"What did you just say?" Shi Xinyan perked up, suddenly alert. "Jiang Xun?"
He felt like he might have just gotten a little too much information about his bandmate's personal life. What on earth had Gu Wei and Jiang Xun gotten up to lately?
Gu Wei suddenly sobered up as well, becoming aware of their surroundings.
He felt bad. He just hadn't been able to hold it in. But it was fine. There was no one nearby, and probably—almost definitely—no one had heard.
So Jiang Xun absolutely wouldn't find out.
"Director, cut that out later, okay?" Gu Wei said, turning back to look directly into the camera. "I'm sorry, I just… got a little carried away. This really has nothing to do with Jiang Xun at all."
Director Zhang, in the surveillance room, was astounded.
What kind of miracle band was T.ATW? Just two of their members had given him so much good material in such a short amount of time.
And Gu Wei was an absolute treasure. How could anyone say he didn't have any on-screen charisma? Those people were idiots. Director Zhang was certain of it now. The director of Wandering With You was an unmitigated idiot.
As for the relationship between Gu Wei and Jiang Xun… Director Zhang was going to have to ask his good friend Song Jingxi about that soon. Just what was going on with those two? If they claimed to be friends, Director Zhang wouldn't believe a word of it. His original plan to scatter some ship bait around these two had already been rendered moot. They hadn't even encountered each other yet, and their shippability was already off the charts.
"It looks like there really isn't anyone around," Gu Wei said with a hint of resignation. "Let's start looking for some clues by ourselves."
Shi Xinyan gave Gu Wei a onceover, as though finally noticing the way he was dressed. Admiration, and a little envy, flooded into his eyes. "Director Zhang is really too much. Why do you get to be a pretty, elegant young master while I get stuck with the role of a court eunuch? I even had to be chased around by ghosts for ages."
"Maybe the others are even worse off," Gu Wei said. "Look, I got stuck with an alpaca."
But Shi Xinyan was inconsolable. He threw back his head and shouted into the night, "Director Zhang! I know you're out there! Don't act like you can't hear—"
The alpaca was starting to feel aggrieved again. It turned to Shi Xinyan and lobbed another glob of spit at him.
Gu Wei stared.
He was just about to offer a few words of sympathy when Shi Xinyan whirled to face the alpaca and exclaimed, "So, Director Zhang, you've been here all along!"
Ten minutes later, Gu Wei and Shi Xinyan were still herding the alpaca along. One of them led the way while the other took up the rear.
"Director Zhang," Gu Wei urged, "let's keep moving."
"Director Zhang," Shi Xinyan coaxed, "have you forgotten how to use your legs? Keep up!"
The crew members inside the surveillance room had all broken out in raucous laughter. Director Zhang sighed and shook his head. "Just what kind of boy band is T.ATW?"
Gradually, wiping tears of mirth from their eyes, the crew calmed down enough to nod their agreement. They would have loved to see what the rest of the group was like.
"Director," said Crew Member 1, still chuckling. "Shi Xinyan is mocking you, and Gu Wei's picked it up too."
"I've seen their TV performances before," said Crew Member 2. "They're all so cool and haughty on stage, but they're nothing like that right now. They're really cutting loose and going wild on our show."
"Jiang Xun has gone off the rails too," said Crew Member 3. "Qian Yining and Bei Ke are the only ones sticking to the plan. I have to say… I think Director Zhang is screwed this time."
The recording continued. Gu Wei and Shi Xinyan made their way deeper into the palace grounds, discussing the details of their mission as they walked.
"Those ghosts started chasing me as soon as I got here," Shi Xinyan complained. "Honestly, if I wasn't dressed up like this, I would have thought I'd gone to a marathon! But when I was running around, I did pick something up."
Shi Xinyan opened his hand and showed Gu Wei a cloth sachet he'd picked up. The sachet was very finely made; it was obvious the showrunners had put some genuine effort into the props for this installment.
"What's your backstory?" Gu Wei asked. "Did you get any prompts?"
"Just that I'm a court eunuch, and that I'm a bit of a coward. Supposedly, I suddenly got up in the middle of the night to take a walk and escort someone out of the palace," Shi Xinyan said. "What about you?"
Gu Wei recounted the way he'd walked around the palace walls three times before finding the entrance. Then he added, "The background actors said I need to take 'her' away, and that sachet you found looks like it probably belongs to a woman. I bet today's plot circles around 'her', whoever she is."
The two of them both abruptly fell silent, because from not far away, the sound of singing rang out. The voices started and stopped intermittently in an eerie, ominous way that gave them both goosebumps.
Shi Xinyan patted the alpaca on the head. "Director Zhang, we're so scared, can you give us more money?"
"If you don't have more money, more clues would be good too," Gu Wei said. "We're not picky."
Director Zhang's voice sounded through both their earpieces: "Don't even think about it. Now get in there! Right now! Go, go, go!"
Gu Wei spread his hands out and shrugged, helpless. "Forget it, ignore him. Let's play our own way."
The building where the singing came from was right in front of Gu Wei and Shi Xinyan. Two guards were stationed outside the front gates, but neither Gu Wei nor Shi Xinyan had any intention of going in through the front.
"Would you believe," Shi Xinyan started, "that we'll be completely screwed if we go in through that door."
"Totally believe it," Gu Wei confirmed, still holding onto the alpaca that had accompanied them all this way. "Let's go over the wall."
Their cameramen silently exchanged some hesitant looks with one another.
"You can't…" Director Zhang's voice started up again, but Gu Wei took off his earpiece right away. Shi Xinyan followed suit.
In the surveillance room, Director Zhang slumped down in his seat in defeat. "Why? Why won't my adorable guests listen to me?"
The crew members all looked on sympathetically.
"And!" Director Zhang huffed. "What the hell is this? Jiang Xun just took out his earpiece, and now Gu Wei has taken his out as well? Are they really not colluding behind the scenes? Last time, they were practically reading each other's minds, but at least they were facing each other during that game of charades. I can see how they might have managed to pull that off. But this time? They haven't even seen each other! Are they literally psychic? Is this ESP?"
"Director," one of the crew members called out. "Who was it who said we shouldn't have a script?"
At the base of a wall, the two people preparing to climb over were giddy with anticipation.
"Dear viewers," Shi Xinyan said to the camera.
"Little stones1 and little hedgehogs," Gu Wei greeted.
"These two members of T.ATW will now demonstrate," Shi Xinyan continued to narrate, "how to scale a wall. Beloved viewers, we hope you'll also scale the wall between our hearts. Today, we conquer this wall. Tomorrow, we'll be your wall to climb. Gege loves you all!"
Inside the surveillance room, the crew had started laughing and snorting like pigs.
"Let's hurry up and go," Gu Wei urged. "I'm afraid Director Zhang will send those ghosts after us again."
Director Zhang, who had been getting ready to do exactly that, stared helplessly at the monitors in the surveillance room.
"You go first," Shi Xinyan suggested. "Then pull me up."
"Deal," Gu Wei said.
Shi Xinyan struggled to push the alpaca up to the wall. Once it was in position, Gu Wei clambered onto its back and used the momentum to hoist himself up to perch atop the wall. Once he was settled, he turned and stretched out a hand to Shi Xinyan. "Hurry!"
Without wasting another second, Shi Xinyan grabbed Gu Wei's hand and climbed up. Then the two of them started making their way across the roof.
Their cameramen were speechless.
How the hell were they supposed to get up there? How could they continue to record, if they didn't get up there?
"Deploy the drones," Director Zhang said. "I want some aerial shots. I'm actually kind of curious to see what they'll do, and… what's making that noise?"
He looked around, confused.
There was a sort of… wet sound coming from somewhere.
And there it was again.
"Uh, Director Zhang," said Crew Member 4. "Gu Wei and Shi Xinyan both stepped on the alpaca on their way over the wall. It isn't very happy right now, and Gu Wei dropped his mic while climbing, so it's picking up the audio of…"
Ah, the alpaca was spitting like crazy.
"My money," Director Zhang mourned. He was almost ready to cry.
Gu Wei was incredible. He just really had a way of burning through the show's budget.
On the roof, Gu Wei and Shi Xinyan peeked down to investigate the source of the noise. Down below, a group of background actors, all dressed in fancy historical garb, were dancing in the courtyard, singing an eerie song that made one's hair stand up.
"Can you make out the lyrics?" Gu Wei asked.
"Not really," Shi Xinyan said, shaking his head. "Try giving those bells of yours a ring."
Gu Wei shook the ring of bells he'd gotten earlier, emitting a crisp, clear sound that cut through the night air. The singing abruptly stopped, and the people in the courtyard turned to look up at the roof, gazing reverently in the direction of that sound.
"Who's that?" Shi Xinyan asked as he suddenly heard the sound of hooves galloping closer.
"Jiang Xun!" Gu Wei exclaimed, spotting him from far away. "It must be Jiang Xun."
Shi Xinyan hastily shushed him. "Let's just observe for a minute. We might have different missions in this game."
Gu Wei thought he made a good point, so he settled down. The two of them remained hidden on the roof, watching the action play out in the courtyard below.
Jiang Xun, dressed in a set of regal robes, stepped into the courtyard, and the actors gathered there quickly shrank away.
"Oi, why do you all look so good in your costumes?" Shi Xinyan complained. He was fuming over the injustice of it all.
"Why didn't I get a horse?" Gu Wei complained, also feeling like he had been grievously wronged.
"Your Highness, the royal consort's soul has been bound to this palace at the king's command," one of the supporting actors said to Jiang Xun. "What would you like us to do?"
Jiang Xun let out a low laugh and recited the lines assigned to him: "Find it, and let her soul disappear from this world."
When he took such a cold and stoic tone, even the background actors were amazed. They couldn't stop sneaking peeks at him. He played his role so well that it felt like a genuine lord of the past was standing in that courtyard.
"Holy shit," Shi Xinyan whispered. "That's one hell of an actor."
"Stop shitting yourself, I'm thinking about our mission," Gu Wei whispered back. "I knew Director Zhang wouldn't make this easy for us. It looks like Jiang Xun is our enemy this time. The 'her' we heard about is probably this consort. Our task is to save her, and Jiang Xun's task is to get rid of her."
"I feel like the consort is already a goner. The NPCs were talking about her soul, after all," Shi Xinyan said. "Those bells you have will probably help us find her. But we still don't know what roles Bei Ke and Qian Yining are playing."
"Let's go look around somewhere else," Gu Wei said. "Since we have different missions, let's not meet with Jiang Xun for now."
The director was too evil. He obviously didn't want Gu Wei and Jiang Xun to meet up.
"Good idea," Shi Xinyan said.
And so the two members of T.ATW decided to avoid the courtyard, retracing their steps to climb down from the roof.
Gu Wei tried to vault himself over the wall again, but the alpaca had escaped by now. The wall wasn't terribly high, but without a foothold, Gu Wei struggled to figure out a way to get back down. He was in the middle of planning his next move when he heard a familiar voice call up to him from the ground.
"Want some help?"
"Sure, okay," Gu Wei answered unthinkingly.
The person who had called out to him reached up and caught him by the waist. Gu Wei released the wall and dropped down, not coming back to his senses until he had hit the ground.
Wait, no. Not the ground.
Gu Wei looked down, startled.
Shi Xinyan was still perched on the roof, frozen like a deer caught in headlights.
Gu Wei realized, only now, that he was sitting cross-saddle on the back of a horse.
This horse. Where did it come from?
Gu Wei looked up, eyes wide. "Jiang Xun?"
Jiang Xun had, at some point, led his horse out to the other side of the wall, where he'd helped Gu Wei down… onto the horse.
"GU WEIIIIIIIII!" Shi Xinyan shouted, finally coming back to his senses as well. "Run for your life!"
But Jiang Xun was too fast for that. He deftly swung himself into the saddle and spurred the horse into motion, galloping away with his little friend in tow.
All in all, it was an extremely successful abduction.
"Give my partner back!" Shi Xinyan wailed from far in the distance. "Gu Wei, come back! What am I going to do without you?!"
They hadn't gotten any closer to finding the consort, and already his partner had been kidnapped by the villain.
The camera crew couldn't catch up, and the drones were also slow to follow. Jiang Xun was taking Gu Wei farther and farther away from the cameras.
"I seem to have caught a little rascal sneaking over the wall," Jiang Xun mused.
Gu Wei was stunned speechless for a long moment. Finally, he found his voice and asked, "How do you… know how to ride a horse?"
"I learned a long time ago. It isn't hard, even Jiang Ying can do it. If you want to learn, I'll teach you." Jiang Xun pulled on the reins and slowed their pace, waiting for the camera crew and drones to catch up. "Why do you think the director gave you an alpaca instead of a horse? He knows who can ride a horse and who can't. He knows, if you tried to ride one and fell, I would have made him pay a hefty price."
"Then, how did you…" There was still something Gu Wei didn't understand. "How did you know I was on the roof?"
"Oh, that?" Jiang Xun took out a new mic and clipped it to Gu Wei's collar for him. "A naughty little kid lost his mic earlier, so Director Zhang had no choice but to ask me to bring him a new one. And there was a drone filming you up there."
Gu Wei nodded. That part was easy enough to understand, and that also explained why Jiang Xun had whisked him away so abruptly. But for other reasons, unrelated to the game, Gu Wei still felt a little uneasy.
"Any other questions?" Jiang Xun asked.
Gu Wei shook his head.
"Good. Since that concludes our official business…" Jiang Xun, taking advantage of the fact that they were still alone, pulled Gu Wei even closer. "Let's talk about a private matter."
"What private matter?" Gu Wei shivered. "Let's save it for later."
"I can't wait."
Before Gu Wei could even begin to guess why Jiang Xun couldn't wait, Jiang Xun lowered his head and pressed a kiss to Gu Wei's face.
Gu Wei jumped, his eyes flying wide open with shock.
Without giving him a single second to process or react, a certain someone held him close in one arm and slipped his other hand under the collar of Gu Wei's robes.
Gu Wei froze.
It was his first time riding a horse, and Jiang Xun had appeared before him so suddenly. He was petrified, unable to move or fight against Jiang Xun's bullying.
"Don't touch me there!" he protested, shivering again.
"Mm, I won't," Jiang Xun said, even as he did. His words didn't line up with his actions at all.
Gu Wei finally started to squirm, trying to escape. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Jiang Xun murmured. While they were still alone, he kissed Gu Wei's face several more times. "I just heard someone call me a big pervert, so I thought… I would have to work a little harder to live up to the name."
Gu Wei froze again.
So Jiang Xun—
1. Shi Xinyan's fans are called little stones because his surname 'shi' (石) means 'stone'. Relatedly, Gu Wei's fans are little hedgehogs because the 'wei' in Gu Wei (未) is pronounced the same way as the 'wei' in 'ci wei' (刺猬) which means 'hedgehog'.