Xiao Zhan feel lesser than for being an omega. His dad is kind of the best.

Yibo doesn't call until Xiao Zhan is already in bed with a book, yawning his way through a single page that he can't make himself focus on, and forcing himself to stay off the internet.

"Zhan-ge." His voice is warm in Xiao Zhan's ear. Xiao Zhan feels the tension in his shoulders dissolve bit by bit. "That was a good statement."

"Yeah? You liked it?" He's been ignoring his phone as much as possible, but he'd glimpsed the crazy amount of notifications he had on there.

"I loved it. You're so smart and eloquent and shit."

"Idiot." Xiao Zhan laughs, picking on a loose thread of his t-shirt. He should probably replace it—it's old and worn, but it's soft, too, and it smells like the two of them, because Yibo wears it whenever he visits. "How are things with you? Anybody hounding you?"

"Nothing we can't handle." That isn't a no.

Xiao Zhan scrunches up his face and tugs on the string, hard, until it gives and unravels the next section of the hem. Xiao Zhan sticks his finger in the newly made gap and twists. "But something's going on."

"Zhan-ge. Relax. This isn't new to me. And I'm..." He trails off.

Xiao Zhan nods, feeling tired. "Not an omega."

"Right." Yibo sounds almost apologetic, which is ridiculous. Nobody should have to apologize for who they are. "How are you feeling?"

Xiao Zhan can hear the question behind the question. "A little antsy, that's all. I applied beer to the problem."

"Good man." Yibo's much less of a light-weight than Xiao Zhan, which is, frankly, unfair. Xiao Zhan is taller. Shouldn't that count for something? "You should sleep."

Xiao Zhan sighs, tossing his book aside. "Can't. Too wound up. Too many notifications."

"Turn your fucking phone off!"

"I can't! You know how it is. What if something happens to my family?"

He can practically hear Yibo rolling his eyes, but when he speaks, he sounds fond. "You're a lunatic. It's just one night."

"We don't play with fate."

"If it was fate, would it really matter if your phone was on or off?" Yibo asks curiously.

"Shut up, you and your logic. Just come home to me, okay?" It's out before he can stop himself. He squeezes his eyes shut and bangs his head against the headboard. Fuck.

He never, ever wants to be an obligation to Yibo. Or a source of guilt. He's always been careful not to ask too much, to demand more than he knows Yibo can give. Maybe he's overreacting—his hormones are running wild—but now the silence between them is thick, muggy like the air at the height of summer.

"I will," Yibo says quietly. "You know I will."

"Yibo, it's okay—"

"No. I will be there." He sounds stubborn, and tired, and a little on edge. He sounds perfectly Yibo.

Xiao Zhan blows out a breath and nods. "Okay. Be here, then. On time." He's been touching the spot on his thigh where a bite mark has nearly faded, he realizes. He drops his hand.

"Wait for me," Yibo says.

"I will," Xiao Zhan responds.

🝔

Xiao Zhan doesn't sleep well that night, tossing and turning, waking up every hour, on the hour, as if it were his birthday, except his presents are packages filled with dread. He finally gives up altogether at five and shuffles into the kitchen to put the coffee on. While it's brewing, he makes himself sit down on one of the stools at the counter and finally look at his phone.

The internet is an uproar.

"Xiao Zhan is so brave for speaking his truth!! Jiayou!!!"

"This statement is so self-indulgent, like, who needed it?"

"Nice try, but your career will still tank, omega."

"We'll always love you, Zhan Zhan, stay strong!! #sameasalways #alwayszhanzhan"

It goes on from there. He has messages from his friends, all of varying degrees of supportive, with one ringing, obvious silence of Zhou Hongqi. Xiao Zhan heard from one of his more loyal friends that Zhou Hongqi has been all but ostracized from the group, and Xiao Zhan feels...almost bad. What if it had been a mistake? A terrible mistake, one that could cost Xiao Zhan everything he's worked so hard to achieve, but… But then he channels Yibo and thinks, no. Fuck that guy. It's liberating.

Yeah. Fuck that guy.

Xiao Zhan showers, moisturizes, dries his hair. He goes through the motions, wondering the whole time, what next? Jinghua and Yibo's publicist are, as far as he knows, working out a plan about him and Yibo, but he thinks he knows which way the wind is blowing. There's no way to keep the horse in now that this barn door has been flung open.

They're going to have to come out. And after that...Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes and drops his face into his hands. After that, whatever will be, will be.

He just hopes that Yibo will still be there once the dust settles.

🝔

"Look, I think it's going pretty well, all things considered."

Xiao Zhan doesn't quite see it the way Changying does. Then again, he's a day away from his heat, and Yibo is no closer to home. Production keeps getting pushed back due to the rains. Xiao Zhan has never hated rain before, not with the sort of intensity he's feeling right now. But, hey. It's his heat. He's allowed to be a little irrational.

He does his very best not to take out his bad mood on the people who are helping him. "How do you think it's going well?" he asks carefully, pacing up and down his living room.

She watches him sympathetically. "You've gotten a lot of support, and—and this is important, Xiao Zhan—you haven't been dropped by any sponsors yet. That's a huge sign that we may get through this."

Xiao Zhan takes in a deep breath. "They're crunching their figures right now, you know that. Sooner or later, it will happen. And once one does it, the rest will follow, and—"

"Zhan Zhan. Sit down, please, you'll wear out your beautiful expensive rug."

Despite everything, Xiao Zhan snorts, then obeys, dropping into an armchair.

"You're borrowing trouble. Nothing says it will happen." He starts to object, but she raises her hand. "And if it does, we'll deal with it." She pauses, tilting her head to the side, studying him. She looks kind and something about her kindness makes Xiao Zhan want to scream. He swallows it down. He wishes somebody would be brutally honest with him instead of putting on false optimism. He doesn't even know if Changying's optimism is false, but whatever kind it is, he wishes it were realism, instead. Then he wonders at himself. He's always been a glass half-full sort of guy. He's being tested now. "You're China's number one star at the moment. You should try to remember that."

Xiao Zhan looks away. What does that really mean, in the face of such old, rooted prejudice? He wishes he knew, but nobody does. Nobody truly knows how this will play out, and Xiao Zhan—Xiao Zhan has always been a planner. If there is no plan, he comes unspooled. He's unspooling now, he can feel it happening bit by little bit as his heat approaches, the ferocity of it building, knocking on his door. He swallows down his panic and releases his hands where they've dug into the arms of his grey chair.

Changying really shouldn't be here for this. He needs his privacy.

Which means that she isn't there when the first sponsor drops him over email.

Xiao Zhan takes great pleasure in throwing his phone across the room.

"I'm dealing with it," Changying tells him over the phone later. She's at the studio, and ordinarily, he would be comforted by all the background noise, the sounds of work being done. Right now, it sets his teeth on edge. They're scrambling. It isn't comforting work. "There's a chance we can work on them, just stay off your email and take care of yourself."

For a moment, he finds himself hating everything. He pulls it back, rubs at his eyes, takes a deep breath. Says, "I trust you, Changying. I'll be a good boy. I'll stay off my email."

"Good." For the first time since this whole thing began, she sounds tired. Xiao Zhan attempts not to panic. "Just...let us do this. For you. All right?"

"Yes. All right." He bites his lip. "Thank you. For everything."

"It's what I do. Bye, Zhan Zhan."

"Bye." The line is already dead by the time he says it.

Which leaves him utterly, and totally alone.

🝔

It starts in the middle of the night. He's tossed and turned for hours, throwing the covers off because he's too warm, even with the window open to let in a cool breeze. It does not cool him off.

He looks at the clock—it's 2:33—and then at his phone, where no notifications light up the screen. If Yibo's on his way, he hasn't said. The last Xiao Zhan heard from him was a voice message assuring him that he'll be there. Then—nothing.

It hits at 2:47. He knows, because he's still staring down the clock, understanding that this will be painful, knowing that it's coming, and still, he is not prepared. How can he ever be prepared for this level of clawing, all-consuming, painful need? It lights his skin on fire, twists his guts, it slicks him up and gets him hard with no respite. He is left as nothing more than an animal, clawing at the sheets, his fingernails hurting as he scrambles to find some sort of purchase.

He can't do this. He can't do this. He can't—it's too much, too much for one person to take. No matter how many times this has happened since he presented, he can never get used to the overwhelming wrongness of it, especially not now that he knows what it's like to be held through it, to be given exactly what his body needs.

But Yibo isn't here, and it's dark, and nothing good ever happens at three in the morning. The hours stretch out, marked by pain and his desperate, futile attempts to give himself any sort of relief. He uses his hand, his toys, he uses any means of making it easier, of allaying some of the violent need that's tearing him apart.

He feels wetness on his cheeks, he's wet everywhere, he's drowning in it. He can't get enough air to breathe, and his chest feels like a boulder is sitting on top of it, with someone pressing inexorably down. Maybe he's forgotten, but this feels like his worst heat yet. If he could crawl to whatever mountain Yibo is on right now, he would, but he doesn't have the strength. He only has the strength to muffle his cries into his pillows and wait for the worst of it to pass.

Days of this. He doesn't know if he can survive. A small part of him that's still capable of rational thought wonders what his team is going to do with him out of commission, how they'll figure it all out, but the fog in his brain won't allow for the thought to go anywhere but get channeled into the general anxiety and frustration of everything else.

The sky beyond the flimsy curtains is beginning to lighten when he hears them—footsteps, fast, and getting faster, and then—

"I'm here, baby, I'm here—"

Yibo's name is a desperate, wet gasp in his mouth.

Warm hands on his skin, pulling his own hand away from his eyes, and a beloved face swimming into view. Xiao Zhan is gasping, relief flooding through every cell in his body, then sobbing out Yibo's name again and again as Yibo replaces Xiao Zhan's clawing hands with his swift, gentle ones and opens him up, smearing through the slick. "I have you, I have you, baby, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—" Yibo's voice sounds strained, winded, as he drops kisses to Xiao Zhan's cheeks, his eyes, his chin, his lips.

Xiao Zhan swallows through his scratched out throat, wincing. The fog is beginning to lift the tiniest bit as if Yibo were dispelling it with his hands. "Did you—" He gasps again, this time almost in pleasure. "Did you run all the way here?"

"Nearly." Yibo is unbuttoning his pants one-handed, shoving them down, then getting caught on his underwear and cursing before managing to shove that down as well. He rolls a boneless Xiao Zhan over, and then slides inside as easy as breathing as Xiao Zhan sobs with relief against the pillows.

Yibo fucks him hard and fast, harder than he does when they're just having sex. It's what Xiao Zhan always craves during his heats, if it could even be considered a craving. It's a primal demand, it's the only thing that brings any relief, this feeling of being used. He allows his control to slip by increments until all he's being held up by are Yibo's hands and his dick, fucking in and out with a ferocity that's almost rut-like. Yibo drapes himself over Xiao Zhan's back and whispers in his ear about how good Xiao Zhan feels, how Yibo will take care of him, how sorry he is to have been late, and all Xiao Zhan can do is sob and take it.

It doesn't take long. Xiao Zhan is coming with a shout just a few moments later, release pounding through him like a river gushing past a broken dam—overrun, unstoppable. Yibo pulls him back into his lap, hand over Xiao Zhan's belly, and comes inside him as he bites down on Xiao Zhan's neck.

Yibo knots him, and they pant together as he lowers them both onto their sides, Xiao Zhan cuddling back against him with a sigh. He feels utterly boneless, fucked out, peaceful. It's merely a respite—he knows there's more to come. But he's got Yibo now. He knows he will be all right.

His asshole throbs around Yibo's dick, a dull, pleasant ache. If he were a cat, he would be purring. His sheets are, predictably, already ruined, between the spunk and the sweat. He'll have to toss them altogether. He's glad, at least, it isn't his favorite set.

"I'm sorry," Yibo rasps behind him. A soft kiss to his ear. "I had to fight to get off set."

Xiao Zhan threads their fingers together, frowning. "I hope you don't get in trouble for that. You could have stayed. I would have been all right." They both know it's a lie, but he has to say it. Has to make sure Yibo knows that he means it.

Another kiss, this time to the spot behind his ear. He wishes he could turn around and see Yibo, touch his face, kiss him now that the fever has passed. It'll be another half an hour, at least. "No. I was always going to be here. It's fine, I agreed for longer days on the other end of it. We'll get it done."

Xiao Zhan sighs. It is a stuttered, uncertain thing in his throat. "I love you," he whispers.

"I love you, too." Yibo runs his warm, large hand over Xiao Zhan's chest, his belly, pressing down just below his navel. If Xiao Zhan weren't on the pill, he would wonder, if this was when... "I'm so sorry about what happened."

Xiao Zhan turns his head to bury it in his pillow. It smells intimate, like spit and come. Yibo's scent permeates everything once again, coming off of him in waves. It all coalesces into the two of them, together. Inextricably linked, spilled all over this bed. Yibo's bony knees are tucked up gently behind Xiao Zhan's. "It's fine. I'm...it's fine." He doesn't know what else to say about it. It is what it is, and this too shall pass are both cliches, but they feel true, too. Somehow, he has to survive this, so he will. It's only that… "I'm sorry you're getting caught up in it. I'm sorry about that."

"Don't." Steel in his voice. "That isn't on you."

No. It's on both of them. They'd known how dangerous getting together was for them. For their careers. They'd known and still done it, still bonded despite everything.

Xiao Zhan squeezes Yibo's hand and doesn't respond. He must doze, because next thing he knows, Yibo is slipping out and away, leaving his back cold where he had been radiating warmth. Xiao Zhan makes a slow inquiring noise, lifting his head and turning around. He's got a crick in his neck.

"Shh, keep sleeping, I'm just going to get you cleaned up."

But Xiao Zhan is awake now. He rolls over and watches Yibo pad naked into his en suite, the feeling of peace settling deep inside his bones. Seeing Yibo and knowing that all of him, his muscle and skin and bone, his mind and heart, are Xiao Zhan's to cherish. It feels too big to contain, too much responsibility to be entrusted with. He craves it. Needs it. This is bonding. This is love.

When Yibo comes back with a warm damp washcloth, it's the first time in weeks that Xiao Zhan gets a good look at him. He's got slight bags under his eyes, he's a bit puffy with sleeplessness, and he is beautiful. He gives Xiao Zhan his crooked grin and opens his legs, starts washing him up. Xiao Zhan hisses when the washcloth drags over his asshole but Yibo doesn't stop, only gentles. He murmurs apologies, then swipes over Xiao Zhan's belly. "Do you want to change your sheets?"

Xiao Zhan wrinkles his nose, then shakes his head. "They'll get ruined again, anyway. Let's just leave them until it's done."

"All right." Yibo throws the washcloth to the floor. "Hang on." He leaves again, this time down the hall. Xiao Zhan watches his ass flex as he does. He hums to himself.

He can already feel the next wave building, a deep, pulling ache in his bones. He's jittery again.

Yibo comes back with a glass of water and a steamed bun on a plate. Xiao Zhan cracks up.

"It's all I could find on short notice," Yibo says defensively as he sets both down onto the bedside table. "Eat. Drink."

What Xiao Zhan really wants is tea, but he needs the water more. Dutifully he eats and drinks. It settles him down, makes it easier to think. He glances over at his phone. "I should…"

"No. Fuck your phone. No internet." Yibo sounds mulish as he grabs the phone and walks it over to the other side of the room to leave it on top of Xiao Zhan's dresser.

Xiao Zhan sniggers. "I can leave this bed, you know."

"Yeah, but you're not gonna." Yibo proceeds to get on the bed and roll him over so Xiao Zhan is pinned beneath his body. "See?"

Xiao Zhan wriggles beneath him, but has no place to go. When he gets like this, Yibo is practically immovable, which is impressive, considering that he's built like a noodle. A very strong noodle, though. Xiao Zhan decides he doesn't have the energy or the inclination to fight him. "I see," he agrees and leans up until their lips meet. "I must taste like death," he says apologetically.

Yibo hums, then kisses him deeper, slick tongue and sharp teeth. "You taste like you," he mumbles, pulling back. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too." Xiao Zhan is already getting slick again between his legs, dick starting to fill out.

Yibo shifts against him, spreads Xiao Zhan's fingers with his own as they lie spread-eagled on the bed. "Should we head it off at the pass?"

Xiao Zhan lifts an eyebrow, then wriggles a bit. "Are you up for it already?"

Yibo looks wounded. "I'm six years younger than you!"

Xiao Zhan laughs, then kisses him, conciliatory. "I didn't mean to besmirch your truly magnificent refractory period."

Yibo juts his chin out at him, like, you'd better not. Then, "How do you want it?"

It's nice to do this while he isn't on fire and clawing at his own skin. "Like this." He wants to be able to see Yibo, wants to wrap his arms and legs around him, feel him everywhere.

Despite Xiao Zhan still being pretty open from last time, Yibo takes his time fingering him, Xiao Zhan's slick easing the way. Xiao Zhan writhes beneath him, head tipped back, sheets gathered in his fists, and then Yibo slides inside him, bottoming out in one go. They both gasp. Xiao Zhan wraps one leg around his back, the other slipping over Yibo's shoulder. It's a good kind of stretch.

Yibo begins to move. He moves slowly at first, lapping at him, allowing Xiao Zhan to adjust—but he has already adjusted. Until his heat ends, he will be open, ready, his body obeying the natural order of things.

Yibo fucks him slow, but firm. Every thrust shoves them further up the bed, until Xiao Zhan's head is pressed up against the headboard and he moans. Yibo pulls himself up and looks down at Xiao Zhan as he fucks him. "Good?"

Xiao Zhan nods, feeling his lips stretching into a satisfied smile. "Oh yeah."

The itch beneath his skin builds, but doesn't reach the fever pitch it did earlier—Yibo is already inside him, satisfying the urge. They fuck like it's normal, everyday sort of fucking. It builds on itself, Yibo gasping above him, one hand in a vise grip under Xiao Zhan's ass. "You feel good," he says, sounding strained. "Always feel so good, Zhan-ge."

"Mmm, you feel amazing." Xiao Zhan nearly forgets what he had felt like just an hour ago, that painful ripping in two. He is satisfaction itself, his body a yielding, pleasurable thing somewhere just outside his control. It feels good, this letting go. Feels right. He's got his mate.

"You can—you can go harder," he says around a gasp, and Yibo obeys instantly, thick cock slipping almost all the way out, then thrusting back in, hard. Fast. He does it again. Xiao Zhan meets him thrust for thrust, feels himself winding up, his balls drawing up where they rub against the skin of Yibo's belly. Yibo is gorgeous above him, his cheeks a splotchy pink, mouth wet and open in a soundless plea, eyes boring into Xiao Zhan's. Xiao Zhan loves him so much, he thinks he might burst with it.

Yibo wrings a long and stunning orgasm from him, then comes, trembling. They stay curled up against one another, tied together, and Xiao Zhan must doze again. He floats in the sun-dripping room, warm, content, some niggling worries just on the edge of thought. Yibo's hands rub slowly up and down his back until his knot goes down and he slips out. Xiao Zhan wakes up long enough to bury his face in Yibo's neck, and then he's out.

He wakes up screaming. His body is on fire, skin throbbing, dick so hard, it's painful. He runs a hand over his forehead, feeling the sweat-plastered hair, and even that hurts. He hurts everywhere, he needs—he needs—

"Baby, baby, I'm here, I'm here, don't hurt yourself—"

"Yibo—"

Yibo rolls him over onto his back, spreads his legs, and slides inside him. Xiao Zhan gasps with relief, and they fuck, frantic, Yibo's tongue in his mouth, then licking up his neck, sinking his teeth into the flesh there as Xiao Zhan shouts himself hoarse. He thanks whatever deity is up there for not having bedroom-adjacent neighbors. He claws at Yibo's back, legs gripping Yibo's slim hips, urging him on. "Fuck me, fuck me, God, you're so good, fill me up, I need—"

"I'm here, baby, I've got you, I'm here—"

"I love you, fuck—" He's incoherent, barely knows what he's saying, but his body is shaped around Yibo's, and Yibo won't let him fall. He spins with the knowledge, body feeling too small to contain it all, and when he spins to an apex, Yibo kisses his gasp, swallowing it in his own throat. He fucks Xiao Zhan through it, then pulls out—Xiao Zhan practically mewls—and rolls him over onto his stomach. He grips Xiao Zhan's hips and thrusts back in, and it's a hard, punishing pace, as hard as Yibo is capable of. Xiao Zhan's body sings. He flops like a ragdoll, face buried against the pillows, and moans, one continuous whine that drags past his parched throat.

When Yibo finally comes, Xiao Zhan is hard again. Yibo shuffles them both until he's sitting up against the headboard with Xiao Zhan in his lap and jerks him off, using Xiao Zhan's own come to ease the way. Xiao Zhan bares his throat, head tipped against Yibo's shoulder, and Yibo fills his ears with whispered nonsense. He tells Xiao Zhan he's beautiful, tells him how much he loves his cock, his hips, his body, tells him the way he smells is driving Yibo absolutely wild. "Someday," he whispers, hand stroking fast and hard, "someday I'll knot you and give you a baby, give us a kid—"

Xiao Zhan shudders and comes. He barely has any voice left, much less come, and he's so sore. He pulses around Yibo's knot, feeling the intrusion keenly for the first time since his heat began. Still, he revels in it. Someday. Someday, when they're no longer beholden to anyone, when they have had enough, they will...

He grabs onto Yibo's arms wrapped around his belly, fingers spread wide, and tips them both onto their sides. Yibo is many wonderful things, but he isn't meant to be laid on like this, he's too bony, hips digging into Xiao Zhan's ass. Yibo sniggers. "Sorry, Zhan-ge. Have to maintain my youthful figure."

"I like your youthful figure," Xiao Zhan mumbles. "Just in a slightly different setting."

They lie there cuddling until Yibo's knot goes down again. It takes a while this time. Yibo spends the minutes by tracing patterns on Xiao Zhan's shoulders with his fingertips, his lips pressed softly against a sore point on Xiao Zhan's neck—a new bonding mark. This one will take a while to dissipate. Heat markings usually do. Xiao Zhan closes his eyes and drifts, one of Yibo's feet caught between his.

Yibo gives his shoulder a firm kiss as he slips out, then says, "I'll be right back," and climbs off the bed. Xiao Zhan, facing the other way, can guess where he's gone. Sure enough, Yibo comes back with another warm, damp washcloth. Gently, he rolls Xiao Zhan back onto his belly and cleans him up. Xiao Zhan hisses again when the material touches his asshole and Yibo murmurs another apology. God, he's sore. The rest of him aches, too, but it's manageable. It's all manageable compared to earlier.

Yibo makes him drink a glass of water and go to the bathroom, which Xiao Zhan barely manages on legs that feel like noodles. He pisses, then looks at himself in the mirror as he washes his hands. His neck is absolutely covered in bite marks. His eyes look huge on his drawn face. He dries his hands and manages to make his way back to the bed. Yibo is in the kitchen somewhere, if the sounds of plates clinking is any indication. Xiao Zhan hopes he isn't trying to cook.

Now that he's back in it, the bed feels particularly messy, and Xiao Zhan wonders if maybe he should change the sheets. Then again, the fresh ones will get just as gross. Might as well ride it out, as it were.

While he's more or less lucid—and he thinks he maybe has an hour of this respite—he reaches for his phone, then shuts his eyes before turning it over.

His email has exploded, but he can see Jinghua's name in every other notification, and decides to let her continue to deal with whatever it is she is dealing with. He doesn't look. His WeChat is a mess of voice and text messages. The Untamed crew are suddenly active again and curiosity gets the better of Xiao Zhan, so he swipes the chat open.

He warms somewhere deep in his belly. Xuan Lu is leading the charge of support, with Zhuocheng responding in that sweet, earnest way he's got, and Yu Bin sending appropriately hilarious memes. We've got your back, babies, Xuan Lu writes. The world will right itself, just you watch.

Xiao Zhan really hopes she's right.

A new message pops up. It's Yibo. Xiao Zhan snorts, then smiles when he reads it.

He's busy right now, but I'm taking care of him. Thanks, guys. Then a Jianguo meme, which feels only right. The real thing is nowhere to be found, but then again, she always disappears when he's in heat. She'll emerge soon enough.

Xiao Zhan texts his parents to let them know he's all right, then determinedly does not look at Weibo. Let it eat itself alive, he can't deal with it right now.

He looks up when Yibo returns with two bowls held in his massive hands. "Ah, ah, hot, hot," he chants, then he must realize his own error when he can't set either bowl down without upsetting the other one. Xiao Zhan huffs out a laugh and reaches for one of them.

Yibo gives him a baleful look. "I made you ramen and you're laughing at me. What kind of a boyfriend are you?"

Xiao Zhan laughs out loud then, carefully setting the steaming bowl down on the bedside table. "Are we gonna eat naked?"

Yibo sets his bowl down on the other bedside table, then shakes out his hands. "Wouldn't make sense to get dressed just for this."

Xiao Zhan reaches for him and takes his hands into his own, kissing each warm palm in turn as penance for laughing. "What if we spill on our dicks? That would not be ideal."

"Here." Yibo squeezes his hands, then lets them go as he walks around the bed and straightens up the covers. He pulls them as high as he can around Xiao Zhan, tucking them under his arms up around his chest. "There. Now you're good. Eat your fucking ramen."

"Yes, sir." Xiao Zhan puts the bowl in his lap and fishes out the spoon that's gotten lost in the broth. "Napkins?"

"Oh, fuck." He forgets every time. Yibo walks back out while Xiao Zhan starts shoveling noodles into his mouth. They taste amazing, but then again, most things do during his heats, every sense heightened coupled with pretty much near-constant hunger. By the time Yibo comes back with napkins, Xiao Zhan has put away half the bowl.

"Thanks for making it a bit spicy," he says through a mouthful of noodles, accepting the stack of napkins.

Yibo looks at his bowl and raises an eyebrow, which Xiao Zhan chooses to interpret as him being impressed. "It's pretty easy to just dump some hot sauce on top."

Xiao Zhan hums and starts working on the rest of his soup.

Yibo eats more sedately, but he's clearly also ravenous. That much fucking will take it out of you. They slurp in silence until the last spoonful is gone, then Yibo sighs and visibly makes himself get up.

"You can leave them," Xiao Zhan tells him, but he knows that Yibo knows that Xiao Zhan hates having any sort of food item in his bedroom, and only allows it under very specific circumstances.

Yibo gathers up their bowls wordlessly and heads back out. Xiao Zhan watches him go, enjoying the play of muscle in his ass. God, he's gorgeous. "You should be a man servant!" he calls out to Yibo's retreating back. "A naked man servant!"

"Fuck off, Zhan-ge!" Yibo responds cheerfully.

Xiao Zhan laughs, then snuggles back under the covers. He's feeling full and almost content, not knowing exactly what is happening behind the scenes of his studio. He trusts them. He knows that whatever decisions they make, he will agree with. And he doesn't have the energy for more.

He drifts off again, belly full, then his bladder wakes him up and he shuffles back into the bathroom. His world narrows down pretty quickly when he's going through a heat. Bedroom, bathroom, sometimes kitchen. They barely ever make it out into the living room. He'll have to air out his bedroom really well, afterwards.

Yibo is back in bed, noodling around on his phone, frowning. Xiao Zhan climbs back in and shuffles up to him. "What's the bad news?"

"Huh? Oh, no, it's fine." His voice sounds a bit strained, though.

Xiao Zhan raises himself up. "Is something wrong? Has something else happened?"

Yibo gives him an askance sort of look, then shakes his head. "Nothing worse than usual. Still the same."

Xiao Zhan doesn't know if he should believe him, but he desperately doesn't want to deal with anything, so he lets it go.

After. He'll deal with it after.

The next wave hits half an hour after that. Yibo is spent—even his youthful refractory period needs a break—and so he grips Xiao Zhan by his thighs, yanks him fully onto his back, and goes down on him. It's not quite the same as having the pain fucked out of you, but it holds things at bay, gives him a respite. And Yibo is exceptional at sucking dick. He spends quite a bit of time worshipping Xiao Zhan's thighs with his mouth, adding to the fading bruises there, the new marks vivid against his pale skin. He pins Xiao Zhan's hips down with his big warm hands and goes to town, licking over his dick, his balls, his asshole, before going back up and swallowing him down while his blunt fingers slide inside him.

Xiao Zhan writhes beneath him, grabbing handfuls of pillows and yanking as he shouts himself hoarse again. Even underneath his own voice, he can hear Yibo moaning around his dick. He goes almost all the way down, opening his throat, giving Xiao Zhan everything he’s got. It's messy and wet and it's tight and it's perfect. He comes down Yibo's throat without warning, clenching around his fingers, and Yibo coughs before pulling up and swallowing around the head.

He kisses Xiao Zhan afterwards, feeding him what's left of his come, and Xiao Zhan feels it dribbling down his tongue, sucks it down. They make out for what feels like hours, Yibo pinning him to the bed, Xiao Zhan's legs wrapped around him, lips bruised and aching.

When Yibo can get it up again, they fuck, Xiao Zhan hissing at the soreness, and hard as a rock.

They nap afterwards. Yibo stays even after he slips out. He pulls the covers back up over them both, snuggles up, his soft dick sliding against the backs of Xiao Zhan's thighs, and falls asleep in seconds. Xiao Zhan floats a little until sleep pulls him under, as well.

🝔

It's day three, and the waves are more feeble now, more like being really turned on than being torn completely apart by a primal need. It's enough for him to suck Yibo off and then jerk off onto his belly. He watches his come splattering Yibo's abs as he shudders, then leans down and licks him clean, Yibo trembling a bit beneath him.

They shower together, not really doing anything but getting clean, but it's nice. He's missed this sort of intimacy. They rarely get time together like this nowadays, with their crazy schedules. He soaps Yibo up, then rinses him off, standing patiently while Yibo does the same to him. Yibo's gaze rakes over Xiao Zhan with a familiar hunger: he's marked him all up and is now enjoying his handiwork. Xiao Zhan smirks, then puts the tips of his fingers over the finger-shaped bruises on his hips, catching Yibo's eye. Yibo looks like he wants to drop to his knees, but he doesn't. They're both exhausted.

They're lying on the couch, Yibo stretched out between Xiao Zhan's thighs, watching one of those Fast and The Furious movies that Yibo loves so much, when Xiao Zhan's phone rings.

He groans, then hits pause after locating the remote. "Fuck. Do I pick it up?"

"Who is it?"

Xiao Zhan flips his phone over. "Jinghua."

Yibo wrinkles his nose. "You should take it."

"Ugh." Xiao Zhan screws up his courage, then swipes it open. "Hello."

"Xiao Zhan, I'm sorry, I was going to leave a message!"

"Nah, no need, I'm here."

There's a pause, then she asks, voice careful, "How are you feeling?"

His laugh sounds a bit hollow. "I'm fine. The worst has passed."

"Good."

He might as well get this over with. "So, what have I missed?"

"Olay took you back."

Xiao Zhan sits up. He can feel Yibo perking up next to him, curious. "What? Are you serious?"

"Mmhmm." She sounds a bit smug. She's earned it. "We worked out a deal."

"What sort of a deal?"

"You'll do a special ad for them, all about human rights and how it relates to the product."

"How human rights relate to face cream?" Yibo makes a confused face, and Xiao Zhan shakes his head and shrugs, like, I have no idea, either. "Why would they want that?"

"Well, that's the other thing. Support for you is outweighing the negative backlash."

"It is?" He sounds incredulous, but he feels incredulous. "How is that possible?"

She laughs, and it doesn't sound strained. "Zhan Zhan, did we or did we not tell you? People love you. Your statement went a long way. Plus, sympathy turned to you after your number was released. Nobody likes invasions of privacy."

"Holy shit." Xiao Zhan realizes that, for days now, he hasn't been breathing right, not until this moment. He takes a deep breath, exhales, then does it again. He grabs Yibo's hand and squeezes it. Yibo is watching him with an increasingly confused look on his face. He mouths, what? at him and Xiao Zhan shakes his head. "Jinghua, you're getting the biggest raise in the universe."

She laughs in his ear. "Well, it isn't just me. It was Changying, it was everyone. And Yibo's publicist. Is he there, by the way?"

"Yep." Xiao Zhan sounds dazed. He feels dazed.

"Good, that'll make things easy. He's not flying out until tomorrow evening, I checked. That gives us enough time."

"Enough time for what?"

Here, she seems to hesitate. That's when Yibo's phone goes off. He takes his hand back and, frowning, answers his phone. He mouths, Manager at Xiao Zhan and gets off the couch, disappearing down the hall. "We want to do an interview with the two of you."

"What?"

"An interview. Look, Xiao Zhan, you've been outed. Both of you. It's speculation, yes, but it isn't baseless, so we might as well head it off at the pass."

Something cold goes through Xiao Zhan. He thinks it might be dread. "Look, it's one thing when it's just me, but…" It's Yibo's career, too. And Yibo is so young, still.

"It's the only way, laoban. I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I don't believe it will negatively reflect on either of your careers. By taking you back, the sponsor showed that you're worth it. And Yibo isn't…"

"An omega."

"Right."

Xiao Zhan chews this over. "What about the clause in his contract about no relationships?" The clause that gets ignored most often by idols, but nevertheless...

"His people are working it out with Yuehua. It's a special case."

Xiao Zhan snorts. "I guess."

"Anyway, they're allowing the interview to go ahead, so we want it done and out there as soon as possible. Are you two able to come in tomorrow morning?"

Xiao Zhan flops backwards and stares up at the ceiling. He assesses his body, knowing it well, after so many years of this. The heat has largely passed. He will be fine. "Yes."

"Good. Come to the studio, both of you. We'll get you prepped. Eight o'clock."

"Uh, Jinghua…"

"Yes?"

"Have concealer ready? A lot of it."

He can hear her laughing before the line goes dead.

🝔

They're alone in the conference room, waiting for Jinghua and Yibo's publicist, Wu Jia, to come back in and start the interview. Xiao Zhan is wearing a turtleneck top with a blazer over it, Yibo is in Xiao Zhan's soft sweater and jeans with holes in the knees. Xiao Zhan is meant to look proper, Yibo is supposed to look approachable. They're both jiggling their legs up and down as they wait, hands twisted together.

Xiao Zhan turns to Yibo for what feels like the hundredth time. "What if—"

"Zhan-ge. Relax."

"It's just—"

"I know you're worried about me, and I appreciate it," Yibo says with a hint of exasperation. He squeezes his fingers around Xiao Zhan's. "I'll be fine."

"If—"

"If any sponsors drop me, I don't need them anyway. And if my career does tank—" Xiao Zhan feels an ache deep in his belly. "—I'll become a racer full-time."

Xiao Zhan finds it in himself to roll his eyes. "Oh, wonderful. So I'll worry about you all the time, instead of just some?"

Yibo's grin could be considered shit-eating. "You'll have to take responsibility," he says, unrepentant.

Xiao Zhan takes in a shuddering breath. "Okay. But—no, listen." Yibo was about to interrupt, but Xiao Zhan has to say this. Luckily, Yibo subsides. It's easier not to look him in the eye, so Xiao Zhan zones out on the chunky weave of his sweater. "I love you. The last thing I ever wanted was to be a cause of any sort of distress in your life, so this has really sucked in a myriad of ways. I know," he rushes on to add before Yibo can get there first, "that this isn't my fault. I know that. But I feel responsible, anyway. Allow me that."

Yibo looks mulish, but he stays quiet.

"I will do everything in my power to make sure your career goes where you want it to go, not where others may try to steer it."

Yibo gives him a bit of an are you done? look. Xiao Zhan nods. "Zhan-ge, this. You and me. That's forever. Our careers were never meant to last past a certain point, that's the reality of idoldom. I'm all right with that. I fucking love racing. If they'll let me be bonded and, and, and—I don't know, actually married, and race? I'll be over the fucking moon."

Despite everything. Despite knowing that's how bonding works, Xiao Zhan feels a shiver run through him at Yibo's words. He leans in until they're touching foreheads and closes his eyes. "And I'll become a reclusive artist. You'll have to keep me in the lifestyle to which I've become accustomed, at least at first. It's hard to be an overnight success in the art world," he warns, failing to keep laughter from his voice.

"I'll get sponsorships, don't you worry, baby. I've got you."

Xiao Zhan kisses him. He's still feeling the aftershocks of his heat, and the kiss deepens immediately, goes from chaste to dirty in no time at all. Obviously, that's when Jinghua and Wu Jia choose to walk back into the room. He and Yibo spring apart just as Jinghua gives a polite cough.

"Sorry." Yibo doesn't look or sound remotely sorry. "You ready for us?"

His publicist eyes him with the suspicious gaze of anyone who knows Yibo well. "Are you ready for us? Do we need to give you two another minute?"

Xiao Zhan flushes and straightens up, squirming in his seat. His half-chub goes down fairly quickly after that. "We're good. Sorry, sorry. We're ready."

"Okay." Jinghua pulls up two chairs to sit across from them, then Changying comes in carrying a tripod. "You know the drill. Don't look at the camera, look at me as I ask the questions, and answer them honestly. Remember: most people watching this may be disappointed, yes, but they're hardcore romantics, too. Lay it on thick, if you know what I mean."

Xiao Zhan turns to look at Yibo, who's clenching his jaw a bit. Yibo is the wildcard here, of course, which is why Wu Jia turns to him while Changying is setting up her phone on the tripod, and says, "You have to say more than two words together. Don't let Xiao Zhan do all the heavy lifting."

Yibo rolls his eyes, but nods. "I got it."

Xiao Zhan gives his hand a bit of a shake. "Just be honest," he says.

"Not too honest!" Jinghua jumps in. "Sorry, but I've seen Yibo at his most honest. We can't afford to alienate anyone."

"Nobody has any faith in me!" Yibo pretend-wails. "I'll be fine, I know how important this is."

Up close, it's clear he's tired. He's kept up with Xiao Zhan during the heat, and he's flying back out to film in just a few hours. Xiao Zhan, at least, has the rest of the day still off. "This won't take long," Xiao Zhan tells him.

Finally, they're ready. Changying leans against a table, while Jinghua reads the questions off of her phone. They do a dry run at first, making sure the two of them know how to respond properly, filming it just in case they have to splice things together, then it begins in earnest.

It's hard, walking the line between being genuine and keeping things to themselves. Xiao Zhan refuses to give more than he is comfortable with, regardless of Jinghua's warnings to be as honest as possible. He doesn't owe anybody his and Yibo's privacy.

But they do talk. They talk about falling in love on the set of The Untamed. They talk about the difficulties of maintaining a relationship both under wraps and also with their crazy schedules. They are more or less honest about worries regarding their careers. It isn't a lot of questions, in the end, but they pack a punch. He knows that, just by the virtue of it being what it is, this interview will be explosive. They don't hold hands for it, but they're turned a bit towards one another, and without planning to, look to each other before responding.

Xiao Zhan hopes Jinghua's gamble pays off, but if it doesn't. If it doesn't, they'll just have to face whatever happens next.

🝔

"Tell me how it goes, I'll be on a mountain," Yibo says as he grabs his suitcase, which they'd brought to Xiao Zhan's studio earlier in the morning.

"I'm sure Wu Jia will be all over it, as will your manager."

"Yeah," Yibo says, taking hold of Xiao Zhan's lapels and bringing him closer in. "But I wanna talk to you."

Xiao Zhan smiles. "Just call me when you can. Anytime. I'll keep the phone on for you."

Yibo wrinkles his nose and looks away. "You'll never get any sleep with all those notifications."

"I'll be fine." The interview will be edited and published later in the day. He's already anticipating not being able to sleep just from the nerves alone.

"I love you," Yibo says quietly, then leans in for a quick kiss. It really is quick this time—they're in the hallway with people bustling around them and there's no room for anything else. They'd kissed their real goodbye early in the morning, in Xiao Zhan's bed, with fresh sheets pulled over the mattress, Yibo leaving his scent all over every millimeter of them as they fucked slow and sweet, taking their time in the diffuse light of dawn.

"I love you, too." Xiao Zhan wants to say, we'll get through this, or we will be all right, but he can't make himself. He simply doesn't know.

Yibo leaves with the promise of calling as soon as he is able. They'll see each other in three weeks before Xiao Zhan has to fly out to start filming his new drama. Then not again for another three weeks after that. And so it goes. Xiao Zhan knows the trade-off, knows it's worth it. It never gets any easier.

He spends the rest of the day at the studio, making up for lost time. They plan their next promotional ads, everybody carefully avoiding the possibility of having to scrap any plans they make in favor of damage control if things go south.

He goes home after they upload and send out the interview, and forces himself to make an elaborate dinner, just to spend time away from his phone. He's in the middle of dishing it out when the phone goes, and he knows he can't ignore it.

It's his parents. "Zhan Zhan! Honey, you and Yibo did so well." His mom. Always his biggest fan.

He laughs. "You'd say that even if we were terrible." He picks up a noodle and sucks it down, then forces himself to stop fidgeting.

"But luckily for me, you're never terrible," she responds immediately and Xiao Zhan laughs more. "I'm very proud of you, we both are."

"Zhan Zhan," Dad says in that shouty way he has where he doesn't realize how speakerphone works. "That was very good. Very dignified."

"Dignified?"

"You were very appropriate," Mom chimes in.

Did they expect him and Yibo to make out for the cameras? Honestly. "Thanks. We tried."

"If anybody gives you grief, you just send them to me, I'll set them straight." She would, too. His mom is a force to be reckoned with.

"You can't take on the internet," he feels compelled to point out.

"Watch me."

Later, he's flipping through the channels trying to find something to catch his wandering attention, when his phone starts to light up with notifications. He can see it all the way across the room and gets up with a groan. He's got no excuse this time—he has to see what's happening.

The Untamed group chat is going at the speed of light. So proud of you guys!!! Xuan Lu says with a kissing selfie attached. Ji Li has sent a million memes that Xiao Zhan thinks are meant to be supportive. Yu Bin makes his usual crass but supportive jabs about them, and Zhuocheng very earnestly tells them he's very impressed with their bravery. Xiao Zhan types out his thanks, feeling warm all the way down to his toes, then takes a deep breath and switches over to Weibo.

It's pandemonium. He and Yibo are the top trending topic, which he had sort of expected, but it's still beyond surreal to see. It's difficult to gauge the full picture—he'll need Jinghua for that—but he thinks there's enough support to hang his hat on.

I think it's so brave of them to come out! Jiayou!!

There is already a smushname for the two of them, which really shouldn't be a surprise, but makes him laugh, anyway.

They're both so hot, it's not fair!!!

I want them to be okay!! I'm invested now, I'll cry if they ever break up 😩

Wow, thinking about the future already. Xiao Zhan laughs and keeps scrolling. Quite a few voices calling for their careers to tank. They broke the rules. Why shouldn't the rules apply to them?

It just seems selfish to me. Why tell everyone? Seems self-aggrandizing.

"You're telling me," he mutters to himself, then keeps scrolling, but his eyes glaze over after a while. He puts his phone down and blows out a breath.

He should be feeling worried, is the thing. He should, by all rights, be wanting to crawl out of his skin with nerves. Instead, though. Instead he feels...light. It had been a burden, hiding everything. Hiding his true nature, hiding Yibo. It's out there now, all of it. There's nothing more to hide. Xiao Zhan feels lighter than air. Wherever the chips may fall, he's done all he could.

He does hope that his upcoming drama doesn't drop him. He worked hard to get that role, went after it like a man possessed. It's meaty, interesting, more interesting than a lot of the stuff that gets sent to him. He wants another chance to prove himself, to prove that he's worth keeping around. He's not done, is the thing, and neither is Yibo.

But that will have to wait. For now, he curls up on the couch with Jianguo, keeping his phone close, but not reaching for it, either, not until someone calls. He watches a variety show that doesn't necessarily keep his attention, but does entertain from time to time.

He sits and he waits and he breathes.

🝔

Three Months Later

"You ready?"

Yibo wrinkles his nose, then shrugs. "As I'll ever be."

They are dressed to the nines, their stylists having gone all out. They're not exactly matching, but they complement each other in their black getups, Yibo in a Chanel silk bomber jacket with embroidery on the back, Xiao Zhan in his Gucci suit with delicate silver embroidery on one of the lapels. Another bond mark is still throbbing beneath this turtleneck top, a remnant of his last heat. Yibo is covered in bites of his own beneath his clothes. They're both wearing a hint of eyeshadow and eyeliner. They look good. Now they just have to walk the red carpet together before being ushered inside for the actual event.

Xiao Zhan squeezes Yibo's hand, then drops it.

"All right, you're up next," Changying tells them. "Just remember—casual is key here. You've already come out, this is just the first appearance together. Nothing to worry about."

"Oh, is that all?" Yibo mutters under his breath, which Changying smartly chooses to ignore.

"We'll be all right," Xiao Zhan assures her. "Shall we?"

They don't hold hands, and Xiao Zhan walks out first, with Yibo a few steps behind to give photographers a chance to get them in separate shots. Still, the roar that goes up as Xiao Zhan walks out to flashbulbs is deafening. He can tell when Yibo has come out, as well, because the decibel level rises another notch. Mindlessly, he waves to the crowd, seeing no one behind the flashing of the cameras, and smiles his patented polite smile.

He doesn't remember much else, only knows he keeps hearing his name from every corner, and questions shouted his way that he chooses not to hear, and he keeps putting one foot in front of the other until finally, there's no more carpet to be walked.

Yibo is a few steps behind him. Beneath the makeup, he looks a tiny bit tight around the eyes, but he's smiling when he finally reaches Xiao Zhan. "Well, that's over and done with."

"Great work, you two. Now, let's get you inside." Their teams surround them as they're walked through to the event, a black swarm. It's comforting, if a bit overwhelming.

This had been their first invitation as a couple instead of individually. Neither one of them is up for any award, but Xiao Zhan is performing and Yibo is presenting. A good sign, overall. Another good sign—no dropped sponsorships, no dropped projects. Only one sponsorship that had almost picked Yibo up had decided not to go with him, but such is life.

The fervor around them has yet to die down fully, but then, they are a rarity. An out couple among idols, discreet but open about the truth. They have fans as a couple now, which is disquieting, if Xiao Zhan really thinks about it, so he chooses not to.

He turns to Yibo as they're led through to their table and takes his hand. There are still photographers here, but it's less chaotic, and there's room to breathe. Lightbulbs flash near them, but that's unavoidable. This is what happens when you choose celebrity.

"Good?" he asks as they sit down.

Yibo picks up the glass of champagne somebody has just poured and raises it in Xiao Zhan's direction. "Good. You?"

Xiao Zhan picks up his own glass. They clink. "Good."

And then, Yibo smiles. It's a private smile, one of his sweet ones, the smile that made Xiao Zhan fall in love with him in the first place. "Good."

Xiao Zhan thinks ahead to the evening, the pomp and circumstance of it all, then thinks about kicking off his shoes at the end of the night and stretching out on the sofa with Yibo in between his thighs. He thinks about going to sleep with Yibo curled around him, waking up with him the following morning.

They had been able to carve out this night together. Tomorrow, he's flying back out to location to continue filming, while Yibo starts getting ready for an upcoming race. They'll FaceTime and they'll message and they'll call one another at unreasonable hours just to hear the other's voice.

And then, they'll come back together, and do it all over again.

Xiao Zhan smiles back at Yibo and allows his hand to find Yibo's bony knee underneath the table. Let someone photograph it. He doesn't care. It'll only drum up their popularity at this point, breathless fans dissecting every moment. Fuck it. Xiao Zhan has a mate for life now. Everything else is filler.

Yibo winds his ankle around Xiao Zhan's and, together, they turn to greet the other guests who are being seated at their table. They smile, they laugh, and they don't let go.

🝔🝔🝔