"They're gross," Jiang Ying said. "Neutralization failed."
"Then give them back," Qi Zhu said, holding out a hand.
Jiang Ying passed back an empty bag. A bit of powdered sugar still clung to the corners of his lips.
"Sharp-tongued glutton," Qi Zhu admonished. He grabbed a pack of tissues from the nightstand and tossed them to Jiang Ying. When he remembered how disoriented Jiang Ying had been when he was burning up with fever last night, he added, "But you're not so bad when you're like that."
Whether it was intentional or not, on Qi Zhu's part, Jiang Ying failed to catch the tissues and was promptly smacked in the face.
He stewed for a moment.
Then, graciously, he said, "Taking the persimmons into consideration, I'll show you mercy for three minutes."
Perhaps due to the theme of the show, the recording schedule wasn't all that hectic. And with Jiang Ying falling ill last night, the director naturally pushed all their plans for the next day to the afternoon. The guests were invited to spend the morning doing whatever they wanted indoors, which also made for some good footage.
The guests had picked up quite a haul of groceries in town, so the five of them planned to make lunch together that day.
T.ATW secretly cooked in their dorms all the time, so making lunch was no big deal for Fu Zhi and Chi Yunkai. Qi Zhu was also a master of self-sufficiency, so it wasn't any sort of challenge for him to work in the kitchen. The other two guests were completely useless, so they were banished to the living room and made to peel edamame.
"Jiang-ge, I think your whole family is really impressive," Miao Ye said earnestly.
Jiang Ying nodded. "That's right. Except for me, everyone in my family is pretty awesome."
"My idol," Miao Ye continued emphatically, "is your father."
Jiang Ying blinked.
"My dad?" he asked.
Miao Ye turned on the smart TV in the living room and looked up one of Jiang Zheng's old interviews. "Everyone in our generation grew up watching his dramas, and Emperor Jiang has some very unique views on acting."
The Jiang Zheng in the video that Miao Ye put on was currently facing the camera, talking about his sons. "Our family's little ogre was exceptionally well-behaved when he was little. He was the sweetest, most outgoing kid. He would talk nice to nice people, and he would get rowdy with uncivilized folks. He could even happily carry on a conversation with a rock."
"Uh, not this part. It should be coming up," Miao Ye said. His hand trembled. He really couldn't imagine what a 'sweet' Jiang Ying.
Jiang Ying remained silent.
"It's a pity," a voice said, drifting over from behind Jiang Ying. "The little ogre grew up crooked. Now he gets rowdy with nice people and sweet-talks uncivilized folks."
Qi Zhu was just passing by the two of them, holding a plate. He paused when he saw the interview playing on the TV.
"Your persona is slipping, Qi-laoshi," Jiang Ying retorted without looking up. He focused on shelling the edamame. "I feel like you've been drifting towards the dark side lately. Why is that?"
Miao Ye gave these two a curious look, then suddenly remembered Xuan Huitong's advice to not say anything even if he noticed something.
"Halt! What's on the plate?" Jiang Ying suddenly demanded, glancing up at Qi Zhu. Originally, he'd planned on refusing to look at Qi Zhu at all. But he suddenly smelled something delicious, and his hand shot out to grab hold of the leg of Qi Zhu's pants, refusing to let Qi Zhu move away.
Qi Zhu seemed to have expected that move. He calmly stopped in front of the other two and said, "Freshly fried chicken wings."
Jiang Ying opened his mouth wide and said, "Ah."
Qi Zhu plucked a wing out of the pile on the plate and stuffed it into Jiang Ying's mouth.
He didn't forget about Miao Ye, either. Qi Zhu set the plate down next to the two of them and gestured for Miao Ye to help himself.
"It's not too hot anymore, but it's salty," Jiang Ying said. His mouth was still full, and the words came out muffled.
"Hurry up and keep shelling once you're done eating," Qi Zhu said. "You talk too much.
He looked askance at Jiang Ying, with a dissatisfied crease to his brow. It seemed Jiang Ying's efficiency didn't live up to his standards.
After Qi Zhu walked away, Miao Ye turned to Jiang Ying with confusion written all over his face. "Jiang-ge, you and Qi-laoshi… are you very close?"
"We were just deskmates. I don't really remember elementary school, but we sat together for all three years of middle school and the first year of high school. After that, he went to study abroad," Jiang Ying said. "How can you not be close to your deskmate?"
"Not gonna lie, I can't really remember my deskmate's face anymore," Miao Ye confessed. "We only see each other at the annual class reunion."
"Then do you guys have big ships?" Jiang Ying asked, tossing a handful of shelled edamame into a basket.
"My mom and I do," Miao Ye said. Then, as though anticipating what Jiang Ying would say next, Miao Ye beat him to the punch and added, "That's right, Jiang-ge. You're absolutely right. I'm a mama's boy."
"…your Jiang-ge hasn't said anything yet," Jiang Ying said.
In Jiang Ying's entire life, this was the first time he'd met someone who could diss themselves before Jiang Ying even opened his mouth. Miao Ye was, in a certain way, pretty damn impressive.
By the time the two of them finished shelling the edamame, all the other dishes were ready. When Qi Zhu came over to inspect their work, he stared at the beans Jiang Ying had shelled for a moment. They were all pocked with fingernail marks. Qi Zhu looked like he wanted to say something, but ultimately didn't. He only gave Jiang Ying a fleeting glance before waving the cameras over to have them get a close-up.
"You see?" Jiang Ying muttered to himself. "He's gone over to the dark side."
Miao Ye watched on in silence.
"I heard from the staff," he started after a moment, his curiosity rising up again. "Yesterday, before you guys set out, Qi-laoshi promised to grant a wish of yours? What did you make him do?"
"Made him vote for me," Jiang Ying said. "And I made him say something nice about me, but that wound up being worthless. Qi-laoshi really doesn't know how to praise people."
"You only asked him to boost your celebrity ranking?" Miao Ye asked incredulously. "Why do I get the feeling you're just… a bit too unambitious?"
"Shouldn't you be saying that about Qi Zhu?" Jiang Ying lifted his head and looked into the kitchen. When he found Qi Zhu, their eyes met. It was only then that Jiang Ying realized Qi Zhu had been looking at him, too.
Jiang Ying didn't know if it was just his imagination, but he felt like Qi Zhu had been looking at him all morning.
To be more precise, it wasn't just 'looking'. It was more like 'observing'. It was a probing, thoughtful sort of gaze.
There was something baffling about being subjected to that scrutinizing look for such a long time. After everyone ate, Jiang Ying volunteered to wash the dishes and finally confronted Qi Zhu directly.
"Do you think I'm some sort of endangered species?" Jiang Ying asked.
"Mm. A grade one state-protected imp," Qi Zhu deadpanned. His expression was unchanging as he helped sort and put away the dishes Jiang Ying had washed.
Chi Yunkai, passing by with a thermos, choked on a mouthful of water. He looked at Qi Zhu, then looked at Jiang Ying. Finally, he shook his head and walked away.
"What do you think you'll learn by studying me so hard?" Jiang Ying asked as he passed the last plate over to Qi Zhu.
Qi Zhu ignored him again.
That afternoon, the showrunners rented a boat for the cast and had all the guests head out on the lake to fish.
Before they set out, the director repeatedly and emphatically reminded the guests of one important thing: "We're a light and refreshing lifestyle variety show. Just be still. Don't move too much. I want to see you guys sitting around, holding your fishing poles. That's it. You don't even need to talk much."
After stressing that to all the guests, the director balled up both his hands into fists and gave Jiang Ying an additional gesture of encouragement: You can do it!
The director didn't actually need to worry so much. It was cold on the lake, and Jiang Ying had just come down with a fever last night. Before leaving the house, Qi Zhu bundled him up in a scarf. He even borrowed a thick overcoat from the crew for Jiang Ying, packaging him up in several layers before letting him get on the boat.
Since it was incredibly hard to move around in all those layers, Jiang Ying had no choice but to spend the whole afternoon sitting quietly on that boat. The director enjoyed the rare pleasure of getting exactly the sort of tranquil, peaceful footage he wanted.
After fishing in the afternoon, the guests were to have fish for dinner. By then, photos that the villagers had taken yesterday had spread across Weibo. Jiang Ying's shadows had come to realize that their idol was participating in a refreshing little lifestyle show.
@Your Shadow: I don't know if I feel worse for our Jiang Ying or if I feel worse for this director. Even though Jiang Ying started out with this sort of persona, he really isn't well-suited for a 'refreshing' show. This director's really got some guts.
@I'll Sleep After This Episode: The set-up of the show seems pretty nice, and they've got a solid cast of guests. Who knows? Maybe Jiang Ying will give us all a nice surprise. The two people at the center of the recent storm are both on this show, so I kinda really want to watch this. When is it going to be broadcast? I think Jiang Ying's fans and Qi Zhu's fans should just stop fighting for now. We'll know whether their relationship is good or bad after we watch this show.
@123321: Who took this photo? The way Jiang Ying is holding Qi Zhu's sleeve while he's on roller skates… it really makes Jiang Ying seem pretty well-behaved. (Even though Jiang Ying and 'well-behaved' normally don't belong in the same sentence.)
Jiang Ying had been quiet all afternoon, and he was focused solely on his cell phone over dinner. He was so enthralled by his phone that he didn't even notice when Qi Zhu served some bok choy onto his plate. They managed to sneak past his defenses, and were eaten along with the fish.
The 'Fight!' player 'sunny', who hadn't been active in a few days, had sent Jiang Ying a message and an event announcement through the app's built-in chatting system.
[sunny]: What'cha doing, what'cha doing? I haven't seen you around in a while. Check this out.
[Boss Crab]: Been busy with work.
[Boss Crab]: What's this?
[sunny]: You in or not?
[Boss Crab]: I'm eating. Let me take a look first.
[sunny]: Annual tournament.
The makers of 'Fight!' must have been raking in the dough lately. They'd started pushing out more and more events, which were getting more and more elaborate. Their ads were getting fancier, and the events were becoming much more well-organized.
The event announcement sunny had sent over was about the app's annual ranking tournament, and the 'Fight!' team had really gone all out this year. They'd increased the rewards for the Top 10 to include a cash prize, custom merchandise, and even a meet-and-greet with fans.
It was really over-the-top. Expressing their dissatisfaction with the game was practically becoming a daily habit for some players—
[Boss Crab]: Stupid x Devs. Can't they just work on improving their system? This is all trivial nonsense. We're just here to argue. Are they trying to have their players debut or something?
[Boss Crab]: And a cash prize? What kind of person would I have to be to want a stinking cash prize?
[sunny]: Right??? Ugh, they really need to work on their system. I get crashes all the time.
[sunny]: You know how bad that feels, right? When you still have a bucketload of things to say, and the game suddenly flips out and dies on you.
[sunny]: Useless devs.
[Boss Crab]: TearfulEyes.jpg I know way way way too well how that feels.
[Boss Crab]: If they really have time to make up these nonsense events, they should put some better questions into their 'subject fight' categories. What kind of stupid question is, 'How many legs does a bird have?' They need to up their game.
Venting about these things was necessary, but venting was just venting. None of these top-tier players would actually give up a chance to rank in the annual tournament.
[Boss Crab]: Ahem, well. In any case, I'm signing up.
[sunny]: Ahem, duh. I already signed up before I sent you the announcement.
[Boss Crab]: Then I'll look forward to meeting you on the battlefield.
[sunny]: Oh, by the way, you took an apprentice a while back, didn't you?
[Boss Crab]: Yeah, I have one.
[sunny]: Is he going to participate? He can at least grab an achievement, and it's a good opportunity for him to get some experience.
[Boss Crab]: Nah, I get the feeling he won't be interested. He doesn't have any competitive spirit. I'm not actually expecting him to learn much.
[Boss Crab]: He's not even very good at holding a conversation.
Although sunny had just mentioned it as an aside, she did give Jiang Ying a brand new idea. Players could earn a ranking just by participating in the tournament, and they could all earn a free achievement based on their ranking.
Jiang Ying's abilities were limited. Besides passing on his life's work to his apprentice, there wasn't much he could do for the guy. There were some things his apprentice would have to experience for himself.
So he moved his finger across his cell phone screen and signed up for the tournament on Fighter3357868's behalf.
Message from [Boss Crab]—
Your master is giving you an opportunity. I hope you'll work hard and never give up. As your master, I eagerly await the day you can proudly tell me that you've thoroughly trounced that aggressive friend of yours.