Sometimes, the most innocuous things were the most thought-provoking ones. After encountering a certain question not long ago, Jiang Ying couldn't help but think there was something off about what Qi Jun had said. The more he thought about it, the more that feeling of wrongness grew. There seemed to be something very important that he was missing.
He lifted his gaze from his cell phone screen and looked at Qi Zhu. At the exact same time, Qi Zhu turned and looked at him.
Their eyes met across the room, but—as though through some unspoken understanding—they both looked away in the same instant. An uncharacteristic agreement rose between them. They fixed their attention on their own things, both keeping their thoughts to themselves.
"Time for bed," Qi Zhu said. He remained perfectly calm and collected as he returned Jiang Ying's notebook to where it had been sitting.
"Yeah, sleep. I'm tired," Jiang Ying agreed. He closed the chat with Qi Jun, also affecting a perfectly calm and collected demeanor.
Due to the bizarre question he'd encountered in a subject fight that night, Jiang Ying refrained from his usual tradition of trying to pick a fight with Qi Zhu. He fell asleep on his side of the bed and remained exceptionally well-behaved throughout the night without making any attempt to steal into Qi Zhu's space.
The next day, all the remaining guests embarked on their return trips. Jiang Ying didn't even get a chance to go home before he was ushered into a car and sent off to the set of 'An Auspicious Snow'.
The director of 'An Auspicious Snow' was in a rush to get started. Miao Ye wasn't needed that urgently, but Jiang Ying and Qi Zhu both had a lot of scenes. They were urged to get themselves on set as soon as possible.
"Something's wrong with you," Qi Zhu said, out of the blue, as soon as they climbed into a car.
"What's wrong with me?" Jiang Ying asked.
He'd been calm and quiet since last night. He kept to himself and didn't act up. He didn't check Weibo, and he didn't load up the 'Fight!' app. How could Qi Zhu tell something was wrong?
"Between 23:45 last night and now, 10:17, you've only spoken three sentences to me. That isn't like you." Qi Zhu gave Jiang Ying a cursory glance, then added, "One of those sentences was sleep-talk."
Jiang Ying was silent for a moment.
But in the end, he couldn't resist. He asked, "…what was the sleep-talk?"
Qi Zhu didn't answer. Instead, he studied Jiang Ying without moving a muscle. The corners of his lips quirked ever so slightly, instantly putting Jiang Ying on guard.
"Something's wrong with you too, sir," Jiang Ying countered.
"Explain." Qi Zhu gestured for him to continue.
"Everyone knows our Qi-laoshi loves his peace and quiet. But now you have a problem with me being too quiet?" Jiang Ying said. "Something's definitely up with you."
After exchanging those verbal blows, neither of them escaped wholly unscathed. They silently called a truce and both turned to look out the window on their own side of the car.
It had rained for several days in that city. The streets were still slick, but the air was refreshingly crisp.
The two of them had been traveling ever since they woke up that morning. By now, Jiang Ying was starting to feel sleepy again. He cracked open the car window to let some air in, hoping to wake himself up.
"Why'd I take a drama with you, anyway? I've noticed that everyone who works with you gets super serious and works super hard." Jiang Ying sighed. "If I didn't have work, I would be sleeping right now."
"Are you 'super serious'?" Qi Zhu challenged, clearly skeptical of those words.
"Me?" Jiang Ying pointed at himself. "Depends on what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with."
"I can't think of anything when you put me on the spot like this. When I get serious about something, I'll let you see."
Jiang Ying's train of thought was interrupted there when he received a call. It was from Qi Jun.
"What do you need that can't be said over WeChat, Little Qi-zong?" Jiang Ying asked. He was still drowsy, and he felt too lazy to move a single bone in his body. He couldn't even be bothered to lift his phone. Since they were all middle school classmates here, he figured there wasn't anything about this call that Qi Zhu couldn't hear, so he put it on speakerphone.
"There's a job," Qi Jun said sincerely. "I'm hoping you can help."
"Speak. I'll work for the market rate."
Qi Jun clearly wasn't thrilled about that. "Oh, come on. Jiang #2 can't give me a friends and family discount?"
"I'm short on cash too, Little Qi-zong. My mom says the Jiang family doesn't raise lazy people. Jiang Xun and I both spend our own money, so I have to support myself somehow," Jiang Ying said. "What exactly do you need me to do?"
"It's like this," Qi Jun said. When he asked people for help, he got straight to the point and spoke swiftly and concisely. "I want to invest in a show for our agency's pretty little meimei. To promote her, basically. Can you come participate as a judge?"
"Do you want me there to stand around and look pretty like a decorative vase, or do you want me to speak?" Jiang Ying asked, making sure to understand all the details. "I don't know how to praise people."
"You'll have to talk, but I promise it won't be hard for you at all. The other judges will be in charge of praise. You just criticize and nitpick to your heart's content," Qi Jun declared proudly. "Other people would worry about taking a hit to their reputation if they play the bad guy, but you have nothing to worry about.
"You're infamous already. I admit you're good-looking, but it would be a waste for you to just be a vase. You'll have to speak, but you can just be yourself. Make use of all your assets."
"Is that what you think of my 'assets'?" Jiang Ying snapped.
"I'll take that as a yes," Qi Jun said, snickering. "Ah, that's right. You disappeared last night while we were talking. I wanted to ask why you were suddenly interested in who you'd be shipped with. Like I said, you should just focus on tormenting Class Monitor, and…"
"We'll talk later," Jiang Ying interrupted. "I'm busy with work. I'll be on set soon."
He hurriedly fumbled at his phone, intending to cut off the call before Qi Jun could get to the point of what he was trying to say.
"We're not busy. We won't arrive on set for another half an hour," Qi Zhu remarked unhurriedly, with a hint of sarcasm. He'd been resting his eyes the whole time, but he opened them now.
"Hey, did I just hear Class Monitor over there? You two are together?" Qi Jun asked.
He barely managed to finish asking the question before Jiang Ying hung up on him.
"He talks too much," Jiang Ying said. His expression was stony and unchanging.
"Mm." Qi Zhu didn't say anything about Jiang Ying hanging up so abruptly, and he didn't seem particularly interested in whatever Qi Jun had been trying to say. But he did express an opinion on the new job Jiang Ying had been offered. "That kind of show seems fine. It'll probably be at least somewhat popular. But after you level up, you can't take shows like that anymore.
"For now, it might boost your popularity. But later, if you transition out of being an idol, you'll have to take fewer jobs like that."
Qi Zhu's assessment of the gig Qi Jun had offered was extremely earnest.
"I know all that," Jiang Ying said. He could tell the difference between a good job and a bad one, and he knew what kind of career path Qi Zhu expected him to take, so he was able to accept the advice. "But did you ever consider that I might be cancelled before I manage to make that transition?"
"What do you plan on doing if your career is ruined?" Qi Zhu asked, showing a bit of genuine curiosity about that.
Jiang Ying gave it some serious thought for a moment, then answered, "I'll become a paparrazo. I have lots of material."
Qi Zhu blinked.
For now, there was no way Jiang Ying could make his dreams of being a paparazzo come true. He was the son of legendary movie star Jiang Zheng, and there would always be people who thought he had the potential to become a phenomenal actor after he got past this phase of not putting his heart into his work.
The director and assistant director of 'An Auspicious Snow', for example, both had bright looks of hope glinting in their eyes when Jiang Ying arrived on set behind Qi Zhu.
Jiang Ying stuck close to Qi Zhu and couldn't resist pulling him closer. "Do I look especially delicious or something?"
He spoke so quietly that Qi Zhu didn't seem to hear him clearly. In the end, Qi Zhu only hummed a disinterested sound of agreement.
"Director," Jiang Ying greeted, deciding to speak plainly. "You should pin your hopes on Qi Zhu, not me. My acting skills are awful. I can only try my best."
"They're not awful, not awful at all," the director insisted, dismissing Jiang Ying's words with a wave of his hand. "I saw the movie you were in, the criminal investigation one. A friend told me it was winter when you filmed that movie. The temperature was below zero, but when a scene called for it, you jumped into freezing water without thinking twice.
"When I saw that scene, I knew right away. It was all in your eyes. I just knew you would be perfect for this role on my show."
Jiang Ying was used to being scolded, and he was very rarely praised. He showed his shock right there on the spot—
He blindly reached out to grab Qi Zhu again, but only managed to scratch the back of Qi Zhu's hand before Qi Zhu batted him away.
"I heard from your manager that you choose all your own scripts?" This director seemed to understand Jiang Ying well. "You didn't choose the right scripts in the past. An actor like you should take on more serious dramas."
Jiang Ying didn't have any scenes to shoot that afternoon, so he wandered around the set in full costume and makeup, watching Qi Zhu act.
"I heard Qi-laoshi is the director Qi An's son?" asked Miao Ye, who also didn't have any scenes that afternoon. He was sitting on a fence of wooden stakes, watching the action with Jiang Ying.
"Yeah, but he's too highbrow. He's won a ton of awards, but I've barely finished watching any of his works," Jiang Ying admitted.
Qi Zhu was genuinely an extremely efficient worker. He cleared many scenes with just one take. When he had to redo a scene, it was usually because the supporting actors made a mistake or because the director's standards were just exceptionally high.
"You're both sons of industry hotshots. How can the two of you be so different?" Miao Ye mused. He was obviously distracted, inadvertently letting that unfiltered thought slip out of his mouth.
"Who knows?" Jiang Ying leaned against a stake. "Speaking of which, have you gotten addicted to dissing me or something?"
Miao Ye fell silent.
Oops. Occupational hazard.
Jiang-zong, upon hiring him to rile up Jiang Ying, had told him to diss Jiang Ying's acting skills whenever he got the chance.
"Watch what you say," Jiang Ying advised, glancing at the cameras all around them. "Anything you say now has a chance of making it into the behind the scenes highlights that air before and after the drama."
Miao Ye's eyes widened with alarm. He'd almost forgotten about that.
"In all seriousness," Miao Ye said, "you did a great job during your audition. You were insanely villainous. Anyone could tell, with just one look, that you were born to be a bad guy."
"Meow-ge." Jiang Ying sighed. "Sometimes I really can't tell if you're complimenting me or talking shit about me."
"Jiang-ge," Miao Ye deflected, thinking back to what he'd overheard the director saying to Jiang Ying earlier. "You have plenty of connections and opportunities, right? Why did you take that idol romance drama in the past?"
Jiang Ying hesitated for a moment. "…because the script looked good, and I like sweet love stories."
After a moment, he added, "But it was pretty boring to shoot."
So he'd slacked off.
Miao Ye never could have imagined an answer like that would come from this infamous creature whose name typically struck fear in the hearts of anyone who heard it. He was, for a moment, rendered speechless.
"I feel like I forgot to do something important today," Jiang Ying muttered to himself as he watched Qi Zhu on set.
Qi Zhu was dressed in a lively period costume, and he wore a long sword on his back. With the sharp and straight bridge of his nose and the cold gaze that filled his eyes, he perfectly captured the arrogance of the protagonist's youth. It was a slightly different demeanor than the unreasonably apathetic one he usually exuded.
His piercing gaze swept over the supporting actor who was playing the role of an assassin. But when that gaze briefly passed over Jiang Ying, it softened just a little.
The director shouted, "Cut!"
"Please excuse me," Qi Zhu said, nodding apologetically towards the cast and the director. "My mind drifted."
"Was he looking at you just now?" Miao Ye asked. "And he got distracted…"
"Me?" Jiang Ying pointed at himself.
"Well, he couldn't have been looking at the prop stakes behind you."
Jiang Ying was silent.
That afternoon, Qi Zhu breezed through all his solo scenes with ease. They only ran into some delays due to Yin Jiayu, who played the character Si Meng. Yin Jiayu was still new to the industry and relatively inexperienced; she often couldn't keep up with Qi Zhu.
A few scenes featuring Jiang Ying and Qi Zhu were scheduled to be shot later that night. Jiang Ying thought about it all afternoon, but couldn't remember what it was that he'd forgotten to do.
Jiang Ying had never acted with Qi Zhu before. He'd imagined it would be extremely difficult, but once they got started, he realized playing against Qi Zhu was incredibly easy. The two of them talked quite frequently, and they often greeted each other with 'warm regards'.
Other people couldn't keep up with the intensity of Qi Zhu's performance, but Jiang Ying could. Furthermore, Qi Zhu was good at sparking emotions in other people. With his own performance, he led Jiang Ying along.
It was only then that Jiang Ying realized these people had had a good reason for dragging him into this role. Luo Nanke and Xuan Moling started out as frenemies; their relationship was really just like the relationship between Jiang Ying and Qi Zhu. It hardly took any effort to act out that dynamic.
The shooting schedule was packed. At nearly midnight, they still weren't done for the day.
"Everything looks good, except this last bit. Qi Zhu, run through the lines with Jiang Ying again. We'll try one more take then wrap for the night," the director said.
This was a scene in which Jiang Ying's character experienced some turbulent emotions. He did an alright job with the lines that he spoke normally, but when he had to put some explosive rage into his words, his shortcomings became evident.
At 23:54, Jiang Ying finally sat down next to Qi Zhu after a long practicing session.
"I think I pretty much got it," Jiang Ying said.
"Mm," Qi Zhu agreed. "I think so too. Let's run through it ourselves one more time."
At 23:55, they started to run through their lines again.
At 23:56, Jiang Ying absentmindedly recited the wrong lines. Qi Zhu rapped his knuckles against Jiang Ying's head.
"What are you thinking about?" Qi Zhu asked.
"I feel like I'm forgetting something," Jiang Ying said.
"Yeah, you're forgetting your lines."
At 23:57, Jiang Ying finally memorized his lines and locked onto the right emotions for the scene. He was ready to try it again with Qi Zhu.
At 23:58, Jiang Ying caught up to Qi Zhu and grabbed him by the wrist. The emotion in his eyes perfectly captured what his character should have been feeling.
"Say your lines," Qi Zhu prompted.
Jiang Ying's eyes flashed. With a frenetic sort of energy, he opened his mouth and spoke:
"Oh no, we forgot to chat today! We're going to lose our streak!"