Jiang Ying blinked.
To casually ask so much while 'making conversation' was truly remarkable.
"It's just a random question. You don't have to pay it any mind," Qi Zhu repeated. He spoke like they were just talking about work, like this really was something that just happened to come up in conversation by coincidence. While he spoke, he even lowered his head and looked at his phone, typing something out.
"I'm not, I'm not." Jiang Ying pulled a smile to his lips. "Not paying it any mind at all."
"Mm, that's good. If you did mind, I wouldn't ask anymore." Qi Zhu didn't seem to care about his response at all. He continued right down the same path and asked, "Why are you always talking to people about that subject? Is there something particularly interesting about it?"
Jiang Ying fell silent.
At that moment, two voices rang out in his mind at the same time. One belonged to Little Lemon, and the other belonged to Little Qi-zong.
Little Lemon had asked, ZFZY. Isn't it delicious?
Little Qi-zong had asked, Who's pursuing you?
Those two conversations inexplicably intertwined with the questions Qi Zhu was asking in the present. The late March sky lit up with a sudden bolt of lightning, followed by a distant rumble of spring thunder.
Jiang Ying blurted out, "What are you thinking about?"
No, wait. What he'd meant to ask was, Are you conspiring against me? But the words had changed before they reached his lips.
Little Student Jiang Ying had always been a straightforward sort of kid. If he had something to say, he said it. He wouldn't stew over anything overnight. But that radical honesty of his, for some reason, wilted in Qi Zhu's presence.
That left Jiang Ying feeling frustrated. And when he traced that frustration to its root, he found a very slight, subtle sort of confusion.
"Thinking about work," Qi Zhu said. He turned his wrist and showed Jiang Ying his cell phone screen, which did show a work-related chat. "Little Ying, what did you think I was thinking about?"
Jiang Ying's question had been flung back in his face.
"Just making conversation. No one's overthinking things. I wasn't thinking anything," Jiang Ying claimed. Once he finished speaking, he couldn't be bothered to walk on his own anymore. He messed around on his phone with one hand and grabbed Qi Zhu's shirt sleeve with the other, walking all the way back like that.
Qi Zhu's gaze swept across the hazy silhouettes of the drama set structures in the distance, then took in the darkness of the night sky. He reached out and gave Jiang Ying's back a push. "Then don't think. It's going to rain. Hurry back and play with your phone later."
"What are those two talking about?" Jiang Ying's assistant asked, overhearing some of their conversation from nearby. "Don't think about what?"
"Ah, let them take it slow," Qi Zhu's assistant said. "No rush."
Assistant Chen was baffled. He didn't get it at all. Why was he the only one who seemed to be out of the loop?
Following the thunder that had just rolled across the sky, rain began to fall. Qi Zhu moved his hand from Jiang Ying's back and grabbed his wrist instead, tugging him along at a brisker pace.
These days, the netizens who'd seen Qi Zhu forge Jiang Ying's signature really, really, really wanted to see the homework Qi Zhu had once written for Jiang Ying. Qi Zhu and Jiang Ying were both busy with their drama, so some of those bored and curious netizens prodded Little Qi-zong.
Little Qi-zong flipped through his files in cloud storage and eventually pulled out two pictures from the past.
@GuapiMedia-LittleQiZong: Since you guys want to see it, I worked hard and found one. A certain someone had been ordered to copy a passage as punishment. Everyone got together to help him. The one on the left was done by Qi Zhu, the middle is Ogre Ying-ge's, and the one on the right is mine. And the other photo is from high school, take a look.
Netizens had been loitering around Little Qi-zong's Weibo for days. They never imagined they would actually get some results.
Netizen 1: Qi-zong, here's a like for you! I knew you would come through with the goods.
Netizen 2: I totally can't tell the difference between the copy on the left and the one in the middle. Qi Zhu is too good.
Netizen 3: This is the sort of friendship you can only foster through copying each other's homework.
Netizen 4: It's been so many years since then, and Qi Zhu is still so good at forging Jiang Ying's handwriting. What does it mean? Has he been practicing this whole time? Well, in any case, I'm gonna ship.
Netizen 5: Let me summarize. They have big ships with each other. They have a QQ streak. They know what the other hates eating (even if those were blind guesses, they still know). They haven't really done anything significant yet, these are all little details I've picked out. So when are they going to take their friendship to the next level? I'm looking forward to it!
Netizen 6: Don't just ship whatever you want. They're just very good friends. They've been classmates for years, so of course they understand each other. It's impossible for them to take their friendship to the next level, unless they're literally going out on dates.
"He actually took a picture," Qi Zhu mused when he saw that post. He passed his phone over to Jiang Ying to let him take a look. "We didn't even keep a record of those copying assignments."
"That guy Qi Jun said it was to repay him for helping. He insisted on taking a photo," Jiang Ying said. Thinking back now, he recalled that Qi Zhu had helped him copy his homework and punishments more times than he could count.
Qi Zhu answered with a noncommittal hum and didn't offer any comments of his own.
"Class Monitor, have you ever wanted me to repay you?" Jiang Ying asked curiously. "Why don't I tackle a feud for you? I know you have plenty of anti-fans."
"You needn't concern yourself with that," Qi Zhu said, stopping by the door to his room. "We'll see."
Then he went inside and closed the door in Jiang Ying's face.
To be precise, he'd said Jiang Ying didn't need to concern himself, but not that he didn't need to repay Qi Zhu. Those words were just ambiguous enough to leave way too much room for imagination.
"You cunning, sly, manipulative, wily, tricksy, devious fox," Jiang Ying ranted at the door, without moving away. "I'll pay you back in your dreams."
"Jiang-ge, you… you would even argue with a door?" asked Miao Ye, who'd just emerged from his own room. He stood a safe five meters away, too afraid to take a step closer. "This door… how has it offended you?"
"That obviously depends on whose door it is," Jiang Ying muttered before turning to leave.
Outside the window, thunder clapped again.
Qi Zhu's questions could wait. Weibo could wait. Their shippers could wait. In that moment, Jiang Ying thought there was nothing more important than getting on his little apprentice's good side again.
Jiang Ying had been the one who'd persistently insisted on forging this master-apprentice relationship. He'd been too busy lately—busy fighting the shipper queen Little Lemon—and he hadn't had time to take care of his apprentice. He hadn't continued teaching his apprentice to fight, and he hadn't asked about his apprentice's love problems.
With thunder rumbling outside, Jiang Ying was wide awake.
His apprentice's daily slight smile emoji, sent at the exact same time every night, was definitely a sign of his dissatisfaction.
If Jiang Ying didn't do something, wouldn't he lose this apprentice he'd always been so fond of?
He had to win his apprentice over again.
His apprentice had sent that an hour ago.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Apprentice-didi, I'm back. Cuteness.jpg
[Fighter3357868]: So you know how to come back. SlightSmile.jpg
Jiang Ying didn't know why, but he could practically feel resentment rolling off the screen of his phone.
Jiang Ying obviously hadn't done anything wrong, but he still inexplicably started to feel like the scum of the earth.
[Restless Boss Crab]: I've been too busy lately.
Jiang Ying blinked again. He was doomed. This 'mm' clearly expressed the other party's immense dissatisfaction and deep-seated rage.
[Restless Boss Crab]: My IRL job has been keeping me busy.
This 'oh' expressed the other party's doubt and disdain.
Jiang Ying perfectly interpreted it all.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Alright, I've been doing too many freestyle fights lately.
[Fighter3357868]: You also lost a lot.
His apprentice even knew that?!
Jiang Ying was a little surprised. Not only had Fighter3357868 sent him messages every day, he'd also watched Jiang Ying's fights?
His apprentice was straying farther and farther from the path of a good apprentice, and Jiang Ying himself—
Well, this was just outrageous.
[Fighter3357868]: So why do you insist on always fighting about the same topic when you can't win?
[Restless Boss Crab]: ……this soul-crushing question of yours is a bit too soul-crushing.
Hadn't Jiang Ying been searching for the answer to that exact question this whole time?
[Fighter3357868]: You flatter me.
Ah, now his apprentice was replying with more than just one word. His mood must have been improving.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Let's change the subject.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Apprentice, let's talk about your love problems.
[Fighter3357868]: Mm, that's not really changing the subject.
Jiang Ying blinked. Of course it was. It was a new topic entirely, wasn't it?
Well, whatever. If his apprentice wanted to say it wasn't a new topic, then he could say that. It wasn't important.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Last time, you mentioned you had… intentions towards someone?
[Restless Boss Crab]: How's that going?
[Fighter3357868]: I said I wasn't in a hurry. Why are you so keen to know?
Jiang Ying got the feeling that his apprentice wasn't far from spreading his wings and leaving the nest. His apprentice clearly already knew how to piss someone off with his words. When he spoke, he had a distinctly Qi Zhu-esque air about him.
Ah, Jiang Ying really wanted to see his apprentice and Class Monitor battle it out.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Ai, who do you have your eye on? Why so secretive?
And now a 'hmph'? What was with that 'hmph'?
That response came as a complete surprise. Jiang Ying had to take a long moment to analyze it before coming to a plausible interpretation.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Hahaha, it's not that argumentative friend of yours, is it?
[Restless Boss Crab]: Oh, that's just a random guess. Definitely don't pay it any mind.
Even taking a random guess was better than saying nothing at all.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Terrified.jpg
[Restless Boss Crab]: Holy fuck, that's a shocker. Even a troll has someone who likes him?
Restless Boss Crab recalled a message.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Spits.jpg Just act like I didn't say anything.
It was a good thing Jiang Ying had recalled that message quickly. He offered endless thanks to his exceptionally fast hands. His apprentice wasn't angry. His apprentice was still there.
In order to keep his apprentice, Jiang Ying decided to be a little more civil.
[Restless Boss Crab]: So, you plan on taking your time?
[Fighter3357868]: I'm in no rush. You shouldn't be impatient either.
[Restless Boss Crab]: I'm not impatient. If your friend who likes to fight knows you like him, he'll definitely be happy.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Really. And if you know how to fight, he'll definitely like you even more. So work hard. I don't have experience with this sort of thing, so I can't give you much advice.
[Restless Boss Crab]: Once you get him, treat me to something sweet~
Jiang Ying stared at that spirited message. The corners of his lips quirked up.
Fighter3357868 recalled a message.
Jiang Ying furrowed his brow. What was he going to do about this? His apprentice was learning way too quickly. The guy had even picked up the art of recalling a message.
Well, in any case, he'd won his apprentice over again.
A certain controversial net star was truly busy with work as of late. After sweet-talking his apprentice, he still had work to attend to.
His assistant had brought over a program outline earlier in the day. Jiang Ying fetched it from the bookshelf and flipped through at the table in his room. He realized it was the reality show he had 'accepted' a few days ago.
"Because the whole show is going to be livestreamed, and edited later for rebroadcast, the showrunners say you can bring up any issues you have with the program ahead of time, and they'll make adjustments," his assistant had told him earlier that afternoon. "You can go over the details with Qi Zhu."
Jiang Ying didn't know if Qi Zhu had already received the brief for the show. He decided to ask.
[Enlightened Big-Clawed Crab]: [poke poke]
[Enlightened Big-Clawed Crab]: Class Monitor, are you sleeping?
[Class Monitor]: [poke poke]
[Class Monitor]: Nope~
Class Monitor recalled a message.
[Class Monitor]: No.
Jiang Ying blinked.
If Qi Zhu was in a good mood, then Qi Zhu could just be in a good mood. What was the point of recalling that message?
And just how good was his mood? What good thing had happened? What could have been good enough to cause his whole persona to collapse?